Habakkuk 1 – Trying to Understand an Infinite God

Synopsis
The book of Habakkuk is a dialogue between Habakkuk – a prophet – and God.  The book is unique in that there is no narrative about Habakkuk proclaiming God’s message to the people.  God tells him to proclaim it, but any interaction with the people of Judah takes place outside the book.  The entirety of the book is taken up by dialogue and a closing prayer.  Instead of confronting his own people, Habakkuk confronts God.

The dialogue begins with Habakkuk’s complaint that God ignores the wickedness and injustice of Judah.  God responds and tells Habakkuk how He plans to judge Judah.  Habakkuk responds to God’s response with shock and horror over what God plans.  God then answers Habakkuk again and explains the ultimate end of the unrighteous and the unjust.  The book finishes with a prayer of Habakkuk glorifying God for what he now understands – and expressing faith in God for what he does not.

The book is good to study during difficult times.  We get to eavesdrop on a conversation between God and man wherein man honestly expresses his doubts and complaints without giving up his faith.  And we get a better understanding of God’s sovereignty and works, and His love and patience with His children.  It is a wonderful picture of how we serve a real God who understands real life and is there even through times that do not make sense or cause us to doubt His presence. 

The lessons of Habakkuk are similar to the lessons of Job in what they teach us about our eternal and indefinable God.  The difference between the stories is that God answers Habakkuk directly as He did not do with Job.  And in the end we are not sure which is preferable.

Background and Setting
No one knows who Habakkuk was.  He introduces himself in verse 1 as Habakkuk the prophet.  This likely means he is a professional prophet serving at the temple in Jerusalem.  The Apocrypha contains a story wherein he ministers to Daniel while Daniel is in the lion’s den – which means he survives the Babylonian invasion and lives into the exile.  This of course cannot be proved.

The events of the book likely take place after the death of Josiah (609 BC) and before the first invasion of Judah by the Babylonians in 605 BC.  The reason for this estimate is the corruption mentioned by Habakkuk in the first four verses and the references to the Babylonians throughout the book.  Judah was not evil under Josiah – a God-fearing king – but fell apart under his corrupt sons.  Since God tells Habakkuk about Babylon coming as a means of judgment it is apparent that it has not yet happened.  Thus the book may take place between 609 and 605 BC.

Habakkuk Speaks (1-4)
Habakkuk complains to God that He is absent while Judah devolves into wickedness, violence and injustice.  He wonders how a just and righteous God can sit back and allow injustice and unrighteousness among His people.

Note the words Habakkuk uses to describe Judah – violence, iniquity, wickedness, destruction, strife, contention.  These are what typify the people.  This is characteristic of the country.  Just over a century since the northern 10 tribes were destroyed, the south looks just like them.  They have long since forgotten their place as God’s chosen people.

Habakkuk says the law is ignored.  This most likely refers to the Mosaic Law.  The very mark of the covenant people is no longer obeyed.  He also says justice is never upheld.  These two statements likely mean both the priesthood and the government are corrupt.  He even says the wicked surround the righteous – the wicked outnumber the righteous to the extent that righteousness is rare and unappreciated.  As a result, justice comes out perverted (there are similarities between Habakkuk’s description of Judah and Amos’ condemnation of the north over a century earlier – the people have fallen into the same sins).  The people who are chosen by a God of justice now do not uphold it and even pervert it.  How can God allow this?

Habakkuk wonders not only how God can allow this behavior, he wonders where God is and why He does not hear Habakkuk’s prayer.  How long, O Lord?  You will not hear?  You do not save!  Why?  He comes to God and very honestly lays out his complaints and frustration.  “Where are You and why do You allow this and why do You not answer my prayers?”  He asks the questions every believer asks when tough times come – but Habakkuk asks them directly to God.

God Speaks (5-11)
God responds to Habakkuk in dramatic fashion.  He tells him He is going to act, but He is going to act in a way that will shock Habakkuk and that Habakkuk will not understand.  In the last phrase of verse 5 He effectively tells Habakkuk, “I will answer you, but you will not understand the answer.”  It is almost as if God wants Habakkuk to understand there are good reasons why He has been silent and not answering Habakkuk’s prayers.

