Posts Tagged 'Assyria'

A SURVEY OF THE MINOR PROPHETS, Part 7

The remains of one of Nineveh's defenders. Photo David Stronach.

Nahum, Habakkuk

Choices. We all have to make choices. Sometimes we make wise choices, other times our choices are really our mistakes. But no matter, good choice or bad, there are always consequences to face and deal with.

The minor prophets declared a conditional message to their listeners: God’s judgment is never the final word; it can be averted if the people make the right choice: repentance. Whenever anybody chooses to accept God’s mercy, their whole life changes for the better. God’s generous offer of mercy, if ignored, won’t help because judgment is inevitable.

1. God’s power to avenge, Nahum 1:1—9

Nahum provides an interesting parallel to the book of Jonah. Each deals with the great city of Nineveh. However, the book of Jonah is really about the prophet himself. Nahum, though, reveals nothing personal about the prophet beyond his name. “Nahum” is a name that appears only one time in the Old Testament, in the superscription of the book. His name appears one time in the New Testament as part of the genealogy of Joseph in Luke 3:25. “Nahum” means “comfort” or “consolation.”

Though we know nothing about the man, his sermon to Nineveh has survived the centuries because it teaches us something very significant about about God’s mercy and His judgment.

a. The fury of the Lord, vs. 1—6

A prophecy concerning Nineveh. The book of the vision of Nahum the Elkoshite. (vs. 1)

This superscription was probably added by an editor for the purpose of identification. The “prophecy” is sometimes called “a burden” in some translations. That’s a good word; sometimes the Word of the Lord is a burden. Sometimes it’s not all sunshine happiness. This is especially true concerning this “burden” about Nineveh, the capital of Assyria.

The LORD is a jealous and avenging God; the LORD takes vengeance and is filled with wrath. The LORD takes vengeance on his foes and vents his wrath against his enemies. (vs. 2)

Those are pretty strong words directed at Nineveh. Why did God feel this way about the Assyrians? The name “Assyria” comes from “Asshur,” who was a descendant of Shem (Genesis 10:22). Asshur and his kin eventually settled in the land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.

Ancient history has a lot to say about these people, and none of it is good. Every time we read about the Assyrians in both sacred and secular history. they are pictured as cruel, savage, and warlike people with a deep-seated desire to conquer and dominate as much territory as possible. They were known for flaying captives and wall-papering pillars with their skins. They would bury captives alive, impaling others on posts, gouging out eyes, cutting off hands, feet, noses, and ears. Young children were burned alive. These and other atrocities caused the Assyrians to be feared for centuries in the ancient Near East.

Verse 2 indicates how God felt about these people. They faced certain doom, not because the Assyrians were so evil, but because God is so holy. God’s perfect nature demands that He punish sin because the nature of sin demands that it receive punishment. God must oppose evil, wherever it is found. And Nineveh was overflowing with it.

The LORD is slow to anger but great in power; the LORD will not leave the guilty unpunished. His way is in the whirlwind and the storm, and clouds are the dust of his feet. (vs. 3)

This could be considered the key verse of this book. The apostle Paul proclaimed the same message to the Romans:

So when you, a mere human being, pass judgment on them and yet do the same things, do you think you will escape God’s judgment? Or do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, forbearance and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness is intended to lead you to repentance? But because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God’s wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed. (Romans 2:3—5)

b. The end for Nineveh, vs. 7—9

God is all-powerful, but He does not remain unmoved by the decisions of people. This group of verses is comforting to God’s people but a warning to those who ignored God’s mercy.

Nahum’s ministry occurred some 150 years after Jonah’s. Immediately following Jonah’s ministry, Nineveh did a complete about-face. They repented and forestalled God’s promised judgment. But by Nahum’s time, they were a rotten as ever.

Here is a powerful lesson: each generation needs its own revival. No individual believer, church, or religious movement can survive on yesterday’s blessings. Human nature always bends away from God towards sin; that’s why every generation needs to seek God for fresh outpourings of His Spirit.

Whatever they plot against the LORD he will bring to an end; trouble will not come a second time. (verse 9)

The prophet directly addresses the Assyrian leaders, and informs them that they don’t have a prayer if they come against God. This is it, as far as Nineveh was concerned. The great city would not be given a second chance. Why not? Nineveh had crossed an invisible line that only God can see. This does not mean that God’s grace could not reach them a second time, but that they could no longer reach it.

