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    Aug 03, 2014

    Class 20: Nahum, Habakkuk & Zephaniah

    Series: Old Testament Overview

    Category: Core Seminars, Salvation, Fear & Anxiety, Sovereignty of God, The Wrath of God, Faith, Predestination and Election, The End Times / Return of Christ, Indwelling Sin




    Good morning, and welcome to the Old Testament overview class!  This morning, we’ll look at three books that address the problem of evil in this world: Nahum, Habakkuk, and Zephaniah.  Hmm.  You say.  The problem of evil.  In the minor prophets?  I always thought about the minor prophets as basically being about judgment.  Well . . . you’re right.  And in addition I think you’ll be surprised at some of the treasures we uncover this morning.  The problem of evil—why bad things happen to good people—is at the heart of the human condition.  If God is good and God is sovereign over everything, why do bad things happen?  What purposes could God possibly have in all of this?  The book of Job is probably the Bible’s best-known discourse on this topic; the middle chapters of Romans also come to mind.  But here at the end of the Old Testament we see this theme again.


    So let’s stop here for a moment and get some biblical context.  What is the Bible’s answer to the problem of evil?  I know that’s not the typical question you’re greeted with at 9:30 in the morning.  But that’s no reason not to begin this class by thinking hard.  What is the Bible’s answer to the problem of evil?


    To summarize how these prophets answer that question:

    • Nahum assures us that God will judge.  Personally, powerfully, devastatingly.  Now, of course, that provides the textbook answer that we’re looking for.  The problem of evil is ultimately resolved in God’s judgment.  But personally, if you’re a sinner like me, it is monstrously unsettling.
    • And so we move to Habakkuk.  A dialog between the prophet and God about why God seems unwilling to judge evildoers.  And when Habakkuk finds out the answer (that God will soon judge through an even more wicked people than his own), Habakkuk’s horror in what seems to be even greater evil.  The answer of Habakkuk?  Trust. “The righteous shall live by his faith[1].”  As we saw in the book of Job, God doesn’t explain his actions to our satisfaction.  But he’s revealed enough about his character and his purposes that we can trust him.  So if Nahum proclaims that God is judge, Habakkuk is a call to trust.  There’s no explanation of the problem of evil in the Bible, but a strong call to faith.
    • And yet in God’s mercy this is not the end of the story.  Because then we come to Zephaniah.  Which begins severely with a prophetic destruction of the entire world.  And yet ends with a glorious description of God’s final answer to the problem of evil.  Because, after all, the real problem of evil isn’t why bad things happen to good people—but why good things happen to bad people.  Because we are all evil.  So with Habakkuk calling to present-day trust, Zephaniah points ahead to future change and redemption.  God himself makes his evil people good and brings them home to dwell with him forever.


    So that’s a quick overview of what we’ll see.  Nahum: God will judge.  Habakkuk: we have the evidence we need to trust his mysterious purposes.  Zephaniah: and we have the hope that one day the problem of evil itself will be undone as God turns his people to himself.


    So with that as context, let’s dive into our first book, Nahum.






    Nahum prophesied in the in the late 7th century BC, after the Northern Kingdom was conquered by Assyria but before the Southern Kingdom was taken into exile 100 years later.  So it’s a time of real fear, as the Assyrians continue to threaten the South.  Judah’s problems with Assyria go a long way back.  Assyria has long repressed them, and had a reputation for brutality.[2]  It’s been at least 125 years since they repented in response to Jonah’s preaching.  But since then they’ve returned to violence, and are knocking on Judah’s door.  All the while, there are rumors of another great foreign power growing further off to the east, Babylon.  Based on events described in chapter 3, we can date this book after the fall of Thebes in Egypt but before the fall of Assyria.  That likely puts it at the height of Assyria’s power.


    The burning theological question in the people’s minds, of course, is what I laid out a few minute ago.  Where is God in all this?  Didn’t he promise to take care of his people?  Yet their cousins up North have been completely destroyed and their fate looks no better.  Who’s really in charge?




    We can summarize Nahum’s prophecy like this:


    Yahweh is still jealous for His people, and ferociously protective of them, therefore they need not fear, for Yahweh is stronger than their enemies, and will strip them of their strength. 


