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Nahum, Habakkuk and Zephaniah played a crucial role in the transmission of history Patrick Henry Reardon is a Senior Editor of Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity


Nahum, Habakkuk, and Zephaniah. These prophets of the seventh century bc figure often in the readings of Christmas and Epiphany. The late seventh century was a time of great upheaval in the lands associated with the Bible; the fall of the Assyrian Empire was the most momentous of these upheavals. The corresponding rise of the Neo-Babylonian Empire also made that period significant. One thinks of other developments as well, such as the Scythian invasion of the Fertile Crescent and the reigns of Psammetichus I and Neco II in Egypt.

Thoughtful people at the time doubtless pondered the significance of those things. From inscriptions left by Nebuchadnezzar II, for example, we know that he ascribed his success to the help of his Babylonian gods, 'my lords Nebo and Marduk. For the most part, nonetheless, we are obliged to guess at what Assyrian, Babylon, Scythian and Egyptian wise men thought about the gravity and import of those days, because their considerations have not come down to us.


On the side of history

That is to say, the reflections of those men - on the significance of the events in which their people played the major roles - were not assumed into history itself. Whatever their ideas on the doings of their time, those ideas utterly perished from memory, and memory is essential to history. Whatever those men thought, surely none of them thought much about the insignificant kingdom of Judah..
Unlike them, those religious poets in Judah left interpretive writings that went on to contour the further transmission of history. Because Nahum, Habakkuk and Zephaniah were on the side of history', what they wrote about the events of their time became part of the ongoing life of history.
There is an irony here, inasmuch as the prominent actors on the political stage in the seventh century were not - in any ultimate sense - giving shape to history. They imagined they were, but hardly more than mere traces of their accomplishments have endured. They are as though they had never been.

Israels God alone was the Lord who gave significance to the events of the late seventh century, and to those three prophets he revealed his historical purpose.


The King of Israel

Consequently, it is through their eyes that those events have been seen in all subsequent generations of the ongoing community of faith. These generations are 'on the side of history' and constitute that ongoing Israel which boasts, 'God is our King from before the ages' [Psalms 74.12].

God's kingship over his people is, in fact, the key to their understanding of history. Zephaniah indicated this when he declared to Jerusalem, 'the King of Israel, the Lord, is in the midst of thee' [3.15]. God's presence in the midst of Israel, whether in judgment or salvation, is what put Israel on the side of history.

Later on, Nathanael used Zephaniah's title for God, 'King of Israel', to address Jesus, when first he met Our Lord [John 1.49]. It was his way of affirming what Philip had told him: 'We have found him of whom Moses in the law, and the prophets did write' [1.45]. He saw in Jesus the object of their historical expectations.

In the divine liturgy, Jesus our Lord is addressed by this same title: 'You are seated on the throne of the Cherubim, the Lord of the Seraphim, and the King of Israel. You alone are holy and dwell among your saints.' It is this abiding presence of the King of Israel in our midst that causes us to stand - with Nahum, Habakkuk and Zephaniah - on the side of history. 

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