A Bible Lesson on Habbakuk

Scripture taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. Copyright 2000; 2001, by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

We know very little about the prophet Habakkuk, except that he was a contemporary of Jeremiah in the last days of Judah. We can’t say for sure when God spoke to him the things that he recorded in his book. The best guess seems to be that it was late in the reign of Josiah or in the days of Jehoiakim, Josiah’s evil son that was placed on the throne in Judah by Pharaoh Neco. But even this isn’t completely clear. What is clear is that Habakkuk looks around him and is appalled with what he sees. And what he sees is a lot like what is around us.

Habakkuk is unusual among the prophets in that he doesn’t so much speak to the people a message from God, as he speaks with God concerning the people (and the surrounding powers). The book is composed of two questions or complaints that Habakkuk puts to God, the answers that God gives, a prayer and accompanying vision of God, and a final testimony of the prophet’s faith in light of what he has been shown.

Here is the first question/complaint.

Habakkuk 1:1 The oracle that Habakkuk the prophet saw.

2 O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not hear? Or cry to you “Violence!” and you will not save?

 3 Why do you make me see iniquity, and why do you idly look at wrong? Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise.

 4 So the law is paralyzed, and justice never goes forth. For the wicked surround the righteous; so justice goes forth perverted.

This is the question, not of a skeptic, but of one who trusts God. He’s not railing and complaining that there can’t both be an omnipotent omniscient God and things be this bad. Instead, he knows that God is both all powerful and all knowing, and looks around him and sees stuff that is just outrageous in terms of being an affront to the character and will of this completely holy God. And he can’t figure out why God doesn’t correct things. He’s appealing to God to bring order in accord with His revealed character. Violence, injustice, strife, conflicts, no law, no justice … these are a description of any time and place where men turn their backs on their Creator and suppress the truth of the Scriptures.

God answers Habakkuk, but not altogether in a way he’d like.

5 “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.

6 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.

7 They are dreaded and fearsome; their justice and dignity go forth from themselves.

8 Their horses are swifter than leopards, more fierce than the evening wolves; their horsemen press proudly on. Their horsemen come from afar; they fly like an eagle swift to devour.

9 They all come for violence, all their faces forward. They gather captives like sand.

10 At kings they scoff, and at rulers they laugh. They laugh at every fortress, for they pile up earth and take it.

11 Then they sweep by like the wind and go on, guilty men, whose own might is their god!”

God is going to send judgment on Judah’s sin by means of the Babylonians. Note in verse 5 that Habakkuk is told that it will not really be expected, and it won’t. The Assyrian Empire crashed amazingly quickly, and the Babylonians sort of came from nowhere to fill the void left by the Assyrians. But there’s an apparent problem or two here. For one thing, this is maybe stronger medicine than Habakkuk had in mind, and besides, these are not at all admirable folks. Look at the description of them. They are bitter and hasty, a law unto themselves and promoting their own honor. They come for violence. They laugh at authority. They are guilty men whose own might is their god.

Habakkuk objects, or at least scratches his head and admits he doesn’t completely understand. So we hear his second question/complaint.

12 Are you not from everlasting, O Lord my God, my Holy One? We shall not die. O Lord, you have ordained them as a judgment, and you, O Rock, have established them for reproof.

We shall not die. That’s true of a remnant, of the real people of the covenant, ones preserved by God’s great goodness. But it’s not true of the physical nation at large.

But God, you’re holy. How can these vile Babylonians be a tool in your hand?

13 You who are of purer eyes than to see evil and cannot look at wrong, why do you idly look at traitors and are silent when the wicked swallows up the man more righteous than he?

F.F. Bruce said, “But here is his question: Should not Yahweh’s instrument for the accomplishment of his purposes reflect something of his own purity and righteousness?” After all, God, surely Judah isn’t as vile as the people you are ordaining to bring judgment!

14 You make mankind like the fish of the sea, like crawling things that have no ruler.

15 He brings all of them up with a hook; he drags them out with his net; he gathers them in his dragnet; so he rejoices and is glad.

16 Therefore he sacrifices to his net and makes offerings to his dragnet; for by them he lives in luxury, and his food is rich.

17 Is he then to keep on emptying his net and mercilessly killing nations forever?

This is a legitimate problem for Habakkuk. This doesn’t fit with his systematic theology. How is it that God is going to execute judgment in this way? How is God going to let Babylon go proudly on, thinking that because of its own wisdom and power it can treat other nations as if they were fish in its net? Again, the prophet is not shaking his fist at God. He is saying that he doesn’t understand it all. And he DOES know that God will answer him. So he prepares to wait for an answer.

