Habakkuk: God’s Answer to Our Questions

Thomas Lieth

The Jewish prophet Habakkuk can’t understand God’s actions. After a conversation with the Lord, he strikes up a prayer of praise. A lesson for us.

If we compare the book of Habakkuk with the other prophets, we find that the book’s structure and style differ in many ways from that of the others. This is because Habakkuk not only prophesies, but also asks and questions. The first two chapters are practically a dialogue between Habakkuk and God; between a helpless, confused prophet and his sovereign Creator God. That can be an encouragement for us: in despair and helplessness, we shouldn’t stop praying and asking. “And I tell you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you” (Luke 11:9).

Habakkuk knocked on the door, and God opened it. It began on a sobering note: “O LORD, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not hear? Or cry to you ‘Violence!’ and you will not save?” (Hab 1:2). And it ended with: “yet I will rejoice in the LORD; I will take joy in the God of my salvation. GOD, the Lord, is my strength; he makes my feet like the deer’s; he makes me tread on my high places. To the choirmaster: with stringed instruments” (Hab 3:18-19).

What a turn, what a contrast! The parallels to Job and David’s Psalms are so obvious that Habakkuk’s prophetic word may as well be part of the wisdom literature.

What Habakkuk complained and despaired of was the injustice of his people, Judah. The worst conditions were prevailing throughout the nation, and especially in Jerusalem. These atrocities made Habakkuk raise the questions, “God, why are you impassively observing this contemptible activity? How can you allow all of this?” Especially since a believing remnant of the people, which included Habakkuk, was suffering from this godlessness. And it’s no different today: those who love our Lord and Savior will suffer when God’s name is dragged through the mud and our Lord Jesus is scorned.

Doesn’t it hurt us when we see that Scripture is not only being ignored, but even ridiculed? Doesn’t it hurt to see that God’s commandments are trampled on and literally fought against? Does it no longer bring tears to our eyes when evil becomes the norm, and even churches are submitting to the zeitgeist?

Habakkuk was posing questions like the ones people today are also asking. Christians in particular often wonder why God is silent and doesn’t answer their prayers. Why doesn’t God put an end to the mass killing of unborn children? Why does God appoint kings and governments that treat Him, the almighty Creator, with contempt? Why is God allowing His children around the world to be marginalized, persecuted, and killed—and hardly anyone cares?

In this helplessness, Habakkuk speaks of something he has already prayed and “cried for help” over, who knows for how long, without hearing from God (Hab 1:2). Questions and doubts are allowed. The only issue is whom we should address with all our concerns, doubts, and questions. Habakkuk makes the right connection by going to God. And God answers the inquiring, agitated, and desperate prophet: “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. For behold, I am raising up the Chaldeans, that bitter and hasty nation, who march through the breadth of the earth, to seize dwellings not their own” (Hab 1:5-6).

God’s actions, whatever the form or time, make people amazed, astonished, surprised and, not infrequently, horrified as well. When God acts, it’s like nothing else. Anyone who has even come close to witnessing a force of nature—be it an earthquake, avalanche, flood, violent storm, or even volcanic eruption—may have a small, but really only a tiny idea of what it means for God to speak. “But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, ‘Why have you made me like this?’” (Rom 9:20).

Yes, only wonder and horror remain when God breaks His silence. Many a mocker’s tongue stuck in his throat when he was confronted with the Eternal One. God’s answer to Habakkuk’s desperate question is that judgment is coming! What was prophesied by Micah over 100 years earlier was to be fulfilled in the days of Habakkuk, and irreversibly (Hab 1:7-11). But God’s answer raises a new question in Habakkuk. Why does God use such a godless, cruel, and corrupt people as the Chaldeans to punish the ungodliness of Judah (Hab 1:13)?

Despite all the wickedness and godlessness, Judah was ultimately still more righteous than the Chaldeans (the Babylonians). One would expect Judah to be judged by a people who worship the Lord of all lords and who live lives that please God. Or, better yet, by the coming of the Messiah! But no, the exact opposite is the case: an even more godless people—a people whose god is their own power—is used by the Lord to judge apostate Judah. God acts very differently than we humans ever would (cf. Isa 55:8-9). Yes, sometimes we can’t keep up. But we don’t have to be ashamed of that because Job, David, or Habakkuk were no different. They weren’t able to keep up, either. But they were all brought to a point where they could only praise God.

