by Doug Ward
Seven weeks after rescuing the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, God proclaimed the Ten Commandments from Mount Sinai. This theophany (appearance of God), which was accompanied by thunder and lightning, trumpet blasts, fire, and earthquakes (Exod 19:16-19), was a defining moment in the history of Israel. It is commemorated each year in the celebration of Shavuot1, when Jewish worshipers picture themselves at the foot of Mount Sinai, personally receiving the Torah.
The events at Sinai are also rehearsed and celebrated throughout the scriptures, particularly in the Psalms and in the books of the Prophets. For the prophet Habakkuk, these events and other mighty acts of God were the basis for a firm, steady faith. Habakkuk affirmed his faith in a wonderful psalm that has become part of the liturgy for Shavuot. In this article I will summarize the book of Habakkuk, including the psalm of Habakkuk 3. This short but powerful book can serve to strengthen our own faith today.
A Dialogue with God
Habakkuk prophesied in the late seventh century B.C., in the closing years of the kingdom of Judah. He was greatly troubled by the spiritual decline of his country-in particular, the violence and injustice he saw all around him-and he begged God to intervene (Hab 1:2-4). "How long, O Lord, must I call for help, but you do not listen?", he prayed (verse 2). His question suggests that he had been taking his concerns to God for some time.
Habakkuk could well have been hoping that God would send a righteous leader like King Hezekiah or King Josiah to turn the nation around.2 Instead, God communicated to Habakkuk that he would be sending the cruel Babylonians to punish Judah (Hab 1:5-11). God described the Babylonians as "ruthless and impetuous" (v. 6), a "feared and dreaded people" that are "a law to themselves" (v.7), and "guilty men, whose own strength is their god" (v. 11). Those in Judah who were guilty of violence and injustice would soon have to face the even greater violence and injustice of Babylon.
God's answer to Habakkuk was consistent with previous divine revelation. Some eight centuries before, Moses had warned that if Israel abandoned the covenant established at Sinai, God would send against them "a fierce-looking nation without respect for the old or pity for the young" (Deut 28:50). In Hezekiah's time, Isaiah had prophesied that Babylon would one day carry away Judah's treasures and take its king captive (Isa 39:1-7). More recently, the prophetess Huldah had confirmed that Moses' words would be fulfilled despite the reforms of King Josiah (2 Kings 22:15-20; 2 Chron 34:23-38).
Still, God knew that his announcement of a Babylonian invasion would be a shock to Habakkuk and his countrymen (Hab 1:5). At that time there was a widespread belief in Judah that Jerusalem was safe from foreign conquest because the Temple of God was there. (Jeremiah, a contemporary of Habakkuk, confronted this misconception in Jer 7.) A century earlier the mighty Assyrian Empire had sent an army all the way to Jerusalem, but God had struck down that army in response to the prayers of King Hezekiah (Isa 36-37). Few imagined that the Babylonians would succeed where the Assyrians had failed.
The idea that the holy God of Israel would allow the evil Babylonians to conquer his people made absolutely no sense to Habakkuk. Unable to reconcile this news with what he understood about God's character, he poured out his heart in prayer again, then awaited a response (Hab 1:12-2:1).
A Valuable Revelation
God's reply to Habakkuk's sincere prayer began with these words:
"Write down the revelation and make it plain on tablets so that a herald may run with it. For the revelation awaits an appointed time; it speaks of the end and will not prove false. Though it linger, wait for it; it will certainly come and will not delay" (Hab 2:2-3, NIV).
The directive to write down a message on tablets reminds us of Israel's experience at Sinai, when God provided Moses with tablets inscribed with the ten commandments (Exod 31:18; 34:1). Now God would be giving additional instruction, and Habakkuk would be following in the footsteps of Moses.
The final clause of Hab 2:2, rendered "so that a herald may run with it" in the NIV, has been translated in a number of different ways. Kaiser (Micah-Malachi, p. 164) points out that the Bible often speaks of running (or walking) to picture the way in which people lead their lives (see Ps 1:1; 119:32; Prov. 4:12; Jer 8:6; 10:23; I Cor 9:24-27; Phil 3:13-14). This suggests that the end of Hab 2:2 be paraphrased, "so that the person who reads it will live according to it."3 So Hab 2:2 implies that what God was about to tell Habakkuk would be something to preserve for future generations and follow closely, something comparable in value to the Decalogue.
The next verse, Hab 2:3, states that although the fulfillment of the message might take time, it would definitely come to pass. We may wonder how the fulfillment could both "linger" and "not delay." This seeming contradiction could reflect the difference between the human and divine perspectives. From a human point of view it might seem to take a long time for the prophecy to be carried out, but everything will occur right on time from God's perspective.4 From our point of view, we know that patience is often necessary. Think, for example, of how long Abraham and Sarah waited for the birth of their promised son Isaac, or how long Christians have waited for the second coming of Jesus. One reason for our waiting is that God is patient and merciful, "not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance" (2 Peter 3:9).
The message for the tablets follows in Hab 2:4-5:
"See, he is puffed up; his desires are not upright-but the righteous will live by his faith-indeed, wine betrays him; he is arrogant and never at rest. Because he is as greedy as the grave and like death is never satisfied, he gathers to himself all the nations and takes captive all the peoples."
