Even Christians who are firmly convinced of the authority and inspiration of the Scriptures tend to minimize, or explain away, descriptions of the wrath, vengeance, and overall warrior-like nature of God, such as we see in the book of Nahum. While it may not be the best strategy to use such passages when first approaching people to persuade them of the love and goodness and gentleness of God, there comes a point when we cannot avoid the question of how God’s wrath and vengeance are related to His love.
The modern Western world has confused any moral distinctions and standards to the point that there is no room for a warrior-God who judges and will rain down wrath upon those who reject His statutes. However, at some point our perspective must mature and begin to acknowledge that the Bible we hold so firmly to, does in fact portray God as a warrior – a moral force to be reckoned with – and serious consequences ensue for those who attempt to live without regard for His plan and standards for human life. While this image of God as a warrior certainly does not illustrate every aspect of His nature, it is one metaphor among many which describe the nature of God that we simply cannot ignore.
The theme of God as a warrior can be found throughout the entire Old Testament. He is referred to as a warrior next to His very name, in how he acts as a soldier, how he saves among the people, and because of His mighty strength. Exodus 15:3 clearly states that God is a warrior, saying, “Yahweh is a warrior; Yahweh is His name.” Who and what God is defines Him as a warrior in the Old Testament. Isaiah compares Him to a literal warrior of the time saying, “Yahweh advances like a warrior; he stirs up his zeal like a soldier” (Isa. 42:13). Zephaniah 3:17 states, “Yahweh your God is among you, a warrior who saves,” showing God the warrior as one who rescues. Psalm 24:8 asks, “Who is this King of glory? Yahweh, strong and mighty, Yahweh, mighty in battle.” This again refers to the victorious warrior-God as described throughout the Old Testament.
One of the most prevalent places to find reference to the picture of God as a warrior is in the Psalms. As Tremper Longman puts it: “In the Book of Psalms there are three types of Divine Warrior hymns: those sung before a battle, calling on God’s aid (Ps. 7); those sung during a battle, focusing on the Lord’s protection (Ps. 92); and those celebrating the victory God has won for his people (Ps. 98).” While the Psalms themselves display little interest in providing information as to when exactly the events spoken of took place, it is obvious that the theme of God as a warrior is prevalent and significant. Among the Psalms in which the Divine Warrior theme can be found are Psalms: 18, 20, 24, 29, 35, 46, 47, 66, 68, 76, 93, 96, 97, 98, 114, 118, 124, 125, and 136.
In the passages above, God is either explicitly called a warrior, or He is directly compared to a warrior. But God is not only called a warrior, He also literally acts as a warrior. In Exodus 14:13-14, Israel is told to watch as God wins the victory for them – “Yahweh will fight for you, while you keep silent.” Then, later the Egyptians cry, “Let’s flee from Israel, for the Lord fights for them against Egypt!” (14:25). This cry is mentioned again in Deuteronomy 1:30, “Yahweh your God is about to go ahead of you; He will fight for you, just as you saw Him do in Egypt,” and in Deuteronomy 3:22, “Do not be afraid of them, for the Lord your God will personally fight for you.”
The credit for the defeat of numerous kings in the book of Joshua is given to God, not only as aiding the Israelites in the victory, but as actually being the One who gains the victory – “The Lord routed them before Israel” (10:10); “Joshua captured in one campaign all these kings and their lands, for Yahweh, God of Israel, fought for Israel” (10:42). In Joshua 23:10 it is said that if God fights with one man, that one man is able to go up against any 1000 other men.
Other places that present God as an acting warrior include Isaiah 30:31-32, which promises the destruction of Assyria by the hand of God; 2 Chronicles 20:29, which tells of the peace and rest that Jehoshaphat gained from the fear other nations had of God exercising this warrior aspect of His character; and Zechariah 14:3 tells of a time in the future when “the Lord will go to battle and fight against those nations, just as he fought battles in ancient days.”
While the warriorhood of Yahweh is meant to primarily be a source of comfort (Zephaniah 3:15), God is not always fighting for Israel; there are also times when God’s wrath is turned toward Israel. Jeremiah 21:5-6 threatens, “In anger, in fury, and in wrath I myself will fight against you with my mighty power and great strength! I will kill everything living in Jerusalem, people and animals alike! They will die from terrible diseases,” and Isaiah 63:10 says, “But they rebelled and grieved His Holy Spirit; therefore He turned to be their enemy, and Himself fought against them.”
