A Jealous, Violent and Good God

Eli T. Evans

“God is love.” So say T-shirts and coffee cups, quoting 1 John 4:8. The verse is consistently near the top of “most quoted verses” lists, and it’s easy to imagine why. Verses from the book of Nahum, on the other hand, show up near the bottom.

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Nahum could be low on the list for a number of reasons. It’s a short book—the Minor Prophets are minor, after all. Also, it is a single prophetic oracle against the city of Nineveh that was fulfilled centuries before Christ. But the real issue with Nahum is that it paints a portrait of God that offends modern sensibilities. The book begins and ends with God’s wrath, and throughout the chapters He is angry, jealous, vengeful and brutally violent. For those who want to portray the God of the Old Testament as cruel, Nahum has some good lines. It starts right out with, “The Lord is a jealous and avenging God; the Lord is avenging and wrathful” (Nah 1:2). God claims direct responsibility for Nineveh’s bloody fall (Nah 2:13), even declaring that He will treat Nineveh like the “whore” she is by stripping her naked and throwing “filth” at her (Nah 3:5–6). You won’t see that on a coffee cup any time soon.

Nevertheless, Nahum calls all of this “good news” (Nah 1:15). More to the point, it’s the good news.

First of all, Nahum isn’t alone in calling God “jealous.” This description is right in the first commandment (Exod 20:5). Exodus 34:14 even says that His name is “Jealous.” For you or me, jealousy would be a character flaw, but for God, it is an attribute: He is jealous over His relationship with His people. And Nahum isn’t the only one who says “vengeance” belongs to God (Deut 32:35, 41–43). The psalmist sings along: “O God of vengeance, shine forth!” (Psa 94:1). For us, revenge is a sin, but for a perfect God whose insight penetrates every heart, it is a pure expression of justice (see Rom 12:17–19).

Nahum’s God is the same “Father of Lights” we meet in the New Testament. “For God so loved the world” may be the most familiar passage in the Bible, but keep reading: “[W]hoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him” (John 3:16, 36). Jesus also says that we should “fear [God] who can destroy both the soul and body in hell” (Matt 25:31–46). Paul explains that “the wrath of God” is coming for everyone because “all have sinned” (Rom 1:18; 3:23).

According to Nahum, the only escape from God’s wrath is to trust in His goodness—a thread that runs throughout the Old Testament. “The Lord is slow to anger and great in power,” declares Nahum 1:3; nevertheless, He “will by no means clear the guilty” (compare Exod 34:6–7; Pss 86:15; 103:8; 145:8; Joel 2:13; Jonah 4:2). Faith is the only difference between those who receive God’s mercy and those who don’t: “The Lord is good, a stronghold in the day of trouble; he knows those who take refuge in him” (Nah 1:7). This is the same means of salvation articulated throughout the New Testament (e.g., John 10:14, 27; 1 Cor 8:3; 2 Tim 2:19).

As Nahum puts it, “Behold, upon the mountains, the feet of him who brings good news, who publishes peace!” (1:15; compare Isa 52:7). Unfortunately, “peace” cannot come unless those who “plot against the Lord” are utterly destroyed (1:9). Similarly, the “good news” of the New Testament is good not only because of the salvation of those who believe in Jesus, but also because of—not in spite of—the total destruction of everyone else. In Revelation, the “smoke of their torment goes up forever,” and the response in heaven is jubilant (Rev 14:11, 18:9, 21:1–8; compare 2 Thess 1:5–10).

Nahum says, “Never again shall the worthless pass through [Israel]” (Nah 1:15). This is a genuine pronouncement of hope for Israel at the time—the same hope that John expresses for eternity in Revelation: “[N]othing unclean will ever enter [the New Jerusalem], nor anyone who does what is detestable or false” (Rev 21:27).

Will It Preach?

Modern sensibilities may rankle at the idea that violence is ever the solution; yet a heaven filled with violent and wicked people wouldn’t be heaven at all. It would just be this cursed earth all over again. Nahum knows that violence begets violence, and only God can break the cycle. God, for His part, takes no pleasure in this (Ezek 18:23; 33:11; 1 Tim 2:4; 2 Pet 3:9), and neither should we. God’s just prerogative to destroy wickedness doesn’t sanction human-to-human violence—that’s exactly why Nineveh is being judged.

Justice is God’s, and that’s good because He is the only one who can bring it fairly. And it’s also good that justice is coming because, at some point, the pain must stop, and the violence we do to one another must end.

Biblical references are from the English Standard Version (ESV).

Article courtesy of Bible Study Magazine published by Faithlife Corporation. Originally published in print, Vol. 6 No. 1