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God's Courtroom

God judges righteously the evil of the world.
This sermon is part of the sermon series "Holy War". See series.


I have a confession to make. It's going to date me, and for some of you, it's going to lower me in your esteem, but I'm going to say it anyway. I not only grew up with but I loved the Dirty Harry movies. Clint Eastwood, he's an actor for those of you who are younger. You all know him as a director now, but he used to act, and he made his name in this series of four films—the Dirty Harry films. They were incredible. I mean, when they first came out I was just a little kid, so I had to watch the edited versions on TV. But when I got old enough, I made sure to go out and see them all. There he was, Clint Eastwood as Harry—a cop—and his .44 magnum. It was a huge gun, and he would pull it out and dispense a kind of rough-and-ready justice when the justice system had failed.

It's really out of those Dirty Harry films that a whole genre of vigilante films has made its way through American culture. The latest version of this would be the Batman films. They're really popular, which is really ironic, given that we are a nation built precisely on the rejection of everything that Dirty Harry and Batman stand for, a rejection of vigilante justice. We are the nation—and there are not many like us in the world—that believes even criminals should receive due process. We take that for granted, and yet it's a shocking idea in most of the world. That's our nation, that's the culture that we live in, and yet can you imagine a box office hit in which the serial killer is ably defended and then walks free because somebody forgot to read him his Miranda rights? No, that's not the way you do a box office hit. There exists a distinction between some of our highest principles and the deep longings that we see played out on movie screens each year.

In a fallen, mixed-up world like we live in, we so often have to settle for what is known as procedural justice, equal treatment under the law, equitable settlements. And yet there is something in us that longs for something more—a real justice, one that is visceral. We long for a justice in which the wrongdoer really pays for the wrong that he committed. It's a longing for real, demonstrable, clear justice. It's a longing for vengeance.

Hearing me use that word makes some of you feel uncomfortable. Vengeance is a dirty word in our culture. I understand that. It connotes ideas of excessive violence and unthinking reactions. But real vengeance, true vengeance, isn't excessive at all. No, vengeance properly understood is just retribution: Eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth, retribution for the evil that has been committed. We long for that, yet we recoil from it, because when we stop and think about it, who among us is capable of determining and then executing that kind of precise justice? In real life we reject the sort of vigilante justice of Dirty Harry. It's a private justice and therefore unaccountable; it's a justice that is so quickly corrupted. Inevitably, it seems the one who goes after vengeance is quickly corrupted by his anger, even if it is a righteous anger, and so quickly becomes as guilty as the criminal himself. So in real life we fall back. We fall back to the safety of a legal system that is built on procedure, on really a different kind of justice. And we vicariously enjoy our desire for vengeance only on the movie screen.

Where does that leave us? Is there no hope for real justice in the world? Do we forever have to choose between a safe, procedural justice system that is all too often going to let real criminals off the hook? Do we have to choose between that and vengeful actions that in the end make us criminals ourselves? Is that the choice we're left with?

It's into this real world dilemma that the God of the Bible speaks. When he speaks, he reveals himself as an avenging God, a God who takes vengeance. Now, immediately we recoil at the thought of an avenging God. The idea of a vengeful God is a scary idea. It runs counter to all of our notions of God as a God of love, a God of mercy, a God of peace, a good God. It's a scary thought, because it immediately changes the scope of the discussion that we're having. Dirty Harry just went after serial killers, which is a pretty safe kind of vengeance. But if an omnipotent, omniscient, holy God is going to be vengeful, there's actually the possibility that he will go after people like you and me.

So we get conflicted when we think about a God of vengeance. On the one hand, we long for real justice in the world—the kind of justice that only an avenging God can guarantee. And yet we don't want to be in jeopardy of his vengeance. So what do we do? We imagine God to be kind of like Dirty Harry. This avenging God gets worked up about the things that bother us, and he goes after them. So if there is a hell, that kind of God will definitely make sure that Hitler and Stalin and serial killers and child molesters will be there—but not people like you and me.

