Meditations of Old Testament Highlights: 52. Habakkuk
Hab 3:17,18 Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD, I will be joyful in God my Savior.
These two verses of faith declaration by Habakkuk must be two of the best known ‘highlight verses’ in the Old Testament, so obvious are they as they beam out like a lighthouse. They are even more remarkable – not only because they are verses of great faith – because of all that goes before in this short 3-chapter book. Habakkuk as a book differs from many of the other prophetic books in that it contains no prophecy spoken out as such but comprises a question from Habakkuk, an answer from God, another question from Habakkuk (chapter 1) and another answer from God (chapter 2) and then simply a prayer (chapter 3). To see the strength of these verses above, we need to see Habakkuk’s two questions and, even more, God’s answers.
Habakkuk struggles with the problem of evil or, to be more precise, why God tolerates evil. Habakkuk’s first question (which comes as four questions) is: “How long, O LORD, must I call for help, but you do not listen? Or cry out to you, “Violence!” but you do not save? Why do you make me look at injustice? Why do you tolerate wrong?” (1:2,3) He spells out the wrongs he sees around him: “Destruction and violence are before me; there is strife, and conflict abounds. Therefore the law is paralyzed, and justice never prevails. The wicked hem in the righteous, so that justice is perverted,” (v.4) or, as the Living Bible sums it up, “The law is not enforced, and there is no justice given in the courts, for the wicked far outnumber the righteous, and bribes and trickery prevail.” This is not what you would expect of the holy people of God, so why is God tolerating it?
God’s first answer comes: ““Look at the nations and watch– and be utterly amazed. For I am going to do something in your days that you would not believe, even if you were told. I am raising up the Babylonians, that ruthless and impetuous people.” (1:5,6) He doesn’t actually say it but it is clearly implied, He is going to use the Babylonians to chastise and purge Judah and Jerusalem.
This provokes Habakkuk’s second question: “Your eyes are too pure to look on evil; you cannot tolerate wrong. Why then do you tolerate the treacherous? Why are you silent while the wicked swallow up those more righteous than themselves?” (1:13) i.e. You are a holy God. How can you use evil people to correct your people? Chapter 2 is God’s answer but before it comes, we see Habakkuk declaring his intention to just keep on waiting until an answer comes. I wonder how many of us persevere or simply state our intent to persevere until we get an answer from God? “I will stand at my watch and station myself on the ramparts; I will look to see what he will say to me, and what answer I am to give when I am rebuked”. (2:1) I have used the alternative given in the footnote here because it rings true. What temerity is shown by this prophet pushing God!
OK, says the Lord, write down what I’m about to tell you (v.2) for it is coming soon (v.3) Yes, I see the Babylonian king and yes, I see he is puffed up and arrogant (v.4,5) and just keeps on invading and taking over more and more nations. Yes, I see all that, (implied) but he is going to get his comeuppance and will be plundered even as he plunders (v.6-8). Woe to anyone who plots the ruin of other people (v.9-11) or use violence to achieve their ends (v.12) for I, the Lord, have decreed their activity is futile (v.13) and my glory will be seen across the earth as (implied) I deal with them! (v.14). Woe to this leader who brings about the downfall of others, for he will be pulled down (v.15-17) They trust in idols which is folly because an idol is just lifeless carved wood (18,19). Instead, you foolish people, recognize that God is supreme and He reigns from His holy temple (v.20). Now in all that, the Lord doesn’t directly answer Habakkuk but He does give him the answer, “Yes, I know, but I am God and I will deal with those unrighteous ones who initially I use to chastise my people. I will hold them accountable for their wrong thinking and wrong actions, even though I make use of them.” We see the Lord making use of men’s sinful attitudes and actions in bringing about Jesus’ death on the Cross (see Acts 2:23). He may make use of such actions but He does not condone them.
Habakkuk’s prayer in chapter 3 acknowledges the Lord’s greatness, particularly all he knows of their history with the Lord (3:1,2). He remembers all of God’s activities in bringing about the Exodus (3:3-13), bringing plagues when needed (v.5), parting waters when it was needed (v.8), He dealt with Pharaoh (v.13), who he killed in the sea (v.14,15).
OK, he now says, I’ve heard all this and I tremble before the Lord’s might and I will wait patiently until He brings this chastising upon Israel to deal with all these wrongs I have seen (v.16). I will trust the Lord so it doesn’t matter how bad things seem – lack of fruit from the land, loss of cattle or sheep (v.17), and I will show that trust by praising the Lord, by rejoicing in Him (v.18) knowing that although the means appear hard and sometimes terrible, He does all things well, and this thought makes me leap with joy and I have a sense of security that the deer bounding about on rocky crags shows (v.19).
The first challenge must be over the depth of our relationship with the Lord. Do I know Him and understand His ways in such a way that I can rest secure in whatever He does on the earth, even though at times those things seem ever so slightly incomprehensible?
So, to recap, this is a prophet who has expressed his concern over the sins that he sees around him. He has cried out to the Lord to do something and the Lord answered, “Yes, I am but you may not like it!” And, no, he didn’t like the thought of his Holy God using unholy peoples for His ends, the cleansing of His people. But, the Lord explains, in this fallen world there will be wrong attitudes in arrogant men and women, and those attitudes will lead to wrong deeds, but when the occasion calls for it, the Lord will use all of that to bring about, in the long-term, salvation (cleansing) of His people so that they can move back into a good place again with the Lord and receive His blessing – but don’t worry, He will hold accountable those He uses with their wrong attitudes and deeds, their time will come!
Which leads us to look at our world today and, here in the West, we see decline in respect for the Church and the rise of unrighteous leaders and we are left wondering. Is it that the Lord is allowing us to be squeezed so that in desperation we will call out to Him, out of our own local houses in order to become the people who truly reflect the teaching in all aspects – righteousness and power and revelation, care and compassion – that is seen in the New Testament? May we learn quickly.