How to Spell Habakkuk
Peter M. Head
Habakkuk is a prophet about whom we know very little outside of the three chapters of his prophecy. In Akkadian his name denotes a plant or fruit tree which might suggest a farming origin. This would certainly suit perhaps his most famous utterance in 3.17f:
In any sort of pre-industrial society the failure of the harvest was a calamity of great proportions. The terms in which this is expressed here cover all the staple foods: figs, wine, olives, other crops, livestock. For a farmer this would obviously be a total calamity. There was no bank with TESSAs or PEPs or other resources, there was no TEARFUND or OXFAM to bring relief and food to stricken areas. Habakkuk seems to be envisioning a situation in which all the things upon which he depended for life, security and even (perhaps) identity were to fail. Now I think we inevitably tend to romanticize this saying somewhat when we read or sing them, fig trees, vines, olive groves, flocks and folds. Even when we are saying these things we are probably thinking of our foreign holidays. Were we to consider the catastrophe described here we would no doubt think that even if all those things were to happen it wouldn't happen to us, and if it did happen to us it wouldn't affect us very much because if Sainsbury's ran out of stock we could duck down to ASDA or find a TESCOs were we could pick up the vegetables for the salad, the bread rolls, the chops and sausages and the wine that we so desperately need for the barbecue we are planning.
Perhaps for us we need to think in terms of those things upon which we depend for the basic things of life: your job, your health, your money. Now imagine them being taken away: redundancy, unemployment, ill health, financial disasters followed by poverty. For some of us these things are easier to imagine than for others(precisely because they are with us or our families), but that is not the point. The point is, as you imagine this situation, how do we measure up to Habakkuk's assurance and faith in the Lord? And, more importantly, what can we learn from God's Word which will help us maintain our joy in the God of our salvation?
In many ways the whole book of Habakkuk is about the problems of maintaining faith in the face of difficulties. In order to be able to grasp how Habakkuk could affirm what he does in 3.17f we need to look back over the whole book and learn the two main lessons that Habakkuk had learnt in his walk with the Lord. These are firstly, his Honesty before God (we'll see that in chapters 1&2); and secondly his Knowledge that God is King(we'll see that in chapter 3). I'm sorry that this sermon doesn't have three points as is customary, but each main point has a number of sub-points and all of these sub-points combine to spell the name Habakkuk so I hope you will be able to remember how to spell Habakkuk (then you might be able to remember these lessons).
As I said, the first, and one of the most prominent aspects of Habakkuk's prophecy is his obvious honesty in his walk with God. This is very clear in the opening two chapters where he questions God closely. Look at v2: how long ....? Why ...?
The situation is dramatic: a situation of violence, injustice, strife and conflict taking place in the presence of the prophet (v3: they are before me). This is clearly a situation within Israel itself: even the law is paralyzed and the very principle of justice was being perverted by the wicked (v4). In this situation Habakkuk has obviously been praying for some time that the Lord would step in to judge and purify his people. In about 720 BC the Lord had punished the northern kingdom for their wickedness and turning away from God by bringing the Assyrian armies against her in judgment. Now, around a hundred years later (sometime around 600BC), Habakkuk looks at the sin and wickedness of Judah, the southern kingdom, and awaits God's action. He knew the prophecy of Moses(recorded in Deut 28) that if Israel did not obey God's covenant Word then he would curse them and bring them into judgment.
Habakkuk's honesty lies in expressing his concerns directly to the Lord in prayer. His "complaint" was not spread privately and secretly in such a way as to sap the life and hope from God's people, but directly to the Lord in prayer. It is a complaint about God's inactivity: why haven't you done anything! I've been praying and prophesying but the situation seems to be getting worse: How long will this go on? and why do you make me minister in such a wicked situation??
