For many years, one of the most popular books that ministers would recommend to couples preparing to marry was William Harley’s work His Needs, Her Needs. In one chapter focused on couples remaining faithful to one another over the long haul of marriage, Harley writes about the temptation to be unfaithful. As he does, he subtly and very nonchalantly uses the pronoun “you” in every example he gives of how seemingly innocent relationships can quickly turn into something far more serious and inappropriate. As the reader approaches the end of the chapter, William Harley admits that he purposefully chose the more personal pronoun “you” instead of “they” for a particular reason. He did so because he wanted to drive home a very basic point. The moment we begin to say to ourselves that something can’t or won’t happen to us is the moment that we make ourselves particularly vulnerable to that very thing happening. (His Needs, Her Needs, William F. Harley Jr, Revell, 1986, pg. 13)
In essence, the book of Nahum, centers at least in part around this same subject. In this small book, Nahum the prophet is speaking to the long time enemy of the Israelites the Assyrians whose capital city was Ninevah. That’s right, the same Ninevah to which Jonah had refused to go in the famous story where he is swallowed by the great fish. Nahum’s word for the Ninevites and for the Assyrians and similar to every other Old Testament prophet in that Nahum drives home the point that God is going to judge them for their evil ways by destroying their city. As he offers this word that again sounds very similar to the words of other prophets, he makes his unique contribution with a haunting question in verse 8 of chapter 3 that is only five words long, “are you better than Thebes?”
Thebes was the capital of Egypt just as Ninevah was the capital of Assyria. Long before Nahum’s words to Ninevah, the people of Thebes had convinced themselves that they had everything needed to avoid anyone or anything that might come their way who would attempt to destroy or harm them. In other words, the people of Thebes saw themselves as secure and bullet proof. According to the text, this false sense of security for Thebes was built on the basis of their having a good geographical location and of having friends in high places who would come to their aide when needed. Yet, according to Nahum it didn’t matter. When the enemy eventually did come, Thebes crumbled. Thebes fell and Thebes fell hard. It was as if Nahum was saying to Ninevah “you have a real life, living example in front of you in the form of Thebes and Egypt of what can happen. So, Ninevah, in light of all of this, let me ask you, ‘are you better than Thebes?’” Are you simply better than everyone else or are you willing to face the reality of just how vulnerable and capable of falling that you are?
In essence Nahum was inviting Ninevah and Assyria to come face to face with their own reality. They could be conquered. They could be destroyed. They were not invincible.
At least some Biblical commentators also think that while Nahum was addressing a foreign power in Ninevah and the Assyrians that the prophet was also trying to get the attention of Judah. The great capital of Thebes and Egypt had collapsed and Ninevah and Assyria could collapse which meant that Jerusalem and Judah could too. It was just a reality.
After eight weeks of looking at the Minor Prophets, one thing we should walk away with is that virtually all of these figures invited the people to realize just how vulnerable they were. The statement that “it can happen to you” is one that I have used several times as we have reintroduced ourselves to these Old Testament voices that we often overlook. But, perhaps a way to say this a little differently is to use the word reality. For so often, like them, we simply do not want to recognize or come face to face with the realities of our lives.
We don’t want to deal with the reality that we have a thousand dollars in the bank or that our income is limited. And, so, we avoid the reality of our financial lives by running up thousands of dollars on our credit cards with no idea whatsoever as to how we will pay it off.
We ignore the reality of what is happening with our son or our daughter or our grandchild by simply never bringing up the subject or broaching the topic that we all know needs to be discussed and that is the constant elephant in the room. We choose not to face reality and simply hope and pray that the issue will magically or miraculously go away.
We know something is wrong with our physical well being yet we refuse to go to the doctor. If we don’t go to the doctor, we tell ourselves, we will never have to face the truth.
We know that something happened along the way that has fractured our relationship with someone that was a long time friend. Yet, we cannot bring ourselves to simply go and sit down with them and get to the bottom of it. Instead, we hope that with time it will just work itself out.
These are all ways that, like the people of Thebes or Ninevah or Jerusalem, we live in our fantasy worlds while avoiding reality. Do we really think somehow that we will avoid the ultimate collapse of relationships, finances or family challenges simply by acting like it is not there or really not a problem?
Avoidance is never the answer. Ignoring reality never helps anything. The worst thing we can do is to do nothing but it is the very thing that all of us do at some point or another in our lives.
There is a famous story of the world renowned comedian of another age W.C. Fields that gets right at the point. Fields apparently lived a hard life never really caring much about morals, his excesses or the reality that one day it would all catch up with him. As he neared the end of his life, a visitor came by one day and found W.C. Fields, who was not a religious man at all, flipping through the Bible. “W.C., what are you doing?” the visitor asked. To which Fields is said to have famously replied, “looking for loopholes, looking for loopholes…” (Vernon Grounds, “Looking for Loopholes”, Our Daily Bread)
The Assyrians had lost touch with reality and dreamed they were invisible. We avoid reality while hoping against hope that the hard places of our lives will just go away or somehow take care of themselves. We too, ignore what is right in front of us while flipping the pages looking for loopholes. Amen.