    Nahum is as close to a book about hell on earth as you can imagine.  As you read through it, you’ll see what I mean.  This is about God righteously, enthusiastically, demonstrably destroying his enemies, who have abused his cherished people.


    We’ll take this book in three parts.  God’s intent to protect his people, 1:2-11.  God’s threatening judgment against their enemies, 1:12-2:12.  And that judgment enacted.  2:13 through the end of the book.  It’ll be helpful for you to follow along in your Bible as I guide us through these passages.


    Yahweh will protect his people


    Look at chapter 1, verses 1 through 5.  As I read these verses listen for the way Nahum reinforces his message by drawing on imagery from the Exodus.  At that time, the greatest display of God’s protection for his people ever.[3]


    1An oracle concerning Nineveh. The book of the vision of Nahum of Elkosh.

    2The Lord is a jealous and avenging God;
        the Lord is avenging and wrathful;
    the Lord takes vengeance on his adversaries
        and keeps wrath for his enemies.
    3The Lord is slow to anger and great in power,
        and the Lord will by no means clear the guilty.
    His way is in whirlwind and storm,
        and the clouds are the dust of his feet.
    4He rebukes the sea and makes it dry;
        he dries up all the rivers;
    Bashan and Carmel wither;
        the bloom of Lebanon withers.
    5The mountains quake before him;
        the hills melt;
    the earth heaves before him,
        the world and all who dwell in it.


    Nineveh is the capital of Assyria.  So this prophecy is about Judah’s dreaded enemy.  Did you hear the language from the Exodus?  Verse 2: God is jealous for His people.  Verse 3: He is slow to anger, yet full of justice.  That’s how Moses described Him on Mount Sinai (Exodus 20:5; 34:14).  Verses 4 and 5 Yahweh rides on the clouds, dries up seas and rivers, and causes mountains to quake.  Exactly what he did when He rescued His people from Egypt, brought them to Sinai, and then gave them the conquest of the Land (Exodus 19:16-18; Psalm 106:9; Joshua 3:13-15).  Yahweh will again save, just like He did back then! 


    But Nahum’s doing more than just recalling Exodus.  He’s also taking a jab at the Assyrian gods.  You see, the Assyrians believed in the gods of nature.  Here Yahweh is sovereign over all of nature.  The point here is that Assyria only appears to be mighty and strong.  But it is actually Yahweh who is, in the language of verse 3, “great in power.” 


    The point of all this is in verse 7.


    The Lord is good,
        a stronghold in the day of trouble;
    he knows those who take refuge in him.

    So, verse 8, he will destroy Nineveh.

    God’s threatened judgment


    Moving on, God threatens judgment on Assyria in verses 9-15 of chapter one[4].  And rather than beginning with judgment and ending with grace like most other prophets, God’s promises of grace—like in 1:15—pop up periodically in a larger matrix of judgment for God’s enemies.


    Well then, what can we take away here?  God is jealous and protective of His people, whether it’s Judah then, or the Church now.  He seethes with rage against those who harm his people.  Whatever trouble, persecution, or distress the people of God may undergo in this world, we know that the Lord never leaves nor forsakes us.  And one day he will vindicate us completely. 


    Jesus Himself gave us these words of consolation in Matthew 10:28-31, “do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father.  But even the hairs of your head are all numbered.  Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows.”  The Church may seem to be burdened by immorality, false teachers, and all kinds of strange doctrines.  But she will not be lost.  The Lord, great in power, will preserve her until she is ready to meet her returning King.


    A vision of Nineveh’s demise


    And that takes us to the last two chapters of the book.  What will this judgment look like?  Horrific to watch.  Chapter 2 opens with a picture of judgment.  Then it turns in verse 11 to mock Nineveh as the so-called lion.  See those chilling words in verse 13 that are repeated again in chapter 3: “Behold, I am against you, declares the Lord of hosts.”  That is hell.


    Chapter 3 begins with a vision of Nineveh being sacked, then turns in verse 4 to another taunt, of Nineveh as sorceress-whore.  Verse 8 taunts Nineveh again, saying that just as Thebes fell suddenly from the height of power so will Assyria.  And the book ends with a funeral dirge in verses 18-19.


    This judgment is final.  And why the taunting, mocking language?  Because God delights to judge his enemies.  Judgment is not some unfortunate logical necessity of his being a just God.  One he only pursues with regret.  He hates sin, and he hates those who do sin.