But what kind of God is that? Do we really want a God who plays favorites? The only God that can be trusted to take vengeance righteously upon evil is a God who is perfectly and always good, who never winks at evil, no matter how big or how small, and no matter how nice the person is who committed it.

Friends, right there lies the scandal of God's goodness—that a good God must be a God who judges. And the scandal deepens, because it turns out that what we need most in God if real justice is ever to be secured is precisely what we can endure least about God when it comes to our own lives. This is the problem: we need a good God, but we don't really want a good God.

An introduction to the Book of Nahum

This scandal brings us to the Old Testament book of Nahum. Nahum was a prophet of God who lived in the middle of the seventh century B.C. We know he was an Israelite and that he was from the village of Elkosh, though we have no idea where Elkosh was. About the only thing we know for sure about Nahum is what his name means: comfort. He was given a vision that he wrote down in the book that now bears his name, the Book of Nahum. This vision was meant to bring comfort to the southern kingdom of Judah, the part of Israel that was left after the northern kingdom had been taken into exile. In the century before Nahum lived, the greatest superpower that the world had yet known—the Assyrian empire—had arisen. Seventy-five years before Nahum wrote this book, the Assyrians came in and conquered the northern kingdom of Israel and deported the people, sending them into an exile from which they never returned. Judah had remained independent but had been reduced to a vassal state. They were basically slaves in their own country. All across the known world this was happening. Nation after nation was falling to the great superpower of the Assyrian empire. Genocide, public torture, mass rape, child sacrifice, and enslavement were the stock in trade of the Assyrian reign of terror.

As Nahum writes, the Assyrian empire is at the height of its power. Yet Nahum is said to have a message of comfort for Judah. What message could such a prophet bring that would comfort a people that had known that sort of terror, brutality, and oppression? What message could actually comfort a people like Judah who longed for justice? I'll tell you what message: a message of vengeance. A message that God was going to come and destroy Nineveh, the capital of Assyria, and with it the entire empire. What's more, this message was not just that God was going to take vengeance on Assyria; this message was that in that judgment Judah would be saved.

That's the message of Nahum. As we get into it over these next two weeks, you are going to find it shocking—shocking in its delight in the graphic judgment of the wicked. You don't see anything else like the Book of Nahum in the whole Bible until you get to the Book of Revelation. This is not spirituality for yuppies. This is not the pabulum of a nice, sweet God who is all about giving you a nice, comfortable life. No, this Book of Nahum is about the real God entering into a real world and dealing with real evil. And all of it is because this God is good, very, very good.

As we consider the scandal of God's goodness—and I do mean scandal—I want to encourage you to think about your own life. Think about what God's goodness means for you. Does God's goodness towards you mean what it meant for the Assyrians: judgment? Or does God's goodness toward you mean what it meant for Judah: rescue, salvation, freedom? How can you know? How can you be sure? That's what we want to think about this morning.

So turn with me to Nahum, chapter 1. Nahum is a very small book with only three chapters. It's one of the twelve books that we call the Minor Prophets. They're minor not because they're unimportant, but because they're short. Nahum, chapter 1:

An oracle concerning Nineveh. The book of the vision of Nahum of Elkosh. The Lord is a jealous and avenging God; the Lord is avenging and wrathful; the Lord takes vengeance on his adversaries and keeps wrath for his enemies. The Lord is slow to anger and great in power, and the Lord will by no means clear the guilty. His way is in whirlwind and storm, and the clouds are the dust of his feet. He rebukes the sea and makes it dry; he dries up all the rivers; Bashan and Carmel wither; the bloom of Lebanon withers. The mountains quake before him; the hills melt; the earth heaves before him, the world and all who dwell in it.
Who can stand before his indignation? Who can endure the heat of his anger? His wrath is poured out like fire, and the rocks are broken into pieces by him. The Lord is good, a stronghold in the day of trouble; he knows those who take refuge in him. But with an overflowing flood he will make a complete end of the adversaries, and will pursue his enemies into darkness. What do you plot against the Lord? He will make a complete end; trouble will not rise up a second time. For they are like entangled thorns, like drunkards as they drink; they are consumed like stubble fully dried. From you came one who plotted evil against the Lord, a worthless counselor.
Thus says the Lord, "Though they are at full strength and many, they will be cut down and pass away. Though I have afflicted you, I will afflict you no more. And now I will break his yoke from off you and will burst your bonds apart."
The Lord has given commandment about you: "No more shall your name be perpetuated; from the house of your gods I will cut off the carved image and the metal image. I will make your grave, for you are vile."
Behold, upon the mountains, the feet of him who brings good news, who publishes peace! Keep your feasts, O Judah; fulfill your vows; for never again shall the worthless pass through you; he is utterly cut off.

