Nahum: Message without Comfort

These devotions were written in the fall of 2004.  Click on a chapter number to jump to the first devotion for that chapter.

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Old Champ, New Champ

Friday, November 26, 2004 / Read Nahum 1:1-6

You’ve heard the maxim: Solid as Sears.  For decades, Sears and Roebuck bestrode the retail world like a colossus.  They introduced the idea of mail order and spread their stores all across the United States.  With such wannabes as Montgomery Ward and J.C. Penney looking on in envy, Sears stood as the undisputed heavyweight champ, the number one retailer in the United States—and therefore the world—for many years.  They had the catalog, the string of stores, and the generations of dedicated customers.  They had Craftsman and Kenmore.  Who could lay a glove on the mighty Sears?

Along came Kmart in the 1960s.  Actually, by the time the first Kmart store opened in 1962, their company had been on the block, as Kresge’s, for over sixty years.  But in the 1960s and on into the 70s, Kmart advanced with the inevitability of the tide.  In 1976 alone, the company opened 271 new stores.  By 1981, they were operating well over 2,000 stores and had pretty effectively knocked the former champion, Sears, off of their championship dais.  Who, people asked, could ever de-throne mighty Kmart?

Of course we all know that champions don’t remain champions forever.  Just a week ago, Sears and Kmart merged.  Each of these companies had, fairly recently, stood as the number one retailer in America.  Now, combined, the two former champs created only the number-three retailer in America, after Wal-Mart and Target.  Yes, the juggernaut of Wal-Mart continues to march forward, apparently taking no prisoners.  Each year, it seems, they set new records for sales and open more stores.  Who could ever stop the inexorable force of nature that is Wal-Mart?

My guess is that by the time I retire, some other company will have given Wal-Mart a run for their money.  Perhaps Wal-Mart and Target will be merging in an effort to stay abreast of the new champ.

From up close, the champions of this world look utterly invincible.  Whether they be movie stars, retailers, or football teams, the champions look quite imposing.  But time and again we have seen that the invincible and mighty turn out to be vulnerable and weak.  The mighty nations of the earth can fade faster than daisies in a vase.  Could any of us have predicted the speedy demise of the Soviet Union?

As he begins his oracle about Nineveh, a champion of the world in its day, Nahum takes pains to explain that as mighty as Nineveh appears, the true force in the world is God.  The military might and political sway of Nineveh are nothing compared to the power of God.

How often do we, as believers, manage to forget the might and wonder of our God?  How often do we talk of an “awesome God” and yet forget what “awesome” means?  If you go shopping today, fighting the traffic and crowds for post-Thanksgiving bargains, don’t be so foolish as to think of any of those things as awesome.  No, nothing is awesome like our God.

Live and Learn?

Saturday, November 27, 2004 / Read Nahum 1:7-11

Hard lessons come to us in a variety of packages, but they can be divided neatly into a couple of categories:  Live and Learn vs. Die Wiser.  Let me explain.  I’ve had any number of “Live and Learn” experiences in my life.  Years ago, I left my car unlocked at the Blue Ridge Mall, my nice leather briefcase lying temptingly on the backseat.  When I got back to the car, the briefcase was not to be found.  Happily, nothing of immense value was inside.  Live and learn.

On the other hand, we can experience “Die Wiser” events more often than you’d think.  When Pete Rose bet on baseball, he experienced such a lesson, getting himself banned from the only thing he’d ever been any good at doing.  I see students blow up their chances to pursue this or that career as they saunter through their freshman years.  They don’t literally die, but a potential avenue of their life dies.  And of course some people pay for their mistakes with a loss of life.  They die wiser, I suppose.

From what the Bible tells us, God sent two messages to Nineveh.  In about 770 B.C., God sent Jonah, whose story we’ve spent considerable time examining, to call the Ninevites to repentance.  That was a “Live and Learn” lesson.  God wanted the people to see the folly of their ways, to feel really bad, and to change.  Happily, for everyone in the story except Jonah, that’s what happened.  On the other hand, when, nearly 150 years later, God sent Nahum to Ninevah, it wasn’t to deliver a Live-and-Learn lesson.  No, Nahum’s message wasn’t repent or you’ll get squashed.  His message was simple: “You’re going to get squashed.”

Just a tiny cluster of words rings with this finality for me.  In the second half of verse 9, Nahum says “trouble will not come a second time.”  Just in case you were in doubt, that isn’t good news for the people of Nineveh.  Trouble won’t come a second time, because the people of Nineveh won’t be there to trouble after the first time.  That’s a grim bit of verbiage.

