Come Follow Me: Nahum; Habakkuk; Zephaniah “His ways are everlasting”

Who?

My first thought when I learned that I was assigned to teach Nahum, Habakkuk and Zephaniah was “Who?”

So let’s start with the answer to that question.

All three of these minor prophets were from the Southern kingdom of Judah and lived in the century of 600-700 BC, after the destruction of the Northern kingdom of Israel by Assyria in 721 BC and before the capture of the Southern kingdom of Judah by Babylon in 597 BC and the destruction of Jerusalem, the capital city of Judah, by Babylon in 586 BC.

The Book of Daniel takes place in Babylon after the people of Judah have been captured, so the events of that book transpired  after the books of Nahum, Habakkuk and Zephaniah chronologically, although the book of Daniel is positioned before these books in the Bible. We discussed the Book of Daniel here: Come Follow Me: Daniel 1-6 “There Is No Other God That Can Deliver”.

This timeline from the Old Testament Seminary Student Manual of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) provides a broad overview of this time period in Israelite history. We’ll be covering lots of dates in this lesson, all of which took place in BC. Keep in mind that the BC timeline is numbered backward from high to low, so higher numbered years are earlier in history and lower numbered years are later in history. (This always throws me off.)

Timeline from Old Testament Seminary Student Manual Lesson 155: Nahum; Habakkuk; Zephaniah; Haggai, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

None of these books make for very cheerful reading, since all prophesy the destruction of a sinful city. Nahum predicts the fall of Ninevah, Assyria while Habakkuk and Zephaniah foretell the fall of their own homeland, Jerusalem, Judah. The aggressor who would destroy both of these cities would be Babylon, which wasn’t known for its righteousness either. 

Judah was included among the nations called out for sinfulness by the prophets, but it was also a comparatively weak nation victimized by the colonialism and warmongering of nations with stronger militaries such as Assyria, Egypt and Babylon. As we read these chapters, we are confronted with the grief, despair and anger of an oppressed people. History is most often written by the victors and many of us are descended from the inhabitants of aggressive and colonial nations who passed down their stories as tales of heroism; reading Nahum, Habakkuk and Zephaniah gives us a rare opportunity to interpret oppression through the eyes of the oppressed.

Sins that make God say, “Woe”

What makes a city (or a nation or a community) sinful? God gave Habakkuk a list of five specific sins, all beginning with the phrase, “Woe to him” or “Woe unto him.” Invite the class to silently scan Habakkuk 2:6-20 and identify the five sins marked by the word, “Woe.” (I have marked them in bold below.)

Shall not all these take up a parable against him, and a taunting proverb against him, and say, Woe to him that increaseth that which is not his! how long? and to him that ladeth himself with thick clay!

Shall they not rise up suddenly that shall bite thee, and awake that shall vex thee, and thou shalt be for abooties unto them?

Because thou hast aspoiled many nations, all the remnant of the people shall spoil thee; because of men’s blood, and for the violence of the land, of the city, and of all that dwell therein.

¶ Woe to him that acoveteth an evil covetousness to his house, that he may set his nest on high, that he may be delivered from the power of evil!

10 Thou hast aconsulted shame to thy house by cutting off many people, and hast sinned against thy soul.

11 For the stone shall cry out of the wall, and athe beam out of the timber shall answer it.

12 ¶ Woe to him that buildeth a town with ablood, and stablisheth a city by iniquity!

13 Behold, is it not of the Lord of hosts that the people shall labour in the very fire, and the people shall weary themselves for very avanity?

14 For the aearth shall be filled with the bknowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.

15 ¶ Woe unto him that giveth his neighbour drink, that puttest thy bottle to him, and makest him adrunken also, that thou mayest look on their nakedness!

16 Thou art filled awith shame for glory: drink thou also, and let thy foreskin be uncovered: the cup of the Lord’s right hand shall be turned unto thee, and shameful spewing shall be on thy glory.

