Habakkuk: Why, Oh Why, Lord?

Posted on July 3, 2018

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By David Ettinger

Note: This series was published in the magazine Zion’s Fire a few years back. I offer it here for anyone interested. I plan to run one article a day for 13 days. Being magazine articles, obviously each post will be longer than my usual blog length.

Name of Book: Habakkuk

Author: The prophet Habakkuk

Meaning of Author’s Name: “One Who Embraces”

When Written: 605 B.C.

Themes

  • The Lord is in control of nations and will triumph in the end
  • The Lord rewards those who turn to Him in faith
  • The Lord will redeem His people

Political Background
habakkukBy the time Habakkuk comes on the scene, the Northern Kingdom of Israel had been exiled for about 115 years. In the interim, Hezekiah, the godly king of the Southern Kingdom of Judah, had come and gone, as had his wicked son, Manasseh. Also “on the scene” was Josiah, who, behind David and on par with Hezekiah, was one of the three greatest kings Israel ever knew. As Habakkuk prepares to engage the Lord in conversation, Josiah’s son Jehoiakim, a wretched and wicked man (read Jeremiah 36), is on the throne, and Judah and Jerusalem are filled with moral decay, violence, greed, and gross injustice.

On the world scene, the barbarous empire of Assyria had met its end seven years earlier in the destruction of Nineveh. A new world power has emerged. Babylon, part of a three-nation coalition that defeated Assyria, is on the rise. Its status as a world power has grown with the recent defeat of Egypt at Carchemish. Habakkuk knows Judah is in dire straits and the Babylonians are his nation’s biggest threat. This is made clear by the Lord’s words to His beleaguered prophet, “Look among the nations and watch – Be utterly astounded! For I will work a work in your days Which you would not believe, though it were told you” (Habakkuk 1:5, italics added). The words “in your days” indicate to Habakkuk that he will witness the downfall of his beloved nation. The only ones in a position to bring it about are the feared Babylonians.

Key Verses

  • Habakkuk 2:4: “Behold the proud, His soul is not upright in him; But the just shall live by his faith.”
  • Habakkuk 2:14: “For the earth will be filled With the knowledge of the glory of the Lord,
    As the waters cover the sea.”
  • Habakkuk 3:17-19: “Though the fig tree may not blossom, Nor fruit be on the vines; Though the labor of the olive may fail, And the fields yield no food; Though the flock may be cut off from the fold, And there be no herd in the stalls – Yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will joy in the God of my salvation. The Lord God is my strength; He will make my feet like deer’s feet, And He will make me walk on my high hills.”

References in the New Testament

  • Habakkuk 1:5 (Acts 13:41)
  • Habakkuk 2:4 (Romans 1:17; Galatians 3:11)

Synopsis
From the outset we notice something different about this book of prophecy. Rather than God sending a prophet to speak to the people, it is the prophet who communicates first, calling upon the Lord to answer several questions for him. 

When we meet Habakkuk, he is greatly distressed. He asks, “O Lord, how long shall I cry,
And You will not hear? Even cry out to You, ‘Violence!’ And You will not save” (v. 1:2). Habakkuk is mortified over the state of Judah under the reign of King Jehoiakim. Habakkuk has been crying out to the Lord, but as far as the prophet can tell, the Lord doesn’t seem to care.

habakkukHabakkuk asks: “Why do You show me iniquity, And cause me to see trouble? For plundering and violence are before me; There is strife, and contention arises” (v. 1:3). It may seem as if the prophet is blaming God for what is occurring, but he is not. He is simply so anguished that all he can do is cast his anxieties upon the Lord (1 Peter 5:7).