As we see here in verse 1, the book of Nahum is an oracle, which means it's a prophetic word from God. And it was given to Nahum as a vision. As we're going to see next week, the vision that he's given is the fall of Nineveh, the judgment of Nineveh. Basically, in this chapter the vision is being introduced and the meaning of what we're going to see in chapters 2 and 3 is being explained. This chapter reveals that the overthrow of Nineveh is not a mere military failure but a judicial act of God himself, who is coming as a warrior judge to render his verdict on the wicked and then to execute that judgment.

Let me explain the structure of this chapter. The book is introduced in verse 1, and in verses 2 to 8, we meet this great warrior judge. Then in verses 9 to 11, the defendant is accused. We find out exactly who it is that this judge is going to condemn. Then in verses 12 to 15, we hear the verdict.

The Judge's appearance

First, the Judge makes an appearance. These opening verses function almost like the call of the bailiff as the judge enters the courtroom. They are a hymn of praise to God, but they are making it clear who this God is. What kind of judge has just walked in to the courtroom? Five times in verses 2 and 3 God is referred to as the Lord—Yahweh. This is the name that God revealed when he entered into covenant with his people at Israel. This is the God who remains faithful to that covenant that he made.

Then Nahum begins to pile up words attached to Yahweh. What kind of God is this God who has made a covenant with Israel? He is jealous, he is avenging, he is wrathful, he is powerful, and he is just. Three times this word of avenging or vengeance is used. In the Hebrew language if you wanted to really emphasize the weight of something, you said it three times. In Isaiah 6, the angels cry out, "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God of hosts." Here Nahum declares vengeful, vengeful, vengeful is Yahweh. This is not an out-of-control, venting anger. No, this is the vengeance of a just and righteous God. The note of justice comes out most clearly there in verse 3. "The Lord is slow to anger and great in power, and the Lord will by no means clear the guilty." Literally, he will not acquit the guilty.

All of these phrases in these opening verses are actually coming straight out of the Book of Exodus. In Exodus chapter 20, verse 5, in the Ten Commandments, God reveals himself to be jealous. And in Exodus 34, when God reveals himself to Moses and makes all of his glory pass in front of him, he declares his name, including this phrase: that he is the one who is slow to anger and yet does not leave the guilty unpunished. Throughout the Book of Nahum, there are references and allusions back to Exodus. We are meant to think that the God of Exodus has shown up again and that something very similar is about to happen.

This is no abstract description of the idea of God here. In verse 3, God actually shows up personally as a Warrior Judge riding in a chariot of storm clouds. In his awesome presence, creation just seems to come undone. This is how awesome God is: "The seas dry up; the mountains quake." These are poetic images. They are used throughout the Old Testament, but they are not merely metaphors. These poetic images are meant to remind us of what happened in history back in the Book of Exodus when God showed up the first time as the warrior judge to rescue his people. Indeed, the Red Sea did part, and we saw dry land. And indeed, he did descend on Mount Sinai in flame and earthquake, and the mountains themselves quaked before him. Here it's happening again. God is showing up personally to judge his enemies and to rescue his people.

Where is God going? He's going to his courtroom. Only this time it's not over in Egypt. We know that God is heading north. It's as if Nahum is standing there in the center of Israel in Jerusalem, watching the progress of God. God is heading north, away from him, toward Assyria. The courtroom of this judge is not the hushed and stately halls of marble that we've got all over this city. The courtroom of this judge is in the clash and strife, the battlefield of real life. All of this imagery is leading us then to verse 6 and this incredible question: Who can stand before his indignation? Who can endure the heat of his anger? The question isn't answered, but the answer is obvious: No one. No one can.