17 For the violence of Lebanon shall cover thee, and the spoil of beasts, which made them afraid, because of men’s blood, and for the violence of the land, of the city, and of all that dwell therein.

18 ¶ What profiteth the graven aimage that the maker thereof hath graven it; the molten image, and a teacher of lies, that the maker of his work trusteth therein, to make dumb idols?

19 Woe unto him that saith to the wood, Awake; to the dumb stone, Arise, it shall teach! Behold, it is laid over with gold and silver, and there is no breath at all in the midst of it.

20 But the Lord is in his holy temple: let all the earth keep asilence before him.

Habakkuk 2:6-20

  • In brief, modern language, list each of these five sins. (Each class will come up with a unique list, but as an example, my list included colonialism, greed, warmongering, sexual assault, and idolatry.)
  • How do these sins manifest in modern nations and communities?
  • Why are these sins so offensive to God?
  • What makes these sins dangerous to nations and communities?

Nahum predicts the Fall of Ninevah, Assyria

Nahum prophesied the destruction of Ninevah, the capital city of Assyria. When I think of Ninevah, I think of Jonah, who went on a mission to Ninevah, got swallowed by a whale en route, survived the ordeal, and (like Nahum) prophesied the destruction of Ninevah. That story of Jonah had a happy ending. The people of Ninevah repented and everyone was fine. No destruction necessary (Jonah 1-3). 

Nahum’s prophecy was written at least 85 years after the time period described in the story of Jonah, so Nahum was talking about the descendants of Jonah’s Ninevah converts, not the same people Jonah met. The events that transpired in the decades following Jonah’s mission had not endeared the Assyrian people to Nahum and other Israelites.

  • Sometime between 790-749 BC: Jonah preaches in Ninevah, Assyria and the people repent.
  • 721 BC: Assyria destroys the Northern kingdom of Israel.
  • 701 BC: Assyria attacks the Southern kingdom of Judah.
  • 663 BC: Assyria destroys Thebes, Egypt. (Although Egypt was not an Israelite nation, Nahum took note. See Nahum 3:8-10.)
  • Sometime between 663 BC and 612 BC: Nahum predicts the destruction of Ninevah, Assyria.
  • 612 BC: Babylon destroys Ninevah, Assyria.

(See Introduction to the Book of Jonah, Old Testament Seminary Teacher Manual, LDS; Introduction to the Book of Nahum, Old Testament Seminary Teacher Manual, LDS; Julie Galambush, Nahum, Women’s Bible Commentary by Carol A. Newsom, Sharon H. Ringe and Jacqueline E. Lapsley.)

The Book of Nahum calls out the nation of Assyria for its violence against weaker nations, but at the same time, seems to promote violence as a solution to violence. Dr. Julie Galambush reminds us to consider that Nahum is speaking from a place of trauma.

It is all too easy to take a cynical approach to the author of Nahum, who from a distance of more than two thousand years seems so grossly oblivious to the violence he condones. But the book was written not only from the perspective of the oppressed, but in a time when intentional changes in the social system had rarely if ever been seen. The author thus hopes only to see the oppressor crushed; that would be miracle enough. …Nahum bears the marks of trauma.
—Julie Galambush, Nahum, Women’s Bible Commentary by Carol A. Newsom, Sharon H. Ringe and Jacqueline E. Lapsley

  • How might trauma affect our perspective?
  • How can we combat oppression in our modern world with “intentional changes in social system”?

Nahum describes God as a god of contradictions, both horrible and wonderful at once.

2 God is jealous, and the Lord revengeth; the Lord revengeth, and is furious; the Lord will take vengeance on his adversaries, and he reserveth wrath for his enemies.

3 The Lord is slow to anger, and great in power, and will not at all acquit the wicked: the Lord hath his way in the whirlwind and in the storm, and the clouds are the dust of his feet.

Nahum 1:2-3

  • Why does Nahum view God as both “furious” and “slow to anger”?
  • Do any of these descriptions resonate with your view of God?

6 Who can stand before his indignation? and who can abide in the fierceness of his anger? his fury is poured out like fire, and the rocks are thrown down by him.

