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10. Habakkuk

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Notes On Habakkuk

“The book of Habakkuk stands in the eighth position among ‘The Twelve’ in the Masoretic and Greek texts. It follows Nahum and precedes Zephaniah. It is generally acknowledged that these three prophets were contemporaries and shared a common conviction that Yahweh was sovereign in the affairs of men and would judge the wicked and deliver the righteous.”1

I. The Prophet.

We know nothing about the prophet beyond his name which appears no other place in the Scriptures. The name comes from the Hebrew word “to embrace” and is probably a shortened form of Habakkukiah, “whom Yahweh embraces”.2

II. The Time.

No dates are provided in the book. Most statements are of a general nature and could fit into many eras, but the mention of the Chaldeans (1:6) places the book in the late seventh century B.C. The Chaldeans made their move against Assyrian with the defeat of Asshur in 614 and Nineveh in 612 and then chased them west to Haran. By 605 the Assyrians were completely defeated and to be heard from no more. Consequently, the date of the book should be between 625 and 605 B.C.

III. Habakkuk.

Habakkuk was of great interest to the Qumran sectaries. In 1950 Millar Burroughs published the Habakkuk Commentary. The commentary deals only with the first two chapters. From a history of religions point of view, the commentary is very interesting. But it is of little value in interpreting the prophecy.3

IV. Structure of the Book.

The prophet asks two questions (1:2-4 and 1:12-2:1). A parenthesis follows the second question (2:1). God answers the two questions (1:5-11 and 2:2-20). The first part of His second reply is an admonition to Habakkuk and to believers to trust Him (2:2-4). The second half is a series of five woes in which He condemns the wicked. Finally, unique to Habakkuk, He gives a psalm patterned after the Psalter with a heading, “A Prayer of Habakkuk the prophet on Shigionoth” and a conclusion, “To the Chief Musician with My Stringed Instruments.”4

V. Notes on the Text.

A. The first question: Why does God not punish the wicked (1:1-4).

This prophecy is called a burden (מֶשָּׂא Massah), a word used to describe a weighty message usually with negative consequences and usually against other nations (1:1).

Habakkuk laments in the fashion of Jeremiah (12:1-4) and of the Psalmist (Ps. 73) that God is not just. The wicked prosper, and the righteous suffer. He has prayed for God to intervene, but nothing has happened. He blames God for allowing him to see the perversion of justice without the intervention of justice. Habakkuk piles up words: violence, iniquity, trouble, plundering, strife, and contention.

The result is a powerless law. Habakkuk views the Torah (law) as God’s correction of human life—but now the law is powerless to change things. Justice never manifests itself and the wicked surrounds the righteous (hems them in). Instead of justice, a perversion of justice comes forth.

B. God’s answer (1:5-11).

God tells Habakkuk that He is about to do an astounding thing: He will raise up the Chaldeans, the Aramaic peoples who took over Babylon after centuries of infiltration. This is God’s answer: a devastating military invasion of Judah to punish her for her sins.

A long description of the Chaldeans follows.5 God uses similes to get across His point: leopard, wolves, and eagles. They are utterly unintimidated. Verse 11 states, “Then his mind changes and he transgresses.” Smith’s translation is better, “Then he passes by like wind and passes on.”6

C. Habakkuk’s second question (1:12-2:1).7

It is difficult to identify the subject of Habakkuk’s second question. He is not satisfied with God’s answer to his first question, but is he referring to Israel or to Babylon? The occurrence of the word “nations” in 1:17 suggests the latter. In which case, Habakkuk is now defending his people against the cruel judgment brought by the Babylonians.8 He confesses to God’s sovereignty and justice. Indeed God has marked out those who will be judged, but He is going to bring the cruel Chaldeans against the Jews. Habakkuk laments that God looks on iniquity (tolerates it).

Habakkuk then presents and develops an amazing simile. God has created mankind to be like leaderless fish in the sea. “They” (the Chaldeans) cast their nets and haul in a great catch of people. Then they worship their net. Habakkuk asks God how long He plans to allow this to happen (1:17).

Finally, he rather petulantly says he is going to stand his watch until God gives him his answer (2:1).

D. God’s second reply (2:2-20)

God’s reply is a bit of a rebuke. “I’ve told you that I will judge Judah through the Chaldeans, but you are not happy with that. Now I’m telling you again that you must accept the fact that things will happen in My time, not yours. But it will happen! Furthermore, you must trust Me and recognize that just people in Israel even if they are being treated unjustly by the Chaldeans, must live by their faithfulness” (2:2-4).9

This latter phrase became a foundational soteriological statement by the Apostle Paul in Romans 1:17. The context is different, but the premise is the same. Just people must walk by faith, Habakkuk says, because they cannot see the outworking of God’s plans. Likewise, people must act in faith on God’s promise to provide redemption apart from what they can see or touch—their own works.

