Habakkuk: What Faith Looks Like in a Fallen World
I like human interest stories. Perhaps you saw the one this week about 81 year old James Harrison of Australia. James, over the course of the last 60 years has donated blood 1,173 times. He began donating blood when he was 18 and made his final donation on May 11 this year. As it turns out, James’ blood contains a rare antibody that prevents hemolytic disease of the newborn or HDN. His blood donations have saved the lives of 2.4 million babies.
That is a great story. Now here’s what I didn’t see coming. When James was 14, due to a life threatening illness, surgeons had to remove one of his lungs. His blood loss was critical, requiring 13 units of blood. Because his life was saved as a result of blood donations, James vowed that he would regularly give blood as soon as he was of age. So at 18, James began a journey that would lead him to donate blood every 2.8 weeks for the next 63 years.
10 years into his commitment to give blood, researchers were scouring blood banks in search of an antibody they thought might prevent HDN. In James’ blood, they found the antibody needed to make Anti-D to prevent that devastating blood disorder. Scientist still aren’t sure why James’ body naturally produces this rare antibody but think it may be related to the transfusions he received as a teenager.
Imagine a 14 year old losing a lung, fighting for his life, receiving 13 units of blood, and, as a direct result, saving 2.4 million lives. This is the surprising goodness of God that compels us to believe and trust, even in the darkest details of life.
Moving to the story of God’s saving interest, we see the prophet Habakkuk struggle with the ways of God. Habakkuk’s prophecy fits best within the years of 609 and 605.
When Josiah died in 609, the Egyptians put his son Jehoiakim on the throne as vassal. When the Egyptians were defeated by the Babylonians at Carchemish in 605, the sudden death of Nabopolassar, king of Babylon, lead Nebuchadnezzar to withdraw from Palestine to consolidate his power in Babylon. Jehoiakim saw this as an opportunity to rebel and not pay tribute. His rebellion ultimately lead to Babylon’s destruction of Jerusalem and the Babylonian captivity. The wickedness in the SK during the reign of Jehoiakim is the background for the book of Habakkuk. This wickedness is precisely what Habakkuk complains about in 1:2-4. Israel, however, had bigger problems than what Habakkuk complained about in 1:2-4. The Chaldeans in short order would overrun them and remove them from the Land.
The idea of exile raised all kinds of theological problems. Did God cast off His people? Did He crawfish on His promise? By faith, Habakkuk (as well as all the writing prophets) works through the issues, defends the faithfulness of God, and shows what it means to have a vital faith in God and His goodness, even in the reality of exile. Nahum, Habakkuk, and Zephaniah show the compatibility between God’s promises and faithfulness, and national and personal tragedy in His work of redemption.
Sometimes God takes out a lung and we lose all the blood in our body, yet as a result He does the most amazing redemptive work we could imagine. This is the surprising goodness and faithfulness of God. It may be that God used personal suffering and tragedy to save your soul from hell. Or it may be that through great difficulty God saved your life in the sense that He opened your eyes to what you otherwise would not have seen and, through that, gave you opportunities to help others in a profound ways.
The book is unique in that it allows us to overhear a conversation between God and the prophet. Habakkuk struggled with the difference between what he believed about God and the world as he found it. As readers, we are allowed to witness the prophet learn to trust the LORD. The idea of a growing or maturing faith is the key to understanding this prophecy. Trusting the LORD’s purpose despite confusing perceptions of what God is actually doing is at the center of Habakkuk’s thought.
Habakkuk shows us, then, what faith looks like in a fallen world. The theme of the book is summarized in 2:4b: but the righteous shall live by faith. The book compels us to see the grand scheme of God’s redemptive plan for the ages as He is working it out in our time. We learn in Habakkuk that there is ultimately a reckoning for wrongs and that our place as God’s people is to trust Him, even when the world appears to be out of control and it seems as if God does not care.
The structure of the book is simple. Chapters 1 and 2 consist of 2 complaints from Habakkuk and 2 answers from God. Chapter 3 brings resolution with a psalm of submissive praise.
