Have you ever finished watching the evening news with all the violence and injustice in the world and in frustration asked, Why isn’t God doing something? Why do the wicked and the dishonest people prosper. Why do they get elected to the White House? Well, that is not a new feeling. A prophet named Habakkuk felt that way around 620 B.C. and wrote a book about it.
Habakkuk’s name means to “embrace” or “wrestle.” As is usually the case, his name has something to do with the message of the book. I think it relates to the fact that he was wrestling with a difficult issue. If God is good, then why is there evil in the world? And if there has to be evil, then why do the evil prosper? What is God doing in the world? We discussed a similar thought coming from the Israelites in Zephaniah 1:12. They said God did not do good or evil. They thought God was not involved and so continued in their sin. Habakkuk is one of the good guys. He fears God and does what is right, but it is getting him no where.
Warren Wiersbe entitles his book on Habakkuk as From Worry to Worship. Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones calls his, “From Fear to Faith.” While Habakkuk begins by wondering or worrying about the world around him and God’s seeming indifference, he ends by worshipping God.1 When he heard who was coming 3:16 says he trembled, but he certainly ends up expressing faith by the end of the book. What they are trying to capture in the titles of their books is the progression Habakkuk makes from questioning God to trusting God. So let’s look at how he made that progression.
Habakkuk expresses the attitude that many righteous people have. He is ourtraged at the violence and injustice in his society. He lists six different problems. His list is repetitious, but it emphasizes just how bad things were. There was sin, wickedness, destruction and violence, no justice in the courts, and the wicked outnumbered the righteous. Does this sound like our society?
In verse 4 he says, "the law is ignored." God's word was no longer the standard. It is now illegal to have the 10 commandments hang on the wall in a public school, so I think things are even worse in America.
Habakkuk is preaching against it, but he is having little effect. Habakkuk raises a good question. Why does evil go unpunished? Why do the wicked prosper? Why doesn’t God do something?
Look back to verse 2. Habakkuk has been praying. Evidently, he has been praying for a long time because he says, “How long, O Lord, will I call for help, And Thou wilt not hear?” He also thinks God is indifferent and inactive.
Some people think that men of faith never question God. They just sit and wait faithfully and patiently. But one thing we can learn from Habakkuk is that this is a misconception. Those who trust in God can and do question God.
God is doing something. He is raising up a foreign nation, the Babylonians, to come and destroy Judah. He tells Habakkuk, “You would not believe if you were told.”2 Why? Because they are really wicked. They were worse than the Jews.3 Verses 6-11 describe just how evil they are. The reason for this description is to show that they are so powerful, no one can stop them. They will certainly destroy Judah.
We see in verse 11 that they will be held guilty for their wickedness, but God is going to use them anyway.
Most of us have been praying for the evil in our society hoping for revival. What if God sent the Soviet Union or Sadam Hussein to conquer America, to instill communism or a dictatorship, imprison all the Christians, etc. What would you think about that answer? Would you say God didn’t answer your prayer?
This points us to another principle we can learn from Habakkuk. God doesn’t always give us the answers we want or expect. We usually have it in our mind how we want God to answer our prayers. When He does it differently, how do you respond?
What is Habakkuk’s response to the answer?
If all we did was read verses 12-13a, it would look like Habakkuk accepted the answer and was content. But 13bf shows that although he accepts the answer, he doesn’t like the answer.
He began in verse 12 by claiming that God is eternal. I think the idea of immutability, that God does not change, is included here. The fact that God does not change is important because it means God keeps His promises and He has made promises to Israel. Habakkuk knows that God will not totally destroy Israel because of his covenantal promises. That is why he says, “We will not die.”
So, he believes God and trusts God, but he still doesn’t fully understand the answer. In 13b Habakkuk knows God hates evil and is amazed that God would use a nation even more wicked than Judah to punish Judah. After all, even though Judah has her problems, she is still better than the Babylonians. (At least that was true from man’s perspective. If you remember Amos, the whole point of Amos was that Israel was worse than all the rest of the nations because she knew better. She had been given the law while the Gentiles had not. The same would apply to Judah here. They weren’t better in God’s eyes.) And God’s answer indicates that things are going to get worse, not better.
