Why Isn’t This Book in the Lectionary?


Nahum, 18th Century Russian Icon, PD-US via Wikimedia

Last Sunday, I learned one of those interesting “factoids” that may signify more than we think. I discovered that there are no readings from the minor prophet Nahum in either the Roman Catholic Sunday Lectionary or the Revised Common Lectionary used in many Protestant churches. For many people who do not engage in personal reading through the scriptures, Nahum is an unknown book, never read, and likely never preached from.

Except in my church. Our pastor was preaching on this as part of a series on the minor prophets and I realized that this was at least the second time we preached on this book. I spoke on the book in the summer of 2015, and, if you care, you may listen to that sermon. Having both listened to preaching on this book and studied it myself, I understand why it may not be included in either lectionary.

Basically the book is on the fall of Nineveh, and the empire of Assyria, the superpower of Nahum’s day, that had conquered and obliterated the northern tribes of Israel, leaving Nahum and those in Judah as subject vassals. Chapter one announces the fall in a song of praise to God. Chapter two graphically describes the battle against Nineveh and its fall to Babylon. Chapter three is a dirge describing the carnage of bodies and the devastation of Nineveh. The most troubling thing about this book is that Nahum doesn’t seem troubled. Nahum’s name means “comfort” and this picture of the destruction of an evil empire was comfort, perhaps grim comfort, to the people of Judah. Everything that happened to the Assyrians, and more, they had done at the height of their power against other nations including Israel. Their fall meant a respite from trouble.

You can see why those who put lectionaries together would omit Nahum. It poses too many uncomfortable questions in ascribing the ultimate cause of Nineveh’s fall to God’s avenging anger and portraying a prophet of God who is what I have described as “grimly satisfied” with the outcome.

Yet my pastor wondered, and I join him in this, what has been lost in this omission? For one thing, I encounter many who wonder why God does not do more against the evils they see around them. When a physician who abused scores of female athletes had to face those he abused and both be publicly shamed as he heard accounts of the damage his abuse wrought, and then was sentenced to die in prison, did anyone think he had been treated too harshly? I will confess to indulging in mental fantasies about what ought to have been done to him that should not be committed to print.

I can’t help but wonder if what is lost is the gritty reality of a God who is far from impotent to deal with evil, and a spirituality that cannot be reduced to niceness but has room for the expression of what seems unseemly, and yet is a reality of human experience. Actually, we often want it both ways–we want God to deal with evil in the abstract, we just don’t like the idea that he might actually do so. We want to pretend that we are wonderful, good people, and yet gloat or, even celebrate, when some evil is vanquished, even if it means the death of the person or people doing that evil. Sometimes we are filled with rage when we witness injustice, and we at least imagine doing unspeakably wicked things to the objects of our rage.

Is church a place where we can go with this kind of jumble of “stuff”? I suspect many Black churches were and are. They are places that understand lament for the evil around us. They are places that talk about the hate that wells up within us, and give voice to that and then speak of the greater power of love to overcome. Books like Nahum give permission and models for expressing the unseemly things that we might think don’t belong in church. We may want to ask whether our lectionaries and our endlessly happy praise songs have sanitized “church” and in the process created a kind of unreality disconnected from the world outside the building doors. Is a church that has gutted expressions of anger toward God about rampant evil, a church that doesn’t know how to lament, and a church that has tried to domesticate God, a place that can help people deal with the dark underbelly of life? What happens when people can’t express to God, and their spiritual community such things?

These are where my thoughts go when I wonder about the omission of Nahum from our lectionaries. . . .

Going Deeper: A Shared Language to Change and Challenge Us

PsalmsPsalm 16

Keep me safe, my God,
    for in you I take refuge.

I say to the Lord, “You are my Lord;
    apart from you I have no good thing.”
I say of the holy people who are in the land,
    “They are the noble ones in whom is all my delight.”
Those who run after other gods will suffer more and more.
    I will not pour out libations of blood to such gods
    or take up their names on my lips.

Lord, you alone are my portion and my cup;
    you make my lot secure.
The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places;
    surely I have a delightful inheritance.
I will praise the Lord, who counsels me;
    even at night my heart instructs me.
I keep my eyes always on the Lord.
    With him at my right hand, I will not be shaken.

Therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices;
    my body also will rest secure,
10 because you will not abandon me to the realm of the dead,
    nor will you let your faithful one see decay.
11 You make known to me the path of life;
    you will fill me with joy in your presence,
    with eternal pleasures at your right hand.

This past Sunday, our pastor used this Psalm to help us understand something of how the Psalms may work in our lives. There were a few things he said that particularly have me thinking.

One is how the Psalms, though written in particular contexts only sometimes evident have the power to speak deeply to humanity because they speak to human emotions and about human realities that confront us all. Who of us has not had times where we’ve felt unsafe and wanted to find a place of security?

Because of their ability to address universal human conditions, they can function in a corporate way to give us prayers we may pray together, such as parts of the church do with the lectionary, reading, reflecting on and praying the same Psalms across the globe. I’m beginning to consider whether this may be one of the most important ways to be reminded of my solidarity with believing people around the world. No wonder they have often been called the prayer book of the church.

Rich posed the question to us of how we might be formed if we went back to setting to music, singing, and memorizing the Psalms. I think of the power of memorizing Psalm 23 as a child and how this has stayed with me for a lifetime–when I’ve been weary, or scared, faced evil, or death. I think of how God spoke deeply to me from Psalm 46 in a time of fretfulness and anxiety to “be still and know that I am God.” From Psalm 16 I’m reminded that when I wake in the middle of the night (a phenomenon that happens more often these days), even then God counsels and my heart instructs.

The Psalms also challenge us. They surface raw emotions we sometimes avoid. Even when we feel safe, they remind us of those who do not. They confront us with ultimate realities we would often care not to think of. They bid us to praise God whether we feel like it or not.

Rich concluded with talking about how often we read the Psalms. I often read through the Bible in a year, and so read the Psalms in the course of this. But some read them monthly or even more often. It strikes me that this might be what it takes to have a Psalm-saturated life. And that might not be such a bad thing.