Here those who are "puffed up" and arrogant are contrasted with the righteous. The former, typified by the Babylonians, are greedy and never satisfied. Relying only on themselves, they take everything they can. As God goes on to explain, the arrogant ultimately will not prevail. Those who plunder will themselves be plundered (verses 6-8), those who shed the blood of others will lose their lives, and those who humiliate others will be put to shame (vv. 9-17).
The Babylonians, then, might enjoy the fruit of their conquests for a time, but they would ultimately fall if they did not change their ways. And indeed, about seventy years later, in 539 B.C., their empire fell to the Medes (Dan 5). In agreement with Hab 2:5, 15-17, they were "betrayed by wine." While the Medes were preparing an attack, the Babylonian nobility partied, presumptuously drinking wine in vessels taken from the Jerusalem Temple.
On the other hand, the righteous-those who are justified in the eyes of God-rely on God with a lasting trust. Like Abraham, the father of the faithful, they are sustained by faith that is the basis for an abundant life. They might have to wait patiently for the fulfillment of the promises of God, but their patience eventually is rewarded. Both Jewish and Christian traditions recognize the brief description of the righteous in Hab 2:4 as a profound statement of what it means to live a godly life.5 This is definitely a message worthy of being "written in stone."
Habakkuk 2 encompasses much more than the fall of ancient Babylon. This is hinted at in verse 3, which says that the prophecy "speaks of the end". Kaiser (Micah-Malachi, p. 166) notes that the final sentence in verse 3 can also be translated, "Though he linger, wait for him; he will certainly come and will not delay." In fact, the Greek Septuagint translation renders the sentence this way, and early Christians saw in it a reference to the Messiah. In Heb 10:36-39, this passage is quoted to encourage Christians to wait faithfully for the return of Jesus. Another verse that looks far into the future is Hab 2:14, which points forward not only to the fall of ancient Babylon, but to the defeat of Babylon the Great and the time when all evil is vanquished: "For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea."
A Psalm of Faith
The revelation of Hab 2 was eye-opening for Habakkuk. With a clearer realization of God's greatness he responded in prayer and praise, celebrating the wondrous works of God in a psalm recorded in chapter 3.
Habakkuk now accepted that judgment was coming for Judah, but he invited the Lord to intervene and set things right, trusting in divine mercy (Hab 3:2). He then rehearsed the story of previous theophanies (vv. 3-15).
In the Exodus God had judged the lifeless deities of Egypt with plague and pestilence. His shining presence led the Israelites to Sinai, and his appearance there rocked the world (vv. 3-6).
When Israel strayed from the covenant during the era of the Judges, God had allowed them to be subject to other nations for a time, but then he had sent leaders to free them from foreign domination (verse 7). For example, he had raised up Othniel to overthrow the Mesopotamian oppressor Cushan-Rishathaim (Judges 3:7-11), and he had called Gideon to defeat the Midianites (Judges 6-8). Surely God would also limit the time of Babylonian oppression.
God had continually demonstrated his power over the forces of nature and the forces of evil (Hab 3:8-15). He had divided the waters at Creation, covered the world with the waters of the flood, and split the Red Sea and the Jordan River. He had vanquished the Pharaoh of Egypt, the most powerful human ruler of his time (vv. 13-15). He had delivered Israel, his "anointed one," so that one day a Great Deliverer, the Messiah, would come forth from Israel for the salvation of the whole world.
Contemplating these great wonders, Habakkuk was overwhelmed. He saw clearly that God had Judah's situation under control, and he knew that he could trust his Creator to intervene in due time (verse 16). Habakkuk concluded his psalm with a staunch affirmation of faith:
"Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Savior" (vv. 17-18).
For Habakkuk, the mighty acts of God in the past set a pattern and gave a promise for God's actions in the future. The One who had delivered Israel from Egypt and shaken Mount Sinai would save his people again. The past appearances of God were an anchor for Habakkuk's faith.
What about us today? Coming 2600 years after Habakkuk, we know about even more mighty acts of God, including the coming of the Messiah, his resurrection, and the great outpouring of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost seven weeks after the resurrection. How much more, then, should the great theophanies provide a firm foundation for our own faith! With Habakkuk, we can wait patiently for God.
1In English, Shavuot is the Feast of Weeks (Exod 34:22). It is also known as the Feast of Harvest (Exod 23:16) and Pentecost (Acts 2).
2We do not know exactly when Habakkuk prayed his prayer, but it may have occurred a few years after the untimely death of Josiah in 609 B.C. This is the time suggested by Dr. Walter C. Kaiser in his commentary on Habakkuk (p. 144 in Micah-Malachi, Mastering the Old Testament, Vol. 21, Word Publishing, Dallas, 1992). Such a scenario is supported by Jer 22:11-17, which describes the reign of Josiah's successor Shallum (Jehoahaz) in terms similar to Hab 1:2-4.
3Here Kaiser cites John Marshall Holt, "So He May Run Who Reads It," Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. 83, No. 3 (1964), 298-302.
4Kaiser credits this explanation to Protestant Reformer John Calvin (Micah-Malachi, p. 166).
5In the Talmud (b. Makkot 24a), Hab 2:4 is described as a summary of the entire Torah. This verse also played a key role in the teaching of the apostle Paul (Rom 1:17; Gal 3:11).
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On 19 Jun 2014, 18:38.