If you're not following Jesus Christ, I wonder how you respond to this image of God, this presentation, this revelation of God—a God who will personally take vengeance, who will personally pay back evil with justice. A God who is not absentminded; he doesn't forget the offenses that have been made. Rather, the language here is that he is a master of his own wrath, reserving his wrath for just the right time and just the right place.

Does this sound like a good God to you? Does this sound like the kind of God you would want? Of course it really doesn't matter what kind of God we want; we're going to all have to deal with the God that is. But does this sound like a good God?

I think too many of us have confused the idea of good with the idea of safe. For many of us, a good God is a safe God—a God who will act in predictable ways; a God who won't upset our lives too much but who will make sure that the really bad guys get what they deserve. Friends, there is nothing good about that kind of God—that sort of domesticated God. For if my safety and comfort in this life is the measure of his goodness, who is to say that my safety should trump someone else's safety? Why should I have comfort rather than somebody else? If we would have a moral universe, if we would have any foundation for talking about something like justice, then we must have the kind of God that is described right here—the kind of God who is truly good, who is jealous for his own glory as a holy God, and who will not fail to take vengeance for any and every affront to that holiness. Anything less and we are on a sea of moral chaos.

Christian, I wonder how you respond to this revelation of God. Does it cause you to tremble? I think it should. This is not a God to be taken lightly. This is not a God to be treated casually, so this prophecy should produce in us reverence and awe and fear. But don't lose sight of the fact that this message was given to Judah so that they would be encouraged, so that they would also know real comfort. When Nahum wrote this prophecy, the Assyrian empire appeared to be making God a liar. The Assyrian empire seemed to be saying, "All that stuff that you thought God was going to do for you, all those promises that you thought God had made, are rubbish." But Nahum came along with this message to remind God's people, "Don't believe it. God is on his throne. God is the Lord of history. God is the creator of the universe, and he will set things right. You may not see it today, but wait for it. It is coming."

So I wonder what causes you, Christian, to wonder, to doubt the truthfulness of God and his promises in your life. What foe has shown up in your experience that seems to be more powerful than God or more in control of your life than God is? Maybe it's a sin that you continue to struggle with though you have tried to put it to death. Or maybe you sit here this morning the victim of sin, having been treated as you should not have been treated by those that should have known better and should have acted differently. Whatever it is, Christian, whatever it is, know that this is the God who promises to put an end to whatever foe you are facing. This is the God who has promised and will carry through on that promise to defeat those foes, to right every wrong, and to set you fully and finally free. He will make an end of your enemies. That's the God who walks into the courtroom.

The accusation

What does he find when he gets there? We need to look secondly at the defendant accused. Look in verses 9 through 11. These few short verses right here begin and end with the identification of those who plot evil against the Lord. We see it there in verse 9, "What do you plot against the Lord?" and then again in verse 11, "From you came one who plotted evil against the Lord." Friend, this is who God is coming to judge those who stand opposed to him and his purposes.

The language in these verses is actually quite dramatic in the Hebrew. Notice there in verse 9 that it's in the second person: "What do you plot against the Lord?" It's as if Nahum is now walking into the courtroom. God has shown up and now Nahum, as the DA, has walked in. His gaze goes around the courtroom until it lights on one particular group of people, and he makes his accusation: You, you have plotted evil against the Lord. You have opposed Yahweh.

He then goes on to begin to build his case: God will bring an end to your opposition. Verse 10 lays out these different images of God's all-consuming wrath, like tangled thorns or dry stubble in the flames or a drunkard's drink. All of you who are opposed to the Lord will be consumed completely with nothing left. There will be no further opportunity for opposition.