In this section of text, Habakkuk complains about the violence among God’s people and God’s seeming tolerance of injustice. Then he complains that God’s solution appears to be out of character with God. After He offers his second complaint, the prophet waits for God’s answer.
Habakkuk first complained about violence among the covenant people of God, and God’s seeming indifference to the situation. He asked two questions: How long? (2) and Why? (3). He cried out for help, and God did not answer nor would He save (2). Seemingly, God at best was tolerating injustice. The prophet was preaching, but the law was powerless to effect change. Therefore injustice paraded as justice.
We can identify with the prophet crying out to God and the seeming unresponsiveness of God. God, however, is not indifferent to injustice today in whatever form it takes: racism, politicism, sexism, systemic oppression. His answer may not be what you want to hear, so you need to take your ques from Him not the current public rhetoric.
God’s answer to Habakkuk’s complaint is not what the prophet expected or wanted to hear. God directs the prophet’s attention to the movement of the nations, the rise and fall of empires that Habakkuk was witnessing around him. So Habakkuk thought God was not at work. On the contrary, God answered, Brace yourself, I am working in your time, and you won’t believe it even if you are told. I am raising up the Chaldeans (5-6).
God goes on to describe the Chaldeans to Habakkuk in 20 poetic lines from verse 6-11—bitter and hasty, dreaded and fearsome, proud and violent, scoffers and guilty; self-idolaters. God perceives the problem even more deeply than does the prophet. The solution to the prophet’s complaint is overwhelming.
The principle is this: God rules history for His glory and the good of His people in accomplishing their redemption. His movement among us in history and in our individual lives is often contrary to expectations but always consistent with His person and purpose.
Habakkuk’s second complaint finds God’s answer more troubling than His silence.
In verse 12, Habakkuk reasoned with God holding up to God the truth about God’s own nature and character. God is from eternity. He has settled all things from eternity. History is the stage on which God brings about His eternal purpose. Habakkuk reasoned that God has a redemptive purpose in Israel that cannot be altered. Therefore, Habakkuk affirmed in faith, We shall not die. Surely, God was not going to destroy his people but was using Babylon as his tool to work out His redemptive purpose in Israel.
Realizing that God will not destroy His people, Habakkuk points out what he feels is a problem (13-17). Obviously, God is too holy to condone evil—from His people or anyone else. But because the Chaldeans are more wicked than Israel, it appears in using the Chaldeans to chastise Israel that God is condoning evil and approving of sin.
Habakkuk goes on to describe the Chaldeans to God in verses 14-17—dehumanizing and pagan (c.f. vv6-11 and 14-17).
Is God unjust in what Hs does? How does faith deal with this? Is their reign of terror going to go on forever (17)?
As God’s people, God wants us to wrestle with these issues of faith and see His faithfulness. The ultimate example that must direct all of our thinking is the cross. There the greatest miscarriage of justice in history took place. God compels us to look at the cross and walk through the valley of suffering fighting for faith, knowing that because of that same cross God is going to set everything right one day.
Dear friends know today that God calls on all men to repent and believe because has set a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness by the man He appointed and He has given assurance of this to all by raising him from dead (Acts 17:30-31).
Habakkuk stated his complaint then stationed himself at his watch-post to see what God would answer and to know how to communicate that answer (2:1). The ideal in this verse is not that Habakkuk plans to offer a rebuttal to God. That is plain from the simple fact that He offered no further complaint. Rather every time this verb is used on the OT, it describes communication between 3 parties. The one in the middle communicates the answer (c.f. 2 Sam. 24:13; 1 Kgs 12:6,9; Esther 4:13). Habakkuk is in the middle, between God and God’s people.
In these verses, humanity is reduced to two categories: the proud and the righteous (4), the idolatrous and the silent before God (19-20).
In verses 2-5, God responds to Habakkuk with a vision of eschatological dimensions that begs to be proclaimed. How God could devastate his own people by the hands of the Chaldeans can only be answered by His eternal purpose of redemption.
