The Scroll of the Twelve, or in the Christian tradition, what are referred to as the “Minor Prophets,” are not intended to be read in isolation of one another, but rather as a unified whole. Literary connections within the text of the different prophetic books (or maybe better titled “chapters”) work to weave this anthology together. It’s critically important to remember that none of these prophets stand alone, so as you read Nahum and Habakkuk, you have all the imagery from the rest of the minor prophets ringing in the back of your mind.
You have Joel’s cosmic imagery of the final Day of the Lord when God defeats all human evil once and for all. You also have the preceding book of Micah, which focuses on Israel’s judgment by Assyria, but also notes Assyria and Judah’s eventual downfall at the hands of the Babylonians. The connections between all of these prophets are numerous, but today, we are looking at the interplay between two key books in the Scroll of the Twelve, Nahum and Habakkuk. We want to explore how God uses these prophetic messages to invite us into a conversation about how God actually uses evil to destroy evil, and what we as humans are to make of such, some might say, extreme methods.
The Oracle of Nahum – God is coming for you, Assyria
Nahum 1:1 reads, “An oracle regarding Nineveh, a writing of the vision of Nahum, the Elkoshite.” This is actually the only obvious clue you as the reader are given that you are reading about the fall of Assyria in the entire first chapter of Nahum, as neither Assyria nor Nineveh is mentioned again.
However, Nahum 1:3 does offer a clue as to the message of his Oracle by using part of the same quotation of Exodus 34:6 that we encountered two times in the book of Joel: “The Lord is slow to anger (Joel 2:13) and great in power, And the Lord will by no means leave the guilty unpunished (Joel 3:21).” In the book of Joel, these lines refer to the time (the day, or time) when God will bring his justice on all nations. The fact that Nahum opens with these very words makes it clear that the same topic is on the table: divine judgment on Nineveh, the capital city of the ancient Assyrian empire. However, this isn’t just about ancient history. Nahum views the doom facing Nineveh as a localized expression of the future judgment of all corrupt nations. Though the book begins with a superscription indicating that its focus is Nineveh, the shaping of the book to fit within the Twelve opens its scope to concern more than one nation (like most of the prophets!).
Nahum then goes on to explore the violent downfall of Assyria, Nineveh, and the destruction and death of its inhabitants. It concludes by saying, “There is no relief for your breakdown, your wound is incurable. All who hear about you will clap their hands over you, for on whom has not your evil passed continually?” (Nah 3:19).
Assyria was dealt the hand it deserved. It built its empire on destruction, murder, and oppression of other people groups, and this is exactly the fate it suffers at the hands of the Babylonians. But, this raises a new question: Is it really fair and just that God would use one evil empire (Babylon) to topple another (Nineveh)? This legitimate question is taken on by the book of Habakkuk.
Wasn't going to end the cycle of violence, not perpetuate it?**
Habakkuk is a unique prophet, in that he does not focus his attention towards Judah, but on Judah, through a poetic dialogue with Yahweh himself. Habakkuk lived in southern Judah preceding the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem and is no stranger to their covenant unfaithfulness, but this is not Habakkuk’s sole focus. Rather than speaking out against Judah, he is questioning God’s methods and timing. He wants to know when and how God is going to judge Judah. God gives him an answer, and he doesn’t like it.
Behold, I am raising up the Chaldeans,
That fierce and impetuous people
Who march throughout the earth
To seize dwelling places which are not theirs.
They are dreaded and feared;
Their justice and authority originate with themselves.
– Habakkuk 1:6-7
Habakkuk thought God was going to end injustice, not raise up another people who build their entire empire on injustice.
Babylon was brought against Assyria and is now being used to come against Judah. This is precisely why Habakkuk has been placed on the heels of Nahum. While Habakkuk embraces the fact God will judge the guilty, the Babylonians are even worse than either Assyria or Judah! The stage has been set for Habakkuk to lodge his primary complaint with Yahweh (one we might all be able to sympathize with).
Your eyes are too pure to approve evil,
And You cannot look on wickedness with favor.
Why do You look with favor
On those who deal treacherously?
Why are You silent when the wicked swallow up
Those more righteous than they?
– Habakkuk 1:13
We told you Habakkuk would demand an answer, and that’s exactly what he does. At the beginning of chapter 2, Habakkuk describes himself as a vigilant guard at his post on the watchtower awaiting God’s response. God does respond and tells Habakkuk to write down a vision about an appointed time in which God will bring judgment against Babylon. But, not just Babylon. Like Nahum, Joel, and the other prophets, Habakkuk uses cosmic language that goes beyond just Babylon, or even one nation, but confronts the nefarious practices shared amongst all evil nations. Even the hopeful conclusion in which Habakkuk ends in chapter 3 uses specific language reminiscent of Pharaoh and the Exodus (as well as imagery from Micah 1, Nahum 1, and Exodus 19:20).
For Habakkuk, Babylon is an archetype, almost a symbol, of evil nations. Their violence in God’s world raises the question of whether God will hold them to account. We learned from the earlier prophets that the answer is yes, but instead of raining divine justice from heaven, he uses other nations as instruments for his purposes. Remember Isaiah 10:5, “Woe to Assyria, the rod of My anger—the staff in their hands is My wrath.” We know from Assyria’s fate that God does not approve of these nations’ actions, and he will judge them accordingly, even if he does, somehow, use them.
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Today, we have the unfortunate advantage of seeing several more centuries of this cycle continuing. We know, like the Hebrew prophets, that God used Assyria to judge Israel, Babylon to judge Assyria (and Judah), and later, Persia to judge Babylon. We also know from later history that the Macedonians brought down Persia, and in turn, Rome over the Macedonians. If you search more recent history, you’ll see the same process at work in our global political context as the prophets did.
We have another advantage as well. We know that the messianic King from the line of David (that all the prophets were pointing too) has indeed come, in Jesus of Nazareth. We know he defeated the power of evil and death that held sway over humanity. He did this by allowing humanity’s evil to defeat him so he could bring about the death of all death in his resurrection. The risen Jesus brought the cycle of violence to an end by bringing his non-violent kingdom and overcoming our violence by his self-giving love. Despite the fact so much evil still pervades the world today, we have to hold onto the same hope as Hebrew prophets, that God is at work bringing about his redemptive plans. We have the great privilege of knowing the name of the world’s gracious judge: Jesus, the Messiah who reigns as King, and who will return one day to finish the work he started on the cross.