The Message of the Prophet Habakkuk – 01 (“Our Sovereign God is in Control”)
Many Christians in our day say that when you trust Jesus Christ, you rid yourself of all problems. You don’t!
It is true that your basic spiritual problem – your relationship with God – has been solved, but with that solution comes a whole new set of problems that you didn’t face when you were an unbeliever, for example: ‘Why do good people suffer and evil people prosper?’ or ‘Why isn’t God answering my prayer?’ or ‘When I’m doing my best for the Lord, why do I experience the worst from others?’
Christians who claim to be without problems are either not telling the truth or not growing and experiencing real life. Are they living in a religious dream world that has blocked out reality and stifled honest feelings or perhaps are they just not thinking about it all. Like Job’s uncomfortable comforters, they mistake shallow optimism for the peace of God and ‘the good life’ for the blessing of God. You never hear them ask what David and Jesus asked, “My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?” (Ps.22:1; Matt.27:46). Habakkuk wasn’t that kind of believer, as he surveyed the land of Judah and watched the international scene, he found himself struggling with some serious problems and questions. But he did the right thing: He took his problems to the Lord.
Habakkuk was probably written about 640–615 BC, just before the fall of Assyria and the rise of Babylon (Chaldea). God used Assyria to punish Israel (722); now He would use Babylon to punish Assyria and Judah. This prophecy would be fulfilled several decades after Habakkuk, in 586 BC.
The “theme question” of Habakkuk is, “how can a sovereign God use a wicked nation such as Babylon for His Divine purpose?” God judges all nations, said Habakkuk, and even Babylon would eventually be judged (Babylon fell to Persia in 539). Though God’s ways are sometimes mysterious, “the righteous shall live by his faith” (2:4) while awaiting salvation. These words are quoted three times in the New Testament (Rom. 1:17; Gal. 3:11; Heb. 10:38).
The Bible is revealed in a variety of genres, or literary styles of composition. In the Old Testament there are worship literature, historical narrative, love poems, prophecies, legal codes, and wisdom literature. Most of the books of the Old Testament are composed of various of genres. For example, the book of Exodus includes historical narrative, poetical songs and detailed legal codes. It is the same for Habakkuk.
〈 First, the book of Habakkuk is prophetic literature. Habakkuk is a prophet who declares the very words of God to the people of Judah and Jerusalem.
〈 Second, the book contains many elements of the genre of wisdom. Wisdom literature deals with the deep questions of life, such as the question of theodicy (the latter is the attempt to understand the nature and actions of God in the face of evil and suffering). This is a major issue in the book of Habakkuk, especially in the opening chapter.
〈 Third, the book is in part lamentation, which is a literary composition of grief and sorrow.
〈 Fourth, it is complaint, in which Habakkuk complains about the actions of God’s people and the inactivity of God.
〈 Fifth, finally, the third chapter of the book, in its entirety, is a psalm that closely resembles the writings found in the book of Psalms.
〈 Finally, another daunting aspect of the book of Habakkuk is that it is written in poetical form. This style of writing, is very difficult to interpret, because Hebrew poetry uses many structures that are unfamiliar to us.
The book is outlined in the following general fashion:
1:1 – The setting of the book
1:2-4 – Habakkuk’s first complaint
1:5-11 – God’s response to the first complaint
1:12-2:1 – Habakkuk’s second complaint
2:2-5 – God’s response to the second complaint
2:6-20 – Five woes against the unjust
3:1-19 – Habakkuk’s psalm/prayer.
2. SCRIPTURE READING: Hab.1:1-11 (ESV) ~ “The oracle that Habakkuk the prophet saw. Habakkuk’s Complaint: 2O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not hear? Or cry to you “Violence!” and you will not save? 3Why do you make me see iniquity, and why do you idly look at wrong? Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise. 4So the law is paralysed, and justice never goes forth. For the wicked surround the righteous; so justice goes forth perverted.
