How to Read a Thunderstorm

Learn to read the weather and seek refuge in Christ. Tucked into his everlasting arms, we experience no raging storms of wrath. While his glory “thunders” and his voice “flashes forth flames of fire” (Psalm 29:37), we ascribe him glory, and we rest secure in his peace and under his eternal reign.

In sub-Saharan West Africa, the dry season slowly tightens its deathlike grip until that first thunderstorm. It begins as a speck on the horizon. The breeze stills; the furnace-like heat threatens to consume all in its oven. Dark clouds pile upon each other in the distance, as if in a mad race to block out the sun.

Then comes the wind: at first a whisper, but before long a mighty force that lifts months of dust and sand, whirling them into miniature tornadoes. In our early years, my siblings and I would run out and try to fight the strength of these winds. Taking our stand on the old garden mounds of last season’s planting, we would test our young legs against the power of the storm (always an exercise in futility).

Then the sky turns black. The rolling clouds have conquered the sun, declaring victory with lightning flashes and mighty cracks of thunder, a barrage of heavenly artillery. At last, finally, comes the rain — a marching wall of gray obscuring everything it passes, driven by the relentless wind. We fled for home as it approached and then flooded our street, turning the hard-packed earth into a sudden river.

I’ve always been awed by the power of storms. Their sheer might delights and overwhelms me. They produce in me a certain diminishing effect, reminding me that though God gave humans dominion over the earth, I am still made from dust. It’s fitting to flee.

But God designed thunderstorms to teach us about more than our smallness. In their unleashed fury, they are emblems of the wrath of God poured out in judgment. The short book of Nahum, tucked in the middle of the Minor Prophets, is one such place where God teaches us to rightly read events in nature like thunderstorms.

‘Woe to the Bloody City’

Nahum’s brief oracle, a mere 47 verses in our English translations, thunders with God’s righteous judgment against Nineveh, one of the great cities of the ancient Assyrian empire. We usually associate Nineveh with the ministry of Jonah. Jonah knew God to be “a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster” (Jonah 4:2). Thus, he preached to Israel’s enemies with reluctance, knowing that his prophetic word of judgment might just lead to Nineveh’s preservation.

We know the story. Nineveh repented, and God, in keeping with his character, relented from unleashing disaster upon them (Jonah 3:6–10). These events took place during the reign of Jeroboam II of Israel (2 Kings 14:25), which lasted from about 793 to 753 BC (Dictionary of the Old Testament: Prophets, 456).

It may come as a surprise, then, that Nahum’s prophecy a century or so later contains only words of judgment against Nineveh, with no opportunity to repent. Prophesying to Judah around 650 BC after the fall of the northern kingdom in 722 to Assyria (Dictionary, 560), Nahum declared that Assyria would be washed away “with an overflowing flood.” God would “make a complete end of the adversaries” of his people (Nahum 1:8).

The once-repentant Nineveh had spurned the mercy of God and directed its armies against God’s chosen people, leading the northern kingdom of Israel into captivity and even laying siege to Jerusalem itself during the reign of Hezekiah (2 Kings 18:17–25).

God directed his fury against this “bloody city, all full of lies and plunder” (Nahum 3:1), declaring that the name of Assyria and Nineveh would no longer be perpetuated among the nations of the earth (Nahum 1:14). And through the poetic tongue of Nahum, he captured his fury with the image of a storm.

Chariots of Wrath

Nahum’s oracle begins with a threefold declaration that Yahweh takes vengeance (nōqêm) on his enemies.

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