THE BOOK OF HABAKKUK
Introduction to the Book
1. The date of writing
2. Who was Habakkuk?
The superscription - Hab 1:1
Habakkuk’s opening observation - Hab 1:2-4
1. Crying to God
2. The problem that the prophet sees
God’s first response - Hab 1:5-11
1. Faith in what can’t happen
2. Parallels with Jeremiah
a. The state of the nation
b. The nation that comes as a judgment
c. How the Chaldeans are portrayed
3. Some specifics from Habakkuk
Habakkuk’s reply - Hab 1:12-2:1
1. From everlasting
2. God’s relationship to sin
3. Something fishy’s going on
4. Expecting a reply
God’s second response - Hab 2:2-19
1. God’s command
a. In written form
b. On tablets
d. So he may run
e. The time of fulfilment
2. Living by faith
3. The five woes
a. The first woe
b. The second woe
c. The third woe
d. The fourth woe
e. The fifth woe
Habakkuk’s last word - Hab 2:20
Introduction to chapter 3
Musical directions - Hab 3:1,19b
3. To the choirmaster: with stringed instruments
The key to revival - Hab 3:2
1. The text
God’s coming - Hab 3:3-15
1. Teman and Mount Paran
2. God’s approach
3. God’s figurative battle
4. God’s literal battle
Habakkuk’s response - Hab 3:16
Habakkuk’s confession of faith - Hab 3:17-19
References and Sources
The Book of Habakkuk frightens me - and I mean that.
It’s not that the prophet’s message is good cause for us to realise that God dealt with His people on this basis many hundreds of years ago and so stand in awe of Him and His ways (if indeed it was the prophet’s message to the nation that’s here being recorded - most of it appears to have been recorded more as a specific recollection of the way YHWH had dealt with him rather than as a record of a message which was made known publicly in this format. Even though God does tell him to make the vision known publicly, this doesn’t necessarily mean that the entire Book was what was intended) but that we seldom, if ever, think about the application of these words to the present day Church and how God might once more find occasion against His people and have a need to judge them for their sin before Him through the outpouring of a judgment instigated by a people who are less intrinsically righteous than they are. As Habbaker observes in his own introduction to the Book, there were
‘...theological and moral problems for the prophet since the “cure” of a Babylonian invasion is worse than the “illness” of Judaean sin’
Primarily, we must apply the words to the generation of believers to whom the message came and see why God had something to do in that community which caused His prophet Habakkuk to object in strong terms - but, from there, we must also turn our attention to the present day and reject any application which we might like to place upon it as referring to the society in which we live, for this is to run away from the clear application which needs placing squarely upon the shoulders of the Church.
That, indeed, was Habakkuk’s message - not to a society in which there were believers but to a nation who had covenanted through their fathers to follow after and to be obedient to the Law of Moses as delivered to them at Mount Sinai. As such, the nation of Judah stands as a parallel to the Church, a holy nation of believers called from within the nations of the world and out from amongst them to stand as a pure priesthood of followers who would declare the works and character of God by their lives (I Peter 2:9)
And it’s this application for today’s Church which frightens me for, although many have sought to expound this Book to their congregations and to emphasise various aspects of its message to their hearers, if we ever truthfully thought that we were a nation of believers who were living in times similar to that of the prophet, we would have to admit that the Church is ripe for judgment to be poured out upon it by a nation which, although not as righteous as they themselves are (relatively speaking), are God’s instruments of judgment who, ultimately, will also be judged after executing all that the mind and purpose of God has determined.
Although speaking of the days of Moses, Paul’s words in I Cor 10:11 are equally applicable here for he notes that the record of events in the life of God’s people in times past should be a warning to us in the present day and that they’ve been
‘...written down for our instruction, upon whom the end of the ages has come’
It’s not enough to consign Scripture to a time which lies outside the bounds of our own experience - rather, understanding the application to the people to whom it originally came, we must transpose it forwards into our own generation to perceive the message that God has for His people today.
If God’s message to His Church today is the same message as that received by the prophet Habakkuk all those years ago (and as many preachers and teachers have declared during the years in which I’ve been a follower of Jesus Christ) then we shouldn’t grab maxims from it’s pages which tell us that we should live by faith (Hab 2:4) or that we should apply all that God tells us (Hab 2:2) - even though both of these are true.
But, rather, we should realise that to be in a ‘Habakkuk situation’ is to expect a pouring out of judgment upon us by a people who are less righteous than we are because of our failure to be faithful to the covenant which God has made with us through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
As the reader progresses through this short commentary - indeed, as any reader should understand as they read the contents of this short three chapter Book without the aid of any ‘outside’ help - they should be struck by the uncanny parallels which they can see around them in the life of the Church.
While I wouldn’t be so bold as to say that we find ourselves in a similar situation to that understood by the prophet through the revelation of the Word of God, we seem to be nearer that position than one where God is perfectly delighted with the lives we live and the way we react to what He demands from us as followers of His Son.
I would ask, then, that the following words are considered carefully rather than accepted wholly - let the reader settle it in his own mind whether the Church (and not the nation in which we live) stands in the same position as the nation of Judah and, if so, of the need for repentance from its way of living which, even though judgment seems certain and fixed, can still stay God’s hand to bestow forgiveness and mercy.
Introduction to the Book
The first thing which any commentator must do when approaching this Book is to learn not only how to spell the prophet’s name but where it is in the OT. It’s one of those books which seem to move about all over the place and might change it’s location whenever the preacher says ‘let’s turn to Habakkuk’ and you can’t find the contents leaf in the front of the Bible.
Many don’t bother finding it, in my experience - not if they want to save face amongst the other believers. It’s much more satisfying to turn somewhere near the Book that looks like it and then to smile broadly at those struggling around you than to trouble oneself with learning where it’s located.
This procedure works well until the speaker asks you to read a passage out from it to save his voice - after all, you were the first to find it so you might as well make a beginning while the others catch up. So, my advice to any of you reading this is remember where it is by the simple formula that it occurs two books before Haggai or, perhaps easier, five books from the end of the OT.
Find the beginning of the NT in Matthew and you’re certain of locating Habakkuk.
There are numerous considerations which commentators feel are necessary to be declared first before the text is dealt with. Items such as the date of composition, who the author was and the general overall message of the prophet are often brought together into a fairly brief introduction - brief because there’s very little which seems to be able to be said about them so that our conclusions are no more than wild suppositions for most of the areas about which we comment, with a few more likely and plausible theories that are rational and logical.
For the reader who wants to know these matters, any decent modern commentary will give the enquirer some thought-provoking ideas and much more detail than what I intend providing in this section. However, there are a few items that need dealing with and it’s to these which we must now turn our attention.
1. The date of writing
The title ‘date of writing’ is somewhat of an anomaly simply because we can’t be sure that the events were committed to parchment immediately upon the experience being received. However, Hab 2:2 must surely be an indication that the prophet was impressed with the importance of his entire experience (not just ‘God’s words’ because the prophetic announcements from YHWH seem to have come solely as a response to the concerns expressed by His servant) and that he committed them to ‘tablets’ at an early stage (tablets which could have been made from wood overlaid with clay if a more personal record was made which could be passed on personally to any he wished - and as distinct from ‘parchments’ which could have been made from either leather or papyrus. It’s more likely that the tablets were made from stone, wood or metal but the normal way for the personal retention of a message would have been soft clay which would have been hardened once the message had been inscribed into it. However, there’s a good case to be made for God having meant the tablets to have been large affairs that could have been set up at points where the people could easily read them as they passed by - for example, either on their way to the Temple or in its courts - and a more public demonstration of the message of God would have been expected to have been written on, perhaps, wood which would have made their production both cheap and easily transportable. The ‘vision’ which God refers to is probably only Hab 1:5-11 and not the entire first two chapters - see my comments on that part of the text).
Nowhere do we read of the prophet being told to declare the words which he was being told and them needing to be brought to the hearing of His people. For this reason, the Book of Habakkuk isn’t to be regarded as a typical message given by God through one of His servants to any who would listen - rather, his own experience is commanded to be recorded and it seems necessary to accept that it would have been done so at a very early time after it had drawn to a close (which would be at the end of chapter 2 - the following chapter 3 seems to be more of an appendix to the oracle than part and parcel of it).
Therefore the date of composition should be fairly certainly fixed as within a few days of the conclusion of Habakkuk’s experience - an experience which could have lasted several days, weeks or even months for he notes that he was to take his stand to watch for a reply from YHWH (Hab 2:1) something which seems to be paralleled with waiting before Him in prayer until His voice is clearly discerned. It’s even possible that what we read in five minutes took the prophet his entire lifetime to complete - but we should expect that the contents of the book were committed to writing before his death along with the tablets which were for public display.
Although we’ve said much above concerning when it was written, we’ve actually said virtually nothing for we’ve still not placed the prophet into his time and culture and have, therefore, not given a decent enough context to the words which we’re about to consider.
There are details in the text of the Book itself which point towards certain higher and lower limits without it being possible to be any more specific.
The latest date for the Book’s completion has to be 586BC (though many newer commentaries and resource books now place the date as 587BC) when the final destruction of the city of Jerusalem took place under the hand of the forces of Babylonia (II Chr 36:11-21). But even 586BC is too late a date because of YHWH’s recorded words in Hab 2:3 (my italics) that
‘...still the vision awaits its time; it hastens to the end - it will not lie. If it seem slow, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay’
Clearly there was a warning here that what was being prophesied might seem slow in its coming and that it could easily have been ignored as not having happened within a short time period from when it was first committed to the tablets (the contents of the tablets being at least Hab 1:5-11). Therefore the reader will place his or her own interpretation of what they think a reasonable time must be meant as being the earliest date before 586BC when such a warning could be seen to be relevant.
Personally, I would have thought that a date of 591BC - five years before the destruction of the city - would be the least which could be expected but that, if I’m honest, a time period of much greater than five years is likely.
But what’s the earliest date that one could reasonably assess the Book to have been written? Habbaker turns to Hab 1:6 and assesses it as saying that
‘...an invasion of the Babylonians...is in the offing’
and goes on to suggest that a suitable period for the writing would be in the reign of Jehoiakim (609-598BC)
‘...for it was during his reign that the Babylonian presence was increasingly felt’
However, the logic isn’t too sound for YHWH is recorded only as stating that He was rousing the nation against Judah and not that they were, even now, sharpening their swords and eyeing the land with desire. His words could just as much be a declaration of purpose prior to the nation gaining pre-eminence in their area than it is a description of their existence as a world power and the imminence of their advance.
It would, though, place the oracle as being committed to writing at least 12 years before its fulfilment which is a reasonable time period.
It should also be noted that Habakkuk’s ‘Chaldeans’ is taken to mean the same as ‘Babylonians’ by Habbaker and others for they’re often linked in the OT as being one and the same people - it may be significant that the Babylonians are never mentioned throughout the Book, though, which would point towards a time of composition prior to their rise to pre-eminence when they were called such. Habsmith notes that
‘During the reigns of Nabopolassar and his son Nebuchadnezzar, the Chaldeans were called Babylonians...’
and the OT also affirms this by never translating the people of Chaldea as ‘Babylonians’ until after the first exile and then only four times (Ezekiel 23:15,17,23, Ezra 4:9). However, this is less than conclusive because ‘Chaldeans’ appears to be the way that the OT writers preferred to refer to those from the region of Babylon (in the RSV it occurs 81 times) even after they were more commonly referred to as ‘Babylonians’. It could only be used as a proof for a later date if God had referred to them as ‘Babylonians’ - ‘Chaldeans’ is inconclusive of a specific time period.
Habsmith interprets Hab 1:6 in a slightly different way than Habbaker but, although one would expect him to arrive at a different date, he mirrors the same general time period.
He understands God’s words to mean that YHWH was talking about the ‘rise of the Chaldeans’ rather than simply to the preparations being made by the already established nation, noting that, if this was correct, the time about which it was speaking would be
‘...between the fall of Nineveh (612BC) [when the Assyrian domination was effectively broken] and the battle of Carchemish (605BC) [in which Babylon defeated the other world power of Egypt]’
He goes on to observe that Hab 2:5-17 (especially Hab 2:8)
‘...reflects a time after the Babylonians had ruthlessly and violently overrun many small nations’
but, once again, this needn’t be the case for the prophetic word which runs from Hab 2:6 to the end of the chapter are ‘woes’ pronounced against the Babylonians (this is the traditional view but it’s far from certain) for a future date and can, therefore, be taken to be a reflection upon what they’ve done in the past as viewed from that time in the future. It’s only if we assume that Habakkuk can only record God as speaking of what the prophet already knew rather than as speaking of something which God knew would happen that we have to interpret the words this way (it may also be that Hab 2:6ff isn’t meant to be taken as direct speech from God but simply inspired by Him).
Indeed, it’s God alone who describes the nation in ‘unrighteous’ terms and Habakkuk is left to observe only that it seems incorrect to judge the righteous nation by another who have been declared to him as being wicked and ‘less acceptable’ to Him.
Therefore, we needn’t place the writing of this Book within the constraints of any knowledge on the prophet’s part of the nature and character of the Babylonian kingdom who, at the time of writing, may not even have risen to be perceivable as a world power or even have threatened to be such.
While the logic of commentators is initially appealing, it can actually undermine an acceptance that God can speak to His servants about a time which has no obvious pointers in their own day (but, if I understand the position of the two commentators cited above, they wouldn’t deny that such a thing could take place - it just appears that, looking for evidence with which to date the Book, they’ve stepped beyond the bounds of what can be accepted).
Very often in today’s Church we hear of prophetic words which men and women can perceive as being rooted in the situations which they see all around them - but a prophet from God doesn’t rely on what they can naturally see and assess as being the logical outcome of forces presently at work.
Rather, they look solely to God and make pronouncements which aren’t obvious to the people of their own generation, their words being proven as being from YHWH Himself because they come to pass. Indeed, it would have been because Habakkuk’s words were unlikely to come about that, when they began to become ever more likely, his words could be accepted as being not from his own imagination but from the mind of God.
Therefore Zondervan’s observations concerning some scholars’ assessment of Hab 1:6 (yes, another interpretation of the verse!) is that it must be interpreted by recourse to Hab 1:5 (my italics) where God calls the prophet to
‘Look among the nations, and see; wonder and be astounded. For I am doing a work in your days that you would not believe if told’
and concludes that it was
‘...wholly unexpected as to seem unbelievable to the people in their day’
If we accept Habbaker’s statement that the Babylonian Empire began to gain power from 625BC under Nabopolassar and that such movements towards power would have been reported in the land of Israel at some time in the near future afterwards, the date for the composition of the Book must be assigned no later than the middle of the reign of righteous king Josiah and, perhaps rightly, even expected to be towards the beginning of his reign (in truth, some may feel it necessary to assign it to the latter end of the reign of Manasseh because of the wickedness that was well-known amongst the nation. However, Hab 1:2-4 isn’t as damning as one would have expected had this been the case and there’s no message against the rulers as being bad influences on the nation).
This might not be acceptable to many readers simply because Josiah was a righteous king who reigned for YHWH in a way that very few of the other kings of Judah ever did (II Chr 34:2). But, even in his reign, prophets were raised up to speak to the nation concerning their wickedness before YHWH (notably Jeremiah - I will deal with this below) and the king himself perceived that God’s hand was set to overthrow the nation (II Chr 34:14-33), the prophetess Huldah declaring (II Chr 34:25 - my italics) that
‘Because they have forsaken Me and have burned incense to other gods, that they might provoke Me to anger with all the works of their hands, therefore My wrath will be poured out upon this place and will not be quenched’
Even in the time of king Josiah, therefore, judgment from God was already determined against the nation of Judah though, because of the commitment of Josiah towards YHWH, it would be delayed until after he’d died (II Chr 34:26-28).
The prophet Jeremiah raised a lamentation for Josiah upon his death (II Chr 35:25) which we might correctly interpret as being sadness for the loss of a king who’d done so much to draw back the children of Israel to the pure service and devotion of YHWH - but Jeremiah wasn’t silent during the king’s days (Jer 1:1-2) and, in case we’d like to think that all he had to say were positive declarations that YHWH would now bless the land, the record of his pronouncements in Jer 3:6-11 should be considered carefully.
In that day, YHWH asked the prophet to consider how the northern kingdom had fared by rebelling against Him (Jer 3:6-7), noting that the southern kingdom, Judah, had witnessed it and seen that He’d had to judge her for her faithlessness (Jer 3:7-8). Yet, even though the nation should have learnt by what befell them, they continued to run after false gods and to desert the One who’d they’d covenanted to serve (Jer 3:8-9).
Perhaps even more frightening is Jeremiah’s record of God’s words in Jer 3:10 for, under Josiah, the nation appears to have returned to a correct service of YHWH but, as He points out, they returned not with their whole heart
‘...but in pretence...’
YHWH concluding by pronouncing that
‘Faithless Israel has shown herself less guilty than false Judah’
God was also able to command His servant (Jer 36:2 - my italics) to
‘Take a scroll and write on it all the words that I have spoken to you against Israel and Judah and all the nations, from the day I spoke to you, from the days of Josiah until today’
so that it’s without question that, although Josiah had tried to bring back the nation to YHWH, there was still a hardness in the general life of the nation which rejected such a move and was more encouraged to dedicate itself to false gods. While devotion to the God of their fathers was ‘alright for Josiah’, it wasn’t for them and there must have been many who paid only lip service to what the king decreed.
Therefore Habakkuk’s observations concerning the depravity of the nation of Judah (Hab 1:2-4) is entirely in keeping with what we know to have been taking place, even though a bad king meant that the prophets were used by God to denounce the entire nation and that it’s these words which give us the impression that the people of Josiah’s time were generally decent enough citizens.
King Josiah may have been the brake upon a quick moral slide over the precipice but he never realised his desire to be the spiritual restorer of his people - this was through no fault of his own but through the hardness of the nation’s heart. And, as we noted above, the fact that the immorality of the nation is expressed in more reserved terms than other prophets who lived in the reigns of unrighteous kings (Hab 1:2-4), it would be an indication that there was at least some ‘salt’ which was restricting the outworking of all the desires of men’s hearts.
In conclusion, then, it seems more likely that a date of composition of 640-625BC should be attributed to the work when sin could still be seen at work in the nation but before God’s words (that those reading the declaration would be amazed that the Chaldeans were to be raised up by Him) would be nullified by the known events of the contemporary world.
2. Who was Habakkuk?
The easiest answer to the question posed by the header above is that your guess is as good as anybody else’s! There’s simply not enough reliable information concerning the man for us to justify more than a tentative guess - indeed, most of our guesses are so misleading simply because they’re based upon suppositions which are unprovable.
First and foremost, though, we know that Habakkuk was regarded as a prophet (Hab 1:1, 3:1) even though this superscription is more likely to have been written by a later copyist as an explanation of who the person was. There’s no reason to doubt it, however, even though his method of pronouncement to the nation wasn’t by the mouth but through the pen (Hab 2:2).
If he was, indeed, a prophet who declared God’s word to the nation, it seems surprising that only one pronouncement and one prayer have been recorded for us - but the reason could be simply that this message (Habakkuk chapters 1-2) was the only one which he was instructed to record so that it’s the only one which survives.
Having noted that Habakkuk was a prophet, we can say almost nothing more about him - he appears on the scene of Jewish history with neither father nor mother, nor even the location in the land where he lived (though we normally assume that, as his message was to the land of Judah, he must have been a resident there - his name may indicate otherwise).
We don’t know his occupation (though many have speculated that he was one of the Levites or priests in the Temple in Jerusalem because the final chapter of the Book was put to music - this means no more than we might say a poet was a rock musician because one of their writings was taken by a band and developed into a song! There is another note in one of the manuscripts of the apocryphal Bel and the Dragon - mentioned below - that he was a son of Joshua who was, himself, a Levite), how long he lived or, as we discussed in the previous section, when he lived and in what reign he prophesied we can’t be sure about.
Habsmith gives a fairly wide range of the opinions of commentators down through the ages, each of which seem to be able to be disregarded with a fair amount of certainty. Habakkuk’s name, also, is fairly unusual in that it doesn’t appear to be Hebraic (though Zondervan is certain that it is) and is more likely to be Akkadian (according to Habbaker), a word used
‘...for some plant or fruit tree’
even though Habsmith notes that some of the ancient rabbis associated his name with the Hebrew for ‘embrace’ - it could even have been an assumed name which lent the message further significance or importance and which, because we don’t live in the same culture, is lost on us.
Habbaker goes on to state that Akkadian speakers were
‘...intimately involved in the life of Israel at this period’
but his reference to his notes further on in the Book don’t exist! If this could be conclusively shown, it might even be possible to tentatively suggest that Habakkuk was an Akkadian by birth and that, having thrown in his lot with the people of God, was now being used by Him to speak to the nation. However, Habsmith is probably correct when he concludes only that it would
‘...indicate a high degree of foreign influence on Israel [sic ‘Judah’] at that time’
something which appears to have been true throughout the period which began with king Solomon and his ‘import’ of many foreign wives with their servants and cultures. In a recent Biblical Archaeology Review article (‘Biblical Detective work identifies the Eunuch’ in the March/April 2002 edition), it’s also pointed out that the word translated by the RSV as ‘chamberlain’ is
‘...a loan word...from Akkadian...’
which further demonstrates that during the reign of Josiah, Akkadian terms had begun to become a part of the Hebrew language, showing that to be called by an Akkadian name as Habakkuk was wouldn’t have been thought to have been out of place.
The area of Akkadia is, perhaps, even the more significant because it was the region where Chaldea and the Babylonians were located. The man ‘from Babylon’, therefore, is the one being used by God to warn His chosen people that they would be engulfed by them through their own sin. It’s fairly obvious, however, that Habakkuk isn’t glorying in the destruction that would be poured out upon Judah but is genuinely horrified by the thought and is, consequently, one who considers himself as being part of the children of God.
Peculiarly, Habakkuk appears again in the apocryphal Bel and the Dragon (Bel 1:33-39) at the time when Daniel is in the Lions’ Den. The writer observes that
‘...there was in Jewry a prophet, called Habbacuc [Habakkuk], who had made pottage and had broken bread in a bowl and was going into the field for to bring it to the reapers. But the angel of the Lord said unto Habbacuc “Go, carry the dinner that thou hast into Babylon unto Daniel, who is in the lions’ den”’
The prophet then objects that he’s never seen Babylon and neither did he know where the den was situated, so the angel miraculously transports him to the place whereupon the pottage is given to Daniel to sustain him through the night. Habakkuk is then immediately transported back to the land of Judah.
Although one might accept the story as being genuine, it plainly contradicts Scripture in Bel 1:31 for it states there that Daniel was in the lions’ den for six days when the Book of Daniel makes it obvious that his imprisonment only lasted one night (Dan 6:16-19).
The dates also don’t seem to add up for Daniel would have been taken captive to Babylonia c.605BC (Dan 1:1-7) and have been thrown into the lions’ den after the fall of Jerusalem (Dan 6:1) but Habakkuk seems to have had to have been alive after the fall of the city for a great many years. The date that we assigned to the composition of the Book of Habakkuk above also seems to deny this possibility but we should also note that it’s entirely possible that God chose Habakkuk and brought him forward in time to Babylonia and then, once his task had been completed, returned him to his own day and age (though there appears not to be any Scriptural precedent for an event such as this ever having taken place).
I am more inclined to believe, however, that the record contained in Bel and the Dragon is inaccurate and misleading.
Although we’ve been able to say very little with any certainty about Habakkuk apart from the fact that he was a prophet, his character revealed to us in the Book must mark him out to us as a breed apart - even amongst the faithful believers within the nation of Judah.
For Habakkuk was courageous enough to be honest about the state of the people of God (Hab 1:2-4 - something that Church leaders today seem to be all too frightened to do) and bold enough to call God to give an account of Himself as to why He was letting it happen - while he was continually petitioning Him to do something about it.
The reply he received wasn’t what he’d expected, however (Hab 1:5-11). But, instead of rolling over and accepting it as God’s will, he once more takes his stand to call God to account for His actions (Hab 2:1) after a further recognition of the holiness of God and His sovereignty in determining what’s necessary for His people (Hab 1:12-17), receiving a reply which gives Habakkuk the hope that at least some might heed the warning and turn from their rebellion against God (Hab 2:2-4) while God goes on to reassure His servant that the nation who were to be used as an instrument of judgment would themselves be judged once God had fulfilled His purpose for His people (Hab 2:5-19 - this is the traditional view. There appears to be more to the passage than my simple statement here makes out including uncertainty as to who the speaker is meant to be understood to be).
Finally, the prophet is able to accept the words in conclusion (Hab 2:20), realising that the will of God won’t be changed but that reverence is a fitting response to the work which would be outworked soon. His silence shows the reader that, although Habakkuk might not like what he’s heard, he is nevertheless willing to accept what he’s learnt and wait for it to come about.
It would appear - if we’ve got the dating of the Book correct (see the previous section) - that Habakkuk would have seen the beginning of the rise to power of the Babylonian Kingdom before his death and would have been content that the words which he’d received were about to come to pass, even though at the time of their first recording there was little evidence which could be used to support the pronouncements that he’d recorded on the tablets.
Some of these notes are adapted from the web page here
The superscription to these first two chapters announces (Hab 1:1) that what follows is
‘The oracle of God which Habakkuk the prophet saw’
a line which is more likely to have been added at a later date than the original composition and by way of an introduction so that the reader would note the change of the author in the continuing text after Nahum (the original compilation of the works of the prophets would likely have been rolled together into one even though, as we noted above, the command from God was to record this vision on tablets as a more permanent record and likely as a public witness to the nation of Judah - this public witness may only have intended to be Hab 1:5-11). It’s also possible that the prophet himself could have headed his work as such but the words feel more like a third party note than a personal one, along with the superscription at Hab 3:1.
It’s probably right to think that it was prefixed with this at a fairly early stage in the transmission of the text otherwise the identity of the author may well have disappeared from remembrance. The brevity of the description, however, is such that much of the information which had been known about the author may have been either forgotten or not deemed to have been important.
For example, compare the superscription in the immediately following Zeph 1:1 or the previous Micah 1:1 which give a fair amount of detail - and even Nahum 1:1, although brief, can identify the channel through whom the word of God came as being ‘of Elkosh’.
Of the other minor prophets, only Obadiah, Haggai and Malachi are ones about whom just as little is recorded as here in Habakkuk - whether by design or simply through lack of knowledge is impossible to say.
The title ‘prophet’ is a wholly unremarkable one, used over three hundred times in the OT (Strongs Hebrew number 5030, M1277a) but it’s uniqueness here lies in the fact that it’s only the books of Haggai and Zechariah which open in a similar way by announcing that the one responsible for what follows is from one known as a ‘prophet’.
That’s not to say that the other nine of the twelve ‘minor’ prophets (Hosea to Malachi) shouldn’t be counted as such but it would appear that, even amongst the OT children of God, there was an acknowledgement that a man might be a prophet while another might be used in prophesy. This somewhat peculiar statement finds justification through the pronouncement of Amos in his own record of how God used him (Amos 7:14-15) where he’s apprehended as being a seer (Amos 7:12) but objects by declaring that
‘I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees - and YHWH took me from following the flock, and YHWH said to me “Go, prophesy to My people Israel”’
Clearly, if Amos had considered himself to have been a prophet, he would have said so - rather, he objects to the label being placed upon him, assessing himself as an agriculturist rather than as being called by God to the function of a prophet. Even so, he was still assured that God was willing to use him to deliver a message to the northern Kingdom.