Unless you’re a good deal closer to perfect that I am, God sends you Live-and-Learn lessons now and again.  Probably, if we’re honest, we can all ‘fess up to at least one or two Die-Wiser lessons as well.  God, as portrayed in Nahum’s pages, is an angry God, but he’s not a cruel God.  He’s given the people many chances to mend their ways, many warnings along the way—just as he does for us.  You can almost hear him saying, “I warned you!  Why didn’t you listen?”

That’s the question that I hold up to myself when a lesson bites me a bit more than I like.  Why don’t I listen to the clear warnings that God offers?  It’s a question we can all ask profitably—unless we just want to die wiser.

Nice Feet

Monday, November 29, 2004 / Read Nahum 1:12-15

It’s a classic of the American cinema: High Noon.  On the day of his wedding, Gary Cooper, the sheriff of a western town, learns that his avowed enemy, Frank Miller is coming to town on the noon train, his evil minions in tow, ready to exact revenge.  In vain, Sheriff Kane canvasses the town in search of those who will stand with him and fight the bad guys.  After asking everyone possible, Kane finds himself facing the Miller gang alone.

A prolonged gunfight in an old Western movie has several required elements.  You have to have someone fall off—or preferably through the railing—of a balcony.  You have to see one character enter a store and take shots from there.  Finally, you simply must have some interplay with horses.  Perhaps a hero can escape danger by shielding himself behind the horses, or the chase can wend its way into a stable.  And if there’s a stable, then a lantern simply must wind up—accidentally or on purpose—lighting some hay ablaze.  High Noon has most, if not all, of these elements.  But in the end, the required element that tops off this movie best is that chief of all Western clichés:  the arrival of the cavalry.  In the case of High Noon, the cavalry is dressed in a gingham dress and comes in the person of the sheriff’s new bride, who, brandishing a rifle, kills the last of the gang to save her defenseless husband.

This cliché is played out in any number of other movies.  Time after time we see the day saved at the last possible moment by a squadron of cavalry, the old gunfighter, or the preacher who swore he’d never fight again.  In Star Wars, when all appears lost, here comes Han Solo in his spaceship to pluck Luke Skywalker out of the flames.  It’s the same story, told a hundred different ways.

Although you might have thought that this story formula originated with the Western movies of Frank Capra, in reality we can credit Nahum for introducing the hero who appears at the critical moment.  Who can read verse 15, at least as the NIV renders it, “Look, there on the mountains,” and not hear “Look, up in the sky.  It’s a bird.  It’s a plane.  It’s . . .” the Messiah?  (Maybe you could have avoided it, but you can’t now!)

Okay, so I’m just free associating now, but the image is glorious, far more glorious than the sound of the cavalry’s bugle call or Mighty Mouse singing, “Here I come to save the day.”  You see, this day-saving cavalry not only brings good news but enforces that good news.  And, unlike in the movies, the news brought by the one who proclaims peace stays good.

As in any old-style Western, Nahum’s world promises that regardless how grim the situation might appear, the good guys, God’s guys, will win in the end.  That’s a truth that we do well to remember when we face adversity.  Don’t fear.  Look to the mountains, and you’ll see those beautiful feet.

Poor Tiresias

November 30, 2004 / Read Nahum 2:1-10

One of the more peculiar characters from the annals of Greek mythology—and that’s saying a great deal—Tiresias isn’t all that well known.  Magically transformed from a man into a woman and then, years later, transformed back again, Tiresias possessed knowledge that most of us would probably prefer to leave unknown.  But the most intriguing thing about Tiresias, the thing that makes him such a force in the plays of Sophocles, is that he knows the future.  Although he can see the future, Tiresias lives under a particularly wicked curse.  Even though he will always know and share what the future holds, no one will believe him.  Therefore, when Oedipus decides to track down the killer of the previous king, Tiresias appears before him and warns him.  “You don’t want to find out who killed the king, Oedipus,” he cautions.   Oedipus pays Tiresias no mind.  He discovers that, oddly enough, he himself killed the king.  He then discovers some other unpleasant things that I won’t bother recounting here.  You have to imagine Tiresias over in the corner saying, “Why don’t they ever listen?”

It’s not Tiresias but a parallel of him who warns Julius Caesar to “Beware the ides of March.”  Caesar hears this warning and ignores it.  In the end, as Brutus and company sink their daggers into Caesar’s flesh, this soothsayer must have been over in the corner of the forum wondering, “Why don’t they ever listen?”

Nahum approaches Nineveh in much the same way.  Goaded on by the inexorable force of a call from God, Nahum brings a message of doom and destruction into Nineveh.  “Guard the fortress,” he tells them.  How much more warning do they need?  But did the people of Nineveh listen?  Of course not.

