Darren L. Slider
Lessons from a “Minor” Prophet
Lessons from a “Minor” Prophet
Father in heaven, sanctify us by Your truth which is Your Word. Grant us Your Spirit, that we by Your written word may come to know the Living Word, Your Son Jesus Christ. For of Him Your written word testifies, and, together with Him and with the Holy Spirit, You are the one true God, the knowledge of whom is eternal life. In His name, Amen.
The book of Habakkuk, one of the “minor” prophets, lies between the books of Nahum and Zephaniah and is the fifth-from-last book of the Old Testament. Not much is known about the prophet himself, but it is evident from the context of his book that he wrote some time (but perhaps not too long) before the exile of Judah into Babylon, which began around 605 BC.
The prophet begins (1:1-4):
Habakkuk is not a man who hesitates to argue with God. Living in Judah, among God’s chosen people, he finds himself surrounded by “violence and plundering, strife and contention,” and justice is perverted. He begins his book by a direct and forceful complaint to God: LORD, when are You going to punish the evildoers among your people? How long will You let this flagrant injustice go on?
Note that God does not rebuke Habakkuk for complaining, nor does He remain silent: He answers His prophet with a similar frankness (1:5-6):
Habakkuk gets a straight answer: God will bring on the Chaldeans, also known as the Babylonians, to punish the wickedness of the inhabitants of Judah. The Lord goes on to describe at some length the fierce people He will use as the instrument of His justice (1:7-11) and Habakkuk seems at first to accept this prompt explanation (1:12-13a):
So far, Habakkuk seems to be delighted that the wickedness in Judah will be punished. He is assured that the Lord is “of purer eyes than to behold evil, and cannot look on wickedness.” But then he starts complaining again (1:13b-17):
He cannot help but ask God why He punishes the wicked in Judah by means of a heathen nation which is even more wicked. The Babylonians are greedy, idolatrous, and pitilessly violent, plundering all nations in their path indiscriminately like fishermen who gather up whatever falls into their nets. Habakkuk is upset by God’s answer not only morally, but intellectually: by punishing the violent and greedy by the even more violent and greedy, the Lord is not really solving the problem, but only pushing it back one level and apparently making it worse. After making this further complaint, the prophet is quite certain that the Lord will put him in his place this time (2:1):
Habakkuk chooses the fascinating image of a watchman standing on top of the city’s fortifications, spending long hours looking for approaching trouble. The image is fitting, in that enemy armies figure prominently in the correction of the wickedness of Judah, but on another level, the prophet is the wicked one who expects to be corrected by God for presuming to argue with Him (as indeed once happened to Job). Hence there is a certain parallel in the image between the enemy armies and the divine correction the prophet questions the identification of the two, but by using this image, he also accepts what the Lord has told him. Ultimately, he has faith, just like Job. Job questioned God’s dealings with him vehemently and at great length, but he never repudiated his faith. He said, “Though He slay me, yet will I trust Him. Even so, I will defend my own ways before Him” (Job 13:15).
When God entered the dialog with Job and his four friends, He mocked and ridiculed Job for four entire chapters on the grounds that Job was not present at the creation and is powerless to maintain it. Habakkuk no doubt expects a similar rebuke but does not get one. There are two things to note about this:
Firstly, the Lord does not rebuke Job merely because Job questions Him. If one reads what God goes on to say to Job’s friends (42:7), one immediately realizes that there is more to it than that:
Remember that Job’s friends are the ones who defend God’s ways for chapter after chapter! Yet God insists that Job, who has complained about God’s dealings the whole time, is the one who has spoken rightly about Him. Remember also that Job never let go of his faith. We must conclude from this that God wants His saints to ask the hard questions and that asking these questions does not necessarily indicate a lack of faith.
Secondly, when we read more carefully the Lord’s response to Habakkuk’s first complaint, we are rather shocked to learn that the Lord actually baited Habakkuk into making his second complaint! God does not merely inform Habakkuk that He will bring the Babylonians to suppress the wicked in Judah: He describes the character of the Babylonians. They are greedy: they march “through the breadth of the earth, to possess dwelling places that are not theirs” (1:6). They are violent: “They fly as the eagle that hastens to eat. They all come for violence” (1:8b-9a). Worst of all, they are proud: “their judgment and their dignity proceed from themselves” (1:7b). In effect, it is as if God were to say to Habakkuk, “You are quite correct: greedy, violent, and proud men are wreaking injustice unchecked among My people. But justice is on the way the even more greedy, violent, and proud men of Babylon will solve the problem.” Can one really suppose that the Lord expected Habakkuk to take this at face value? It begs for a further complaint, though Habakkuk is at first (perhaps understandably) a little hesitant to make it, and more than a little frightened of God’s response afterward. (Of course, God did warn Habakkuk that he would be “utterly astounded.”)
