Lesson 10: The Man Who Rejoiced in Spite of an Invasion (Habakkuk 1-3)Related Media
Every Christian wrestles with two problems: Why doesn’t God answer my prayers sometimes? And, why does God allow the evil to prosper while the righteous suffer? We especially wrestle with these two questions when they converge on us personally. When an evil person is harming us or someone we love and we pray, but God does not answer, it is especially tough.
Just recently Martin Burnham, a missionary to the Philippines, was killed in an attempt to free him and his wife from terrorists who had taken them hostage over a year before. His wife escaped with a bullet wound in the leg. Those close to him are left wondering, “Why didn’t God get him out of there alive?” God’s people were praying for his release. The men who kidnapped him are evil to the core, bent on killing others to obtain their objectives. God could have protected him, but He did not.
The prophet Habakkuk wrestled with these sorts of questions. He is unique among the prophets in that he did not, in his written message, speak for God to the people, but rather spoke to God about his struggles over these basic human questions. Why does God allow evil to go unchecked, especially when the righteous cry out to Him for justice?
We cannot be certain about the exact time of Habakkuk’s ministry, but the most likely scenario is that he wrote just after the godly King Josiah was killed in battle and the wicked King Jehoiakim had succeeded him. It was hard to understand why God would allow Josiah to be killed by the Egyptian army in that he had instituted many much-needed spiritual reforms in Judah (2 Chronicles 34-35). He was only 39 at the time of his death, and easily could have served for another 25-30 years.
But now his son, Jehoiakim was on the throne. Jeremiah confronted this king: “But your eyes and your heart are intent only upon your own dishonest gain, and on shedding innocent blood and on practicing oppression and extortion” (Jer. 22:17). No doubt Habakkuk and other godly people in Judah struggled with the question, “Why does God allow the increasing evil in Judah to go unpunished?” And, “Why isn’t God answering our prayers?” (Hab. 1:2-4).
Then God answered Habakkuk’s prayer and he now had a bigger problem! The Lord said, “You’re not going to believe this, but I’m going to send the Chaldeans to punish Judah’s sins” (1:5-6). Habakkuk thought, “No way! Those guys are far more evil than the evildoers in Judah that they’re coming to punish! How can a holy God do such a thing?”
To put this in perspective, suppose that you were burdened about the sinful, worldly condition of the American church and you prayed and prayed, but got no answers. Then the Lord answered and said that He was going to use Muslim terrorists to take over our country and destroy all of our Christian places of worship! Many Christians would be slaughtered. Others would be taken captive to Islamic countries where they would serve as slaves. You would think, “Wait a minute, Lord! The cure is far worse than the illness!” That’s similar to what the Lord told Habakkuk in answer to his prayers about ungodliness in Judah. The Chaldeans were going to wipe out the country!
So Habakkuk honestly shares his struggles as he works through this difficult issue, until he comes out at the glorious closing affirmations of 3:17-19, that no matter how bad things got, he would exult in the Lord and rejoice in the God of his salvation. From his experience we learn that…
When we wrestle with the problem of evil, we should go deeper in understanding, faith, and prayer, finding joy in our sovereign God.
Note four things:
1. All thinking Christians must wrestle with the problem of evil.
Many of the Psalms, but especially Psalm 73, wrestle with this problem. If there is a righteous and powerful God in heaven, why do evil men seem to prosper, but the godly suffer? In the New Testament, the problem cries out from the graves of the godly martyrs, John the Baptist and Stephen.
In philosophy courses in college the problem is often put as a syllogism: If God is all-powerful and loving, He would put a stop to evil. Evil has not been stopped. Therefore, either God is not all-powerful or He is not loving. In his best-seller, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, Rabbi Harold Kushner argued that God is loving; He just isn’t able to stop evil. While that is obviously not a satisfactory solution, many Christians fall into essentially the same error. They try to escape the problem by saying that God permitted evil by giving man free will, but He did not ordain or cause evil.
Obviously God gave Adam free will and Adam chose to sin. But as John Calvin pointed out, this does not resolve the problem. He asked whether God permitted sin willingly or unwillingly (The Institutes of the Christian Religion [Westminster Press], 1:18:3). If God willingly gave Adam free will, knowing full well that Adam would plunge the human race into sin, then sin had to be under God’s sovereign decree. Thus there is really no difference whether you say that God permitted it or He willed it, since He permitted it willingly. Calvin rightly insisted, “[God’s] will is, and rightly ought to be, the cause of all things that are” (3:23:2, 8).
