PERFECTED FAITH Habakkuk 1–3
“The Sovereign Lord is my strength . . . He enables me to go on the heights” (Hab. 3:19).Faith grows fastest when challenged. What Habakkuk teaches us is that through our doubts and suffering, our faith can and will be perfected.
Habakkuk complained to God of injustice in Judah (1:1–4). He was told that the Lord was raising up the Babylonians to discipline His people (vv. 5–11). The prophet asked how God could permit the wicked to triumph (vv. 12–17), and was shown that despite appearances the evil man never really succeeds (2:1–20). God then showed Habakkuk the horrors of the coming invasion (3:1–16). Shaken, the prophet determined to trust God, and so reached the pinnacle of faith (vv. 18–19).
Understanding the Text
“Injustice” Hab. 1:2–4. Under Old Testament Law local elders met to settle disputes. There was no police force or national justice system. If local elders took bribes, or if witnesses lied, the law was “paralyzed, and justice never prevails.” Habakkuk complained that the religious enthusiasm generated by Josiah’s revival (see 2 Kings 23) had not touched the hearts of the majority. Because the majority was wicked, the righteous were hemmed in (outnumbered), so “justice is perverted.” In this morning’s paper one article described how a witness against local drug pushers was being harassed and her family threatened. Our justice system does not distribute responsibility in the Old Testament way. Yet what the individual does remains the key to a just society. Habakkuk, looking at the corruption in his society, wondered how God could permit Judah to continue in such a state. The answer, of course, is that God would not permit an unjust society to represent Him. There may well be a cost in taking a stand for justice. But there is an even greater cost if we fail to do so! “I am raising up the Babylonians” Hab. 1:5–11. At the time God spoke to Habakkuk, about 621B.C, the Babylonians (Chaldeans) were a subject people within the Assyrian Empire. In 625B.C Nabopolassar took the throne of Babylon and, within two decades, crushed the mighty Assyrians. This sudden and amazing overthrow of the dominant world power is referred to in verses 5–6, “I am going to do something in your days that you would not believe even if you were told. I am raising up the Babylonians.” There may be no obvious threat on the horizon capable of shattering an unjust society. The Book of Habakkuk reminds us how quickly God can raise up and bring down nations, to say nothing of individuals. “Your eyes are too pure to look on evil” Hab. 1:12–13. As Habakkuk considered God’s plan to use the Babylonians to punish Judah, he was even more deeply troubled. You and I can hardly understand the terror caused by an invading army in ancient times. Verses 8–11 graphically portray ancient warfare, with swift cavalry attacks in the open, and earthen ramps built up against the walls of besieged cities. The attacking armies were truly “bent on violence.” Defeated foes were subject to torture, women and girls to rape, and even infants were speared or taken by the heels and swung against stone walls. The utter cruelty of the Babylonians repelled Habakkuk. But even more, he knew it must repel the Lord. God is Israel’s Holy One, too pure to even look on (i.e., “permit”) evil. How then could God permit a people more wicked than His own to triumph over them. We often may share Habakkuk’s perplexity. We too see the wicked triumph, and we too wonder. How can God, our Holy One, permit such things to happen without acting in judgment? The answer, found in chapter 2, is surprising. God does not “look on” evil! God even now is actively judging those whose success causes us to doubt (see DEVOTIONAL). Babylonian war memorials show Jewish captives being taken to Babylon. God appointed them to execute judgment on His sinning people. “Write down the revelation and make it plain” Hab. 2:1–19. Habakkuk had set himself to wait for God’s answer. When it came, the prophet was told to write it down and make it plain—for you and me! We can paraphrase the principles of God’s present judgment of the wicked quite simply. The wicked man never has enough (vv. 4–5). The wicked man is doomed to dissatisfaction. He is like a furnace, and each success like fuel added to a burning fire. The more he gains, the hotter the fire burns, and the more empty his life becomes! What a judgment this is: to win, and never be able to enjoy it. The wicked are isolated (vv. 6–8). The wicked man makes his gains at the expense of others. This creates hostility, and makes the wicked man fearful. He knows he has earned the hatred of others, and so finds himself isolated and vulnerable. What a judgment this is: to look around, and know that others hate and fear you. To know that you are truly alone. The wicked feel insecure (vv. 9–11). Driven by their insecurity the wicked concentrate on material gain. They count on wealth or power to set their “nest on high.” The image is of a vulture, who nests on a mountain crag for safety. This is how the wicked live, desperately trying to erect barriers. What a judgment this is: to know that justice demands one’s ruin, trying desperately to protect himself, but never able to feel safe and secure. The wicked man’s hopes will be dashed (vv. 12–14). The wicked man builds monuments to his achievements, even as Herod built cities to preserve his name and Hitler strove to create a “thousand-year Reich.” Yet every such effort is in vain: they “exhaust themselves for nothing.” God intends this world to be filled with knowledge of Him, not with monuments to murderers. What a judgment this is: to hope, and see every hope come to nothing. The wicked will be repaid in kind (vv. 15–17). The actions of the wicked man arouse the antagonism of all around him. There will surely be a backlash. And what a judgment this is: violence, the tool he relied on in his quest for wealth and power, will be used against him, and he in his turn will be destroyed. Never suppose that the wicked really succeed. An evil empire, or an evil person, may appear to prosper. But beyond the trappings of success, buried deep within the heart of the wicked, is a misery, an emptiness, a fear, that is the mark of the present judgment of the God too holy to look on evil. “The Lord is in His holy temple” Hab. 2:20. Here