In fact, by his response in v5ff it is clear that the Lord agrees with Habakkuk: the people of Israel had been very wicked and God was raising up the Babylonians (v6) who would come in judgment against God's people (it is this verse that allows us to date this book in between the early conquests of the neo-Babylonian empire around 625 BC and their final conquest of Jerusalem in 587 BC [possibly around the time of Babylon's defeat of Egypt in the battle of Carchemish in 605]). The description of the coming of the Babylonians emphases their fierceness and pride in battle. This description raises a second question in Habakkuk's mind.
v12: Habakkuk believes what the Lord has said: v12: 'you have appointed them to execute judgment ... you have ordained them to punish'; but the Lord's use of such a proud and wicked nation as the Babylonians raises another question in view of God's holiness.
v13: Why? Why tolerate them? why remain silent? as if you approve of their wickedness? These Babylonians were known to use hooks through the lower lip to increase the docility of their prisoners, or to net them together. Habakkuk's pictures point to these practices: Lord how can you connive at this in humanity, these people are wicked, idolatrous and proud: note v17: are they going to keep on taking prisoners and destroying nations without mercy?
Habakkuk's honesty before God is seen in his asking of questions directly to the Lord, these were not the questions of unbelief, but the questions of a man trying to relate what he already knew to be true about God: his justice, his eternity, his purity, to what he could see around him and to what God was revealing to him as a prophet. We might say Habakkuk was Honest before God in Asking God why from the perspective of Believing in God: Honestly Asking while Believing. That seems to be the first thing we can learn from Habakkuk which will prepare us for difficult times.
Now if we are learning from this how to prepare for potentially difficult times in the future we must make an attempt now to cultivate good habits. Habits of regular, daily, times with the Lord getting to know him by reading his word and prayer. I rebuke myself for my laziness in this, but you can't put on a close walk with the Lord only in times of difficulty, it is a life-long relationship that needs constant attention and discipline.
Honestly Asking while Believing
If we return to the text we note that the Lord does not answer Habakkuk's second question so quickly: 2.1: I will stand and look, v2: the Lord says write this down because it will be important for everyone, v3 it is coming soon. God's Answer is very clear and in 2.4-20 the Lord answers Habakkuk's actual question: will these Babylonians keep doing what they are doing? and will you tolerate it? The answer is clearly No: a whole series of woes: v6, 9, 12, 15, 19 (clearly related to Habakkuk's problem of idolatry). Although God does use such a wicked nation to punish Israel for breaking covenant, the wicked nation itself will not escape from God's wrath and anger and judgment (e.g.v16f). God hasn't compromised himself in using wicked nations to punish his own people, they too will face God's judgment. At the same time the Lord has a bigger picture and plan (note v14).
Perhaps an even more significant part of God's answer is given in chapter three, in the prayer which was read for us earlier. Here we find, in a poetic form, a reassurance for Habakkuk. Note v2 and v16. Habakkuk Remembers God's fame and his deeds of old and calls upon the Lord to renew them (v2).
This theme of remembering God's fame and deeds of old dominates the central verses of this prayer. In it Habakkuk demonstrate his Knowledge that God is the Great King (King over Israel in a special sense, but also King over all creation). Let us look at these two aspects of God's kingship separately (over Israel, over all creation)
v3: recalls God's coming to Israel at Mount Sinai and making covenant with them.
Deut 33.2-5: He [i.e. Moses] said, "The Lord came from Sinai, and dawned from Seir upon us; he shone forth from Mount Paran, he came from the ten thousands of holy ones, with flaming fire at his right hand. Yea, he loved his people; all those consecrated to him were in his hand; so they followed in thy steps, receiving direction from thee, when Moses commanded us a law, as a possession for the assembly of Jacob. Thus the Lord became king in Jeshurun, when the heads of the people were gathered, all the tribes of Israel together.
v5 recalls the plagues in Exodus as the means by which God rescued his people from Egypt and brought them to himself
v7: the tents of Cushan probably refers to Cushan-Rishathaim, the first of Israel's foreign oppressors in the days of the Judges (Judges 3.8-11) and recalls the Lord's deliverance through Othniel. The dwellings of Midian probably refers to Israel's bondage to Midian (Judges 6&7&8, where the tents are specifically mentioned) and God's deliverance of Israel through Gideon.
v8-10 recall both the crossing of the red sea (Rescue) and the Jordan river(conquest)
v11 recalls the day when the sun stood still for Joshua (in Joshua 10) and enabled Joshua to lead Israel to victory over the Amorites.
v15 seems to return to the Exodus event and the drowning of the Egyptian cavalry as the great moment of God's salvation.