If you deny this, you fall into dualism, the view that there is an evil power equal to or greater than God. But, while insisting that “man falls according as God’s providence ordains,” Calvin also insisted, “but he falls by his own fault.” He exhorted, “Let us not be ashamed to submit our understanding to God’s boundless wisdom so far as to yield before its many secrets” (3:23:8). In other words, there is a limit to human understanding, and we err to press farther than Scripture allows.
2. Use your struggles with the problem of evil to go deeper with God, not to withdraw from Him.
Habakkuk took his questions and complaints to the Lord and worked through them in prayer, waiting on God for answers. When you wrestle with doubts on difficult issues like the problem of evil, you must proceed with caution. Some wrongly withdraw from God and His people into their own world of depression and pouting. Others angrily pull the plug on God entirely and go their own way into the world, convincing themselves that God must not exist or He wouldn’t allow the terrible things that go on every day in this evil world. Still others hang on to their faith, but it becomes a mindless, anti-intellectual, subjective experience where they just don’t think about disturbing questions.
But as James Boice puts it (The Minor Prophets [Baker], 2:401), we must proceed as we do after a snowstorm, when the walks have been cleared but are still icy. You walk carefully, putting your feet on safe ground. Remind yourself of the things that you know to be true. Think and live carefully in line with the solid truths of God’s Word, working through the difficulties by prayer and waiting on the Lord.
That’s what Habakkuk did. He kept crying out to God for an answer, and when God’s even more difficult answer came, he stationed himself at his guard post to keep watch until the Lord would speak and reprove him (2:1). God’s second answer included the great verse, “The righteous will live by his faith” (2:4b). Thus when Habakkuk comes to his final prayer (3:1-19), he doesn’t have all the answers, simply because we cannot fully understand the ways of the sovereign God. But he had grown in understanding and he could by faith pray with joy, knowing that God was his salvation and strength. What understanding did Habakkuk’s struggle gain?
3. God is sovereign over all evil and He uses evil people to accomplish His purposes, while holding them accountable for their sins.
Let me highlight five things:
(1) God’s purpose is bigger than any of us and our problems.
Sometimes we get so self-focused that we forget that God is painting on the canvas of world history, directing the nations according to His kingdom purposes and glory. God tells Habakkuk, “For behold, I am raising up the Chaldeans, that fierce and impetuous people who march throughout the earth to seize dwelling places which are not theirs” (1:6). I’m sure that the Chaldeans would have had a different analysis of their military exploits! They would have attributed their might to their strong warriors or their disciplined troops or their superior weaponry. Some in Israel may have argued that it was Satan, not God, who was behind this fearsome enemy. But God clearly says that He raised them up to bring His judgment on His sinning people! He is the Lord of history, who raises up kings and peoples and takes them down again according to His sovereign purpose.
But it’s easy to lose sight of this when you face personal trials! For Habakkuk personally, it meant that life as he had always known it would come to a frightening, permanent change. The Chaldeans destroyed the nation of Judah, leveled the city of Jerusalem, including the Temple, and slaughtered countless Jewish people. They forcefully deported many more as slaves and left a weak remnant in the land as caretakers. Never again in Habakkuk’s lifetime would he or his family know life as they had known it. But he and the rest of the godly remnant had to submit their individual lives to God’s greater purpose in kingdom history. Likewise, we need to view our lives within the greater picture of God’s purpose in history.
(2) God is aware of all evil and no evil person or nation will escape His judgment.
In answer to Habakkuk’s second question, of how God could use an evil people like the Chaldeans to punish His people Israel, God shows the prophet that the victims of the Chaldeans can take up a taunt song against them (2:6). Five woes (three verses each) against the wicked follow, showing that God knows about their evil and He will judge them for it. He pronounces woes against illegal gain (2:6-8); trusting in illegal gain for security (2:9-11); violence (2:12-14); seduction of people and raping the environment (2:15-17); and, idolatry (2:18-20). The final verse (2:20) shows that none of these wicked things disturb the Lord or cause Him to panic: “The Lord is in His holy temple. Let all the earth be silent before Him.” As Habakkuk’s final prayer shows, in His time God will trample the nations and save His people (3:12-13). We don’t need to fear that evildoers will escape justice. They will not!
