The prophet Nahum

Tomorrow is a great day for us in Derbyshire, because it is the memorial day of our own martyrs, and especially our local man, Saint Ralph Sherwin. Father Sherwin was also the proto-martyr (the first martyr) of our English College in Rome (called the Venerable) and the priests of the diocese who are alumni of that college will be celebrating this week. But tomorrow is also the memorial of the Hebrew prophet Nahum, one of twelve lesser prophets, and that’s what this short article is about. Here is Nahum’s entry in the martyrology:

“Commemoration of Saint Nahum the prophet, who preached the eventual reign of God and His judgement of the peoples in justice.”

Roman martyrology, 1st of December

There are twelve minor prophets at the end of the Old Testament, contrasted in the length of their work that we have preserved to the major prophets: Isaias, Jeremias and Ezechiel. The language they use, though, is very similar to that of the major prophets, with whom they were often concurrent, such as Isaias and Osee (Hosea). Nahum the Elcesite is a prophet of the Justice of God perhaps, for he begins with the words of divine vengeance, for God may forgive, but he does not forget, and punishment for the sinner is inevitable, even if delayed. And it’s not here a vengeance directed at the People of God (for the Judaites were in favour with God during the reign of good King Ezechias) but against a foreign nation that had dared to insult the name of Almighty God. This had been done spectacularly by the Assyrian commander Sennacherib (pictured above), as he approached Jerusalem in his pride (see IV Kings, chapter 18). Most of this book is then about the destruction of the Assyrian capital of Nineve, far to the north of Jerusalem and even of Damascus.

“Here is one of thy number devising rebellion against the Lord, folly’s counsellor. But thus the Lord says: ‘Are they in full muster? At least there are over-many of them; they must be shorn of their strength. It will pass; once chastened is chastened enough, and now I mean to shatter that yoke of his that lies on thy back, tear thy chains asunder…'”

Nahum, 1: 11-13

The calamity approaching Nineveh may be seen therefore as retribution and divine justice for the great attack on Juda, when Sennacherib (on his way to challenge Egypt) had besieged and taken Lachis, the greatest Judaite fortress town not far from Jerusalem. He would have taken Jerusalem too, if he hadn’t received bad news from Nineve and rushed back home, only to be slain there by a family member. Shortly afterwards, this power in the north would end and be replaced in its ascendancy by the neo-Babylonian power emerging from Mesopotamia. 

“Alas, for warriors of Nineve gone into exile, for maids of hers led away, that sigh and moan like ring-doves in the bitterness of their heart! Nineve, welcome sight as pools of water to the fugitive; stay, stay! But never a one looks back. Out with silver, out with gold of hers; store is here of costly stuff beyond price or reckoning! Roof to cellar rifled and ransacked! Sore hearts are here, and knees that knock together, loins that go labouring, and pale cheeks. Lair of lion, and nursery of his whelps, what trace is left of thee, once so secure a retreat, his haunt and theirs?

Nahum, 2: 7-11

It does seem that this whole book is a letter to King Sennacherib, and it ends with a round condemnation to him personally, for the destruction he and his predecessors had wrought on so many nations of people.

“Forgotten, the high lords, forgotten, the princelings, as they had been locusts, and brood of locusts, that cling to yonder hedge-row in the chill of morning, and are gone, once the sun is up, who knows whither? Gone to their rest thy marshals, king of Assyria; thy vassals lie silent in the dust; out on the hills the common folk take refuge, with none to muster them. Wound of thine there is no hiding, hurt of thine is grievous; nor any shall hear the tidings of it but shall clap their hands over thee, so long thy tyrannous yoke has rested on so many.” – Nahum, 3: 17-19