The wrath of God is one of those subjects that preachers frequently avoid. Understandably, most people would rather hear about God’s love, grace, and mercy—and most preachers want to be liked by their congregation. Therefore, a steady diet of feel-good messages fills many pulpits today. Plus, sermons that empower us to reach our full destiny in Christ are never in short supply. However, advertise a Sunday sermon titled “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” and see how many people choose a day at the beach.
Respected theologian J.I. Packer says, “The church mumbles on about God’s kindness but says virtually nothing about his judgment.”[i] Is that because God’s wrath suggests He is cruel and lacking in self-control? If God is wrathful, does He need to attend an anger management class? On the contrary, the wrath of God speaks of the just and righteous consequences laid upon unbelievers who ultimately reject God’s offer of love, grace, and mercy. The first expression of divine wrath was when God expelled Adam from paradise after he had chosen to disobey God and hid in the bushes (Genesis 3).
The prophet Nahum delivered another expression of God’s wrath in the Bible.[ii] In three chapters, he proclaimed the divine verdict upon the evil Ninevites, to whom Jonah preached more than one hundred years earlier. Begrudgingly, Jonah witnessed a great spiritual awakening among the Ninevites.[iii] However, the Assyrians’ repentance was short-lived. They quickly returned to their pagan gods and cruelty. Thus, the Lord sent Nahum with a seething oracle that prophesied their eventual doom.
Nahum’s brief proclamation is about one subject—the destruction of Nineveh, the mighty metropolis of the awesome Assyrian empire (1:1). Long before the apostle Paul asked us to consider the “goodness and severity of God” (Romans 11:22), God sent two prophets to Nineveh. From Jonah, the Ninevites learned about Yahweh’s goodness and grace (Jonah 4:2); however, Nahum warned subsequent Ninevite generations about God’s impending severity after they returned to the evil ways of their forefathers.
Both Jonah and Nahum mention that God is “slow to anger.” But more than a century after Jonah, Nahum adds, “The Lord is a jealous and avenging God; the Lord is avenging and wrathful; the Lord takes vengeance on his adversariesand keeps wrath for his enemies. … and the Lord will by no means clear the guilty” (1:2-3a). As disturbing as this sounds, a complete understanding of God’s character must include His jealousy, vengeance, and wrath.
However, the Lord’s jealousy, unlike ours, is never petty. On Mount Sinai, Yahweh established His prohibition about worshipping other gods, “for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments” (Exodus 20:5-6). The Lord is jealous for His holy name; He protects it like a corporation guards its brand.
Also, keep in mind that “vengeance belongs to the Lord” (Romans 12:19). Unlike us, when the Lord avenges His holy name, He does so without spite. He is not unpredictable, nor does He erupt like Mount Vesuvius. Instead, He patiently administers absolute justice while in full control, in His own way, and at the right time. By no means will He acquit the guilty. Make no mistake about that. However, His first desire is to show mercy, extend grace, and forgive our iniquity. The Lord is truly slow to anger, but when sinners continue in their stubborn defiance of the Almighty, beware of His wrath.
Using vivid imagery from nature, Nahum continues to describe the Lord’s wrath and Nineveh’s doom in 1:3-8. His description reminds me of the warning in Hebrews 12:29, which reads, “For our God is a consuming fire.” For sure, Nineveh was doomed. This time, God’s prophet offered no hope for a repentant remnant. Nahum teaches that though God is slow to anger, His righteous wrath will ultimately fall upon His enemies, which deserves sober consideration by proud people and arrogant nations.
Does God have enemies? If He does, who are His enemies? An enemy of God is one who opposes the presence and purposes of God in this world.[iv] Psalm 92:9 says, “For behold, your enemies, O Lord, for behold, your enemies shall perish; all evildoers shall be scattered.” Nahum says the Lord “will pursue his enemies into darkness” and “make a complete end of his adversaries” (1:8). This reality should make each of us carefully examine ourselves.
Jesus called His disciples “my friends” (John 15:15). We were God’s enemies before we became His children and friends by faith in Jesus Christ (Romans 5:10; John 1:12). However, the Bible warns believers, “Friendship with the world is enmity with God. Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God” (James 4:4). Are you acting like God’s friend or enemy?
Throughout his brief book, Nahum describes the future desolation of Nineveh with vivid literary eloquence. In chapter 2, he pictures an army, which he calls “the scatterer,” coming against Nineveh with red shields and scarlet uniforms. Their chariots “race madly through the streets” of the city, and their spears glitter in the sun, appearing like flashes of lightning. A flood overruns the city, washing away the wall and aiding the entrance of Nineveh’s enemy.
God says He will personally dig Nineveh’s grave (1:14). No wonder “hearts melt and knees tremble; anguish is in all loins; all faces grow pale!” (2:10). All who hear about Nineveh’s destruction “clap their hands” because they have all received her cruelty (3:19).
Through Nahum, the Lord holds nothing back when He says to the Assyrians, “Behold, I am against you, declares the Lord of hosts, and I will burn your chariots in smoke, and the sword shall devour your young lions. I will cut off your prey from the earth, and the voice of your messengers shall no longer be heard” (2:13). The Lord says to the Ninevites, “I am against you,” a second time in 3:5.