Halzi Gate excavation. Excavating skeletons in the gateway dating from the destruction of Nineveh. 7 May 1990.

2. A cry for righteous judgment, Habakkuk 1:1—6

Here is another prophet we know next to nothing about. His name is mentioned here, and nowhere else in the Bible. There are two things that distinguish Habakkuk from other Old Testament prophets. First is what we read in verse 1:

The prophecy that Habakkuk the prophet received.

Habakkuk is one of the only prophets that is actually referred to as “the prophet.” This suggests that Habakkuk was recognized as a professional prophet.

Second, there is a verse Habakkuk wrote that appears no less than three times in the New Testament and it eventually became Martin Luther’s rallying cry and the watchword for the Reformation:

The just shall live by faith. (Habakkuk 2:4)

Habakkuk was a contemporary of the more famous Jeremiah, and this book is traditionally dated around 600 BC, not long before the Babylonian Captivity in 586 BC. So he ministered in and around Judah and this prophet was faced with with two big problems. This prophet was one of the few men with courage enough to wrestle and argue with God over the way God deals with man.

I will stand at my watch and station myself on the ramparts; I will look to see what he will say to me, and what answer I am to give to this complaint. (2:1)

The answer, of course, is to be found in 2:4b:

The just shall live by faith.

a. The burden of the prophet, vs. 1—4

Here is the cry of a frustrated believer: how long and why. This could well be the the single issue that plagues all believers: Why does God permit evil to continue among His own people—evils like, the iniquity, the injustice, the strife, and the contention? This is an old question, but a new one.

Times were tough for Habakkuk, and they were getting tougher. Things were about to come a head; violence was on the rise, the balance of power was shifting fast in the Middle East and the Babylonians were on the march. However, as the old saying goes, “one man plus God is always a majority.” Habakkuk went straight to the Top with His complaints.

b. A new world power, vs. 5, 6

God’s answer to his prophet is the comfort of assurance: “I am working.” But, here is an instance where God’s answer wasn’t quite what Habakkuk was expecting. God was indeed working, but it wasn’t among His people, it was among the heathen!

Notice, though, the onus is on God’s people to see Him working:

Look at the nations and watch—and be utterly amazed. (vs. 5a)

Sometimes God’s working isn’t all that obvious! Believers have to “look” for Him, and sometimes His hand is to be found working in the strangest of places, among the strangest of people.

God did not answer the “Why” part of Habakkuk’s question; He is sovereign and owes no man any explanation or apology. Besides, no human being is capable of understanding the mind of God. But God did speak to the prophet. Far from being insensitive to the plight of His people, God was in fact orchestrating it! In the darkest, most confusing hour for any believer, when we are apt to feel as though God has forsaken us, we should take comfort from God’s word to Habakkuk. God in no way ever loses control; regardless of what it may look like, God is always in command of the circumstances of our lives. It is our lack of perception that makes God look uncaring or uninvolved. God’s activity, though, is far-reaching. It extends from generation to generation. His work in our lives not only touches us, but reaches out to touch others.

3. Confidence in God’s sovereignty, 3:1,2; 16—19

This last chapter of Habakkuk is unique among the Minors. In fact, it’s not really part of his prophecy. We might call chapter three Habakkuk II, for it opens with a whole new superscription, like it was a whole new book:

A prayer of Habakkuk the prophet. On shigionoth. (vs. 1)

The “shigionoth” is a word of unknown origin and meaning, although is has something to do with music; perhaps an instrument or a type of song.

a. An urgent prayer, vs. 1, 2

What a change had taken place in Habakkuk’s life. From complaining to God and waiting for God to answer him, Habakkuk was brought to the place of real, abiding faith. He was an honest questioner of God and God honored him.

LORD, I have heard of your fame; I stand in awe of your deeds, LORD. Repeat them in our day, in our time make them known; in wrath remember mercy. (vs 2)

What God had revealed to Habakkuk drew the prophet closer to Him and allowed him to worship God anew. He had been given a glimpse into the inner workings of God’s mind. He had a peek of things to come, and what he saw filled him with fear. But the prophet’s fear was not fear of the future but reverential awe of God. God opened His mind to Habakkuk just a crack and the prophet was overcome with wonder.

