Why study Habakkuk? What’s so special or relevant to us today? I find myself often amazed at how uninformed Christians are concerning the relevance of the minor prophets. I mentioned to someone that my next teaching was on Habakkuk and they didn’t even know who that was! Habakkuk was given a phrase from the Lord that is quoted 3 times in the New Testament and may be the most important phrase God has ever shared with mankind through any Old Testament character. “The just shall live by faith”!!!
In many ways, Habakkuk resembles Job in that he is confused and distressed because God is not acting according to his preconceived notions. God is not supposed to be ambivalent about sin. God is supposed to act with jealousy concerning righteousness. How can God continue to stand by while evil expands its influence over the people of God? Why is God not moving to preserve the righteousness of His people? The truth is being perverted and the Law is being reviled. Those in authority do not fear the Lord and it seems as if God has forsaken His people and His purpose. Violence is prevalent throughout the nation! What’s happening?!!! Habakkuk’s theology is that God is supposed to be predictable, but He’s not, and Habakkuk is completely confused. God doesn’t fit into his theological box anymore and that’s way too far outside Habakkuk’s ability to understand.
In Habakkuk, we will look at the cry of the prophet as he contends with God about the failure of the people of God and also at the way God often works simultaneously with the nations and with His people. As I was studying through Habakkuk these 2 verses in Isaiah kept coming to mind. Isaiah 55:8-9, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” These verses are applicable to our study of Habakkuk because they are the very reason that Habakkuk found himself in conflict with God. He just couldn’t understand what God was doing and why God was not acting according to Habakkuk’s own theology. In looking at these 2 verses in Isaiah I picture Habakkuk in a very elaborate labyrinth, unable to find his way out. But God is seated far above the labyrinth easily able to navigate the way to the exit. As we study through this book, I am hoping that we can listen with trust to the guiding hand of the Lord and find our way through to a much more confident future walk with Him.
One of the largest issues that Habakkuk has to overcome is the realization that God sees the bigger picture and that God has a bigger plan than our small understanding. Martyn Lloyd-Jones in his study of Habakkuk says that the reason that the Bible starts with creation is that God is concerned for the whole world and its destiny. He goes on to say that the message of the Bible is about more than personal salvation. The whole Bible is a story about the fall of creation and the redemption of the whole creation. Like all of us, Habakkuk had a belief system that focused on his nation, and his people and he thought that God’s focus must also be only on them. Many of us struggle with faith because we are trying to reconcile God’s actions or inactions with our belief system when God’s purposes may be far beyond our finite focus. God is not just concerned with me. God is not just concerned with my family or my church or my city or my nation, God is concerned with His whole creation!!! The primary lesson of Job is that God is dealing with a much bigger picture than any one of us, and yet we matter greatly in the big picture. God is working with the prophet Habakkuk to help him understand that same lesson.
The other ingredient in that lesson is that because God is working on such a large-scale purpose, His timing is much different than ours. The seeming urgency of the moment is one of the major stumbling blocks of faith. As the writer of Hebrews instructs us that it is through faith and patience that we receive the promise, (Hebrews 6:12) and again in Hebrews 10:36, “For you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God you may receive what was promised.” Endurance is a missing key ingredient in many of our lives. God’s purpose in us is our eternal salvation and that certainly requires a faith that endures.
I think of the time when the disciples were in a boat in the middle of a storm and Jesus came walking on the water. They were afraid, but Peter was willing to step out. “If it’s you invite me out of the boat onto these waves with you” That took faith and quite a bit of brash determination. Jesus says, “Come” and Peter gets out of the boat. Did he jump out? Did he tentatively stick his toe out to see if there was a bit of buoyancy? I’m not sure, but it’s hard to argue that at least initially, Peter had faith. And yet, when the story is ended and Peter and Jesus are in the boat, Jesus rebukes him for unbelief. I thought all it takes is faith the size of a mustard grain? Just a little bit of faith, right? I think the issue is that the grain of seed must be alive. It must be able to grow. It cannot lack endurance. When Jesus says, “Oh you of little faith, why did you doubt?”, I believe he was saying “Oh you of such short-lived faith, why did you allow doubt to overcome?” James says that faith must be tested so that it can produce steadfastness because steadfastness is a faith that lacks nothing, (James 1:2-4). It often takes time for the will of God to be fully revealed and even longer for it to be accomplished.
The church was birthed in an environment where God dealt with the nations, Israel, and the church. The history of the church is inseparably tied with God’s dealing with the nations. God is at work in history. Even at the worst of times in history, the church has thrived and proven itself to be a stabilizing factor in the confusion of world events. At other times, the church has failed to be the anchor of reason and has contributed to the failure of nations in their sinful pursuits. During World War II, in particular, the church was both a shining light and an utter failure. It helped provide hope to the Allied nations and helped feed the lusts of Hitler. But regardless of its success or failure in the epoch moments of history, the church is never on the sidelines. As an example, in the history of the world, Babylon may become a powerful nation or Egypt may be a powerful nation but it’s not until Israel is the focus of their attention that we clearly see God at work with those world powers. So it is even today with the church. The nations may rage, but it’s when the church is engaged that God reveals His hand in the affairs of the world.
We live in a time where the church in the Western nations is failing miserably in its mission. It’s a time when the nations desperately need us to be the distinguishing representatives of the kingdom of God on the earth and instead, we are either paralyzed in indecision and abdicating our role as His representatives or we are advocating a role that is perverted from our calling as ambassadors of the kingdom of God on earth.