7 The Lord is good, a strong hold in the day of trouble; and he knoweth them that trust in him.

Nahum 1:6-7

  • How is the Lord like “a strong hold”?
  • Why does Nahum view God as both “fierce” and “good”?
  • Do any of these descriptions resonate with your view of God?

In chapter 3, Nahum describes the brutal, gory deaths of the citizens of Ninevah, Assyria with a kind of glee that is hard to read. In Nahum 3:4-13, Nahum also uses an unfortunate metaphor, comparing Ninevah’s destruction to the rape of a woman. I do not recommend reading these passages in the classroom, as they may be triggering to class members who have been victims of violence and rape.

To read Nahum from a feminist perspective is edifying only in that the book expresses so clearly the patriarchal worldview assumed by Assyrians and Judeans alike, illustrating how easily the description of a woman (whether literal or metaphoric) as a seductive but dangerous whore can be used to justify contempt and even violence against her. In the case of Nahum, the emotional power of the image is such that it not only justifies the abuse of the metaphoric slut; it also masks the tragic realities of warfare. Nahum is really celebrating not the downfall of an exaggerated, cartoon-version evil woman, but the rape and death of thousands of innocents. Nahum is all too effective in setting up a discourse in which the portrayal of woman as a dangerous Other disguises brutality as justice.
—Julie Galambush, Nahum, Women’s Bible Commentary by Carol A. Newsom, Sharon H. Ringe and Jacqueline E. Lapsley

Habakkuk and Zephaniah Predict the Fall of Jerusalem

The destruction of Jerusalem by Nebuzar Adan by William Brassey Hole

In both the books of Habakkuk and Zephaniah, we read prophecies that Jerusalem will be destroyed. Other prophets from the same time period as Habakkuk and Zephaniah also predicted Jerusalem’s demise, including Jeremiah; Huldah, a female prophet we discussed in Come Follow Me: 2 Kings 17–25 “He Trusted in the Lord God of Israel”; and Lehi from the Book of Mormon. Here are some more details about what was happening in Jewish history at that time.

  • 640 BC: Josiah is king of Judah. King Josiah begins a religious revival that we read about in Come Follow Me: 2 Kings 17–25 “He Trusted in the Lord God of Israel”.
  • 609 BC: Jehoahaz (Shallum), son of Josiah, becomes king of Judah after the death of his father in battle with Egypt. He reigns for only three months before…
  • 609 BC: Jehoahaz is captured by Egypt. Jehoiakim (Eliakim), another son of Josiah, is selected by the Egyptian pharoah to be a vassal king of Judah under Eqypt’s control. (A vassal is a puppet ruler who must obey a superior ruler.)
  • 605 BC: Babylon defeats Egypt and Judah in battle. Thousands of citizens of Judah are taken captive to Babylon, including Daniel, whom we discussed in Come Follow Me: Daniel 1-6 “There Is No Other God That Can Deliver”. Jehoiakim is still a vassal king of Judah, but now under Babylon’s control. 
  • 601 BC: Jehoiakim rebels against Babylon, leading to a series of battles between Judah and Babylon.
  • 597 BC: Jehoachin (Jeconiah), son of Jehoiakim, becomes King of Judah after the death of his father. He reigns for only three months before…
  • 597 BC: Babylon conquers the kingdom of Judah, captures King Jehoiachin and installs Zedekiah (Mattaniah), another of King Josiah’s sons, as a vassal king of Judah under Babylon’s rule.
  • 586 BC: Zedekiah rebels against Babylon. Babylon destroys Jerusalem and takes the remaining people of Judah captive. 

(See Introduction to the Book of HabakkukIntroduction to the Book of Zephaniah & Daniel: Prophet of God, Companion of Kings, Old Testament Seminary Teacher Manual, LDS; Timeline: Prophets in the Reigns of Kings of Judah and Israel, Mike Taylor;  King Josiah and His Sons, Floyd Nolen Jones Ministries; When and how was Judah conquered by the Babylonians? & Who was King Jehoiakim in the Bible? & What was the Babylonian captivity/exile? Got Questions: Your Questions, Biblical Answers.)