Although we use the label ‘the minor prophets’ to denote the short books which run from Hosea to Malachi, there’s good reason to pull away from such a description when it appears obvious in at least one place that the author refused to accept the calling of ‘prophet’ that others were laying upon him.
This title of ‘prophet’ has caused many to think of Habakkuk as being, in the words of Habbaker
‘...a professional prophet, one who earned his living serving as a prophet at the Temple or court...’
but to be able to show conclusively that such a group of people or type of person existed in OT times is impossible and more reliant upon what we might like to think took place. For this reason, Habakkuk should only be thought of as a prophet in the sense that he was a channel though whom God was continuing to make His will known to both individuals and the nation but that he was more intrinsically or (super-)naturally that sort of person than, for example, Amos who was used to pass on a message once or twice in his lifetime.
So Amos prophesied as directed by God for a particular moment but Habakkuk was a prophet who moved consistently in the revealing of the will of God to His people.
Habakkuk is also recorded as having seen (Strongs Hebrew number 2372, M633) the burdens which are about to follow, a fairly remarkable statement because most of what’s recorded here seems more like a conversation between two people than a series of visions which are witnessed passively by the prophet. Habbaker notes that the NEB and JB versions translate the word as a noun instead of a verb as it appears here, insisting that Habakkuk received them ‘in a vision’.
This is an incorrect assessment if by ‘vision’ one thinks of something more akin to the series of pictures and events that John saw on the island of Patmos in the NT (contained in the Book of Revelation) and we should realise that the word employed here in the OT means something more akin to ‘perceived’ or ‘realised’ - that is, the superscription is informing the reader that what follows was perceived by the prophet as being what YHWH wanted to say to him as a person and, subsequently, to any of the nation who were willing to listen (Hab 2:2).
This Hebrew word is closely associated with the word translated ‘seer’ in Amos 7:12 (previously cited above) because one who perceives what God had to say into a situation was thought to be a see-er of matters which had remained hidden and would have continued to be so had not a revelation from God been given.
Finally, we should pay particular attention to the RSV’s translation ‘oracle’ (Strongs Hebrew number 4853, M1421e) which is used over 60 times in the OT and a number of times in the prophets to introduce a specific word from YHWH (translated 57 times as ‘burden’ in the AV) but its precise meaning needs to be determined as it adds a certain explanation as to what the prophet was experiencing when he received and delivered this ‘burden’.
TWOTOT distinguishes between two words, each transliterated ‘massa’, and, though it notes that the secular usage
‘...refers to the load or burden upon the backs of such animals as the ass (Ex 23:5), mule (II Kings 5:17) and camels (II Kings 8:9)’
it distinguishes the religious usage by assigning it an alternative translation of ‘oracle’ as in the RSV’s translation in Hab 1:1.
If there are two different meanings behind the one word, then the image conveyed of a ‘burden’ being placed upon the prophet who received it may be misleading but, according to Baldwin, de Boer’s study of the occurrences of the word, failed to show any real difference in its usage when used of pack animals under carrying loads and prophets under the inspiration of God.
Therefore, quoting de Boer, Baldwin notes the word as meaning a burden that was
‘...imposed by a master, a despot or a deity on their subjects, beasts, men or things’
and notes that the word
‘...lays stress on the prophet’s sense of constraint in giving the message that follows. He would not have chosen to give it but he finds he has no option...It has been placed on him and, like the loadbearer, he has to accept it and discharge his duty. Like an ambassador he is given his message, and however unacceptable it may be he cannot alter it; hence the burdensome aspect of his calling’
This word definition is underpinned by a couple of Scriptures in Jeremiah where the prophet notes (6:11) that
‘...I am full of the wrath of YHWH; I am weary of holding it in...’
‘If I say, “I will not mention Him, or speak any more in His name,” there is in my heart as it were a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot’
and, in Ezekiel 3:14, the prophet says
‘The Spirit lifted me up and took me away, and I went in bitterness in the heat of my spirit, the hand of YHWH being strong upon me’
speaking about an inner turmoil that he was experiencing when under the anointing and inspiration of the Holy Spirit. What Habakkuk was thus experiencing here wasn’t so much a Sunday stroll in some magnificent park but a message which he found no escape from and which compelled him to accept its full implication.
Therefore, the prophetic word here is a weight placed upon the prophet which he’s forced to carry and bring to the necessary recipients by committing it to writing (Hab 2:2) in much the same way as any beast of burden is loaded with a weight that must be borne to whichever destination that the master chooses.
It may be disturbing for us to think of these ‘words’ as being ‘weights’ or compulsions which are difficult to oppose but that seems to be the intention of the word of YHWH as it came through prophets such as Habakkuk (and, similarly, to Zechariah and Haggai after him) and as confirmed in the experience of both Jeremiah and Ezekiel.
It wasn’t that Habakkuk had sat down and dreamed the message up, neither that he’d consulted the former prophets, reworked their messages and come up with his own brand of ‘spirituality’, but that a coercion or pressure had come upon him that he was at pains to despatch to whomsoever he was directed.
Such, therefore, seems to be the meaning behind the word ‘massa’, the burden of God which Habakkuk the prophet perceived as being from YHWH Himself.
Habakkuk’s opening observation
Many - if not most - of the prophetic words recorded for us in the Bible come about because God chooses to make His will known through His servants to His people. But Habakkuk’s message is wholly different for it begins with an observation by YHWH’s servant that goes unresolved through prayer and which prompts God to respond to the objections with an explanation and a revelation of the purposes chosen to bring about a judgment upon what’s being witnessed.
While David might turn to God to complain about the treatment he seems to be receiving (Ps 13:1-2, 22:1-2), Habakkuk forgets about his own condition and complains about the way that Israelite society - and, therefore, the children of God - is functioning.
We must pay particular attention to the basis for the prophet’s complaint for some commentators have decided that the ‘wicked’ here being described must be either the inhabitants of the nations which had settled round about Judah or the Chaldeans who were about to be used by God in His judgment upon the nation.
But Habakkuk’s eyes are firmly on the men and women who profess a belief and commitment to God and who have distorted the way He intended them to live so that their society has degraded into a violent and aggressive place where, although there was law, it wasn’t able to be enforced. Having a good law system doesn’t mean that the people become righteous with time for law will only work where men and women are willing to respect the decisions of the law and do all that’s expected of them.
There can be the most righteous of laws in any society but, unless there’s a respect for them, they’re as useless as any other group’s. Lawlessness isn’t the abolition of rules and regulations necessarily but it is the overthrow of their importance by the people who should be mindful of them.
1. Crying to God
To return to Habakkuk’s first observations in Hab 1:2, it’s plain that he’s not witnessed the people’s actions and ignored them for he’s able to justly observe that he’d been crying for help to God and shouting out when he’s seen an oppression - the problem, rather, is that, as far as he’s aware, YHWH has sat idly by and done nothing to alleviate the trouble by pursuing the wicked and re-establishing the righteous into all that’s rightfully theirs.
Habakkuk’s also grieved that God allows him (Hab 1:3) to
‘...see wrongs and look upon trouble’
when it would appear that he’d much rather live a quiet life away from such strife. I must admit that that sort of life really appeals to me and, should I ever come by vast sums of money (I’m not holding my breath because it’s unlikely ever to happen) I’d seriously consider escaping from the city life to some remote island where I could ship supplies in fortnightly and ignore the insanity of the world as it seeks to infiltrate and influence my own life.
Such thoughts of escape are tempting - and a good enough reason why I’ll never have the sums of money needed to achieve such a goal! But Habakkuk prays not to be taken away from the society which he regards as his home but that he might not have to look upon the unrighteous conduct that seems to unfold before his eyes daily.
The prophet’s words might be taken simply as a plea for blindness to descend upon him that, when he has to walk amongst the people, the events of the nation might not impinge upon his consciousness - a bit like the desire to stick your head in the sand so that nothing can be seen which offends you. But the appeal seems rather to be that which is put into words in the preceding verse (Hab 2:2) that, if God would only act and judge the wicked, society might be cleaned up and restored into being what He had originally intended it to be.
But, in case we turn our minds to our own societies and cultures in which we live and think that we must be living in times which are similar to those of Habakkuk, we have to wake ourselves up to the facts of the case here. For the prophet is complaining to YHWH about the moral decline of the people of God who, paralleled in the NT, must be taken to be a picture of the Church.
A society needs to be judged by the things it does and approves of but the strength of any society can be reckoned to be the spiritual health of the believers who reside within it. And, if those people are fighting amongst themselves as they were at this time period in history, there’s little that can be done to restore the nation back into a relationship with God - if the light-bearers have become darkness-imparters and those who should be salt have lost their taste, there no longer remains a witness for God in the society so that judgment becomes inevitable.
One thing the reader mustn’t do is to run away from the state of the Church as they see it where they live but be honest to its condition. For a great many years, we’ve tried to be positive, hiding the real problems under the carpet and emphasising the good things that are continuing in our midst - but this wasn’t what Habakkuk did. He didn’t rejoice before God that the Temple was still functioning, that sacrifices were being offered upon the altar according to the Mosaic Law or that, here and there, he could see hope in situations that it might get better.
Rather, he took a good, long look at those around him and how they were dealing with one another and cried to God for Him to come down and move against the wicked, to remove the unrighteous from the nation and heal it. The answer he got was wholly unexpected and, perhaps, the answer that we might receive were we to be in a similar situation might be equally unpalatable - but it was only when the prophet got honest with God that he was taken to the next stage of being able to receive the radical solution that was proposed.
2. The problem that the prophet sees
But what were the problems that Habakkuk saw in the nation?
Surprisingly, there are sins which we would have expected as being observed by God’s servant which go unmentioned. For example, there’s no accusation of murder (Ex 20:13), adultery (Ex 20:14), theft (Ex 20:15) or covetousness (Ex 20:17) - he doesn’t note that the sabbath isn’t being observed (Ex 20:8-11), that familial respect has broken down (Ex 20:12) or that the nation has sold itself over to serve foreign gods (Ex 20:3-6).
Instead, the observations the prophet has are traits which are destroying the correct functioning of the legal and judicial system (Hab 1:4), something which we might find puzzling. No doubt that there were transgressions in all the areas spoken against in the ten commandments but, for Habakkuk, the real problem is the nature of men and women because it’s this which is nullifying the upholding of the civil law which is based upon the Mosaic and, therefore, meant to be a reflection of the character and nature of God. Habsmith’s statement that
‘There was a growing crime rate’
misses the point entirely even though it seems to be an attempt to put into present day words what we might think to have been the case. It wasn’t that the powers that were in existence were lamenting the growing civil unrest within society and attempting to exert themselves through the legal system but that such transgressions of the law were going largely unpunished and untried because the law was being slackened and perverted (Hab 1:4).
In other words, the law had become nothing more than the tool of those who wanted to make sure that they got their own will done over and above the will of those who were more righteous than they were.
These traits that Habakkuk saw, then, amongst the people of Israel were:
Hab 1:2 and 1:3
Strongs Hebrew number 2555, M678a
TWOTOT notes that the word in the OT
‘...is used almost always in connection with sinful violence. It does not refer to the violence of natural catastrophes or to violence as pictured in a police chase on modern television’
They also note that the word’s use in Gen 16:5 where the RSV translates it as ‘wrong’ must necessarily carry with it the sense of injustice done to an individual. The word in Habakkuk, therefore, means something slightly different from violence per se but aggression that transcends the bounds of the civil and spiritual law, denying the will and character of God by the events that it gets involved in.
It’s use twice in this passage shows the importance of the word in describing what the prophet sees all around him.
Strongs Hebrew number 205, M48a
This word can be used in a purely neutral way where no connotations of sin are involved. Such a place is in the naming of Benoni where Rachel calls her new-born ‘son of my trouble’ and, in Deut 26:14, the RSV translates the word with ‘mourning’ where grief experienced through the loss of a loved one is in mind.
However, TWOTOT goes on to note that the word lays emphasis on
‘...trouble which moves on to wickedness’
and that it expresses
‘...the planning and expression of deception and points to the painful aftermath of sin’.
We might do well to harmonise these two concepts and see Habakkuk complaining that he sees not only the plots that are being devised but the result of their final outworking throughout the land.
Strongs Hebrew number 5999, M1639a
This is the word more often used for labour and toil but TWOTOT notes that, like the verb form, it
‘...relates to the unpleasant factors of work and toil’
commenting on the root that it
‘...relates to the dark side of labour’
However, having looked at several places where the word occurs, it appears to me that, unless the word is defined in its context as referring to work and labour, it can mean general upset or hardship, the type that befalls all men. It can be used, however, not in a neutral way of what’s inevitable (Job 5:7) but of what’s brought about at the instigation of mankind (Job 4:8, 15:35, Ps 7:14, 10:7) and it’s this which seems to be in Habakkuk’s mind through its usage.
Certainly, Prov 24:2 speaks of evil men devising violence (the Hebrew word for ‘destruction’ which follows) and using their mouths to talk of ‘trouble’ where there’s a purpose in the actions which are being conceived. What’s in view is a concerted effort by individuals and groups to bring trouble upon others.
Strongs Hebrew number 7701, M2331a
It’s difficult to be sure how this word is meant to be taken but, because it’s linked to ‘violence’ (see above) it probably carries with it the idea of something which has been brought about by an unrighteous or wicked deed.
In Job 5:22, however, it seems to mean simply a natural destruction because it’s linked to the word ‘famine’ and, in Is 13:6, it’s a word which is paralleled with the Day of YHWH and the desolation that His time of moving will bring about.
Here, however, we’re possibly right in thinking of an action rather than a result which brings another down and which has come about through the outworking of sinful desires.
Strongs Hebrew number 7379, M2159a
The word ‘strife’ seems straightforward enough to allow it to stand with little explanation. TWOTOT gives it the alternative interpretation of ‘controversy’ so that the idea becomes a disagreement which leads to heated exchange. Along with the following word, these go together well to show how peace had been stripped from Israelite society where peaceful relations had, perhaps, once existed.
Strongs Hebrew number 4066, M426c
The AV prefers to translate this word in the OT by ‘strife’. It’s never used before the Psalms and there only once - it’s main use being in Proverbs where it occurs 15 times of it’s 18 OT occurrences.
Perhaps a good word to describe it is also ‘animosity’ for in a few of the places what’s being described seems to be more a lack of harmony between two individuals that goes unresolved and, indeed, is stirred up to push them further apart. There needs only to be a problem on one side of the relationship for peace to be dispelled, so Prov 21:9 (Pp Prov 21:19) can speak about it being better
‘...to live in a corner of the housetop than in a house shared with a contentious woman’
where, even if one wanted, it would be impossible to find any real rest. Prov 22:10 also notes that an entire group of people can be troubled by one ‘scoffer’ who brings strife with them wherever they go - the only solution offered here is to remove the individual from one’s midst.
Habakkuk, then, saw disharmony about him where men and women seemed to no longer wish to live in peace and rest but were filled with the commitment to contend and dispute a great amount of matters that outworked themselves into personal wars. As I’ve said on previous web pages, setting the nations at peace - although a lofty and valiant ideal - will do nothing to remove war from the nations because the heart of a man and woman is set to contend against others even on a personal level. What we see amongst the nations is only the result of the heart of millions of subjects stretched throughout the land.
There are a couple of other passages which are worthy of mention here because they use a combination of the Hebrew words detailed above.
In Ps 55:9-11, David talks about his enemies who are pursuing him (Ps 55:1-2) and wishes that he had the wings of a bird that he might fly away to safety (Ps 55:6-8). But, instead, he prays for their destruction in a similar manner to the way that Habakkuk must have done (Ps 55:9a) going on to observe their characteristics by mentioning four of the words used in Hab 1:2-4 (Ps 55:9-10) - violence (Strongs Hebrew number 2555, M678a), strife (Strongs Hebrew number 7379, M2159a), mischief (‘wrongs’ - Strongs Hebrew number 205, M48a) and sorrow (‘trouble’ - Strongs Hebrew number 5999, M1639a).
David’s observations about the state of the city in which he found himself is not very far removed from the state of the nation that Habakkuk witnessed centuries afterwards and, if David’s location was within the borders of united Israel at the time of writing, it shows us that what was surfacing hundreds of years later was, in effect, a problem which had yet to be dealt with.
Jer 20:8 is part of Jeremiah’s message to Jerusalem which contained the declaration that there was violence (Strongs Hebrew number 2555, M678a) and destruction (Strongs Hebrew number 7701, M2331a) in its midst. Although the prophet is best thought of as continuing the message of God after Habakkuk had recorded his message onto tablets (see above), it shows that Jeremiah’s observations weren’t wholly dissimilar to those which impinged upon Habakkuk’s consciousness.
In summary, we aren’t looking at a series of calamitous events that have come upon a society and over which they have no control (as would be the case through an earthquake or hurricane) but, rather, a condition which has been brought about by the people themselves because they’ve set themselves to shun what makes for peace and to give in to the ways and actions that promote war.
It’s no wonder that the world finds itself increasingly representative of the traits that the prophet observed all around him because they’re without the influence of God on their lives.
But we would do better to consider the state of the Church with its backbiting and jockeying for position, of our striving for the highest places at the expense of others and our plotting to put down those in our midst who are happy to wholly follow Jesus - characteristics that we’ve learnt from the inner nature which we still choose to live from even though we’ve been redeemed and set free from it in the application of the crucifixion and resurrection.
The divisions which separate one believer from another even within the very same fellowships where they attend side by side should be enough to make us realise that, far from pointing the finger at those outside the Church, we should be eager to remove the possibility of the charge against us that we’re living in a similar way to the believers of Habakkuk’s day which was ripe for judgment.
We should note that, primarily, Habakkuk is concerned with the destruction of the law - it would be going too far to think that the prophet means solely the Mosaic Law but, seeing as the civil precepts would have been built upon the character of God, the two different systems aren’t very far removed.
The legacy of the legal system instituted in Jehoshaphat’s day may well have been the system that was being employed even in the times of the prophet. The king had begun his reign by sending princes, Levites and priests out into the cities of Judah to teach them the Law of YHWH (II Chr 17:7-9) and, after a mistake which he made by allying himself with king Ahab of the northern kingdom of Israel and of being restored back to God through Jehu the seer (II Chr 18:1-19:3), he returned to the land to reform the legal system (II Chr 19:4-11) that Judah might have justice throughout their land.
So, II Chr 19:4 reads that
‘...he went out again among the people, from Beersheba to the hill country of Ephraim, and brought them back to YHWH, the God of their fathers’
and appointed judges in all the fortified cities of Judah to give the people justice (II Chr 19:5-7). His earlier actions may have done something to turn the nation back to the worship of YHWH by removing the false gods and teaching them the ways of the one, true God, but the practicalities of bringing justice to the nation had largely not been enforced, relying upon the positive response of the people to the message which had gone out to them to heed and to order their lives accordingly.
With the appointment of judges in the land, YHWH’s judicial decisions might begin to be applied and the mind of the nation gradually be changed to see that a lifestyle against the commands of the Mosaic Law wasn’t going to pay. His concern appears to have been to bring justice to each individual of the nation as part of their God ordained right.
Additionally, he appointed judges in Jerusalem (II Chr 19:8-11) for the cases which appear to have been considered to have been too hard for the other judges scattered throughout the land. Even if there wasn’t the expertise to determine cases at the extremities of his kingdom, there was a central point at which the harder matters could be heard and decided upon. This set up, incidentally, appears to have been the embryonic form of the judicial system that was in existence in the time of Jesus.
I can find no indication in the subsequent history of Judah which would indicate that this set up was ever revoked or improved so that it seems reasonable to assume that something very similar was in operation in the times of Habakkuk.
But, even though the system might have worked and, assuming that the laws were based upon God’s character, Habakkuk sees that what’s happening in the nation is sufficient to cause it to be ‘slacked’ and ‘perverted’.
It was the people, then, and not the judicial system which was failing for a good law system doesn’t mean that the people become righteous - it’s dependent upon them being obedient to the decisions of the law when they’re transgressors and operating outside the law. The law is of no use unless it’s enforced by those who are its subjects (in the same manner as a king cannot rule unless there’s obedience from those under him).
The RSV outworks the condition of the society with the translation (Hab 1:4 - my italics) that
‘...the law is slacked and justice never goes forth’
where TWOTOT prefers to define the italicised word (Strongs Hebrew number 6313, M1740) with ‘numbed’ and Habbaker ‘paralysed’. The prophet goes on to another conclusion, noting that the paralysis was because
‘...the wicked surround the righteous...’
leading on to a further conclusion that this had the effect of causing justice to go abroad perverted. This ‘perversion’ (Strongs Hebrew number 6127, M1680) is rendered by ‘twisted’ or ‘bent’ by TWOTOT and the idea is progressed beyond the realms of the law being simply impotent to it having become an active force in the promotion of wickedness throughout the land. Zondervan summarises the verse as denoting that
‘...the manipulation of the law courts to favour the wealthy points to a domestic evil...’
but it’s not the wealthy who are ever mentioned here - rather, it’s the wicked who negate the decisions of righteousness by their threats against those who dispense justice (assumed from the phrase that ‘the wicked surround the righteous’). Therefore, the decisions of the courts are ‘bent’ or ‘twisted’ to fit those who shouldn’t receive a favourable verdict. The Living Bible’s interpretation at this point is equally relevant for it announces that
‘...bribes and trickery prevail’
which, although reminiscent of our own present day legal system, may well be an accurate representation - that is, it wasn’t the simple facts of a matter that were decided upon but other incidentals upon which the entire decision of the court turned.
Where there should have been righteousness overflowing towards the oppressed and sinned against, there was in its place a system which awarded the decision to those who were willing to go to any lengths to get it. Not only was the law not applied, it had become a legal system that stood only to promote evil.
Likewise, authority in the Church - the universal Church as well as the local fellowship - was given to build up and to uphold what is right. When men and women are able to ‘play the system’ to rise to positions of pre-eminence or to get their will done at the expense of others, the Church is in no better a condition than it was in Habakkuk’s day.
God’s first response
This is the first of two speeches from God which are responses to a petition or complaint from His servant, Habakkuk. As such, they are unusual because they’re a prophetic reaction rather than an initiative from God to bring a message to His people regardless of what the prophet might see.
Although prophets were sent to the nation of both Israel and Judah - and, no doubt, Habakkuk was also - the only message which we have recorded as being brought to the nation is that which was an answer to an observation.
When Hab 2:2 speaks about writing the vision on to tablets to make it plain to those of Judah, we should think of just these six verses as being within that remit. It might be that the prophet felt it necessary to proclaim what had also happened before - and after - but God’s words seem to necessitate only the declaration that He was about to raise up the Chaldeans.
This might seem fairly strange to us - after all, in this message, there’s no opportunity given for repentance and, more importantly, God doesn’t mention the sins of His people that they might turn from them. Rather, there almost appears to have been an inevitability in what He’s about to do which, presumably, was to make them wake up to Habakkuk’s message as it began to be outworked in their contemporary society.
These six verses, then, are the vision that was declared to the nation.
God’s second response to His servant (Hab 2:2-5 - it’s not certain that Hab 2:6-19 is meant to be taken either wholly or in part as a Word from God and it could be a reaction by Habakkuk to God’s second response yet still inspired by the moving of God’s presence) tells the prophet only what to do with what’s been previously received, adding some assurances about the faithful within the land.
1. Faith in what can’t happen
If we were to anticipate the answer that the prophet was expecting as being the reassurance that God was well aware of the state of the nation and that He was going to judge the wicked sovereignly to leave the righteous standing secure in Him alone, then what God actually said must have come as somewhat of a shock. It appears that the option left open to God was to use a foreign power to judge His people and so to put an end to the wickedness that Habakkuk saw all around him. Habbaker comments accurately that
‘The hoped-for response to a lament...would be an oracle of salvation but here the response is an oracle of judgment’
So shocking is God’s will in the matter that YHWH has to announce to the prophet that he should ‘wonder and be astounded’ and that, even if He was to make known the intricacies of His intention (which, as we’ll see below, He wasn’t to do fully at this time), he wouldn’t believe it.
Indeed, because we know the subsequent events of history, it doesn’t come as too great a shock to us that the Babylonian army invaded the land of Israel and, eventually, subdued the land in 586BC when Israel’s rebellion continued even once they’d been converted into a vassal state.
But we should note Jer 25:15-38 here as encapsulating the fullness of all that God had intended to perform through the raising up of the Babylonians, for their appearance on the world scene meant far more than the judging of His own people. Rather, His mind was set to use the nation as His instrument of judgment throughout the earth and so radically alter the world systems that were then in existence, finally returning judgment upon the Babylonians’ own heads for the excesses and attitudes that would be committed (Jer 4:7,16 are also indicative of a work in the nations rather than just in Judah - these verses sit in the passage which was given in the days of Josiah as Habakkuk’s probably was and are equally relevant).
This judgment upon God’s people, therefore, must also be seen as only part of the judgment that was coming upon the entire earth and not think that God had only one intention in mind regarding the removal of wickedness from out of the nation of Israel.
So, although Habakkuk rightly understands God’s words to be saying that the Chaldeans would come up against his own people, he isn’t revealed the greater plan of God to bring them against the established nations of the world as an instrument of judgment (though he is informed that they will do more than just overcome Judah - Hab 1:6,10).
God’s opening pronouncement, then, that he would not believe the work He was planning even if he was told is dependent upon the prophet continuing to have the fulness concealed from him, even though he’s informed about how part of His will will affect the people of God.
The strength of the opening verse of God’s reply was also used in the NT in Acts 13:41 by Paul in Antioch of Pisidia (Acts 13:14-16) where he warns his Jewish hearers that the message of the Gospel was of a similar nature to the judgment revealed to Habakkuk and that it would be all too easy for them to respond in the same manner as those to whom the word of God had come (Acts 13:40) - that is, that although they might hear the message and understand the universal scope of the work, they would consider it either impossible or fanciful, hardening their hearts against the simplicity of the Gospel.
Paul quotes the first few lines as
‘Behold, you scoffers...’
which comes directly from the LXX translation of the OT where ‘the nations’ in Hebrew is so close to the word for ‘scoffers’ that it’s generally thought to have been a translation error. However, both make equal sense and Paul is accurately quoting the words as he knew them to be from the Greek version of the Bible that both he and his hearers would have been reading.
To Paul, then, his hearers were in danger of missing the free gift of God through their own imaginings which would have sought to undermine the possibility that the message that he was bringing to them was true. To Habakkuk, however, God’s word to both him and the nation was that the work of God couldn’t be perceived by their own mind, such was the wonder and unexpectedness of it.
These two uses, then, are set in contrast. In the former, it’s applied to truth revealed that could too easily be rejected because of its simplicity while, in the latter, to truth concealed which, if known, would show the nature of the complexity of God’s character and purpose.
Both, however, speak of a work of God that’s universal in scope - in the NT it refers to the all-encompassing provision of the cross for all men of every nation while, in the OT, it speaks of the judgment upon all the nations and of the reformation of the world order at the hands of God’s instrument of purpose, the Chaldeans.
I can imagine Habakkuk taking a long look at the affairs of the world after receiving this message from YHWH - an imagination which is, perhaps, purely fanciful even though he’s commanded to do just that in the opening words - and failing to perceive not only how the Chaldeans might rise to pre-eminence but also being assured as to what it was that God had determined to do. Similarly, the nation to whom this vision would have eventually been brought (Hab 2:2) must have found much of the prophet’s writings purely fanciful and strange.
