December 15, 2010

Listening to Habakkuk

When was the last time you perused, or even skimmed, the Old Testament book of Habakkuk? One of the Minor Prophets, it is quietly tucked away between Nahum and Zephaniah. Despite being often overlooked and in the shadow of other Old Testament heavyweights, this brief book is surprisingly insightful and relevant regarding life’s apparent injustice, Scripture, faith, and worship.
Asking Questions
The book begins with an anguished Habakkuk questioning God about the wrongs that continually go unpunished. Twice the prophet inquires of God why corrupt, evil people always seem to get their way, why good people are always abused and taken advantage of (Hab. 1:1-4, 13-17). This seems to resonate with current events, where bailout money feeds more bonuses and those that encourage questionable lending appear to escape any consequences. “Therefore the law is powerless, and justice never goes forth. For the wicked surround the righteous; therefore perverse judgment proceeds” (Hab. 1:4).* Harassed men and women struggle to merely find employment and hold on to their retirements and savings.
God responds to Habakkuk’s first query in a surprising way: Justice for the wicked is on its way in the form of invading Babylonians. Now, I don’t see any horsemen headed our way, but the divine answer suggests that God sees the daily injustices and will correct them. It also appears to imply that God’s means of correction may cause us some discomfort. While life throws us some unpleasant, terrible, and scary situations, we can know that God is right next to us, feeling and enduring whatever it is we are going through.
2010 1540 page22Looking for Answers
Habakkuk’s response to God’s answer subtly shows us the best course of action. “I will stand my watch and set myself on the rampart, and watch to see what He will say to me, and what I will answer when I am corrected” (Hab. 2:1).
Several points deserve our attention when reading this verse: First, the prophet does not give up. Habakkuk chooses to wait and see what God has in store for him. Second, he stays alert and ready. While we may not literally position ourselves in a tower or rampart, we need to be ready and open to listen to God’s Word and watch His often astonishing handiwork in our lives. He is eager to present us with surprising opportunities. Third, Habakkuk stays in constant communication with God. We may not always know how to respond to life’s uncertainties, but if we are talking and listening to God we are on the right track.
God’s second response, given to Habakkuk in vision, lays out a rather detailed description of society’s transgressions, then and now: greed, selfishness, drunkenness, covetousness, violence, inappropriate worship—and we could add to that list. It also contains stern, if not frightening, warnings to the perpetrators: you won’t be allowed to go on like this forever. “Will not your creditors rise up suddenly? Will they not awaken who oppress you? And you will become their booty. Because you have plundered many nations, all the remnant of the people shall plunder you” (verses 7, 8). While the overall theme in Habakkuk 2:4-17 delineates the many transgressions of a corrupt and greedy Babylonian power, working to gain more territory, more goods, more self-gratification, it can as easily portray anyone who seeks to advance personal interests at the expense of others. And that’s a portrayal of each of us at some point in our lives.
After hearing God’s second response, Habakkuk prays (Hab. 3:1). His description of God’s coming (or “theophany,” as theologians call it) highlights God’s power and majesty. When God moves, He shakes things up. Habakkuk praises God for His power and the historical evidence of divine provision for His chosen people, pointing back to the day the sun and moon stood still when Israel routed the Amorites (verses 11, 12; Joshua 10:12-14). “You went forth for the salvation of Your people, for salvation with Your Anointed” (Hab. 3:13). Habakkuk must surely have been familiar with Joshua’s account and felt encouraged by God’s past mighty acts.
Habakkuk Reappears
It’s surprising to note how often, considering its length and message, Habakkuk’s writings reappear in Scripture. Paul quotes “the just shall live by his faith,” the well-known second half of Habakkuk 2:4, twice, in Romans and Galatians (Rom. 1:17; Gal. 3:11). The author of Hebrews also cites Habakkuk 2:3, 4 while encouraging fellow believers (Heb. 10:37, 38). Acts records a sermon of Paul’s in which he employs Habakkuk 1:5 as a cautionary verse (Acts 13:41). Familiarizing ourselves with all portions of Scripture is certainly a wise habit, an example set by these New Testament heroes of faith—real people like you and me.
Finally . . . There Is Worship
Another significant theme embedded within Habakkuk is that of worship, a theme very near and dear to Seventh-day Adventists. The first mention of worship is found in the first chapter at the end of the description of the Babylonian onslaught. After describing the cruel conquest of Judah, Habakkuk writes in verse 11 that the Babylonians attribute their success to their god (“ascribing this power to his god”). There is a clear echo of the timeless conflict between good and evil, true worship versus futile worship. Any worship, other than that directed toward the everlasting God, is futile.
Habakkuk further expands on this futility in chapter 2. He questions the purpose of making idols (verse 18)—lifeless objects with no claim to fame. This verse describes the character of the image and its true designer, Satan, as “a teacher of lies” (cf. John 8:44). Next, in verse 19, follows a warning against such worship and an explanation of its futility. It won’t do anything, because “in it there is no breath at all.”
Finally, there is the key verse of Habakkuk 2:20. The message of this verse is twofold. First, it is an expression of comfort, because “the Lord is in His holy temple.” Second, it calls for reverence and recognition of the lordship of God—“let all the earth keep silence before Him.”
The last chapter of the book of Habakkuk continues to deal with the issues of faith and worship. As we already noted, the prophet gives praise to God and reflects on past events in which the Lord has provided. He uses all this to establish his faith in God and, (using my words), concludes in verses 16-19: “I was physically sick when I heard about what is headed our way. I don’t even want to be here when it comes; but even though all this horrible stuff will happen, the crops won’t produce, the livestock will all be gone, ‘yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will joy in the God of my salvation. The Lord God is my strength; He will make my feet like deer’s feet, and He will make me walk on my high hills’ [Hab. 3:18, 19].”
What an uplifting way to end a potentially disheartening message! I don’t have to worry, because God is my strength and my Savior. That’s the gospel in its purest form!
*Texts in this article are from the New King James Version. Copyright © 1979, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Tina Billups writes from Sacramento, California. This article was published December 16, 2010.