Court Is In Session
A Dutch astronaut André Kuipers accidentally called 911 … from space. From the International Space Station, to be exact, orbiting some 200 miles above the earth’s surface. He described the experience while speaking on a radio program about his missions and communications between the Earth, satellites, and astronauts orbiting the planet.
He explained that while trying to contact NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, he missed an all-important number and accidentally called the US emergency services. He said that to reach the center in Houston, orbiting astronauts have to dial 9 for an outside line, followed by 011 for an international line. But of course, doing so while floating around in space is trickier than from a desk on Earth. “I made a mistake, and the next day I received an email message: Did you call 911?”
His communication slip-up set off a security alert at the Houston center. The emergency staff began by checking the room where the space station’s line connected to Earth before discovering that the source of the call was from orbit. Kuipers explained that it is surprisingly easy to communicate with Earth while aboard a space station in orbit. He said astronauts can reach terrestrial phones via satellites around 70 percent of the time. “I was a little disappointed that they had not come up,” he joked.
While there are a variety of obvious technical limitations for emergency services to respond to a call more than 200 miles above earth, it’s still nice to know that even in space, 911 is there to help.
The same thing happens all the time here on earth. Our own Grand Traverse 911 Facebook page is constantly reminding people to lock their phones so they don’t accidentally 911 when their phone is in their pocket.
The prophet Nahum in many ways represents God’s answer to the 911 call of his people. Nahum is intended to provide comfort and hope for an oppressed people, AND a warning to their oppressor. In fact, the name Nahum means “comforter.” At the time of his ministry, the mighty Assyrians were the big bully in the world. They had conquered the 10 northern tribes of Israel in 722 BC and had transplanted the people of Israel throughout the empire where they would intermarry with others, basically snuffing them out as a unique people. And they had invaded the 2 southern tribes, the nation of Judah, several times. They destroyed her cities, burned farmland, and besieged Jerusalem more than once. They had carried off kings, desecrated the temple in Jerusalem, and stolen treasures. The remaining people of God, the people of Judah, or Jews, were incredibly vulnerable.
But the Assyrians were far more than a conquering empire. They were a brutal people. Stories of the atrocities they carried out were legendary. One of their emperors, Ashurnasirpal II, wrote these words of his conquering accomplishments:
“I built a pillar over against his city-gate, and I flayed all the chief men who had revolted, and I covered the pillar with their skins; (to flay someone is to remove their skin from their bodies. Obviously it is incredibly painful, as it begins when the person is still alive) some I walled up within the pillar, and some upon the pillar on stakes I impaled, and others I fixed to stakes round about the pillar; many within the border of my own land I flayed, and I spread their skins upon the walls; and I cut off the limbs of the high officers, of the high royal officers who had rebelled. … Many captives from among them I burned with fire, and many I captured alive. From some I cut off their hands and their fingers, and from others I cut off their noses and their ears … and the eyes of many men I put out. I made one heap of the living, and another of the heads, and I bound their heads to vines round about the city. Their young men and maidens I burned in the fire.”
The Assyrians were a brutal, oppressive people. And their capital city was Ninevah. Ninevah. That’s a familiar name, isn’t it? That’s the name of the city to which Jonah was sent to warn the people of God’s impending judgment. And he refused to go, went the other way, because he knew the people would repent, and that God would relent. And he didn’t want God to relent. He wanted vengeance. Of course the people did repent, for a time, and God did relent in his judgment on Ninevah, for a time. Jonah was in Ninevah about 100 years before the prophecy of Nahum. As is so often the case, their repentance, their turning to or returning to God, was shallow. It didn’t last. Maybe one generation in the city stayed faithful. But 100 years later … they were back to being the same old Ninevah. Brutal. Harsh. Oppressive.
And God had had enough. They had gone too far. His own people, the people of Israel and Judah, had also gone too far, rejected him for too long, and needed to be disciplined, and so God used the Assyrians as an instrument of justice, ultimately punishing Israel for their own brutal treatment and oppression of the poor and the outcast. They got a taste of their own medicine. But Assyria had themselves taken things too far, and God was done. Now God’s judgment was turned toward the great oppressor, Assyria, and her capital city, Ninevah. Turn with me to the Old Testament book of Nahum 1.
