A conversation with God for a time such as this: the book of Habakkuk
At a time when the people of Israel are in shock from the terrible things that have happened in recent days, at a horrific time such as this, the book of Habakkuk holds an important message. The book is, in fact, a conversation, and a hard one at that, between the prophet Habakkuk and God. The conversation opens with the prophet in a very hard place with difficult questions for God and ends with him in a place of faith and trust in God. I will touch on the important points in this conversation and relate to the process through which the prophet goes as he throws his questions at God.
The prophet opens the conversation by questioning the internal situation within his people, the people of Judah (1:2-4). Corruption, moral depravity, and forsaking God and His ways are dominant within society. The prophet cries out to God “How long?” He sees the situation within the people and does not understand why God does not intervene. “How long will I cry to You and You do not hear? I call out to You concerning the evil in society and You don’t save!” “Oh God,” says Habakkuk, “why do you open my eyes to see all this evil and You Yourself only watch in silence?”
The LORD’s answer is not an easy one (1:5-11). He is about to do a work which will be hard to believe. He is going to bring the Babylonians (the Chaldeans) as an instrument by which to deal with the situation within His people. God Himself explains to Habakkuk the character of the Babylonians. They are cruel, fearful, and terrible. They themselves fear no obstacle, scoffing at all who stand in their way. They do not acknowledge the LORD but rather, in their pride, assume that their power comes from their god.
Habakkuk speaks again in reply to God, and again asks of the LORD a difficult question. How is it that God, high and mighty, holy and of purer eyes than to look on evil, condones a situation in which the evil swallow the one more righteous than he? In effect, Habakkuk is saying that despite the sad moral and spiritual situation within the people how can God let a nation devour us who are comparatively far worse than us? He compares the Babylonians to a fisherman who catches all the peoples in his net and then sacrifices to his gods and gives them the credit for the success. Whereas his first complaint to God was about his own people’s moral and spiritual situation he now cries to the LORD because he feels the greater injustice of being invaded by a far more evil nation. “I will wait for Your answer!” he says to God, “and I will not rest until You do answer me.” (2:1).
God did answer (2:2-4). There is a “vision”, He says, which Habakkuk is to write in clear letters (2:2). The vision is God’s word, as we can see in 1 Samuel 3:1 by the parallelism of ‘vision’ and ‘God’s word’, and it has its time. It will come quickly, and nothing can stop it from being fulfilled. If it seems that the vision is delayed – wait for it. It will come exactly at the time that God has appointed for it.
God tells the prophet, who cried out to Him about the evil within the people of Judah but struggled with the consequences of that evil, that He will fulfil His purpose. Nothing will stop it. Each one’s response to God’s word will determine his or her fate. Two possible reactions are mentioned: pride and faith (2:4). Those who believe in what God says, and who, on the basis of that faith. are prepared to wait for the fulfillment of that word will live and their response of faith will define them as righteous. The modern Israeli expression “a man will live in his faith” is used by many to justify the approach that makes ‘truth’ a personal and not an absolute thing. But this is both a misquotation and a misuse of what God says in Habakkuk 2:4 which is – “but the righteous shall live by his faith.” This is not a recognition of ‘any’ faith but rather a declaration that there is an integral connection between faith in the LORD Himself and in His word, and between being ‘righteous’.
The LORD continues by declaring the terrible end of the wicked, both the enemy from without and those within who do not live by faith (2:5-20). Judgement will come, and the repetition of the cry “woe” emphasizes the warning. Human glory will be brought low, and the LORD’s glory will be revealed and will fill the whole earth like the water covers the sea (2:14). Many do not trust in the LORD but rather rely on many and varied other things, which they are very vocal about. But the LORD reigns and all will have to be in silence before Him (2:20).
The last speech in the conversation between Habakkuk and the LORD is actually a prayer, or a psalm, of the prophet. What God said to him has completely changed his perspective, understanding, and feeling. In his prayer Habakkuk praises the LORD for His greatness and expresses deep understanding for His anger over wickedness. Now he prays for mercy (3:2). He understands that the LORD will fulfill all that He promised to the fathers and that He is working to save His people and to deal finally with the wicked (3:13).
In the book of Matthew, the meaning of the phrase in Habakkuk’s prayer “You came forth to save Your people” (3:13) is fulfilled in the coming of Yeshua (Jesus). He was given His name, which in Hebrew is the word ‘save’, “because He will save His people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21). In addition, the words “You crushed the head of the house of the evil” in the same verse in Habakkuk (3:13) is connected to a statement in Psalm 110. In that Psalm the one who David calls “my Lord,” (which, in Matt. 22:41-46, Yeshua connects to the Messiah and in the context to Himself), and whom the LORD tells to sit at His right hand, is the One who “crushed the head [of the wicked] over the wide earth” (Ps. 110:1, 6 – the word ‘head’ here is often translated as ‘chief men’). Though a different word is used in Hebrew for ‘crush’ in Gen. 3:15, it seems that the previous verses are connected to what God said to the serpent in the garden of Eden – that the seed of the woman will crush his head (Gen. 3:15). In the Tanach, we are led to expect one who will fulfill these things and the New Testament points to Yeshua as the one. Salvation, forgiveness of sin and victory over the enemy, comes through Him.
Habakkuk continues in his prayer to say how deeply the things he now knows affect him. But, despite the fact that his stomach turned upside down at what he heard, he understood that his joy was not dependent on the circumstances and did not need to be affected by the seriousness of the situation (3:16-19). Even though everything is destroyed Habakkuk’s joy is in the LORD Himself, for he knows that He is faithful, that He will fulfill His word, and that in the midst of what is happening nationally and internationally – the LORD is the source of his strength and salvation. At the beginning of the book his eyes were on the evil within his people and on the enormity of the terrible fast-approaching disaster. Now, he is looking to the LORD Himself and understands that He is involved and that at the time that He sees fit He will fulfill all that He has spoken. The prophet is, therefore, able to declare:
17 Though the fig tree should not blossom And there be no fruit on the vines, Though the yield of the olive should fail And the fields produce no food, Though the flock should be cut off from the fold And there be no cattle in the stalls, 18 Yet I will exult in the LORD, I will rejoice in the God of my salvation. 19 The Lord GOD is my strength, And He has made my feet like hinds’ feet, And makes me walk on my high places. For the choir director, on my stringed instruments. (3:17-19 – NAS).
In the wake of the murderous and atrocious attack of Hamas terrorists in Israel and the war in which the people of Israel find ourselves, our hearts cry out. The dialogue between Habakkuk and God teaches us an important lesson for such a time as this. Like the prophet, we may well have our focus on the moral and spiritual situation of Israel, being so far from the place where God wants us to be. It is also natural and right that we should hurt over the situation of our people, and it’s so hard to see terrible things happening as we are attacked by enemies who only desire to kill and destroy. But, in the same way that He worked with Habakkuk, God desires that we not be focused only on what we see around us but rather that we lift up our eyes to Him. God promised to save Israel, and He will fulfill His word. He works in order to draw us to Him. Let us not focus on what is going on internally and externally but let us focus on the LORD. When God is the source of our joy – that is true joy that is not dependent on our circumstances. It is not removed from the situation but is grounded in God who is faithful and will in the end bring righteousness and justice and will save.