and in other passages where God is pictured “in His holy temple,” the image speaks of imminent judgment. Note that in Habakkuk’s vision God announces He “is” in His holy temple. There is a great day coming, a day of final judgment. But never assume that God is powerless or inactive now. Habakkuk has shown us that God judges the wicked even as they seem to prosper. Yet, seeing God in His holy temple, the prophet was confronted with the fact that judgment day for Judah—his own land—was at hand! “God came from Teman” Hab. 3:1–15. At first Habakkuk welcomed the coming judgment. God would remember mercy even as He poured out His wrath. Perhaps, like Habakkuk, you and I take discipline lightly. Let it come, we think, never realizing the pain that may be necessary to purify us. God quickly corrected His impatient servant. These verses describe three historic periods of judgment, not from the vantage point of a man, but from the vantage point of one who sees through the veil that isolates us from the spiritual universe. There he discovers an angry God, arrayed in holiness. In his vision Habakkuk saw, not the plague that devastated the Exodus generation on the plains of Moab (Num. 25), but God Himself, burning in anger, His elemental power shaking the foundations of the earth, coming from Sinai to execute the judgment that Law required (Hab. 3:3–7). In a second vision Habakkuk saw an enraged God sweeping earth clean by the Genesis Flood (vv. 8–10). In a third vision Habakkuk watched as God “in wrath” came as a mighty warrior to overthrow Egypt’s armies and deliver His people from slavery (vv. 11–15). Each of these visions was calculated to do just one thing. To show Habakkuk what it really means to experience discipline at the hand of the holy God. Sinai symbolizes not only God’s Law but His holiness (Ex. 3:4–5; 18:16–24). The place locations mentioned in Habakkuk 3:3–7 tell us that Habakkuk saw the Lord, setting out from Sinai, coming to the plains of Moab to judge Israel for idolatry and immorality (Num. 25). “Decay crept into my bones, and my legs trembled” Hab. 3:16. At last Habakkuk understood. God had satisfied his doubts. Now God was ready to do a deeper work in Habakkuk’s heart. You see, belief is not simply an intellectual exercise. Faith is not built on intellect alone. The prophet finally realized that he would be among those who experienced the awful devastation of warfare. His fig trees would be shattered, his vines droop to the ground. At last the prophet realized that when the fields of Judah produced no food, he and his own would face starvation. Divine discipline meant all he knew, all he hoped for, all he possessed—would be taken away. And then, as the prophet trembled at the prospect, a strange peace entered his heart. Though all these things must happen, “Yet I will rejoice in the Lord.” In triumph the Prophet Habakkuk reached deep, and found a sustaining faith. When a nation is judged for its sins, the righteous suffer with the wicked. Faith makes no man immune to the troubles that are common to mankind. But as Habakkuk caught sight of a mountain goat (not “deer”) picking its way on a mountainside, unmindful of the danger of a fall, he realized a wonderful truth. Resting in God, the believer remains secure, whatever his circumstances. Even in the dreadful days about to come, God would enable His servant Habakkuk to pick his way safely—like that mountain goat—despite the dizzying heights.
Inside Out(Hab. 2)
It isn’t fair, of course. All too often the wicked do prosper. Sinners strike it rich while the godly struggle to make ends meet. The profane man, who scoffs at God, stays healthy, while a believer suffers a wrenching back injury or is stricken with cancer. The lazy employee, who lies about coworkers, gets the promotion, while the person who works hard and helps others is ignored. Looked at from the outside, all these things seem unfair. And they are. Looked at from the outside, you or I might conclude that God is standing back, disinterested, letting people get away with anything they want. Or, even worse, we might conclude that God helps the wicked get ahead of the righteous. But Habakkuk 2 reminds us, that’s when we look at things from the outside. Such conclusions are based only on what we can observe: on what we can see. And so God invites us, in this fascinating chapter, to look at things from the inside. When we do look to the inside, we discover that the wicked person who seems most successful is in fact the worst off! The wicked person is worse off because God is at work within, judging sin, and making the wicked man’s every success meaningless. What does Habakkuk 2 tell us is happening inside the person who succeeds in wicked ways? First, no such success can satisfy, but will only create more desire (vv. 4–5). Second, gains made at the expense of others isolate the “winner” from other people. Increasingly the wicked man finds himself alone, and lonely (vv. 6–8). Third, such gains create a sense of insecurity. A wicked man will try desperately to assure his safety, but the nagging awareness that he deserves punishment robs him of any sense of peace (vv. 9–11). Fourth, the hopes of the wicked are destined to be disappointed. God intends the earth to be filled with knowledge of Him, not monuments to murderers (vv. 12–14). Finally, the acts of the wicked create hostility. The harm a wicked person does others will create a backlash, and the violence he used will be directed against him. Wicked acts plant the seeds of their perpetrator’s destruction (vv. 15–17). I know. There are times when it’s hard not to envy the wicked man who prospers. But only if we look at such persons from the outside. Try looking at such men from the inside out. And then stop and think of all you have received in Christ. You have a life that’s full, not empty. You have fellowship with Christian friends. You have the knowledge that you are secure in God’s love. You have the certainty that all you hope for will indeed be yours. And you know that, if you are repaid in kind for the way you treat others, you will receive a blessing and not a curse. Looking from the inside out, you and I discover the truth. Those the world thinks of as winners have lost. And we have won.
Learn to evaluate from the inside out, and thank God for your many blessings.