    So interesting to think of what this must have felt like at the time.  A no-name prophet, coming from the hill-billy tribes of Judah, delivering a book of judgment to the most powerful nation on earth.  Did Nahum deliver this in-person?  It’s interesting that of all the prophets, this is described as a “book” in 1:1—a document to be delivered.  Did he deliver this to the nation of Assyria?  Did he pay with his very life for these words of God?  This side of heaven we’ll never know.


    But the city did fall.  In 612 BC the Medes, Babylonians, and Scythians, laid siege to the city amidst a fantastic storm.  The protective river and moat around the city flooded up against the walls until great chunks of them fell away, just as Nahum had predicted in 2:6.  The invaders walked in and stripped the city so bare that is even its location was forgotten for more than 2,000 years.  Just as Nahum said would happen in 2:10.


    A fair warning for us.  Do you feel secure?  Do you have life wrapped around your finger?  Things change quickly.  So take warning from this lost city of Nineveh.  Use this book as a fearful reminder to put no trust in the world around you, but only in the God who reigns eternally.


    Before we leave, look at the last sentence of the book.  A question.  Can you remember which other prophet ends in a question?  Jonah.  The prophet of God’s mercy to Nineveh.  Certainly that connection is no accident.  Nineveh, once the object of God’s mercy, became the object of God’s wrath.  And so we see our first answer to the problem of evil.  God will judge evil.  Personally, powerfully, completely.


    And with that, let’s turn to Habakkuk.








    Habakkuk prophecies shortly after Nahum, in the late 7th century BC: still between the fall of the two kingdoms.  The difference is that by now Assyria is no longer a threat.  Rather his focus is on Judah’s internal problems.  The people are violent and lawless, and Habakkuk is calling out for justice. 




    The ensuing dialog between Habakkuk and the Lord brings us our theme for the book:


    Yahweh is sovereign over even the actions of the wicked.  For even in their wickedness they serve Yahweh’s purpose.  However, Yahweh is not indicted for evil Himself, for they will be judged for their own wickedness in due time.  Thus, the people of Yahweh should patiently wait and trust in their God, and worship Him.


    I know, it’s a long theme for such a short book, but Habakkuk really is packed with that much!  Even when wickedness abounds, things are not outside of Yahweh’s control, and everything is happening for his purposes.  So when Yahweh’s people are surrounded by calamity and injustice, they should trust in God and worship Him.  Because they know that He sees all things and in holiness controls all of space and time. 


    To understand this book, we’ll basically just walk through the conversation Habakkuk has with God.  You’ll see it captured in the outline on the back of your handout.


    How long?


    Look at chapter 1, verses 2-3.


    O Lord, how long shall I cry for help,
        and you will not hear?
    Or cry to you “Violence!”
        and you will not save?
    Why do you make me see iniquity,
        and why do you idly look at wrong?
    Destruction and violence are before me;
        strife and contention arise.


    This is the prophet’s opening charge.  A call for justice.  And so God answers in verse 5.  And here is what he says:


    Until God judges through a wicked nation


    “Look among the nations, and see;
        wonder and be astounded.
    For I am doing a work in your days
        that you would not believe if told.
    For behold, I am raising up the Chaldeans,
        that bitter and hasty nation,
    who march through the breadth of the earth,
        to seize dwellings not their own.


    In Nahum, God comforts his people with his strength to protect them.  This time, that same strength is against God’s people, and he is still in control. 


    Doesn’t Yahweh Love Righteousness?


    Not exactly the answer Habakkuk was expecting!  So we read Habakkuk’s response through the rest of chapter 1.  To summarize: end of verse 13: “why do you idly look at traitors and remain silent when the wicked swallows up the man more righteous than he?”  Sure, God’s people have their issues.  But they’re nothing like the Babylonians!  How can Yahweh be both good and sovereign over a universe where evil clearly exists?  And how on earth can he use the wicked like this!? 


    Be Patient and Trust!


