Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
The siege and sack of Nineveh described. From the destruction of Sennacherib’s host in 699 B.C., and his death in the temple of Nisroch in 680, the prophet suddenly passes to the extermination of the Assyrian Empire, cir. 625. Here then, strictly speaking, is the beginning of Nahum’s “vision,” Nahum 1:9-15 being limited to the great blow sustained by Assyria in the preceding generation.
He that dasheth in pieces is come up before thy face: keep the munition, watch the way, make thy loins strong, fortify thy power mightily.(1) Keep the munition.—Better, guard the for. tress. These four sententious directions to Nineveh are, of course, ironical, like Elijah’s instructions to the priests of Baal in 1Kings 18:27. “He that dasheth in pieces” may perhaps be identified with Cyaxares.
For the LORD hath turned away the excellency of Jacob, as the excellency of Israel: for the emptiers have emptied them out, and marred their vine branches.(2) Better, For Jehovah restores the glory of Jacob, so that it is as the glory of [ancient] Israel, though the plunderers plundered them and marred their vine shoots. The sacred nation is Jehovah’s vine, destined to send out its tendrils all over the earth. But Jehovah has allowed its hedge to be broken down. “All they that go by do pluck her . . .” (Psalm 80:12-13). In the punishment of one notoriously oppressive world-power the prophet sees a pledge that the branch of Jehovah shall be again “beautiful and glorious” (Isaiah 4:2). The construction in the first part of the verse is perplexing. It appears best to attach a special emphasis to the names “Jacob” and “Israel” in connection with their original signification. “Jacob” is the birth-name—the nation regarded apart from its religious privileges, the homeless exile, the downtrodden “worm (Isaiah 41:14), the younger son among nations. But “Israel” is the chosen of God; he who “had power over the angel and prevailed”; the “beloved son, called out of Egypt.” The name given by Jehovah is henceforth to have its full significance, as in the days of old. “Jacob,” the name which is so often used after the deportation of the ten tribes, is again to be indicated as “Israel,” the favoured people of God. Some commentators render, “For Jehovah restores alike the glory of Jacob and the glory of Israel,” &c., making “Jacob” the designation of the southern, “Israel” that of the northern kingdom. But the term “Jacob” nowhere else has this distinctive force.
The shield of his mighty men is made red, the valiant men are in scarlet: the chariots shall be with flaming torches in the day of his preparation, and the fir trees shall be terribly shaken.(3) His mighty men.—That is, those of the besieger of Nahum 2:1.
Made red.—That is, with blood; not with reference to the bright red copper, which was the material of the shield, for the word usually means “dyed red.”
In scarlet.—Red was the favourite colour, not only of the Medes, from whom Xenophon says the Persians obtained their purple tunics, but also of the Babylonians; compare the description in Ezekiel 23:14-15, and Layard’s Nineveh, p. 347. Both Medes and Babylonians were engaged in the present siege. The rest of the verse runs, the chariots are [equipped] with flashing steel in the day of his preparation, and the cypress lances are brandished. The “flashing steel” may refer to ornaments of this material attached to the chariot, or, as we incline to think, to scythes or sharp instruments fastened to the wheels. Some form of this weapon may well have been in use long before the present date. Xenophon relates that Cyrus was the first to introduce the scythe-chariot. Ctesias, however, speaks of it as of much earlier origin. The older Hebrew commentators render this word p’lâdôth, “torches,” as in the Authorised Version. With this rendering, the swiftly-moving war-chariots are likened to flashing torches, as they are in the next verse.
Nahum 2:4-5 describe the state of the city while sustaining this siege. There is a slight contrast between this portraiture and that of Nahum 2:3, which has been made the most of by Kleinert. “Without, God arranges His hosts; within is the disorder of wild terror: without, a steady approach against the city; within, a frantic rushing hither and thither: without, a joyful splendour; within, a deadly paleness, like torch-light.” The last part of Nahum 2:4 is thus made a description of the aspect of the Ninevites, not their chariots. This appears to us a fanciful interpretation. In its behalf, the description of a panic in Isaiah 13:8 has been adduced: “They shall be amazed one at another; their faces shall be as flames.” But it is obviously better to restrict the reference throughout to the chariots of the besieged city, darting hither and thither in wild undisciplined attempts to resist the invader’s onset.
He shall recount his worthies: they shall stumble in their walk; they shall make haste to the wall thereof, and the defence shall be prepared.(5) And the defence shall be prepared.—Better, but [there] the storming-shed has been prepared. Here the surprise and disorder of Nineveh is more plainly portrayed. The Assyrian king bethinks him of his stoutest warriors, but they stumble in their paths in nervous perplexity. Men ran to the city wall, but against it the besiegers have already erected their storming-shed—a proceeding which ought to have been prevented by the discharge of stones and other missiles from the walls. The storming-shed protected the battering-rams. Of the representations of these preserved in the monuments of Nineveh, Professor Rawlinson thus writes: “All of them were covered with a framework, which was of osier wood, felt, or skins, for the better protection of those who worked the implement. . . . Some appear to have been stationary, others provided with wheels. . . . Again, sometimes combined with the ram and its framework was a movable tower containing soldiers, who at once fought the enemy on a level, and protected the engine from their attacks (Ancient Monarchies, i. 470).