The Lord’s Answer:
5“Look among the nations, and see; wonder and be astounded. For I am doing a work in your days that you would not believe if told. 6For behold, I am raising up the Chaldeans, that bitter and hasty nation, who march through the breadth of the earth, to seize dwellings not their own. 7They are dreaded and fearsome; their justice and dignity go forth from themselves. 8Their horses are swifter than leopards, more fierce than the evening wolves; their horsemen press proudly on. Their horsemen come from afar; they fly like an eagle swift to devour. 9They all come for violence, all their faces forward. They gather captives like sand. 10At kings they scoff, and at rulers they laugh. They laugh at every fortress, for they pile up earth and take it. 11Then they sweep by like the wind and go on, guilty men, whose own might is their god!”
3. HABAKKUK THE PROPHET (vs.1):
This prophetic book, like most others in the Old Testament, bears the title of the prophet’s name. There is not much to tell about the man Habakkuk. His name is a form of the Hebrew word ‘embrace.’ The idea is of a wrestler in an embrace with the opponent with whom he is contending. This book is about a man who lived out his name by wrestling with God in prayer. The text is unique among prophetic books. It is a diary of three prayers by Habakkuk and two answers by the most high God, one for each of the first two prayers.
We find similarities between ourselves and Habakkuk as we read this prayer journal. At times through Scripture we have ‘seen’ things which deeply trouble our spirits. The weight of these burdens compels us to wrestle with God in prayer. Yet we are not like Habakkuk! According to vs.1 he had a calling from God to be the prophet – to be His spokesman, to declare the very words of God. He was God’s mouth piece to deliver a divine message to the world. He was a ‘holy man’ ‘carried along by the Holy Spirit’. Peter says in 2 Pet.1:21 ~ “For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” Habakkuk’s words were breathed out by God Himself through His prophet ~ “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Tim.3:16). No part of this book is a matter of Habakkuk’s own ‘private interpretation’ – Peter says in 2 Pet.1:20 ~ “…knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation.”
4. HABAKKUK’S FIRST COMPLAINT (vss.2-4):
We see in vss.2–4 that the book of Habakkuk begins with a heightened sense of tension because things are not the way they ought to be. It is clear from vs.2 that Habakkuk has been crying out to God for a long, long time. He is now completely overwhelmed by the situation in which he lives. He was living in the midst of violence and anarchy, of cruelty, crime and lust. In the light of this he turns to God once again, he uses phrases that are used by the Psalmist in their cries of lament, and which remain today the heart cry of men and women at the end of their tether (Afrikaans = “aan die einde van hulleself”) as they call out to God: “O Lord how long…?” as if they would say, “O Lord, how long, because I cannot take it any longer – I have my limits,” and “why Lord…?” as if they would say, “why Lord, because it does not make sense.”
Habakkuk was deeply disturbed with the national sins of Judah. He frequently and earnestly cried to God for relief, but no deliverance came. He had taken the matter before the throne of God, but no improvement appeared. It seemed as if God did not hear prayer or that He refused to answer it. What began as an appeal for God’s salvation for his nation, ended as a personal protest about God’s inaction. We can sense the deep frustration and perplexity in these words of lament. How long must the spiritual and social disintegration of society continue before the Lord does something to stop or change it?
From the political leaders to the common people, everyone seemed to have plunged themselves into moral madness. Everyone seemed to have forsaken the Lord and His covenant with His people. Everyone were striving for personal pleasure and self-promotion. At every level of the Judaic society, sin was rampant. There was doctrinal and covenantal unfaithfulness.
The leaders of the nation had forsaken the law of the Lord and instituted their own false righteousness. They had gone back to idol worship – a pattern that had repeated itself throughout the Israelite history – it all started in the time of king Josiah (around 600 BC).
The moral and spiritual bankruptcy of the nation’s leadership also sent the people into the downward spiral towards spiritual and moral disintegration. There was a culture of immorality, greed, deception, hatred, injustice, hypocrisy, oppression, and much more – does this sound familiar to you?
In vs.3 Habakkuk asks the Lord ~ “Why do you make me see iniquity, and why do you idly look at wrong?” These words are a reflection of the general depravity of the society in the eyes of the prophet. This same set of words are found in Is.59:4 where Isiah exposes the chronic injustice in Judah a century before the time of Habakkuk ~ “No one enters suit justly; no one goes to law honestly; they rely on empty pleas, they speak lies, they conceive mischief and give birth to iniquity.”