It’s doubtful that the majority of them would have believed the message as being from God and so wouldn’t have waited for its fulfilment (Hab 2:2-4). Rather, confident that the prophet had declared to them something which had no relevance to themselves, they would have gone about their own business. But, when the Chaldeans began to rise to prominence in the world and then to begin to move against the nations that had at one time been secure, their minds must have turned towards thoughts of Habakkuk’s message and realised that the reality of its fulfilment was getting all the more likely.
An example of one who showed faith in the face of an impossibility must be Abraham - though I don’t mean the prophetic announcements concerning the birth of the child of promise, Isaac (Gen 15:4) but, rather, the statement by YHWH that his descendants would be slaves in a land for four hundred years and that, after that time, God would visit them and bring them in to all that He’d promised to Abraham’s descendants (Gen 15:13-16).
This belief in the Word of God passed down the line until Joseph, convinced that it would prove true even though they were the rulers and not the slaves at that time, gave directions concerning his burial that he might not come to a final resting place outside of the land given to Israel, his father (Gen 50:24-26, Ex 13:19, Heb 11:22).
As I’ve written above, the prophetic word might not seem as if it could be fulfilled when it’s first spoken but it shows itself to be a message from God because it comes about in spite of the known circumstances at the time of its giving. Therefore, the prophetic insights that the Church is given today are often only the extrapolation of what can be known of the circumstances that surround us.
Dangerous prophecy (dangerous in the sense that it takes real faith to both prophesy and to believe what one can’t see or perceive) is that which isn’t likely when one considers the situation that one finds oneself in. A former work colleague of mine used to say, when confronted with an event that seemed unlikely that
‘You wouldn’t believe it if you’d read it in a book’
and, even though it was meant to be a humorous statement, it’s particularly relevant here because that’s exactly what appears to have happened. The Israelites would have read the vision of Habakkuk displayed on the tablets in some public place or other (Hab 2:2) and turned back to their own affairs, giving it little or no response in their own lives through repentance and restitution.
The LXX’s translation, therefore, is all the more relevant for it explains the reaction that such a message would have received in those to whom it would have originally come.
The Church also seems to suffer not from giving itself over to prophetic messages which seem plausible but from an incapability to assess and test those words reputed to be from God that don’t have a solid basis in the things that can be seen around them.
In other words, we seem to lack faith and a discernment that can tell the difference between that which is purely an expression of our own understanding in any given situation and that which has come directly from God.
To give but one example here, I noted with bewilderment the ‘words’ that God had given to His people concerning the disaster of September 11th 2001 (that is, words which had been ‘received’ before the event) but that they generally went unheard of by the Body of Christ until after the disaster had taken place. In other words, while there might have been a belief that these things were to take place, it’s unlikely to have been very strong because the faith of those who received it didn’t proclaim it to the Body that each and every believer might stand in awe of God.
While most of us should feel fairly confident in understanding the way that things are going in this world, we desperately need to know what can’t be seen that we might not flounder and panic when God’s work comes upon us, having already prepared for that Day with a certainty of expectation.
2. Parallels with Jeremiah
There are certain considerations here which we would do well to parallel and consider in the light of a passage in Jeremiah (Jer 3:6-6:30), almost four chapters of denunciations which the prophet brought before Judah (Jer 3:6)
‘...in the days of king Josiah’
This is the only message which is addressed to the people in Josiah’s day. It’s clear that a new message begins at Jer 7:1 and, even though we might presume that the previous words (Jer 1:1-3:5) must have taken place in time order and, therefore, also in Josiah’s reign, we can’t be absolutely certain and must restrain ourselves from using them. It may also be that Jer 3:6-6:30 contains more than one message given at separate times but there appears not to be any good reason to have to divide it into sections.
We’ve previously noted that the prophet had prophesied during the righteous king’s thirty-one year reign (Jer 1:2) and that he began only thirteen years into it. One would have expected him to have pronounced good towards the children of Israel because of Josiah’s many reforms and encouragements for his people to return to YHWH and to serve Him wholly.
However, a message such as this one in Jeremiah shows that, although the king was regarded by God, the people had largely chosen to continue in their own way - a good enough reason not to push the date of composition of the Book of Habakkuk to a subsequent ruler’s reign because it seems fairly plain from Hab 2:5 that the Chaldeans shouldn’t have been expected to have been a clearly discernible world force at the time of its proclamation.
Jer 3:6-6:30, therefore, is a parallel passage to Hab 1:6-11 because it would appear as if they were delivered to the people at the same general time and in the same situation of rebellion against God, even though Josiah’s reforms had sought to pull them back to Him.
It’s plain from the language that Jeremiah perceived that God’s dissatisfaction with the southern kingdom of Judah was a necessary fact (Jer 3:6-11). In Jeremiah, however, the dissatisfaction comes about by the Word of God whereas, in Habakkuk, it comes as the prophet looks around himself and witnesses the nation’s actions.
It would be wrong to think Jeremiah had been blind to the real spiritual state of the nation but it does make us think that Habakkuk was the initiator in receiving God’s message to the nation whereas Jeremiah seems more to be a man who waited for a message and then responded to it accordingly - for example, Jer 4:10 sees the prophet vocally comparing what he’d heard other prophets say and calling God to explain why it appeared that He was double-minded.
a. The state of the nation
The state of the nation is similar in both places - though not identical.
Jer 6:7 is interesting because it uses two words that are also employed by Habakkuk of his observations of those people in the nation (Strongs Hebrew numbers 2555 and 7701, M678a and 2331a) and they’re coupled in both places though in a different order (Hab 1:3 - ‘destruction and violence’, Jer 6:7 - ‘violence and destruction’).
The summary in Jer 4:22 that the nation are
‘...stupid children...they are skilled in doing evil, but how to do good they know not’
is a good general description of what we read in Hab 1:2-4 while we find other phrases which detail a society in which every man and women seems to be set against everyone else. For example, Jer 5:26 speaks about wicked men who
‘...lurk like fowlers lying in wait. They set a trap; they catch men’
While Habakkuk notes that the wicked get the decision over the righteous so that the civil law is perverted, Jeremiah seems only to hint at it (Jer 5:27-28) commenting that the houses of the nation are
‘...full of treachery; therefore they have become great and rich, they have grown fat and sleek. They know no bounds in deeds of wickedness; they judge not with justice the cause of the fatherless, to make it prosper, and they do not defend the rights of the needy’
where it’s the strong and overbearing who get the decision rather than those individuals amongst them who are in need. Again, Jer 6:13 announces that every person is set after material wealth no matter whether the method is morally right or not - and, even though one might have expected some fear of YHWH amongst the prophets and priests, their hearts are set in the same ways as those who come to them for advice and direction.
Again, let’s stop for one minute and consider the application to the present day. Too often, we think of these words as being directed at the nation in which we live but, rather, we should think of them as being applicable to the Church. There will always be wickedness amongst those who openly confess they have no time or regard for God and His ways - but, amongst those who proclaim that their lives are set to follow Jesus, there should be none of this.
No believer should be striving after material riches (Mtw 6:24) or dealing falsely with one another (Jer 6:13). Even when it comes to the leadership of God’s Church, the message coming from God is often ‘peace’ to those who listen (Jer 6:14) when it should be ‘wake up and start serving God’. YHWH observes (Jer 5:30-31) that
‘...the prophets prophesy falsely, and the priests rule at their direction...’
noting that this is the only way that the people will have it but, even so, that it’s both ‘appalling and horrible’ in His eyes. Even a young Jeremiah was blinded by the voice coming from those who should have known better for, after having listened to God speak about the state of the nation, he responds (Jer 4:10) by declaring
‘...surely Thou hast utterly deceived this people and Jerusalem, saying “It shall be well with you”; whereas the sword has reached their very life’
because this was the message which was being proclaimed to the children of God when they were continuing in their wickedness towards man and their rebellion against God. Indeed, the true prophets such as Jeremiah and Habakkuk who were announcing the message of God to the nation were being undermined by the belief in the people that God was impotent to act against them (Jer 5:12) declaring that the message of destruction which was being proclaimed would only come upon the people declaring it (Jer 5:13).
It may seem strange that the people might accept one message as being from God that He was going to move in their midst and then declare that God wouldn’t act against them because He was impotent, but we would underestimate those believers today who listen only for the ‘nice words’ thinking that Jesus’ sacrifice has made God into a doting father bereft of discipline (the ‘Here, son, have another sweet!’ mentality which negates both God’s wrath and justice), rejecting any message which might upset the cart and force His followers into the position of having to order their lives differently than the way they want to.
Initially, Jeremiah had refused to accept the declaration that God had made - in contrast to Habakkuk who started with a truer perception of the spiritual health of the nation - and he appears to have been encouraged by YHWH to seek out any righteous that he could find throughout the city of Jerusalem (Jer 5:1-2). Though he thought that his initial observations were due to the fact that he was looking amongst those least likely to honour God, he was appalled to discover that the corruption within God’s people ran all the way to the very top (Jer 5:3-5) and this even in the days of king Josiah who was at the head of an arguably righteous government!
Habakkuk had offered no message of hope to the nation - but Jeremiah was given words to encourage them to return and so avert the judgment of God. He recounts the history of their reaction towards His former servants’ message proclaiming (Jer 6:16)
‘...Stand by the roads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way is; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls...’
declaring their reaction as being
‘We will not walk in it’
Similarly, whatever the watchmen had proclaimed had been shunned (Jer 6:17). One has to think carefully about where the Church might be in the present day - I wouldn’t be so bold as to say that we stand on the verge of judgment or that we have fully rejected the witness of God’s Word to us as either a Body or as individuals but, just as in Jeremiah’s day, there are many messages from God in the local churches. But most of them are ‘encouraging’ while those who declare the words which ruffle feathers or upset the apple cart are swept under the carpet to be ignored.
Unfortunately, many individuals seem to like to prophesy destruction which serves only to confuse the issue, but a fellowship which pays more heed to nice words and forgets quickly the disturbing ones are more likely to be in a position which is similar to that of the Israelites in the days of Habakkuk and Jeremiah.
In that case, Jeremiah’s call to repentance is equally relevant (Jer 6:26 Pp 4:8,14) because we forget that the time for a change is now that the consequences of our own actions might not be reaped. As the prophet proclaimed in the hearing of the people
‘...gird on sackcloth, and roll in ashes; make mourning as for an only son, most bitter lamentation; for suddenly the destroyer will come upon us’
b. The nation that comes as a judgment
Habakkuk’s record of God’s Word (Hab 1:6) that
‘...I am rousing the Chaldeans’
has already been seen to have been an impossibility when considered from natural circumstances at the time that it was announced to him - hence the warnings that he should wonder and be astounded at what He was arranging among the nations.
Jeremiah also identifies the oppressor who was to be brought by God upon the land but with a less certain identity than one would have expected. The prophet had begun declaring God’s words c.627/6BC, in the thirteenth year of Josiah’s reign (Jer 1:2), when the Assyrians held the dominance in the lands north of Israel. We noted above that, from 625BC, Babylon began to grow increasingly strong until 612BC when the Assyrian capital of Nineveh was overthrown, three years before the end of Josiah’s reign.
One might say, then, that the ‘final ruler’ of the northern lands was in doubt until that overthrow or, perhaps, until the battle/overthrow of Carchemish took place in 605BC (after Josiah’s reign and, therefore, after the final date of composition of Jer 3:6-6:30) which effectively secured the total dominance of Babylon throughout the region when the Egyptian fortification was overrun by Nebuchadnezzar.
What God announces to His people through Jeremiah is naturally ambiguous for, although He mentions the direction of attack, He doesn’t name the Chaldeans as the people by whom it would come - unlike Habakkuk. So, God states (Jer 4:6) that He will
‘...bring evil from the north...’
a direction which is repeated elsewhere (Jer 6:1,22) and which must be understood to be the direction from which the attack would come and not - as has often been interpreted - the direction in which their attackers lived. Having a desert area to the east of the nation, an attack from the north meant only that their attackers were using a route north-west where there would be provision for an army before swinging due south to fall upon the land of Israel and Judah.
YHWH also describes them as coming from ‘a distant land ‘ (Jer 4:16), ‘from the farthest parts of the earth’ (Jer 6:22) and ‘from afar’ (Jer 5:15). This latter description is also tied up with the observation that the nation is
‘...an enduring nation, it is an ancient nation, a nation whose language you do not know, nor can you understand what they say’
something which could have been equally true of both the Assyrians (Gen 2:14) and the Chaldeans (Gen 11:28). It seems, however, that God chose not to ‘name names’ as He did through Habakkuk - we might also say that an attack from the north was all the more likely because it had been Assyria who had overrun the northern kingdom of Israel only a hundred years or so prior to the prophetic word.
c. How the Chaldeans are portrayed
God’s judgment upon His own people wasn’t that they might lose their jobs temporarily or that they might not be as prosperous as they had been up to that point, but it involved the loss of everything that they’d placed their trust in. They were to have their houses and lands removed from them, some being exiled away into Babylon while others would be left impoverished in the land which had once been the place they’d been able to exploit others by their actions.
Neither was God’s tool particularly pleasant and Habakkuk goes on to record God’s description of them as a severe warning. Whether a reader (not a ‘hearer’ - Hab 2:2) would have believed them or not doesn’t alter the fact that these weren’t pleasant things to read. In ancient days, the main threat when powers went on the offensive in the world would be that they would be destroyed in an invasion and that those things which they were secure in would be removed from them.
Even worse would it be when the invading army were lawless (or, as in the case of the Chaldean, people whose justice proceeded from within themselves - Hab 1:7). While the children of Israel had been given clear instructions on their methods of war, both towards those found within their land (Deut 7:2) and those outside (Deut 21:10-14), the nations which were round about them didn’t fight by the same rules and the most that could be hoped for would be that the enemy army weren’t too rampant in their pillaging of the lands that they were overthrowing.
As was the case with most of the ancient societies, however, the armies which overthrew nations used their power over the inhabitants in shameful ways - and this was to be equally true of the Chaldeans who were to be sent by YHWH Himself against His own land and people as His instrument of judgment.
But it wasn’t just against Judah that they were to come. As we’ve previously noted from Jer 25:15-29, God had purposed to judge the world’s nations through the Babylonians and Hab 1:6 also notes here that the nation was to
‘...march through the breadth of the earth, to seize habitations not their own’
while Jer 4:16 sounds the warning to all the nations that God’s army is coming against them. The army is also spoken of in animal imagery - of leopards (Hab 1:8, Jer 5:6), wolves (Hab 1:8, Jer 5:6), eagles (Hab 1:8, Jer 4:13) and lions (Jer 4:7, 5:6). Had they been gerbils, hamsters and mice, no one would have been too afraid but God uses animals which were noted for their ferocity and aggression to convey what they should expect, describing them as having no weak link because they’re all mighty men (Jer 5:16).
The descriptive words are also important to note for they’re described as fierce and swift to devour (Hab 1:8), as a destroyer of nations (Jer 4:7), of being cruel and showing no mercy (Jer 6:23) and as being so quick that the reader is impressed with the impossibility of escape (Jer 4:13). The nation is also described as ‘bitter and hasty’ (Hab 1:6) and ‘dread and terrible’ (Hab 1:7), noting that their coming has the sole intention for the outpouring of violence against any they encounter (Hab 1:9).
Their success is also portrayed as inevitable so that they scoff at kings and make sport of rulers (Hab 1:10) because they know that no matter what’s arrayed against them, by their own power they’ll overcome. Therefore, there’s derision in their laughter against whichever nation they next encounter (Hab 1:10) for they know no defeat and are supremely confident of the final outcome.
So, their approach against the city of Jerusalem is to be feared and its inhabitants can have no confidence in any other outcome than that they’ll be taken captive and laid waste like all the others that have gone before (Hab 1:9, Jer 4:20, 6:6,23). Jeremiah’s description of the land under the Babylonians seems initially to be a picture of complete desolation. He describes the Babylonians as the people (Jer 5:17) who will
‘...eat up your harvest and your food; they shall eat up your sons and your daughters; they shall eat up your flocks and your herds; they shall eat up your vines and your fig trees; your fortified cities in which you trust they shall destroy with the sword’
It’s only Jeremiah, though, who goes on to see the wider picture that, even in wrath, there’s mercy - something that, although Habakkuk prays for it, he doesn’t proclaim as being an inevitable outworking of the judgment (Hab 3:2). So, even though there’s an unprecedented wave of desolation about to sweep over the land, YHWH still maintains (Jer 4:27 Pp 5:18) that
‘...I will not make a full end’
holding out the hope that there might be a returning by God to His people and a restoration of the nation following what appears to be an inevitable judgment because of the hard and unbending hearts of the people. It’s not that God wasn’t giving His people a chance to turn back to Him even at the time of the words being brought but that their fixed will seemed to be immovable and the natural confirmation that the possibilities here described were, in effect, inevitabilities.
However we might understand the descriptors used of the Chaldeans, it’s obvious that the wording is far from something to which the inhabitants of the kingdom of Judah were to look forward - rather, it was a clear indication that, should the message be fulfilled, those who had read the word would probably lose everything that they possessed.
Again, we need to think about how the words of YHWH to His holy nation (Ex 19:6) might apply to His Church (I Peter 2:9) in the new covenant. If the Church were ever to find itself in a similar state (I originally wrote ‘a similar apostate state’ before realising that the description was too hard. After all, Habakkuk observes simply that there’s no justice amongst God’s people and it’s this which serves as the basis not only of His complaint but of God’s declaration that He would do something about it. Jeremiah does mention all manner of sins which would also have been resident within the land but it’s primarily the lack of justice and of turning that system around to serve the wicked which is at the basis of God’s pronouncements in Habakkuk), a similar judgment could be envisaged at the hands of a people who could be equally as ruthless as the Chaldeans proved themselves to be.
In the Church today, however, such a position seems to be unacceptable to the people who profess faith in God - choosing to rather think about the positive aspects of Divine love - while there are many soothsayers and self-made prophets that continue to pronounce the imminent downfall and judgment that appears never to take place. As is often the case, a balance needs to be struck in these matters.
Judgment doesn’t come upon His Church just to destroy but to change and transform (I Peter 4:17-18 - taken slightly out of context) - judgment, however, is way beyond discipline where discipline should be taken as a milder form which seeks to wake up His people to their plight, and judgment is a demonstration of God’s wrath (the former term, though, can be used to denote the latter in the NT).
If God was on the move against His own Church, it should be evident firstly in the manner of life which His Church was living and their refusal to accept words from God which undermined the stability and security of the way of life which they’d chosen for themselves - that is, that which had been chosen and which went over and above the will of God in Christ.
Although the message would have gone out to His people, it would have been rejected and many of God’s true believers would then be expected to be shunned by those who meet together, even to the point of them being ridiculed and labelled as heretical, unorthodox or just plain loopy.
As the Church became more apostate (there - I’ve used it! At this point in the falling away from a true faith, the word seems more justified), battle lines would seen to be drawn against those who had the label of being alive (Rev 3:1) even in the form of people who were less intrinsically righteous than they, but all the while it would be God Himself who would be empowering them to oppose His people (Rev 3:3).
Eventually, we would expect church buildings to be closed and the witness of the Gospel to be ended in the region or locality (Rev 2:5) - even though there would still be men and women who were true believers and through whom a new move of God might take place at a subsequent time.
In the record of the early Church in the NT, it’s unlikely that such a problem had come to be a major one because God’s people were forcefully advancing throughout all the regions of the world. Although there were known problems in some fellowships which were addressed in some of the personal letters to them, it’s only in the Book of Revelation that these problems are seen to be coming to fruition where God is announcing that, unless something changes soon, He’ll step in and enter into judgment with His people.
A withdrawal of a christian witness in an area is not certain proof that God has come against His own people - and it’s certainly true that witch hunts normally find exactly what they’re looking for because they can interpret the evidence in whichever way they choose - so it’s much better that the warnings of God are considered carefully in both Habakkuk and Jeremiah that we might safeguard our own continued presence in the land in which we live rather than to apply this word to areas where fellowships have seemed to close.
3. Some specifics from Habakkuk
There are a couple of turns of phrase in Hab 1:5-11 that describe the Chaldeans which deserve to be treated separately because the depth of meaning isn’t obvious to the casual reader, even though they should cause us to sit up and take notice.
The first occurs in Hab 1:7 where YHWH notes of the Chaldeans that
‘...their justice and dignity proceed from themselves’
where the Hebrew word translated by ‘dignity’ (Strongs Hebrew number 7613, M1421j) is probably best understood by the English ‘exaltation’. In other words, it’s their status which is self-determined as the head of all the nations rather than for them to have considered themselves to be sovereign over the nations by the will of God.
This will be equally apparent when we consider Hab 1:11 below but, for now, we need to consider the first aspect of YHWH’s statement that justice (that is, what they consider to be right action and conduct and, therefore, civil law) come from their own mind rather than as a product of an absolute standard which they uphold.
Habbaker makes the statement that
‘The Babylonians were arrogant, setting themselves up in God’s place even as far as promulgating their own law and honouring themselves...’
whereas the Law that Israel had received had come as a direct revelation from God, the civil law being developed from the demands and expectations of the Mosaic Law. Present day society is the same, however, and what laws were made in former years came about often through the many men and women who feared God and tried to cause society to reflect His nature.
Legislation today reflects the will and expectation of those who attempt to determine what’s right and wrong by no absolute standard and who, it’s often been said, form the law to suit themselves. Their understanding of righteousness therefore becomes relative and one man’s sin is another’s justification.
If there are no absolutes by which to form law, legislation which is instituted has no firm basis and will shift as opinions change. One only has to consider the present day legislation in the UK concerning both drug use and euthanasia. Whatever position we take on the matter isn’t important at this point - what is important to note, however, is that the lines which were drawn are being rubbed out and placed elsewhere because opinions change.
Instead of asking God what the basis of human civil law should be, changes are brought in which reflect the mindset of those in power - a mindset which changes when the next Government are elected and which is generally less morally upright than those who have preceded them.
Gill goes one step further in his understanding of the phrase, commenting that the Chaldeans
‘...will not be directed and governed by any laws of God and man, but by their own’
although ‘their own’ are also ‘of man’. What’s being observed here, though, is that they pay regard to nothing except what they themselves approve which makes them ‘a law to themselves’.
The other phrase worth considering here is Hab 1:11 in which YHWH calls the Chaldeans
‘...guilty men, whose own might is their god’
though there’s some disagreement on the correct translation with the AV rendering the meaning that the Chaldeans render the power they have to their own god. Although this is possible, the phrase appears to be paralleled by Hab 1:7 noted above where it’s said of them that their exaltation is that which is a product of themselves - any humility that anyone else has raised them to their position of pre-eminence over the nations of the world would be shunned. This is paralleled in Zeph 2:15 where the Word of God against the Assyrians is that they proclaim
‘I am and there is none else’
thus making themselves out to be the rulers even over God (who, obviously, they would either refuse to accept or think of as being subservient to their own will). It seems best, then, to accept the RSV’s translation. Habsmith observes the meaning to be that
‘...they deify their own strength...’
going on to comment that it’s
‘...a common fault among major powers who attribute their position on the world stage to their own doings’
The Chaldeans, therefore, weren’t ones who suffered from an excess of humility. Just as their justice came from their own mind so too did their consideration of how great they were, thus setting themselves up as gods throughout the earth. This is less likely to be a characteristic of Western governments in their own countries than it is of nations who are venturing to overcome others.
Nevertheless, it is evident in the demonstration of power and judgment that’s currently being displayed by the Western allies towards those who are considered to be in opposition to the stability of their own society (I make no direct comments whether this is intrinsically either righteous or wicked - my point in mentioning it here is by way of observation only). In this case, the allies have set themselves up not only as those who are to dispense justice but who glory in their own power as being that which is served.
Whether the dispensing of justice and strength is based upon a revelation of the will of God and, therefore, in accordance with His will and purpose in the earth is what would determine whether it was that which caused them to act or whether it was the product of their own considerations.
It seems unlikely that it’s the former, however, and the danger is always that a nation or group of nations which continues to do as it pleases will turn to rely upon its own strength and power, its own expectation of what’s both right and wrong and so become independent of God’s absolute standard.
Any nation which does this puts itself ultimately in the place of the Chaldeans of the OT who were oblivious to the fact of God’s calling upon them to judge the then-known world order and thought that it had all come about through their own resources, cleverness and strength. Such a nation will be ripe for its own judgment once God has used it to fulfil His own will and purpose.
Without meaning to sound too flippant in my assessment of this passage, it appears as if Habakkuk is unwilling to let God ‘off the hook’. Probably most men and women would have raised their complaint against what they saw around them (if, of course, they were even willing to do this) but then have accepted whatever God had replied.
Although he begins by stating his own understanding both of the character of God (Hab 1:12a) and of the word which has just come to him (Hab 1:12b), he goes on to return to a similar theme to his original complaint (Hab 1:13 Cp 1:2-4), appealing to the natural occupation of fishing to suggest that what God has stated as seemingly endless must be of finite proportions (Hab 1:14-17).
That the prophet expects an answer is surprising seeing as he once more is calling upon YHWH to give an account of Himself for those things which He’s purposing against His people - all the more so because he appears to have every confidence that God will turn back to Him and reply (Hab 2:1).
Most of us, I would suggest, ask God questions and hope that He might hearken to our voice and give us the words that we need - Habakkuk is somewhat different in that He expects God to answer Him even when He’s cornered Him into giving an account of Himself.
God Almighty is certainly not accountable to mankind for the plans which He Himself ordains and purposes for He does and no one can oppose - but Habakkuk has no concept of that in His own understanding that would keep him from approaching God once again to be answered.
1. From everlasting
It’s generally accepted by commentators that the Jews had no concept of ‘eternity’ - or, better, of an endless period of time. Rather, they’re thought to have envisaged human history as being defined by ‘ages’ in which God dealt with mankind on the basis of His own will and purpose.
Therefore, Habsmith comments that the word translated as ‘everlasting’ here (Strongs Hebrew number 6924, M1988a) is better understood to mean ‘ancient’ denoting a fixed, but lengthy, time period. But it’s difficult to read statements like that of Ps 90:2 (a different Hebrew word is used at this point - Strongs Hebrew number 5956, M1629 - which is often described as meaning ‘the vanishing point’) in which the author proclaims God, as the translation of the RSV renders it
‘...from everlasting to everlasting Thou art God’
especially when, preceding the statement, the declaration is plain that God is God even
‘...before the mountains were brought forth or ever Thou hadst formed the earth and the world...’
In other words, there appears to be the idea that God exists independently of the created order so that ‘eternity’ is more of a concept which relates to God’s position as Sovereign over time than of Him being within time, limited by it but, nevertheless, older than anything one might care to imagine.
Habakkuk’s next statement naming God YHWH (‘O YHWH...’) is a confession of His ever present nature where the title translates roughly to ‘I am’ (Ex 3:14), the revelation of the intrinsic nature of God to Moses.
TWOTOT cites Wolff (although they disagree with the concept) in his definition of the Hebrew understanding of time as being similar to
‘...the situation of a man rowing a boat. He sees the past as before him; the future is behind his back’
but this couldn’t be levelled as that which is to be true of God for He’s declared as knowing the end from the beginning (Is 46:10). That God speaks into this framework of time is necessary for us to understand but, even so, if God was ever considered to be restricted by the very concept that He created then He would cease to be over everything and in control.
