Habakkuk — Processing with God
Written sometime between the death of King Josiah and the fall of Jerusalem, the little book of Habakkuk features a dialog between the prophet and the Lord about the injustices all around him. Little is known about the author, other than that he identified himself as a prophet (Hab. 1:1 & 3:1). The musical reference at the end of the book may also indicate he was associated with the priesthood at the temple in Jerusalem.
Habakkuk Chapter 1
The book opens with the statement, “The burden which the prophet Habakkuk saw” (Hab 1:1). As mentioned in our discussion of the book of Nahum, that Hebrew word for burden may also mean an oracle or utterance from God.
Habakkuk protested that his cries to YHWH regarding the violence around him seemed to go unnoticed (v. 2). Like many tender-hearted people today, he wished he didn’t have to see all the sin and suffering, plunder and division in his society (3). The prophet complained, “[T]he law is powerless, and justice never goes forth. For the wicked surround the righteous; therefore perverse judgment proceeds” (4).
YHWH intimated that He was going to do something unprecedented during Habakkuk’s lifetime, “raising up the Babylonians, that ruthless and impetuous people, who sweep across the whole earth to seize dwelling places not their own” (Hab. 1:5-6, NIV). He described the invaders as dignified, violent, “terrible and dreadful;” with mounts “swifter than leopards,” and more fierce than wolves (vv. 7-8). “They gather captives like sand…scoff at kings,” and scorn other leaders (10a). The Chaldeans heaped up earthen mounds to seize strongholds, yet their king attributed his success to his false god (10b-11).
Considering YHWH’s holiness, Habakkuk couldn’t understand why the Lord would punish the rebellious Hebrews using men more corrupt than them (12-13). Were his people like fish to be caught in the net of the Chaldeans? Were they to be prey for these pagans who would “sacrifice to their net, and burn incense to their dragnet” in celebration of their victory over the nations and the rich plunder they had gained? (14-17).
YHWH, in turn, instructed Him to write down the vision on tablets, so that anyone could read it and escape (v. 2). In beautiful poetic language, He said:
For still the vision awaits its appointed time;
it hastens to the end—it will not lie.
If it seems slow, wait for it;
it will surely come; it will not delay (Hab. 2:3, ESV).
Many times, God’s promised judgment seems a long way off, so people think they can continue in their pride and get away with sin. However, faithful men prolong their lives (4).
The Lord said the wicked man sinned under the influence of alcohol; he wouldn’t stay home, because his greed was as insatiable as hell and death. Most likely referring to Nebuchadnezzar, who “gathers to himself all the nations and takes captive all the peoples,” YHWH said those conquered by the Babylonians would raise a taunt against him, once his fortunes turned and he was defeated and plundered (Hab. 2:5-8, NIV).
His victims would cry, “Woe to him who covets evil gain for his house, that he may set his nest on high, that he may be delivered from the power of disaster!” (v. 9). Because he built his kingdom with bloodshed, the very stones and timbers of the city walls would cry out in protest (10-12). All the labor of the people of the nations would amount to nothing but fuel for the fire (13). But, as YHWH had previously said in Isaiah 11:9, “the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD, as the waters cover the sea” (Hab. 2:14).
God declared woe to those who forced others to drink, “That you may look on his nakedness!” (15). Whether this was something figurative or literal, the Lord was not happy with the way Nebuchadnezzar and men like him degraded others, so that they could feel superior. “You are filled with shame instead of glory,” YHWH said (16). He commanded the Babylonian monarch to drink the cup of shame, “And be exposed as uncircumcised,” when the Lord turned against him, as well. All the things Nebuchadnezzar did to other nations would be done to him (17).
YHWH then pointed out the futility of idolatry:
Of what value is an idol, since a man has carved it?
Or an image that teaches lies?
For he who makes it trusts in his own creation;
he makes idols that cannot speak. (Hab. 2:18, NIV)
It’s ridiculous to expect an inanimate block of wood or stone—even that decorated with gold or silver—to awaken, arise and teach a person anything (v. 19). YHWH, in contrast, lives in His Holy temple and commands silence and respect from all the inhabitants of the earth when He speaks (20).
Habakkuk Chapter 3
The final chapter of this prophecy is billed as “A prayer of Habakkuk the prophet, on Shigionoth”—quite possibly a particular musical instrument or style familiar to the Levitical worship leaders in Jerusalem, mentioned at the end of the chapter (Hab. 3:1 & 19). It starts out:
O LORD, I have heard your speech and was afraid;
O LORD, revive Your work in the midst of the years!
In the midst of the years make it known;
In wrath remember mercy. (v. 2).
Verse 3 reminds us of the time “God came from Teman,” [a city in ancient Edom] and Mount Paran, in the wilderness southeast of Israel [in modern Jordan or Saudi Arabia]: “His glory covered the heavens, and the earth was full of His praise.” The Lord’s appearance was brilliant; His hands flashed with power (4). Anyone who tried to get too close was stricken with fever and plague (5). “He stood and measured the earth; He looked and startled the nations” (6). Not only were the nations disturbed—but also the rivers and the seas, the ancient hills and mountain peaks, the sun and moon—at the sight of God’s glorious army and weapons (7-11).
YHWH and His Anointed “marched through the land in indignation;” trampling nations in anger to save His people (12-13). Whether this referred only to what was done by God and Israel in the past, or whether the prophet Habakkuk was looking ahead to a Messianic future, as well, is not entirely clear. Most likely he referred to the crossing of the Red Sea, when Habakkuk wrote, “You walked through the sea with Your horses, through the heap of great waters” (15).
The awe he felt at YHWH’s exploits made the prophet’s body tremble; he felt weak in the knees, and his voice quivered (16). Longing for the security God alone provides in time of trouble, Habakkuk made the following statement of faith and devotion that has comforted the suffering for centuries:
Though the fig tree may not blossom,
Nor fruit be on the vines;
Though the labor of the olive may fail,
And the fields yield no food;
Though the flock may be cut off from the fold,
And there 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;
He will make my feet like deer’s feet,
And He will make me walk on my high hills. (17-19).
In 1972, Tony Hopkins set this passage to music in his song entitled, “Though the Fig Tree.” You can see the lyrics at http://www.higherpraise.com/lyrics/elder/elder_0176.html.
At times, when we look at all the violence and injustice around us, it is easy to get the impression that God doesn’t know or care about it. Yet, as Habakkuk learned, the Lord is aware, and He has a plan to deal with it. We just need to sit tight and trust Him, while He works everything out in His time and His way.
Unless otherwise noted, all scripture quotations are taken from the New King James Version of the Bible—© 1982, by Thomas Nelson, Inc.