Summary: Why does a just God delay justice? How can a loving God allow evil? Why do we think we can judge God by our standards?

Have you ever felt that God was just like the judge in Luke’s parable? Perhaps you have a problem, a need, a pain, a burning question; you bring it before God, and - nothing happens. You remember what Jesus said about persisting in prayer, so you go on battering at the heavenly gates - for an answer that doesn’t come. How hard it is to keep trusting that God has everything under control, and that not only his goodness but his power can be trusted.

Some people put the question like this: Since there is evil in the world, the idea that God is both loving and all-powerful does not compute. So they give up on one of the two propositions. They conclude that either God doesn’t care what happens to us, or he can’t do anything about it. That’s pretty depressing.

I don’t know whether it’s harder to trust God with everyday personal stuff or with bigger things, like war and peace and prosperity and politics. It’s always easier, of course, when you can find someone to blame... and with the broader social issues you can always find enough sin around to bring a just God to the punishment point. So perhaps you don’t ask the kinds of questions that Habakkuk is asking. But when I first read this book, it was right where I was at. “What can God be thinking of, to let all this stuff happen?” To me this first chapter reads just like the morning news. And the answers are still especially helpful to me during an election season.

It’s interesting to note that some scholars think that the name Habakkuk comes from a word meaning "embrace," because this book is an oddly comforting one, simply because it addresses straight on the great question of why God allows evil.

The problems Habakkuk wrestled with and eventually learned the answer to - thus becoming able to comfort and teach not only his own people but ourselves as well - are exactly the problems you and I wrestle with. For although the prophet lived in a time very different from ours on some levels, particularly in terms of national security, there are also a lot of similarities. Judean society was ruled by corrupt officials, filled with violence and class division, economic oppression, envy and despair. Habakkuk doesn’t pull any punches in his outcry to God:

"O YHWH, 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 judgment comes forth perverted.{Hab 1:1-4}

Doesn't that sound like today? Why, Habakkuk says, does he have to cry "Violence!" and hear no answer? Here is the problem of unanswered prayer from a righteous man, a man of God who is asking on behalf of his people, not for himself. The people are immersed in wickedness; there is unrest, violence, injustice and oppression everywhere he looks. Those who are responsible for setting an example, for teaching righteousness, for maintaining order do nothing about it - indeed, they make it worse. And when matters come before the courts, the courts themselves are found to be corrupt.

Because he is truly a man of God, Habakkuk knows that the thing to do with a problem is to take it to God - and he has been doing just that. He has been praying about his problem. But he doesn’t get any answer. So his heart cries out in perplexed bewilderment, "Lord, ho long do I have to keep crying out to you like this? You aren’t doing anything! I’ve been watching for a change, watching for revival, watching for something to happen, yet nothing does. How long do I have to wait?”

Have you ever felt that way? Look around: a lot more than Ma Bell, Microsoft and the nuclear family have broken up. The crumbs of our foundational beliefs have been swept into the margins of society; people are making up their own religions - if they haven’t abandoned the idea of faith altogether. And in Habakkkuk’s day similar things were happening. A brief revival had occurred under Josiah - but it was only superficial, and as soon as his successor was sworn in the people - and their priests - went back to their old ways, worshiping whatever god they liked in

whatever way they liked, and forgetting that God was also concerned about their economic and political behavior.

So Habakkuk cries out to God. And God answers. What makes this book unique is that Habakkuk never talks to the people of Judah at all... It is, instead, a dialogue between one man and his God. That is what makes it so immediate, so relevant. We are all Habakkuk; each of us at some time in our lives wrestles with God over his incomprehensible silence. And as God answers Habakkuk, he answers us as well.

"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. {Hab 1:5}

In other words, God says, "I have been answering your prayer, Habakkuk. You accuse me of silence, but I haven’t been. You just don’t know how to recognize my answer. The answer is so different from what you expect that you won’t even recognize it - or believe it - when I tell you. But I’ll tell you anyway.” Then God goes on:

" 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 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 1:6-11}

Does that sound like anyone you know? Right now we’re at peace, but history teaches us that won’t last. Ten years ago you could have substituted communists; in the previous generation you could have pointed to the Nazis. Who’s going to be next? Iraq? China? India? Someone we’ve never heard of?