So we get down to verse 11, and Nahum becomes quite focused on a single individual: "From you came one who plotted evil against the Lord, a worthless counselor." Who is this one against whom Nahum really focuses his accusation? Well, in the context it appears to be the king of Assyria. Nahum doesn't name him, but it appears to be the king himself, perhaps representing all the kings, which is why he might leave him unnamed. But Nahum uses a very interesting word here: the son of Belial, which means worthless counselor. It's a word that doesn't show up very often in the Bible, but it has a clear meaning and suggests that there is someone in view beyond the king. Paul uses that same phrase in 2 Corinthians chapter 6 to refer to Satan himself. That, in fact, is who the term generally refers to. So all of a sudden this indictment that Nahum is bringing takes on a kind of cosmic scope. Behind the wickedness of the Assyrian empire lies the wickedness of her leaders, but behind the wickedness of her king lies the personal opposition of Satan himself.

I don't think it was an oversight that Nahum didn't actually put the word Nineveh in verse 11. Nahum is doing something here. When God inspired these words he did not want his readers then or now to be left with any sort of wiggle room, to think that this accusation was just about other people—people who lived somewhere else a long time ago. No, when we run into that you in verse 9 and that you in verse 11 we're meant to take it personally. Oh, your plotting may not rise to the level of genocide and world domination, but it is plotting against the Lord nevertheless. Every day you plot and scheme and devise ways to assert your control, your plans, your purposes in your life in opposition to God's plans and God's purposes for your life.

Now, when I say that I'm not saying that you live a grossly immoral life. You might actually live an upstanding life. What I'm saying is that in your upstanding way, you live your life as if your life is meant for your pleasure and your satisfaction rather than for God's glory. You treat others every day as objects to be used for your ends, your purposes, rather than as people made in the image of God to be served and loved. You treat your sexuality, your material possessions, your intellectual abilities as things that you provided for yourself and act as if you can do with them what you want, rather than as gifts that God himself has given you. Maybe most importantly, you live as if you are your own master with no higher accountability than your own conscience and how you're feeling on any given day. Friends, you may not be living an overtly immoral life, but make no mistake about it: to live this way is to live in opposition to God. To live this way is to live as someone who is every day plotting against the Lord. We all stand accused. We all stand indicted. The you of these verses takes in us all.

We would do well to note the connection that Nahum draws here between the wickedness of the nation's leaders and the wickedness of the nation itself. Leadership isn't everything, but leadership does matter. I know there are some who would say that a politician's personal life doesn't matter—that what matters is if he governs well. Friends, the Bible and the witness of history disagree. Immoral leaders promote an immoral society, which produces yet more immoral leaders. This is why we, as a society, should be concerned about promoting and valuing not just public morality but private morality, for the two cannot be disconnected.

As Christians, we need to remember also that there is a spiritual reality in our evangelism. Satan, the son of Belial, is not only personally opposed to God himself, but he prods and he animates the opposition of the human heart. And so as we speak to others about Jesus, as we speak to others about the goodness of God and the mercy that is to be found in Christ, we need to pray. Overcoming spiritual opposition is not finally a matter of having the best argument or having the most welcoming community. No, overcoming spiritual opposition is a battle that God must win himself. He must change hearts. He must give eyes to see. So speak of Jesus and pray.

The verdict

We've seen the judge striding into the courtroom. We've heard the terrifying accusation of the defendants. This brings us finally to the verdict that is rendered. For the first time in the book, God now speaks directly. He's been speaking through the prophet, but now the Lord himself speaks. And what does he say? He renders his verdict. It actually comes in two parts. On the one hand, verse 12 tells us that though Assyria is at the height of its power, though she has tons of allies, she is finished. Her empire is about to end abruptly and completely. And there's a second part to the verdict that we see in the second half of verse 12 and on into verse 13. Judah, who has been suffering God's discipline under this Assyrian overlord, is about to be set free from her enslavement. Once again, you should hear echoes from the Book of Exodus.

Then we move into verse 14 and verse 15, and it's as if the verdict is said again, only now it comes in the form of two different invitations focused on two different individuals. In verse 14 we read, "The Lord has given commandment about you." "You" there is singular, presumably referring to the king of Assyria himself. He is being invited to something. He is being summoned to something. This command that God has spoken has summoned him to the worst day of his life. As the verse unfolds, we see that it will be a day in which the king sees all of his sons, all of his heirs, cut off. It will be a day in which he sees the temple in which he worshiped his gods—the gods he put his trust in—destroyed. It will a day, at the end of which, he will find himself buried. It is a summons to a funeral—the king's own funeral—and yet, it is so much more. It is a summons to the final and utter judgment of everything that this man has lived for. Nothing will be left to him—even the memory of him will be erased—and God himself will dig his grave.

