Behold, I am against you, declares the Lord of hosts, and I will burn your chariots in smoke, and the sword shall devour your young lions. I will cut off your prey from the earth, and the voice of your messengers shall no longer be heard.
Woe to the bloody city, all full of lies and plunder— no end to the prey! The crack of the whip, and rumble of the wheel, galloping horse and bounding chariot! Horsemen charging, flashing sword and glittering spear, hosts of slain, heaps of corpses, dead bodies without end— they stumble over the bodies! And all for the countless whorings of the prostitute, graceful and of deadly charms, who betrays nations with her whorings, and peoples with her charms.
Living in central London often feels like a strangely absurd and irrational experience. I would argue that London is the greatest city in the history of the world. On its best days, London foreshadows many of the realities of the New Jerusalem — a city where the nations live side-by-side in unity and reflect the glory of God. On most days, well — shall we say that it perhaps resembles Nineveh to the prophet Nahum.
We often feel profoundly uncomfortable as we read the Old Testament prophets. Many even try to dismiss them by suggesting perhaps that they were writing out of their feelings and not out of God’s inspiration, they were simply reflecting their cultural perspectives and not God’s inspiration, or sometimes even suggesting that it was God who changed with the coming of Jesus. We’re uncomfortable because some of the sentiments expressed by these prophets seem at first inconsistent with the love of God as revealed in the cross of Christ.
Looking more deeply, we discover that not only are such sentiments not antithetical to love they are also essential to love. Genuine love abhors that which undermines, opposes and inhibits love — both its expression and its reception. In prophets such as Nahum, we discover those things that hinder the full expression and experience of God’s love in our cities and communities, things which God himself vehemently opposes. Once we see these things from God’s perspective and the effect they have on experiencing God’s love, we cannot help but oppose these things ourselves.
So what does God see in Nineveh that leads God to express God’s anger so strongly?
God sees a city full of “lies and plunder”, a place where people use dishonesty and greed to take advantage of others for their own benefit. In such a city, people use dishonest weights and measures so that people might gain an advantage over others, enriching themselves by impoverishing others. The economic system becomes profoundly unfair, preventing normal people from providing for themselves and their families.
God also sees a city full of violence. In the case of Nineveh, such violence seems to be primarily physical. While our cities experience such physical violence today, more often “violence” comes in the form of the strong oppressing and suppressing the weak. The “horsemen” represent those who have power and influence and use their power and influence to exploit and trample on other people for their own advantage. People are taken advantage of and victimised. Violence in our cities takes many forms, but God abhors such violence.
Finally, God sees a city full of sexual immorality. On the surface, it all looks charming and attractive. But looking deeper one cannot help but seeing human trafficking, sex slavery and child abuse. One sees people being used selfishly for personal pleasure, without love or genuine concern for their wholeness. In such a city, even whole ethnic groups are betrayed as their women and children become especially vulnerable to abuse. Yet, to most people, this sexual immorality seems appealing, harmless and fun, conducted in privacy.
By revealing his heart and showing us what hinders love, God invites us not only to feel his anger toward that which obstructs love but also to engage in the extension of God’s loving rulership (the kingdom) by working in the power of God’s Holy Spirit to oppose these same things in our cities today. We do so knowing that the cross of Christ has broken the power of all demonic opposition to God’s love and enabled the release of God’s loving justice into our cities.
Prophets like Nahum shatter the illusion that our cities might ever be perfect — New Jerusalems on earth — but they also shatter the illusion that we are helpless victims of what happens in our cities. Nahum reminds us that God not only opposes that which hinders love but is taking action against it. By God’s grace, in the love of Jesus and the power of the Holy Spirit, Christians can oppose everything that hinders God’s love and see our cities become more like the New Jerusalem and less like Nineveh, confident that this will benefit all people living in our cities.
Almighty God, help us to love our cities and the people in them fully as you love them. Help us also to abhor that which hinders your love just as you abhor it. We pray for our cities. We pray that they will become places of provision for people and families so they might live in joy. We pray that they will become places of peace and protection, keeping people safe from violence in all forms. We pray that they will become places of purity and wholeness, where women and children are treated with grace and dignity. By your Holy Spirit, help us to work for the advancement of your loving rulership throughout our cities so that they reflect your will for humanity and become places of your grace. We pray that the people throughout our cities would come to know your grace and love through a living relationship with your Son, Jesus Christ, who is the real hope for our cities. In his name we pray, Amen.
The Rev’d Rodney Woods is minister of the City Temple in London