Habakkuk’s declaration, then, is to affirm God’s unchangeability regardless of the passage of time, observing that He’s the ‘I am’ - not He who ‘was’ in times passed but who ‘is’ from as far back as one might like to recall. Therefore he can conclude that
‘...[the nation] shall not [cease to exist]’
because the unchangeable nature of God is the sole reassurance that His commitment to the nation of Judah will continue. Had the prophet been dealing with a human relationship it might have been imagined that there could be a change in purpose but, with God, His ever-present existence assures them of His ever-present commitment to them (Mal 3:6). Even though the prophet can understand the Chaldeans to be
‘...a judgment and...for chastisement’
he cannot imagine that God would send them against the nation to remove them utterly from off the face of the earth. In this, therefore, he finds hope, going on in Hab 1:13 to speak of God’s attitude toward sin - a verse which has given commentators a great deal of conflicting thoughts through the years.
Before we consider that verse, we should note that Habsmith translates the RSV’s
‘...we shall not die’
‘...You shall not die’
which refers to God Himself as not being able to end His existence. He cites this verse as being one of eighteen in the OT which the scribes felt obliged to ‘correct’ in their transmission of the documents to their own generation though it seems not to be declared what it was that they corrected it from. Habsmith’s rendering seems likely because it involves the alteration of only one letter - although whether this was ever the case is far from certain.
If the reader was to take the amended text and place it in context, it would mean much the same as that which the prophet had already been declaring - that is, God’s continue existence was assured and so the nation could feel confident that He wouldn’t forsake them or, worse, that there would come a time when He wouldn’t be around to stand in the gap on their behalf.
Why the scribes should feel horrified to think that Habakkuk might have declared that God wouldn’t die, however, is far from certain - simply because it’s an established truth of the Scriptures that YHWH is the ever-present, the ‘I AM’, of all Creation.
2. God’s relationship to sin
This verse has been the centre of a great deal of controversy because of the identification of the ‘wicked’ which is then sometimes transposed onto Habakkuk’s own statements in Hab 1:2-4. Habbaker sees the first reference in Hab 1:13 to be directed towards the wicked of the prophet’s own nation (or, perhaps better, to be inspired by his consideration of the nation) before his mind projects itself forward into a consideration of the Chaldeans who were ‘more wicked’ than even ‘wicked’ Judah were, objecting to God’s choice of that nation because it seemed to continue to promote the very sin which God was setting about to judge.
Others would see the ‘wicked’ throughout this verse as having to be a reference to the Chaldeans which, upon further extrapolation, is further applied to Hab 1:2-4 with the argument that the ‘wicked’ must be one and the same in both places.
If this is the case, however, it makes little sense why God should send the nation against Judah and then for the prophet to declare that God was just in the use of judgment and of a chastisement (Hab 1:12) when it would so obviously be the case that he wasn’t at all if Judah were a people after God’s own heart.
We’re in danger of missing the depth of argument here if we try to rationalise the verse. It seems most likely that Habakkuk has in mind both the state of the nation of Judah and the prophetic word which has just come to him concerning the Chaldeans and it’s hard to choose between whether the entire verse is meant to be taken as referring to one at the expense of the other.
It seems that the prophet’s mind is flitting between the two facts as he understands them - on the one hand, he sees the people of Judah as worthy of judgment and yet, on the other, a nation which is to come against them which seems to be more intrinsically wicked than Judah has become.
And that’s his dilemma because the prophet thinks that God will only use the righteous to bring about the purpose of His will when, in effect, He’ll use whomsoever He pleases. We can get some understanding of the ‘spirituality’ of Judah from Jer 12:1-2 where the prophet finds incomprehensible the way it is within the nation, asking
‘Why does the way of the wicked prosper? Why do all who are treacherous thrive?’
going on to observe that it’s God who’s established them and given them the ability to be fruitful and prosperous. Yet they still have a superficiality of knowing God for he observes that
‘...Thou art near in their mouth and far from their heart’
The Chaldeans, on the other hand, had no fear of God (Hab 1:7,11) relying upon themselves for everything that they were about to achieve. Surely, then, a nation which has some witness to YHWH must be better off than one which has none?
But the problem is that the image of God has been perverted.
Asaph - a great many years before the times in which both Jeremiah and Habakkuk lived - observed the wickedness of the nation (Ps 50:19-20 - and in a time, like the reign of king Josiah, when there was a righteous leadership on the throne of the kingdom) and then announced God as saying (Ps 50:21)
‘These things you have done and I have been silent; you thought that I was one like yourself’
In other words, they felt that YHWH was reflected in the things which they were doing - they had an image of God which they were being truthful to even though it was incorrect. Whether a nation has the name of God and attributes their success to Him or whether it doesn’t regard Him and His ways at all, the state of both nations is equally precarious.
When Habakkuk complains that God continues to look after ‘faithless men’ and is silent
‘...when the wicked swallows up the man more righteous than he’
he’s saying that God should institute some kind of grading structure in which the more prosperous one is or can become, the greater their acceptability before Him - that their acceptability or righteousness is what causes them to be ‘prosperous’. As we know from the NT, though (Rom 3:22-23)
‘...there is no distinction; since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God’
The present day Church can’t say, therefore, that it should continue to exist because it bears the name of Jesus and has a better way of life than those who live round about it. As Jesus said of the fellowship in Sardis (Rev 3:1)
‘...you have the name of being alive, and you are dead’
What’s important is whether the Church is alive - not whether it’s less dead - and a group of believers in an area who have forsaken only some of the truth is worse off than the world who’ve never received any of it.
In other words, we might think of God’s choice of the Chaldeans as being of a nation who didn’t know any better - while Judah was a people who should have. Especially after it had seen what YHWH had done to the northern kingdom of Israel and had opportunity to repent of its ways, Jeremiah recording God’s words (Jer 3:11) as declaring Israel ‘less guilty’ because they had had no example to wake them up to His prophets’ words.
In summary, we might take Hab 1:13 as being both true if applied to the state of the nation of Judah as the prophet witnessed it and to the situation about to take place in which God would send the Chaldeans against His own people. Both affairs, says Habakkuk, seem to be incomprehensible when viewed in the light of the known character of God - hence his complaint and questioning of YHWH.
3. Something fishy’s going on
Habakkuk now argues his case from the contemporary occupation of fishing. I’ve considered the use of various different nets in the Biblical record in my commentary on Matthew under the header ‘Come and Follow’ and the reader is advised to refer to that page for background information if necessary - but there’s no need for us to define the type of fishing intended in this passage for it gives little further illumination to the prophet’s meaning.
The concept of the ensnaring of prey in a net is in fairly common use in the OT though the net being referred to isn’t always the one employed in fishing - the nets mentioned are also used for ensnaring animals such as the antelope and deer (Is 51:10) or even birds (Prov 1:17, Hosea 7:12).
It has a variety of uses, though, and can be used as a metaphor in a negative and positive manner where the sinful act of man or the righteous intervention of God is in mind. In Eccles 9:11-12, though, it’s used in a neutral way as an observation by the author that time and chance happen to all men regardless of the type of person they are, going on to observe that a man
‘...does not know his time. Like fish which are taken in an evil net, and like birds which are caught in a snare, so the sons of men are snared at an evil time when it suddenly falls upon them’
where the term ‘evil’ is meant to be understood as referring to a time not that’s considered to be inherently sinful but something that isn’t welcomed as being what a man or woman would want for themselves (a use for ‘evil’ which many believers have yet to come to terms with - its translation in the OT as always referring to sin is incorrect, especially when there are numerous places in the AV that refer to God as doing ‘evil’ against men - Jer 18:8, 21:10, 23:12, 39:16, 44:11, Ezek 6:10, Amos 9:4, Micah 2:3).
The picture of civilisation corresponds to that which Habakkuk uses as a metaphor where men and women are seen to be fish in a great sea from which they’re ensnared at random times by nets which are considered to be outside their control.
God also speaks of His people as fish indirectly in Jer 16:16-18 where He notes that He’s sending for both fishers and hunters against them because of their sin. This idea of judgment is also present in Amos 4:2-3 where YHWH is speaking to the northern kingdom of Israel before its subjugation by Assyria, informing them that
‘...the days are coming upon you when they shall take you away with hooks - even the last of you with fishhooks. And you shall go out through the breaches every one straight before her...’
God was declaring that He was to raise up fishers to capture His people and to lead them away from their land - like a man removes fish from their natural environment for their own personal benefit and enrichment, thinking nothing of the welfare of the fish (see also Ps 66:11 which refers to the children of God and Ezek 32:2-3 which is God’s word against Pharaoh).
The wicked are also envisaged as being fishers of men (a term which is, of course, equally applicable to God’s servants in the NT - Mtw 4:19) although the OT passages think of them more in the light of catching animals and birds.
In Ps 10:3,8-9, the wicked are envisaged as sitting at a trap waiting for something to fall into it with all the patience of a genuine hunter expecting a meal. Indeed, Ps 10:9 speaks of him drawing the poor man into his net which seems to imply a scheming on their part to bring about their own purpose rather than to rely on pure chance.
David must have found himself numerous times in situations where he feared for his own safety. In Ps 140:5 he observes that
‘Arrogant men have hidden a trap for me and with cords they have spread a net - by the wayside they have set snares for me’
in Ps 141:9-10 he also prays to God that He might keep him
‘...from the trap which they have laid for me and from the snares of evildoers! Let the wicked together fall into their own nets, while I escape’
and observes at another point of his life in Ps 57:6 that, although there was a trap prepared for him
‘...they have fallen into it themselves’
The picture that Habakkuk uses in Hab 1:14-17, though, is best seen as a cross between the wicked’s action against the righteous and God’s moving against the ungodly - which appears to be the problem that the prophet is having in reconciling what He intends to do. After all, God is known to save His people from the net in the time of trouble as it states in Ps 31:3-4 where David prays to God to be taken
‘...out of the net which is hidden for me...’
‘...Thou art my refuge’
If God is now on the side of the wicked - here considered to be the Chaldeans of Hab 1:6 - that means that His hand is with the wicked in their plans and that He’s even empowering them to bring about the purpose of His will against His own people who are ‘more righteous’ relatively speaking than are the invading army.
Habakkuk begins by a consideration of mankind as being ‘like the fish of the sea’ (Hab 1:14) with no ruler over them (in the sense, probably, of their rejection of YHWH as the head of all things and of their commitment to follow His example). Hab 1:15 is immediately expected to be read as God being the subject and that the prophet is now referring to Him bringing the fish from the sea - however, when one reads all the last three verses, it’s plain that the Chaldeans must be referred to.
It’s the Chaldeans, then, who are pictured as the fisherman, removing men and women from their environment and of making themselves rich and prosperous at their expense. The fact that they worship their own skill is a backwards reference to Hab 1:7,11 where their self-sufficiency is recognised.
Habakkuk’s problem at this point, though, isn’t that he fails to accept that God might unite Himself with the wicked to bring judgment upon His people (which he’s put into words in his question of Hab 1:13) but that he wants to know the time limits around their overthrow of God’s people. He rhetorically asks (Hab 1:17)
‘Is he then to keep on emptying his net and mercilessly slaying nations for ever?’
but is expectant of a reply from God to avert his fears that the land might be overrun forever. Perhaps the prophet had the worry in the back of his mind that God might have chosen another nation in place of His own for the question seems strange without it - God had already made it plain that the Chaldeans were coming as a judgment against Judah and Habakkuk had acknowledged it (Hab 1:12) but, if they were coming to dispossess, that meant the likelihood that an opportunity to return might never come.
Better, though, is the thought that sees the basis of this question as being the need to know how long YHWH intended to ally Himself with the wicked against the ‘relatively righteous’ of Judah. This appears to be the answer that’s given in the reply from Hab 2:5 where judgment poured out upon the oppressor is detailed.
In summary, Habakkuk has asked two questions which will be answered from Hab 2:2 in God’s second reply. Firstly, he’s concerned about the ‘relatively’ righteous of Judah and why the wicked will be given power over them, a situation which seems to be all too closely paralleled in the current life of the nation as the prophet observed it (Hab 1:2-4).
God’s answer will be along the lines that ‘the righteous shall survive but the wicked will fall’ (Hab 2:4), something which Habakkuk would have been able to accept as being a direct answer to His original complaint even though God’s method left him puzzled (an indication that the Church had best take great care when it seeks to oppose that which is considered ‘evil’ in this world in case they find themselves to be opposing God).
Secondly, he’s perplexed in case God might ally Himself with the wicked indefinitely and so come to reject His own people as being His special possession in the earth.
God will reassure His prophet, though, that the one who’s used as His instrument of judgment will also be the one who has to be judged for their excesses (Hab 2:5-19 - this seems the best way to interpret this passage even though there’s much here that can be related into either the general state of man’s society or into what was known to have been happening in Judah.
4. Expecting a reply
The mention of the ‘tower’ seems to demand an answer to the question as to whether a literal building is meant - I remember that my first Bible as a believer had a drawing on these pages of a man standing with his hands together in prayer on the top of a pinnacle, looking outward and concerned at what might come towards his position. It’s a sketch that still sticks in my memory every time I think of this Book for no better reason than that I can’t get rid of it!
It does, however, show that Habakkuk was in earnest - but whether we might imagine a literal watchtower from which he looked out or up for a reply is far from certain. It seems best to accept the words here as symbolic and unliteral unless it could be shown that there was at least one specific place in the Jerusalem of Habakkuk’s time where such an action took place. Besides, Ezekiel is also referred to as a watchman (Ezek 3:17, 33:7) while the ministry of the prophet is described by YHWH in Hosea 9:8 as functioning as
‘...the watchman of Ephraim...’
‘Watching’ was a major function of the OT prophet for they stood with their eyes towards God and away from the people to hear the word that He wanted to speak, directing their attention towards the people only when the message had been received in case they were put off by those around them. A true watchman, then, is one who pays no heed to the society in which they live for they’re more concerned with hearing God’s voice even to the point of disagreeing with the will of the people when that will is made known.
I’ve noted above that the many prophetic words which the Church receives today seem more of an extrapolation of known events than a direct statement from God which cuts at our understanding of what will happen - part of our problem is that we spend too much time amongst the people and not enough time on the watchtower, looking out into the distance to wait for a word from God.
If we did this, we’d see much more accurately those things which were coming upon the city.
One can’t help but marvel at Habakkuk’s faith - even his presumption - that God would care enough about His servant’s objections that He’d take time to reply and to give an account of Himself. We might think that it’s not right to be flippant or challenging towards God - and, indeed, for the day to day situations that we find ourselves in this is correct, for an attitude which treats God as Someone who must always have our approval demeans our belief in Him as Sovereign not only of Creation but of ourselves.
Habakkuk, however, believed that God could be questioned as to His actions - and that He would answer someone who approached Him wanting to know both what was going on around him and why God was about to do the things He’d declared.
It would be wrong to think of the relationship here as demonstrating ‘friendship’ as we normally take our relationship in Christ to be (and we should also note that the NT statements concerning believers being friends with God rely on God showing the initiative towards us and not the other way round - nowhere do we read, for example, of a believer declaring himself as being God’s friend. Friendship is also dependent upon being obedient to God’s will for one’s life - John 15:14) and simply take it as the outworking of the prophet’s own ministry of service to God.
Yet, as Habbaker points out, it goes beyond this for although the prophet is correct to take his stand to wait for a word from God that’s to be declared to His people, he’s watching for a word to be given to him alone regardless of the people’s need of a message from God.
As such, it becomes all the more personal and should be understood to be a reflection of the new covenant where each believer has the right of access into the presence of God.
The prophet doesn’t seem to consider that God might not answer him, either - there’s a confidence that a reply must come and that it’s only a matter of time until it will. Habakkuk doesn’t write
‘I will take my stand to watch and...see if He might answer me’
‘I will take my stand to watch and...see what He will say to me’
because he’s expectant of an answer. We might consider him to be presuming upon God’s grace but God doesn’t rebuke His servant for it - rather, He rises to His servant’s expectation and replies by answering both questions, even if the reply which comes probably isn’t the answer that he was expecting!
We normally refer to passages such as Mtw 21:22 and Mark 11:24 and think that Jesus meant that our requests in prayer must be expected to be of the miraculous or concerning personal provision (while you might disagree loudly with my statement, we have only to listen to the content of our own prayers to realise that a lot of our petitions concern these two matters) but Habakkuk sought God for a reply to his question - he neither asked God for a miracle to occur in the life of the nation nor requested personal protection for the trouble which was about to fall upon it.
It was his expectancy that guaranteed a reply - not that he worked himself up into a belief that God must reply but that it was the most natural conclusion. So, too, the man at the Beautiful gate of the Temple is noted as fixing his attention on John and Peter (Acts 3:5) because he was
‘...expecting to receive something from them’
He wasn’t sure what he’d get - and, even in his wildest dreams, he couldn’t have expected the healing that he received - but his confidence that they were about to impart something beneficial to him made the way possible for him to receive a work of God’s Spirit into his life. Expectation based in faith, then, is what caused Habakkuk to be assured that a reply would come - we often ask much in prayer with no real belief that we’ll get an answer.
The prophet’s confidence might be correctly identified in the words of Jesus in John 15:7 (my italics) where He instructed the disciples that
‘If you abide in Me and My words abide in you, ask whatever you will and it shall be done for you’
It was this commitment to serve God and to follow His clear commands which set him apart from others in Judah and gave him the confidence that YHWH would turn and respond to his petition.
Finally, there’s been some doubt thrown onto the last phrase of Hab 2:1 and many would read ‘He’ for ‘I’, making out the words of Habakkuk to be confirming the previous phrase that he was waiting to hear what God had to say in answer to his questions.
However, there’s no textual support in any manuscript for this emendation according to Habbaker and it’s best to allow the text to stand as (my italics)
‘...and what I will answer concerning my complaint’
Habakkuk must have expected that a response to what God would say to him would be allowed for he pre-empts it by looking to the reply as a springboard to continue the conversation.
It might be reading too much into the Book but, as there’s no record of a third questioning of God after His second reply, we might guess that the prophet was content - if still a little uneasy - about what God was about to do and why He was doing it.
God’s second response
It’s not easy to be certain that this entire passage was God’s response to Habakkuk because much of it could equally well be what came as a response to God’s second reply (which would then be limited to Hab 2:2-5). If the reader understands that Hab 2:6-19 is the response that Habakkuk gave, then it brings to a fulfilment the phrase in Hab 2:1 in which the prophet notes that he’s waiting to see what he’ll answer God concerning the word that will come to Him.
Even the opening of Hab 2:6 refers to a taunt which would be spoken by a third party so that, although the source can only be God or Habakkuk, the ones who are attributed as saying it are also unspecified. And, even further, is the quote meant to end at the close of Hab 2:6 (as in the RSV) or does it continue?
I’ve already noted above that the answer to the prophet’s question of Hab 1:13 is best understood to have been answered by Hab 2:4 while Hab 1:17 finds itself replied to from Hab 2:5 onwards. Therefore, it seems best to take the majority of this text (from Hab 2:2 until the end of Hab 2:19) as being more likely to have been God’s response to His prophet than to see any other source.
Even so, speaking of YHWH in the third person (Hab 2:14,16) is always a difficult matter to reconcile with such a statement because one would expect Him to speak personally about Himself rather than as if He was talking about someone else - however, this occurs in numerous other OT prophetic passages so that it isn’t as conclusive as we could make it out to be. Prophetic OT messages also flit between being the word of the channel through whom it came and God Himself so that there can be a fair mix of ‘source’ in any given passage.
1. God’s command
Eventually, after the prophet has waited for God’s reply (Hab 2:1), it comes. The prophet is commanded to make the vision known by writing it clearly upon tablets
‘...so that he may run who reads it’
Although it appears to be straightforward, there’s a great deal in this that needs discussion. First and foremost, the question needs to be asked as to what ‘the vision’ is. We’ve already observed that the opening verse which speaks of the oracle which Habakkuk saw is a somewhat strange description of a message which came by the spoken word. Nowhere in this Book do we read of a vision in the sense that Zechariah had, for example, or of Ezekiel who witnessed pictures and images that he converted into word form for his readers after, presumably, declaring it to the people of Israel who were in exile.
But, if the Book can be called something which the prophet saw then we shouldn’t be too concerned if we don’t think of a vision that God’s referring to which has gone unrecorded in the pages and which was more in keeping with our own concept of what it means to see. As Habsmith says
‘To see a word is an unusual experience unless one is a prophet’
but it’s no more than a way to describe the experience - perhaps a better translation would be that the word was perceived. We should also note, therefore, that a believer in the NT may also receive ‘visions’ and ‘see’ a revelation from God that’s predominantly text orientated and which doesn’t need to be established upon pictures of cats, giraffes or other such objects (and, before you email me, I’ve heard prophetic words concerning both animals - and a lot more others besides!).
So, if the vision can be thought of as being either the Book or what’s contained within it, there seems to be only two options open to the commentator. Either God must be referring to the first two chapters as they appear in the OT (Hab 3:1 obviously begins a totally different section that’s detached from what precedes it) or to the original ‘vision’ which the prophet received in response to his initial complaint (Hab 1:5-11).
This appears to make the most sense but it’s somewhat confused by Habbaker’s statement (my italics) that
‘The content of the message is not explicitly stated but it must contain hope for those who read it’
after which he goes on that
‘Various suggestions have been proposed as to its content but none are certain’
The problem is that it’s not necessary for the message to contain ‘hope’ because it’s the righteous person’s faith which will cause him to see the truth in what’s being proclaimed and so take steps to ‘run’. The most obvious content of Habakkuk’s writing must therefore be Hab 1:5-11 which was to be set up as a warning to the nation that God was to send upon them the Chaldeans.
There’s no need to expect either an explanation of why YHWH was about to do this or a message that the faithful would be taken care of - but, rather, those who accepted the message as being a revelation from God would have been on the look out for its fulfilment while those who hadn’t perceived the state of the nation before God - and who were probably part of the problem - would continue to ignore the words which came from God, assessing them as being false.
a. In written form
Strangely, Habakkuk is told to write the vision down and to make it plain upon tablets.
Writing a vision from God onto a suitable medium as a form of proclamation wasn’t the normal way to get the message out to God’s people. Jeremiah was a prophet who was similarly instructed to commit to writing (Jer 36:2)
‘...all the words that I have spoken to you against Israel and Judah and all the nations...from the days of Josiah until today’
but the reason appears to be that the prophet was banned from going up to the Temple (Jer 36:5) and that, by sending Baruch, God was able to continue to make His will known to the nation. But this shows only that declaring the message verbally was the normally accepted medium which the prophets used.
The prophet was also commanded to commit to writing all the messages received from God after Jehoiakim had burnt the first scroll (Jer 36:28) and also at an earlier time (Jer 30:2) so that, when the Israelites returned to the land, they could be certain that what had befallen them was a result of their sin and be warned to order their lives accordingly in case judgment was to be necessary again.
But, as is well-known, the main way of bringing God’s message to His people was through the verbal pronouncements of His servants rather than through writing. And for good reason, too - while the message might be able to be read by those who were literate (what percentage literacy the ancient Israelites experienced is impossible to determine but, if one was a farmer by trade, it’s unlikely that reading would have been greatly needed - especially not to a great extent), there may have been many who were unable to understand the characters on a page or board. Most of the people, though, would have understood the message if it was spoken to them.
It has to be noted, though, that Isaiah (Is 30:8) was commanded to both write the message received on a tablet to be a witness before the Israelites and also on a scroll - this form of proclamation wasn’t unknown, therefore.
b. On tablets
God’s command was to use tablets which I’ve previously commented on briefly above in the introduction. The word (Strongs Hebrew number 3871, M1091a) can be used in a variety of ways and could be meant to speak of clay tablets which were used for notes (TWOTOT observes that these are the earliest forms known in archaeology) to much larger structures such as billboards. In the Biblical record, however, the word is never used in the context of small clay tablets used for inscriptions and personal notes.
The material employed is also varied in the OT and the word’s used to denote the tablets of stone on which the ten commandments were engraved (Ex 24:12, 34:28 - the majority of uses in the OT refer to these two tables of stone) and which couldn’t have been too large for Moses had to carry them down from the mountain - the pictures which are often presented to the reader of Moses carrying two large objects which, in length, are each about half the length of his body seems preposterous - if you doubt me, just get some stone the same size and try to lift it. Then realise that Moses had to not only lift two of them but also carry them successfully down an uneven mountain surface to the people in the valley below.
That they were written on both sides (Ex 32:15) may also indicate that they weren’t too large for they seem to have only contained the text of the ten commandments (Ex 34:28).
Other materials mentioned in the Scriptures are wood but no writing is ever mentioned as being put on them (Ex 27:8, 38:7 - no type specified, SofS 8:9 - cedar, Ezek 27:5 - fir), metal which was inscribed with pictures of cherubim, lions and palm trees (I Kings 7:36 - Cp 7:27 - bronze) and, finally, the human heart (Prov 3:3, 7:3, Jer 17:1) where there appears to be a clear parallel with the tablets of stone which were given to the Israelites through Moses.
But what are we to think that Habakkuk’s tablets were made of and how might we expect him to have perceived that they needed to be shown to people?
I noted in the introduction that it seems best to opt for the material used as being wood if a transportable medium is envisaged - stone would be far too heavy to make it of any practical use and metal would have been expensive. Wooden placards would be much easier to obtain, could be written on quickly (and, with the right liquid, it could have been absorbed into the grain and been semi-permanent) and would be able to be carried to appropriate places throughout the city to be put up for all to read.
It’s possible, however, that Habsmith’s observation that
‘This may have been an early stage of writing notices on public walls’
is correct and that it was allowed that messages could be written publicly for any passers-by - an ancient form of graffiti, it has to be said, but with a message. Habbaker makes the additional point that
‘The choice of medium is apparently due to its durability, necessitated by the possible delay in fulfilment’
(and which is confirmed by Hab 2:3) but this doesn’t point to any one of the three mediums previously described. Although the prophet isn’t told to proclaim the message verbally, it seems hard to imagine that he wouldn’t have done so, but in what context is impossible to say. While he might have set the tablet up (‘tablets’ may speak of the one message on two boards or the same message written on various boards so as to bring it to the attention of everyone) and stood with it announcing the words, there’s no record of how it was done and we’re left in the dark.
The word translated ‘plain’ (Strongs Hebrew number 874, M194) is also interesting, only occurring three times in the OT (Deut 1:5, 27:8, Hab 2:2). When used apart from writing (Deut 1:5 - my italics), it’s recorded that
‘Moses undertook to explain this law...’
where the idea is that the written word was declared verbally to the nation but not just word for word. Rather, an explanation was given which accompanied it so that it would have been made simple to understand. It’s this concept which is also present in the only other place where it’s used in conjunction with writing.
Deut 27:8 (my italics) speaks of a time when the Israelites were to pass over the Jordan and to set up stones before they moved on to begin to overthrow the inhabitants of Canaan. YHWH commanded them that they were to
‘...write upon the stones all the words of this law very plainly’
This wasn’t something which was to be done haphazardly but with care so that each character could be recognised by anyone who passed by.
This concept must equally apply to the command to Habakkuk - the people who were to read the message on the tablets were to be able to clearly perceive the message. They might not like it and even refuse to accept it but they weren’t to be given the justification for saying that they couldn’t read the poor handwriting or some of the words.
d. So he may run
‘...so he may run who reads it’
has caused a great amount of discussion amongst commentators. I’ve previously noted that Habbaker sees the content of the vision as necessarily containing ‘hope’ and, for him, this seems to be caught up in God’s intention that the person who reads the message might also ‘run’ giving them not just the certain knowledge of judgment but the assurance of the nation’s restoration and salvation. This is far from obvious from the way that God speaks to His servant.