In contrast to this, we move on to verse 15, and a new invitation comes, a different invitation. It focuses on a different man. This man comes bringing good news for Judah. The image is of a runner who has been sent from the battlefield back to the capital city and who declares that victory is won, the battle is over. The enemy is defeated. There is nothing more to fear.

About 40 years after Nahum wrote these words, Judah in fact heard that very message. A runner came, and they heard the good news that the Assyrian empire had been overthrown. So complete was the overthrow of Nineveh that just a few hundred years later, Alexander's armies would march right over the site of that city and not realize that a city had ever even been there. One of the greatest cities that had ever existed, gone.

The verdict given to us

The importance of this verdict is not that we know some ancient history and what happened to the city of Nineveh. The importance of this verdict for us today is that we be prepared for our own day in God's court. What verdict will your life receive on that day? Will you find yourself like the king of Assyria, condemned for your opposition to God? On that day there will be no allies there to help you, no friends and family to put in a good word for you. No, they will all be answering for themselves. But on that day, the gods that you trusted in in this life—not little metal gods put up on a shelf, but the gods of success, the gods of money, the gods of pleasure and sex, the gods of ease and comfort—those gods will do you no good. No, the fact that you worship them will simply strengthen the case for your condemnation. On that day, the day that you, the day that I, show up in God's courtroom, on that day opposition to God will be seen for what it is—as vile, repulsive, abhorrent, utterly worthless. On that day the grave that God has prepared is not the ease of oblivion, but the endless torment of hell itself. Friend, is that the verdict that you will hear?

You don't have to hear that verdict. You don't have to receive that invitation. There is another invitation that even now is ringing out, one that makes possible a very different verdict. It's an invitation to a celebration, an invitation to a banquet. This is the message of peace that is the message of Christianity. This is the message that Jesus Christ himself brought, the messenger of good news. For he came preaching a message of forgiveness of sins and reconciliation with God. He came to declare that people like you and me who have all our lives been opposed to God can now be reconciled to him and can find refuge in him.

But he didn't just proclaim a message of forgiveness and reconciliation. No, he accomplished it. For on the cross, Jesus took his perfect life and he laid it down as a sacrifice. As a substitute for people like you and me, he took the judgment that we deserved. On the cross he experienced the avenging wrath of God for sin—sin that was not his, sin that was yours, sin that was mine. And there he exhausted it. He defeated it, so that no opposition remains. He did this for all who might turn from their sins and put their trust in him and his message of good news, that all of those might indeed be forgiven and show up on the last day in God's courtroom and hear a very different verdict—a verdict of "not guilty," and an invitation to enter into the kingdom of the Son of God. Jesus invites us to the banquet that will know no end, the celebration that is eternal life. This is the invitation that comes to you today.

This brings us back to the scandal of God's goodness. God is good. We see that in verse 7, "The Lord is good, a stronghold in the day of trouble; he knows those who take refuge in him. But with an overflowing flood he will make a complete end of the adversaries, and will pursue his enemies into darkness." Because God is good, he is a refuge to everyone who trusts in him. The Cross is proof of that. For as Paul tells us in Romans chapter 8, "If God is for us, who can be against us?" Because God is good, he will also judge all those who are opposed to him to the bitter end. The Cross is proof of that as well. For if you do not trust Christ to bear that judgment for you, be assured that you will bear it yourself. And it is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. There is no question that on the day that you appear before God, God will be good. The only question is what his verdict on you will be. Trust in God. Trust in his goodness. Find him to be good to you.

Michael Lawrence is pastor of Hinson Baptist Church in Portland, Oregon, and author of "Biblical Theology in the Life of the Church" (Crossway).

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Sermon Outline:


I. An introduction to the Book of Nahum

II. The Judge's appearance

III. The accusation

IV. The verdict

V. The verdict given to us