Since Habakkuk complained that God forced him to see iniquity and look on wickedness, God tells him to look among the nations and observe.  He responds to Habakkuk’s complaints directly. 

God will raise up the Chaldeans (Babylonians) to punish Judah.  He describes them as ruthless people who have no god other than themselves and their own strength.  They fear no one while they themselves are dreaded and feared (this along with the fact that their justice and authority originate with themselves shows they put themselves in God’s place).

Nothing stops them.  They laugh at the defenses put up before them.  They mock those that come to battle them.  They take down every fortress and devour those they fight against.  All of them come for violence and they collect captives like sand.  They are a horde of faces that moves forward eager for violence and destruction.  They will sweep through Judah like the wind and pass on to other conquests.  Judah will be overrun and destroyed.

God seems to go out of His way to describe the evil of the Chaldeans.  He seems to want Habakkuk to be amazed at the extent of their wickedness and violence.  “Habakkuk, you complained about Judah – but wait until you see what I have coming!  They are everything the Judeans are and more!  Just look at their brutality and their ruthlessness and their disregard for justice!”

God ends His horrifying description of the Babylonians with an interesting commentary.  He says they will be held guilty because their strength is their god.  Even though God will raise them up as an instrument of His judgment (verse 6), they will still be held guilty for their crimes and godlessness [God’s sovereignty never excuses sin.  Jesus said He was meant to be betrayed, but woe to the man through whom it happened (Matt 26:24).  Do we understand this?  No – and we never will.  But it is vitally important that we acknowledge its truth.  Sin is never excused – NEVER].  This is the only encouraging nugget for Habakkuk in God’s monologue – at least the evil Chaldeans will be held guilty for their crimes.  It is small consolation for Habakkuk, however, as he is about to show.

Habakkuk Speaks (12-17)
Habakkuk cannot believe what he has just heard.  He complained to God about the injustice and violence of Judah and God replies that He is going to bring an unjust (their justice and authority originate with themselves) and supremely violent people to judge the land.  A complaint that a just and righteous God should not abide a wicked people is answered with the news that the same God is bringing an even more wicked people to do His bidding.  What began simply as a question about God’s ways with Judah is now a full fledged crisis in confidence about God’s ways overall.  Violence is judged with worse violence?  Wickedness is judged with more wickedness?  God can no longer abide the unrighteousness of Judah because of His holiness, yet His answer is to use an even more unrighteous people as His instrument of judgment??  “Your holiness is offended by Judah but not by Babylon?”

Do not miss the opening of this section.  Habakkuk begins with a rhetorical question.  Are You not from everlasting?  He effectively exclaims, “I thought You were eternal!  How can an eternal One bless the actions of a people like the Babylonians?”  It is an unbelievable exclamation from a child of God.  Habakkuk does not pull any punches – he gives God his unfiltered reaction to what he has just heard.  His is a very emotional response to news that makes no sense in light of who and what God is.  How can a holy God use the Chaldeans?

The Message seems to catch Habakkuk’s rage in its interpretation of verses 12-13:
God, You’re from eternity, aren’t You?
Holy God, we aren’t going to die, are we?
God, You chose BABYLONIANS for Your judgment work?
Rock-solid God, You gave THEM the job of discipline?
But You can’t be serious!
You can’t condone evil!
So why don’t You do something about this?
Why are You silent NOW?
This outrage! Evil men swallow up the righteous and You stand around and WATCH!

Habakkuk had complained originally about having to look at iniquity in Judah and that the righteous were surrounded by the wicked.  He now wonders how God can look at the evil of the Babylonians and be silent while the wicked (Babylonians) swallow up those more righteous than they.  All his concerns from the original complaint are now intensified by God’s response (verse 3 becomes verse 13).  Rather than being satisfied by God finally answering him, he is now in much worse shape and has many more doubts than he had before.  Interestingly, God told him he would not understand God’s answer (vs. 5) – now Habakkuk’s response is, “I do not understand!”