Habakkuk’s Conversation with God

Habakkuk 1 begins with Habakkuk in prayer. His prayer sounds like a lament, or maybe even a rant. The LDS Seminary Student Manual calls it a “grievance.”

2 O Lord, how long shall I cry, and thou wilt not hear! even cry out unto thee of violence, and thou wilt not save!

3 Why dost thou shew me iniquity, and cause me to behold grievance? for spoiling and violence are before me: and there are that raise up strife and contention.

4 Therefore the law is slacked, and judgment doth never go forth: for the wicked doth compass about the righteous; therefore wrong judgment proceedeth.

Habakkuk 1:2-4

  • Summarize Habakkuk’s concerns.
  • What similar questions do people ask today?

Habakkuk demands of God, “What are you waiting for?” Habakkuk says his piece and God listens. God listens! God does hear his howls. God is right there all the time. God sees what the prophet sees and more. God has given Habakkuk a glimpse of the horror God sees all the time, from which there is no respite for the Divine.

…We are not alone in the horror engulfing the world, the waves of violence, shooting after shooting, massacre after massacre, bombing after bombing. God is active in the midst of the world’s fracture. God is here with us. God is here for us. And according to God in Habakkuk two thousand years and an unknown number of centuries ago, the healing has begun but we can’t see it yet, not even with our prophetic vision. It is beyond us but it is there.

—Wilda Gafney, October 9, 2013, Are You There God? It’s Me & Habakkuk

  • How can we know God is listening when the resolution we seek is not happening yet?

This dialogue signals the prophet’s conviction that the God of Judah is a relational deity, one who can take harsh and heartfelt questioning. Moreover, the complaint is a form of biblical literature that gives voice to those who are vulnerable and victimized; it champions the power of the individual to speak of hurts and injustices.

—Amy C. Merrill Willis, Habakkuk, Women’s Bible Commentary by Carol A. Newsom, Sharon H. Ringe and Jacqueline E. Lapsley

  • Why is it important that people be empowered to speak of hurts and injustices?

When we speak to God with this kind of unreserved boldness, we must be prepared for an equally blunt answer. With only a short trigger warning to soften the blow— “I will work a work in your days, which ye will not believe” (Habakkuk 1:5)—God tells Habakkuk that the people of Judah will be humbled, but the means by which this will occur will be horrific. Babylon (the Chaldeans) “shall march through the breadth of the land [of Jerusalem], to possess the dwelling-places that are not theirs”  (Habakkuk 1:6) and “they shall come all for violence.” (Habakkuk 1:9) 

Habakkuk protests. Why can’t God correct the people of Judah without killing them? (Habakkuk 1:12) Also, the people of Judah may be wicked, but the Babylonians are even more wicked. (Habakkuk 1:13) God just described Babylon as “that bitter and hasty nation” (Habakkuk 1:6) and its inhabitants as ‘terrible and dreadful.” (Habakkuk 1:7). Why wouldn’t God stop their attack?

12 Art thou not from everlasting, O Lord my God, mine Holy One? we shall not die. O Lord, thou hast ordained them for judgment; and, O mighty God, thou hast established them for correction.

13 Thou art of purer eyes than to behold evil, and canst not look on iniquity: wherefore lookest thou upon them that deal treacherously, and holdest thy tongue when the wicked devoureth the man that is more righteous than he?

Habakkuk 1:12-13

At the end of his protest, Habakkuk concludes this way:

1 I will stand upon my watch, and set me upon the tower, and will watch to see what he will say unto me, and what I shall answer when I am reproved.

Habakkuk 2:1

  • What does Habakkuk’s reaction show us about him and his relationship with God?

Habakkuk maintained a high view of God’s character, despite the contradictions to his theology that he experienced. “Your eyes are too pure to look on evil; you cannot tolerate wrong” (1:13). In hard times, Christian leaders must not lose sight of the goodness of God. No matter how difficult things get around us, God remains pure and holy and good—as we must remain.