The situation in Judah, among the people of the covenant, is unbearable to the prophet. He witnesses iniquity (Afrikaans = “ongeregtigheid”) in the land. This term is frequently used of one who ‘seeks to unsettle or even kill any faithful member of the covenant community.’ The point is that the wicked in Judah were persecuting the faithful. And, so, the prophet is asking how God could let him see such suffering within the covenant community at the hands of other members of the same covenant community.
In vs.4, Habakkuk lists injustice to the innocent and helpless and he says…:
〈 “The law is paralysed (or powerless),
〈 “Justice never goes forth”,
〈 “The wicked surround the righteous”,
〈 “Justice goes forth perverted.”
In Habakkuk’s time the legal system worked on behalf of the weak, the victims of crime and to protect the morality of the community. With us, the governmental laws and the judges who interpret them defend the rights of pornographers, abortionists and many more wicked people and their actions. The system protects sexual perverts at great cost to public health. Courts threaten parents who correct and discipline their children. State education promotes evolution, disbelief, scepticism and silences Biblical opinions. It seems as if people (from the president, down to the ordinary citizen) get away with corruption, murder, all sorts of sin and unrighteousness. Why is God not listening to our appeals? Why do we not see change?
This is a typical example of “theodicy” (theodicy, refers to the attempt to understand the nature and activity, or inactivity, of God in the face of calamity and adversity – in short, why does God permit evil?). Have you ever struggled with this issue? Have you ever asked questions similar to those of Habakkuk? Have you ever complained and lamented over the course and direction of the world; of our country? Of the church? Of your own life? Have you ever wondered whether God is truly working in this broken realm, or if He even really cares? The problem with theodicy is that we live by sight and therefore have a dim view of the fact that God is sovereign and that He rules over all.
5. THE LORD’S ANSWER (vss.5-11):
In vss.5-11 we read the Lord’s answer to Habakkuk’s prayer. God tells him to… ~ “Look among the nations, and see…” (vs.5a). God wants Habakkuk to understand that He was at work among the nations even though Habakkuk couldn’t see it. God gave Habakkuk a revelation, not an explanation, for what we always need in times of doubt is a new view of God. The Lord doesn’t owe us any explanations, but He does graciously reveal Himself and His work to those who seek Him.
In vs.6 the Lord tells Habakkuk what he is busy doing and this news must have been shocking news to Habakkuk. God was planning to punish the Jews by using the godless Chaldeans! They were a dreaded and fearsome nation (vs.7), with a powerful and unprecedented army (vs.8). They are a violent nation (vs.9). Nothing will prevent them from taking captives and scoff kings and rulers (vss.9,10). Nothing will stop them – not even the strongest fortresses – they just take everyone and everything (vs.10).
Could anything stop the Chaldean’s? Certainly God could stop them, but He was the One who was enlisting their aid! Nothing human could hinder their progress.
The sad and shocking news to Habakkuk was that, contrary to the prophet’s personal conviction, God was already very active in pursuing His purposes. It is why He says in vs.5 ~ “I am doing a work in your days.” The ‘work’ that God was doing was actually going on at the very time when Habakkuk was complaining and God was answering his complaint. God’s work maybe invisible, but it is in operation (it’ the same in our case – it might seem as if the Lord is totally absent, but, “behind the sceneds,” He is indeed busy accomplishing His plans for our country, for our Church, for us personally). The focus of Habakkuk’s prayer had been local and the only thing that the prophet could see locally was that God was not doing anything. But far away in Assyria and Babylon, events were taking place which would change the course of human history; they were not random events, nor merely the independent actions of a human state. Rather, in the larger scheme of things, they were a part of God’s participation in human history, which eventually would have their impact on the prophet’s nation.
However, God had warned his people time and time again, but they wouldn’t listen. Prophet after prophet declared the Word (e.g. 2 Chron.36:14-21), only to be rejected and the Lord had sent natural calamities like droughts and plagues, and various military defeats, but the people wouldn’t listen. Instead of repenting, the people hardened their hearts and turned for help to the gods of the nations around them. They had tried God’s long-suffering long enough, and it was now time for God to act.
The question is, does God really use the despicable acts of men to bring about His purposes? Can you truly employ the evil designs of men to bring about His good designs and ends?