God has visited and redeemed his people, rescuing them from bondage to Egypt, making covenant with them so that he would be their King, and bringing them into the promised land. As Habakkuk is reminded from his Bible of God's saving action in the past he is reassured that God will continue to act consistently for the salvation of his people. Of course even in this remembering Habakkuk does not offer us a dry historical account, it is a poem a song and the remembrance of God's powerful salvation for his covenant people are seen as part of his cosmic victory over the powerful forces of creation. In this battle the Lord is seen as King over creation, as a powerful warrior with supernatural weapons which he uses to rescue his covenant people (v4), when He comes to rescue and save the ancient mountains crumble (v6); gaining deliverance for his covenant people by conquering the sea and rivers (v8-10), and crushing their wicked oppressors (v12f).
Habakkuk's reaction to this reassurance from the Lord: remembering the past and knowing that the Lord was a powerful King, well to save his people, is quite amazing. Here is an appropriate reaction to the living God, the covenant-warrior King of the Bible. It has shocked him to the core of his being (v16). But it gives him confidence and assurance to Keep going, to Keep on patiently waiting for God's punishment to come upon the invading Babylonians (in the sure hope that his salvation would follow). It would be bad, as he well knew. Moses had promised that if Israel disobeyed their covenant the fruit of the ground, the increase of the cattle and the young of the flock would all be cursed (Deut 28.18: if you read Deut 28 you will notice that grain, wine, olive oil, cattle, sheep are all mentioned). These weren't random events of famine, but expressions of God's judgment against his people. What was he to do: live by faith(2.4), wait patiently for God's judgment to fall, rejoice that God was his saviour (even though the nation was under God's judgment) and to work, in the strength of the Lord, for the salvation of others (by writing this prophecy). So we conclude by noting that Habakkuk's Understanding of who God is and his saving-purposes enabled him to Keep going in the faith.
Let's have a little review and remember how to spell Habakkuk:
Honesty (in his relationship with God)
Asking (the questions on his heart)
Believing (God's justice and holiness)
Answers (received from God)
Knowledge (that God is the great
Understanding (God's purposes)
Keep (waiting patiently in faith)
Now just as we could learn from Habakkuk's honesty, I think we will also need to learn from Habakkuk's knowledge. He knew the history of God's activity, he knew his Bible, he understood the theology behind God's covenant with Israel. God's inactivity continued, but by reminding himself of God's love and power in the past he was reassured that the Lord would save his people in the future. That salvation which was future to Habakkuk came in the Lord Jesus and his life, death and resurrection. When we look back on God's salvation we shall look back not only to the accounts of his activity in the Old Testament, but also and supremely to the accounts of the Lord Jesus in the New Testament. Although Habakkuk has little by way of direct prophecy of the coming of the Messiah it is interesting to note that his psalm in chapter three which celebrates the coming of God to save contains very many echoes of the gospel accounts of the Lord Jesus. So, in Jesus we seethe glory of God (cf. 3.3), in the transfiguration we see Jesus whose splendour was like the sunrise (cf. 3.4) in his dealings with the sick we see his power flash forth from his hand (cf. 3.4), in his miracles we see the seas and storms stilled by his power, and in his death on the cross we see the sun turned into darkness, the earth shake; and in his mighty resurrection we see his power over death and the ancient enemy of the living God.
So our faith is analogous to Habakkuk's. If we are to be able to rejoice in the God of our salvation we must know the God of our salvation. Among other things this means laying the foundation of an honest and regular relationship with the Lord in prayer and reading the Bible. In addition we must keep ever before us the great truths of his saving-events of the new covenant (just as Habakkuk looked back to the saving event of the Old Covenant). Then we might be able to repeat with Habakkuk:
This sermon was preached at Christ Church, Cockfosters (North London) on Sunday 6th August 1995.