52. Habakkuk

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.

11. Is it too bad?

Meditations on “God of Transformation: 11:  Is it too bad?

Hab 1:3,4     Why do you make me look at injustice? Why do you tolerate wrong? 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.

Again and again in these studies I refer to us living in a ‘Fallen World’ a world where sin entered with Adam and Eve and the perfection that was, was lost for ever, or at least until God remakes the heavens and the earth.. Because it is a Fallen World things go wrong and no more so than by the activities of mankind. If we look at the big issues, whether it is the threat of nuclear war, the threat of biological warfare, the threat of terrorism, or even the apparent threat from global warming, they all have one thing in common – they are caused by human activity.  If you consider social upheaval it is the same, whether it be global slavery, or global suppression of woman, or individual actions like child abuse, wife beating, sexual infidelity, marriage breakdown and divorce, theft, burglary, violence on the streets, murders or rapes. And with all this things comes a major question: why doesn’t God do something about it?

This is the ultimate question behind Habakkuk’s questioning: God why do I see so much wrong and you seem to be doing nothing about it?  It was the cry of one of God’s faithful children living in the midst of an unfaithful nation. Why is this nation allowed to carry on like this, is at the heart of Habakkuk’s cry. He doesn’t ask why is this nation like this because as a prophet he knows the answer – it is man’s sin, but he still has the overriding question, Lord, why do you put up with it.

The Lord’s answer in verses 5 to 11 of chapter is basically, “I’m not, I’m bringing the Babylonians to discipline Israel which only brings further questions from Habakkuk that might be summarised as, “But hold on, you are a holy God, a good God, how can you look on evil men such as these under the king of Babylon?” (v.12-17) He is still struggling with the things he thinks he knows about the Lord.  There is a pause and so he determines to go and watch and wait to see what the Lord night say (2:1).  Eventually the Lord replies, “Yes, what you say is true but even as I use Nebuchadnezzar and his armies there will come a time when I will hold them to account. It may appear to take some time but be patient for it will happen. Indeed I will deal with everyone who does evil in whatever form it appears. These things will happen to the unrighteous. The righteous will live by his faith for I am still reigning from within my temple” (2:2-20)

Habakkuk prays, “I have seen and I have understood, I have seen you act with your mighty power, I have seen you bring justice and discipline, and I have seen you deliver your people and I understand you are Sovereign Lord (3:1-16) and so, however bad things get I will rejoice in my Lord who enables me to do all I need to do.” (3:17-19).

Do you see the transformation that has taken place in Habakkuk, who started from a place of questioning and finished in a place of implicit truth.  How did it come about? First he questioned God. The Lord is not afraid of us asking questions. However, if we ask questions we also need to have an ear that listens for answers. Habakkuk got a quick first answer but that left an even bigger question. The Lord often doesn’t give us glib answers but wants to take us into deeper understanding. The need for deeper understanding often means we will have to wait on Him until He speaks and often He holds back on speaking, perhaps to provoke us to draw closer and closer with more urgent prayers. As we persist so He then answers.

Habakkuk challenges us to realise that God does want us to be people of understanding. I’ve always been struck by a little verse that describes some of David’s warriors: men of Issachar, who understood the times and knew what Israel should do” (1 Chron 12:32)   Oh that the church had in it men and women who “understood the times”, who recognized what God was doing in His world, who are able to stand with faith and courage in a day when everything is not going right.

However to be a person of understanding means we will be both people of the Word, who spend much time in the Bible (for understanding of His ways), and people of prayer, who wait on God with listening ears and open hearts (to see how He applies it). When we do that we will become people who can realise we are in the midst of the judgment of God when terrorist or other action happens, and still be confident in God.  Reading the book of Revelation suggests that the end time will include times of upheaval and if we are in those times, we should expect it, but they also call us to be people of faith and trust. Trust is about having foundational confidence in God (which Habakkuk eventually got to) and faith is about stepping out when God speaks to do His bidding.

38. The Oppressed

Meditations in Ecclesiastes : 38 :  The Oppressed

Eccles 4:1 Again I looked and saw all the oppression that was taking place under the sun:  I saw the tears of the oppressed– and they have no comforter; power was on the side of their oppressors– and they have no comforter.