…Notice the odd mixed metaphor: Habakkuk would “see” what God would “say.” Whether by showing or speaking, God has always communicated his will to the righteous.

—Joseph Castleberry, Leadership in Hard Times: Lessons from Habakkuk’s “I will” Statements, August 19, 2020

  • Why is it important to remember God is good?
  • How should we handle situations that lead us to question God’s goodness? 
  • What are some ways God communicates with us by speaking? By showing?

2 And the Lord answered me, and said, Write the vision, and make it plain upon tables, that he may run that readeth it.
3 For the vision is yet for an appointed time, but at the end it shall speak, and not lie: though it tarry, wait for it; because it will surely come, it will not tarry.
4  Behold, his soul which is lifted up is not upright in him: but the just shall live by his faith.
Habakkuk 2:2-4

  • How do you interpret the apparent contradiction in verse 3: though it tarry (comes slowly)…it will not tarry?

The seeming paradox of verse 3—“If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay”—speaks to the fact that God’s time does not correspond to human perceptions of time. And just as the prophet invoked God’s holiness, God invokes the need for human faithfulness in awaiting the fullness of time (2:4).
—Amy C. Merrill Willis, Habakkuk, Women’s Bible Commentary by Carol A. Newsom, Sharon H. Ringe and Jacqueline E. Lapsley

In response to Habakkuk’s question “What are you waiting for?” God promises that a change is going to come. It will come, no matter how long it takes. It won’t be late, no matter how long it takes. God will heal the world. God will heal Habakkuk’s piece of the world. But God is apparently playing the long game; both traditional Jewish and Christian interpretation see in these words a prophecy of the messiah and understand that Habakkuk will not live to see the change. Those who saw the messiah in their days saw the world begin to turn towards repair and restoration, but maddeningly, that turn is not complete in our days. We, like Habakkuk, may not live to see the complete transformation of the world for which we ache and long, work and pray. Yet we will live, sometimes in full sight of the hurt and the horror. How are we to live in this reeling, sin-drunk broken world? Faithfully.

—Wilda Gafney, October 9, 2013, Are You There God? It’s Me & Habakkuk

  • Why must we trust God’s will and timing? How can we better do that?

After God speaks again, Habakkuk concludes with a song.

17 ¶ Although the fig tree shall not blossom, neither shall fruit be in the vines; the labour of the olive shall fail, and the fields shall yield no meat; the flock shall be cut off from the fold, and there shall be no herd in the stalls:

18 Yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will joy in the God of my salvation.

19 The Lord God is my astrength, and he will make my feet like hinds’ feet, and he will make me to walk upon mine bhigh places. To the chief singer on my stringed instruments.

Habakkuk 3:17-19

  • Why does Habakkuk rejoice and praise God with song after receiving such bad news?
  • How does he find joy amid his violent society?

If we have a good job, can pay the bills, we have friends, are happily married and the children are doing well in school, we may be content, maybe even joyful. However, what if times get difficult? What if life is tough? What if we lose our job and there’s no money to pay the bills? Maybe we don’t have a good circle of friends and our marriage is on rocky ground. The children are failing in school and rebellious. What then? Can we still say as Habakkuk did, “yet I will rejoice in the Lord”?

6 Things We Can Learn From Habakkuk, Insta Encouragements, January 1, 2019

  • How do you find joy amid bad circumstances?

Zephaniah calls the people of Jerusalem to repentance

God tells Zephaniah about the upcoming destruction of Jerusalem in Zephaniah chapter 1. Still holding on to hope that their destruction can be averted if they repent, Zephaniah warns his people:

Gather yourselves together, yea, gather together, O nation not desired;

Before the decree bring forth, before the day pass as the chaff, before the fierce anger of the Lord come upon you, before the day of the Lord’s anger come upon you.