He sees the idea of ‘running’ either in the situation that passers-by - who might read the message written on the tablets - would then
‘...pass the message on informally to those they meet...’
or, more specifically, that it could denote a herald, a bearer of the message publicly
‘...whose specific function will be to spread the message throughout the land...’
Habsmith, on the other hand, proposes a few possibilities but doesn’t seem to favour any one in particular. He cites Driver who interprets it to mean that the message was to be so plain that
‘...a person on the run could read the message’
That is, not someone who was escaping from the civil authorities but that even a passing glimpse by someone hastening from one point to another could make out the letters. He also cites Holt who took the idea of ‘running’ to be a metaphor for the way one was to live before God so that it became a warning which would encourage the reader to repent of his lifestyle and return back to a sincere and pure devotion to God.
Thinking of the concept of a ‘herald’, Habsmith further notes Brownlee’s suggestion that the ‘runners’ were all those people
‘...who passed by and read the message to the illiterate who came along’
and which isn’t as strange as it might at first appear because the same Hebrew word is used of prophets in Jer 23:21 - albeit false ones who show themselves eager to despatch the message that they proclaim as being from God. In this case, however, it refers more to the impetuosity of getting the message out and Habbaker’s thought that it must refer to ‘heralds’ who would duplicate what they’d read seems more fitting, especially as Ps 147:15 (my italics) uses the same word to speak of God sending out
‘...His command to the earth; His word runs swiftly’
The word used (Strongs Hebrew number 7323, M2137) is identified 104 times in the AV text of the OT and is normally employed to denote literal running where the importance of speed is integral to the verse - therefore, Gen 41:14 is translated as ‘hastily’ to denote the idea of a limited amount of time within which their task needed to be completed.
The idea of a lifestyle being denoted as ‘running’ - as Holt is cited as proposing - is confirmed in four other places in the OT (Ps 119:32, Prov 1:16, 6:18, Is 59:7) although the last three of these all speak of it in the context of doing what’s wrong and against God. However, Ps 119:32 has the author noting that he will
‘...run in the way of Thy commandments when Thou enlargest my understanding’
so that correct lifestyle is tied up with the necessary revelation of what it is that God would require from him. It seems that this sort of concept is more likely to have been what God meant by His words in Hab 2:2 than most of the other suggestions considered.
But there are two aspects to this and both need to be applied to the message.
First and foremost, the message of destruction was to serve the readers as a warning that they needed to turn round their lives and order them according to the will of God as revealed to them in the Mosaic Law - not a meaningless literalism in the sacrifices but a commitment of the heart to live out the reality of loving their neighbour and of seeking his welfare wherever possible.
Habbaker’s statement that the content of the vision must contain hope has already been noted but we should recall the incident of II Chr 34:14-33 which showed that a ‘negative’ message of judgment could well be the catalyst for genuine repentance and an ordering of the life to be more representative of the person God required. There was no hope in the condemnation that Josiah heard from Shaphan but, realising the truth of the words, he sought God’s will on the matter because it appeared to him as if judgment was about to fall.
Likewise, the message of destruction and judgment didn’t need to convey hope - in a very real sense, the person who read the message and turned from his ways after realising its truth was making his own.
Secondly, the ‘running’ in one’s lifestyle must also have meant that the judgment was expected - and, in that case, that it could be watched out for and anticipated. In that case, the righteous could live by faith in the words of God by ordering his life aright but also be forewarned when the time of its fulfilment hastened (Hab 2:4).
The message, then, had a twofold application for the one who believed it - it also meant that, for the person who didn’t believe it, their wickedness would continue to flourish and their destruction would be inevitable.
e. The time of fulfilment
When we looked at Hab 1:5-6 in the introduction, I noted that the words employed gave the reader the impression that the Chaldeans had not at that time risen to pre-eminence and that God’s words that they would ‘wonder and be astounded’ demanded that they were a nation that was small enough not to be considered as a viable possibility for an attack upon the land.
This meant that the date of composition made more sense if a date in the reign of Josiah was proposed and one which was at least 39 years prior to its fulfilment in 586BC (because the Babylonians began to rise to power c.625BC under Nabopolassar when it could be realistically anticipated that the word from God was ‘predictable’).
Hab 2:3 lends weight to the idea of a lengthy period of time before the fulfilment of God’s word of judgment was to take place. The opening words (my italics) that
‘...still the vision awaits its time...’
might refer to a delay in the answer to Habakkuk’s prayer (though the word ‘still’ is added here to make sense of the single Hebrew word denoting the appointed time of fulfilment). His note in Hab 2:1 tells us only that he was taking his stand to watch for an answer but tells us nothing as to how long he had to wait.
The word ‘still’ appears to be included here to give the prophet the assurance that God hadn’t forgotten His first statement and, at the very least, we should think of these two messages from God directed to the prophet as being separated by a sufficient length of time as to make that reassurance necessary - just how long that might have been, though, is impossible to know.
What he’s assured is that there won’t be a delay (Habsmith’s ‘it won’t be late’ is particularly poignant). That doesn’t mean too much, of course, only that it won’t be postponed to a later time than was originally planned and it shouldn’t be taken to imply that it would even be within the prophet’s own lifetime (if the original pronouncement was given at least 39 years before its fulfilment then it’s more likely that Habakkuk would have been dead and buried).
Habsmith comments on this verse that the prophet
‘...wanted God to punish the Babylonians and put an end to evil and oppression right then’
but this is incorrect. Habakkuk hasn’t yet been told about the oppressor’s judgment (which begins at Hab 2:6) and it’s unlikely that God meant anything more than the content of the ‘vision’ previously stated (and suggested as being Hab 1:5-11).
The time of fulfilment, therefore, could only have expected to have referred to the judgment on the nation of Judah.
2. Living by faith
Firstly, let’s get rid of all our preconceptions about this verse’s interpretation when used in the NT (Rom 1:17, Gal 3:11-12, Heb 10:36-38) though we should note from the outset that the fact that it’s used on three separate occasions (and probably by two different authors) should alert us to the likelihood that it was one of the pivotal verses of the OT that was used in the early Church to prove the relevancy of faith over and above the shallow legalistic observance of ritual which was passing for obedience to God.
We’ll look at the three uses of this passage at the end of our discussion on the original context because to try and glean a meaning from the NT and then transpose it back into Habakkuk would mean that we get a false interpretation. Rather, we should understand the original context and then go on to see why the Holy Spirit inspired the early Church to use it.
If one reads the commentators and Bible translations, the interpretation seems to be certain and fixed. In the words of the Living Bible
‘...Wicked men trust themselves alone as these Chaldeans do and fail; but the righteous man trusts in me and lives’
where the first clause is interpreted as being a reference to the invading Chaldeans while the latter to the faithful believers in the nation of Judah. Habbaker states with certainty that it’s the context which identifies those who aren’t upright as being
‘...the Babylonian oppressors of Judah...’
while Habsmith supplies the word ‘the oppressor’ to the opening of the verse because
‘The subject has fallen out’
even though elsewhere he notes that the word ‘evildoer’ is a better representation and, as can be seen, less interpretative.
The RSV’s ‘he’ is less ambiguous, however, and leaves open the interpretation of the passage whereas the addition of ‘oppressor’ causes one’s mind to immediately think of the Chaldean army who have previously been prophesied as being God’s instruments of judgment. Indeed, the translation of the opening part of this verse appears to be the subject of a considerable amount of debate with it almost being true to say that there are no two translations which render anything that could be considered as fairly similar.
My own preference is the Amplified Bible at this point which (with one removal of their common expansion of the words translated) runs
‘Behold the proud: his soul is not right within him; but the rigidly just and the uncompromisingly righteous man shall live by his faith and in his faithfulness’
The Good News Bible is far simpler and runs a few of the Hebrew words together, translating
‘Those who are evil will not survive, but those who are righteous will live because they are faithful to God’
Something along these lines is to be preferred to a translation which necessarily points the interpretation only one way towards the Chaldeans - simply because the context of what’s preceded it would cause the reader to think that YHWH’s thoughts continue to be on the state of the nation of Judah and their expected reaction towards the message which was to be written plainly on placards.
We’ve previously seen that the prophetic word concerning the judgment of the nation was to be used as provocation for some of the nation to realise the truth of where the nation and they as individuals had come to and so to mend their ways before God (Hab 2:2 - ‘so he may run who reads it’).
Here in Hab 2:4, God announces to His servant the clear division within the society of his day where the ‘wicked’ will fall because of the inner condition of his life whereas the ‘righteous’ will continue to be upheld by Him because they’ll respond in faith or faithfulness before Him.
Therefore, the statement is something which can be equally well applied to today within the Church - which is the people about whom the original message was given. We can equally well apply it to those outside the Church too because the boundaries often denote the transition between faith and rebellion but not always.
When God’s message comes to individuals, the righteous will be upheld by God Himself because they respond to the message positively, ordering their lives in accordance with the message revealed and following closely on the heels of the One they serve as their Master. The wicked, however, will never fully follow God and His will so that they’re unable to survive when the times become tough and unpleasant.
In the context of the prophecy of Habakkuk, the righteous are being assured of the continued existence before Him even when the Chaldeans were to come against the land whereas the wicked were being reassured that the time of their domination and oppression was limited unless they changed.
This doesn’t mean that ‘only the bad Israelites’ were killed in the capture of the city of Jerusalem - what it does mean is that destruction wasn’t the end for the righteous because God was going to be careful to honour their faithfulness, something which could only fully be realised after death.
Interestingly - or, perhaps better, frighteningly - there’s no statement from God that Judah might turn from their ways and choose life. Instead, God only makes the statement that the division will exist in the coming judgment and that His faithful will be secure in Him.
In the context of the Church that God is moving against (if placed directly into the present day context), we would say that, although external judgment was about to fall, the ones who were continuing to be faithful to YHWH would be upheld throughout the time so that a witness might be perpetuated afterwards. Again, in the face of physical persecution this doesn’t necessarily mean physical protection but it does mean that their life in Christ cannot be lost.
There’s been some discussion as to whether the correct translation of the Hebrew word rendered ‘faith’ in the RSV (Strongs Hebrew number 530, M116e) is better given as ‘faithfulness’. If we had had nothing to go by in the NT (that is, had it not been quoted three times), the word would almost certainly have been rendered ‘faithfulness’ in Hab 2:4 which is the better interpretation (of 49 occurrences in the text of the AV, it’s only here that it’s rendered ‘faith’).
It’s first use in the OT is in Ex 17:12 where Moses is recorded as ascending the mountain as Joshua and Israel go into battle against the Amalekites (Ex 17:8-10). The problem was that Moses’ hands grew weary in the upright position (Ex 17:11-12) but it was necessary because the victory was won whenever he was able to maintain it (an indication of the need for prayer in spiritual warfare by people who may not be able to be in the front line of the battle).
So, Aaron and Hur stood rolled a stone to him and (my italics)
‘...put it under him, and he sat upon it, and Aaron and Hur held up his hands, one on one side, and the other on the other side; so his hands were steady until the going down of the sun’
The italicised word here is the one normally rendered ‘faithful’ which is the underlying concept of the word - it means solidly set and immovable and, when applied to a believer’s life before God, it reflects much the same. It means that their life is set fast in the ways of God and won’t be diverted through sin. Therefore, ‘faithfulness’ is by far the better translation and interpretation even in Hab 2:4.
However, it also has to be realised that the context of the faithfulness of the righteous is in their positive reaction to the message of judgment which is being declared against the nation. As we saw in Hab 2:2, it was the ‘running’ which was a poetic description of the way the believer ordered his life but it was initially a belief in the message which caused this to happen.
Therefore, if we should paraphrase the word with either ‘faith in the message’ or ‘faithfulness to God’s ways’ we would be incorrect. Rather, it’s both concepts which go hand in hand at this point for the believer’s faithfulness to God is founded upon their faith in God’s word.
And this is an important truth to grasp as we come to the verse’s use in the NT in three separate places (Rom 1:17, Gal 3:11-12, Heb 10:36-38). The first two references are fairly straightforward, Rom 1:17 being translated as
‘For in [the Gospel] the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written “He who through faith is righteous shall live”’
and, in Gal 3:11-12, Paul writes that
‘...it is evident that no man is justified before God by the law for “He who through faith is righteous shall live”; but the law does not rest on faith for “He who does them shall live by them”’
In the latter, Paul undermines the position of legalistic observance for the sake of the need for an initial faith which then springs out from the believer in correct conduct. Justification before God comes as a result of believing the message of the Gospel just as the believer in Habakkuk’s day had to also believe the word which God was declaring through the prophet.
From there, actions begin to develop - in the case of the NT believer this means a reordered life and different conduct while in the case of the believing Jew in Hab 2:2 it meant living faithfully before God. While the unbelieving Israelite might have religious observance and be faithful to the sacrificial system in the Temple, these things were of no use in gaining acceptance before God because they could be maintained while, all the while, the heart was set in rebellion to correct conduct (Is 1:12-17).
In other words, there’s no intrinsic difference between the application of the two verses in either the Old or New Testaments.
The other passage where the verse is quoted is Heb 10:36-38 which also uses part of Hab 2:3. However, the translation of the Hebrew text is so vastly different that it needs to be explained. The author writes to his readers that
‘...you have need of endurance, so that you may do the will of God and receive what is promised. “For yet a little while, and the Coming one shall come and shall not tarry; but My righteous one shall live by faith - and if he shrinks back My soul has no pleasure in him”
where the last clause of Hab 2:3 is now turned into a declaration of Christ’s imminent return and the first clause of Hab 2:4 is pushed to after the second clause as a warning that faith is required (Hebguth also notes that the opening phrase ‘for yet a little while’ is a quotation from Is 26:20 which the author runs together with that of Habakkuk - it may, rather, have been a word that was on his mind from Scripture which he included rather than for it to have to be seen as a conscious quote).
The author’s quotation of the Scripture isn’t to emphasise the need for faith in the Gospel message but to point out the need for perseverance in the difficult time in which they live that Jesus might find them faithful upon His return.
Instead of concerning the judgment about to come upon the Jewish nation in Hab 2:3, the author uses it to speak of the One who was about to return to the world and, consequently, to judge it (even though the author of Hebrews has slightly changed the LXX version to be understood as referring to the Christ - this is wholly necessary to bring home the importance and relevance of the message to his hearers. The LXX version is also somewhat different from the original Hebrew although Hebbruce goes so far as to give his own translation of the LXX to show that the four ‘it’s of the latter part of Hab 2:3 were already changed to ‘he’ before the author of the Hebrews used it. The translators must have thought that the Chaldean nation was being referred to rather than the judgment or else their translation was lacking!). Both of these speak about something which was to happen at the appropriate time and without delay - and both will speak of judgment.
The quotation of Hab 2:4, however, is perfectly in keeping with the message of the original where, as we’ve seen above, God was careful to note the two different responses that would be given to the message on the tablets. So, too, in the life of the people to whom the letter of Hebrews came - they were caught between keeping faithful to Christ and of shrinking back from following Him because the going was getting too difficult.
In the society of Habakkuk’s day, it would have been similar where the wicked cheated and prospered but the righteous was upright and suffered loss. The context can be accepted as being in harmony even though the application of the message is somewhat different.
Finally, I should note Habsmith’s statement that
‘...only 2:4 was written on the tablets’
and made public (the Good News Bible also follows this interpretation). I don’t accept that statement as previously noted and see the passage Hab 1:5-11 as being the content of the tablets which were written out for public display and consideration. It seems unlikely that God’s message to the nation would be only to note that the wicked would fall and the righteous would live when there was no definition of who the righteous or wicked might be.
Far better, I feel, would have been God’s desire to announce the judgment about to come as being ‘indiscernible’ (Hab 1:5) which would then wake the readers up to the truth of the prophetic word as and when it began to come to fulfilment from 625BC onwards.
3. The five woes
Hab 2:5 serves the reader as a transition from the consideration of the righteous and wicked of the nation of Judah to a more detailed consideration of the fate of the Chaldean nation before God. The translations of this verse, however, are far from unambiguous and there are a fair number of alternatives possible.
The opening words are best read in the Amplified Bible which reads
‘Moreover, wine [is] treacherous; the proud man [the Chaldean invader] is restless and cannot stay at home...’
though the text of Habakkuk discovered amongst the Dead Sea Scrolls gives the word ‘wealth’ for ‘wine’. Habbaker notes that there’s ‘no compelling reason’ for altering the accepted text even citing Jer 51:7 to show how wine was associated with Babylon. However, the verse notes that the world drank of Babylon’s wine and not, as here, that it gets drunk itself because it seeks to acquire it.
Habbaker’s citation of four other Scriptures to support his assertion that wine was one of the spoils of war is, unfortunately, misconstrued - the one passage which might have been considered to speak of such is only a note that drinking accompanied the defeat and despoiling of an enemy and not that wine was carried off with the raiders (I Sam 30:16 - after all, to remove large quantities of wine from a location would have taken a serious amount of man or beast power and would have slowed the military’s withdrawal to a place of safety).
The DSS version is much better suited to the context of what follows and gives the verse a much more systematic meaning, conveying the interpretation of the Chaldean advance as being that they feel compelled not to be satisfied with the possessions they already have, moving out from Chaldea to lands where further wealth can be acquired through war. It also has to be remembered that the DSS rendering is actually the oldest surviving manuscript of the text and, although it’s not certain how accurate they might have been considered by the Judaism of the first century, they certainly should be carefully considered.
However, we’re going too fast in the transition from the wicked Israelite to the Chaldean oppressor - the opening observation could equally well have been applied to the former and, initially, it probably would have been taken as such. After all, God has just been talking about the difference between the children of God divided up between the righteous and the wicked - the immediate context is that the message would be expected to have referred to one of the two principals mentioned.
Therefore we should note that God is giving an explanation of why those in rebellion were unsettled with what they had and were pursuing their brothers to despoil them of their possessions, going on to note that
‘His greed is as wide as Sheol; like death he has never enough’
It was the insatiability of the Judahite that was driving him on to overrun the righteous and to acquire increasing wealth for himself, resorting to any means at his disposal to forward his own ends and to advance his own kingdom (Hab 1:2-4). The final two lines of the RSV, however, wake the prophet up to realise that what was true concerning his own nation was equally true of the Chaldeans who were being sent by God in judgment. For
‘He gathers for himself all nations, and collects as his own all peoples’
could only correctly be literally applied to an army which moved away from its land to subjugate other countries and inhabitants.
In other words, Judah was only being judged by an attitude in a foreign nation which they themselves were displaying to their fellow man - the judgment which was to fall upon them, therefore, was only an outworking of the very same attitude which they were living. Although Ps 18:25-26 is, at first glance, a puzzling passage, it does fit the context well for the psalmist writes of God (my italics) that
‘With the loyal Thou dost show Thyself loyal; with the blameless man Thou dost show Thyself blameless; with the pure Thou dost show Thyself pure; and with the crooked Thou dost show Thyself perverse’
There could be no complaints, then. What a man or woman does corresponds to the very same way that a man or woman will be treated by God. Although Habakkuk might object that the nation was more righteous that the Chaldeans who were coming against them (Hab 1:13 given a secondary meaning), he could clearly perceive that all that they were reaping was what they themselves were.
If the reader thinks that the entire verse is solely about the Chaldeans, they miss out on the realisation which must have hit the prophet like a brick (spiritual terminology). For, hearing God speak about the nation and being able to affirm that this is what his people were doing, he has to wake up as God speaks to see that the trait he saw was mirrored in the people whom he’d objected to having sent against them.
This idea of receiving in like manner as we ourselves have given out is also clear in Scripture. Eliphaz (although wrongly attributing the truth to Job, he’s correct in his perception of certain circumstances) states in Job 4:8 that
‘...those who plough iniquity and sow trouble reap the same’
This had to do with a more ‘natural’ outworking of life on earth than necessarily being a statement which saw the hand of God always returning like for like. However, concerning Israel, God stated in Hosea 8:7 that
‘...they sow the wind and they shall reap the whirlwind’
and, more positively, in Hosea 10:12 the exhortation is to
‘Sow for yourselves righteousness, reap the fruit of steadfast love...’
In the NT also (Luke 6:37-38), Jesus taught that whatever a man gave was what he would receive at the hand of God - whether judgment, condemnation or forgiveness - so that
‘...the measure you give will be the measure you get back’
This doesn’t mean that whatever state a man is in is inevitable, because repentance brings change - but, when we think about the outworking of the judgment of God, it seems relatively certain that God will mete out only what the person or people have done themselves - yet to a far greater degree and at an appropriate time when all other avenues of correction have failed.
We’ve consistently been thinking about how the message to Habakkuk might be applied to the Church of the present day (for it was to the children of God that the original message came) and a straightforward application is also possible here.
If God was against a group of believers (for example, the previously cited Rev 2:5, 3:3) then all we would expect to happen would be that they would be reaping those things which they were sowing - if they were withholding support from the brethren, we would expect support to also be removed from them. Likewise, the oppression of fellow believers could also be met with an external oppression from men and women who cared nothing about the things of God.
It’s clear, however, that persecution is a reaction to a healthy fellowship so that opposition can very easily be misconstrued. It should be obvious to the spiritually perceptive, however, long before God would come against those who call themselves His own that all wasn’t right and there would have expected to have been messages which said as much (so long as they hadn’t been intercepted by the leadership and banned - and, again, believe me, it’s happened!).
Concluding, this message was meant to startle Habakkuk into the realisation that his own people were represented in type by the Chaldeans who were coming against them in judgment. It also served as a transition from considerations about the nation of Judah to a declaration of the final judgment upon the oppressor.
However, because the wicked of Judah are of the same heart as the wicked Chaldeans, the five woes which follow must also be applicable to the children of Israel - what God condemns here as needing judgment in the foreign army, He must also be thought of as condemning in His own people to a very great extent. This is why many have been perplexed about who the content was written about - in truth, it was written about two sets of people who were closely related by the nature of their lives.
As such, in our considerations of these woes, we’ll flit between an application to both the Chaldeans and the Judahites (I’ve used the word ‘Judahite’ rather than ‘Judean’ to differentiate between, respectively, those of the OT and those of the new).
a. The first woe
The opening half verse of this passage is introductory and, even though we’ve interpreted Hab 2:5 as referring to the Chaldeans and, secondarily, to the nation of Judah, there’s no definitive identification about who ‘all these’ or ‘him’ might be in the RSV.
However, it seems the most logical to accept the former as being both ‘the nations’ and ‘all peoples’ mentioned previously and the latter to be the Babylonians who were to come against all the nations of the earth.
It also seems best to accept that the quote runs only to the end of Hab 2:6 and that, from Hab 2:7, the text reverts back to the voice of either YHWH Himself or the prophet under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. The point, however, is that those who have been oppressed by the advancing and merciless army will be able to rise up and mock their own captors because of the judgment which will be meted out against them when their time as an instrument of God’s will has ended.
The word translated ‘woe’ in the RSV (Strongs Hebrew number 1945, M485) is used elsewhere as something which was an integral part of the demonstration of grief at a funeral or during days of mourning (I Kings 13:30, Jer 22:18, 34:5 - where the RSV translates it with ‘Ah’ and rather sits on the fence).
If it’s taken as having been borrowed from cultural life to be used in statements against people and nations, it probably retains some idea of a grief that’s being pronounced. However, the exact meaning is far from certain and it’s difficult to be sure whether its use at funerals was meant to be an exclamation that the utterer was feeling grief or that the deceased had fallen to the ultimate fate of all men.
It becomes all the more difficult to interpret when it’s realised that the same word is employed in Is 55:1 as a pronouncement to everyone who hears to come to the waters provided by YHWH and drink freely. The idea of grief or woe can’t be contained here but, rather, it’s a call to attend to what’s about to be declared.
However, Habbaker’s suggestion that the use of the word makes what follows a ‘parody’ of a funeral brings across to the reader the finality of the judgment and tries to convey the grief and anguish which would have been felt by those who’d lost a loved one in death. That the livelihood and prosperity of the Chaldeans is destroyed before their eyes - something in which they clearly delighted and gloried - means that their downfall will be felt in a similar way to losing a close relative.
Zondervan summarises this first woe as being a judgment against ‘aggression’ - but aggression in and of itself isn’t a sin. If the verses are carefully read, however, the judgment seems to fall more upon the army’s theft of what didn’t belong to them than just to the use of excessive force in the fulfilling of their universal conquest.
The nations and peoples pronounce woe on the Chaldeans for heaping up or stockpiling those things which didn’t belong to them (Hab 2:6), a clear outworking of God’s previous statement in Hab 2:5 that they’re insatiable for more gain. Habbaker defines this acquisition as being
‘...through robbery or fraud’
and, if that’s accepted, the latter description is more applicable to the kingdom of Judah than it would have been to the Chaldeans. The latter are unlikely to have defrauded the peoples they came against but, rather, would have used their limitless strength (Hab 1:11) to remove everything that they found desirable from the people they destroyed.
But the use of cunning to overcome individuals is represented in the final accusation of the nations and which is more literally translated
‘...makes himself heavy with thick clay’
rather than the RSV’s interpretative
‘loads himself with pledges’
The word for ‘thick clay’ (Strongs Hebrew number 5671, M1555b), however, is too literal an interpretation and means ‘heavy debts’ or ‘weight of pledges’ (as TWOTOT). It’s difficult to see how this might be specifically applied to the Chaldean nation unless the idea of tribute is being referred to where a subjugated nation would be duty bound to pay a specific sum to their overlords annually. We would have to assert that a material pledge was being taken from them which would only be returned to them upon completion of their quota - something which it appears to be inaccurate to do.
Therefore, it seems best to think of the application to Jewish daily life from the Mosaic Law in Deut 24:10-13 which was given to protect the poor man from exploitation. Following the bestowal of a loan upon one of their fellow Israelites, a pledge was to be given to the creditor as an assurance that the loan would be repaid - today, we might use the example of a secured personal loan which specifies a particular object (usually your house) which would be sold for the settlement of the debt should the debtor be unable or unwilling to pay.
In ancient Israel, the creditor didn’t have the right to enter the debtor’s property to remove the pledge himself (Deut 24:10-11) and was to be careful not to keep the pledge if the debtor relied upon it as a means to maintain his own welfare (Deut 24:12) - in that case, the pledge had to be returned before sunset (Deut 24:13).
These words echo back to Hab 1:2-4 where Habakkuk first complained to YHWH concerning the state of Judah and they’re difficult to apply to the Chaldeans as previously noted. The parallel seems to be that, just as the Chaldeans had stolen that which didn’t belong to them, so too the Judahites were stealing items from their poor brothers which they could ill afford to lose.
There may also be an allusion to Deut 23:19-20 (mainly because the word ‘debtors’ is used in the first part of Hab 2:7) where the Israelite was commanded not to lay exorbitant interest rates upon those from their own people who borrowed from them. This also could be understood to have been theft because they were exacting an amount of money to which they didn’t have the right - however, it seems best to see it as applicable to the second woe found in Hab 2:9-11.
As we saw in Hab 2:5, the sin which was being perpetrated against God’s people would also be the judgment which they themselves would taste when the Chaldeans came as God’s instrument of judgment - but it would additionally be the way that the oppressor would be judged once God had fulfilled His purpose.
In this way, the judgment of the children of God could have been averted if the people had removed their sin from the land for they then wouldn’t have reaped what had been sowed. In this situation it was true that what the Judahites did was only what they got - and there could be no real complaints that God was acting unjustly.
