Where the world comes to study the Bible

The Book of Nahum

Related Media

This study also includes a teaching outline at the end.


The author of this remarkably literary book is probably Nahum. The text says in 1:1: “The book of the vision of Nahum.”1 The Hebrew name Nahum means “compassion,” or “comfort” and is interesting in light of God’s promises throughout the book of comfort and deliverance for his people.

Very little is known about Nahum, but from his writing we gain a sense of his keen intellectual and literary abilities, his command of certain OT themes and literatures, and perhaps most importantly his love and humility before a gracious, holy and vengeful God.

The term “Elkoshite” probably indicates that Nahum was from a town called Elkosh, though nothing for certain is known about it. This fact, however, has done very little to stop speculation as to where it was. Four competing theories have emerged. First, some scholars have argued, on the basis of the etymology of “Capernaum,” that that was the city from which Nahum came (Caper-naum). Thus the city was named after its most celebrated citizen. Second, eastern medieval tradition has identified a site opposite the ruins of Ninevah on the Tigris River—for both the birthplace and tomb of Nahum—though the evidence for this position is quite weak. Third, Jerome (ca. 347-419) suggested that Elkosh was El Kauze and to be identified with Elkesi in Galilee. Finally, there are still others who argue for a town in Judah called Elcesei—a town half way between Jerusalem and Gaza. This final interpretation has some merit for it seems that although the book of Nahum is directed against the Assyrians, it was written for Jews in the south, in Judah. Again, if this is correct, then Nahum lived in the vicinity of Micah of Moresheth. In the end, however, we cannot say with certainty where Elkosh was. Further archaeological studies may confirm its location, but for now the information is too slight to be dogmatic.2

Date and Background

The limits for the date of the book can be set with a high degree of certainty. The terminus a quo must be the fall of Thebes mentioned in 3:8. This occurred in 663 BC. Thus, the book of Nahum, since he describes this event as a historical reality (and Thebes was not rebuilt until a century later), must have been written after this date. But the prophecy of Nahum (particularly chs. 2-3), if one allows for God-given knowledge of the future, concerns the complete fall of Ninevah to the combined forces of the Medes, Babylonians, and Scythians in 612 BC. Thus 612 represents the terminus ad quem for the prophecy. The question arises, however, as to whether we can be more specific within this 50 year time frame. Some argue that the picture of Ninevah in the book is one of stability so it is likely the prophecies come early in this period, rather than later. That is, the closer Ninevah got to 612, the more she began to fall apart. Others, however, point to the imminent nature of Nahum’s judgment language and suggest that a later date is likely, i.e., a period closer to 612 B.C.

Text and Canonicity

The Hebrew text of Nahum is fairly clear and relatively free of major problems. There has been no little debate, however, over the nature of the supposed acrostic poem in the first chapter. Some have resorted to conjectural emendations in an attempt to reconstruct a possible acrostic, but these flow against the textual tradition and appear more ingenious than accurate.3 On the other hand, as Cathcart indicates, “the Dead Sea Scrolls and the materials from Wadi Murabba’at and the fragments of Greek text of the Minor Prophets from Nahal Hever indicate that the consonantal text of the Hebrew Bible has been handed down with amazing accuracy for almost 2000 years.”4 NOTE: The Hebrew verse numbering and English versions do not always line up: 2:1-14 in Hebrew is the same as 1:15-2:13 in the English versions.

The book of Nahum appears seventh in the list of “The Twelve” in every form of the Bible. It’s canonicity has never been seriously questioned.5 Some scholars have debated the authenticity of 1:2-10, regarding it as a later redaction, but again there is no textual tradition to support its omission and the theory of a later redactor rests in large measure on highly dubious attempts to make the poetry into a full and consistent acrostic. Further, many scholars now accept it as authentic.

