We've started a short 3 week series in Habakkuk here are my notes on the first chapter.
As we look it at the world it poses lots of questions of us doesn’t it. No-one who looks seriously at their own lives or the world around them can conclude that everything is fine, that there’s nothing wrong with our world. War, injustice, terrorism, conflict, murder, violence, oppression see to that.
I was sent an email this week from Barnabas Fund; here are the headlines in this week’s prayer bulletin:
• A church worker was killed and his pregnant wife seriously injured in a machete attack by a gang of Muslims in Ethiopia.
• Around 3,000 Christians were forced to flee their homes in Pakistan when hundreds of Muslims targeted Christian property following blasphemy accusations against local Christians.
• Egypt's new political order looks increasingly likely to have an Islamic character after statements by leading Muslim Brotherhood figures revealed their intention to implement sharia law.
• Christians in Islamic countries are bracing themselves for a violent backlash following the death of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
What are we to think about such things, how are we to respond to them? How ought our response to be different to the world’s response? Is it ok to question God about such things? And are there right ways and wrong ways to do this?
Habakkuk is a short but unique book, it is a dialogue between the prophet and God, a 1-2-1, though God’s answers are addressed to intended for his people via Habakkuk. In it we see Habakkuk struggling with the same questions we do, we see a God who is not indifferent to injustice, to his people, or an individual’s struggles, and we see Habakkuk learning and responding by faith.
Habakkuk is poetry, it is designed to teach us about God, but as it does so it is designed to be felt, to provoke an emotional response as it leads us with Habakkuk from frustration, to incredulity through to praise.
1. A Cry for God’s People to Cry
(2)Habakkuk begins with a question “How long, LORD, must I call for help, but you do not listen?” And he isn’t alone, Psalms, lamentations, and Job all echo this cry. Habakkuk has been praying, asking God to act and God has not answered him, God hasn’t saved his people, he hasn’t even given a sign that he is listening. But notice the tenacity of Habakkuk’s faith, he keeps on crying out to God because he knows that God alone has the answer, that God alone is sovereign, that God alone is God.
**Why has he been crying out to God? (3)Because he sees injustice and God seems to be tolerating wrong. Habakkuk goes on to describe the injustice he sees in Judah; piling up the pairs of injustices as he describes the state and despair in Judah. He lives amid a maelstrom of destruction and violence, where strife and conflict abounds, where the law is effectively paralysed helpless and unable to act, where justice never wins, and where even those who are faithful to God are surrounded, harassed and have no hope of rescue, because there is no justice for the righteous, only corruption.
Judah has become a lawless, godless cess pit where anything goes. Doesn’t it make you want to cry out with Habakkuk – ‘How long O LORD?’
Habakkuk writes about 609-605BC, Josiah a good king who rediscovered Deuteronomy and reformed Judah bringing revival has died and his son Jehoiakim is now king. 2 Kings 23:37 sums his reign up like this: “he did evil in the eyes of the LORD, just as his predecessors had done.” He undoes all the reforms of Josiah and reinstitutes idol worship and worse. Jeremiah tells us more of his reign; he killed those who opposed him, he assassinated Uriah for prophesying of God’s impending judgement, he burned Jeremiah’s scroll of prophecy, and oversaw a corrupt and immoral priesthood.
You can see why Habakkuk is so troubled, why he’s crying out, why he wants God to act to bring justice and why he is perplexed that he doesn’t.
This is a cry for God’s people to take up, it is not a cry of doubt but the cry of those who know that the only hope of justice is the God of justice. Hope doesn’t lie with a nation state, or a government, or a United Nations. The only hope for justice is God. As God’s people looking at the world isn’t this the cry that comes to our lips. A cry the New Testament translates for us as “Come Lord Jesus!”