His heart’s cry to God was based on what God had done in the past: repeat your deeds! What a great, simple prayer for revival! G.B. Williamson gives a wonderful outline of these two verses under the heading, “A Prayer for Revival.”

  • Revival in needed because sin in rampant, religion is decadent, and judgment is imminent, 1:4; 2:18—20;

  • The time of revival is NOW: in “our day, in our time”;

  • The way of revival is through prayer;

  • The hope of revival is in God’s mercy.

b. Remembering God’s power, vs. 16—19

After praising God for His past intervention, Habakkuk says,

I heard and my heart pounded, my lips quivered at the sound; decay crept into my bones, and my legs trembled. (vs 16)

This is why it is so important for believers to get to know God through the pages of Scripture. Prayer is vital, but a believer doesn’t get to know God through prayer. God has revealed Himself to us only through His Word. The closer we get to God, the more we get to know Him through His Word, the more aware of His awesome strength we become. A lot of things may draw us closer to God. Sometimes it’s praise and worship, other times we are literally pushed closer to Christ by adversity. It is during those times that the true believer sees in Him the One who is sufficient to meet every need. Time and again in the Bible we see this. God sustained Elijah when he had reached the end of his rope (1 Kings 19). When Paul faces stiff opposition in Corinth (Acts 18), it was God who was his constant source of help.

Habakkuk’s personal story as revealed in these verses reveals that faith was the prophet’s only ally; all he could was wait.

Yet I will wait patiently for the day of calamity to come on the nation invading us. (vs. 16b)

The threat of the Babylonians was real and Judah’s days were numbers, but all Habakkuk could do was to wait quietly. He waited for the end to come, but he had no fear. We learn something of the dynamics of fear from these verses. We fear things when we attribute to a person, a place, or a thing two important characteristics:

  • Almightiness—the power to take away another’s autonomy;

  • Impendency—the power to do another harm.

What we need to understand is that those things don’t belong to any human being; they belong to God. This Habakkuk understood, which is why he waited patiently for the end to come. His faith sustained him. He knew he rested under God’s protection.

God’s sovereignty is not a topic reserved for theological discussions. It is an important fact in the life of every Christian. We have been redeemed by God. We are His children and we belong to Him. We are of value to God. We are filled with His Holy Spirit, who makes us able servants. By means of God’s power working in our lives, we have the ability to withstand any and all circumstances that come our way.

Habakkuk’s experience is a good example for the modern believer. He may have had questions, perhaps even doubts, he saw things he didn’t like or understand, but he did not give into fatalism. He did not passively resign to what was to come. Even though he may had a bad feeling in the pit of his stomach, Habakkuk had faith, and he had the courage to submit to the will of God and to exercise active dependence on Him.

Habakkuk wanted the people to sing his prophecy:

For the director of music. On my stringed instruments.

And why shouldn’t we sing what Habakkuk wrote? His head wasn’t in clouds, but he knew God and he had the kind of confidence in God that we all need. No matter what the outward circumstances of life may be, the just should simply live by faith. What Habakkuk found to be true, is still true today.

(c)  2011 WitzEnd

A SURVEY OF THE MINOR PROPHETS, Part 6

Jonah and God’s Compassion

Jonah

What we know about the prophet Jonah we find in 2 Kings 14:25—

He was the one who restored the boundaries of Israel from Lebo Hamath to the Dead Sea, in accordance to the word of the Lord, the God of Israel, spoken through his servant Jonah, son of Amittai, the prophet from Gath Hepher.

The “he” of this verse is Jeroboam, king of Israel, who reigned from 781—753 BC, so we know the date of Jonah’s ministry. During the Jeroboam years, Israel experienced a time of political and economic revival as the fortunes of Assyra waned.

Even though our glimpse of Jonah’s life is only 48 verses long, they are a powerful 48 verses, full of great spiritual truth. Scholars have found these to be the major themes in the book:

  • The sovereignty of God. God accomplished His plans in spite of Jonah’s failures.

  • Mercy and grace. God is compassionate to whomever He wants to be, whether a sinful nation or a struggling prophet.

  • Responsibility. If we claim to know God, we have a responsibility to serve Him to the best of our ability.

  • Servanthood. Jonah’s disobedience is a classic example of how NOT to serve God.

