It’s been a little while since we checked in with an Old Testament prophet. Rev. Laurie and I have been following, on some Sundays since July, the suggestion of the Old Testament Lectionary that we take a look at the prophets and what their words mean to us today. The Old Testament prophets spoke and wrote from approximately 750 to 500 BC in Israel. Their signature phrase is “Thus says the Lord”—here is a message from God. Occasionally that message was about the future; mostly it was about the present circumstances.
Today the prophetic book we are looking at is the very short book of Nahum—three chapters, about three pages. And the main question he raises is certainly still relevant today, unfortunately: “How do we respond to evil?”
Now every prophet, like every other writer in the world, operates from a historical context, a situation he was writing in. Some prophets wrote in prosperous times for Israel, and some during bad times. Some lived in the Northern kingdom, called “Israel,” and some in the Southern kingdom, called “Judah.” Some wrote when the people around them were being faithful to God, and some not.
Some lived when Israel was a powerful nation, some when it was threatened by another country, some when it had ben conquered and its people carried away and enslaved, and some when they had returned home and started to rebuild. Their context, of course, shows up in what they write.
Nahum’s context was the domination of the Middle East by the powerful and cruel empire of Assyria, which had as its capital the city of Nineveh. Assyria was famous for it ruthlessness, its cruelty. Its kings boasted in their writings of dragging women and children into slavery in Nineveh, and of their pride in the complete devastation of the people they attacked: knocking cities down into rubble, executing thousands, wiping out whole cultures. Assyria, and Nineveh, were widely regarded as symbols of evil power.
And as he writes, what Nahum has been witnessing recently is the fall of this evil power, the collapse of Nineveh. Three enemies combined, in 612 BC, to invade the capital, execute the king, defeat the armies, and break their stronghold on the Middle East, including Israel. Nahum has gotten to witness their defeat.
And so Nahum is rejoicing, even gloating, in his short book:
- “You’re like a pool, whose side was broken down and waters all spilled out.”
- “You thought you were a lion, sitting proudly and safely in your den. Well where’s your den now?”
- “Nineveh is devastated, and no one’s going to mourn.”
- “Your soldiers are like grasshoppers, your people like sheep with no shepherd.”
- “You are worthless.”
We have our own present-day evildoers, do we not, whom we might imagine plugging in to that slot Nineveh filled in Nahum’s time. You can pick one of your own choosing. If we’re thinking locally, perhaps we’d think of someone manufacturing and trying to get young people hooked on drugs. If nationally, maybe those behind shootings and bombings. If worldwide, it could be ISIS, or Boko Haram. Imagine of one of those was totally defeated, totally eliminated; the news has just come in.
We too might be tempted to act like Nahum at such a time, out of relief, out of lingering anger, out of joy that good is triumphing and evil falling. We might wish to taunt them: “You grasshoppers. You empty pool. You’re nothing. You’re worthless.” “Look at our enemy now.”
And yet, in our New Testament readings today, Jesus, the one who completes, fulfills, moves us beyond the understanding of God we drew from the Old Testament, and his disciple Paul tells us: “Love your enemies. Pray for those who persecute you. Bless those who persecute you. Do not be haughty; do not be vengeful. Overcome evil with good.”
Jesus and Paul would have us move beyond our inclination, shared with Nahum, to rejoice at another’s downfall, to gloat, to taunt, to wish them ill and rejoice when they get it. Jesus and Paul bid us wish them, and treat them, well.
So how do we do that? How do we move from Nahum to Jesus? From Nahum to Paul? How do we progress, in our response to evil, to how God wants us to treat those we call “enemy”?
The first thing to notice, I think, is the difference between feeling and acting in these passages. Nahum is expressing feelings; Jesus and Paul are describing behavior. I think God understands our need to express feelings of betrayal and anger and grief—and relief when the evil causing them is failing. Those feelings bubble up within us unbid, and we have to do something with them. Bottling them up inside, not expressing them, is not recommended. So we can say things, especially to ourselves, our family, our close friends, that release our feelings about evil: “I feel so angry, I feel so hurt, I feel like punching something.”
But notice Nahum does not say “I’m going to beat up my enemy. I’m going to curse him in hopes that will bring plagues upon him. I’m going to take action to hurt him.” He doesn’t say “I’m going to beat up or threaten every child on the playground that looks like she might be Assyrian” or “I’m going to vandalize places they might worship” or “I’m going to bomb the whole country, I don’t care.” All the actions Nahum describes are actions God has taken, not lashing out the prophet plans to do.
It’s consistent with Paul’s verse “Vengeance is mine; I will repay,” says the Lord. Nahum is just expressing feelings. When it comes to actions, Jesus and Paul take over, and their action words are: “Love. Pray for. Bless. Live peacefully. Don’t avenge. Overcome evil with good.” We need to distinguish feelings from actions.
Second, Nahum and Jesus and Paul—and the rest of the Bible for that matter—agree that a just response to evil means targeting only the guilty, for our feelings and actions. Even after the years of evil Nahum has seen from Assyria, he doesn’t say “I hate all people from that whole area of the world, that whole race, all their descendants, anyone that looks like them. I’m suspicious of everyone that looks like they might be of that nationality, even if it turns out their family has been good citizens here for three generations.” The whole Bible condemns that kind of behavior. Justice demands targeting only the guilty.
A word on Jesus’ saying “Love your enemies” is necessary here: Love can include administering justice—making sure the guilty aren’t left out there to kill again. Love and just punishment are not mutually exclusive. But only the guilty.
Third, we can motivate ourselves to move from Nahum to Jesus and Paul by remembering what effect hating has on the haters, by a little bit of self-interest. Have you ever known a person who’s been consumed by hate or anger for years, who’s in a perpetual state of hating those they call enemy, not trying to love? They are not happy people, are they—they are not content; they never find satisfaction in their hating, even when the one they call “enemy” is hurting.
When we persist in our hate, we become unhappy bitter people. I don’t think it’s an accident that in many famous fictional stories, the good guys are all attractive, and the bad guys ugly—think “Star Wars,” for example. Hating makes us unhappy, ugly people. We need to try to overcome it, for our own sake.
So if we do have to go to war or do something else very serious, very difficult, to administer justice to an evil-doer, maybe we should try to balance it with acts of kindness at the same time—to the victims, or to people in need. To make us who we want to be. We need that.
Finally, maybe we should need no other motivation to try to move from Nahum to Jesus than that that is what God wants. Jesus and Paul are not speaking opinions in our readings, today, or offering suggestions: “Um, you might want to
try . . .” These are direct, command-like statements to Christian disciples: “Love your enemies. Do not repay evil for evil. Live in harmony.” They are clear expressions of what God wants.
We may start with Nahum as we respond to evil; we may share his feelings, his instincts, his opinions about evildoers, especially right after something bad happens. But in our actions, we are to move beyond Nahum to Jesus and Paul. They describe how we are to behave.
Let’s pray: God, help us, in our ultimate actions, to both be concerned with justice and protecting the vulnerable, and those words from Jesus and Paul: “Love… bless… live in harmony… live peaceably… overcome evil with good.” Amen.