Although the message that Nahum brought to Nineveh is a unique one, limited in time and directed at a people who no longer exist, it is also a message that we should consider carefully.  At times, God calls upon us to deliver a message to a sinful segment of society.  Perhaps you have an erring friend who needs some correction.  Perhaps you feel the need to opine regarding the sorry state of television.  The message that I take from Nahum’s pages is that the receptivity of the audience isn’t an issue.  When he calls on us to speak, God doesn’t guarantee we’ll be heard.  Whether we’re heard or not, he does expect us to relate his message.

Like blind Tiresias, forever doomed to speak the truth and to be disbelieved, we may well be like Nahum, preaching a message that no one will accept.  If that’s our fate, then so be it.  On the other hand, we might stand like Jonah and deliver a message that will be heard and heeded.

We know from history that Nineveh did not listen to Nahum’s words and stave off the judgment of God.  However, we cannot know but that some individuals in Nineveh did respond, turning their hearts toward the Lord.  In short, we cannot know what effects our actions will produce in this world.  But unlike Tiresias, we can feel assurance that continuing to speak the truth as led by God will lead to blessings.

Homeless Day

Wednesday, December 1, 2004 / Read Nahum 2:11-13

On Good Friday of 1992, Bill Lamb, the Assistant Dean in charge of English at Johnson County Community College, called me in Lawrence and offered me a full-time job.  As memory serves, I hesitated all of about two seconds before snapping up the offer.  In the preceding years, I had spent my days as an academic mercenary, splitting time between as many as four different schools in order to cobble together a reasonable living.  I split time in various semesters between JCCC, Longview, Kansas City Kansas Community College, and UMKC.  That final year as an academic soldier of fortune, I was a teaching assistant at KU, and throughout the entire span of time, I graded for the correspondence courses at the Graceland College Nursing School.  In the worst of semesters, I taught seven classes plus did the Graceland work, while taking six hours of graduate courses at KU.  I was a busy boy in those days.

Aside from the fact that part-time faculty—adjunct faculty is the more accepted term—get paid about half as much as full-time folk and receive no benefits, there’s a between-paycheck difference that wears on a person.  The adjunct feels like a homeless person.  You don’t have an office that you can call your own.  If you’re lucky, there’s a desk where you can plant yourself at convenient hours to grade or meet with students.  If you’re very lucky, you might get a file drawer, or half a file drawer, for storage.  You have no computer, and you have no phone.

Today, when an idea pops into my mind during class, I can dash back to my office to pick up a book or some other aid.  I can dash together a PowerPoint presentation on my computer in the five minutes before the class begins.  I get to keep Diet Dr. Pepper in my refrigerator and M&M Christmas lights around my desk.  On a day-to-day basis, I probably appreciate having a “home” at school more than I do the paycheck.

This fact has been brought back to me in the past year as I’ve taught at Midwestern Seminary.  If I want a dictionary in class, I have to lug one from home.  I can’t simply run to my file cabinet and grab some great transparency or other teaching tool on Tuesday morning.  When can I meet with students?  Before or after class.  Where can I meet with them?  In the student commons.  And you can just forget about those M&M Christmas lights!  I’m not complaining.  Quite the contrary, I’m reminded to appreciate what I have at JCCC.  We typically don’t appreciate what we have until we lose it.

In our verses for today, Nahum mocks Nineveh, pointing out the safety and security—the sense of home—that they will lose when the city falls.  Had they understood and appreciated his words, who knows, it might have been different.  But they didn’t understand, and the Assyrian lions, evicted from their place of safety, fell.  I don’t believe that Nahum intended that these verses should teach us to be thankful, but I can’t help myself today.  And maybe that’s just as well.

City of Blood

Thursday, December 2, 2004 / Read Nahum 3:1-2

On my first visit to Nashville, I did what I usually do when I visit a new city.  I walked all over town, exploring and seeing the sites.  One afternoon, with a couple of hours to burn, I strolled down the hill from my hotel and traced a route along the river, never seeing anything that struck me as even remotely interesting.  Continuing my walk, I found myself at the intersection of a major cross-town road and an Interstate, never a very promising spot for scenery according to my experience.  From this point, I decided to head back toward the hotel.  I could make out a church belfry that I knew to be across from the hotel, so I began making my way in that direction.  As I walked, I noticed that the town grew rougher and rougher.  For quite a few blocks, mine was the only white face to be seen.  While I was still about a quarter mile from the hotel, I passed a young black woman on the street.  She looked at me with concern and, as we passed, said, “You shouldn’t be walking in this neighborhood.”