  • Repentance. God always gives people time to repent.

  • Missions. God reaches out to people everywhere.

1. God’s patience with disobedient believers

You don’t see a lot of missionary activity in the Old Testament. In fact, it’s pretty safe to say that “evangelism” is a New Testament concept and activity. The book of Jonah, though, teaches us that even way back in the days of the Old Testament, God was concerned with sinners, those outside of the Covenant.

Jonah is the reluctant missionary. God called him to a task that he wanted to avoid. He was, after all, a prophet. His job was to proclaim God’s Word to his people. Why in the world did God now want this prophet to take God’s Word to other people?

a. The fleeing prophet, 1:1—3, 17

Go to the great city Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.”

This is God’s commission and call of Jonah. Nineveh is referred to here as “the great city” because at this time it was a world power. Even though the Assyrian Empire was struggling, Nineveh was the seat of power in the ancient world. It may have been a great city, but it was also a wicked city. The fact that God was concerned about this city shows us that God’s concern and even love reached beyond His chosen ones, even though they believed they were only ones He truly loved.

But Jonah, full of fear and apprehension, decided that this mission was not for him. So he boarded a ship that was sailing in the opposite direction. But of what was Jonah fearful? We might think he was afraid of the Assyrians; afraid that they would harm him. But, in fact, he was afraid they would turn and repent and that God would indeed forgive them. It’s not that Jonah wanted people to die in judgment, it was that if Nineveh was spared, then he would appear to be a false prophet in the eyes of his people back home.

Now the Lord provided a huge fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights. (verse 17)

Jonah was clearly in disobedience to God, and in act of discipline mingled with mercy, God provided a big fish that swallowed up the errant prophet. We aren’t told how big this fish was. Matthew 12:40 speaks of “a whale,” but the Greek word used there means “a huge fish” or even a “sea monster.” For three days and three nights Jonah remained in the belly of the fish. This expression is probably a colloquial expression suggesting a relatively short, indefinite period of time.

This incident brings back to our minds the beautiful words of the Psalmist—

Where can I go from Your Spirit? Or where can I flee from Your presence?…If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there Your hand shall lead me, and Your right hand shall hold me. (Psalm 139:7, 9—10, NKJV)

b. The returning prophet, 2:1—10

Jonah knew he was in the wrong and cried out to God for help from within the fish. Jonah was wrong to rebel and run away from God, as if hiding among a bunch of Phoenician sailors would work! Jonah was also wrong about by taking refuge among these godless sailors, because he was implicitly declaring that, for this moment in time at least, he was preferring the Canaanite way of life to that of Israel.

Rather than dying inside the big fish, Jonah called to God for help, and we have recorded for us in poetic form, the prayer he prayed. It chronicles how dumb he was to do what he did. Yet even in his stupidity, Jonah had the presence of mind to remember God and His compassion. The prophet recommits his life to the Lord:

But I, with shouts of grateful praise, will sacrifice to you. What I have vowed I will make good. I will say, “Salvation comes from the Lord.” (verse 9)

On the heels of Jonah’s confession and his recognition that God alone is his deliverer, the big fish pukes up the prophet, right onto dry land. We are not told just where he was deposited, but he was free, once again, to do God’s work. This man of God learned the hard way that fleeing from God’s will in an effort to avoid difficult tasks always results in even greater difficulties.

2. God’s compassion for unbelievers, 3:1—10

God is a God of second chances, even in the Old Testament. Abraham, Moses, Saul, and David are among the people in the Old Testament who personally experienced a “second chance” to make it right with God. In chapter 3, Jonah’s story reboots with his “second chance” to fulfil his mission to evangelize the great city, Nineveh and save it from certain destruction.

a. The prophet obeys, vs. 1—4

Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time: “Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I will give you.” Jonah obeyed the word of the Lord… (verses 1—3a)

At this point in the story, it seems as though our intrepid prophet has learned his lesson. There is a New Testament parallel in the experience of Peter. His first commission is found in Mark 1:16, 17 and Luke 5:10. After his failure and restoration, Peter was recommissioned as we read in John 21:15—17. How wonderful it is to serve a God that knows us and gives us the opportunity to hear and to respond to His call more than once!