Literary Structure, Unity, and Style

The book of Nahum is in many ways a literary masterpiece. Commenting on Nahum’s literary abilities, J. M. P. Smith says,

Though the rhythm and metre of Nahum are not so smooth and regular as is the case with some Heb. prophets, yet in some respects the poetry of Nahum is unsurpassed in the OT. His excellence is not in sublimity of thought, depth of feeling, purity of motive, or insight into truth and life. It is rather in his descriptive powers. He has an unexcelled capacity to bring a situation vividly before the mind’s eye…. Accurate and detailed observation assists in giving his pictures verisimilitude. Lowth rightly said, “Ex omnibus minoribus prophetis nemo videtur aequare sublimitatem, ardorem et audaces spiritus Nahumi…6

The structure of the book has been well argued by Patterson and Longman.7 The book is divided into two main sections, namely, chapter 1 and chapters 2-3. The first verse (1:1) is an introduction to the book. After that, at the beginning of each of these major sections, there is a thematic statement concerning judgment and deliverance (1:2; 2:1-2). These twin themes are then developed in each section (1:3-15; 2:2-3:19). The first chapter is primarily a poem (1:2-10) focusing on God’s good and just nature and his certain judgment of those who plot against him (1:11-15). The second and third chapters bring the truths about God highlighted in the first chapter to bear on the situation in Ninevah, predicting both her utter destruction at the hands of a jealous and vengeful God and the restitution of God’s people. Throughout the second major section Nahum masterfully uses metaphors, images of all kinds and taunts8 to paint a vivid picture of events coming upon Ninevah.

Thus the unity of the book is effected through the development of these twin themes throughout. Patterson also makes several other observations about how the unity of the material is affected. The following chart lays out some of the evidence.

Literary Technique

Terms Involved

Citation of Texts





2:1; 3:18-19



1:11, 15

    Individual lines



Stitch Words


    entire units

“Lord/divine wrath”

1:2 with 1:3-10

    entire units


1:3-10 with 1:11-15

    entire units


1:11-15 with 2:1-2

    entire units


2:1-2 with 2:3-10

    entire units


2:3-10 with 2:11-13

    entire units

“chariots” and “I am against you”

2:11-13 with 3:1-7

    entire units

“death” and “destruction”

3:1-7 with 3:8-19




“not (again)/no (one)”

1:15; 2:9, 13; 3:3, 19



1:15; 2:13; 3:5, 13



“fire that consumes”

1:6, 10; 2:3, 13; 3:13, 15

Rhetorical Question


“Who can stand?” etc.

1:6; 2:11; 3:8, 19

There are also several other clear examples of literary artistry and style in the form of metaphor, simile, synecdoche, woe, satire, dirge, various parallel structures, partial acrostic, alliteration, assonance, and vivid prose. All these factors contribute to the conclusion that the work is a unity and that at no place do we need to appeal to a later redactor(s).

Relation to Isaiah

In the book of Nahum there are allegedly numerous verbal, stylistic, and conceptual parallels to Isaiah 51-52 and indeed the entire book of Isaiah. One of the most striking examples of verbal parallel, recognized by all scholars, is Nahum 1:15 and Isaiah 52:7. The texts read: “upon the mountains the feet of him who brings news of peace.” Nahum contains the wording verbatim while the expression is without parallel in the rest of the Old Testament. This fact, combined with many other alleged parallels, has led Armerding to argue for literary dependence.9 Now this creates no problem whatsoever for inspiration. Many biblical authors used sources, some of which were not canonical (e.g., Luke 1:1-4; Jude 9). But it is difficult to say for certain that a great deal of the parallels cited are not also common to other OT materials and the thought world of these ancient writers. Thus, it is difficult to be certain about extensive literary dependence of Nahum on Isaiah.

Exegesis of Nahum at Qumran

The Qumran community, while producing many pesher-like commentaries on Biblical books, also commented on Nahum’s prophecy (4QpNah).10 We may assume that Nahum’s attractiveness to the community was due in part to its harsh, complete, and irreversible judgments upon the enemies of God and its certain deliverance for the faithful, those who trust in YHWH. In any case, the community applied the text of Nahum to the circumstances current in their own experience, that is, the struggles between Demetrius III and the ‘Seekers after Smooth Things’ (i.e., probably the Pharisees) on one side, and Alexander Janneus and the Sadducees on the other.11

Occasion and Purpose

The Assyrian king Ashurbanipal (668-626 BC) accomplished what neither his father Esarhaddon (681-668 BC) nor his grandfather Sennacherib were able or chose to do; early in his campaigns against Egypt he subjugated Judah and brought the tiny Jewish nation into a state of vassalage. Recall that he had earlier destroyed Thebes (No-Amon) as well (663 BC; Nahum 3:8; ANET 295). Many in Judah rightly understood their plight as the result of the chastening hand of God who had endured Manasseh’s (698/7-640 BC; 2 Kings 21:1-15) wickedness long enough.12 It was into this dark period that God thrust the prophet Nahum with a message for all involved. Thus, the purpose of the book of Nahum is to pronounce certain and irrevocable judgment upon Ninevah, the capital of that wicked and ruthless nation Assyria (cf. Nah 3:1), and to promise deliverance and restoration for the people of God. These two “events” occurred definitively in 612 BC when the Neo-Babylonians, together with the Medes and Scythians (?) destroyed Ninevah. While the Assyrian empire was beginning to show signs of coming apart as early as the death of Ashurbanipal in 626, the definitive blow came later in 612, just as Nahum said it would.