What sort of city is it where a decent person can’t walk down a residential street in the middle of the afternoon?  I suppose that it’s the sort of city in which most of us live.  About twenty years ago, Bruce Springsteen described this part of one such city in a song:  “Down in the part of town where when you hit a red light you don’t stop.”  I guess that’s where I was.  I decided after that walk to be a lot more cautious about where I went alone.

What do we find in a typical American city?  We find thousands of people who care for nothing but themselves.  We find people living in despair, giving their lives over to drugs and alcohol, gambling and pornography.  We find people for whom violence is an answer to the questions that life raises.  We find others who have no compunction about cheating and defrauding others.  What a world!

Some would suggest that this dysfunctional world has come about due to oppressive poverty, yet there has always been poverty in the world.  Others believe that it comes from race issues, but those problems have existed for centuries.  It’s not violent television and video games.  You can’t point to just guns or drugs.  None of the common villains can be held solely accountable for this sad state of affairs.

Nahum today describes a city—“the city of blood”—that is every bit as depraved as Kansas City or New York.  What does Nineveh share with these struggling American cities?  They’ve all turned their back on God.

Whatever level of society turns its back on God will become a place of blood.  We can find plenty of “people of blood,” “families of blood,” and “neighborhoods of blood.”  Most American cities have counter-balancing people, families, and neighborhoods of light and life.  But that balance could change for the worse.

Or it could change for the better.  This world has always had its points of darkness, but our role is to be points of light.  Our call as believers is to be salt and light in a city of blood, turning the world, a little at a time, back toward God.

The Bully

Friday, December 3, 2004 / Read Nahum 3:5-7

Very near to the house where I grew up was one of the world’s great sledding hills.  On snowy days, every kid from a half mile around there would drag out their sled and pile toward that spot.  It seemed like we had hundreds, maybe thousands, of kids on busy days, all streaking down that hill, bashing into each other, falling into the creek at the bottom of the hill, and having a total blast.

One day, however, I recall going to that hill by myself.  For some reason, there was nobody there.  The snow was good, but nobody was on the slopes.  That didn’t deter me.  I made my solo runs and had a great time.  But that all ended when these two other, older kids showed up.

I don’t know what it was about me that they didn’t like.  Actually it was the older one who took the initiative in tormenting me.  He knocked me down into the snow several times.  He took my sled and broke the ice on the creek with it.  To this day I don’t know what that was supposed to accomplish.  He called me some names that sound truly horrible when you’re eight years old.  Probably he mentally scarred me by calling me sissy boy or cake head.  And then, the final insult, he spit in my face.  One other person in my life has intentionally spit in my face.  That guy found himself on the ground a second later, but this clown managed the deed with absolute impunity.

As I look back on that little ordeal—it probably lasted all of ten minutes—I realize that this idiot could have done anything to me that he really wanted.  You hear horrible stories about older kids brutalizing and even killing younger kids, and you realize that those younger kids were probably feeling just as confused and helpless as I did.

We have a name for kids like that guy at the sledding hill.  Actually, “bully” is the only thing I could ever call him since I had no idea who he was that day and didn’t learn afterward.  Some people, reading in the Old Testament a text like ours for today, would lump God among the bullies, and when you review these words, such an identification seems appropriate.  After all, “I will pelt you with filth, I will treat you with contempt,” seems pretty harsh.  What gives God the right to be treating anybody in such a disrespectful manner?

It’s when we think of the Lord as a sort of special human that we ask questions like that last.  What gives God the right?  Maybe it was that whole creation of the universe thing.  Unlike my bully on the sledding hill, God has been rightly offended by my sinful self from the day that I learned to discern right from wrong.  The question that we should be asking is not “What gives God the right?”  The question that should be asked is “Why doesn’t God smite us every minute of every day?”  The people of Nineveh deserved to be pelted with filth from the outset.  They deserved it when Jonah visited them.  They deserved it, even when they repented.  They deserved it when Nahum spoke these words.  And finally they would receive what they deserved.

God is no bully, and we are certainly no innocent victims.

All the Vain Things

Saturday, December 4, 2004 / Read Nahum 3:8-17

You think it can’t happen to you.  What is it?  I don’t know, but if you use your imagination you can figure it out.  Maybe you think you can never lose your hair or get a traffic ticket.  Maybe you think you can never get caught by the IRS fudging your taxes.  You think it through and you’ll come up with what it could be for you.

Burt Hines, the character that I just finished playing in Neil Simon’s play, Proposals, thought it couldn’t happen to him.  Burt had built a minor business empire for himself.  Over twenty years he opened eight electronics stores all around the New York/New Jersey area. We worked out the chronology of the play to discover some rather astounding things about this fellow.  He apparently got his start in about 1930 and made his fortune selling televisions.  If you think this through, he accomplished the amazing feat of prospering by selling a product that had not yet hit the mainstream to a country suffering through the worst years of the Great Depression.  Talk about an entrepreneur.

