Do you ever look at a corrupt ruler, society or nation and think how long will that continue? How could that possibly happen and more importantly why? How long will there be violence, iniquity, strife, immorality, and exploitation? Have you ever concluded that the law is powerless, perverted or paralysed? These are age old questions that Habakkuk wrestled with and brought before the Lord.
We know that we reside in a fallen world and that there will be a day of judgement. However that can be difficult to reconcile with terrible and tumultuous events occurring in the immediate. God raises and brings down nations, though from our limited insight and viewpoint it may not appear just.
Habakkuk’s era was a critical period in Israel and Judah’s history and also world history. We do not know the exact timing of his prophecy though we have a good understanding of the period since we can piece together essential events. To summarise 2 Kings 22-25, King Josiah had repaired the temple and read the law and did what was right. Huldah the prophetess announced calamity on Judah and sadly they forsook the Lord and served false gods. Josiah would die before that happened since he was humble before the Lord and his heart was tender towards Him.
Josiah made a covenant with the Lord to follow His commandments. He burned the false gods and removed the idolatrous priests. Josiah restored true worship pleasing to God. Does our zeal for righteousness come anywhere near that?
The prophecy was fulfilled as Pharaoh Necho killed Josiah in battle and his son Jehoahaz was king for just three months. Necho put Jehoahaz in prison and imposed tribute and Jehoahaz did what was wrong in the Lord’s eyes. Subsequently, Necho designated Eliakim (Josiah’s son) as king and named him ‘Jehoiakim’. Jehoiakim taxed the land to give money to Pharaoh and did evil in God’s eyes.
Habakkuk was a contemporary of Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, Zephaniah, and Nahum. In short, the Assyrian empire was collapsing, and the Babylonian empire was rising. Daniel’s prophecy concerning the successive empires, namely Babylon, Medo-Persia, Greece, and Rome was looming on the horizon, and this was a turning point in the ancient world.
The book of Habakkuk is a theodicy and helps us understand why a good and holy God at times, permits evil. This chapter answers how long this would continue (Habakkuk 1:1-4) and why (Habakkuk 1:12-17). God had reasons for permitting the events that would follow.
How long O Lord?
Habakkuk is described as having a ‘burden’, but what exactly is meant by that? Firstly a burden is a weight to be carried or a responsibility undertaken. Secondly a burden refers to a prophecy or oracle and is closely related to having a vision of word from the Lord. The name ‘Habakkuk’ means one who embraces/clings or wrestles. Habakkuk clung to God despite his initial confusion regarding God’s plans for His people. Habakkuk also wrestled with God for the good of his country whilst Babylon was a threat to their survival.
For the believer, God may give you a burden and you may have a desire to serve him to reach others. There may be a ministry that you are called to or a gift that you have that you can use for His glory. You might have a desire to pray for your friends or family to trust in the Lord or possibly a desire to pray for a nation or people group or like Habakkuk a desire to pray for Jewish people.
Habakkuk’s first question “how long” concerns unrighteous Judah. Habakkuk was not having a moan, rather he was concerned about righteousness and God’s law. Habakkuk was a prophet, chosen by God but he was struggling to make sense of the events unfolding around him. It is okay to cry out to God when we are perplexed or struggle to understand or make sense of what He is doing. However, we must go about this the right way and Habakkuk was neither passive nor presumptuous. He was a sterling example of how we should approach a holy God, seeking righteousness and wrestling in prayer.
God will use Babylon to judge Judah.
Habakkuk had fixed his attention on Judah though now the Lord drew his attention to the other nations. Habakkuk had been using a microscope to contemplate what was happening and he is now seeing through a telescope as God opens His eyes to reveal His purposes. We could relate this to our issues and problems and remain in the valley of despair, or alternatively, look to the Lord for deliverance. Our focus needs to shift from our internal parameters to a biblical and eternally informed perspective.
Truly God’s reasoning does not need to be measured or restricted by our limited and imperfect logic and parameters. Habakkuk’s questions make sense but that is not the point. We must never restrict our comprehension of God’s actions to the confines or our boxed thinking or morality. Who can honestly say that they would have invented “grace” in the full biblical sense? It is natural for us to draw deductions and establish conclusions based on our finite knowledge and understanding, yet we must not expect God to condescend to our parameters.
The apostle Paul preached at Antioch in Pisidia and quoted Habakkuk 1:5. He spoke of David’s prophecy of the resurrection (Psalm 16:10) and a work they would not believe and that no one could be justified by the law of Moses. Habakkuk explained the same truth in that “the just shall live by faith (Habakkuk 2:4b).”
