Wrath gets a bad rap in the age in which we live. This may be particularly true of divine wrath.
On the one hand, some portray divine wrath as Yahweh’s petty, reactionary jealousy to the smallest of offences. He is always fuming and ready, at a moment’s notice, to fly off the handle at the most insignificant of indiscretions.
On the other hand, some have virtually erased the notion of wrath altogether. For them, Yahweh is a kindly grandfather, smiling understandably at sin and telling us that it really doesn’t matter. They struggle to see how wrath can be reconciled with love. They smile approvingly at the story of Jonah but scratch their heads in bewilderment at the prophecy of Nahum.
Nahum lived perhaps a hundred years after Jonah. He delivered a word of prophecy to the same city (1:1), but with barely a hint of hope for the wicked Assyrians. Chapter 1 sets the scene for the prophecy as it highlights Yahweh’s determined anger at the evil deeds of the Ninevites.
But this chapter—particularly, perhaps, its opening verses—help us to understand the real nature of divine wrath. These verses draw our attention to at least three characteristics of divine wrath.
First, God’s wrath is reasonable. Nahum tells us that Yahweh is a “jealous” and “avenging” God (v. 2). This may initially sound anything but reasonable, but consider the implication of these words. For Yahweh to be “jealous,” there must be an actual, concrete offence to stimulate jealousy. Yahweh reveals himself to be a jealous God in Exodus 34:14, where the context is his powerful deliverance of Israel from Egypt. The warning is simply that, if his people credited their deliverance to anyone or anything else, it would provoke his anger—as it did when they credited their deliverance to the golden calf.
The citizens of Nineveh had within a generation or two forgotten the mighty deliverance granted to their forefathers and had thereby neglected to give Yahweh his due. They were thereby guilty of idolatry. Jealous for his own name and glory, he would respond in anger. He alone is worthy of our praise and when we give praise to anything less than him, he is right to respond with anger. He has made us and redeemed us and we dare not give credit for those acts to anyone or anything else.
Second, God’s wrath is restrained. The word translated “wrathful” in v. 2 literally means “one who has mastered wrath.” His anger never gets the best of him. When he displays wrath, it is perfectly controlled and restrained. This is emphasised by the fact that “the LORD is slow to anger” (v. 3). He is not quick to lose his temper.
The cruel violence of the Assyrians was legendary. The Assyrians have been called “the appalling lords of torture.” They deliberately advertised their brutality as a form of psychological warfare. One Assyrian king boasted, “I let the leaders of the conquered cities be flayed, and clad the city walls with their skins.” One historian summarises, “The brutality of the Assyrians was extreme, even for the ancient standards of cruelty. The Assyrians knew the brutality was a very effective tool of psychological warfare. Their opponents thought twice before they started a war with them.”
It is little wonder that Jonah objected to their forgiveness. It is a great wonder, on the other hand, that Yahweh didn’t act more decisively. But his delay is in keeping with his restrained anger.
Third, God’s anger is real. Yahweh is “great in power” (v. 3). His anger may be slow in being exercised but his power was never in question. He would indeed pour out his anger, no matter how delayed, on those who viciously attacked his people and refused his grace. Nineveh would face the consequences of its sin.
In a world in which we may be challenged to compromise our belief in God’s wrath, texts like Nahum 1 remind us that divine wrath is reasonable and restrained but very real. Thank God that his wrath was poured out on Christ so that we might be forgiven.