Verse 16 When he says, they offer a sacrifice to their net. The "net" was the war machine or might of Babylon. The Babylonians thought it was their own strength which allowed them to be so successful (cf. 1:11). They gave no credit to God. Habakkuk wonders how God would allow them to continue like this. And he asks the question in verse 17.
What can we learn from this section?
When you are talking with someone who has just experienced a tragedy, don’t just tell them “God is good. He loves you and He will work things out for the best and quote Romans 8:28-29.” I think it is okay, maybe even necessary to cry with them, hurt with them, question with them. Help them work through the pain, not ignore it. Of course you don’t want to stay there indefinitely, but it is part of the process. Too often, Christians think the questioning part of the process is wrong. In fact Martin Lloyd-Jones makes that statement in his commentary on Habakkuk. He says, “There must be no querying, no questioning, no uncertainty about the goodness and the holiness and power of God.”4 I disagree. This is an impossible statement. People have feelings and questions. You either suppress them or express them.
There is a balance between self-pity, hopeless resignation and staying mad at God. As usual, the correct response is somewhere in the middle. I think it was Howard Hendricks whom I once heard say, “Humans only occasionally achieve balance as they are swinging from one extreme to the other.”
Habakkuk has received one answer, and he had more questions. Now 2:1 says he is going to expectantly wait for another answer from God. He is searching for understanding.
Basically God's answer is this: Don't worry about the Babylonians, they will get theirs too.
He tells Habakkuk to write this down. What is about to happen is so certain, he should go ahead and record it.5 It may seem to tarry (vs 3) but it will happen.
When justice tarries, we have the feeling that it will never come, but God promises that it will. It is faith in God which makes us believe there is light at the end of the tunnel. It is “the light at the end of the tunnel” which helps us make it through. It is the pregnant lady’s knowledge that the pregnancy will finally end that helps her endure. It is the soldiers hope of escape or rescue that helps him endure as a prisoner of war. It is when there is no hope that people commit suicide.
In 2:4 we have a much quoted verse. God says, "the righteous will live by faith." Some translations have “faithfulness.” Both ideas are involved. You really can’t separate the two. Faith is what you believe. Faithfulness is acting according to what you believe. James deals with this principle in James 2.
You might say faith and faithfulness is not true and perhaps use the illustration of someone who “knows” that smoking is bad for them, but doesn’t stop. If you could really know their heart, you would find that they don’t think anything will happen to them. It is the same syndrome in which people think accidents only happen to other people.
What is the faith? It is trusting God for life. We saw this explained in Hosea.
What does faithfulness look like? It is faithfulness to God's law. It is following the moral standards of the 10 commandments which we can summarize as “loving God” and “loving one’s neighbor.” There were still righteous people in Judah. There is always a remnant and God always preserves them in the midst of his judgment. We see this point repeated in several of the prophets. This verse tells them and Habakkuk what they need to do.
2:5. Babylon is compared to a drunkard whose appetite for more wine is never satisfied. In fact, the Babylonians were famouse for their drunkeness. It was during one of their drinking parties that the Cyrus and the Persians were able to sneak into the city and defeat the Babylonians.6 The Babylonians were never content with the size of their empire. They tried to conquer more and more. Only a relationship with God can satisfy.
I think there is an important concept to think about in verses 4-5. The proud person puts himself first and goes out using and abusing others. In contrast the righteous have humility and put others before self and do things for the good of others.
Next, Habakkuk gives a series of "Woe" oracles to describe how bad Babylon is. But he doesn’t mention Babylon in these descriptions. He may have done that so that they would be taken more as a universal principle or description of evil. We can relate to many of the descriptions that he gives. There is a progression here. I think among the first four one sin leads to the next.
- Woe7 to the Proud 2:4-5
- Woe to the Greedy 2:6-8
- Woe to the Dishonest 2:9-11
- Woe to the Violent 2:12-14
- Woe to the Sensual 2:15-17
- Woe to the Idolater 2:18-20
The proud person thinks they deserve better. They want more. They will do anything to get it. the Sensual person is searching for fulfillment through experiences - mainly sexual. The Idolater looks to everything else but God to make life work. These characteristics certainly apply to the 20th century.
