How to Read a Thunderstorm

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. Similar to how the threefold “holy, holy, holy” in Isaiah 6:3 emphasizes the completeness of God’s holiness, Nahum’s repeated nōqêm reveals the fullness of God’s wrath. The fierce clouds seethe in the distance, and none can stay their path. Though “slow to anger” — a slowness Nineveh had experienced in the past — “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. (Nahum 1:3)

Nahum’s opening salvo (1:1–8), like the West African rainclouds piling upon each other, heaps image after image to describe the poured-out wrath of God. Before his rage, bodies of water dry up, vegetation withers, mountains quake, the earth heaves, and rocks split. His wrath is “like fire” (1:6), like “an overflowing flood” (1:8).

Who can stand before his indignation?
Who can endure the heat of his anger? (1:6)

Anyone who has been caught in the elements by a powerful storm can appreciate, in part, the terror and doom Nahum intends to convey. Through such storms, God means for us to understand in a small way what it feels like to face his judgment with no hope. The hymnist appropriately captured this sense when he penned,

His chariots of wrath the deep thunderclouds form,
And dark is his path on the wings of the storm.

Strong storms that flash and rage, that whip dust into frenzies and hurl rain in torrents, that envelop the earth in darkness, declare the glory of his just judgment on the wicked, teaching us not to treat his wrath lightly. They symbolize the frightening words uttered by God against unrepentant sinners: “Behold, I am against you” (Nahum 2:13; 3:5).

Named No More

In 612 BC, about forty years after Nahum spoke his oracle against Nineveh, the city was overrun and destroyed by the Babylonians. Though a few Assyrians escaped and tried to reestablish themselves, they too were wiped out in 609 BC. The Assyrians disappeared (ESV Study Bible, 1710). In fact, a mere three hundred years later, a whole army passed over the place where Nineveh had been without even recognizing the location of the once-famous city (The Books of Nahum, Habakkuk, and Zephaniah, 72).

The Lord has given commandment about you:
“No more shall your name be perpetuated. . . .
I will make your grave, for you are vile.” (Nahum 1:14)

Nahum’s prophecy was no hyperbolic description of God’s vengeance. Every word came to pass. Nineveh took its stand against the awesome storm of God’s wrath — and perished.

Nineveh’s fate reveals the holiness of God. He will not, cannot, allow sin to remain in his presence. Every unrepentant sinner stands, as it were, on the garden mound of ancient Nineveh’s ruins, shaking a fist in the face of God and daring him to unleash the winds of wrath. God does not change. The same words he uttered against Nineveh he will speak again in judgment. “Behold, I am against you.” “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matthew 25:41). No sinner will stand in the assembly of the righteous people of God (Psalm 1:5).

‘Stronghold in the Day of Trouble’

Though it may seem like a misnomer for one tasked with prophesying judgment, Nahum’s name means “comfort.” But where shall one find comfort in his oracle?

Though Nahum spoke a word against Nineveh, his audience was the people of God, those remaining in the southern kingdom of Judah. Twice in the opening chapter, the Lord speaks directly to his people (1:12–13, 15), giving them reason to hope as he lifts the yoke of oppression Assyria had laid upon them. This wicked nation will not pass through Judah again to bring terror. As his word of wrath displays his holy character, so too does this word of comfort. The punishment of God’s enemies displays, at the same time, his covenant-keeping love for his people.

Tucked away in Nahum’s opening description of divine wrath stands a little verse, a place of shelter from the storm:

The Lord is good,
a stronghold in the day of trouble;
he knows those who take refuge in him. (Nahum 1:7)

This knowing refers to more than God’s knowledge about his people. It suggests an intimate knowledge that means salvation, a setting of love upon his own. This is the same knowing described by the Good Shepherd, who knows his own sheep and preserves them to the end (John 10:14, 28–29). This knowing serves as a firm foundation for hope (2 Timothy 2:19).

Those who are known by God have a shelter to which they can flee: not the pitiful garden mound, but the secure home, with windows that fasten tight, solid walls, and a strong roof. Though the storm rages outside, in this stronghold peace reigns.

Flee for Shelter

God has always provided a shelter from the storm. To Noah and his family he gave an ark, a fortress to carry them through the cleansing flood of wrath. To Moses he gave a basket of reeds and pitch, a floating bassinet to guard the future leader from the storm of Pharaoh’s decree. To Jonah he gave the belly of a fish, a place of repentance and preservation. To the disciples, he gave the God-man, whose words made a haven for a wave-tossed boat. To us he gives the risen and exalted Christ, and he promises that all who take refuge in the shadow of his wings will find a shelter from the storm.

Flee, then, to this stronghold. 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 29:3, 7), we ascribe him glory, and we rest secure in his peace and under his eternal reign.

works as an editor, writer, and teacher. He lives in Minneapolis, MN, with his wife and three children.