There are some who refuse to believe and trust in the Lord because they think they should work for their salvation. But how can anyone work hard enough to remove their sin before an awesome, perfect, and holy God who created them? Would the clay argue and bring a case against the potter who formed it? We need to be careful if or when we question the Almighty God, how we question Him and why. Is your conscience entirely perfect or your judgements without bias? Are your motivations always pure? Can your conscience be trusted as an infallible guide to godliness in every instance? God is from eternity past and His plans and ways are sufficient and perfect for all time.
Habakkuk was astonished that Babylon would be used as God’s instrument to judge Judah and needless to say if we were there we would probably be similarly bemused. But what if God were doing the same thing today and how would you know? To add salt into the wound the Chaldeans were described as a bitter and hasty nation, angry, fierce, violent, and wild. They loved violence and were intent on acquiring land through violent means.
The Babylonians were proud, and their dignity proceeded from themselves, though God was using them for His purposes all along. Nebuchadnezzar was mentioned as his servant (Jeremiah 27:6) and in Isaiah 10:5, the Assyrians would be punished though they had formally been used by the Lord as chastening agents, “Woe to Assyria, the rod of My anger.” The book of Nahum explains how Nineveh would be judged even though in former times they had repented under Jonah’s ministry. Jonah was disappointed that the Lord forgave them and sometimes our attitude can be like that. Ultimately the Lord was in control and as prophesied the Babylonian empire collapsed within seventy years.
Imagine living in Judah and being attacked by the Chaldeans. They piled up dirt and rubble to attack and gain access to Jerusalem and were seemingly accountable to no-one, though ultimately the Lord was in full control, and they were unwittingly His chastening agent for a season.
When Habakkuk asked the Lord questions, he started from a position of faith and so should we. The reason for that is because He was confident in God’s capabilities and His character even though he did not fully comprehend why these events were happening and it troubled him. In contrast, immature believers will throw their toys out of the pram, stamp their feet, and needlessly make themselves anxious. They attempt to reconcile lofty spiritual matters with human logic. We must commence by remembering who God is and what He has done and what He will do because of who He is. We can then be honest before God and even be upset, yet without guilt or ill-placed resentment.
Habakkuk knew that God was of purer eyes than to behold evil (Habakkuk 1:13). When Jesus our Messiah gave His life as a sin offering to make atonement for sin, the Father turned away as the Son of God cried out “Eli, Eli, lama, sabachthani? ”that is “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me (Mathew 27:46).” It was a cry of anguish as uninterrupted perfect fellowship from eternity past was broken. God is committed to His purposes and executes His judgements perfectly and made a way that we can be reconciled to God, have our sins forgiven and have peace with God.
Habakkuk then pleaded with God using a series of fishing metaphors relating to how they were helpless and trapped like fish, hooked, and caught in a net. Nebuchadnezzar was the fishermen, and the Chaldean military might the net, and this was how they treated their captives, like fish. They were barbaric and with no sense of dignity. They would be trapped like fish and taken away.
How did Habakkuk respond and how should we respond?
Do we give up and resort to passivity? Do we run away or fight? We need to understand things from a heavenly perspective. This means that we look at the world from a heavenly perspective, not the other way around.
The believer must prioritise their quiet times alone with God as they are vital for our walk with the Lord. When we have prayed much, we must watch (Habakkuk 2:1). We must watch and witness what the Lord provides through His Word, by His Spirit and through His providence. We must also wait to answer when we are corrected, because the just shall live by faith.
So, in response to the question, “how long?” the answer is in God’s perfect and preordained time. In answer to “why?”, we are not always told, but we do not always need to know either. But we do need to know God and to trust Him and to live by faith.
I have no doubt that Habakkuk would have been fascinated to learn what became of Babylon and to have witnessed the outcome of Daniel’s prophecy. Babylon fell to the Medes and Persians, yet Nebuchadnezzar was humbled and later glorified God. God used Cyrus as His shepherd and enabled the Jewish people to return and rebuild the temple. Josephus recalls that Alexander the Great spared Jerusalem and read about himself in the book of Daniel. The Romans crucified our lord, though He rose, and God raised Him from the dead.
When awful tragedies happen in this world, remember who God is, what He has done and what He will do. Remember that because He is sovereign, He is in control and has a perfect plan for Israel and for the nations. In a position of faith, you can cry out to Him and boldly approach the throne of grace. Stand, watch and pray and wait for Him because in due time He will answer!