2:16-17 show that their time for judgment would come too.
Habakkuk's Prayer of Praise
In chapter one Habakkuk was low. He was despairing because of the evil around him. In chapter two he goes up to the watchtower to wait for the second answer. Now, in chapter three, we see him praising God and the last phrase of the book is “and makes me walk on my high places.” The book is Habakkuk’s steady progression upwards (spiritually) towards God.
Habakkuk now understands and offers a prayer of praise because God is in control.
- He pleads for mercy in the midst of the judgment (1-2).
He is afraid of what is coming. He knows it will be awful. Undoubtedly he will suffer too. Maybe personally, but at least through witnessing the death and destruction of those around him.
- He praises God's majesty and power (3-15).
- He promises to wait on the Lord (16-19).
What is coming is frightening, but he commits himself to wait and trust in God.
At the beginning of the book I mentioned that Habakkuk’s name meant “embrace” or “wrestle.” We’ve see him wrestle with the tough questions, but what is his final response? To embrace God and trust in Him.
(1) God sometimes seems to be inactive, but He is involved. 1:12 showed that the Babylonians were under God’s control, and He was using them to achieve His purposes.
(2) God is holy. In 1:13 Habakkuk said that God could not approve evil. This should be a sobering thought to us as we struggle with temptations, sins, bad habits (which is a euphemism for sins), etc.
(3) God hears and answers prayers.
(4) God sometimes gives unexpected answers to our prayers. When we pray, we usually have in our minds the way we want God to answer. When He answers differently, we think He hasn’t answered at all.
(5) God is Just and God is Good. He will judge the wicked and he is concerned for the righteous.
(6) The righteous live by faith and faithfulness. This means we really believe that God is Good and God is just. And we live accordingly. What are some situations where you might need to do that?
- In your church? Instead of changing churches when things don’t go your way or there are problems, perhaps you need be faithful to that church and try to minister to them. That may not be the best option, but it needs to be considered.
- In your Marriage? If a person is having troubles in marriage the current way of dealing with it is to get a divorce. But the righteous and correct way to deal with the problem is to remain faithful to the spouse and work it out. Even if it is never worked out, you remain faithful to the spouse. (Eg. Hosea.)
In summary, I think the message of Habakkuk is very comforting to us because we live in a wicked society. We can look back at what Habakkuk wrote, see that it came true, that God really is in control, that God did protect the righteous even though they went to Babylon (eg. Daniel, Shadrack, Meshack and Abednego) and He eventually brought them back to the land. Therefore, my faith in God can be bolstered by the prophecy and historical events that show God’s word is true.
As I’ve said before, prophecy is not just gee whiz information designed to tell us what is going to happen in the future. It is good for my heart because it helps me see that God is in control and God is going to preserve His people. It brings comfort for now and hope for the future.
2 Some people take this to mean that the Babylonians were not a major power at that time and therefore Habakkuk was written earlier during Assyrian prominence. But the phrase “you won’t believe it ...” probably just refers to the fact that it is amazing that God would use such a wicked nation. Therefore, although the book does not give the date directly, we can assume the date is some time before the Chaldeans (1:6) invaded Jerusalem in 605 BC, and some time after the Chaldeans became famous as an oppressive world power. That would place the writing of the book somewhere between 605 and 625 BC.
3 This is really only true as man sees things. The message of Amos 1-3 is that God thinks Israel is worse than the surrounding nations because Israel had special revelation and should have known better. Their sins, however, did not look as bad as those of the surrounding nations.
5 Nobody is sure what this phrase, “that the one who reads it may run” means. It could mean, write it big “on a sign” so someone hurrying by could read it. It could mean - write it simply so someone reading it fast could understand. It might mean - write it down so those who read it can run tell others. One might think it is saying - write it down so those who read it may flee the Babylonians. But we know from Jeremiah that they were not supposed to flee the Babylonians. Those who fled, died. Those who stayed and took their discipline, lived. Anyway, this is just another one of those inscrutable sayings. Maybe it just means - write it down so that, when the time comes, you will know that the judgment is from God, not just fate.