To the shallow thinker, the presence of the oppressed of the world must raise a question about the nature of God.  This question we find Habakkuk raising with God: “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?” (Hab 1:13) i.e. God, I know you are holy and good, so how can you just stand back and do nothing in the face of all the evil in the world? It is a legitimate question.

For Solomon (who had been a hard taskmaster) it was a valid problem. He looked at what he saw happening in the world and he saw oppression and he saw the tears of the oppressed and he saw that no one was giving them comfort, and he saw that the people with the power were the oppressors. These are the basics of oppression wherever it takes place. Because people are the same throughout history, it is exactly the same today. It may be kings or rulers holding their people in a rod of iron, it may be those dealing in people trafficking, it may be gangs terrorizing neighbourhoods, or it may simply be parents abusing their children or employers exploiting their workers. Whatever it is, it is the same: powerful people oppressing weaker people.

As Solomon looked he didn’t come up with any answers beyond the philosophical: “And I declared that the dead, who had already died, are happier than the living, who are still alive. But better than both is he who has not yet been, who has not seen the evil that is done under the sun.” (v.2,3)  If the world it like this, he concludes, the person who has died is better off now they no longer have to endure the oppression they had been suffering, but of course, the people in the best position are those who have never yet been born because at least they haven’t been through it. That’s a very negative way of viewing it. Perhaps it would be better if we asked two questions: why does this happen and what can we do about it?

First of all, why does this happen. There are two factors that contribute to this. First there is the free will that God has granted to mankind. He has made us so that we choose how we will live, what we will do. Second is the fact of sin in every human being, that tendency to godlessness and self-centredness that leads to unrighteousness. Put these two things together and people oppress people. It is as simple as that. We don’t have to but we choose to – and it is sin and it is evil.

But then this usually raises an even bigger question, the question that Habakkuk raised: why doesn’t God step in to do something about it. The answer here is also twofold and it involves what God can’t do and what He can do.

First of all what God can’t do. It is logically very simple and yet so many people just can’t see it. Ask yourself the question, what would you like God to do? Step in and stop it. How? Er…. MAKE every person good. You’ve just taken away their free will, their ability to choose, that human ‘ingredient’ that makes us who we are. Do that and we have grey robots who are all the boring same and who are incapable of the thing we call love. So tell people to be good! He does, all the time. I am utterly convinced that God speaks to every single human being but many of us are like Pharaoh – hard hearted. We have set our hearts on oppressing those weaker than ourselves and so we refuse to listen to God.

OK then, let’s ask the other part: what can God do? So does God stand back and do nothing? No, He works in the hearts and lives of individuals. A slave can know the wonder of God’s love, even in the face of oppression. But more than that revolution comes when many people rise up against the oppressor. We have seen it a number of times in the last fifty years. Something we have to accept is that God knows that some of these things take time, but that doesn’t mean to say He is doing nothing today. It just means we may have to wait a while to see what He’s been working on!

So let’s ask the second question: what can we do about it? Wherever we see it we should ‘blow the whistle’ on it and shout it from the rooftops. That won’t always have effect, but it will sometimes. Wherever we see it, we should be praying against it and not only ask the Lord to act to stop it, but also ask what part we might play in bringing it to an end. The truth is that the Lord does want to act against oppression, but largely through other people. In a civilised society He has prompted us to create legal systems that seek to deal with criminal activity. Unsaved world government will never get it completely right, but at least we can pray and speak out to encourage governments to speak and act against other governments who oppress their people or allow oppression within their countries. The world is a constantly changing kaleidoscope of changing nations and changing activity. The fact that there is oppression doesn’t mean to say that we have to tolerate it.

1. Rich & Righteous

Today we start a new set of studies on the incredible revelation that comes to us through the book of Job.
The Anguish of Job – Meditation 1

Job 1:1-5 I n the land of Uz there lived a man whose name was Job. This man was blameless and upright; he feared God and shunned evil. He had seven sons and three daughters, and he owned seven thousand sheep, three thousand camels, five hundred yoke of oxen and five hundred donkeys, and had a large number of servants. He was the greatest man among all the people of the East. His sons used to take turns holding feasts in their homes, and they would invite their three sisters to eat and drink with them. When a period of feasting had run its course, Job would send and have them purified. Early in the morning he would sacrifice a burnt offering for each of them, thinking, “Perhaps my children have sinned and cursed God in their hearts.” This was Job’s regular custom.