When one examines the acts of God in the Bible in some depth, one finds that He almost always baits and provokes the ones with whom He deals. He tricks Abraham into arguing down the number of righteous persons for whose sake He would spare Sodom and Gomorrah. He commands Abraham to sacrifice his son, but He really wants Abraham to plumb the very depths of faith He has no intention of letting Abraham go through with it. He tells Moses that He will destroy the Israelites and recreate the chosen people from Moses’ descendants but He does not mean it: He means to give Moses opportunity to trade his eternal salvation for the welfare of Israel. But the Lord will not even let Moses do that, because the Lord will one day do so Himself, at Calvary. What He really intends by all this is to proclaim the depths of His own love for Moses (and everyone who reads) to hear.
Indeed, when He “became flesh, and dwelt among us,” He employed this method time and again, not only every time He told a parable, but also when He spoke with individual seekers for truth, His disciples, and even His enemies. Indeed, especially His enemies: the Pharisees and scribes continually press Him with either-or questions in which both answers will get Him into trouble. “ ‘Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?’ ” (Matthew 22:17b). “ ‘Teacher, this woman was caught in adultery, in the very act. Now Moses, in the law, commanded us that such should be stoned. But what do You say?’ ” (John 8:4b-5) His answers generally seem to evade the difficulty, but in fact they always go much farther below the surface than his questioners ever had in mind: “ ‘Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’ ” (Matthew 22:21b) “ ‘He who is without sin among you, let him throw a stone at her first.’ ” (John 8:7b) His enemies are filled with malice and are only playing with words, but He is full of love and is (in a very real sense) deadly serious, even when He Himself is playing with words. He wants even His enemies to surrender their pride and to comprehend, as Paul says, “what is the width and length and depth and height to know the love of Christ which passes knowledge,” and to “be filled with all the fullness of God” (Ephesians 3:18b-19).
This is also where He is leading Habakkuk, whom we left a short while ago waiting for an answer to his second complaint and perhaps not inappropriately, as Habakkuk is told in the answer to expect a delay (2:2-4):
We said earlier that it is evident here and in the book of Job that God desires His saints to ask the hard questions, the questions beginning with “why.” As here, he often provokes us to ask these questions so that we will come to know the depths of His love. He is Love, and to know Him is life eternal. But the immediate questions remain: Why did You permit thousands to die in the terrorist bombings of September 11? Why did You let my parents end their marriage in divorce? Why did my cat Oreo run away and never come back? Each of us can, and does, and ought to ask many such questions. He wants us to, and He means someday to answer every one of them directly. In the meantime, “the just shall live by his faith.”
The other, terrible option is to join the ranks of the proud. We might not covet our neighbors’ possessions and take them by force, like the wicked in Judah or Babylon, but if we choose pride, there is no guarantee that we will not do these things. “Behold the proud, his soul is not upright in him.” Pride is a disease that, but for the divine grace, consumes our very spiritual lives. It is like a tapeworm that consumes all the food that is meant to nourish us and makes our appetites impossible to satisfy and eventually kills us, unless removed (and that most painfully) by the divine Physician. As God says (2:5b):
Our Lord wants us to ask why, indeed He draws us to ask why, but in this world He always comes to the point where He insists that we trust Him. We do have an alternative: we can instead choose to be offended. Even such a great saint as John the Baptist felt the temptation to offense while he was locked up in prison and nobody came to rescue him. He sent his disciples to Jesus to ask Him if He was indeed the Christ. Jesus, as usual, did not answer John or John’s disciples directly, but allowed the disciples to observe the miraculous fruits of His ministry. He sent them back to John with instructions to communicate to him what they had observed Jesus doing. He concluded His response with a great benediction which is also a terrible warning: “Blessed is he who is not offended because of Me.” (See Matthew 11:2-6.)
How is it an act of pride to be offended at the Lord? It is an insistence on having things our way right now, instead of God’s way in His time. We put ourselves in His place; we think (and eventually act) as if we knew better than God, indeed as if we were God. That is the nature of pride. As long as we insist on having our own way in any matter, however small, against the revealed will of God, we will not, in the end, be able to stop ourselves from insisting on having our own way in every matter. That is the nature of hell.