    God’s answer comes in chapter 2.  A few highlights:


    1. God will judge these Babylonians.  He will judge for their destruction of creation, their destruction of human life, their cruelty, and their idolatry.  That’s the thrust of these verses.  Notice the words “wine is a traitor” in verse 5.  Perhaps a reference to Belshazzar’s drunken feast that last, fateful night of the Babylonian empire?
    2. A second thing to notice, that interesting phrase in verse 4.  God recognizes the Babylonians as “puffed up” yet says that the righteous . . . they will live by faith.  Paul references this verse in Romans 1 and Galatians 3—as does the author of Hebrews (10:38) to argue that justification has always been by faith alone.
    3. Third, verse 14.  “For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.”
    4. And finally, fourth, verse 20.  “But the Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him.”


    Now, how do we piece this all together?  If we had time, I could take you through the whole passage and I think it would be fairly self evident.  But lacking that, let me summarize.


    Lest we think God is no longer just given his treatment of his people, we can be assured: he will in fact judge the Babylonians.  He knows what they are like.  But beyond that, he has greater purposes in mind: that the knowledge of his glory might fill the earth as the waters cover the sea.  While the people’s labor is only fuel for the fire (verse 13), God is about something much, much bigger.  His ways are indeed higher than our own.


    So . . . bad things are happening.  Yet we know that ultimate justice is coming and that God is using all of this for good purposes.  What do we do in the meantime?  We trust.  “The righteous shall live by his faith.”  And we recognize that while he is God, we are not.  Our place is not to accuse him of wrongdoing but in trust to be silent before him.  “The Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him.”  That is the end of the matter.


    In times of calamity, God’s people are called to trust. Now, the people of Habakkuk’s day had reason to trust.  After all, they’d seen how God used slavery in Egypt and the Exodus to proclaim his might for the good of his people.  And we have so much more reason to trust!  God has used the greatest evil in history, the murder of his perfect son, for our redemption.  His ways may by mysterious.  But for those whose faith has been credited as righteousness, we know that in all things he works both for his glory and our good.




    Habakkuk 3


    Then the final chapter is Habakkuk’s faith-filled response of praise to Yahweh for His wisdom and salvation, and trust in His sovereignty.  Let’s read his conclusion in 3:16-19.


    16I hear, and my body trembles;
        my lips quiver at the sound;
    rottenness enters into my bones;
        my legs tremble beneath me.
    Yet I will quietly wait for the day of trouble
        to come upon people who invade us.

    17Though the fig tree should not blossom,
        nor fruit be on the vines,
    the produce of the olive fail
        and the fields yield no food,
    the flock be cut off from the fold
        and there be no herd in the stalls,
    18yet I will rejoice in the Lord;
        I will take joy in the God of my salvation.
    19God, the Lord, is my strength;
        he makes my feet like the deer's;
        he makes me tread on my high places.

    To the choirmaster: with stringed instruments.


    What a powerful confession of trust in God despite worldly circumstances! 


    Habakkuk understands God’s message.  He will wait patiently for justice, in the midst of great suffering.  Beyond that, though his circumstances be bleak, he can rejoice in God.  Joy amidst suffering!  How is this possible?  Because God is his strength.  Because he has come to find God so trustworthy that when God says his good purposes are worth suffering invasion and decimation . . . Habakkuk can be content.  He can wait, and in that trust, find joy.


    But that waiting, even in joy, is always looking ahead, to God’s final answer.  And that’s what brings us to Zephaniah.








    Zephaniah prophecies only a few years before Habakkuk.  Though they’re both prophesying the same thing (the fall of Judah to Babylon) they approach it in different ways.  Habakkuk is vexed about how God can use a wicked nation for His purposes.  Zephaniah is a lot less complex, simply saying that God’s patience has run out with Judah, that their judgment is coming.  But then pointing much more fully to God’s final mercy.


    Let me say one more thing about the historical context before we get into Zephaniah.  It was a common phrase in ancient near-eastern documents to speak of “the day” of some great king.  That “day” (the “day” of Sennacherib, or the “day” of Nebuchadnezzar) was the day that some truly great king, with great power, could destroy an entire enemy army, from start to finish, in a single day!  Usually wars lasted for years.  But to glorify themselves in their writings they would describe how they made waste of their enemies on the “day” of so and so.  It’s a metaphor for a king’s great power and his totality of conquest. 




    So with that we can understand a bit more about “the Day of Yahweh,” which I’ve been calling so far in this class, “the Day of the Lord.”  And we can understand Zephaniah as well.  Here’s how I’ll summarize this book:


    The Day of the Lord will be the most terrible “day” ever, and it is executed against all false gods.  But even in that calamity, God will create a remnant for himself.