Habakkuk 2:1 I will take my stand at my watchpost and station myself on the tower, and look out to see what he will say to me, and what I will answer concerning my complaint.

Now comes God’s reply. In His time He will in turn punish the Babylonians for their sin as well.

2 And the Lord answered me: “Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so he may run who reads it.

3 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.

The revelation awaits an appointed time, but it will not prove false. Habakkuk (and modern believer) God’s Word is sure! You’re finite and can’t see the end of it from your present position. But it’s as sure as the eternal character of Him who guarantees it. Your job Habakkuk (and modern believer) is to wait patiently. History is linear and headed for the great Day of the LORD and the establishment of God’s kingdom, in His time. This revelation isn’t just for Habakkuk alone, he’s to write it down for others too.

4 “Behold, his soul is puffed up; it is not upright within him, but the righteous shall live by his faith.

The violent, arrogant man will ultimately receive his punishment. This is in contrast to you, Habakkuk (and modern believer) who will be preserved through calm, consistent, humble reliance on God. Paul quotes this principle (that it is reliance upon the goodness of God that sets one right with God) in both Romans and Galatians.

Romans 1:17 For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.”

Galatians 3:11 Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for “The righteous shall live by faith.”

This is one of the very high points/most important verses of the whole Bible. It answers the basic question of “How does hopelessly corrupted man have any hope in God?” The answer is “Only by moment by moment relying not upon self but upon the great mercy of God and living not to the glory of self, but to the glory of God.”

In the form of a dirge/ a series of 5 “woes” Habakkuk looks again at the Babylonians and sees that although at the moment they seem invincible, by 539 BC God will bring them low at the hands of the Medes and Persians.

5 “Moreover, wine is a traitor, an arrogant man who is never at rest. His greed is as wide as Sheol; like death he has never enough. He gathers for himself all nations and collects as his own all peoples.”

6 Shall not all these take up their taunt against him, with scoffing and riddles for him, and say, “Woe to him who heaps up what is not his own— for how long?—and loads himself with pledges!”

7 Will not your debtors suddenly arise, and those awake who will make you tremble? Then you will be spoil for them.

8 Because you have plundered many nations, all the remnant of the peoples shall plunder you, for the blood of man and violence to the earth, to cities and all who dwell in them.

9 “Woe to him who gets evil gain for his house, to set his nest on high, to be safe from the reach of harm!

10 You have devised shame for your house by cutting off many peoples; you have forfeited your life.

11 For the stone will cry out from the wall, and the beam from the woodwork respond.

Bruce said, “An empire founded on violence, plunder, and exploitation is like a jerrybuild house: it is bound to collapse because it has no inner coherence … The prophet’s insight here has been vindicated repeatedly in world history …”

12 “Woe to him who builds a town with blood and founds a city on iniquity!

13 Behold, is it not from the Lord of hosts that peoples labor merely for fire, and nations weary themselves for nothing?

14 For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.

In the middle of this dirge for Babylon, there breaks through a wonderful ray of sunshine. There’s the promise that at the appropriate time, God’s goodness will be evident to all of creation. In the short term (as far as Habakkuk was concerned) the judgment of evil in Judah and the subsequent judgment of the Babylonians would be evident, showing clearly the sovereignty of God. In the long term, all of creation will see things as they really are at the finish of a linear history. And the “knowledge” here is more than just “knowing about.” It is the Biblical concept of having intimate personal experience with. Looking all the way to the end of time, the earth will be covered with those who truly “know” God.

Now back to woes coming on Babylon.

15 “Woe to him who makes his neighbors drink— you pour out your wrath and make them drunk, in order to gaze at their nakedness!

16 You will have your fill of shame instead of glory. Drink, yourself, and show your uncircumcision! The cup in the Lord’s right hand will come around to you, and utter shame will come upon your glory!

17 The violence done to Lebanon will overwhelm you, as will the destruction of the beasts that terrified them, for the blood of man and violence to the earth, to cities and all who dwell in them.

18 “What profit is an idol when its maker has shaped it, a metal image, a teacher of lies? For its maker trusts in his own creation when he makes speechless idols!

19 Woe to him who says to a wooden thing, Awake; to a silent stone, Arise! Can this teach? Behold, it is overlaid with gold and silver, and there is no breath at all in it.