We cannot be indifferent to injustice and suffering, we cannot be hardhearted and we must not claim ignorance or allow ourselves to be hardened to it, we must stand with others, as Habakkuk does crying out, interceding with God on behalf of others. In Revelation 6:9-10 we see the souls of those slain because of their faith and they are in heaven crying out “How long, Sovereign lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood.” How long is the cry we are to echo, will we take up the cry. A cry not of doubt but of trust in God alone, because when God comes there will be no more injustice! God alone is the world’s hope.
2. God’s unexpected answer
Having called God to look and see, now(5) God calls Habakkuk to look and be amazed. (6)God is not indifferent, he has been listening, he has been watching and he has been acting; “I am raising up the Babylonians”, God has been preparing his means of judgement, and the images that God uses to portray this nation are horrifying.
Again the descriptions are piled up so that we get the impression of an overwhelming and unstoppable force that will sweep all before it. (6-7)They are ruthless and impetuous, they seize, they sweep, they are unstoppable, they are feared and dreaded, they are a law unto themselves, focused only on conquest and honour. And then come an series of rapid fire powerful, visceral and terrifying animal description of their speed, their ferocity, their stamina, their hunger to devour, their relentlessness. They will sweep all before them kings, rulers, fortified cities, as if they were nothing, like a wind they simply blow through nations and kings destroying and changing everything.
The Babylonians are an unstoppable force of nature and Judah will be swallowed up, the Babylonians are God’s means of judgement.
But notice (11)they are not godly but guilty. God will use them to judge but he will not restore justice through the Babylonians. God in his sovereignty will use the Babylonians as instruments of judgement but they will be held accountable for their evil.
3. A God worth waiting for
Habakkuk is horrified, God’s answer answers his question but in doing so provokes yet more questions. But notice how he begins (12-13)he begins by reminding himself of the character of God; God is everlasting, he is eternal, sovereign, he is my Rock, he is judge, he is holy. And (12)“you will never die” is better translated “we will never die”, even in the face of such overwhelming forces Habakkuk clings to the promise of God’s covenants – God is a promise keeping God and he will sustain his faithful remnant.
But Habakkuk (13)knowing all he does about God but having heard God’s judgement is perplexed “Why then do you tolerate the treacherous? Why are you silent while the wicked swallow up those more righteous than themselves?” God we are bad but some are faithful, how can you allow the godless Babylonians to sweep us all away?
Habakkuk knows what this will mean, his illustration of the Babylonians as fishermen in their careless treatment of their catch shows that.
But Habakkuk’s question is not one of doubt, it is a question of faith as he tries to reconcile what he knows of God’s unchanging character and covenantal faithfulness with what has been revealed. He knows that he will not find the answer anywhere else, his questions drive him to God not away from God because he is utterly convinced there is no other answer.
And so (2:1)he resolves to stand and wait for God, “I will look and see what he will say to me, and what answer I am to give to this complaint.” He does not turn away from God he turns towards God. He is appalled but remains utterly convinced of God’s character and he puts his faith in God’s actions because of his character. Circumstances do not determine his view of God, instead he waits on a God who he knows to show what he is doing through his actions.
Habakkuk’s complaints are the questions of the faithful; Lord I want to understand, Lord I trust you but I’m struggling to resolve what I see happening with your plan, Lord help me keep faith while I wait for you to answer.
Habakkuk’s questions are questions of a faith searching for answers not looking for someone to blame. Are we looking for answers for those same questions?
How are we doing so? We have what Habakkuk does not we have more of the scriptures; Jesus words that we will continue facing persecution as his people, Paul’s call to put on the armour of God ready for battle, Revelations picture of the history of the world as a conflict between God’s people and those who oppose him. The promise that God takes these things and uses them for our good and his glory, that he lovingly disciplines us as we face persecution, refining our faith, but the promise that one day he will restore justice.
As you see injustice what is your response? Is it to callous your heart, to build up a hard layer so you do not feel others pain? Is it to lock such questions away? Habakkuk calls us to love others, to respond as emotionally as the prophet does; to take up his cry to God, to seek to wait for God’s answer and to live with an unshakeable but robust faith in God that clings to his character even in crisis because we know he keeps his word.