Jonah had been forgiven by God, but he had to take up his cross where he laid it down. He had to go to Nineveh and preach the Word God would give to Him. To keep God’s restored favor and blessing, he, like all of us, had to face up to the same issue we sought to escape. God is compassionate, but He is also firm. Remember what what Samuel cautioned Saul:

To obey is better than sacrifice, to harken than the fat of rams. (1 Samuel 15:22, KJV)

Or, as Father Mapple said in his classic sermon:

And if we obey God, we must disobey ourselves, and it this disobeying ourselves wherein the hardness of obeying God consists. (Herman Melville’s Moby Dick)

b. A surprising response, vs. 5—10

What an amazing site greeted the prophet as he approached Nineveh. The inner city was surrounded by a wall 100 feet thick, wide enough for 3 chariots to drive side-by-side on. The walls had 1,500 towers, 100 feet in height. Huge lions and bulls carved our of stone guarded its 27 gates. Stunning gardens surrounded the public building, which were ornamented with alabaster and beautiful sculptures. Acres and acres of lush gardens were to be found within the city walls so fresh produce was always available. But, at the same time, Assyria’s national economy was in dire straights. The whole Empire, and Nineveh in particular, was in the grips of a devastating depression. And this could explain their readiness to hear, listen to, and respond to the Word of God as they did.

When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he relented and did not bring on them the destruction he had threatened. (verse 10)

God spared the city just as He had spared the sailors. God’s incredible response to sinners in this short book foreshadows Paul’s teaching in 1 Timothy 2:4—

(God) wants all people to be saved and to come a knowledge of the truth.

3. God illustrates His compassion, 4:1—11

a. The prophet’s prejudice, vs 1—3

Now, Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live. (verse 3)

Maybe it was his national pride and his self-esteem that caused Jonah to resent the fact that God responded in compassion and forgiveness to the Ninevehites. He may have felt that if Assyria, the promised destroyer of Israel were destroyed, then Israel itself would be spared. This, of course, would have been faulty reasoning, since it wasn’t really Assyria that destroyed Israel, it was Israel’s own sins.

The petulant prophet blamed God for everything from sparing a godless city to his own disobedience. Amazingly, he defended his own failure by blaming God’s loving-kindness!

Jonah felt humiliated and discredited. Overcome with self-pity, he felt it would be better for him to die rather than face embarrassment back home.

Another prophet, Elijah, also got depressed over the outcome of events of which he was a part. He too wanted to die.

He came to a broom bush, sat down under it and prayed that he might die. “I have had enough, Lord,” he said. “Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.” (1 Kings 19:4)

The difference between Elijah and Jonah was that Jonah was depressed because so many sought God, Elijah was hurt on God’s behalf because so few sought God. We could say that Elijah was jealous for god, but Jonah was jealous of God.

b. God’s compassion on Jonah, vs. 4—6

All at once an angel touched him and said, “Get up and eat.”

God had rescued Jonah from death when he was in blatant rebellion against Him. But now, the Lord reasoned with him. God wanted to know why His prophet was so angry. God was displeased with Jonah’s attitude, yet He did not openly rebuke Him. Like a parent who practices good parenting skills, the Lord worked with Jonah so that he would see for himself how childishly he was behaving, and then hopefully he would change his attitude.

c. A stern lesson, vs. 7—11

This group of verses is interesting:

  • God provided a gourd.

  • God provided worm that ate the gourd.

  • God provided a scorching wind.

What lesson was God trying to get Jonah to learn?

Jonah was thrilled with the plant, but was angry when it went away. Jonah could see no further than his own discomfort. Then God drove the point home. Jonah had been upset over something insignificant—a plant which he neither planted nor tended. Why didn’t he have the same concern over the eternal destiny of the population? Yes, Jonah’s priorities were completely out of whack.

The book of Jonah ends with God asking his prophet a final question, to which there was no answer recorded:

...should I not have concern for the great city, Nineveh, in which there are more than 120,000 people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals? (verse 11)

God was trying to show Jonah that he was blind; his religious exclusiveness blinded him to the needs of ignorant sinners. Almost all believers, from time to time, behave like Jonah. We overvalue the less important things of life, like the gourd. We also, from time to time, even when thinking about spiritual things, do so in their relation to ourselves, or our own “little world.” However, God’s concern reaches out the last person on earth.

The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness.

(c) 2011 WitzEnd

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