20 But the Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him.”

Habakkuk (and modern believer), God is sovereign. All will be right in the end. Don’t chafe in the meantime. Again, you are finite and your job is to wait with patience, knowing who God is and what He has both already done and has promised for the future.

The questions, God’s answers, and the dirge for Babylon are now followed by a Psalm of Habakkuk.

Habakkuk 3:1A prayer of Habakkuk the prophet, according to Shigionoth.

2 O Lord, I have heard the report of you, and your work, O Lord, do I fear. In the midst of the years revive it; in the midst of the years make it known; in wrath remember mercy.

Habakkuk sees the awesome holiness of God and is staggered by the horrible fate that is justly coming on Judah. But though he admits that there must be justice, he knows that God is also a God of mercy. He asks for mercy, and in his mind’s eye he sees again the God of Israel’s history.

3 God came from Teman, and the Holy One from Mount Paran. His splendor covered the heavens, and the earth was full of his praise_ Selah

4 His brightness was like the light; rays flashed from his hand; and there he veiled his power.

5 Before him went pestilence, and plague followed at his heels.

Habakkuk sees God coming to the rescue of the people of Israel in captivity in Egypt. He sees God coming from the north in great power, bringing what is needed to set the people free, including the plagues.

6 He stood and measured the earth; he looked and shook the nations; then the eternal mountains were scattered; the everlasting hills sank low. His were the everlasting ways.

The picture is probably of the giving of the Law at Sinai. The earth shakes. The law He gave is far more permanent than the mountain where it was given!

7 I saw the tents of Cushan in affliction; the curtains of the land of Midian did tremble.

Again Habakkuk addresses God and he describes Him as a mighty warrior marching across the earth and the natural world being at His complete command and disposal.

8 Was your wrath against the rivers, O Lord? Was your anger against the rivers, or your indignation against the sea, when you rode on your horses, on your chariot of salvation?

9 You stripped the sheath from your bow, calling for many arrows. Selah You split the earth with rivers.

10 The mountains saw you and writhed; the raging waters swept on; the deep gave forth its voice; it lifted its hands on high.

11 The sun and moon stood still in their place at the light of your arrows as they sped, at the flash of your glittering spear.

Not only the natural world, but all peoples of the earth feel the presence of God the great Warrior. The Egyptians and the other peoples of the region felt God’s might during the Exodus and conquest of Canaan.

12 You marched through the earth in fury; you threshed the nations in anger.

13 You went out for the salvation of your people, for the salvation of your anointed. You crushed the head of the house of the wicked, laying him bare from thigh to neck_ Selah

The connection of this Psalm to the first two chapters of the book is here. Far from ignoring wickedness, or letting the oppression of His people go unnoticed, God has worked in the past for the salvation of His people, and Habakkuk knows that He will continue to do so.

14 You pierced with his own arrows the heads of his warriors, who came like a whirlwind to scatter me, rejoicing as if to devour the poor in secret.

15 You trampled the sea with your horses, the surging of mighty waters.

16 I hear, and my body trembles; my lips quiver at the sound; rottenness enters into my bones; my legs tremble beneath me. Yet I will quietly wait for the day of trouble to come upon people who invade us.

The vision or reminder of the great majesty of God and His mighty works in Israel’s history essentially takes away Habakkuk’s breath. The fate coming to Judah is terrible—absolutely deserved—but terrible. But Habakkuk can now see beyond it to the punishment of those who will decimate Judah, and beyond.

And for the present, he is now ready to calmly face what is to come, not in a fatalistic or stoic kind of way, but trusting the One who is sovereign. The book ends with one of the most wonderful affirmations of true reliance on God in all of the Bible, an affirmation that is not premised on avoiding the difficult, but on the gracious presence of God, and the sure knowledge that it is He who is at work in all of life.

17 Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls,

18 yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will take joy in the God of my salvation.

19 God, the Lord, is my strength; he makes my feet like the deer’s; he makes me tread on my high places.

The “though the fig …” is not “if …” it is “in spite of the fact …” Habakkuk absolutely has been told what is coming: judgment. The Babylonians are going to spoil the land and leave it in the state described here. What is coming in Judah is horrible. What is necessary to sustain life will be destroyed by conquering armies. But in the midst of that, Habakkuk will rejoice in the LORD. He will rejoice in the author of his salvation and strength. Tough times are coming, but the central fact is that the God of creation will sustain those who love Him.

To the choirmaster: with stringed instruments.

Here is a .pdf of this lesson.

Scripture taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. Copyright 2000; 2001, by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.