God's answer wasn’t what Habakkuk wanted to hear. God announced that he was raising up the Chaldeans (also called Babylonians). Now at the time Habakkuk wrote, the Chaldeans weren’t particularly important or powerful. The nation that frightened all the other countries in the Middle East into quivering submission was Assyria, with their capital at Nineveh where Jonah preached, if you remember last week’s sermon.

But this little nation was beginning to flex its muscles as a rising power, and God says to the Habakkuk, "Look beyond your borders to Chaldea. These people are greedy, hostile, ruthless and cold-blooded. They are going to be as powerful as any nation on earth has ever been, they will sweep through every army brought against them, conquering everything in their way, and it will look as though nothing can possibly stop them. They will not have any moral compass; their own military strength will be their god, and that is what they will trust in. And I am the one who

is behind their rise to power, and this is how I am going to answer your prayer."

Now that is more than a little unexpected, isn't it. Evidently Habakkuk did not know what to make of it, either. There is a moment of silence, and then he begins to reflect. If he thought he had a problem to start with, he really has one now. Isn’t the cure worse than the disease? It’s all very well to kill the cancer, but the patient is supposed to live through the operation! How can God solve the original problem by importing an even bigger one?

This kind of drastic solution does present a problem. The problem of history has threatened the faith of a lot of people. Why does God not only allow - but from the text actually cause - such terrible events? In a recent survey of questions that non-Christian students in this country ask, the top one was: "How can a just or loving God allow men to suffer? Why would God create us and then allow war and disease and starvation?

Many people ask that question, not just students. Many have given up, saying, "The answer is that there is no God and anyone who thinks there is one is just a fool. People make up their gods out of their own imaginations to meet their emotional needs, but the universe is really random (or mechanistic, take your choice), nobody knows what makes it run, and the only thing you can turn to or rely on is yourself.“

And of course one of the reasons they say this is because God isn’t running things the way they would if they were God. That is one of the frustrating things about God, isn't it? As the poet William Cowper said, "God moves in a mysterious way his wonders to perform." The ways of God are full of mystery to us. We have to accept the fact that there are times when we just cannot understand how God is moving. It doesn’t seem to make sense, and the instruments he chooses are sometimes so - so - well, so ungodly. God is so unorthodox. He just doesn’t seem to realize how unseemly it is to use “bad people” to accomplish his ends. But one of the things that you do learn about God, after you’ve lived with him for a while, is that he is always doing the unexpected. It isn’t because he’s playing gotcha games with us, but because his horizon is so broad, his perspective so beyond ours, we simply aren’t able to grasp the whole pattern - even when he tries to explain it!

Now Habakkuk was first puzzled by God’s strange silence, and then taken aback by God’s solution. But it’s what he does next that we need to focus on. Habakkuk’s response to the problem of God’s silence or eccentricity has four very simple steps.

First of all, stop and think. Take a deep breath and get your emotions under control. Don’t let panic grip you, or imagine unspeakable horrors. Stop and think. But about what? Well, about God. Remind yourself of the basic things you know about God. Don’t try to jump over this piece, like turning to the back of a mystery to find out whodunnit. Back away from the immediate problem and focus on God. Notice how Habbakuk does it. “Are you not from of old, O YHWH my God, my Holy One? You shall not die.” {Hab 1:12}

There are some profound truths in that simple rhetorical question, "Are you not from of old?” The first thing that Habakkuk focuses on is that God is from before time began. He created history, and is above and beyond it. And then Habakkuk answers his own question, “You shall not die.” God is before the beginning and after the end. He is eternal God and eternally God. When the Chaldeans do come, they will trust in their own might. "Oh, yes," Habakkuk reflects, "but my God isn’t one of these local tribal deities. My God covers history and governs events, is the only everlasting God."

His use of God’s special name reminds us of something else, too. Remember that when the word "Lord" is all in capital letters, it is a translation of the Hebrew word called the Tetragrammaton, or the four letters, YHWH. It means "I am that I am," The name that God revealed to Moses when he was in Egypt, saying, “tell Pharaoh that 'I am that I am' sent you." (Ex. 3:14)

Do you know why Habakkuk reminded himself of this? Because there were people in his day - just like in ours - going around saying that Moses’ God, the God of the Covenant, was dead, or at least powerless or uninterested. There always are. There is absolutely nothing new in this. We are not the first generation to come up with this daring, revolutionary idea. And even though people around him were saying that it’s useless to appeal to a lifeless God, Habakkuk went right back to what he knew to be true. God cannot die. It is impossible for a self-existent person to die. The absolute unchangeability of God is reflected throughout Scripture. The writer of Hebrews says,