The Scriptures call us to understand that God even uses our sin to bring about His good purposes. In the story of Joseph, when Joseph confronts his brothers about the wickedness they had done to him he says ~ “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today” (Gen.50:20).
God is simply sovereign over all. The “whys”, the “when’s”, the “what’s”, the “where’s” and the “how’s” of the universe, proceed from Him. Nothing happens in heaven or on Earth apart from the decree of God.
6. CONCLUSION AND APPLICATION:
It is easy to go into despair when reading the newspapers or listening to the news. And, unfortunately, we often conclude that God is not working in this world. That, of course, is wrong, for God to does not believe Himself without a witness! He no longer sends prophets as in the days of the Old Testament, but He speaks to us none the less. The author to the Hebrews comments ~ “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world” (Hebr.1:1-2). God has the witness of the Gospel, the Word and the Holy Spirit to encourage, correct, edify and equip His Church. So, let us not despair when we see that the depravity of the world, for God is working indeed!
The prophecy of Habakkuk is a deeply personal testament of a believer’s battle with the disobedience of sinners and the doubts of the soul.
Habakkuk learned that God was not indifferent to the sins of the people of Judah. The Lord was planning to chasten (Afrikaans = “tugtig”) Judah by allowing the Chaldeans and later the Babylonians to invade the land and take them into exile. This was not the answer Habakkuk was expecting. He was hoping God would send a revival to his people, judge the evil leaders, and establish righteousness in the land. Then the nation would escape punishment and the people and cities would be spared.
However, God had warned His people time and time again, but they wouldn’t listen. Prophet after prophet had declared the Word (e.g. 2 Chron.36:14-21), only to be rejected and He had sent natural calamities like droughts and plagues, and various military defeats, but the people wouldn’t listen. Instead of repenting, the people hardened their hearts even more and turned for help to the gods of the nations around them. They had tried God’s long-suffering long enough, and it was time for God to act.
The message of Habakkuk is sorely needed in these days when so many are perplexed by the problems around them (us).
What have we learned from this first passage from Habakkuk so far? In his little book, “From Fear to Faith”, Martyn Lloyd-Jones says that God’s ways are often mysterious.
Lloyd-Jones says that the first thing we discover when studying God’s actions, is that He may seem to be strangely silent and inactive in provocative circumstances. Why is it that God permits certain things to happen? Why is the Christian Church in the state it is today? Why do we experience all sorts of tribulations? Why is our country slipping back down into a deep dark pit of economic bankruptcy? We pray for our church. We pray for ourselves and others. We pray for our country, but it seems as if the Lord is not listening. Why is the Lord not answering the prayers of His faithful people? God’s ways are indeed often mysterious.
We sometimes think that God can only answer in one way, but Scripture teaches us that God sometimes answers our prayers by allowing things to become much worse before they become better. He may sometimes do the opposite of what we anticipate. He may overwhelm us by confronting us with a Chaldean army. Yet it is a fundamental principle in life and in the walk of faith that we must always be prepared for the unexpected when we are dealing with God.
In the course of history, God has used all sorts of strange and unexpected instruments to bring His purposes to pass. It’s a very relevant fact today, for it would seem that, according to the Bible, much of what is happening in the world and in our country now must be regarded in this light.
The importance of all this lies in the fact that, if we do not view these things in the right way, our prayers will be wrongly conceived and wrongly directed. We have to realise the true state of the Church and recognise its iniquity.
There are a few things that we as believers must always keep in mind:
〈 First, we must realise that history is under Divine control. God started the historical process, He is controlling it, and He is going to end it. We must never lose sight of this crucial fact. Everything is under His hand, because He had planned it all.
〈 Second, God has His time; He has His own way; and He acts and works accordingly.
〈 Third, the key to the history of the world is the Kingdom of God. From the very beginning, since the fall of man, God has been at work establishing a new Kingdom in the world. It is His own kingdom, and He is calling people out of the world into that Kingdom; and everything that happens in the world has relevance to it. It is still only in process of formation, but it will finally reach its perfect consummation. Everything must be understood only in the light of these facts – history is under Divine control; God has His own time and His own way and it is all about His Kingdom – Glory to God!