Jealous. That isn’t a word we often think of when we think about God. It isn’t something we think we see in Jesus, who as God incarnate is God with skin on – God’s ultimate revelation of himself to us. And that is because human jealousy pretty much always contains envy. The desire for something or someone who belongs to someone else. In fact, we often use jealousy and envy as synonyms for one another. But they aren’t. Envy is wanting something that rightfully belongs to someone else. Jealousy is wanting something that rightfully belongs to you that is being taken by another. So I am envious if I want a relationship with my neighbor’s wife. And envy is wrong. In this case, likely caused by lust and may lead to adultery. Three of the Ten Commandments deal with envy in some way: do not covet, do not steal, and do not commit adultery.
On the other hand, if my wife’s attention and love and attraction are being focused somewhere else, I have a right to be jealous, don’t I. Those things are supposed to belong to me and to me alone, and they are being given to another. I would worry about someone who didn’t get jealous if his or her spouse were giving undue attention to another. Three of the Ten Commandments also deal with jealousy – God’s jealousy: have no other gods before me, make no graven image, and do not take the name of the Lord your God in vain. God’s jealousy is his zealous pursuit of that which is rightfully his – our worship and a relationship with us. And when we place that somewhere else, he becomes jealous. He is zealous that his honor be maintained, because he knows that the cosmos cannot exist without him. When we reject him, chaos ensues.
He is the one true God, the one REAL God, and only whole-hearted worship will do. And the first symptom that something has displaced God at the center of the human heart is our treatment of other people. If you read through the prophets, you’ll see that the major concern God has is the people have placed some thing or someone else at the center, and you’ll also see that the top symptom of that is the misuse, abuse, and taking advantage of the poor and the vulnerable. If you want to get an idea of someone’s spiritual health, look at how they treat the vulnerable in their lives. If you want to get an idea of the health of a church, look at how they treat the vulnerable around them. If you want to get an idea of the health of a nation, look at how they treat the vulnerable in their midst.
In his book, The Root of Riches, Chuck Bentley writes:
There’s a name for God that we seldom ever use. I know I don’t use it very often. That name is Jealous. Sounds strange, doesn’t it? When we call someone jealous, it’s usually to point out a character flaw. How can something we consider bad be attributed to God, especially one of his names? … God has the title of Jealous because he’s the only one worthy of all our affection and adoration. No brag, just fact. The complete worthiness of ultimate praise grants him and him alone the right to be the Jealous One. He’s God Almighty. He’s at the top of all Kings, all Lords, all gods, and all things. So jealousy is normative, if you’re God.[i]
God is also a mighty God. He is the one who causes seas and rivers to dry up, who causes mountains to shake and tremble. His power is seen in the wind and the storm, and they obey him. The seas that obey his command often represent chaos. His might surpasses that of any nation, people, or being on earth and it surpasses the combined might of all put together. The image of the clouds being the dust of his feet, under his feet, is an image of complete domination, like a fighter resting his foot on top of a fallen, vanquished foe. And we aren’t talking about nice puffy white clouds here. We’re talking about storm clouds, clouds filled to overflowing with lightening and rain. The prophet asks the question “Who can stand before his indignation? Who can endure the heat of his anger?” (V. 6) and no answer is given. This is a rhetorical question. There is only one right answer and everyone knows what it is – no one. He causes nations to rise, to become mighty, and then to fall, and there is no one who can change that.
So God is jealous and mighty, be God is also patient. Look at V. 3. When God appeared before Moses this is how he identified himself, “The LORD passed before him and proclaimed, “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Ex. 34:6). The same line is echoed over and over again in the Psalms. “For you, O Lord, are good and forgiving, abounding in steadfast love to all who call upon you” (Ps. 86:5). In the New Testament, St. Paul, in Romans 2:4, says “Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?” God is patient because he wants the oppressor, he wants the evildoer, he wants the vile ones to repent and find life and relationship in him just as badly as he wants that with you.