(3) No evil person or nation can thwart God’s plans; rather, God uses them to fulfill His plans in His timing.
God didn’t have to scramble at the last minute, saying, “Oh, no! The Chaldeans are marching toward Jerusalem! What am I going to do?” As Habakkuk states, “You, O lord, have appointed them to judge; and You, O Rock, have established them to correct” (1:12). Also, the vision of what God would do through the Chaldeans was “for the appointed time; it hastens toward the goal and it will not fail” (2:3). God ordained the exact minute that they would breach the wall of Jerusalem, and they were not a minute late! As Martyn Lloyd-Jones observes, “All history is being directed by God in order to bring his own purpose with respect to the kingdom to pass” (Faith Tried and Triumphant [Baker], p. 38).
This means that God was not surprised by the 9/11 terrorist attack or by the corporate scandals that have caused the stock market to nosedive in the past few weeks. And it means that as His people, we can trust Him in these and other troubling current events, even if these events have adverse effects on our loved ones or on us.
(4) Although God uses evil people and nations in His plans, He is totally apart from evil and not responsible for it.
As Habakkuk puts it, “Your eyes are too pure to approve evil, and You cannot look on wickedness with favor” (1:13). “God is light, and in Him there is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5). Thus we must affirm, with The Baptist Confession of 1689 (modern version, “A Faith to Confess” [Carey Publications], 3:1), “From all eternity God decreed all that should happen in time, and this He did freely and unalterably, consulting only His own wise and holy will. Yet in so doing He does not become in any sense the author of sin, nor does He share responsibility for sin with sinners.” In ways that we cannot understand, God can remain apart from evil and yet use evil nations and people for His purposes, while holding them accountable for their sin (Acts 2:23; 4:27-28).
(5) God will finally triumph over and judge all evil.
As Habakkuk 2:14 puts it, “For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.” In Habakkuk’s prayer (3:4-15), he shows in poetic language how God will “strike the head of the house of the evil to lay him open from thigh to neck” (3:13). “Selah” (pause and think about that)! The Book of Revelation is clear that God will permit Antichrist to deceive the nations for a season, and then God will throw him into the lake that burns with fire and brimstone forever and ever.
The point is, as we wrestle with the problem of evil we should go deeper in our understanding of God and His ways, as revealed in Scripture. We should not push things farther than Scripture allows. Calvin frequently warns about being impudent in going too far in challenging God. He states (Institutes, 3:23:2), “But we deny that [God] is liable to render an account; we also deny that we are competent judges to pronounce judgment in this cause according to our own understanding. Accordingly, if we attempt more than is permitted, let that threat of the psalm strike us with fear: God will be the victor whenever he is judged by mortal man [Ps. 51:4…].”
There will be times, especially when evil strikes us personally, that we simply do not understand God’s purpose or ways. What do we do then?
4. When we do not understand an evil situation, our responsibility in the face of that situation is by faith to pray and find our joy in God.
Habakkuk did not totally understand why God was going to do what He said regarding the Chaldeans, but he submitted to God by faith (2:4, 20), and his faith expressed itself in the joyful prayer that ends the book (3:1-19). Three lessons:
(1) Faith is essential to a relationship with God.
“Behold, as for the proud one, his soul is not right within him; but the righteous will live by his faith” (2:4). In the context, the proud one refers to the Chaldeans. Their pride will lead to their downfall and judgment. But the one who is righteous will live by trusting in God. The Talmud declares that this verse summarizes all 613 precepts that God gave to Moses (Charles Feinberg, The Minor Prophets [Moody Press], p. 212).
This significant verse is quoted three times in the New Testament (Rom. 1:17; Gal. 3:11; Heb. 10:38). Paul uses it to argue that God justifies sinners through faith alone, not through our works. To be justified is to be declared righteous by God. No one can be righteous before God, because we all have sinned and fall short of His glory. Jesus Christ lived the perfectly righteous life that God demands. His blood shed on the cross pays the penalty that we, as sinners, deserve. If a sinner will put his faith in Jesus, God imputes the righteousness of Jesus Christ to that sinner’s account. It was Martin Luther’s breakthrough in understanding this truth that freed him from the futile system of works-righteousness that he struggled under. “Faith alone in Christ alone” was the foundation of the Reformation.