    Like in the book of Joel, the Day of the Lord is a major theme.  Like we see elsewhere in the prophets, it comes first on the people of God and then the rest of the nations.  It’s a day both of wrath and salvation.  The first chapter focuses on the Day of the LORD on Judah; the next section through 3:7 is the Day of the Lord on the nations.  And then 3:8-20 focuses on the salvation of the remnant.  We’ll skip quickly through the first two sections to camp out more on the third.


    The book starts out abruptly, with the destruction of all life.  Verse 2:


    “I will utterly sweep away everything
        from the face of the earth,” declares the Lord.
    “I will sweep away man and beast;
        I will sweep away the birds of the heavens
        and the fish of the sea,
    and the rubble with the wicked.
        I will cut off mankind
        from the face of the earth,” declares the Lord.


    Sounds like the flood of Genesis, doesn’t it?  Judgment on the whole earth once again.


    So he turns first to Judah.  In the words of 1:12, these people are lost in complacency.  “The Lord will not do good, nor will he do ill.” they say.  Well—as it turns out, he is about to do a lot.  And from their perspective, it’s all bad news.


    But, chapter two verse three, some hope.  “Seek righteousness; seek humility;  perhaps you may be hidden   on the day of the anger of the Lord.


    Chapter 2 then turns its attention to the rest of the nations.  For God’s enemies, there is no call to repentance or offer of mercy.


    Zephaniah 3:8-20


    But it’s not only a day of wrath.  It’s also a day of salvation for the remnant.  Having come through such horrific judgment, how should the remnant view God’s care for them?  Look at 3:8:


    “Therefore wait for me,” declares the Lord,
        “for the day when I rise up to seize the prey.
    For my decision is to gather nations,
        to assemble kingdoms,
    to pour out upon them my indignation,
        all my burning anger;
    for in the fire of my jealousy
        all the earth shall be consumed.


    Just like in Habakkuk.  Be patient; God will judge your enemies.  But Zephaniah goes further.  Look ahead to verse 9:


    Not only will God vindicate his people (verse 8), he will change his people (verse 9).


    “For at that time I will change the speech of the peoples
        to a pure speech,
    that all of them may call upon the name of the Lord
        and serve him with one accord.


    Note that this is happening to all peoples, not just Israel.


    He will gather his people from all nations (verse 10), and he will exult in his people even as they praise him.  There’s that famous section in 3:17: “He will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love; he will exult over you with loud singing.”  There is no more punishment left for God’s people (verse 15).  No more enemies.  No more fear.  And God’s people, verse 20, will be at home.  “At that time I will bring you in, at the time when I gather you together; for I will make you renowned and praised among all the peoples of the earth.”




    Friends, despite any troubles we have faced in this life, our greatest problem has already been solved.  God has reconciled us to Himself in Christ!  If we can really get our minds around that, then of course we will not fear the world as Nahum instructs us.  We will not love the world as Habakkuk instructs us.  We will glory in our God like Zephaniah instructs us. We will have confidence in God’s justice.  We will wait patiently for him. And we will put our hope in this glorious promise of complete restoration for all of God’s people.




    That’s it for these three.  Next week, we’ll return to the Major prophets as we continue through the Old Testament in redemptive-historical order.


    [Take Questions]




    [1] Habakkuk 2:4

    [2] In fact, it was the Assyrians who invented the most brutal form of execution that humans have ever thought up: crucifixion. 

    [3] Cf. for example Exodus 19:18; 20:5-7; 34:6f; Deuteronomy 32:35, 41.

    [4] Removed: “Incidentally, there’s some significant suspense here that doesn’t quite come through in our English Bibles.  Take a look at verse 12.  Do you see those little brackets around the words “O Judah”?  Again around the words “Nineveh” in verse 14.  That means those words aren’t actually there in the original text.  They are implied and have been added in our translation for the sake of clarity.  But in this promise of protection for God’s people and threatening of judgment for God’s enemies, God’s people aren’t explicitly identified until chapter 1, verse 15.  And Nineveh isn’t identified as the enemy in view until chapter 2, verse 8—almost halfway through the book.  It seems that the focus of the early sections of the book is God and his character, regardless of who the individual actors might be.”