Habakkuk points out that the Chaldeans worship their own gods and their own power (they offer a sacrifice to their net and burn incense to their fishing net) – similar to the point God ended with.  This is yet another aspect to what God is doing that makes no sense.  God is using a people who go out of their way to give NO glory to Him – how can this be?  How can God utilize the Babylonians who so blatantly do the very things (violating the first two commandments) that God has punished His own people for doing so many times throughout their history?

He ends with a version of the same question that began the whole dialogue.  How long will God allow the Babylonians to continually slay nations without sparing?  How long will God allow evil? 

Habakkuk is confused and frustrated.  God’s answer makes no sense.  It is not expected.  It is not consistent with who God is.  Perhaps he was better off when God was silent.

Thoughts

  • Habakkuk doubts but is faithful.  Habakkuk complains to God and doubts God and questions God, but he never rejects God.  There is a big difference between a believer who faithfully questions his beliefs and a skeptic who decides God is not worthy of belief.  Habakkuk directs all his doubts and questions to God directly (and repeatedly uses God’s covenant name – Yahweh – signifying the God who delivered and does not forsake Israel) – he does not say, “How can God…?”  He always says, “God, how can You…?”  No matter how exasperated or how frustrated he becomes he does not hint at leaving God.  Even in the midst of his most impertinent question about God’s character (verse 12), he refers to God as my God, my Holy One.  And remember that his frustration is ultimately a result of his absolute confidence that God is holy and just, and how that does not reconcile with God’s current behavior.  It is OK to wrestle with God as long as we do not leave.
  • We serve a real and good God.  How wonderful is it that God puts this dialogue in His word?  God does not hide this from us; to the contrary, He gives it to Habakkuk as an oracle (1:1).  God is real and He is a God of real people.  He wants us to know that the doubts we have and the questions we have about His actions are doubts and questions that have been around as long as mankind. 
  • We can be honest with God.  God does not condemn Habakkuk for honestly pouring out his heart and frustrations (just as He did not condemn Job for his lament in Job 3).  God created us with emotions and is big enough to handle our outbursts.  He does not expect us to hide our feelings when we come before Him and does not expect us to put on our Sunday best when we pray (yet He hears our prayers and takes them seriously).  There will certainly be times when we do not understand God’s ways and become distraught as a result.  And it is OK to faithfully and honestly express that distress to our heavenly Father. 
  • God cannot explain Himself to us.  Job taught us that God does not owe us explanations for His actions.  Habakkuk teaches us that perhaps we are better off not knowing.  God’s response to Habakkuk’s complaints makes him even more desperate and outraged.  There is no way for an eternal God to explain Himself to finite man.  The plans God has for both Judah and Babylon are so far beyond Habakkuk that it is impossible for him to grasp them.  God’s ways are not our ways – His perspective is not our perspective – His timing is not our timing.  And our understanding is not a gauge of what is right and just.  We cannot say God is wrong or inconsistent just because we do not understand His actions.  We cannot put God in a box.
  • God is sovereign over evil.  Evil is never God’s will or His desire, but nothing is outside of His control and He uses ALL things to advance His plan.  The Babylonians are pagan and violent but God will use them for His own purpose (but still judge them for their wickedness).  Remember that God used the jealousy of Joseph’s brothers to save His people from famine and preserved the Messianic line through Judah and Tamar and David and Bathsheba. [God used 10 petty men who were jealous of their little brother to ensure that God’s people relocated to Egypt where they lived for four centuries before God orchestrated their deliverance through the biggest redemptive event in Israel’s history which presaged the ultimate redemptive event in world history 1400 years later.  And we wonder why God does not bother to explain His plans to us?]
  • God is serious about His commitment to His people.  God’s use of the Chaldeans to punish Judah shows the extent to which He will go to ensure they follow Him.  For the believer, it is a reminder that there is no limit to what God will do to enlarge our faith and increase His glory.  We should not be surprised by hard times and trials.

“For My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways My ways,” declares the Lord.  “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts higher than your thoughts.”  Isaiah 55:8-9

For behold, He who forms mountains and creates the wind and declares to man what are His thoughts, He who makes dawn into darkness and treads on the high places of the earth, the Lord God of hosts is His name.  Amos 4:13

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