Imagine the prophet’s bewilderment when the Lord replies: “Look among the nations and watch – Be utterly astounded! For I will work a work in your days Which you would not believe, though it were told you” (v. 1:5). Wait a minute! Habakkuk must be thinking. This isn’t the answer I was hoping to receive! He’s right! The Lord continues: “For indeed I am raising up the Chaldeans [Babylonians], A bitter and hasty nation Which marches through the breadth of the earth, To possess dwelling places that are not theirs” (v. 1:6). One of those “dwelling places” will be Jerusalem. Habakkuk has petitioned the Lord for relief and is told the God of all justice will bring a more sinful people than his own – the dreaded Babylonians – to discipline the Israelites.

Stunned, agitated, and devastated, Habakkuk seems to disgorge his response: “Are You not from everlasting, O Lord my God, my Holy One? We shall not die. O Lord, You have appointed them for judgment; O Rock, You have marked them for correction” (v. 1:12). A loose translation: “You are the God of Heaven and earth, right? Surely You have not ordained that Israel be wiped off of the face of the earth, right? Surely You are not serious about using the Babylonians as a means of correcting Your people, right? This is not really Your plan, right?”

Habakkuk spends the rest of the chapter “reminding” the Lord about how evil the Babylonians are – just in case the Sovereign of the Universe has forgotten. They are an evil people, which have chewed up nations and spit them out with a sneer of disdain. It is as if the prophet is asking, “So this is really Your plan, Lord? Are You sure?”

As Chapter 2 begins, Habakkuk believes he has gone too far. He says, “I will stand my watch And set myself on the rampart, And watch to see what He will say to me, And what I will answer when I am corrected” (v.1). The prophet fully expects chastisement for his aggressive words and is bracing himself to receive it.

Instead, the Lord orders Habakkuk to write down all He is about to say and make sure His words are communicated to not only Israel, but to the nations far and wide. The Lord prefaces His message by verbalizing one of the great utterances of Scripture: “Behold the proud, His soul is not upright in him; But the just shall live by his faith” (v. 2:4). Translation: The proud will be cast down and destroyed; by contrast, the righteous whose faith is in the Lord will be exalted and delivered.

habakkukThe Lord makes clear to his devastated messenger that He knows exactly with whom He is dealing. Of the Babylonians, God declares: “Indeed, because he transgresses by wine, He is a proud man, And he does not stay at home. Because he enlarges his desire as hell, And he is like death, and cannot be satisfied, He gathers to himself all nations And heaps up for himself all peoples” (v. 2:5). In essence, God says, “Yes, Habakkuk, I know all about the Babylonians. They are arrogant and boastful, greedy and violent, and will let nothing stand in their way. So far, they have been successful in their pursuits, and will be for a time to come.”

But…

The Lord will not endure the Babylonians for long: “Woe to him who increases What is not his” (v. 2:6); “Because you have plundered many nations, All the remnant of the people shall plunder you” (v. 2:8); “Woe to him who builds a town with bloodshed, Who establishes a city by iniquity” (v. 2:12); “The cup of the Lord’s right hand will be turned against you, And utter shame will be on your glory” (v. 2:16). Babylon is God’s tool for a season. However, God will triumph, as He declares, “For the earth will be filled With the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, As the waters cover the sea” (v. 2:14). Because of this, man can do nothing but stand mute in awe: “But the Lord is in His holy temple. Let all the earth keep silence before Him” (v. 2:20).

As Chapter 3 begins, the focus returns to Habakkuk. How will he react to the Lord’s breathtaking reply?

Verse 1 begins with these words: “A prayer of Habakkuk the prophet, on Shigionoth.” Based on the Lord’s stunning response, Habakkuk has composed a musical prayer of praise, worship, and joy.

Habakkuk begins his tuneful testimonial with the words, “O Lord, I have heard Your speech and was afraid; O Lord, revive Your work in the midst of the years! In the midst of the years make it known; In wrath remember mercy” (v. 3:2). There is a wonderful sense of acceptance by the prophet as the questioning has vanished. Habakkuk now understands Israel must be punished, but in the doing, the prophet knows the Lord will exercise mercy.