Through a series of “woe” statements, God indicates that He will judge the Chaldeans (cf. Isaiah 10:15-19 where Assyria is rebuked for her arrogance when God uses her to punish Judah).

Woe #1 to the drunkard and plunderer (2:5-8).

Assuming that these woes are directed against Babylon, the charge here is that the Chaldeans are proud, covetous, and swallow up nations and peoples. Like a drunkard pursuing drink and death looking for corpses, so the Chaldeans are pursing nations. Since 1:5 is written from a point where the Chaldeans are just beginning to rise up, and 2:5-19 indicates a people already on the march and conquering many people, the date should probably be after 605 when Nebuchadnezzar completely routed the Assyrians and took over their hegemony.

Taking many pledges is a metaphor for conquering many peoples. The conquered ones will say, “you owe us” and start collecting later on.

Woe #2 to the one who covets evil gain (2:9-11)

The Chaldeans hoped to create enough wealth to be secure (nest on high and power of disaster). He advises the people of his house to do things contrary to the Law (shameful counsel) that takes advantage of people. However, God will cause the very house he is building through fraudulent activities to cry out against him.

Woe #3 to the one who builds a town with bloodshed (2:12-14).

The Chaldeans build a city with bloodshed, but God builds eternally—like Isaiah (Chapter 11) Habakkuk foresees a time when people all over the earth will know the Lord. His glory will not only fill the temple, it will cover the earth.

Woe #4 to the one who gives drink to his neighbor (2:15-17).

The Old Testament often uses the imagery of handing a cup of wine (often a picture of wrath) to the nations to make them drink (cf. Jer. 25:15-19). As the Chaldeans have made nations drunk, so God will make them drunk. Thus exposing their nakedness (no standing with God), and instead of glory they will have shame. The violence of the Chaldeans will be returned on their head.

Woe #5 the vanity of idolatry (2:18-20).

It is difficult for us today to understand the pervasive influence of idolatry in the ancient world. A visit to Hindu India is instructive in this respect. The Babylonians, like all the ancient near easterners worshipped idols (note 1:16 where they worship the net used to catch fish).

The Old Testament prophets constantly inveighed against idolatry as being the ultimate of futility. All their religious efforts are directed toward a speechless, handmade idol. In contrast the living Yahweh is in His holy temple—all the earth is commanded to submit to Him in silence. With this last profound statement, God through Habakkuk sums up His argument—I am sovereign, and I will carry out my divine plans.

E. A prayer of Habakkuk for God’s manifestation (3:1-19).

This prayer is stylized like many of the Psalms. The overall context calls for God to fulfill His promises in behalf of His people.

1. A theophany (3:3-7).10

This passage contains old ideas and words used to describe God’s coming forth in behalf of His people and against His enemies (cf. Isa 63:1-6; Exodus 15). God’s manifestation at Mount Sinai is alluded to here.

2. The battle (3:8-15).

Using graphic and symbolic language, Habakkuk reminds the Lord of His cosmic battle against His enemies. The rivers, mountains, the deep, and the heavenly bodies are all personified as doing battle with Yahweh but losing.

3. Habakkuk’s response of faith (3:16-19).

Habakkuk is expecting the Chaldean attack on his people. He recognizes this as a necessary judgment of God. No matter the disaster, he will rest in the Lord. God’s strength will give him the ability to triumph.

Sing it!

1Ralph L. Smith, “Micah-Malachi” in Word Biblical Commentary, Waco, TX: Word Books, Publisher, 1984, p. 93.

2But see Smith, Ibid, who argues that it is a foreign word.

3Millar Burrows, ed., The Dead Sea Scrolls of St. Marks Monastery, vol. 1, New Haven: The American Schools of Oriental Research, 1950, plates LV-LXI. For example, when Habakkuk mentions the Chaldeans, the sectaries say that its interpretation is the Kitim. We know from elsewhere that the Kitim refer to the Romans.

4Smith, Ibid, p 95 says, “The last chapter of Habakkuk is a prayer in the form of a psalm. The reference to Habakkuk as a prophet in the superscription, along with the reference to the Shigionoth, may indicate that Habakkuk was a cultic or a temple prophet.”

5Smith, Ibid., p. 94, says, “The majority of OT scholars would probably date a large portion of the book of Habakkuk in the period between 612 and 587 B.C., although some editing was probably done later.”

6Ibid., p. 100. NIV “Then they sweep past like the wind and go on.

7Smith, Ibid., p. 905, argues that this may be later—in 597 when Nebuchadnezzar was pressuring Jerusalem.

8See Chisholm, pp. 187-188.

9Chisholm, p. 191

10See Smith, Ibid, p. 115, for a discussion of Sinai theophany.

Related Topics: History, Introductions, Arguments, Outlines, Prophets

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