In like manner, should God ever move against His Church, the aversion of judgment is clearly in their own hands and not inevitable. Calling upon YHWH for deliverance would also be inconsistent when a few simple changes in lifestyle - along with restitution where applicable - would change God’s will and bring down God’s favour.
The only reason that God has to judge anyone is because of the hardness of the heart and not because He takes a delight in it (Ezek 18:23).
In Hab 2:7-8, God notes that the victim is to become the victor (a turn of phrase taken from Habbaker), that the one who had been exploited will be the very one who overthrows the exploiter and takes back everything and more that has been taken from him.
The only problem that the reader has is to reconcile the prophetic word with what actually transpired in history for Babylon was never violently overthrown - although the kingdom was overrun by the Medes and Persians, the destruction which one would have associated with a word such as this doesn’t appear to ever have happened (see my notes on Babylon).
On a previous web page I showed that prophecy should never be considered to be pre-written history and that it’s dependent upon the response which greets it in the hearers. We could, perhaps, along with most of the other prophecies of judgment against Babylon, conclude that the fulfilment was either postponed or delayed.
But the wealth of the Chaldeans was plundered even if the violence that we read of here seems not to have taken place literally. For Cyrus, ruler of the subjugated Babylonian empire, returned those possessions of the nation of Judah to the land for the service of YHWH (Ezra 1:2-11) and gave them a grant for the rebuilding of the Temple (Ezra 3:7). Darius also, one of Cyrus’ successors, also granted the returned exiles a provision which was taken from the royal revenue (Ezra 6:8-10) and Artaxerxes gave freely of his own possessions of silver and gold upon Ezra’s return at a yet later date (Ezra 7:14-16). Nehemiah, too, was granted all that he was needed by royal decree (Neh 2:8).
It could be imagined, then, that the possessions of the Medes and Persians which had come down to them through the conquest of Babylonia was now being redistributed to God’s people - and this is but one example. It appears that the Medians and Persians were eager to return national possessions so that those people under their rule might show favour towards the throne.
To go through the entire cycle, then, the wealth of the rich who had oppressed the poor in Judah was removed from them by the Chaldeans. The Chaldeans, being taken over by the Medes and Persians returned the wealth acquired to the land of Israel where the poor continued to live.
Indeed, one might also note the partial fulfilment of God’s word at the time of Jerusalem’s final destruction for, in Jer 39:10, it’s recorded (my italics) that
‘Nebuzaradan, the [Chaldean] captain of the guard, left in the land of Judah some of the poor people who owned nothing and gave them vineyards and fields at the same time’
Those who had nothing, then, became land owners and it seems fairly certain that some of these would have been the victims of the types of men and women described in Hab 2:2-4. Therefore, the word applied not only to the despoiling of the Chaldean nation but to the wicked of the land of Judah.
b. The second woe
What the phrase ‘evil gain’ might be expected to convey to the reader is far from certain for there’s no descriptions that follow that give us even one clear example of the sort of actions which are considered to be summarised by the phrase.
The word translated ‘gain’ by the RSV (Strongs Hebrew number 1215, M267a) is defined by TWOTOT as meaning
‘Personal advantage derived from some activity’
and it’s only the prefix ‘evil’ which gives it the negative sense. Habsmith’s statement that it means ‘evil gain’ in passages such as Gen 37:26 and Micah 4:13 are incorrect, however, for, in the former, although the reader might interpret Judah as speaking of an acquisition which was unrighteous, there’s no application of the word in its negative sense by Judah himself. Similarly, in the latter passage, the gain spoken of here needn’t be considered to be ‘unrighteous’ because the context doesn’t demand it.
The word is also employed in the OT for gain which isn’t assessed to be ‘wicked’ (for example, Job 22:3 where God is spoken of as getting gain).
Here in Hab 2:9, though, the defining word ‘evil’ or ‘wicked’ shows that the profit being made is that which is considered to be against the will of God. Habsmith’s statement that evil gain is wealth obtained by ‘illegal methods’ is not quite accurate for it’s too easy for us to think of ‘illegal’ as being something which is against the civil law of the land but, as we saw in Hab 1:2-4, it was the civil law itself which had been perverted to give the decision to the wicked while the righteous only grew more impoverished and destitute.
Therefore, although unrighteousness before God might be equated with civil law breaking, it takes no account of a legal system which is fundamentally perverted. ‘Evil gain’, then, must be considered as the acquisition of possessions which goes against the will of God - whether it be a transgression of civil law or not.
Habbaker is surely correct when he summarises the content of these three verses as speaking against
‘...exploitation for personal gain...also for national or dynastic aggrandisement’
because it places God’s judgment against not only the Chaldean oppressor but those of the Judahite kingdom who were soon to be judged by Him - and, as we’ve seen above, the reason which lay behind this passage was that the traits of the children of God were the very same ones which would be judged in the Chaldean. This made Habakkuk sit up and realise that the nation which he thought of as being more righteous than the ones who were coming against them (Hab 1:13) were, in effect, more to be considered as less wicked but equally culpable for their sins.
It’s easy to be too specific in an application of ‘evil gain’ and Gill does just this, pushing away any thought of an application to his own generation by writing that
‘The bishops of Rome, being enriched by the donations of Constantine, were not satisfied but coveted more; these are the greedy dogs Isaiah speaks of, that could never have enough, but were still seeking and gaping after more for themselves and families, and for their own house or church; which, from the time of their apostasy, became their own house, in distinction from, and in opposition to, the house or true church of God; and of those covetous bishops, or Rome Papal, are these and the following words to (Hab 2:9-14) to be understood’
By pushing a parallel onto a body who have little to do with oneself, it’s easy to continue on one’s way and disregard the prophet’s warning to God’s people of the present day. I doubt if Gill would have done this, however, but the danger is, nevertheless, there.
All forms of gain which are against God’s will must be accepted as being covered by the phrase - including excessive interest rates on loans given to God’s own people which we considered under the previous section (Deut 23:19-20). Whether through theft, fraud, cheating or lying, it doesn’t matter - the point is that any gain which comes through unrighteous means is included in God’s condemnation and we need not be specific but, rather, are obliged to be careful not to perform such an action ourselves.
People who get gain for themselves by these sorts of means make many enemies so that there comes a need for them (Hab 2:9) to
‘...set [their] nest on high to be safe from the reach of harm’
Habsmith’s statement that such people make sure that their homes are
‘...guarded by every security device available’
shouldn’t be thought to be a condemning word against those with personal security systems! Rather, the point is that the person who gets gain by unrighteous methods won’t be loved by the ones that they’ve exploited so that protection becomes necessary and vital if they’re to continue to exist in peace. One only has to think of the distrust amongst those who’ve built their lives on violence and oppression and of the need for ‘heavies’ to protect them when they go out onto the streets to ply their trade.
Although not speaking about ‘evil gain’, Eccles 5:12 applies to this situation in a natural way for the author notes that
‘Sweet is the sleep of a labourer, whether he eats little or much; but the surfeit of the rich will not let him sleep’
for wealth brings with it its own problems and anxieties, for the rich never know whether they might be set upon by those who don’t have. Even if we were to think of the division between the classes, a place that’s secure from the attentions of thieves would be advantageous - how much more when that wealth has been gained at the expense of others who feel aggrieved at the way they’ve been exploited.
From a comment which could have been taken purely as applicable to the nation of Judah, the words move on to specifically relate to the Chaldean, announcing that because they’ve cut off many peoples, their continued existence has been forfeited.
God then goes on to insist that, even if He hadn’t witnessed against them, the depth of wickedness that’s a part of their actions would cause
‘...the stone [to] cry out from the wall and the beam from the woodwork to respond’
where it’s even their secure fortifications which bear witness to their wickedness because they’ve been acquired by actions which are opposed to the will of God.
This idea of inanimate Creation crying out as a witness to the truth of a matter is used in the NT by Jesus, albeit in a positive sense. When reproached for the declarations of the people following Him at the Mount of Olives (Luke 19:37-39), He responded by announcing (Luke 19:40)
‘I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would cry out’
Finally, there’s a clear parallel of this passage in Jer 22:13-17 which was delivered to the children of Israel at the time immediately following Josiah’s death (Jer 22:11-12). Here the prophet announces a ‘woe’ against one who builds his house (Jer 22:13)
‘...by unrighteousness and...by injustice...’
where the prophet goes on to speak of using the labour of one’s neighbour without pay as being an evil for which they were to be judged (Jer 22:13). Moreover, Jeremiah notes that the eyes and the heart of the wicked are set (Jer 22:17) for
‘...dishonest gain, for shedding innocent blood and for practising oppression and violence’
all three of which could be accepted as being contained within Habakkuk’s concise ‘evil gain’. Here, however, Jeremiah points the way to lasting prosperity and security by comparing their wealth with that of their fathers (Jer 22:15) and how it was established upon being just in their dealings with the poor rather than to take from them what they themselves coveted (Jer 22:16).
If we place Habakkuk’s words in the reign of Josiah, then, we can see that the same oppression and wickedness had gone unchecked and unrepented of, answering us the question as to whether the nation might have heeded the message through Habakkuk and mended their ways.
And, before we move on to the third woe, we need to remind ourselves that this observation in the OT concerned the children of God and not just some secular nation which hadn’t received God’s will. While it was equally true of the Chaldeans, it was more shocking that these characteristics were found in Judah because, as God’s people, they should have paid heed to the clear statements contained in the Mosaic Law about how they were to order their lives before Him.
c. The third woe
The foundation stones of a man’s building are here called into question - we would, perhaps, be right in taking these words and applying them even to the more fluid idea of founding one’s own concerns and sphere of influence in society so that what a person rules over can be brought into consideration.
Primarily, though, it appears as if YHWH’s word is against the establishing of communities and cities where death and sin have been directly involved in bringing them in to existence. The Good News Bible’s translation that
‘You founded a city on crime and built it up by murder...’
is lacking because the word ‘crime’ is misleading, suggesting as it does to the reader that the breaking of civil law is being brought to mind. They have, however, transposed the phrases into a more logical order (though it wasn’t necessary) so that the founding can be seen to come first, followed by the continued building of the structure - in this case, the order is sin followed by murder.
It’s difficult to see how a literal interpretation of Hab 2:12 could have applied to either the Judahite or the Chaldean, however, and it’s best to think of cultural structures within both societies that are being spoken against. Therefore Habbaker is right when he summarises the verse by writing that
‘The very foundations of the centres of society are founded on bloodshed...and wickedness...’
No matter, then, that some ‘good’ can be observed because it springs from a root which is embedded in corruption and vice. We would do well to consider the Church once more at this point - as we have done throughout these notes - for social work and charitable giving can easily mask the true heart of a group which is, in the words of Jesus (Mtw 23:24)
‘...straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel’
and, although they may be obedient to the smaller matters of God’s will which cost them very little (Mtw 23:23), the important matters of the heart are ignored and are substituted for external masks which hide the true nature away from view (Mtw 23:25).
The believer should never judge on an external appearance of a fellowship, no matter how nice it might appear on the surface (I Sam 16:7), because it’s the foundation upon which it’s been and is being built that determines its true justification or condemnation before God.
I’ve been in a number of fellowships - and heard reports concerning others - where something has transpired which has been handled extremely badly. In one, for example, a word from God that there was sin amongst the brethren was suppressed, transformed when finally given so that it didn’t ask questions of the people involved and then proven to have been accurate when one of the leaders was caught having an adulterous relationship - but any repentance on the part of those who suppressed it was sadly lacking.
In another, a leader’s character was blackened by the others in leadership to the point that they felt that they had to leave for elsewhere. Again, this concerned a word which a brother had felt they’d had about the central leader living in gross sin. Now it’s fairly obvious that men and women can make mistakes but when the prophetic word is shown to be true, repentance is the only way out for a sincere believer and the personal restitution towards those maligned must occur.
Where can God take a fellowship that’s built upon the suppression of His message to the Church? Even though the believers in both places I’ve mentioned proclaimed loudly that God was blessing them, it’s hard to imagine how that could be when the foundation which had been laid in their midst was one of disobedience and of an attack upon the righteous.
Whatever might be built after the event will only come to nothing. Therefore God’s message through Habakkuk is in the form of a rhetorical question where He announces that it’s His work
‘...that peoples labour only for fire and nations weary themselves for nought’
If individual churches don’t found themselves righteously but, rather, continue to build themselves up through the death of God’s message to them, whatever they might build will come to naught. A church must be founded upon actions which are acceptable to God and relations between the brethren must continue to grow in sincerity and truth.
I fear to write this in case I be misconstrued as being judgmental but many fellowships will have closed down because they’ve never put right the sins of the past that occurred in their midst. And a great many others will face the same fate because they run away from repenting of the things which were done in their midst against God and of failing to offer restitution for the damage done.
God notes by contrast (Hab 2:14 Pp Is 6:3, 11:9) that, even though these kingdoms (whether national or personal, it’s still the same truth) will be brought to nothing by God’s judgment
‘...the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of YHWH as the waters cover the sea’
and the only solution for anybody is to be a part of that by a reordered and repentant lifestyle. This idea of an eventual universal possession of the earth once more by God’s presence is noted elsewhere in the OT - again on the lips of God (Num 14:21) - where it stands as a ‘fact’ which proves that the course of action that’s about to happen is certain and fixed.
As such, the phrase is an unalterable conclusion to which the earth is being led even though here in Hab 2:14 it isn’t used in the same way as the previous passage. It’s no matter that there are structures in place which have been set up by men and women and which have been built upon sin and death (whether within the nation of Judah at that present time or as the kingdom of Babylon was shortly to set up) because they will be consumed by the fire of God’s judgment as His eternal Kingdom, built upon righteousness and justice, will be spread throughout the earth.
As such, God’s message to Habakkuk goes beyond the realms of the immediate future and envisages a day when everything that troubles believers will be consumed before the glory of God.
d. The fourth woe
This passage isn’t the easiest to understand - simply because the various translations of the first verse make it almost impossible to come to a realisation of what the text actually says. The main point of dispute for me is the concept of ‘anger’ or ‘wrath’, the RSV (my italics) rendering it
‘Woe to him who makes his neighbours drink of the cup of his wrath and makes them drunk to gaze on their shame’
Although one might have imagined that a literal action is being described here, the fact that the RSV speaks of the neighbour being made to drink of the cup of wrath would point us towards the interpretation that an overflow of anger is being described in figurative terminology and that the aggression being shown was meant to uncover aspects about them which would then be proclaimed to their own shame.
The Good News Bible also interprets the aspect of anger in a different light other than literal, assuming that the anger being described was tied up with a figurative uncovering of the neighbour through metaphorical drink. They render the verse (my italics)
‘You are doomed! In your fury you humiliated and disgraced your neighbours; you made them stagger as though they were drunk’
The aggressor, then, outworks his anger towards his neighbours and causes them to stagger about through their attack, the ulterior motive being to shame them once they’re incapable of objection. The NIV, on the other hand, doesn’t see the concept of wrath as being any part of the verse, translating the text as
‘Woe to him who gives drink to his neighbours, pouring it from the wineskin till they are drunk so that he can gaze on their naked bodies’
Habbaker notes the textual difficulties with the verse in his commentary but he isn’t as unambiguous as one would have liked. It’s difficult to determine whether he intends the reader to think that the concept of ‘wrath’ is removed from some translations because of a proposed scribal error which is emended to yield the idea of drinking from the cup rather than of drinking the neighbour’s wrath - or whether it refers only to the way that ‘wrath’ is described.
There doesn’t appear to be any reason why the concept of anger should be removed from the verse and, by its inclusion, it’s more likely that a figurative - rather than literal - accusation is being made by God.
Even though it may be taken as figurative, what should we make of the idea of causing another to get drunk that their clothes might be removed from them? Is it only this which is in mind or does the text mean something a bit more sinister?
There’s no doubt that the uncovering of the genital area to public view wasn’t thought of as being an advantageous example of righteousness (though, in the present day, the cultural horror of this happening has largely been removed from our society).
In the story of Noah which occurred after the Flood (Gen 9:20-27), his drunkenness caused him to be unconscious in his tent with very little covering himself. That his son Canaan saw the incident and was cursed by Noah because of it only proves that the ancient Jews must have taken these sorts of incidents with a great amount of seriousness.
However, when I discussed the RSV’s translation of ‘uncovering [one’s] nakedness’ in Leviticus chapter 18, I noted that the best interpretation to lay upon the phrase wasn’t one that just saw ‘clothes being removed’ but which envisaged it as a means towards the end of sexual union.
When the Bible speaks about causing a neighbour to be drunk to gaze upon their nakedness, therefore, it may mean more than the literal translation makes it out to be and the alcohol may have been the method by which one was rendered helpless so as to be able to overcome them sexually.
Whether that’s the idea behind this verse, however, is far from certain - indeed, it seems to be extremely doubtful, for the sole purpose of the drunkenness is to
‘...gaze on their shame’
which makes us think that dishonour is the purpose of the action. It seems best to understand Hab 2:15 as meaning that the anger directed towards one’s neighbour had the intention of maligning and shaming them by the revealing of information about them which would cause them to lose acceptance and standing in the society in which they lived.
This is an unusual interpretation, I admit, but it seems forced upon the verse by the mention of wrath being the reason behind the action.
The application to the Church is straightforward and is more applicable if we remove the literalism - for anger directed at one’s brethren can find itself outworked through the undermining of another’s position, of spreading rumour and gossip so that the character is maligned to the point where so much negativism surrounds their presence and ministry that it becomes impossible for them to continue in the fellowship.
Even if a literal interpretation is accepted by the reader, it should also be noted that commentators generally believe the verse to be about Babylon and not about the Judahites at all. Therefore Habbaker writes that
‘Babylon is now condemned for leading others...into debauchery by causing them to drink intoxicants...Babylon used a literal cup of intoxicant...’
and his words make the reader see that he means for this to be taken unmetaphorically. The point is, surely, that the outpouring of Babylon’s wrath came about as they attacked the cities and regions which they advanced upon, in the same manner as YHWH was previously noted in Jer 25:15-29 of repeatedly telling the nations to drink from the cup of the wine His anger which would be poured out for them by His hand but through the agency of the Babylonians (Jer 25:8-14).
Habsmith takes the verse only to refer to a literal event where the condemnation of the action could only be suited to what was going on within the kingdom of Judah.
As I’ve said previously, though, to major on one application at the exclusion of the other is incorrect, for Hab 2:5 has woken the prophet up to the fact that the traits of the Chaldean are the same as those of the Judahite so that both must share in judgment at the appropriate time.
God’s response to the action described in Hab 2:15 is to return it upon their own heads. It’s because the action was done in anger that it will be in anger that God judges (Hab 2:17).
It’s worth noting that the idea of uncovering the nakedness of a nation when it was overthrown by YHWH wasn’t unknown in OT prophetic literature and the same idea is probably attributable here (Is 47:3 - Babylon, Lam 1:8 - Jerusalem, Nahum 3:5 - Nineveh) where the glory of a nation is exchanged for nakedness and shame.
Finally, God concludes the fourth woe with a statement which would fit well into the present day ecological movement. References to Lebanon, the blood of men and to the cities and their inhabitants should be taken as the outworkings of the advance of the army upon those regions but the twin phrases that God would repay
‘...the destruction of the beasts...’
‘...[the] violence [done] to the earth...’
shows that God cared for His own Creation. Without going overboard in our exposition of this verse, we should note that there’s a certain expected level of care which YHWH expects from all men when it comes to the created order. When that is violently transgressed, He feels it necessary to judge the violator.
Habsmith notes concerning Hab 2:17 that it
‘...must be dated after the Babylonian came through Lebanon and ravaged the forests of cedar and the herds of wild animals’
but this is only true if the reader can’t believe that God knew that it was going to happen - that is, that prophetic statements can only ever be given after the time to which they refer. There’s no reason to believe that God couldn’t have known that this was to take place and that He condemned it beforehand - in that case, it would also have served as a clear indication that the prophetic message was something which had emanated from the mind of God and hadn’t been the product of the prophet’s own imagination. Habbaker notes that the desolation of Lebanon would have taken place after the battle of Carchemish in 605BC.
But we’re here reading that the violence done will come back upon the head of the violent - and that the terror inflicted will, likewise, be repaid to the terrifier. The concepts brought to attention in Hab 2:15-17 are paralleled in a word which Obadiah received concerning all the nations and not just Edom as his opening words outline. The prophet declared (Obad 15-16)
‘...As you have done, it shall be done to you, your deeds shall return on your own head. For as you have drunk upon My holy mountain, all the nations round about shall drink; they shall drink, and stagger, and shall be as though they had not been’
Reaping what has been sown through the compulsory drinking of the cup of God’s wrath is what the passage in Habakkuk is all about.
e. The fifth woe
Unlike the first four woes, this only states what’s wrong and gives no illumination as to what is going to be done about it (in the previous four, see Hab 2:7, 2:11, 2:13, 2:16-17). The words can be applied equally well to both the Chaldean and the Judahite and there’s absolutely nothing in the verses which point in one way rather than the other.
It’s certain from other prophetic passages that idolatry was a major problem before the exile (Is 42:17, 44:9-20, Jer 2:25-28, 10:8-16, Ps 115:4-8) but, more surprisingly, even after when the nation should have woken up to the sins which had exiled them away from the land of Israel (Zech 10:1-2).
Both the Chaldeans (note Hab 1:11, however) and the Judahites were trusting in the work of their own hands by the shaping of inanimate materials to form a god which became as much a figment of their own imagination as was the help which they deemed it possible to have bestowed upon them.
Habakkuk’s statement that
‘...the workman trusts in his own creation...’
is set in stark contrast to the Biblical record which shows God’s initiative in revealing truth about Himself to any men and women who are willing to listen. Although the workmen conceives of his own god’s shape and characteristics, they’re only illusionary because they come as the product of man’s own thought processes rather than through Divine revelation.
It’s clear that there are many fellowships and denominations who’ve done exactly the same as the ancient cultures did - most will be horrified by my statement for it will be imagined that I mean wooden, stone or metal objects have been set up in buildings and worship directed towards them (in fact, in a great many places, this is exactly what’s happened - but I wasn’t referring to them!) when, in fact, their own buildings are free from the trappings of the more ritualistic organisations.
But we raise up an idol whenever we create God’s character by an outworking of our own understanding rather than relying upon the revelation which comes through the pages of the Bible and which comes directly through the Holy Spirit’s impartation (and which, I must point out, is never against the Biblical testimony).
For some, this means strange views on homosexuality or abortion; for others it means a refusal to accept either freewill or predestination, thinking them incompatible; still others will find God’s anger a stumbling block, preferring to think of Him as entirely benevolent. The options are truly fathomless but whenever we raise up an image of God that pulls away from the true and simple revelation of Himself in the Scriptures then we’ve begun to create a god who corresponds to our own image and concept.
So, we make God in our own image and then wonder why He doesn’t answer us! As Jer 2:28 asks the listener
‘...where are your gods that you made for yourself? Let them arise, if they can save you, in your time of trouble...’
I once heard an observation by a speaker in which he pointed out that rat poison is over 99% good to eat - it’s the less-than-one-per-cent which actually kills the rodent. In like manner, we can be ever so sound on a great many issues but it’s the little errors which develop with time that begin to undermine the truth of the character of God.
I find the observation of the psalmist fairly interesting concerning those who worship idols for he writes (Ps 115:4-8 - my italics) that
‘Their idols are silver and gold, the work of men’s hands. They have mouths, but do not speak; eyes, but do not see. They have ears, but do not hear; noses, but do not smell. They have hands, but do not feel; feet, but do not walk; and they do not make a sound in their throat. Those who make them are like them; so are all who trust in them’
We might interpret the author as saying that those who follow after idols don’t speak for God and neither perceive the things of God, whether by seeing Him move or hearing Him speak. Their senses, their spiritual awareness, are dulled and they fail to walk in the will of God. We might expound it a few other ways but the point is clear that a person who holds fast to a belief which is a denial of the character of God is not going the right way.
As Habakkuk asks (these two verses may equally well be attributable to God but, whichever we accept, they’re still worthy of full acceptance) of the physical gods which had been made
‘Can this give revelation?’
answering himself by observing that
‘...there is no breath [life] at all in it’
Whatever is ‘revealed’, therefore, must also be a product of one’s own imagination just as the original idea of what their god must resemble comes from a cerebral consideration. Whether it was to be the new Judahite gods which were being bowed down to or the Chaldean ones, the end result was still to be the same - YHWH was moving against all the nations at that time in earth’s history to judge them for all their excesses and sins before Him and no god was going to deliver them out of His hands.
Habakkuk’s last word
Habsmith sees this verse as standing in contrast to the preceding two verses so that, in place of the idolatrous acts which, even now, are being performed both within and without Judah, the reader is reminded that God is still enthroned over the earth.
It seems better to view the verse as Habakkuk’s own personal response to the series of revelations which he’s just recorded, however, so that the purposes of God are seen to be accepted by the earth standing silently before Him in awe and reverence.
This idea also comes across in two other passages (Zeph 1:7, Zech 2:13) where the work and purpose of God is set in stark contrast to the objections that man may bring or the actions which they may perform. It speaks of an inevitability of God’s will coming about regardless of what men and women might do and concludes the two chapters with the statement that can only be understood to be an affirmation that the prophet believes that what has been revealed will necessarily come to pass.
Introduction to chapter 3
Habakkuk chapter 3 sits rather loosely attached to the first two chapters and is too easily dismissed as being something which was simply ‘tacked on’ to the great revelation he’d had previously and kept because it was thought to be significant but unrelated. Habsmith’s treatment of this entire chapter in just two pages makes one feel that the text isn’t considered as being as important as what’s preceded it (that’s only my impression, of course, but his explanation of Hab 3:2 in two lines hardly warrants the importance with which it should be regarded. Habbaker’s setting aside of an entire page is much more realistic) or that it supports and develops what God has previously had the prophet commit to writing.
However, we might make the prophet’s statement of Hab 2:1 that he would see
‘...what I will answer concerning my complaint’
as being fulfilled in this chapter for, in it, he implores YHWH to display upright moral conduct throughout the judgment which was about to fall on the nation (something which might horrify us if it were the content of a believer’s prayer in the present day - after all, don’t we know that God can’t sin?), to prophesy the destruction of the people who were to come against them and yet to still remain confident that, no matter what circumstances might appear to be, God was still worthy of praise.
It may not be going too far to state that Hab 3:2 is of pivotal importance to a correct understanding of what a believer should look for when the concept of ‘revival’ is being banded about amongst the Church, a concept which all too often goes unmentioned and ignored for we seem to envisage a time of unparalleled blessing directed towards His people, forgetting that it seems to go hand in hand with their initial judgment by God with mercy to remove their sin from them in order that He might bless them.
In one sense, the entire Book turns on this verse because it emphasises the mercy of God over and above the worthiness of man.
Habbaker cites Hab 3:16-19 as being
‘...one of the most moving statements of faith and trust found in Scripture...’
but we should extend the description to the entire chapter under consideration for without the prophet’s willingness to accept God’s hand of judgment upon the nation, it’s difficult to understand his incredible response that he would remain faithful towards God whose will he wasn’t in full agreement with. While he wanted the unrighteous to be judged and removed from the land, God’s decision to use a nation more unrighteous than they was unpalatable and repulsive but Habakkuk still responds by declaring that praise belonged to YHWH no matter that the two wills conflicted - something that we would do well to consider carefully in our own experience.