The contrasting value of the church is that it does not represent the position of any kingdom on earth, but instead we present the alternative perspective of a kingdom not of this world. But certainly, even today, the church and the message of the gospel are not sitting on the sidelines. I have never seen the church so unsure of itself or its message and yet Christianity sits at the center of accusation.
On the other hand, the voices of Christianity that are shouting, are crying out a message of patriotism and politics rather than the message of the gospel. It’s a message filled with anger and frustration and demanding justice from a world that cannot ever rightly represent true justice. Though Jesus himself said that his kingdom was not of this world and though he urged us to make the pursuit of His kingdom first in our passion yet many passions are misdirected. At times it seems that the kingdom of God has taken a back seat to the kingdom of patriotism as if that were the kingdom of God.
We are called to a message that converts the hearts of men and women. Paul says that the god of this world has blinded their minds and still we think we can convert their minds without converting their hearts. In the same passage in II Corinthians where Paul speaks of their blinded minds, he indicates to us just how powerful the work of God must be to set people free when he says in II Corinthians 4:6, that the same God who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, has shined in our hearts. How powerful was the conversion of the darkness of this world to the light we now experience every day? How much of His glory does it take to convert the blinded mind of those trapped in darkness? The church desperately needs to rely on the gospel, not politics to transform lives. Our hearts should be filled with pity and mercy recognizing the bondage and blindness of both the right and left of our political society. Our politicians on both sides primarily represent positions corrupted by sin. A corrupt heart even when it speaks the right things will pervert the truth.
Except for the one phrase, “the righteous shall live by faith” in Habakkuk 2:4, the thing that most draws our attention and our fascination with Habakkuk, is the concept of a man being able to challenge God with questions and then having the audacity to expect God to answer him. Habakkuk is a story about a prophet beginning a conversation with God and then with a sense of certainty, we see him waiting with determination for God to join the conversation. I have to say that as I approached the idea of writing about this book, I have probably spent more time contemplating this story than I have ever spent approaching any other book of the Bible. So much so, that I actually found myself wondering if the grace of the book doesn’t still carry an anointing that calls us with the pull of the Holy Spirit to stop and wait on the Lord. It’s almost as if the anointing of Habakkuk is on us as we stop to consider this story. Can a man or woman truly wrestle with God this way?
Just the idea that a man would almost presumptuously assume that he could ask God a difficult question and expect God to answer him, seems to cause us to step back in concern and confusion. How can a man have such a relationship with God that such demands are acceptable? It seems unholy, and unrighteous, it’s almost offending in its lack of fearing the Holy God. We all know from experience that such audacity does not guarantee a response from God. Most of us have experienced times of urgent need-to-know moments and most often the result is total silence. Many of us have not received any understanding until long after the circumstances have worked themselves out. We often talk about 20/20 hindsight and for most of us, that has become our expected experience in the middle of issues. Is Habakkuk’s experience supposed to be the normal experience? Do we just lack faith or are we lacking in our ability to hear His voice, His response?
The lesson we learn from Habakkuk is not that we can hold God hostage to answers, but rather that God is faithful in His purposes and dependable in His love. Let’s look at the setting of this book and the 2 questions that Habakkuk asked and how God responds to him.
First is the setting. Habakkuk was contemporary with Jeremiah. He and Jeremiah were the unfortunate prophets who were called on by God at the final fulfillment of God’s declaration that Israel was going into captivity. Jeremiah was walking the streets and loudly and publicly declaring the coming judgment of God. When God called Jeremiah to the ministry of prophet, God told him that no one would ever listen to any of his messages. Who wants to be called into a ministry that God says will never succeed? One of the strongest anointings in Jeremiah’s life was stubbornness. A hard-headed anointing! Habakkuk, on the other hand, was privately wrestling with God and yet, he too seems to have been given by God a grace of holy stubbornness.
Habakkuk had likely experienced the time of revival in Judah during the reign of Josiah, the righteous king. God had moved through Josiah and had removed idolatry and the nation had turned powerfully to God, but then Josiah died. His son followed as king and a series of evil kings brought Judah to the brink of overthrow by the Babylonians. However, at the time that Habakkuk begins his wrestling with God, the Babylonians aren’t even one of the major powers on the world scene. Habakkuk is wrestling with God to recognize the sin that has overwhelmed Israel. Righteousness has disappeared and the law had no influence. Injustice and perversion of truth prevailed and those who would contend for righteousness were despised. Habakkuk declares that violence was the norm. Does any of this sound familiar in our day?
Habakkuk is not calling for judgment, rather, he is expecting God to renew, to bring revival once again. He wants God to pour out His Spirit on the nation. He wants the Lord to raise up another Godly king and priests and national leaders who will honor the Law. He is expecting God to move on the hearts of the people once again so that they will love righteousness and hate iniquity. But God has other plans that shake the very foundation of Habakkuk’s faith.
As we proceed with our study of Habakkuk, we will discover to our surprise that this man who has such confidence to approach God has an issue with faith. Part of what makes this book so fascinating is walking with Habakkuk as he wrestles with problems that many of us face and seeing the process of God bringing him face to face with the issue of failing faith. My hope is that, like Habakkuk, when the story is finished, we too can find the faith to trust God despite the present problems in life.
Habakkuk’s 2 questions were, God why is evil winning and you don’t do anything about it? And then, after God answers that question, Habakkuk’s other question is, God how can you use an evil nation to teach your disobedient people to be faithful?