COMFORT: nakham (Strong’s 5162)
Sounds like: na-kham
Today is a solemn day for the Jewish people. It is a day of remembrance, a day to recall the destruction of the Temple. Today is the 9th day of the Jewish month Av, known as T’isha B’Av (literally 9th of Av). It’s the day the Babylonians destroyed the Temple. On the same day, about 500 years later, the Romans destroyed the rebuilt temple. Both temples were destroyed on the same day! Not only that but it was also the day Pope Urban II declared the First Crusade, killing over 10,000 Jews in the process. It’s the day, in the year 1290, that the Jews were expelled out of England. It’s the day that the Warsaw Ghetto was cleared out and sent to Treblinka concentration camp. History has not been kind to the Jews on this day… and this is only a tiny portion of a much bigger list of horrible happenings on the 9th of Av. It is no wonder that many Jewish people face this day with trepidation! One thing that they can hold onto is that YHWH is a God that comforts.
I find some comfort in the study of history. I love diving into the past and trying to understand humans within their own era. I’m a medievalist and I’m particularly fascinated by how the medieval mind perceived God.
Hildegard de Bingen (1098-1179), a Benedictine abbess from Germany, saw the relationship between humanity and God as one of divine compassion and physical comfort. She said:
“God hugs you. You are encircled by the arms of the mystery of God.”
There really is nothing more comforting than a good hug. It offers feelings of protection, safety… for a brief moment someone else is taking on your worries, freeing you from the burdens you’re weighed down by. For that brief moment, you’re free. That is comfort. That is rest.
Actually, in Hebrew, the word comfort and rest come from the same root. The Hebrew name Noah נֹ֖חַ (or, Noakh) meant rest. That is why we read this:
When Lamech was 182 years old, he had a son. And he named him Noah, saying, “May this one comfort us [y-nakham’enu] in the labour and toil of our hands caused by the ground that YHWH has cursed.”
This is actually the first instance we see the word comfort in the Tanakh (Old Testament). In this passage the Hebrew people were hoping for comfort, or rest, from the pain of hard work. Lamech hoped that his son would bring this kind of comfort. And in a way he did, at least for his family. Noah’s hard work building the Ark meant that he and his family could live and survive on the renewed earth, in peace. There was comfort in that outcome.
Comfort and Sorrow
But people needed more than comfort the exhaustion of physical work. They would seek comfort from the emotional exhaustion of pain and loss. They would need comfort to help them through their sorrow.
The Hebrew word nakham is most commonly translated as comfort, but it has a nuanced meaning. Nakham is comfort, but it is comfort that comes out of sorrow. In fact, numerous times the word nakham was translated as the word sorry.
Before Noah built the Ark, YHWH decided to flood the earth and begin again because He saw that everyone was already drowning in evil and YHWH was sorry [nakhem] that that He made humanity (Genesis 6:5-8).
How are the words sorry and comfort connected? When you are sorry that something happened, you may be moved to pity, and from that pity you may desire to add comfort to the situation. For example:
- God was sorry that He anointed Saul and His solution to bring comfort was to end Saul’s reign (1 Samuel 15:11, 35)
- YHWH sent an Angel to destroy Jerusalem, but He was sorry for the people so He stopped the Angel and chose consolation over calamity (1 Chronicles 21:15)
- Moses called on YHWH to be sorry (have pity) on His people, and bring comfort (Psalm 90:13)
- The Tribes were sorry for the near destruction of the Benjaminite tribe and they pitied them (Judges 21:6, 15)
Being sorry and having pity are definitely connected with the desire to turn sorrow into comfort. But sometimes holding back comfort is the right thing to do. Getting too comfortable does not allow us to grow and mature. We just end up sitting comfortably and not moving anywhere. In the writings of Ezekiel, YHWH said He would not be sorry for the actions He would take:
[YHWH:] “In your filthiness is outrageous sin. Because I would have cleansed you, yet you are not clean, you will not be cleansed from your filthiness again until I have expended My wrath on you.
I, YHWH, have spoken; it is coming and I will act. I will not overlook, I will not pity, and I will not be sorry [I will not comfort: w-lo- eh-nakhem]; according to your ways and according to your deeds I will judge you,” declares the Lord YHWH.’”
It’s not good for us to be comfortable all the time. YHWH knows when we need to be shaken out of our comfort zone. That’s the right of the Creator.
But we humans have to be careful in our comforting. Are we comforting others for the right reasons?
Job’s friends “comforted” with an agenda. Their words were not comforting and Job identified their motives:
“I have heard many things like these; miserable comforters [m-na’khamey] are you all! Is there no end to windy words? Or what provokes you that you answer?