Seek ye the Lord, all ye ameek of the earth, which have wrought his judgment; seek brighteousness, seek meekness: it may be ye shall be hid in the cday of the Lord’s anger.

Zephaniah 2:1-3

  • What does it mean to seek righteousness and meekness?

Dr. Katie M. Heffelfinger sees parallels between Zephaniah’s teachings and those of Huldah, another prophet of his time:

While Zephaniah proclaims God’s coming judgment for the people’s sin and idolatry, Zephaniah’s hope is that the people might humble themselves and escape in the day of divine wrath. This is precisely the message that the prophet Huldah gives Josiah. She proclaims that the king’s deliverance is due to his penitence and humility (2 Kgs. 22:19–20). It is as if Zephaniah takes up the spirit of Huldah’s prophecy and aims to move all of Judah to repent, just as their king had done. The words of the prophet become programmatic for faithful response to reform.

—Katie M. Heffelfinger, Zephaniah, Women’s Bible Commentary by Carol A. Newsom, Sharon H. Ringe and Jacqueline E. Lapsley

Invite the class to silently read about the “filthy and polluted…oppressing city” described in Zephaniah 3:1-5 and look for its characteristics. 

1 Woe to her that is filthy and polluted, to the oppressing city!

2 She obeyed not the voice; she received not correction; she trusted not in the Lord; she drew not near to her God.

3 Her princes within her are roaring lions; her judges are evening wolves; they gnaw not the bones till the morrow.

4 Her prophets are light and treacherous persons: her priests have polluted the sanctuary, they have done violence to the law.

5 The just Lord is in the midst thereof; he will not do iniquity: every morning doth he bring his judgment to light, he faileth not; but the unjust knoweth no shame.

Zephaniah 3:1-5

  • What are the characteristics of a wicked nation?
  • What kinds of attitudes and behaviors is Zephaniah warning against?

In his concluding reversal of fortunes, Zephaniah undermines human systems of domination. He represents the reversal as divine justice. Hierarchical patterns of community and religious life are worthy of critique and correction in light of Zephaniah’s depiction of God’s justice. Especially worthy of elimination are those hierarchies that protect oppressors, the unjust, and the dishonest. Zephaniah celebrates the reversal of fortunes and exults that the Lord has “turned away your enemies” (3:15). The enemies are the prideful and oppressive foreign nations, but certainly from the perspective of the humble, poor, and lowly of the land, the enemies are also their leaders.

—Katie M. Heffelfinger, Zephaniah, Women’s Bible Commentary by Carol A. Newsom, Sharon H. Ringe and Jacqueline E. Lapsley

14 Sing, O daughter of Zion; shout, O Israel; be glad and rejoice with all the heart, O daughter of Jerusalem.

15 The Lord hath taken away thy judgments, he hath cast out thine enemy: the king of Israel, even the Lord, is in the midst of thee: thou shalt not see evil any more.

16 In that day it shall be said to Jerusalem, Fear thou not: and to Zion, Let not thine hands be slack.

17 The Lord thy God in the midst of thee is mighty; he will save, he will rejoice over thee with joy; he will rest in his love, he will joy over thee with singing.

18 I will gather them that are sorrowful for the solemn assembly, who are of thee, to whom the reproach of it was a burden.

19 Behold, at that time I will undo all that afflict thee: and I will save her that halteth, and gather her that was driven out; and I will get them praise and fame in every land where they have been put to shame.

20 At that time will I bring you again, even in the time that I gather you: for I will make you a name and a praise among all people of the earth, when I turn back your captivity before your eyes, saith the Lord.

Zephaniah 3:14-20

  • How can we work to eliminate hierarchies that protect oppressors, the unjust, and the dishonest?

 

April Young-Bennett

April Young Bennett is the author of the Ask a Suffragist book series and host of the Religious Feminism Podcast. Learn more about April at aprilyoungb.com.

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1 Response

  1. lws329 says:

    Thank you for sharing this analysis and questions with so many of the actual scriptures. I wouldn’t have read these beautiful prayers without you posting here.

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