In these opening verses we find a broad introduction to Job. He lives to the east of the Jordan river which included the territory of Edom in the south. (Lam 4:21). He is described as “the greatest man among all the people of the East” which may be a description that comes out of a combination of his character and his wealth.

Let’s deal with his wealth first of all. He has a big family, a massive number of animals, and servants to cope with it all. Now some commentators will try to link his affluence with his righteousness, but that is not said in this passage. A clear link is seen in the life of Solomon whose wisdom from God produced immense wealth, sufficient to make him the richest man in the world. So, yes God does bless some people with immense affluence but that isn’t necessarily a sign of their righteousness. Righteous men can also be poor. Jesus was undoubtedly the most righteous man who has ever existed and yet owned very little.

Having said that, the teaching of the old covenant was, “Carefully follow the terms of this covenant, so that you may prosper in everything you do.” (Deut 29:9) In other words, if you live according to God’s design, you will do well. Similarly we find David instructing Solomon, “So be strong, show yourself a man, and observe what the LORD your God requires: Walk in his ways, and keep his decrees and commands, his laws and requirements, as written in the Law of Moses, so that you may prosper in all you do and wherever you go.” (1 Kings 2:2,3). So yes, living God’s way does bring His blessing, but that isn’t explicit in these first five verses of Job. It’s left more wide open than that. The key thing in this respect is that he is very wealthy.

Now there is a great danger in having great wealth and it is that you rely on your wealth and consider you don’t need God. God had to warn Israel through Moses, “when you eat and are satisfied, be careful that you do not forget the LORD, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.” (Deut 6:11,12). So important was this that he repeated it: “When you have eaten and are satisfied ….Be careful that you do not forget the LORD your God, failing to observe his commands, his laws and his decrees that I am giving you this day. Otherwise, when you eat and are satisfied, when you build fine houses and settle down, and when your herds and flocks grow large and your silver and gold increase and all you have is multiplied, then your heart will become proud and you will forget the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.” (Deut 8:10-14). This was the same mentality that Jesus warned against in his parable to that effect: “I’ll say to myself, “You have plenty of good things laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.” (Lk 12:19)

When we come to Job we find no such mentality. In fact we find exactly the opposite. Let’s consider his character. When the family had a get together and feasted, Job was mindful that his sons and daughters could fall into this trap and so “ When a period of feasting had run its course, Job would send and have them purified. Early in the morning he would sacrifice a burnt offering for each of them.” How good is that! This father always wanted to make sure his family never fell into sin in their attitudes over their wealth and so after every feast there was the sacrifice of a burnt offering to the Lord. We may give thanks before a meal but Job made sure after the meal that they did not forget the Lord and that, if in any way they had inadvertently sinned, then it was dealt with in the prescribed manner.

We thus see that Job is not only a wealthy man, he is also a godly man, a man with his heart focused on the Lord. What an example. How many wealthy Christians are as conscientious about their relationship with the Lord as Job was? Now it is possible, and we really aren’t told that at this stage, that Job’s relationship with the Lord was built on ‘being good’ and ‘keeping the rules’ and was in fact a relationship based on fear. At the end of the story, the Lord restores all he has, for no other reason that He, the Lord, has mercy on Job and mercy isn’t something deserved or owed.

There is a danger, therefore, in being pious. It is that our piety is based upon ourselves and not on the Lord’s love and goodness. We are going to witness some terrible things happening to Job but it may just be that they are going to happen to teach him the greatest lesson of life – that God loves you and you can’t earn that love, just accept it. For those of us who seek to be ‘good Christians’ Job may be uncomfortable reading. If we put our trust in our righteousness (and we may be good by many standards) we are trusting in ourselves and not in the Lord. Is that a bad thing? It is when things go wrong, because then we doubt Him.

Habakkuk came to that place where his trust was entirely in the Lord: “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.” (Hab 3:17,18) That is the lesson behind Job. Watch for it.