This weekend I felt like a prophet of gloom and doom as I led retreat participants in a study of Habakkuk. Why Habakkuk? Because this brief oracle and its attached prayer engages the question of God and human sin at an epic level that we all need to grasp.
Habakkuk, we remember, was told of God’s plan to discipline sinful Judea with a devastating invasion by the Chaldeans. We know from other Bible content and general history that the prophecy was fulfilled as promised and led to a seventy year national exile for Jewish captives. But what does Habakkuk teach us today as those who are not facing a God-pronounced invasion?
At a minimum it prepares us to respond by faith to national and international tragedies, whether old or new, with a certainty that God’s hand is present and the events remain under his control. For the Jews in Habakkuk’s day the impact of the events would have been on the order of the great disruptions of our own last century—of World Wars I & II. In both ancient and modern times wars shatter societies: any sense of personal or national security is disrupted. Wherever the immediate conflict takes place the results are horrifying. I can think, for instance, of bas-relief images of a besieged Judean city on display in the British Museum that depict the gruesome warfare of that era. They would compare in violence with photos taken during recent wars.
Let us recall the particulars. The oracle begins as Habakkuk charged God with being passive in the face of Judea’s violent sins—”Why do you make me see iniquity, and why do you idly look at wrong?” God came back with a shocking reply, that the ungodly Chaldean army would be his instrument to confront that sin: “they [the Chaldeans] fly like an eagle swift to devour. They all come for violence, all their faces forward” [1:2,8&9]. Judea, a small nation once known for its affiliation with God as his “chosen people” would soon be crushed by this cruel superpower.
Habakkuk was stunned. God’s judgment was over the top—completely disproportionate and inappropriate for a God of his moral stature! He told God as much: “You who are of purer eyes than to see evil . . . why do you idly look at traitors and remain silent when the wicked swallow up the man more righteous than he?” [1:13] Habakkuk, we notice, had become a moral relativist. Judea, once tagged by the prophet as “wicked” [1:4] was now “more righteous” than the Chaldeans!
God responded with a confrontation and five “woes” and then ended the dialog. In his response God ignored Habakkuk’s sliding moral scale—of the less righteous and the “more righteous”—and set out, instead, just two types of people [2:4]: those who are “puffed up” and the one who is “righteous” because he lives “by his faith.” Just two types of humanity? Yes, just two: the arrogant who are quick to charge God with error—as Habakkuk had just done—and those who trust God. Which will it be?
That simple moral polarity has since echoed through history. The apostle Paul took on God’s challenge in Habakkuk as the launching text of his letter to the Romans: “The righteous shall live by faith” [1:17] and he repeated it in his letter to the Galatians [3:12] as a counterpoint to any forms of self-righteousness. The author of Hebrews also cited this text [10:38] as the measure of those who please God. For Martin Luther the use in Romans of Habakkuk 2:4 was key to his own calling as he set out “faith alone” as a sign of true reformation. In each case the later writers understood the stark issues at stake: human pride always defies God’s word; either that or a person repents.
In his closing prayer Habakkuk announced his own response: he would trust God even in the face of the coming army—”my legs tremble beneath me. Yet I will quietly wait for the day of trouble to come upon people who invade us. Though the fig tree should not blossom . . . and there be no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD; I will take joy in the God of my salvation” [3:16,18]
Habakkuk offers at a national level what the book of Job offers at a personal level: a divine disclosure that God rules over evil yet without initiating that evil. As in Genesis 50:20, with a nod to Romans 8:28, Satan and his human servants can purpose events that are evil but God’s good purposes will always be at work even in those evil events. The difference between Job’s suffering and the promised suffering of Judea was that Job was blameless and Judea was guilty. Job was stretched; Judea would be disciplined.
What both books also share in common is God’s confrontation of the fallen human instinct to judge him. He dismisses Satan’s promise to Adam and Eve that by adopting a free will “you will be like God, knowing good and evil” [Genesis 3:5]. Their sin was to grasp at the status of God—to attempt to weigh God’s character with their personal scale of right and wrong. In Adam God must now answer to us and to our sliding scales of morality.
In Job God answered his struggling servant—who in his suffering challenged God’s fairness—with the same issue of Habakkuk: where do you stand on human pride? He asked Job to answer him: “Pour out the overflowing of your anger, and look on everyone who is proud and abase him. Look on everyone who is proud and bring him low” [40:11-12]. For all his complaints Job was most unlike God because he could not move a proud heart into humility—even his own. That is a miracle that God alone can manage.
If we can say anything in response to Habakkuk’s little book it should be this: “rejoice in the LORD.” No matter what comes our way in days to come—whether personal tragedies, economic collapse, or even foreign invasion—we are called to live by faith. Adam unleashed sin in the human experience, spurred on by Satan and his minions, and God now allows the sloshing of sin that fills the world—through those who are puffed up rather than living by faith—and he tells us to trust him, no matter how that sin spills over us. The evil day will eventually end; and the day when the faithful and the truly righteous are honored will come soon enough.
In the meantime let us read books like Habakkuk and Job, and then trust God no matter what comes. God knows best and he loves us. Let all of us who have faith in this God—who always overcomes evil with good—share a proper response: let us rejoice!