God’s people today are striving for a great many things and the leaders have been calling for revival for a great many years, the recognised prophets speaking boldly in God’s name concerning its imminence. The problem is not that revival is a time of an unprecedented experience of God’s presence in an area’s midst (and not just the Church) but that we often fail to see the great need for judgment to occur first which is often refuted as being irrelevant because we’re ‘forgiven - past, present and future sin’.
While this is an absolutely true statement concerning Jesus’ work on the cross, it doesn’t pull away from the need for God’s people to order their lives aright and to forsake anything which is displeasing to Him. Revivals of yesteryear have come on the back of judgment and repentance when those fellowships who have refused to turn around their lifestyle have been by-passed by God as He swept across areas and regions.
What Habakkuk teaches the reader is that the judgment by God of His people might be looked upon negatively but that, in the setting of the OT, it was the pivotal experience which made the way for the restoration of and revival in the nation, to prepare the way for them to have the opportunity once more of obedience to God.
Descriptions of the musical terms have been adapted from here
The directions which have been placed at the head and foot of this chapter (Hab 3:1,19b) make the reader perceive that, for whatever reason this might have been originally recorded, it was eventually developed as a piece of liturgy which was used by generations of Jews in their praise, worship and petition of God.
It’s likely that, along with Hab 1:1, Hab 3:1 has been added by a later scribe to make sure that the author is remembered. Why that should have been deemed necessary when it appeared in the same scroll as and following on from the first two chapters seems strange unless it’s assumed that this chapter began life as a distinct and separate work which soon became attached to the original oracle.
Habsmith states that it was
‘...an intercessory prayer designed to be sung by the congregation or one representing the congregation’
but, although his comments seem to be accurate when one considers them from a time which is later to the original composition, it needs to be realised that, initially, it appears to have been personal in nature, a response of the prophet which he felt it important to record. Only after it had been committed to writing does it seem to have been ripped out of its context for use in either Temple or synagogue liturgy.
It doesn’t seem fair to think of this piece as having been originally written for general use because it reads as a personal response to a revelation received directly by someone.
The ‘shiggaion’ (Strongs Hebrew number 7692) appears only once in the OT text according to both the AV and RSV as a type of song in the title of Psalm 7 but its occurrence in Habakkuk 3:1 (albeit in a different form), although often attributed to an arranger of the prayer there recorded may, according to Habsmith
‘...indicate the tune or mood for the presentation of the prayer as music suitable for a lament...’
The normal interpretation of the word sees it as being a dirge or lament but, if one takes a look at Psalm 7’s contents, it’s far from obvious just why such a psalm could have been labelled as such when there are other passages which seem to be more classic laments than this one which ends with a response of praise.
Craigie suggests that the word may be indicative of a wandering or rambling type of poem but the structure of the psalm seems fairly cohesive. Kidner has a few options but cites Eerdmans’ suggestion that it might be associated with
‘...Arabic and Assyrian verbs denoting a stirring of the emotions’
and, although I can’t comment on whether this is possible etymologically, it fits the context of both Psalm 7 and Habakkuk chapter 3 well. Both have content that are expressions of the depth of feeling of the author and are founded upon their own experience, but each ends with their eyes looking towards God as deliverer and worthy to be praised.
It’s difficult to be definitive in one’s interpretation of the term but the form of Psalm 7 is unlike the majority of songs I know and which are sung in the Church. Perhaps the best example I know of what a Shiggaion is is the chorus written by Phil Rogers, based on the opening four verses of Psalm 61. It runs
‘Hear my cry, O Lord.
Listen to my prayer.
Lead me to the Rock that is higher than I,
Lead me to Jesus’ throne
For you are my refuge, You are my strength,
A strong tower against the enemy.
So let me forever dwell in Your house
And take refuge in the shadow of Your wings’
I guess the reason why it’s been omitted from most of the more ‘modern’ compilations of songs is that we tend to run away from a confession of such a ‘negative’ feeling of inadequacy and impotency which the chorus opens with. But, nevertheless, in very simple form, it echoes the feeling of David as he considers his own position, ending in the triumph of looking to God for an answer and deliverance.
In a similar manner, although Habakkuk would have had the words of God ringing in his ears concerning the judgment of Judah, his response ends positively.
If we were to interpret the Shiggaion solely in terms of a ‘lament’ however, we would be doing the term a great disfavour for, facing up to the reality of one’s situation should be the springboard to a realisation that God’s in control of circumstances - hence the necessity of songs and prayerful responses such as these to lead the believer from the state of being downcast to the point of exultation in God.
The ‘selah’ raises its head in numerous places (Strongs Hebrew number 5542, M1506a), the AV bearing it 74 times where it’s translated as such, but it only appears in the Book of Psalms and Habakkuk (where it’s used just the three times - Hab 3:3,9,13).
Craigie sees the most likely meaning to be a direction for the musicians to insert a musical interlude in the proceedings before the rest of the psalm was to be sung (and this is substantiated by the Greek translation of the word in the LXX).
He points out, however, that in Psalm 9 it appears at the very end of the work so that a musical arrangement would have to have been considered to continue on after the words had been completed with no return to anything being sung before the musicians completed their playing.
Whatever the precise meaning of selah, we can be fairly certain that it represented a direction for the musicians rather than to be solely for the benefit of the reader or singer. We know from other places in the OT (see here) that music of itself was acceptable as praise by God so directions to allow the musicians to launch into an instrumental can’t be considered to be unusual.
In the context of Habakkuk’s prayer, however, it tends to pull away from the seriousness and solemnity of the petition.
3. To the choirmaster: with stringed instruments
Musical directions are given 56 times ‘to the choirmaster’ and only once outside the Book of Psalms here in Hab 3:19. It normally precedes certain musical directions such as the tune which was to be used or the type of instrument upon which it was to be played and the phrase ‘with stringed instruments’ occurs only seven other times in the OT (Ps 4:1, 6:1, 54:1, 55:1, 61:1, 67:1, 76:1).
But what does the RSV’s translation ‘choirmaster’ or the AV’s rendering ‘chief musician’ actually mean (Strongs Hebrew number 5329, M1402)? The main idea behind the Hebrew word seems to be something which takes the lead or which sits at the head of others of similar character and, because the context of the word in both the Psalms and Habakkuk, it seems best that a position over and above others is what’s being referred to.
However, the RSV’s ‘choirmaster’ smacks of traditionalism for it equates the position too easily with what’s in place within the more ritualistic or staid denominations - but the AV’s ‘chief musician’, although to be preferred, limits the direction of the person mentioned as being someone who, if taken literally, would be seen as not in control of any singers present.
Even the more modern ‘worship leader’ has its problems on at least two counts. Firstly, the concept of worship being ‘led’ is anathema to the Biblical concept of worship (see my notes here) and, secondly, very often the one who ‘leads’ the singing is very clearly not endowed with a great amount of musical ability or perception.
All that can be said is that the nasah or natsach (the transliteration of the word) must be someone who understands what it would mean to accompany a psalm or spiritual song ‘with stringed instruments’ or ‘according to such-and-such a tune’ and musical ability is an expectation of the title.
The key to revival
There are a few variations in the translations of this verse but most of the problem surrounds the position of ‘Your work’ which can be made to be the object of the verb ‘to fear’ (as in the RSV and with Habsmith) or attributed to the second line and made the object of ‘to revive’ (as in the AV and NASB).
The former is particularly problematical, however, for it has the prophet announcing that He’s frightened of the work of judgment directed towards God’s people and then pleads with God in the next breath to ‘revive’ or ‘renew’ it, something which seems wholly incongruous. Therefore, the latter translation runs better and makes more sense.
The third line ends with ‘make known’ by the AV while the RSV and NASB add the word ‘it’ to make it refer to the work which has been mentioned previously. However, Habbaker points out that the idea behind the statement might be better rendered ‘make Your presence known’ but I’ve opted for the easier of the two translations.
If God is to return to His people it means that a new work is beginning and, likewise, if God is beginning a new work of revival in their midst it means that His presence must have returned amongst them - there seems to be little effectual difference, therefore.
The translation or paraphrase I’ll be following, therefore, runs
‘YHWH, I have heard your report and I fear.
YHWH, revive Your work in the midst of the years.
In the midst of the years make it known.
In wrath remember mercy’
1. The text
The interpretation of the passage briefly discussed here is fairly straightforward - the application of Habakkuk’s words to the desire for revival in the Church are often missed and, even if they’re fully understood, would be shunned simply because the way being pointed towards is one that’s not pleasant.
I’ve tried to apply his words to the context of revival in the next section but, here, we need to content ourselves with accurately understanding what it was that the prophet was saying.
Habakkuk had seen the state of the nation as very few of his generation had (Hab 1:2-4), receiving an answer from YHWH that He was about to judge the nation for its wickedness and give it over into the hands of an oppressing nation, the Chaldeans (Hab 2:5-11). The prophet responded to the vision and in it he noted his anxiety concerning God’s chosen course of action (Hab 1:12-2:1).
Finally, God responded by commanding Habakkuk to make the vision known to the nation and showing that, whether it be Israelite or Gentile, judgment would inevitably fall upon the ones who did what was wrong in His sight (Hab 2:2-19).
This ‘report’ caused the prophet to ‘fear’ - it’s difficult to decide whether the latter word is meant to conjure up a sense of awe at God’s revealed will or whether he’s saying that he was genuinely frightened by the prospect of the Israelites being taken into captivity.
Personally, the latter seems better in the context in which it’s spoken - that is, even though he knew what God was about to do, it hadn’t left him with a sense of ease and of being at peace with the world. Instead, it was a course of action which unsettled him.
Yet he wasn’t resigned to the judgment but was eager to petition YHWH to remember His people and to restore them after His judgment had been poured out upon them. In this case, he realised that God’s will was inevitable and didn’t petition God for it to be removed from them - rather, he accepted the inevitability of wrath but also was eager to remind God of His covenant with the nation (though not in so many words).
His final sentence is a classic - ‘In wrath remember mercy’ - for he calls not for God to stop His work but to have compassion while it’s being carried out. In other words, he acknowledges that the way revealed to Him is the only one but he would have God arm Himself with acts of charity even in His time of anger.
The verse, then, is a classic and should be given it’s full force in context. As we’ll see from the next section, its application to times of revival for the Church in the present day is beyond question - the problem we have, rather, is not to be able to conceive of God needing to judge His Church first before He can restore her.
Some of these notes have been developed from here
I’m not an authority on the history of revivals through Church history but the reports of the ones I’ve read nearly always begin with repentance - not, however, with the repentance of those who profess not to know God but by the ones who openly confess Jesus as the Lord and Saviour of their lives.
If we sit down and consider that aspect of revival for a moment, we should realise that it implies a state of the Church which is less than God intends. Even though we might look upon the Church and say, along with Habakkuk, that the nation called by God is less unrighteous than those who are round about them, God’s perspective on the matter is, rather, that they’re less wicked and, therefore, in need of cleansing before He can come in His power into their midst.
Perhaps the clearest indication that revival will come to an area is the generally poor spiritual state of the believers. This is too simplistic a view, of course, because accompanying the signs of the imminence of revival there is a genuine and God sent burden for prayer amongst the children of God who are willing to acknowledge their spiritual poverty and look to Him to act on their behalf.
In a fellowship that I was once in, it was reported that a message had come from God that He was going to bless the congregation not because of them but in spite of them. Surely, this is more likely to be true of times of revival than it ever will be at others.
Revival is not an outpouring of God’s presence upon His people because they’ve earned the reward but a gracious undertaking which comes from God’s will that restores His people back into all that they should be while reaching out to those who have yet to know Him, convicting them of their sin and washing their lives clean to swell the numbers of believers.
In Habakkuk’s vision, he saw the judgment of the children of God as the forerunner to their restoration before Him, something which we may baulk at but which is equally possible in the present day and age. And, similarly, a great length of time passed by after the judgment while the poor held possession of land (Jer 39:10) until the day dawned when the rich and prosperous were returned by God to make a fresh start at serving Him (Ezra chapter 1).
We cannot say that such things won’t happen because they already have - but neither should we say they will happen unless we know specifically that this is the way that God will restore His Church. However, the eagerness and expectancy which often comes upon men and women believers in the present day isn’t what accompanied the outpouring of a special time of God’s blessing in times past - rather, the feelings of unworthiness and sinfulness, of perceiving the need for repentance and of putting matters right through restitution were the experience of those who suddenly burst through their trials and into revival.
The reader may feel that I’m being too negative in my comments here but, to an impartial observer, the sign that revival is about to take place is likely to be contrition and humility - not exuberance in praise and joy.
Such a time of relative tribulation from the hand of God Himself is not something that the believer looks forward to - no one in their right mind would. Hence the words of the prophet Amos in Amos 5:18-20 to the children of God
‘Woe to you who desire the day of YHWH! Why would you have the day of YHWH? It is darkness, and not light; as if a man fled from a lion, and a bear met him; or went into the house and leaned with his hand against the wall, and a serpent bit him. Is not the day of YHWH darkness, and not light, and gloom with no brightness in it?’
Delighting that God was about to move on the earth was a part of the rejoicing of the rebellious ‘believers’ who failed to understand that, in the judgment which would come along with His presence, they would find turmoil and tribulation.
Although the initial stages of revival are not to be desired, many a believer realises that the cleansing of God’s people is the only way to bring about all that God intends for Jesus’ Church - otherwise believers will never fully wake up to what God’s will concerning them is.
Many misunderstand what revival is. It’s too broad a subject to be narrowly defined as a time when there’s a great harvest of souls. God requires His Church to be prepared for that time and it’s this that’s a foundation from which revivals springs. God wants to visit each and every land with His presence in full power, full glory and full majesty - but first His Church must be prepared.
David summed it up simply (Ps 51:12-13 - my paraphrase) when he wrote
‘Restore me...then I will be able to reach out to others...’
Far from thinking that, in his sinful condition before God, he could effectively be a witness to His goodness, he realised that he needed something doing in his own life before others would be willing to turn back to God because of him. And, instead of praying that God might do something in others’ lives to draw them back to Himself, he saw that the responsibility for doing such a thing lay not in a sovereign act of God but in himself being restored by God and then being used as His channel out to others.
God desires to cleanse His people. In I Peter 4:17 the thought is primarily that, if judgment is coming upon the world on account of their sin, then His people must be ready for that day so that, when they stand before Him, there’s nothing in them that’s requiring judgment. Though this doesn’t directly comment on the need for God’s people to be cleansed before revival comes, we can see that Jesus’ disciples must live lives of repentance - not just experiencing it once when initial conversion takes place - being constantly changed to be more like Christ (Rom 8:29) and less like the old person we were.
When God was going to manifest Himself to the Israelites, they had three days in which to cleanse themselves for the King’s arrival (Ex 19:10-11,14-15) - God’s holy presence cannot tolerate sin. In my notes on ‘Repentance’ linked above, I mentioned how the medieval crusades did similar things before they went in to battle, expecting God to move on their behalf, but in those cases (as well as in the current passage in Exodus, unfortunately) they only put away defilements for the time because they wanted blessing showered upon them. The meeting of God with His people was going to be a special event, so the Israelites had to prepare themselves.
In Is 40:3-4 (Pp Mtw 3:3, Mark 1:3, Luke 3:4-6, John 1:23), we read that John the Baptist (the ‘voice’ of Is 40:3) was the one sent by God to prepare the way for Jesus. But what was this highway that John the Baptist was going to prepare? In Luke 1:76-77 and Mtw 3:2 we see that it was the hearts of Israel, by preaching the cleansing from sin through repentance. The passage in Isaiah says much the same in verse 4 where it reads
‘...every valley shall be lifted up’
- that is, the humble exalted - and
‘...every mountain and hill [shall] be made low’
- which is the proud humbled. The way must be prepared first before the Lord will travel that path. Though there’s a highway that God desires to use to come to His people, there’s necessarily a call of God laid upon them to repent in order that, when He does come, He doesn’t come in judgment. We are God’s way to reach out to this world and the onus is upon us to be prepared first before the Lord will come in full glory into our lives and, through our lives, reaching out to others.
When a monarch comes to visit a nation, envoys are sent on ahead to prepare the way before they arrive. Similarly, when God’s presence comes to His people, they must be spiritually prepared to receive Him. God’s cleansing of His Church is His way of preparation. This call to preparation, to be cleansed, occurs in many different places throughout Scripture. Always, the problem is not that God doesn’t want to visit His people and move amongst them in blessing, but that His people aren’t willing to cleanse themselves from the things that God finds abhorrent and unclean.
For example, II Tim 2:19-21 notes that it’s our responsibility to be cleansed, ready for God’s use. Though God has provided a way that individuals can be cleansed, the responsibility for being uncontaminated vessels lies with those individuals in order that God might use them for service in His will and purpose.
God’s Temple must also be cleansed before true service can take place. Hezekiah couldn’t reintroduce the sacrificial system at Jerusalem until the priests had entered the Temple and cleansed its courts from all the defilements of former years through the previous kings of Judah (II Chr 29:15).
In the New Covenant, God’s people are His temples, mobile places of worship (though they aren’t objects of worship but the place where worship should take place) that need to be cleansed for God’s presence to shine through in all His glory and power (I Cor 3:16-17, II Cor 6:16-7:1).
Mal 3:2b-4 also notes that God will purify His people so that they present right offerings. The acceptability of our offering to God is dependant upon being cleansed from every defilement that tarnishes what we offer. It’s primarily God’s work (repentance begins with a work of God) but, quite obviously, individuals must be cleansed and be willing to turn away from their sin.
Finally, in II Kings 4:3-6, God calls to Himself empty vessels to fill them with the oil of His Spirit. He’s only limited by the number of vessels that are made available to Him, not by the quantity of the oil that’s being poured. Likewise, God will fill all of His people who are empty of their own way of living and who are ready to be filled by Him with the oil of His Holy Spirit. If revival is going to come, there needs to be many empty vessels, prepared for that dynamic infilling that overflows out to the areas around them.
This being cleansed is a type of repentance - we must come to an understanding of what’s wrong in our lives, put it aside and live lives of holiness before God. As previously noted, it’s only when this happens in God’s people (Ps 51:12) that they will ever be able to reach out effectively to others (Ps 51:13).
If we were to ask ourselves what or who is the biggest hindrance to revival in the local fellowship, we would have to answer that it’s not the unsaved but the believer - that is, you and me - because so often ‘me’ is the one who’s unwilling to repent and cleanse ourselves from all defilements of spirit, soul and body, which would ensure that, when God came to His people, there would be at least one empty vessel through which He could make His presence known.
That’s why times of repentance and, if necessary, judgment, need to come upon the Church before revival is ever likely to come.
Finally, it may be levelled at these notes that it’s obvious from Acts chapter 2 that the blessing of the Holy Spirit came upon the believers as a free gift of God and not as a response to the repentance of the believers - and this certainly appears to be true if the first couple of chapters of the Book are considered on their own, separated from the evidence of the Gospels.
But, as the records of Jesus’ life shows, after 400 years of silence between the ending of the writings of the Old Testament and the beginning of the New (though that’s not to say that God did nothing with His people Israel throughout that entire time), God began His new work with the word ‘repent’ through John the Baptist (Mtw 3:2).
Just in case we should miss the point of the relevance of John’s words, Jesus begins His ministry with the very same word (Mtw 4:17), the word ‘repent’. In fact, should we be in any doubt as to whether the messages were the same, we need only to consider the Greek of both proclamations translated as
‘Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand’
for they’re identical. It wasn’t that John and Jesus had grasped something similar about entry into the Kingdom that was shortly to be established, but that they had received directly from God something that was identical. Entry into this New Covenant of which the Holt Spirit is the seal and first fruit of the inheritance had to begin with repentance.
It was in the context of the repentance of His followers that the promise of the Holy Spirit was poured out upon them - therefore, for a fresh move of God in the Church’s midst, we must be prepared for Him to sort out the people to whom it’s about to come.
Moreover, Acts 2:38 records Peter’s summary of the necessary actions of his hearers as being
‘Repent and be baptised...for the forgiveness of your sins...’
‘...you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit’
showing clearly the close connection between both repentance and the receipt of God’s presence. It must be realised, therefore, that, even though the early Church moved in the power of the Holy Spirit, they had no occasion for ‘revival’ which is initially God’s renewing of His believers in preparation for a new work through the conviction of sin and repentance.
Like Habakkuk, we must come face to face with the state of the fellowships in our own area and nation and assess accurately whether we’re living as God would have us to do or whether we’re living only ‘less wickedly’ than those around us. The conclusion we arrive at will tell us what God has to do first before revival will come.
Graham Kendrick’s song ‘Restore, O Lord’ is worth considering here. In verse 2, the author applies Habakkuk’s message successfully to the Church when He writes
‘Restore, O Lord,
In all the earth Your fame,
And in our time revive
The church that bears Your name.
And in Your anger,
Lord, remember mercy,
O living God,
Whose mercy shall outlast the years’
What was true all those years ago is equally true today - we need a new work of God in the midst of His people which will begin with an outpouring of His wrath - along with mercy - but which will end in repentance, restoration and revival.
The reader may be wondering why I’ve not chosen to break this passage down into more manageable chunks as I have done on previous occasions (though I have attempted to at least make the effort from point 2 onwards). Unfortunately, the passage seems to demand an interpretation which is more general in its observations rather than for detailed work to be done on a lot of the statements recorded - this also means that some of the verses have gone uncommented on.
It makes the passage no less easy to deal with, however, for there are a number of references which seem strange and unusual and which also need to be considered not in their own right but in the context in which they appear.
The subject of this passage is God’s return to His people after the time of exile away from His presence and the prophet envisages YHWH as stirring Himself to intervene on behalf of His people by going to war to drive out the foreign oppressor in their own land.
As such, what we read in poetic form here is a fulfilment of the prophet’s prayer of Hab 3:2 in which He intercedes for the nation that God might restore them back into a covenant relationship with Himself. Indeed, Hab 3:3a is a parallel with Deut 33:2 where the only other mention of Mount Paran takes place and where it’s used as the location from which God came to deliver His people Israel and to enter into covenant with them at Sinai.
What the passage does, therefore, is not to leave the petition of Hab 3:2 open as to whether it would be answered but gives a clear and precise statement that God will return to His people no matter how bleak their short term future might turn out to be.
1. Teman and Mount Paran
The name ‘Teman’ (Strongs Hebrew number 8487) occurs 11 times in both the RSV and AV. Five of these refer to an individual (Gen 36:11,15,42, I Chron 1:36,53) while the other six to a specific geographic location but always in the prophetic writings (Jer 49:7,20, Ezek 25:13, Amos 1:12, Obadiah 9, Hab 3:3). The Temanites are also mentioned in the OT (Gen 36:34, I Chr 1:45, Job 2:11, 4:1, 15:1, 22:1, 42:7,9), the most notable being Eliphaz, one of Job’s friends.
The word simply means ‘South’ as with the identical word translated as such (Strongs Hebrew number 8486). It’s transliterated when it’s thought to be referring to a specific location or a person’s name rather than a general southerly direction.
It may be thought that it’s use in Habakkuk is meant to be a rather general, unspecific area so that ‘south of Judea’ would be the best transliteration but it seems better to accept the demarcation as referring to an area within the tribal possession of Esau or Edom. The first named individual was a grandson of Jacob’s brother (Gen 36:11,15), the name of which is clearly meant to be taken as a region throughout its mention in the prophets, the five outside of Habakkuk all associating the place with either Esau or Edom.
Zondervan states that the name was given to either a town or a tribe but its use in the OT prophets isn’t as clear cut as this and it’s possible that it was meant to be taken to be referring to an area on its own or a region over which a city called Teman held jurisdiction.
Some archaeologists associate modern day Tawilian with the city of Teman, located three miles east of Petra but the identification isn’t certain. We shouldn’t be going too far wrong, however, if we simply accept the location of the place as being to the south of Judea and somewhere within the sovereign control of the nation of Edom, due south of the end of the Dead Sea.
The only characteristics we know of the place is that it was probably renowned for its wisdom (or, perhaps better, that it liked to think it was - Jer 49:7) and that it was mentioned by God as deserving judgment (Jer 49:7ff, 49:20, Amos 1:12, Obadiah 9). Neither of these characteristics are important for an understanding of Hab 3:3.
The specific phrase ‘Mount Paran’ only occurs twice in the OT (Deut 33:2, Hab 3:3) even though ‘Paran’ (Strongs Hebrew number 6290, M1728) is spoken of 11 times in both the RSV and AV (Gen 21:21, Num 10:12, 12:16, 13:3,26, Deut 1:1, 33:2, I Sam 25:1, I Kings 11:18 [twice], Hab 3:3). The word literally means ‘a place of caravans’ and could, therefore, be taken to refer to a great many varied areas. TWOTOT comments that
‘The accumulated evidence would seem to support a district or area in the north-east section of the Sinai Peninsula, south-west of Edom, and south of the wilderness of Zin near the Judean mountains. Though a desert area, it was both habitable and inhabited’
It was the area to which Ishmael was taken and in which he was brought up by Hagar his mother following expulsion from Abraham’s family (Gen 21:21). The ‘wilderness of Beersheba’ is the only defining description in the text (Gen 21:14) which is probably best understood to be the Negev or further south. It was also one of the places the journeying Israelites came to after leaving Mount Sinai (Num 10:12) and Hazeroth (Num 12:16) and was the area from which spies were sent in to Canaan to spy out the land (Num 13:3,26). It also appears to have been on the way from Midian to Egypt (I Kings 11:18) but, as the Midianites were travellers, that doesn’t tell us too much. David also spent part of his exile here (I Sam 25:1).
But, as previously noted, Mount Paran is only mentioned twice in the OT (Deut 33:2, Hab 3:3) and a positive identification of this peak is impossible even though it seems certain to have to refer to one of the mountains which is in the mountainous region of southern Sinai.
A sure identification may not be necessary, however, because Habakkuk seems to be mentioning the mountain only because of the implications which it would bring to bear on what he’s writing - Deut 33:2 therefore becomes pivotal to our understanding of the prophet’s own mention and an understanding of why the approach of YHWH from this area is significant is important to grasp. Moses speaks to the Israelites here and says
‘...YHWH came from Sinai, and dawned from Seir upon us; He shone forth from Mount Paran, He came from the ten thousands of holy ones, with flaming fire at His right hand’
No explanation ever seems to have been given in Scripture as to why God was thought to approach the nation from a region east of where they were - indeed, it’s clear from Ex 19:11,20 that He was thought of as descending upon Mount Sinai and not as approaching it laterally. This would be correct, of course, because God’s habitation was always perceived as being ‘above’.
However, in the two parallel passages mentioned (as well as part of the victory song of Deborah and Barak in Judges 5:4-5 which is extremely similar in content - it reads ‘YHWH, when Thou didst go forth from Seir, when Thou didst march from the region of Edom, the earth trembled, and the heavens dropped, yea, the clouds dropped water’), we read of God’s advance from one region to another.
If God met up with Moses on Sinai (Ex 3:1) and came to His people in Egypt, it seems logical to assume that He came from the east. If He’d led them from the west out of Egypt and met with them at Sinai, the only logical place to assume that He’d come from would again be the east.
It isn’t too far fetched to accept, therefore, that the vision of His approach was used as a poetical description of the area from which He’d come and the reason for envisaging YHWH approaching His people is to see Him coming to their aid - in the same manner as a ruler, when he hears of his vassal being oppressed by an invading army, will rouse his forces and march out to assist him (I admit, though, that I’ve never yet read a perfectly adequate explanation of the matter).