Even if we ignore this apparent sloppiness in Simon’s planning, Burt Hines is a guy who has it going on.  He’s raised himself up from next to nothing to having a tremendous income, a house in the Poconos, and the life he’d striven to build.  With a lovely wife, a talented daughter, and a thriving business, Burt had to feel on top of the world.  And then life kicked him in the teeth.

Three years before the play’s time, Burt’s marriage falls apart.  With Annie gone, Burt’s life heads into a tailspin.  His health begins to fail.  He has one heart attack and then another.  The business continues to plug along, but Burt realizes how hollow had been his success there.  The house in the country seems dreadfully empty without Annie.  In the end, all he can hope for is to reconcile his daughter with her mother.

If it could happen to Burt, then it can happen to me.  It can happen to anyone.

As Nahum continues his diatribe against Nineveh, he compares them with the great Egyptian city of Thebes.  “Are you better than Thebes?” he asks.  In 661 B.C., the supposedly invulnerable city of Thebes had fallen to the Babylonians.  If it could happen to Thebes, it could happen to Nineveh.  It could happen to anyone.

As I read these words, I’m reminded of Isaac Watts great hymn:  “When I survey the wondrous cross on which the Prince of Glory died, my richest gain I count but loss and pour contempt on all my pride.”  Later in the hymn, Watts refers to “all the vain things that charm me most.”  All the vain things of Nineveh looked ridiculous as the city fell.  All the vain things of Burt Hines looked foolish as his life crumbled.  And all of our vain things . . . We all have vain things that charm us.

So am I better than anyone?  In the end, I am not.  All the strengths, the defenses, and the plans that I possess must be laid at the foot of the cross if I am to be of any value whatever.  That, I’m afraid, is a lesson Burt Hines never learned.

Sleepy Sentinels

Monday, December 6, 2004 / Read Nahum3:18-19

In my real life as a teacher, the semester is drawing to a close—not with a bang but a whimper.  It’s this way every semester it seems.  The significant group of students who have kept up and done reasonable work flow through the pipe with little resistance, but there’s always a sizeable minority who make the whole plumbing system rattle and shake.  The ones who drive me craziest are those who don’t understand why they’re failing.  “I worked this hard in my high school class and I got A’s,” they’ll protest.  Ah, Chihuahua!  If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard that, I could at least take my wife out for a nice dinner.

To some degree, teachers stand as sentinels, guardians, and gatekeepers for society—at least for the education system.  When students come to my Composition I class, they should be expected to possess certain skills.  When they leave that class, they’re definitely expected to possess other, more elevated skills.  It’s that way all up and down the line.  But what happens when the guardian is asleep at the gate?  What happens when that student doesn’t get the skill that is expected?  I’ll tell you what.  That person shows up in my class and runs into a wall.

Right now, I have a young woman in my online comp class.  Here’s a sample of her work:  “One of the most controversiel topics in America nowadays is death penalty.  That is capitol punishment.  It is very controversiel and people disagree about it a whole lot.  They cannot ever agree on what is good or bad about it.”  Brilliant, eh?

If she applies herself in the last two weeks, she might just eke out a passing grade, yet she’s scandalized every time a paper comes back with less-than-glowing comments.  When I look at her writing, I wonder how in the world she ever got to this point without knowing that she’s weak in writing.  It’s simple:  the shepherd was asleep.

Today, we close out Nahum’s oracle against Nineveh with this warning to the king of Assyria.  That king’s shepherds were asleep and his people hopelessly out of position to save the land.  Assyria, of course, is no more, long ago blotted off the map as a political power and even a people.  Nahum’s words, we’ve seen, weren’t really intended to warn Nineveh, since “nothing can heal your wound.”  No, Nahum’s words stand as a testimony to the judgment of God.

So what meaning do these final words carry for us?  I hope I’m not reading into Nahum’s prophecy when I say that it warns me to be vigilant.  While there’s no hope for Nineveh’s long-dead guardians, there is hope that we can set guards at our hearts that will keep us from sinning grievously against the Most High.  As we pass from Nahum’s rather dismal words, let’s set our minds to that sort of vigilance and look forward to more hopeful tidings.

Tune My Heart is primarily an aid to the devotional life of its author, Mark Browning, who holds the copyright for this material.  It is provided online in hopes that some will find it edifying.  All contents, unless otherwise noted, may be redistributed freely provided that you give credit for its origin and do not charge anything.