I too could speak like you, if only I were in your place. I could compose words against you and shake my head at you. Or I could strengthen you with my mouth, and the condolence of my lips could lessen your pain.
If I speak, my pain is not lessened, and if I refrain, what pain leaves me? But now He has exhausted me; You have laid waste all my group of loved ones and you have shriveled me up…”
Another rendering of the Hebrew word nakham is to relent. This word was used when God was moved from anger to pity and He relented from doling out punishment. There is comfort knowing that YHWH relents from anger and shows compassion:
“Yet even now,” declares YHWH, “Return to Me with all your heart, and with fasting, weeping, and mourning; and tear your heart and not merely your garments.”
Now return to YHWH your God, for He is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, abounding in mercy and relenting [w-nikham] of catastrophe.
Who knows, He might turn and relent [and comfort: w-nikham], and leave a blessing behind Him…”
YHWH might turn and relent… in other words, He might turn and give comfort. Relenting and comfort aren’t as far apart as you might think they are. It’s why they can be the same word in Hebrew.
Joel’s words, “Who knows, He might turn and relent” (Mi yode’a ya-shuv w-nikham) are echoed word for word in the book of Jonah. But that’s not all. Joel and Jonah also share the phrase, “He is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, abounding in mercy and relenting [w-nikham] of catastrophe.” Watch for the repetition!
Jonah, grudgingly preached to the Assyrians to repent, and regardless of Jonah’s lack of enthusiasm or conviction, the Assyrians actually did repent and turn to YHWH:
And he [the king of Assyria] issued a proclamation, and it said, “In Nineveh by the decree of the king and his nobles: No person, animal, herd, or flock is to taste anything. They are not to eat, or drink water. But every person and animal must be covered with sackcloth; and people are to call on God vehemently, and they are to turn, each one from his evil way, and from the violence which is in their hands. Who knows, God may turn and relent [Mi yode’a ya-shuv w-nikham ha-Elohim], and turn from His burning anger so that we will not perish.”
When God saw their deeds, that they turned from their evil way, then God relented [wai-yi-nakhem] of the disaster which He had declared He would bring on them. So He did not do it.
Jonah ought to have been thrilled that the evil, chaotic, Assyrians so easily turned to YHWH, but he was not pleased at all:
But it greatly displeased Jonah, and he became angry. Then he prayed to YHWH and said, “Please YHWH, was this not what I said when I was still in my own country? Therefore in anticipation of this I fled to Tarshish, since I knew that You are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abundant in mercy, and One who relents [w-nikham] of disaster. So now, YHWH, please take my life from me, for death is better to me than life.”
But YHWH said, “Do you have a good reason to be angry?”
Jonah couldn’t stand the thought that his greatest enemies would be forgiven. He didn’t want to be on the same team as them. They were wicked and evil and he was above them… or so he thought.
But YHWH would comfort all who turned to Him; He would show compassion on whoever called His name.
Although YHWH continually relented from punishing judgement, it seemed that humans have a hard time learning the lesson of obedience. YHWH would forgive and humans would go back to the same pattern of disobedience time and time again. Eventually God had had enough:
“You who have forsaken Me,” declares YHWH, “You keep going backward. So I will stretch out My hand against you and destroy you; I am tired of relenting [comforting: hi-nakhem]!
Yet even though He was tired of continually relenting, He still was willing to yield when the people obeyed Him and turned back to Him:
[YHWH:] “If you will indeed stay in this land, then I will build you up and not tear you down, and I will plant you and not uproot you; for I will relent [nikham’ti] of the disaster that I have inflicted on you. Do not be afraid of the king of Babylon, whom you are now fearing; do not be afraid of him,’ declares YHWH, ‘for I am with you to save you and rescue you from his hand. I will also show you compassion, so that he will have compassion on you and restore you to your own soil.”
From Lament to Joy
The book, Lamentations, was a direct response to the Babylonian destruction. In the book, Jerusalem was seen as a defeated widowed queen, with no one to comfort her, and no one to give her rest:
How deserted lies the city, once so full of people! How like a widow is she, who once was great among the nations!
She who was queen among the provinces has now become a slave. Bitterly she weeps at night, tears are on her cheeks.
Among all her lovers there is no one to comfort [m-nakhem] her. All her friends have betrayed her; they have become her enemies.
After affliction and harsh labour, Judah has gone into exile. She dwells among the nations; she finds no resting place. All who pursue her have overtaken her in the midst of her distress.
Lamentations 1 played with the word for comfort a few times:
- 1:2 She has no one to comfort [en lah m-nakhem] her
- 1:9 She has no comforter [en m-nakhem lah]
- 1:16 Far from me is a comforter [m-nakhem]
- 1:17 There is no one to comfort her [en m-nakhem lah]
- 1:21 There is no one to comfort me [n [m-nakhem li]
The author represented Israel as the widowed queen, but it was also personal. All of Israel had no comfort and the author would have no comfort either. It was national and it was personal. Everyone one needs and desires comfort… and YHWH knew it.