The writer of Hebrews (10:37) grabs verses 3 and 4 to strengthen suffering believers. It is suffering that compels us to believe, to hope in, and long for the coming of Christ. Suffering teaches us our hope is not in this world but in the coming of Christ. This is the only way your soul will be preserved.
Christ’s coming is the resolution to all injustice, even the injustice of the cross. This answer is not a cop out, but the reason we preach repentance. The penalty for injustice is not culture shaming but hell. Humanity has a problem much bigger than attitudes and rhetoric. The problem is that every human is guilty of the blood of the Son of God, the injustice from which all other injustices flow. This is why the unsullied, pure Gospel of Christ must be preached. Subsequent injustice can never be remedied until the ultimate injustice is satisfied.
Verses 4 and 5 are the answer Habakkuk received to his complaint. It has 3 parts.
First, God is not using the Chaldeans because he condones their sin or considers them righteous. They are proud, the antithesis of righteous. The seeds of destruction are sown in their acts of pride. (4a).
Second, in this fallen world, the righteous live by faith (4b). How does one become righteous? Habakkuk appeals to Abraham. We become righteous the same way Abraham did. He believed and God counted him righteousness (c.f. Gen. 15:6). Paul argues this in Romans. God declares sinners righteous through faith. We are justified or declared righteous by faith.
By faith is a prepositional phrase that modifies the verb shall live. By faith is the not the subject of the sentence. It is not faith that justifies, but rather it is God who justifies through faith. Faith is the necessary and only receptor of God’s justifying grace. The clause tells us the way the gift of life is received. It points to the truth that the source of true righteousness always remains outside the person. It is an alien righteousness, not our own, but the righteousness of another.
Those who will live are not the proud but those justified through faith. It does not matter what the Chaldeans do, God’s people will live.
Third, the proud will continue their boastful ways through the present age (5). In the present age, the righteous live by faith and the wicked continue their brutality. The rest of chapter 2 consist of 5 woes, a prophetic mocking of the proud: the plunderer will be plundered (6-8), the fortified dismantled (9-11), the civilized demoralized (12-14), the shameless shamed (15-17), the idolatrous silenced (18-20).
The chapter opens with a contrast between the proud and the righteous and closes with a contrast between idols and the sovereign LORD. We can only be counted among the proud or the righteous (4). We will ultimately bow to an idol of our own making or keep silent before the LORD (20).
Habakkuk’s vision brought him into the realized presence of God. The whole earth is called on to be silent before the Present God (2:20). Habakkuk’s prayer is his response to God’s answer to his complaints.
Verse 2-3a summarizes Habakkuk’s prayer: he looks back to the powerful intervention of God into history in the exodus (2a and 3a c.f. 3b-15) and, then, asks God to intervene as powerfully again (2b c.f. 16-19).
In God’s judgment on Egypt and the nations defeated in the conquest, He was acting mercifully to redeem His people (3b-15). He didn’t destroy their enemies for the sake of destroying their enemies. He destroyed them to save His people. In one and the same act, God was both judging His enemies and saving His people (13).
Habakkuk pleads for God to once again act redemptively in judgment (16-19). The prophet is praying what he learned in God’s answer to his complaint: the righteous live by faith. The realization of what this means has left the prophet stunned (16). Salvation comes through judgment. The point is that God was acting no less redemptively in the exile then in the exodus. God is acting to judge His enemies and save His people. God in Habakkuk’s time was acting redemptively for his people.
God was sending Babylon to save the remnant of His people. That remnant ultimately was reduced to one Man, the One who saved his people through bearing the judgment of God for their sins.
Faith then compelled the prophet to trust the LORD’s unwavering redemptive purpose. The power of faith in the prophet’s life is remarkable. In historical circumstances that left Him trembling and destitute, he was able to take joy in the God of his salvation because he knew God was acting redemptively in his life (17-19).
The Lord’s Table reminds us that God has acted redemptively in judgment.