How did Job put it? “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted…Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know” (Job 42:2-3). And David, what was he able to testify? “I will give to the LORD the thanks due to his righteousness, and I will sing praise to the name of the LORD, the Most High” (Ps 7:17).

God is sovereign in His actions, holy and just. And in His sovereignty, God uses foreign, even godless, powers to chastise His chosen people. Perhaps He was saying, “You are no better than the Gentiles and idolatrous nations. Don’t presume upon your election, sacrifice, and worship. You only have the appearance of piety, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness. And in that, you share the exact same idolatry as the Gentiles.” This is exactly what the Lord Jesus insinuated to Israel’s religious elite centuries later (Matt 23:27-28). This admonition was justified in the time of Habakkuk, in the time of the Lord Jesus, and today in the same way—not just in Israel, as God says: “Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so he may run who reads it” (Hab 2:2).

In chapter 2, God makes it clear that the Babylonians, like the Assyrians before them, are being judged. And this fact ultimately applies to all nations—but everything in its time and as God has determined. “For still the vision awaits its appointed time; it hastens to the end—it will not lie. If it seems slow, wait for it; it will surely come; it will not delay” (Hab 2:3).

In other words, “Wait, be patient, believe, and trust!” This precise principle of waiting, patience, perseverance, and trust is also applied to the return of the Lord Jesus in Hebrews: “For you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God you may receive what is promised. For, ‘Yet a little while, and the coming one will come and will not delay; but my righteous one shall live by faith’” (Heb 10:36-38a).

And that’s the answer to all questions, doubts, and helplessness: “Behold, his soul is puffed up; it is not upright within him, but the righteous shall live by his faith” (Hab 2:4). Faith involves an unshakable trust in God, even in things we don’t understand. Peter Hahne once said, “Trust means living with questions that have no answers.”

Consider Job, consider David: were all their desperate questions answered? No, but they were led into faith and ultimately trusted in God. Habakkuk will now experience exactly the same thing. God shows him that Babylon will reap what it has sown (Hab 2:5ff.). After five calls of woe to the Babylonians, Habakkuk responds in prayer-like praise in the style of the Psalms: “O LORD, I have heard the report of you, and your work, O LORD, do I fear” (Hab 3:2a).

Habakkuk isn’t just satisfied with God’s answer; he completely submits himself to God’s will. He discerns God’s advice, and learns that God holds the threads of salvation and world history in His hands. He exclaims, “In the midst of the years revive it; in the midst of the years make it known” (Hab 3:2b).

Habakkuk’s hope and supplication are that God will quickly, in the near future, fulfill everything that He has resolved in His plan. Aren’t we the same? Aren’t we also hoping that our Lord Jesus will come soon to accomplish His purpose for us, for His church? Aren’t we longing for the new heaven and the new earth in which God’s righteousness dwells (2 Pet 3:13)?

Then he continues, “in wrath remember mercy” (Hab 3:2c). Habakkuk—like all other prophets—knows that in His wrath, God is nonetheless a gracious and merciful God; that all His judgments are purposeful, and not capricious. The following verses are therefore a hymn of praise to the unique Creator God, culminating in Habakkuk no longer being able to hold back from cheering and rejoicing. Because Habakkuk knows that God is just. In His wrath, the Lord is also compassionate, and will continue to weave history with the faithful remnant.

What started with a question mark ends with a big, bold exclamation point. A desperate “Why?” becomes an exulting “Who!” Who reigns? Who acts? Who judges? Who holds the threads of redemptive history in His hands? God, the almighty, holy and merciful Creator, who revealed Himself to us in His Son Jesus Christ. This is the encouragement for us today: we can live with the certainty that our God, whom we may call “Abba, dear Father,” has everything under control.

God’s answer to Habakkuk’s doubting, burning questions is a message for all the world: “the righteous shall live by his faith” (Hab 2:4b). Faith is the answer, and trust in God’s ways is the solution. “For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world except the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?” (1 John 5:4-5).

Through this perspective, we truly have every reason to do the same as Habakkuk and to join in his praise: “Yet I will rejoice in the LORD; I will take joy in the God of my salvation. GOD, the Lord, is my strength” (Hab 3:18-19a).

News from Israel - 10/2020

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