And so YHWH would not let the enemy’s defeat have the final say.
“Comfort, comfort My people [Nakh’amu, nakh’amu ammi],” says your God.
“Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her forced labour has been completed, her iniquity has been pardoned; for she has received from the hand of YHWH double for all her sins.”
YHWH would bless us doubly. He would take us from sorrow to joy, from distress to comfort:
For YHWH has ransomed Jacob and redeemed him from the hand of him who was stronger than he.
“They will come and shout for joy on the height of Zion, and they will be radiant over the bounty of YHWH—
Over the grain, the new wine, the oil, and over the young of the flock and the herd. And their life will be like a watered garden, and they will never languish again.
Then the virgin will rejoice in the dance, and the young men and the old together; for I will turn their mourning into joy and comfort [w-nikham’tim] them, and give them joy for their sorrow.
We often connect comfort and compassion together. But compassion is a feeling and comfort is an action. So God gives comfort… but the kind of comfort YHWH gives isn’t just a pat on the back. His comfort is like the most pure and perfect example of comfort- a mother’s comfort:
For this is what YHWH says:
“I will extend peace to her like a river, and the wealth of nations like a flowing stream; you will nurse and be carried on her arm, and bounced upon her knees.
As a mother comforts [t-na’khamenu] her son, so I will comfort [a’nakhem’ken] you, and you will be consoled over Jerusalem.
When you see, you will rejoice, and you will flourish like grass; then the hand of YHWH will be revealed to His servants, but His wrath will be shown to His enemies.
And the people certainly did rejoice over God’s comfort. They responded to His comfort with joyful song:
Shout for joy, O heavens; rejoice, O earth; break into joyful song, O mountains!
For YHWH has comforted [nikham] His people, and He will have compassion on His afflicted ones.
Paul the Apostle dissected this theme of comfort:
2 Corinthians 1:3-4
Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus the Messiah, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God.
For just as we share abundantly in the sufferings of the Messiah, so also our comfort abounds through the Messiah. If we are distressed, it is for your comfort and salvation; if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which produces in you patient endurance of the same sufferings we suffer. And our hope for you is firm, because we know that just as you share in our sufferings, so also you share in our comfort.
In this passage, Paul tossed around the word comfort a lot… but let’s break down what he was sharing here. Yes God comforts, but He does not comfort to the point of taking our pain and suffering away entirely. In fact, Paul said, we share abundantly in the sufferings of the Messiah! Why? Because both pain and suffering are part of the human experience… Jesus could not have been human without it. We cannot experience the fullness of our humanity without it either. In fact, Paul told us, suffering produces patient endurance.
Jesus, certainly, was the best example of patient endurance. Arguably we could say this was one of humanity’s greatest callings… to patiently endure, and work and live through this life that we have been given, so that we can comfort others with the healing power of our Messiah. We are to truly live for YHWH… to live out our lives with wonderment, and adventure, and praise to the One who gave us this life in the first place.
There is an even greater adventure waiting for us, but until then we live, somewhat broken and not yet fully complete. But the grace of God gives comfort to help us through… so that one day we will experience full peace… a life fulfilled (or fully-filled). We are all familiar with the phrase “May they rest in peace”… Rest is a full feeling of comfort. Peace is wholeness. God gives us comfort in this life so that we can be fully at rest and be fully at peace in the hereafter with YHWH.
Jesus knew it and preached it in His infamous Sermon on the Mount:
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Jesus preached God’s comfort from the beginning. Near the start of His ministry He entered the synagogue in His hometown of Nazareth, opened the scroll and read from Isaiah in the presence of His neighbours:
Isaiah 61:2-3a (see also Luke 4:18-19)
The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort [l-nakhem] all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion—
to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair.
After He finished reading the passage (which Luke quoted as only the first two verses), Yeshua shocked His the people in His hometown:
Then He rolled up the scroll, returned it to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fixed on Him, and He began by saying, “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
Yeshua (Jesus) was announcing that it was He who was sent to comfort us. This was YHWH taking physical action. He didn’t just FEEL compassion for us, He physically took action. YHWH comforted us by sending Himself through Yeshua, His Son, to die for our iniquities.
And in His death, Yeshua anointed us with His Spirit. We should be bowing in His presence, but He anointed us! He anointed us with a crown of beauty, oil of joy and a garment of praise, given to royalty, so that we could also proclaim the Good News like the children of God we are. This is the comfort Yeshua brings. This is the comfort leading us home to eternal peace.
Next week: SWEET