So, when we come to the book of Nahum, this rather violent, wrathful language is not new. We know from the rest of the Old Testament that God is in fact a warrior, so it really should be no surprise to read another oracle of God’s vengeance on the wicked. The oracle starts immediately with portraying God as a jealous, avenging, fierce God. Nahum 1:3 affirms the often-used phrase, “Yahweh is slow to anger,” but then finishes, “but great in power,” signifying that He is able to and will rise up in fury and punish the wicked when He must. Nahum delivers an oracle of destruction concerning Nineveh, the capital city of Assyria, and portrays the Lord as a wrathful warrior who will destroy His enemies and judge the wickedness of Nineveh.
For over a century, the Assyrians seemed to have had an unchecked, cruel reign, but now God was responding as a mighty and righteous warrior. Nahum presents Yahweh as the sovereign warrior who takes righteous vengeance on His enemies, yet in His goodness saves those who take refuge in Him. The book begins with a terrifying portrayal of the angry, avenging warrior who comes in the storm, and the whole earth quivers at His might (1:2-6). Twice in the book (2:13; 3:5) God calls himself “Lord of Hosts,” that is, “Lord of armies,” identifying Himself as a warrior king, and announces that He will defeat Nineveh.
Nahum draws a picture of Yahweh as a God who is jealous for His chosen people (as in Exod. 20:5; 34:14; Deut. 4:24; 5:9), and so desires to protect them from all cruelty and wickedness. He is also an avenging God who takes vengeance on all who violate His standards of righteousness, though not with human vindictiveness. He is full of wrath toward those who oppose Him and disregard His grace, those who set themselves up as His enemies (Deut. 32:35, 41).
The repetition of “avenging”, “vengeance”, and “wrathful” in the introduction to Nahum creates a strong impression of an angry God. This intense anger was actually a result of God’s righteousness, and this simply adds to the picture of God as a warrior. The rest of the oracle explains that it was the behavior of the Ninevites that had aroused His anger, and that He would surely execute judgment upon them.
Nahum continues the picture of God as a warrior that we find throughout the Old Testament, and there are even striking similarities between Nahum and other references to the warrior-God motif, as Dr. Longman points out.
“Nahum 1:2-8 bears a remarkable similarity to the [victory hymn] type of Psalm, the original function of which was to sing the praises of Israel’s Warrior God in the aftermath of a victory. What is significant, then, is the placement of Nahum’s Divine Warrior hymn. The victory is celebrated before the battle is actually waged. The victory of God against Nineveh is certain. So much so, that the prophet could utter the victory shout years before the battle.”
Nahum certainly portrays God as a vengeful warrior who is sure to gain His victory; the oracle makes an interesting side note however. At first read, Nahum 1:7 seems like a non sequitur. A God who instills such fear and whose terrible anger threatens the very earth and all that are in it, is now affirmed as “good”? This certainly doesn’t seem right, does it? But in actuality, it is this very ability and willingness of a warrior to act in decisive ways to bring about justice that is the very hallmark of goodness. The insertion of verse seven amidst the statements of God’s awesome fury evidences that God’s goodness in no way conflicts with His warriorhood. This statement of the Lord’s goodness comes directly before and is contrasted with the oracle of the destruction of Nineveh. This not only is a reminder that God, while a warrior, truly is a good and loving God, but also serves to heighten the sincerity of His judgment on Nineveh, since He is indeed such a caring and merciful God. Nahum then continues on to describe the destruction of Nineveh because of their wickedness and unwillingness to repent.
Nahum summarized the message of his book in his opening statement about the awesome power of God in wrath and judgment. God is good, but His goodness includes both His love for those who place their trust in Him, as well as His justice for those who set themselves against Him. Nineveh, as the capital of the cruel and violent Assyrian Empire, was ripe for judgment. Justice demanded that the Lord aright the situation. That is what Nahum meant when he declared that the Lord “takes vengeance and is fierce in wrath” (1:2). Nahum assures us that none who do evil can expect to escape divine justice at the hand of God, the mighty warrior. The desire for justice is innate to human nature, so it is encouraging to know that in the end evil will be defeated. However, Nahum also serves as a warning to us to be sure that we are among those who seek refuge in God and not among those who fight against Him.
The picture of God as a warrior is certainly prevalent in the Old Testament, and one of the clearest illustrations of this aspect of His nature can be found in the book of Nahum. God’s judgment of Nineveh is ultimately an expression of His zealous devotion to His people. Even though God had used the Assyrians to discipline Judah, He announced through Nahum that the Assyrian oppression was about to end (1:13, 15). In delivering Judah from the Assyrian yoke, God not only proves Himself a faithful warrior, but He once again demonstrates His goodness to His people and shows that He does indeed take notice of those who are loyal to Him and trust Him for protection (1:7).