Summary: Continuing a series on the minor prophets
What do we know about the prophet Habakkuk? Evidence seems to suggest that he wrote in the 7th century BC, just as the Babylonians were emerging as a world power. The Assyrians who had threatened Judah for so long were but a memory. And in Judah itself, a religious revival had begun, but in many ways it was only a superficial one. The high places and the idols were destroyed, but still there was injustice and there was an oppression of the powerless in society.
We have noted in the prophets so far that they are directing their words, or God’s words, to the people. Now those people have been from Israel, Judah, Nineveh, and other places. But the direction of prophecy has always been words from God directed to the people, friends and enemies alike. But in Habakkuk we see a different dynamic. In chapter one of the book, the dialogue is in a different manner. The chapter is a discussion between the prophet and God. Habakkuk is a skeptic prophet. He looks around his society, he looks upward to God, raises his hands, and offers his complaint.
Habakkuk’s words are perhaps the most truly human of all the prophets. Habakkuk recognizes the difficulties of belief in troubling times. He looks around and sees all the problems that plagued his prophetic predecessors. Moral outrage, oppressive leadership, religious superficiality, strife and violence are on every corner. And Habakkuk lifts his voice to God and says, “O Lord how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? Or cry to you “Violence!” and you will not save? Why do you make me see wrongdoing and look at trouble? Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise. So the law becomes slack and justice never prevails. The wicked surround the righteous – therefore judgement comes forth perverted.” How long? That is Habakkuk’s basic message to God, how long?
And that is a proper question. It is a question we have all faced and tried to deal with. How long, O Lord, will injustice reign? How long, O lord, will sin rule in the world? How long, O Lord, will we be faced with pain, and trial, and temptation? How long must we bear the burden of suffering? How long will the righteous be overcome by the wicked? And with each time the question is asked, it seems as though it is left unanswered. And Habakkuk’s anger wells up as he raises his hands to God. Will you not listen? Will you not save? WE wonder about the Lord’s indifference.
There are some who think we should not question God. There are those who think God should not be prayed to in anger and complaint. But Habakkuk’s prayers are not from anger, but from anguish. And we must believe in a God who is big enough to hold our prayers, even our anguished prayers. Remember in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus Christ lifted up to his Father anguished prayers, prayers offered in blood, sweat and tears. God hears the prayers of the anguished. God hears the complaints of the righteous. And in some way God will answer those prayers.
And so we turn to God’s answer to Habakkuk. God knows the injustice of the Judean people. God sees their sin. God knows their moral lapses and oppression. God knows they have abandoned him for idols of gold and silver, gods of human construction. And he answers with words directed to the wrongdoers. “Look at the nations, and see! Be astonished! Be astounded! For a work is being done in your days that you would not believe if you were told. For I am rousing the Chaldeans, that fierce and impetuous nation, who march through the breadth of the earth to seize dwellings not their own. Dread and fearsome are they; their justice and dignity proceed from themselves. Their horses are swifter than leopards, more menacing than wolves at dusk; their horses charge. Their horsemen come from far away; they fly like an eagle swift to devour. They all come for violence, with faces pressing forward; they gather captives like sand. At kings they scoff, and of rulers they make sport. They laugh at every fortress, and heap up earth to take it. Then they sweep by like the wind; they transgress and become guilty; their own might is their god!” (Hab. 1:5-11). This is the work of God’s judgment. A work, as God says, a work is being done in your days that you would not believe if you were told.
And he says, “Be astonished! Be astounded!” The Lord is going to bring his judgment by the hands of the Chaldeans, the Babylonians, who will come from their land and destroy the land of Judah. This will be God’s instrument, a foreign invader. The nation that has rejected God will be subdued and ruled by a godless Empire. And in Habakkuk’s’ words we see in that great poetic style, we can hear the horses racing, we can hear the armies marching, we can see the force that comes to inflict great hardship. And we know that this was not the answer that Habakkuk would have wished for. And that again is another dilemma in prayer. The answer. For the answer to our complaints, the answer to our anguished cries is not always what we imagine it to be.