It is true that certain scholars have severely criticized Nahum as a false prophet since “he has no word of condemnation of Israel’s sins and no call for her to repent. He appears to be an avowed nationalist, and has been accused of being a “false prophet” like those who opposed Micah and Jeremiah.”13

Theological Themes

Nahum presents YHWH as the sovereign warrior God who takes just vengeance on his enemies, yet in his goodness saves those who take refuge in him. He is sovereign over all things, people, nations, and history itself. And he is holy and just; he will simply not endure sin forever.

In general this is not a new message in the OT. What makes it difficult at points is the imprecatory nature with which Nahum states his case (see Psalm 35, 59, 69, 109, 139). But it must be remembered that years earlier God had granted repentance to Ninevah at the preaching of Jonah, but they had again slipped into gross sin, vicious cruelty, and bloodshed. They had no regard for people as many of the records of the statements of Ashurbanipal and other kings make clear. Thus Nahum was not so much communicating his own private thoughts about them, but rather the Lord’s. God had had enough of their sin and settled on a course of action entailing utter judgment. It gives God no pleasure to judge, but he delights in salvation. There are, however, people and nations who want nothing to do with him and who must therefore suffer just retribution. People are not autonomous beings; they live, move, and have their being in God and are responsible to him (Rom 14:10; 2 Cor 5:10).

Further, those who argue that Nahum has conveniently overlooked the sin of his own people fail to realize two things. First, the description of God in the first chapter applies to all people. Everyone will be judged impartially and only those who take refuge in YHWH will be delivered. The clear implication is that Judah will also be judged for her sins. Indeed, that is what God had used Assyria for. Second, it is not Nahum’s intention in his prophecy to discuss the sins of Judah. Given chapter one, we may be certain how Nahum feels about the sins of Manasseh, but he has not been called by God to deal with that. Instead, he has been commissioned to preach against Ninevah and this he has done.

Teaching Outline

    IA. Introduction (1:1)

      1B. “oracle against Ninevah” (hw}n+yn] aC*m^)

      2B. “the book of the vision” (/ozj& rp#s@)

      3B. “Elkoshite” (yv!q)l=a#h*)

    IIA. God’s Certain Judgment of Ninevah (1:2-15)

      1B. A Hymn to the Sovereign Warrior God (1:2-10)

        1C. A Thematic Statement: Warning and Promise (1:2)

        2C. Who Can Stand Against God’s Just and Fierce Anger? (1:3-6)

        3C. God’s Justice for His People and for Ninevah (1:7-10)

      3B. The Certainty and Purpose of Ninevah’s Utter Destruction (1:11-15)

    IIIA. The Execution of God’s Judgment on Ninevah (2:1-3:19)

      1B. A Thematic Statement: Warning for Ninevah—Promise for Judah (2:1-2)

      2B. The First Description of Ninevah’s Judgment: Nahum’s “Vision” (2:3-13)

        1C. The Initial Onslaught (2:3-5)

        2C. The City is Pillaged (2:6-10)

        3C. The Lion Taunt (2:11-12)

        4C. The Sovereign Warrior’s Resolve to Utterly Destroy Ninevah (2:13)

      3B. The Second Description of Ninevah’s Judgment (3:1-7)

        1C. The Onslaught (3:1-4)

        2C. The Harlot-Sorceress Taunt (3:4)

        3C. The Sovereign Warrior’s Resolve to Utterly Destroy Ninevah (3:5-7)

      4B. The Result of Ninevah’s Judgment (3:8-19)

        1C. She Is Like Thebes (3:8-13)

        2C. She Is Finally and Irrevocably Destroyed (3:14-19)

1 It is true that someone else could have written down Nahum’s vision, but it seems likely, if the content is Nahum’s, that he is also the author of the literary work. This is further confirmed when one considers the literary details and intended impact of the text (e.g., the partial acrostic in chapter one). It has been repeatedly pointed out that the details of Nahum’s literary artistry and its effect are realized through the medium of the text and are substantially lost orally. Thus it is unlikely that his work had an oral history.