Hell is indeed the final destruction of the wicked at the end of all things, but the mindset of hell, the sin that drives the wicked to their destruction, is pride. We see it in the devil, who in the beginning wanted to “be like the Most High” alas, in power, not in character. We learn this from the prophet Isaiah who, it is worth mentioning, addressed the devil under the figure of the king of Babylon (14:4-23), the pride of whose people is under discussion here in the book of Habakkuk.
During the life of Christ on earth, there was a time when His enemies were desperate to discredit Him. They were so desperate that they attributed His ability to cast out demons to an alliance with the prince of demons. “Ridiculous,” He said in effect. “How could Satan’s kingdom stand if his demons go around casting each other out?” (See Matthew 14:24-37.)
On one level He meant exactly this, but on another and deeper level, He was provoking them to think about the nature of evil as a whole. This deeper meaning is best illustrated by a chorus from the play Judgement at Chelmsford, by Charles Williams:
It was Lucifer’s pride that began the whole controversy. Hence Satan’s kingdom is founded on pride. It is the kingdom of “myself first,” the kingdom of “every man for himself.” But one cannot found a permanent organization on this principle. Satan’s kingdom is by its very nature divided against itself, and it does not stand! It destroys itself, and God often lets it destroy itself in order that all who observe and all who participate may realize its true nature and either avoid it or be without excuse for joining it.
In His second response to Habakkuk, God directs a series of five woes against the proud Babylonians who are His scourge against the wicked of Judah. These woes detail how their pride and wickedness will bring similar destruction upon their own heads. They have plundered many nations, but everyone who is left behind will plunder them (2:6-8). They have coveted evil gain for their houses, and because of it the very stone walls and timber beams of their houses will conspire against them (2:9-11) their houses are indeed divided against themselves! They establish their towns and cities by bloodshed and God abandons them to be destroyed by bloodshed while He goes on to establish an everlasting kingdom (2:12-14):
They make their neighbors drunk and expose their shame, but the Lord promises that the same will happen to them (2:15-17). Finally, their pride is its own punishment in that they worship idols which they make with their own hands. Refusing to know and worship the true God, their pride degrades them to worship inanimate objects instead they get the material things they desire, but there is no life in them (2:19-20):
So the wicked destroy themselves by their own pride, and it is just for our Lord to let them do so. One might still object, as did Habakkuk in his second complaint, that the proud and unjust do not cause suffering only to one another, but also to the humble and righteous. Indeed, no one knows this better than our Lord Himself. He consented to become a man and, though He was humble and righteous, He not only suffered at the hands of the proud and unjust, but also suffered the penalty of the proud and unjust. In this we marvel and rejoice, for thus we are enabled to become humble and righteous like Him who was punished in our place.
Nevertheless we, along with Habakkuk, long for the time when God will make a final end of Babylon and those who identify with it, of spiritual pride and the violence, suffering and injustice that follow in its train. The Lord assures Habakkuk (2:3) that “the vision is yet for an appointed time” and “it will surely come,” though there be a delay. The apostle Peter echoes this when he says (2 Peter 3:8-10a):
Also our Lord tells (Luke 18:7-8):
But He tells us in another place (Matthew 24:13):
Furthermore the apostle Paul, quoting the great text from Habakkuk, seconds our Lord’s statement (Hebrews 10:36-39):
By the grace of God, may this be true for every one of us.
After the five woes to Babylon, there follows the vision of which God had assured the prophet, “Though it tarries, wait for it, for it will surely come” (2:3b). Out of the commanded silence (2:20) the Lord proceeds from His holy temple in an awesome and terrifying psalm of judgment in which He destroys the wicked and rescues His people. It is matched in power and majesty only by the book of Revelation’s vision of Christ and the armies of heaven riding forth on white horses to do battle with the combined forces of evil at the end of the world (Revelation 19:11-21). The chapter (and the book) ends with Habakkuk’s magnificent affirmation of faith, which attains a glory and transcendence which are answered in the New Testament by that of the apostle Paul in the great climax (8:27-39) of the first eight chapters of the Epistle to the Romans.Here is what the prophet says:
Author’s Note: I presented this, my first sermon, at the Handley Seventh-day Adventist Church on Saturday, January 15, 2000.