BUT while there is no limit to the depth and breadth of God’s patience, it will not last forever. God WILL act. God WILL move to restore those who are oppressed. When God sent Jonah to Ninevah, it was to plead with her to repent, and she did, for a time. And God relented. But she returned to her old ways and had now passed a point of no return. There was now no going back. But God isn’t doing this via sneak attack. There were certainly some faithful ones living in Ninevah, and so not only is Nahum intended to comfort Judah, these words are also a warning to the faithful in Ninevah to be ready, for God’s judgment was coming, and this time, there would be no relenting. The Assyrians would fall, Ninevah would be destroyed. And she was. For 250 years Assyria had dominated the landscape, had struck fear into the hearts of the peoples around her, had oppressed and abused the people of God and her own citizens. The time had come. Using Babylon, God would bring Assyria to her knees.
God will act to bring vengeance and justice to the oppressed, to the vulnerable. The people of God, the body of Christ, always, always has a bent toward the vulnerable. We are always to err on the side of generosity, kindness, self-sacrifice, and compassion. God’s vengeance is God’s justice in action, and God does act. God is in motion here. He is moving. He is no longer waiting. His strides cause the mountains to shake, clouds to rise a puffs of dust under his feet. To the oppressor, to the mighty, to the powerful, God says “Be warned. Your power and might will not go unchecked. I raised you up. I can and will tear you down.” And to the oppressed, the vulnerable, God says “I am here. I see you. And I will act to bring your oppressors to justice even as I raise you up.”
William Wilberforce was a force to be reckoned with in British history. One hundred years before the United States made slavery and the slave trade illegal, he dedicated his political to destroying both in England. It was the calling, as a gifted politician who followed Christ, that God had placed on his life, and he paid for it with his health, his body bearing the toll of decades of stress and threats. And he said this, “In the Scripture, no national crime is condemned so frequently and few so strongly as oppression and cruelty, and the not using our best endeavors to deliver our fellow-creatures from them.”[ii]
Now, look at V. 15. What is this “good news?” There seems to be a lot of wrath and judgment and vengeance here. The good news is that God IS a God of justice. That GOD will bring vengeance. That sin WILL be punished. In Romans 12 Paul says, “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” Interpersonally, we are to love our neighbors. Kill ‘em with kindness, recognizing that God often brings his justice, his judgment, his vengeance through the governments of this world, even evil, ungodly governments, as he did with both Assyria and then Babylon. But God will act to raise up the oppressed. Sin WILL be punished. He is patient, giving every one of us, good and evil in this world’s eyes alike, the opportunity to have our sins, our transgressions, crucified in Christ on the cross, our darkness and punishment heaped on him. That is grace. But if it isn’t punished there, we WILL bear the punishment ourselves. That is justice.
In Fleming Rutledge’s book, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ, she acknowledges the difficulty that modern people have with the concept of God’s wrath. Nevertheless, she writes, “there can be no turning away from this prominent biblical theme.” But forget the Bible for a moment: don’t we have wrath, too? She writes:
A slogan of our times is “Where’s the outrage?” It has been applied to everything from Big Pharma’s market manipulation to CEOs’ astronomical wealth to police officers’ stonewalling. “Where the outrage?” inquire many commentators, wondering why congressmen, officials, and ordinary voters seem so indifferent. Why has the gap between rich and poor become so huge? Why are so many mentally ill people slipping through the cracks? Why does gun violence continue to be a hallmark of American culture? Why are there so many innocent people on death row? Why are our prisons filled with such a preponderance of black and Hispanic men? Where’s the outrage? The public is outraged all over cyberspace about all kinds of things that annoy us personally – the NIMBY (not in my back yard) syndrome – but outrages in the heart of God go unnoticed and unaddressed.
If we are resistant to the idea of the wrath of God, we might pause to reflect the next time we are outraged about something – about our property values being threatened, or our children’s educational opportunities being limited, or our tax breaks being eliminated. All of us are capable of anger about something. God’s anger, however, is pure. It does not have the maintenance of privilege as its object, but goes out on behalf of those who have no privileges. the wrath of God is not an emotion that flares up from time to time, as though God had temper tantrums; it is a way of describing his absolute enmity against all wrong and his come to set matters right.[iii]
[i] Source: Chuck Bentley, The Root of Riches (FORIAM Publishers, 2011), Pages 68-69
[ii] William Wilberforce, Christian History, no. 53.
[iii] Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ (Eerdmans, 2015), 130Oppres