Furthermore, Habakkuk is grateful for the glorious insight he has been granted into the Lord’s nature. The prophet, however, is not selfish; he doesn’t want to hoard it. He entreats the Lord to “revive Your work in the midst of the years! In the midst of the years make it known.” In other words, Habakkuk is saying, “Lord, You have shown me how wonderful Your works are. But don’t show only me; show all of Israel. Better yet, reveal Your wondrous works and ways to the ends of the earth!”

habakkukHabakkuk lists some of these wonderful works and ways, including God’s glory which covers the heavens and His sovereignty over the earth; sovereignty so complete “the everlasting mountains were scattered,  The perpetual hills bowed” (v. 3:6).

Not only can no man or woman stand under the weight of the Lord’s fury and wrath, neither can the forces of nature. When the Lord executes judgment, it is no wonder “The mountains saw You and trembled; The overflowing of the water passed by. The deep uttered its voice, And lifted its hands on high [in praise]. The sun and moon stood still in their habitation” (vv. 3:10-11).

God’s judgment is not without direction; it has a specific purpose: “You went forth for the salvation of Your people, For salvation with Your Anointed. You struck the head from the house of the wicked, By laying bare from foundation to neck” (v. 3:13). Yes, God would punish His people Israel, but He would again come to their rescue, saving and restoring them.

Habakkuk is overwhelmed by the Lord’s awesome goodness. With a flood of emotions, he continues: “When I heard, my body trembled; My lips quivered at the voice; Rottenness entered my bones; And I trembled in myself, That I might rest in the day of trouble. When he comes up to the people, He will invade them with his troops” (v. 3:16). This is quite a change from the anguish and hopelessness that began the book!

Habakkuk’s prophecy ends with one of the greatest doxologies every written, one which, for centuries, has uplifted the souls of the discouraged and fearful. Read it for yourself in verses 17-19. (It is recorded here under “Key Verses.”) 

Aftermath

  • Judah was exiled to Babylon and Jerusalem was destroyed in 586 B.C.
  • The exiles returned in 539 B.C.

Significance for Today
God never chastised Habakkuk for questioning His will (as the prophet was expecting – 2:1). Why was this? Answer: The Lord knew Habakkuk neither disbelieved nor mocked. He knew His beloved prophet was questioning Him out of anguish, confusion, and a true desire to discern God’s will.

Likewise, God understands our distress and affliction, and is tolerant when we question Him as to why He allows certain things to occur and seems not to act on others. So long as our hearts are pure before God, He allows for our despair and doubts. When we question God, the key characteristic we need to have is pure-heartedness. Questioning God from a pure heart means never accusing Him of doing wrong or evil [God is incapable of both]; instead, it means earnestly seeking answers regarding His will in ways which honor and glorify Him. Habakkuk certainly displayed such pure-heartedness.

Implications for the World Today
habakkukGod used the Babylonians as His rod of punishment against Judah, but the Babylonians themselves were eventually punished by God. God has used Western nations, particularly America, as stabilizing forces in the world. Whenever nations have obeyed God, they have been blessed. However, those days of obedience have come to an end as the nations of the world, particularly in the West, continue to drift away from God. The more the world strays from God, the closer we come to His punishment and wrath.

Of Note

  • This is a unique book in that Habakkuk did not preach to the people, but instead had a conversation with God.
  • The final verse (3:19) indicates Habakkuk may have been a musician of the Levitical order.
  • Habakkuk is one of the accessible Bible personalities with whom Bible readers can identify.
  • He was a contemporary of Jeremiah.

Up Next: “Zephaniah: Packing a Powerful Prophetic Punch”

Part 1: “Introduction: The Major Messages of the Minor Prophets”

Part 2: “Hosea: Adultery, Judgment, and God’s Grace”

Part 3: “Joel: Behold the Day of the Lord”

Part 4: “Amos: A Corrupt People and a God of Fury”

Part 5: “Obadiah: Pride and Arrogance Brought Low”

Part 6: “Jonah: Running From God”

Part 7: “Micah: He Has Shown You, O Man”

Part 8: “Nahum: The Ultimate in Fire and Brimstone”