The gates of the rivers shall be opened, and the palace shall be dissolved.(6) The gates of the rivers.—This verse is one of great importance. The account of Ctesias, preserved by Diodorus Siculus, tells us that for over two years the immense thickness of the walls of Nineveh baffled the engineering skill of the besiegers; but that “in the third year it happened that by reason of a continual discharge of great storms, the Euphrates (sic) being swollen, both inundated a part of the city and overthrew the wall to the extent of twenty stadia.” The king saw in this the fulfilment of an oracle, which had declared that the city should fall when “the river became an enemy to the city.” Determined not to fall into the hands of his foes, he shut himself up with all his treasures in the royal citadel, which he then set on fire. We believe that this account, though inaccurate in detail, may be regarded as based on a substratum of historical fact. So gigantic were the fortifications of Nineveh, that of those on the east, where the city was most open to attack, Mr. Layard writes: “The remains still existing . . . almost confirm the statements of Diodorus Siculus that the walls were a hundred feet high, and that three chariots could drive upon them abreast” (Nineveh and Babylon, p. 660). Against ramparts such as these the most elaborate testudo of ancient times may well have been comparatively powerless. On the other hand, the force of a swollen river has often proved suddenly fatal to the strongest modern masonry. It would be specially destructive where, as in the case of Nineveh, the walls inundated were of sun-dried brick or “clay-bat.” Thus the fate of the city may well have been precipitated in accordance with the terse prediction of this verse. The “gates of the rivers” (i.e., the dams which fenced the Khausser, which ran through Nineveh, and the Tigris, which was outside it) are forced open by the swelling torrents, and lo, the fate of the city is sealed! ramparts against which the battering-ram might have plied in vain are sapped at the very foundation; palace walls are undermined, and literally “dissolve;” the besieger hastens to avail himself of the disaster, and (in the single word of Nahum 2:7) it-is-decided. It is unnecessary to identify the “palace” which thus succumbs. Neither is it a reasonable objection that the palaces of Khorsabad and Kouyunjik, lying near the Khausser, bear the marks of fire, not water. If Nahum must have in mind some particular palace, it may be fairly argued that water is not such a demonstrative agency as the sister element; and that nothing would so effectively conceal the damage done by the inundation as the subsequent conflagrations effected by the victorious besieger. The verb nâmôg, “dissolved,” we thus take in its literal signification of the dissolution of a solid substance by the action of water; not as Dr. Pusey, figuratively, of the “dissolution of the empire itself.
And Huzzab shall be led away captive, she shall be brought up, and her maids shall lead her as with the voice of doves, tabering upon their breasts.(7) And Huzzab shall be led away captive. . . .—Better, And it is decided. She is laid bare. She is removed away. And her maidens moan, as with the cry of doves, smiting on their breasts.
It is decided, or established—c’est un fait accompli. The Authorised Version apparently follows those Rabbinic commentators who treat the Hebrew expression hutstsab as the name of an Assyrian queen, or as a symbolical designation of Nineveh. The word is best regarded as a verb-form cognate to the expression rendered by the Authorised Version “of certainty,” “certain,” “true,” in Daniel 2:48; Daniel 3:24; Daniel 7:16. Laid bare, the common figure of the virgin city put to shame by capture (comp. Isaiah 47:1-5). The “maidens” who “moan as with the cry of doves” (comp. Isaiah 38:14; Isaiah 59:11; Ezekiel 7:16) are probably Nineveh’s dependent cities. These are represented as standing gazing on the awful catastrophe, groaning aloud and beating the breast (comp. Luke 23:48) in a horror of despair.
But Nineveh is of old like a pool of water: yet they shall flee away. Stand, stand, shall they cry; but none shall look back.(8) We prefer to adopt the slight change of reading favoured by the LXX. (mêymeyhâ for mîmêy hî, and to render, And Nineveh, like a pool of water are her waters, and they [her inhabitants] are fleeing away. The waters which formerly flowed in river-courses and dykes are now one vast expanse of inundation. A panic thereupon seizes the inhabitants. If the present text be maintained, the rendering of the Authorised Version will stand. We may then suppose the heterogeneous population of Nineveh to be compared to “countless drops, full, untroubled, with no ebb or flow, fenced in from the days that she hath been, yet even therefore stagnant and corrupted; not ‘a fountain of living waters’” (Pusey). But this appears to us a farfetched comparison.
The pregnant terseness of the last part of the verse will give the English reader a good idea of Nahum’s style and the difficulties therewith connected.
Take ye the spoil of silver, take the spoil of gold: for there is none end of the store and glory out of all the pleasant furniture.(9) And glory.—Better, there is abundance of all precious vessels.
She is empty, and void, and waste: and the heart melteth, and the knees smite together, and much pain is in all loins, and the faces of them all gather blackness.(10) And the faces of them all gather blackness.—Better, perhaps, and all faces withdraw their brightness. (See Note on Joel 2:6, where the same expression occurs.)
Where is the dwelling of the lions, and the feedingplace of the young lions, where the lion, even the old lion, walked, and the lion's whelp, and none made them afraid?(11-13) The figure of the lion appears so frequently on the Assyrian monuments that we may perhaps suppose it to have been a national scutcheon. The metaphor of the ravening beast is well illustrated by the Assyrian records, wherein the most frequent theme is the levying of gold, silver, brass, oxen, &c., from tributary cities. The “messengers” of Nahum 2:13 are royal heralds and delegates, subordinate agents in this business of extortion.