Therefore, Habsmith’s statement that
‘God is coming from Teman as He did before...’
is a forerunner to understand that what Habakkuk has prayed for in Hab 3:2 - that is, the revival of the nation after God’s time of judgment - is now pictured as taking place in a similar manner to that of the Exodus. In other words, the prophet sees the nation’s judgment as being tantamount to being removed from their special relationship sealed at Sinai which has to be renewed by God’s return to the people and of His dispelling of the instrument of judgment which He’s brought upon them.
The repeat of God’s advance shows us that Habakkuk envisaged the covenant being restored through, firstly, the return of His presence into the land and, secondly, by the driving out of the occupying nation before Him (Hab 3:13-15).
2. God’s approach
These few verses are somewhat of a puzzle. On the one hand, we might agree with Habsmith’s statement that
‘God’s coming is compared to a thunderstorm’
because of the various points of imagery which are here recorded. However, this is far from the truth for with what electrical storm was ever pestilence and plague associated (Hab 3:5)? There are definitely parallels with II Sam 22:8-16 where David pictured YHWH in the imagery of an approaching thunderstorm and as coming to his aid as a king going out to war against the enemies of his oppressed vassal king, but Habakkuk’s descriptions seem, in some instances, to go beyond this and, in others, not to adequately describe the natural phenomenon.
I do agree, though, that this is the best way to envisage what the prophet is recording for us (clear parallels are in Hab 3:4,10-11 - the former of these declares that His glory is known in the lightning seen but that His power is also being veiled so that what can be seen are purely symbols of something far greater) but there are additional points which must be noted. For example, commentators speak of imagery being borrowed from previous passages where God’s approach is recorded with similar sounding imagery (Ex 19:16-19, 24:15-17, I Kings 19:11-12) but in neither of these three passages is the idea of a personification of God in the approach of a storm being declared - rather, these are simply observations of how YHWH came to His people in times past.
It’s when God comes to His followers ‘in the storm’, however, as He does in II Sam 22:8-16, that the idea of God as Warrior going out for the salvation of His people is declared. Therefore, although we might point towards similar events prior to Habakkuk’s vision, it’s God as Warrior which is here being declared rather than those concepts.
The opening half of the verse (Hab 3:3b) shows God’s approach as being full of the glory of His presence - this is stated not just because it’s God Himself who’s coming to the nation’s aid but because it’s important to realise that the presence of God which had left the nation through judgment will also be returning at the time of the restoration. It isn’t enough that God should go against His enemies - or, better, against the nation’s enemies - if it means that He won’t take up His residence once more in His people’s midst. Therefore it’s important to state at the outset that it isn’t just the ‘Hosts’, Heaven’s armies, which are being sent out to battle but that God Himself is at their head, leading His forces personally.
Habsmith sees Hab 3:5 as declaring that both pestilence and plague were dispelled as God approached His people. This seems unjustified from the text, however, which is better understood as declaring that plague settled on the land in His wake while pestilence was a forerunner that marked His approach.
This might seem incongruous for God who brings healing by His presence in the NT but we’re here looking not at forgiveness being bestowed but upon judgment being executed. Therefore such a vision is entirely in-keeping with the circumstances surrounding His approach.
During the time of the exodus, God judged Egypt by plague (Ex 9:2-3) while He spared His own people from becoming susceptible to it (Ex 9:4), also pointing out that the judgment which had been falling upon Egypt was limited in its scope because it wasn’t His will that it be destroyed (Ex 9:15). It’s also clear that pestilence was an expected reaction of God to disobedience - even amongst His own people (Ex 5:3, Num 14:11-12).
Habsmith notes that important people in ancient time were accompanied by servants over whom they exercised authority and control, paralleling it with the statement that both pestilence and plague were also
‘...Canaanite deities, leading here to a hidden polemic against pagan worship...’
However, this appears to be going too far and it’s better to see their mention as being an indication that YHWH’s approach is to enter into judgment against those who have oppressed His people and who have also sinned against His character.
Hab 3:6 opens with what can best be described as hesitancy on God’s behalf - but not a hesitation that proclaims impotency or double-mindedness. Rather, God’s action in measuring the earth is here declared so that the reader can be assured that what’s about to take place isn’t a knee-jerk reaction but a carefully considered one. He isn’t measuring the earth to see what its dimensions are (even though this is the normal sense of the word used in the OT) but assessing the earth’s state before acting against those who have set themselves against Himself and His people.
The first indication of who He’s coming against is recorded here when the prophet announces that YHWH has
‘...shook the nations...’
a theme which he’ll come back to and expand in Hab 3:12-15. The rest of this verse sees Creation humbling itself before the advance of its Creator in recognition of Him being Sovereign (a statement which is purely symbolic in this context) before concluding with a proclamation that YHWH’s ways are unchanging - that is, what God is doing now is what He’s always done in times past, a reassurance that nothing intrinsically has changed.
One might have imagined that His judgment of Judah was something which displayed a marked revolution in His known character but the prophet sees it all as being fully in-keeping with who He is. It’s YHWH who called the Israelites to Himself, it was He who was about to judge them because of their sin and it would also be Him who would move on their behalf to restore the Sinaitic covenant by removing the instrument of judgment from them.
Finally, Hab 3:7 speaks of Cushan and Midian as being distressed by the advancing presence. Why these two peoples should be singled out for a mention is initially puzzling. However, Habakkuk has already noted that the presence of God has come from Teman and Mount Paran so that these are two of the nations which would be the first to experience Him as He passed them by.
‘Cushan’, however, can’t be positively identified (the word only occurs here in the OT) and the LXX’s understanding of the term as Ethiopia is probably incorrect. Num 12:1 calls Moses’ wife a ‘Cushite woman’ and, as she was also the daughter of the priest of Midian (Ex 3:1), Cushan seems likely to have been an alternative name or a group within the well-known Midianites. This latter people, although predominantly travellers, were mainly resident in the southern Negev and Edomite territory.
Habbaker notes that it’s possible that the idea of judgment is to be associated with this passage because of the likely meaning of one of the Hebrew words, but it seems best to take the verse to be simply noting the fear of His presence which fell upon the nations through which He was passing on His way to the land of Israel.
This will be the same sort of experience as that which was put upon the people by God Himself in other OT places and described as the fear of God’s people (Gen 9:2, Deut 2:25, 11:25, Joshua 2:9) - but this may be better interpreted as being the fear of God Himself because He was amongst or travelling with them.
In conclusion, God is pictured as approaching the land of Israel from the south in the imagery of a thunderstorm (though this is somewhat played down), coming to both judge and make war against His people’s enemies.
3. God’s figurative battle
From His approach, the prophet turns his attention to God’s purpose in language which appears to be more figurative than literal and which still uses the imagery of an approaching storm in the Negev, southern Judah. Though the previous passage has spoken of God in the third person, it now changes to directly speak to YHWH Himself, asking Him (Hab 3:8)
‘Was Thy wrath against the rivers...or Thy indignation against the sea?’
both of which appear puzzling because they seem to assume that God was coming against both the inland waters and the waters of the oceans. But this is to take the statements too literally and it’s best to accept Habsmith’s explanation that God
‘...is coming to defeat His enemy represented by rivers, water and sea...’
for, although Habbaker cites many Scriptures showing God as being in control of the rivers and seas, each one falls short of stating categorically that He actually fights against them rather than simply being Sovereign over them - as such, if this passage is meant to be taken as a statement that YHWH is fighting against the waters of the earth in His wrath, it’s necessary to take them metaphorically. After all, one would hardly imagine that the horses and chariots also mentioned in Hab 3:8 should be taken literally.
The phraseology as it stands, however, could be taken to be simply that YHWH is being asked whether He’s coming against the rivers and seas, but Hab 3:15 unites the imagery of this verse by announcing to the reader that
‘Thou didst trample the sea with Thy horses, the surging of mighty waters’
Therefore, the ‘seas’ should be considered to be symbolic of the nations and this appears to be the best way to interpret also its mention in Rev 12:17-13:1. Perhaps the rivers are meant to be a symbol of the constituent nations which flow together into the one body of water - that much isn’t certain, though.
In Hab 3:9, the mention of God cleaving the earth with rivers and, in Hab 3:10, that they swept on are both uses that speak to us somewhat differently from what’s preceded them. Here the idea appears to be the effect of a natural thunderstorm in the Negev where the sudden downpouring of vast quantities of rain causes flash floods to occur, sweeping down dry river beds that might not have seen any water in years.
The reminder of the storm is also evident in Hab 3:11 where bolts of lightning are described as being
‘...the light of Thine arrows [and] the flash of Thy glittering spear’
which aren’t evident as being taken this way where they first appear in Hab 3:9. The natural order is observed as buckling in subservience to the storm’s advance - but this picture is surely meant to be indicative of God’s enemies being subjugated by the presence of God Himself.
The idea of God as a warrior isn’t rare in the OT and, when God goes forth to either judge the nations or to fight on behalf of His people, similar imagery to that recorded by Habakkuk is often present which is unlikely to have been meant to have been taken literally (for example - Ex 15:3-10, Ps 68:7-18, Is 34:1-12, Is 51:9-10).
Passages such as these last two can easily be lifted up by the Pantheist (that is, one type of Pantheist as the label covers a wide range of belief) as being proof that God should be considered so much a part of the Creation that He’s one and the same, turning the worship of the Creator into the worship also of the Creation - or, worse, of performing the latter in place of the former because it’s considered to be one and the same.
However, such imagery in the OT is primarily to give poetic descriptions to events which have or will take place and shouldn’t be pressed into the service of beliefs that are undermined elsewhere.
4. God’s literal battle
From figuratively looking at the judgment of God in terms of the natural order, Habakkuk turns to give an explanation of the literal events as he sees them unfold.
It should be evident by now that, from Hab 3:3, the chapter hasn’t resembled a type of petition or prayer before God as we would expect by its title (Hab 3:1). What this should show the present day believer is that prayer mustn’t be limited solely to requests for action or material possessions but neither is the alternative for it to be solely praise - prophetic visions and statements are also part and parcel of what it means to pray.
It’s tempting to see the mention of God’s war against His enemies here as being representative of more than one type of people. So, for example, Hab 3:14 which mentions people who advance upon those already cast down and oppressed could be taken as a reference to the continued oppression of the poor of the land who’d been left behind after the judgment through Babylon (Jer 39:10) and who were in dire straits until the return of Nehemiah, having no fortification to protect them from whosoever came against them (Neh 1:3, 2:17). But Hab 3:16 has the prophet responding to the prophetic word by saying
‘...I will quietly wait for the day of trouble to come upon people who invade us’
and there seems to be no provision being made for men and women who were acting independently of the Babylonian nation who were to overthrow Judah in fulfilment of Hab 1:5-11.
However, Hab 3:12 speaks specifically of ‘the nations’ against which God was warring and a book such as Obadiah should be noted as one clear example which speaks about the additional trouble which the nation of Edom brought upon Judah when Jerusalem was overthrown because they saw an opportunity to pillage the defenceless to multiply riches for themselves (Obadiah 10-14). So Obadiah goes on (Obadiah 15) to observe that
‘...the day of YHWH is near upon all the nations. As you have done, it shall be done to you, your deeds shall return on your own head’
and the judgment which Habakkuk declares must take into account all who moved against the land - whether opportunists like Edom or aggressors like Babylon. Therefore the observation that God was to
‘...trample the nations in anger’
must be given a wide interpretation and not be limited only to the Chaldeans. The statement of Hab 3:16 would also fit in to this even though it seems to be initially limited.
YHWH’s purpose isn’t only to repel the invaders but also to bring salvation to His people and to re-establish them back into the land. The opening phrases of Hab 3:13 for God’s coming to the land is spoken of as being for the purpose of giving His people salvation (also described as God’s anointed here - though there may be an intended reference to a re-establishing of the Davidic line of kings) where the Israelite might have thought primarily in terms of a physical deliverance but which meant a new start for the nation to serve God according to the Mosaic covenant.
With sin judged and removed from the nation, those men and women who returned to the land would be in a unique position to re-establish the nation upon principles which had too often been neglected through their first occupation of the land. And God’s action in judgment against the nations can only take place once His people have been cleansed from their sin - an observation which is applicable to the believer under the New Covenant as well (I Peter 4:17).
That God crushes (Hab 3:13)
‘...the head of the wicked’
may be a comment that He’s not content with taking possession of a few of the more outlying areas of control of the Chaldean Empire but that He intends to hit at its very centre which would loosen its hold on whatever lands it controlled. The imagery seems to need to be taken as sudden and unexpected but it shouldn’t be insisted upon.
The final verse of this passage, Hab 3:15, reiterates the imagery of God coming against the Creation (paralleled in Hab 3:8) and, as there, the nations are being symbolised by the sea, judged by God’s horses and the outpouring of wrath pictured as the flash floods which were a feature of the Negev (Hab 3:9-10).
I’ve already discussed the return of God’s people to the land with reference to revival in my notes on Hab 3:2. What needs to be pointed out here in addition to those words is that, when revival finally takes place, a partial fulfilment of these Scriptures might be in the return of a great many people who chose to ‘opt out’ of the Church after initially being saved.
After all, I know of many believers who simply ‘gave up’ and left fellowships because of the treatment that they received at the hands of both leaders and congregations alike. If it’s considered that these men and women are in a state of temporary exile, their return to a cleansed Church seems fully likely and may even be expected as a sign of a new move of God.
This verse is, initially, difficult to interpret because the first four lines in the RSV seem to run logically as a comment upon the prophetic vision which has immediately preceded it. As Habbaker notes
‘The psalmist records his personal reactions of fear and awe at the power of the Warrior God...’
tying it in with the verses Hab 3:8-15. ‘Fear’ and ‘Awe’, however, make it sound as if there’s a positive and eagerly expectant response to the action of God against His enemies and for His people in these verses but both the words used by the commentator aren’t used in the text and the language is more reminiscent of someone being apprehensive and worried about a course of events than one who stands in awe of God for what He’s about to do.
It’s best to examine the words employed at this point to try and determine what sort of emotions are being conveyed. The idea of trembling gives no pointer in either direction (Strongs Hebrew number 7264, M2112), TWOTOT noting that most usages of the word
‘...express agitation growing out of some deeply rooted emotion...the underlying emotion is to be recognised only from the context’
after which they go on to steer well clear of answering the problem in Hab 3:16 by noting only that it’s recorded because it represents the reaction to
‘...some profoundly stirring knowledge or revelation...’
This could be taken, therefore, as a reaction of natural fear at its prospect or of awe of God because of His Sovereign ways.
The next concept is that of quivering lips. The phrase is more likely to mean something different to its constituent parts as it’s possible that it was a phrase which was well known. The problem we have, however, is that the same phrase doesn’t appear elsewhere in the OT. The word translated ‘quiver’ (Strongs Hebrew number 6750, M1919) is used in three other places (I Sam 3:11, II Kings 21:12, Jer 19:3) but each time it’s linked to the ears.
It is a reaction to hearing the fulfilment of a prophetic pronouncement, however, but isn’t used of the reaction of simply hearing the prophetic word itself. If it’s right to take the meaning in Hab 3:16 as being equivalent to its meaning in the other three places then it would relate to the realisation that what had been spoken would come to pass - but it’s difficult to be sure because the word is used of something to be fulfilled in the future and not the fulfilment of something spoken in the past.
The third description is
‘...rottenness enters into my bones...’
and the same phrase is used in two other places in the OT. In Prov 12:4, the author writes that
‘A good wife is the crown of her husband, but she who brings shame is like rottenness in his bones’
and, in Prov 14:30
‘A tranquil mind gives life to the flesh, but passion makes the bones rot’
The least that one can say here is that rotten bones isn’t a positive reaction to a situation and isn’t a description that one would have expected had Habakkuk been stating that he was in awe of God and His ways. Rather, whatever the reaction is to, the prophet is saying that it’s eating away at him and is seriously hindering his own physical welfare.
The fourth reaction has the RSV translating the text as
‘...my steps totter beneath me...’
where the word for ‘totter’ is the same as that translated ‘tremble’ in the first line. We noted above that the context is what was important in determining the implication of the word and we can say very little about this line on its own. However, that the prophet notes that his ‘steps’ (or, perhaps better, we could think of it to be paraphrased as ‘legs’) are shaking would point towards fear - this is about all that could be said, though, because it could equally well be the fear of God and His will in fighting against His enemies (that is, something more akin to awe or respect) as it could be fear of what was to come upon the nation.
The only conclusive phrase of the first four lines, then, is the expression ‘rottenness enters into my bones’ and, for lack of any other conclusive evidence, I have to believe that the reaction of fear is actually a response not to the prophetic word that YHWH will return to His people and drive out the enemy within their land but to the initial judgment of God upon the wicked nation of Judah as already revealed to him in Hab 1:5-11.
It shows us the depth of feeling with which the prophet was holding on to what had been revealed to him much earlier and, even though he’s reassured that God will judge the oppressor, his mind is still very much on the calamity and trouble which will fall upon the land and his people.
While still thinking about this judgment, he then goes on to confess that he will
‘...quietly wait for the day of trouble to come upon people who invade us’
even though he fears the events which will precede it. Actually, Habakkuk is unlikely to have been a witness to the return of YHWH to the land and His people because of the extensive period of time in which they were to take place but he here declares his patience at the knowledge that God will bring about the cleansing of the nation which he longed for and which would finally be outworked when the oppressing enemy army would be driven from them.
What the prophet believed would happen, he never saw - he may even not have seen the judgment of the nation of Israel as we’ve previously noted in the introduction where we tried to determine the date of writing. And yet he’ll wait patiently for something which he believes is certain to occur.
To integrate this into our discussions surrounding revival in the Church, we should note that the promise of revival - if received from God - may take a long time in coming, through which the children of God must be judged and cleansed from their wickedness before Him. Their possessions may even fall into the hands of others and they may be exiled away from their spiritual inheritance in Christ for a time, wandering without purpose until the time when God will once more go on the offensive to restore them into everything that was won for them in Christ.
Where the present day Church is in this area in which I live is difficult to assess. Certainly, we grow very often by numerical ‘waste’ (a dreadful word to use but I employ it here without meaning it to be a word I would use of the ‘quality’ of the individuals concerned) from other fellowships and evangelism reaps souls only to lose them at a later date. We don’t move in the same power and with the same authority as the early Church and yet we like to think that we do - we have formats and schedules which we’re proud to keep but we’re not always willing to allow God into them because we know He’ll break them to pieces.
In short, we seem to be a holy nation before God which is in dire need of cleansing and changing and, though many years may come and go through which our spiritual success is limited, if God is to bring revival we need to wait, remain faithful and look forward to the time of God’s visitation into our midst.
As Habakkuk will now conclude his prayer (Hab 3:17-19), he is determined to remain faithful to YHWH and to rejoice in Him even though great and terrible judgments will come upon them. Why? Because he knows that it’s simply the first stage in God’s work of the restoration of His people into what they were always intended to be.
Habakkuk’s confession of faith
Habbaker is in no doubt that these three verses are
‘...one of the most powerful statements of faith recorded in Scripture’
and, although it’s difficult not to agree with him, the context has to be remembered in which they’re being openly proclaimed. After all, the believer who’s going through the blackest of experiences can all too easily be pointed to the words here and told that they need to cultivate the same attitude of heart - that is, to praise and rejoice in God regardless of their circumstances.
Although this is something that, probably, the majority of us in the West have yet to learn by experience, the context of the verses is not that the prophet was experiencing a total collapse of the agrarian economy in his own time - all that he says is that if that was to happen then he would still rejoice in God.
Neither should we belittle the problems which men and women find themselves in when they are unaware of the will of God for either themselves or their family - for Habakkuk knew the will of God, had questioned Him about it (and voiced his concerns) and had come to the point where he was very willing to accept it. Therefore, says the prophet, if God should withdraw from us in judgment, I’ll still be faithful to Him and rejoice in who He is.
This is so much different to saying that he was being faithful to God when these events had taken place and we shouldn’t confuse his statement with the person who baulks at the thought of such a thing happening, is reserved about what he or she will do if such a time comes and yet remains faithfully praising God throughout a time of intense tribulation when it happens.
This isn’t to undermine the great confession which Habakkuk makes here - but we must wake ourselves up to the fact that it wasn’t spoken in tribulation but only about tribulation. We can very glibly sing the words from the old chorus
‘What is on Your heart?
Show me what to do
Let me know Your will
And I will follow You’
or even sincerely mean every word of it - but it isn’t until the time of testing when the will of God isn’t palatable to us that we can be seen to be either faithful followers or disobedient children. Even so, much of our baulking against the time of trouble when we’re up to our ears in it is more because we wrongly assess our own weaknesses and our probable reactions than it is about singing words because the tunes are pleasant and catchy.
Habakkuk’s declared situation of what might happen, then, is wholly different from a lot of the situations in which believers find themselves, and their plight is made worse because they haven’t perceived God’s will and see no light at the end of the tunnel (to coin a modern proverb). Habakkuk saw the light, though, and believed that the nation would once again be brought into it - therefore he was content to rest and rejoice in the promise rather than in the reality, expecting the day to come when there would be a restoration and revival amongst God’s chosen people.
Israel’s economy at this time was predominantly an agrarian one and, though trade would have taken place between themselves and the nations outside their borders for luxury items, Israel was dependent upon feeding itself by the successful harvest of numerous crops and the sustenance of their livestock in the open fields and meadows.
In the UK, we might wonder why the failure of the fig, vine and olive would be all that significant because we don’t grow significant numbers of them for their absence to be a disaster - but if the fields were yielding no food and flocks and herds had died out (as has been threatened in the past ten years through the BSE and Foot and Mouth crises), we should be able to see the dilemma that we’d be having to confront.
If such a situation had ever to come about, it would be a strong indication that YHWH had begun to forsake His people (Deut 28:16-18,30-31,33,38-40,42) and it may be an indication that the prophet foresaw something similar to this happening because of the wickedness of the children of God (Deut 28:15) - it seems better to see him thinking of the ‘worst case scenario’ because YHWH never indicated in all His words to him that such a course of action would ever take place and it’s more likely to have been his own personal nightmare.
Leaving the implications of feeding the inhabitants of Judah to one side, we should also note the significance of what the prophet here prays - for he envisages the possibility of a time coming on the land when both the annual festivals (see my notes on the festivals linked on the Home Page for an expansion on my brief comments below) and sacrificial system would be rendered impossible to continue.
The first three festivals (Passover, Unleavened Bread and First Fruits) were tied in to the first ripe barley which would be appearing, while the fourth (Pentecost) needed the first ripe wheat to be brought to the Temple in the form of two loaves for waving before God there.
The seventh and most important festival, the Feast of Tabernacles, was also to be a celebration of the bringing in of the full and final harvest (Lev 23:39, Ex 23:16, Deut 16:13-15) which concluded the Intermediate Festival, celebrated as each area of Israel brought the first fruits of their harvest to the Temple as an offering to God (Lev 23:22, Deut 26:1-11).
With no herds or flocks - indicating the absence of sheep, goats and cattle - the sacrificial system would be rendered impossible to continue and, ultimately, a substitutionary sacrifice for the nation’s sin couldn’t be offered annually to renew the covenant relationship with God (Leviticus chapter 16).
What it does show us is that God can be praised apart from ritual and liturgy - that, even when these things fade away, there’s still a way for men and women to adequately respond to the character of God by their faithfulness to what they know He’s said to them.
There are a couple of other Scriptures which fit into this situation well. In the OT, Deut 8:3 (my italics) records Moses’ words to the Israelites that God
‘...humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know; that He might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but that man lives by everything that proceeds out of the mouth of YHWH’
a word which was quoted by Jesus against satan in the wilderness (Mtw 4:4). It’s reliance upon the message from God that the nation will be restored and renewed that’s at the heart of Habakkuk’s positive approach to a time of trouble. In the NT, Jesus taught His disciples not to be overly concerned with material provision but to be anxious, rather, to know God’s will and do it (Mtw 6:25-33).
The prophet echoes the reality of both these by his commitment not to look upon earthly circumstances but, in effect, to rely upon God Himself to ultimately fulfil His purpose for the nation in His own time and in His own way.
The final words of Habakkuk’s prayer notes that YHWH
‘...made my feet like hinds’ feet, and set me secure on the heights’
the only other reference to this concept being in II Sam 22:34 (Pp Ps 18:33) where David is translated as writing the identical words. Although this has been a much quoted verse, the intention of both authors is far from clear.
The clue to Habakkuk’s usage is that he’s had to come to terms with a very difficult situation which he perceives might come upon the land (more likely, in this context, to be the statement of Hab 3:17 rather than the ‘vision’ of Hab 1:5-11) but out of this has come the declaration that he’ll continue to rejoice in God despite the circumstances (Hab 3:18).
His own personal nightmare is turned into a continuing faithfulness to God so that he can confess that God is His strength in the weakness he feels (Hab 3:19a) and, through His strength, has caused him to walk upon the summits and challenges which had once seemed impossible for him to overcome - his own personal ‘high places’.
We shouldn’t underestimate the note of personal triumph - but with YHWH’s imparting of strength - that Habakkuk is declaring. When he perceived the answer to his original question of Hab 1:2-4, he was probably terrified at its implications - when he realised that the departing of God from their midst meant that economic ruin might come upon them, he was equally horrified. But the prophet has managed to accept the turn round in his response to the matter so that his rejoicing in God is more an affirmation of his faith than a ‘grin and bear it’ response.
A similar explanation is, therefore, likely in II Sam 22:34 where David observes in the preceding verse that God
‘...has made my way safe’
in a similar fashion to the mountain animals who were perceived as traversing and resting comfortably on insurmountable peaks. David had been confronted by situations which had almost overwhelmed him, commenting at one point (I Sam 27:1)
‘...I shall now perish one day by the hand of Saul...’
but, when he achieved the final victory over everyone and everything that had opposed him (II Sam 22:1), he recognised God’s hand in causing him to overcome everything which had seemed so insurmountable to him at times such as those.
In conclusion, the Book of Habakkuk must be seen to end with a note of personal triumph for the prophet who’s transformed from a concern as to what he saw in the nation - through a response of fear concerning God’s will - into one of hope which could overcome any obstacle which might present itself to him.
References and Sources
Apocrypha - Quoted from the Theophilos Bible Software, version 3.0.0
Baldwin - ‘Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi’ by Joyce Baldwin, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries, Inter-Varsity Press
Craigie - Psalms 1-50 by Peter C Craigie in the Word Biblical Commentary Series, Word Books
Gill - John Gill’s Expositor quoted from the On Line Bible Software, CD ROM version
Habbaker - ‘Nahum, Habakkuk and Zephaniah’ by David W Baker in the Tyndale Old Testament Commentary Series, Inter-Varsity Press
Habsmith - ‘Micah-Malachi’ by Ralph L Smith in the Word Biblical Commentary Series, Word Books
Hebbruce - ‘The Epistle to the Hebrews’ in the New International Commentary on the New Testament by F F Bruce, Wm B Eerdmans Publishing Company
Hebguth - ‘Hebrews’ by Donald Guthrie in the Tyndale New Testament Commentary series, IVP
Kidner - Psalms 1-72 and Psalms 73-150 by Derek Kidner in the Tyndale Old Commentary Series, Inter-Varsity Press
ORS - Oxford Reference Shelf, CD-ROM, 1994 Edition
Strongs Hebrew/Greek number xxxx (or Strongs) - Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible, James Strong
TWOTOT - Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (2 volumes), R Laird Harris (Editor), The Moody Press. An M number represents the number assigned to the word by the work.
Zondervan - The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopaedia of the Bible, The Zondervan Corporation, First Edition.