"In the beginning, Lord, you founded the earth, and the heavens are the work of your hands; they will perish, but you remain; they will all wear out like clothing; like a cloak you will roll them up, and like clothing they will be changed. But you are the same, and your years will never end." (Heb. 1:10-12)

"Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever".[Heb 13:8] "there is no variation or shadow due to change." [Js 1-17]

By going through this process, Habakkuk reminds himself of the fact that God keeps his promises. The arrangement God made with Abraham is still on. God promised that he would never allow his people to be eliminated from the earth. That gives him the courage to face this new threat. Yes, the Chaldeans are going to come raging across the land. Yes, his own beloved Jerusalem will be ravished and captured, his people will be led away into captivity. But God will not let the worst happen. They will not die out. They will not be eliminated. God's faithfulness remains. He is unchangeable. So in step 3 Habakkuk comes to the reluctant under standing that God’s planned punishment is a necessary part of the

unchanging covenant. O YHWH, you have marked them for judgment; and you, O Rock, have established them for punishment. {Hab 1:12b}

In other words, says Habakkuk to God, himself, and to us, "Now I understand why you are raising up the Chaldeans; it is your way of waking my people up to their awful stupidity. No matter how many times you have sent prophets to them, pleading, begging and reminding them of your word, they still think they can live without you. You have poured out blessing after blessing upon them, and they just take it all for granted. Now I see that you are going to shock them into reality, to awaken and chastise them. Now I understand.”

Is there any question that God does this in history? Perhaps this is why the Nazis were allowed to come so suddenly to power, to ravish Europe and then be suddenly struck down again. Perhaps it was to awaken the Western world to its greediness, its indifference to evil, its contempt for God. God shakes the nations as part of his unchanging message to us.

But Habakkuk goes on, "I see that, but now I have another problem." He goes on, "Your eyes are too pure to behold evil, and you cannot look on wrongdoing; why do you look on the treacherous, and are silent when the wicked swallow those more righteous than they?" {Hab 1:13}

"Now," says Habakkuk, "I can see that you are raising up the Chaldeans to punish your people, but how can you? Despite their wickedness, they still aren’t as bad as the Chaldeans. How can you who are holy use such wicked, godless, ruthless people? This part I don't understand." Have you ever heard that? Have you ever heard people say that surely God won’t let those bad people - you name the enemy - win, because they’re so much worse than we are and why is he rewarding them with victory instead of punishing them even more than us?

So, just as we would in a similar situation, Habakkuk says, "I just don't get it."

And that leads us to step number four. Since he doesn’t know what to do, Habakkuk just leaves the problem with God. We see that at the beginning of chapter 2. I will stand at my watchpost, and station myself on the rampart; I will keep watch to see what he will say to me, and what he will answer concerning my complaint. {Hab 2:1}

Can you do that? When you bring a problem to God in prayer, do you get up and start worrying about it again? (How is this going to work out? What do I do next?) That is the thing that so often defeats us. But the prophet leaves it there. He says, "It’s up to you. I’ll just keep watch in case you have more to tell me."

Because the answer isn’t always the same. Reading Scripture doesn’t always tell us what God’s answer to our current problem will be. But what it does tell us is that God will answer, indeed has already answered, even if we can’t see it. If even an unjust judge eventually responds to the frantic widow, will not the most just judge of all respond with perfect justice to the cries of his children?

"For still the vision awaits its time; It hastens to the end -- it will not die. If it seem slow, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay." {Hab 2:3}"

Then God goes on to state a principle that is quoted 3 times in the New Testament and forms the basis for the greatest movements that God has ever had among human beings. He says: "Behold, he whose soul is not upright in him shall fall, but the righteous shall live by his faith." {Hab 2:4}

With these words God makes it clear that there are only two possible outlooks on life, only two possible attitudes. Either we face it in faith depending upon God, or we face it in unbelief depending upon our own ability to reason out everything. We can let ourselves be fooled by circumstances into accusing God of injustice, indifference, incompetence, or worse, or we can live believing that God is who he says he is, always has been, and always will be. The unjust judge is only a problem if we confuse God and man, and put our trust in the one instead of the other.