Prophets of the Bible – Habakkuk

Habakkuk

The prophet and his prophecy

Little is known about Habakkuk (Clinger) except that he was a contemporary of Jeremiah and ministered some twenty years after Zephaniah (whose book comes after). He was a man of vigorous faith rooted deeply in the religious traditions of Israel. He was bold enough to remonstrate with the Almighty over the sort of issues that have occupied human kind since the time of Job – why does such and such occur – it just isn’t right – with the Lord, rather than rebuking his audacity, explaining His actions in a way that puts Habakkuk’s mind at rest.

Background and context

The prediction of the coming Babylonian invasion (1:6) indicates Habakkuk lived in Judah toward the end of Josiah’s reign (640–609 BC) or the beginning of Jehoiakim’s (609–598). The prophecy is generally dated a little before or after the battle of Carchemish (605), when Egyptian forces, which had earlier gone to the aid of the last Assyrian king, were routed by the Babylonians under Nabopolassar and Nebuchadnezzar and were pursued as far as the Egyptian border (Jeremiah 46). Habakkuk, like Jeremiah, probably lived to see the initial fulfilment of his prophecy with Jerusalem attacked by the Babylonians in 597. He wrote clearly and with great feeling, using poetic language, and unlike Zephaniah he came up with many memorable phrases (2:2,4,14,20; 3:2,17–19).

A synopsis of the Book

  1. Habakkuk’s First Complaint: Why does the evil go unpunished? (1:2-4)
  2. God’s Answer: The Babylonians will punish Judah (1:5-11)
  3. Habakkuk’s Second Complaint: How can a just God use wicked Babylon to punish a people more righteous than themselves? (1:12­­-2:1)
  4. God’s Answer: Babylon will be punished, faith will be rewarded (2:2–20)
  5. Habakkuk’s Prayer: After asking for manifestations of God’s wrath and mercy (as seen in the past), he confesses trust and joy in God (Ch. 3)

The message of the Prophet

Among the prophetic writings, Habakkuk is somewhat unique in that it includes no oracle addressed to Israel. It contains, rather, a dialogue between the prophet and God. In the first two chapters, Habakkuk argues with God over His ways that appear to him unfathomable, if not unjust. Having received replies, he responds with a beautiful confession of faith (Chapter 3). This account of wrestling with God is, however, not just a fragment from a private journal that has somehow entered the public domain; it was composed for Israel. No doubt it represented the voice of the godly in Judah, struggling to comprehend the ways of God. God’s answers therefore spoke to all who shared Habakkuk’s troubled doubts. And Habakkuk’s confession became a public expression. Habakkuk was perplexed that wickedness, strife and oppression were rampant in Judah but God seemingly did nothing. When told that the Lord was preparing to do something about it through the “ruthless” Babylonians (1:6), his perplexity only intensified: How could God, “too pure to look on evil” (1:13), appoint such a nation “to execute judgment” (1:12) on a nation that is “more righteous than themselves” (1:13)? God makes it clear that eventually the corrupt destroyer will itself be destroyed. In the end, Habakkuk learns to rest in God’s sovereign appointments and await his working in a spirit of worship. He learns to wait patiently in faith (2:3-4) for God’s kingdom to be expressed universally (2:14).

Chapter 1: begins with an anguished cry to God: “O Lord, how long shall I cry, and thou wilt not hear” (1:2). There is violence, injustice, conflict, lawlessness – in JUDAH, just as Jeremiah and contemporary prophets observed. Why doesn’t God do something (1.1-4)? Incredibly, God’s response is He is going to raise up an idolatrous and pagan nation to use as an instrument of punishment on His own people! Babylonia was a super-power feared throughout that part of the world, and God was going to use them to punish sin! (1.5-11). But still this doesn’t satisfy Habakkuk. In Chapter 1.12 – 2.1 he continues to complain. He still can’t understand how God can tolerate such high levels of evil – even using the evilness in other nations as part of His purpose. How can God use wrong to punish wrong? How can God use the Babylonians, who worship their own prowess and abilities like a fisherman might worship the nets and hooks he has made for himself? Can God really tolerate the Babylonians as they cruelly ‘catch’ and conquer more and more nations – and even His own people?

Chapter 2: Habakkuk concludes his complaining with some reticence “I will stand upon my watch, and set me upon the tower, and will watch to see what he will say unto me, and what I shall answer when I am reproved” (2:1). God’s answer is that He’s fully aware of the evil in the Empire He proposes to use, and His uses them at this particular time as part of His longer term plans. He tells Habakkuk to write down what He’s going to tell him, because His purpose will be worked out – but in His time (2.2-3). In responding, God makes it clear how His people should act, which is picked up three times in the New Testament: Romans 1:17,Galatians 3:11, Hebrews 10:38 “Behold, his soul which is lifted up is not upright in him: but the just shall live by his faith” (2:4). The Lord knows Babylon is arrogant, drunken and greedy for conquest, but the time will come when they too will face a day of reckoning. In a series of five ‘woes’ God outlines their crimes and prophesies their punishment: piling up stolen goods, becoming wealthy by extortion, wholesale destruction of people and property, building an arrogant kingdom by unjust gain, building cities by bloodshed, drawing other nations into sin and immorality to exploit them, worship of idols and man-made things. God sees all this. In due course all will rebound on the Babylonian Empire: “Woe to them…” But with these ‘woes’ are declarations of the victory and sovereignty of God… “For the earth shall be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea … But the Lord is in his holy temple: let all the earth keep silence before him” (2:14,20).

Chapter 3: This encounter with God was deep and life-changing for Habakkuk. His mood turns to one of understanding and trust, even though the outward situation has not changed. He begins by declaring he heard about God’s great deeds of the past, and appeals to Him to: “Revive Thy work … in wrath remember mercy” (3:2). Then he calls God to come in power and judgment as He did to the people of Israel at Mount Sinai. He pictures the Lord coming like the sunrise, like a gathering storm, like a plague and like an earthquake. And asks why does He come in this way? It is not because He’s angry with His creation, but rather He is coming as a mighty Warrior-God to destroy the leaders of the wicked and “even for salvation with thine anointed” (3:13). The truth of who God is and what He will do overwhelms the prophet: “When I heard, my belly trembled; my lips quivered at the voice: rottenness entered into my bones, and I trembled in myself, that I might rest in the day of trouble: when he cometh up unto the people, he will invade them with his troops” (3:16).

The Book ends on a wonderfully optimistic note: “Although the fig tree shall not blossom, neither shall fruit be in the vines; the labour of the olive shall fail, and the fields shall yield no meat; the flock shall be cut off from the fold, and there shall be no herd in the stalls: Yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will joy in the God of my salvation. The Lord God is my strength, and he will make my feet like hinds’ feet, and he will make me to walk upon mine high places. To the chief singer on my stringed instruments” (3:17-10). As those looking on 2600 years later, with consternation at the evil of our own times and what appears to be an unsatisfactory response, we should take heart: God is control. While Israel’s evil is a given, unlike other prophets this was not Habakkuk’s focus. Rather it was him taking his concerns to God in prayer and finding rest in God’s answer. Habakkuk shows how, come what may, the righteous can (must) live by faith.

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