2 For further discussion see Gleason Archer, Jr. A Survey of Old Testament Introduction, rev. ed. (Chicago: Moody, 1974), 360; R. K. Harrison, Introduction to the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1969), 926; Walter A. Maier, The Book of Nahum Thornapple Commentaries (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1959), 20-26; Ralph P. Smith, Micah-Malachi, Word Biblical Commentary, ed. David A Hubbard and Glenn W. Barker, vol. 32 (Dallas: Word, 1984), in loc.

3 For a discussion of this issue see D. L. Christensen, “The Acrostic of Nahum Reconsidered,” ZAW 27 (1975): 17–30; S. J. de Vries, “The Acrostic of Nahum in the Jerusalem Liturgy,” VT 16 (1966): 476–81.

4 Smith, Micah-Malachi, in loc.; elec. version. Smith is following Kevin J. Cathcart (his dissertation), Nahum in the Light of Northwest Semitic (Rome: BIP, 1973), 13.

5 See Roger Beckwith, The Old Testament Canon of the New Testament Church (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985), 76.

6 J. M. P. Smith, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on Micah, Zephaniah and Nahum, The International Critical Commentary Series (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1985), 273-74; quoted in Richard D. Patterson and M. E. Travers, “Literary Analysis and the Unity of Nahum,” GTJ 9.1 (Spring 1988): 46; see also idem, “Nahum: Poet Laureate of the Minor Prophets,” JETS 33.4 (December 1990): 437-44.

7 The following comments on the structure, unity, and style of Nahum are heavily indebted to the work of Richard D. Patterson, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, in The Wycliffe Exegetical Commentary, ed. Kenneth Barker (Chicago: Moody, 1991), 8-12 and Tremper Longman III, “Nahum,” in The Minor Prophets: An Exegetical and Expository Commentary, ed. Thomas Edward McComiskey, vol. 2 (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1993), 2:769-775.

8 On the taunts see Longman, “Nahum,” 810, 815-16, 825-26.

9 See Carl E. Armerding, “Nahum,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein, vol. 7 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1985), 453-56, who says (p. 455), “The evidence for literary interdependence between Isaiah and Nahum is thus founded on unique, multiple verbal repetitions linking specific passages (e.g., Nah 1:2 and Isa 59:17-19; 1:3-6 and 29:6; 1:4 and 33:9; 50:2; 1:4-5 and 42:15; 1:15 and 52:1, 7; 2:9-10 and 24:1, 3; 2:10 and 21:3-4; 3:5-7 and 47:2-3; 3:7 and 51:19). It is reinforced by the extensive continuity of imagery in other related passages (e.g., drought, earthquake, fire, stubble, burial, lions). And it is corroborated to the point of virtual certainty by the shared pattern of oppression, deliverance, and judgment experienced specifically in relation to Assyria.”

10 For a fine English translation see Florentino Garca Martnez, The Dead Sea Scrolls Translated: The Qumran Texts in English, 2d ed., trans. Wilfred G. E. Watson (E. J. Brill: Leiden, 1996), 195-197.

11 Tremper Longman III, “Nahum,” in The Minor Prophets: An Exegetical and Expository Commentary, ed. Thomas Edward McComiskey, vol. 2 (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1993), 2:776. For a discussion of the history of the Qumran community see, R. A. Kugler, “Qumran: Place and History,” in Dictionary of New Testament Backgrounds, ed. Craig A. Evans and Stanley E. Porter (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2000), 883-888. For a discussion of the pesher method of exegesis practiced at Qumran, see Michael. O. Wise, “Dead Sea Scrolls: General Introduction,” in Dictionary of New Testament Backgrounds, ed. Craig A. Evans and Stanley E. Porter (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2000), 257-58. For a brief introduction and orientation to the Qumran materials, see Craig A. Evans, Noncanonical Writings and New Testament Interpretation (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1992), 48-69.

12 It is true that Manasseh later repented, but real reform did not come until his grandson, Josiah, took the throne (640-609 BC). It was, however, only some twenty five years after Josiah’s reforms that Judah, having sunk again into spiritual and moral apostasy—like Israel in the north before her—was taken into captivity and thrust from her homeland by the now powerful Babylonians.

13 For a brief discussion of this issue see Smith, Micah-Malachi in loc.; elec. version

Related Topics: Teaching the Bible, Introductions, Arguments, Outlines