We begin the Christian life by taking God at His Word concerning His Son, Jesus Christ, that He died on the cross to pay the penalty for our sins, and that we can do nothing in ourselves to earn His salvation. Then we continue living by faith, basing our lives upon God’s Word of truth. Either you are trusting in yourself and your righteousness to get into heaven, which is pride; or, you are trusting solely in what God has done in Jesus Christ. Faith also trusts God when we do not understand His ways. When evil things happen to us we must trust that God is in charge and that He will reward us and punish the wicked, if not in this life, in eternity.
(2) Faith and prayer do not necessarily eliminate intense emotions.
Habakkuk heard what God said and submitted to it by faith. But this does not mean that he calmly prayed, “I see, Lord. You’re going to use these wicked terrorists to destroy our nation. So be it!” His prayer is “according to Shigionoth” (3:1), which the margin says is “a highly emotional poetic form.” Habakkuk admits that when he heard what God was going to do, his inward parts trembled, his lips quivered, decay entered his bones, and he trembled (3:16). He prays (3:2), “Lord, I have heard the report about You and I fear.”
So the prophet has terror and trust all mixed together, and he honestly pours out his feelings to the Lord. His trust makes him submissive; he is not railing angrily against God. He recognizes that God is just in pouring out His wrath on His sinning people, but at the same time he pleads with God to revive His work and in wrath, to remember mercy (3:2). But even though he’s trusting God, the thought of what is about to happen makes Habakkuk tremble with fear. The application is that when we go through difficult trials, we can be honest before God with our intense feelings, and yet at the same time be submissive and trust in His sovereign ways.
(3) Joy in the Lord in prayer in spite of current circumstances reflects the reality of our faith.
The ending of Habakkuk’s prayer is (as Feinberg puts it, p. 220), “one of the most forceful manifestations of faith’s power recorded in the Bible.” Even if the worst happens and he and the whole nation end up destitute, Habakkuk resolves (3:18-19), “Yet I will exult in the Lord, I will rejoice in the God of my salvation The Lord God is my strength, and He has made my feet like hinds’ feet, and makes me walk on my high places.” This reminds me of Paul’s triumphant close to Romans 8, where he affirms that absolutely nothing, including evil powers or death itself, can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Habakkuk has just rehearsed how God has acted in history, especially in the exodus, to deliver His people and defeat their enemies. Sometimes, when doubts crowd into our minds because of trials that we’re going through, we need to go back to the facts of how God has worked in history, especially in the life, death, and resurrection of our Savior. When we stand there, we stand firm, because the God of our salvation is our rock and hiding place. Thus from prison, with Christians criticizing him and non-Christians after his life, Paul could say, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again, I will say, rejoice!” (Phil. 4:4).
Last Sunday evening, I was moved by Dr. Lacy’s story of visiting an African prison on his recent trip to Zambia. The men were in filthy rags, the only clothing they owned. Many are there unjustly, due to the faulty criminal justice system. They get one sparse, plain meal per day. Most of them were covered with open, itchy sores. They have none of the creature comforts that we have. And yet many of them responded to the gospel message. When they sang, Dr. Lacy said, they really sang with obvious joy in the Lord.
Yet here we are with far more worldly goods, with the world’s best health care, with freedom, with plenty of food and other good things, and we have an epidemic of depression in our land. Why the difference? Could it be that because those men have nothing but the Lord, their focus is on Him? But our focus is often on all of our stuff, stuff that can never make us truly joyful.
When you wrestle with the problem of evil, go deeper in your understanding of God and His ways. Then, even if our land is invaded and we lose everything, we can join Habakkuk in living by faith and prayer, finding joy in our sovereign God!
- Does a distinction between God’s will and God’s permission resolve the problem of evil? Why/why not?
- Do you agree (with Calvin and Augustine) that “the will of God is the necessity of things and that what he has willed will of necessity come to pass”? Why/why not?
- If God has willed all things, then how can He not be the author of evil?
- Practically, how can we find true joy in God alone? How can we be freed from our love of stuff?
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2002, All Rights Reserved.
Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation