Tales of the Nevi'im - Habakkuk
The Tales of the Nevi’im are the Stories of the Prophets. In Hebrew navi (nah-vee') means prophet and the plural, prophets, is nevi'im (neh-vee-eem'). Israel had many prophets, some of whom we know from the Old Testament, others are lost to us in history. Many of Israel's prophets spoke to the people but didn't write anything down, likely because their message was meant for a specific people and time. Others proclaimed a message meant to instruct us as well. God spoke his word through these men for all people for all times, and we read them today as the books of the prophets in our Bibles. This series will explore their stories and message.
The Story of Habakkuk
The prophet Habakkuk (pron. Huh-back’-kuk) was a contemporary of Nahum and Zephaniah, working roughly in the timeframe of 640-600 BC. It is a tribute to the lonely work of a prophet that no mention has been found of any of these prophets working together (Guess they didn’t have a Prophet Conference or professional association!). Habakkuk likely wrote this short book sometime in the period from 612-605 BC. During this time the dreaded Assyrian empire, having conquered the northern kingdom of Israel in 722 BC, was in decline.
The Babylonian empire was on the rise and under the Babylonian king Nabopolassar (pron. Nab-o-pol-lass’-er), who ruled from 626-612, Assyria suffered defeats and lost significant parts of its empire. Nabopolassar’s son Nebuchadnezzar (pron. Neb-you-kad-nezz’-er) was able to take the Assyrian capital of Nineveh in 612 BC and defeated an Egyptian-Assyrian army definitively in 605 BC. Thus passed the Assyrian empire into the dusty pages of history, being defeated with the sword just as Nahum predicted.
Meanwhile, in the Israelite kingdom of Judah, the idolatrous, 55-year reign of king Manasseh and the brief 2-year reign of his son Amon had come to an end. A new king, Josiah, came to the throne and during his rule, from 640 to 609 BC, he restored the law of God and tore down the idols in Judah. It’s likely Josiah was able to get away with his religious reforms because the Assyrians were preoccupied with the fight against the Babylonians.
In 609 BC, when it looked like the Assyrian empire would fall to the Babylonians, the Egyptian pharaoh Neco (pron. Nek’-oh) thought it in Egypt’s interest to join with Assyria to blunt the growing power of Babylonia. He marched with a great army north, through Judah, to aid the Assyrians. King Josiah valiantly tried to stop the Egyptian army but was killed in a battle near Megiddo in northern Israel. Egypt would go on to defeat them at the battle of Carchemish.
As you can see, the times in which Habakkuk lived were characterized by rapid political change and social and spiritual upheaval. The Assyrians, Babylonians, and Egyptians were all ruthless. What’s worse, among the Israelites there was widespread fear, greed, and exploitation. Josiah pointed people to faith in God but his successors quickly returned to idolatry.
The book of Habakkuk is unique in that he does not deliver a message from God to Israel – he speaks on behalf of the people to God! In fact the book is a short dialogue between Habakkuk and God, ending with a hymn – a statement of faith in God’s goodness regardless of the situation. Let’s follow the question and answer as Habakkuk asks God the timeless question, “How can God allow evil and wickedness in the world?”
Habakkuk’s first question (1:2-4): “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not hear? Or cry to you, ‘Violence!’ and you will not save? 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. So the law is paralyzed, and justice never goes forth. For the wicked surround the righteous; so justice goes forth perverted.”
And the Lord replies (1:5-6): “Look among the nations and see; wonder and be astounded. For I am doing a work in your days tha you would not believe if told. For behold, I am raising up the Chaldeans [Babylonians], that bitter and hasty nation…”
Basically, Habakkuk asks, “How can you allow evil?” and God answers, “Who says I’m allowing it? I’m raising up Babylon to punish all the evil of Assyria, Egypt and Judah!”
This is not what Habakkuk had in mind! So he continues with his second question (1:12-13): “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. 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?” I can sympathize with Habakkuk. He wants evil punished, but really, God? The Babylonians are at least as bad as the people they are punishing! Habakkuk, and I suspect we also, wants to see a knight in shining armor – a righteous nation coming to the aid of the oppressed - not the Babylonians!
God responds (2:2-4): “And the Lord answered me: ‘Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so he may run who reads it. 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. Behold, his soul is puffed up; it is not upright within him, but the righteous shall live by faith.’” God assures Habakkuk that He will deal with evil, but he affirms that it may not be in the way Habakkuk expects. He also tells Habakkuk not to lose hope – don’t give up! Even if justice seems slow, it is coming. Finally, God tells the prophet to live in trust – trust God to make things right.
Imagine Habakkuk pondering this exchange and his situation, much like we ponder the problem of evil in the world. In the end, Habakkuk shares his conclusion with us in one of the most beautiful passages in the Bible (3:17-18), “Though the fig tree does not blossom; nor the 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 cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will take joy in the God of my salvation.” What a tremendous statement of faith in the midst of trouble!
God’s declaration that “The righteous shall live by faith” is quoted three times in the New Testament to reinforce that our righteousness comes by the grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ. Habakkuk stands as an example of faith throughout the ages.
Lessons and Themes
God is just. We humans have a short perspective on life and want to measure justice in immediate terms. God is just on His schedule not ours. God is just through His means not ours. God plays a long game – in the end everyone will be held accountable. The only response to that knowledge is to live a life of trust in God so that we will be found faithful in the end.
It’s OK to doubt. It’s OK to question. Habakkuk is not rebuked for his questioning. He struggles with understanding God’s ways and purposes. God is open to honest doubt and sincere questioning. The key is to talk to God, not about God. We may look to understand God’s righteousness, but we cannot be excused for trying to judge God – thereby setting ourselves up as gods!
Salvation happens through suffering, not from suffering. If salvation happens from suffering, then why did God send his own son to suffer and die for us? No, the injustice in the world serves the purpose of forming our faith in ways that a ‘perfect’ world could never do!
Questions for Further Reflection/Discussion:
Do you struggle with the presence of evil in the world? How does the experience and conclusion of Habakkuk affect your thinking?
By the end of his dialogue and his contemplation, Habakkuk appears to have learned to wait on God and to trust Him. Is there a situation in your life where you need to wait on God? To trust Him?
In the New Testament, in John chapter 9, we read about a man who was born blind. Jesus healed him and the people were amazed! But the religious authorities were not convinced this was a good thing since he was healed on the Sabbath, a day they had decided (they, not God) that this was not permitted. Bringing the man in front of the tribunal, they said, “A second time they summoned the man who had been blind. ‘Give glory to God,’ they said. ‘We know this man is a sinner.’ He replied, ‘Whether he is a sinner or not, I don’t know. One thing I do know. I was blind but now I see!’” (John 9:24-25) Like the blind man, we don’t always comprehend God’s ways or purposes. How does this mesh with Habakkuk’s statement, “The righteous shall live by faith”? What does that mean for us?
Terry Feix is the Executive Pastor at Crossings Community Church in Oklahoma City and a regular writer at So We Speak. Follow him @TerryFeix on Twitter.
Like the content? Support the site and get more at patreon.com/sowespeak!