Historians tell us that Jonathan Edwards employed vivid imagery in his sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” to describe God’s power and wrath, the horrors of hell, and the helplessness of humans. For example, he pictured God dangling humans like spiders over a fire. People wept during the sermon, and God used the fire and brimstone message to spark a great spiritual awakening in New England.
The destruction of Nineveh, God’s ancient enemy, was no small thing. When the Babylonians fell upon Nineveh in 612 B.C., Nineveh was a vast capital city, and the Assyrians had reached the peak of their power and prosperity. According to Jonah, the city was “exceedingly great” and took three days to cross (Jonah 3:3). Archeologists believe the city was nearly three hundred and fifty square miles—the size of a modern metropolis like Dallas or London! The walls of the city reached one hundred feet into the sky and were broad enough at the top for three chariots to ride side-by-side. Fifteen hundred towers fortified the city walls, each two hundred feet tall.[v]
Nineveh was also vile and notoriously brutal. For example, Nahum compared the evil empire to a lion that tears apart its prey and feeds his lionesses (2:11-12). Nineveh was truly an awesome spectacle. Nobody in the ancient world thought the great city would ever fall.
The Tower of Babel reminds us that evil accelerates when fallen humanity gathers in large numbers in a single location (Genesis 11). That was certainly true of the Assyrian capital. Jonah mentions one hundred and twenty thousand people in Nineveh who could not discern between their left and right hand, probably a reference to the number of infants (Jonah 4:16). Conservatively, imagine Nineveh with a total population of nearly one million people at the time of Jonah and more during Nahum’s ministry a century later.
Nineveh is an archetype of all proud cities and nations who reject God. Think of this: God chose small, insignificant, underserving Israel to showcase His love and grace; He chose wicked, deserving Nineveh to demonstrate His righteous wrath.
The extent of Nineveh’s downfall was swift and breathtaking. Not until 1845 did archeologists even find a trace of the ancient Ninevites. So complete was her destruction that for centuries many scholars believed Nineveh was like Wonderland, Neverland, or mythical Atlantis. Bible critics used stories about Nineveh to fuel their unbelief. In time, archeology caught up to what God already knew, validating the prophecies of Jonah and Nahum.
Nahum offered no hope or comfort to the Ninevites. This was the Lord’s final verdict on the ancient city. A final verdict also awaits all the enemies of God at the end of the age when the dead, great and small, stand before the Great White Throne. At that time, the Bible says, “If anyone's name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire” (Revelation 20:11-15). Is your name written in the book of life?
However, Nahum’s name means “comfort,” opening the door for Judah’s consolation and ours. Amid Nahum’s opening rant about the wrath of God, he inserts these words, “The Lord is good, a stronghold in the day of trouble; he knows those who take refuge in him” (1:7). The goodness of God shines like a brilliant diamond against the black backdrop of divine wrath. To those who take refuge in God, He is good all the time (Romans 8:28).
Considering Nahum’s stirring prophecy about the wrath of God, now is the time to place your faith in Jesus Christ, whom God raised from the dead—"Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come” (1 Thessalonians 1:10). The good news of the gospel is that believers are saved from God’s wrath through faith in the atoning provision of Jesus Christ’s death upon the cross. God loves us so much that He “sent his son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10; Hebrews 2:17).[vi]
Has justice eluded you? Have evildoers gotten the upper hand? The psalmist Asaph expressed similar concerns when he “saw the prosperity of the wicked” (Psalm 73:3). The ancient worship leader’s perspective changed when he entered the sanctuary of God and “discerned their end” (Psalm 73:17). Likewise, knowing that God will deliver ultimate justice upon evil people provides believers with some measure of comfort.
Also, in contrast to the words “I am against you,” which God spoke twice to the Ninevites, believers in Jesus Christ can take comfort in these truthful words found in the New Testament, “If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Romans 8:31).
Finally, how the Lord was “slow to anger” with the Ninevites reminds me of these words found in the New Testament, “Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God” (James 1:19-20).
[i] J.I. Packer, Knowing God, p. 148.
[ii] Nahum’s ministry happened between 663 and 612 B.C. We know this because he refers to the fall of Thebes (3:8) as something that happened in the past (663 B.C.) and the fall of the Ninevites as prophetic future. Historically, we know that the Babylonians destroyed Nineveh in 612 B.C.
[iii] Nineveh was the capital city of the rising Assyrian empire during the ministries of Jonah and Nahum.
[iv] Got Questions, “What does it mean to be an enemy of God,” accessed on October 7, 2021, https://www.gotquestions.org/enemy-of-God.html
[v] J. Sidlow Baxter, Explore the Book, Vol. 4, Ezekiel to Malachi, p. 200.
[vi] The word “propitiation” refers to the act of appeasing or gaining favor, especially of a deity. In Christianity, Jesus Christ’s death upon the cross is the propitiation for our sins, satisfying the righteous wrath of God.