Habakkuk is a short book, listed among the minor prophets—yet there is nothing ‘minor’ about the themes it contains. The book takes only fifteen minutes to read, yet it was clearly a key to the apostle Paul’s understanding of salvation by faith. It also discusses themes such as God’s providence and the directness and rightness of his judgements, as well as containing prophecies about the destruction of Babylon, the return of Christ to the earth and the conquest of the nations that will follow. So, despite its size, Habakkuk is a book well worth reading and meditating on during the coming month.
Who was Habakkuk? Where did he come from? When did he prophesy? Who did he prophesy to? These are the questions we would normally ask as background to any book of the Bible—yet Habakkuk doesn’t directly give us any of this information. He tells us his name, but not the name of his father or his place of birth. He does, uniquely, give himself the title of “prophet”. We deduce that he prophesied to Judah (because his prophecy concerns an invasion by the Chaldeans, not the Assyrians). We suspect he was a Levite—as evidenced by the directions given in the Psalm that is Habakkuk chapter 3. As to when he lived –this is a matter of conjecture. Some believe he lived close to the Babylonian invasion. If you read Habakkuk 1:5–6 from the av it does sound as if the invasion would take place during Habakkuk’s lifetime. The Hebrew for these verses, however, reads, “I am working a work in your days… I am raising up the Chaldeans”—implying that though God had begun to prepare the Chaldean nation for its invasion of Judah, it would not necessarily be accomplished in Habakkuk’s lifetime. My personal opinion is that Habakkuk prophesied earlier, probably during Hezekiah’s reign. Part of the evidence for this is in the shock that Habakkuk shows when God reveals his plan for a Chaldean invasion (in 1:12–17). Evidently this had not been prophesied before in such unambiguous language. As a Chaldean invasion had been foretold as early as Hezekiah’s reign (2 Kings 20:14–18), and it seems unlikely that Habakkuk would have been unaware of this, it seems his argument with God took place before 2 Kings 20.
As the book is essentially an argument between Habakkuk and God, the simplest summary is as follows:
Hab 1:2–4 Habakkuk’s Question
Hab 1:5–11 God’s Solution
Hab 1:12–2:1 Habakkuk’s Challenge
Hab 2:2–20 God’s Response
Hab 3:1–19 Habakkuk’s Song
The first section of the book consists of a question from Habakkuk to God. God had revealed the wickedness and violence in the nation of Judah to Habakkuk. Habakkuk had no doubt prophesied against the violent and the wicked—yet nothing happened. Habakkuk’s question is: “How long?” How long was God prepared to stand by as the wicked grew more wicked (to the point where they already surrounded the righteous)? Why didn’t God judge them?
We begin to see the passion of the prophet in this section. Being a prophet, to a man like Habakkuk was no cerebral exercise. He wasn’t ‘just’ the messenger. He pondered his message. He was concerned about his hearers. He felt the injustice suffered by the righteous. He wanted to see God’s righteousness prevail. As you read through the book, you will see he is a passionate advocate on behalf of his people.
As we would expect, God is not fazed by Habakkuk’s question. He has a response ready: “What am I doing about the wicked and the violent in Judah, Habakkuk? Well, I have a plan. I am raising up the Chaldean nation, who will sweep down and destroy Judah. My judgements against the wicked are coming, Habakkuk—the Babylonians are going to execute them for me.”
There is an implied rebuke in these words— against an implied accusation made by Habakkuk. Habakkuk had asked how long before God would act. This implied that God was not acting, possibly that He was indifferent to the injustice in Judah. God’s response implies that, although Habakkuk couldn’t see Him acting, this doesn’t mean He wasn’t. In the words of Brother Dennis Gillet, God says: “I may be invisible, but I am not indifferent”. By no means is God indifferent, he already had a plan underway. The fact that Habakkuk could not see God acting was a reflection on his lack of faith, not on God’s attitude toward the righteous in Judah.
Habakkuk is horrified by God’s proposed solution. The Chaldeans! How could God propose to use such a terrible people against His own nation? Habakkuk proceeds to put forward a passionate case on behalf of his own people. God is too pure to behold sin; isn’t it then morally inconsistent for God to use sinners for His own purpose? The use of a wicked nation against a more righteous one is also morally questionable (v13). God’s attitude is cavalier at best—He is effectively treating His people and all people as though mere fish in the sea, as His playthings; surely people mean more to God than that? God is Judah’s ruler; therefore He should protect them—not send the Chaldeans to destroy them (v14). The Babylonians are like fishermen— they will indiscriminately sweep both righteous and wicked (nations and individuals) into their net. Where is the justice in that? God is indiscriminate in His judgements (v15)! The Babylonians will thank their idols for their power to conquer—there will be no praise to Yahweh. The Babylonian gods will be seen as more powerful than Yahweh. Is that what God wants (v16)? Finally, once the Babylonians become the dominant world power there will be no stopping that bitter and hasty nation—does God want all that blood on His hands (v17)?
In the first verse of Habakkuk 2 the prophet waits for God’s response to his challenge. He stands upon his watchtower, upon the bulwark of his own carefully crafted arguments, arms crossed, chin jutting defiantly and waits for God to answer him.
And answer him God does. As with God’s responses to other men who challenge him (Job, for example) God does not respond to Habakkuk directly. God does not answer Habakkuk’s challenges one by one—but by the end of Chapter 2, Habakkuk is not the defiant, self-assured challenger that he was at the start. In reality, God merely continues with His prophecy about Babylon that was interrupted by Habakkuk in 1:12. Habakkuk 2:5 could really begin with the words “As I was saying before I was rudely interrupted …”
Of course this is prefaced with the profoundly important statement of Habakkuk 2:4: “the just shall live by his faith”. This statement becomes the basis for Paul’s arguments about justification by faith (not law, or works) in his epistles. It is well worth looking at how this phrase is used in Romans, Galatians and Hebrews. Each use emphasises a different word in the phrase.
God then continues with His prophecy against not just the Chaldeans, but specifically their king. He does this through five “woes” against the king of Babylon:
- 2:6 “Woe to him that increaseth that which is not his”
- 2:9 “Woe to him that coveteth an evil covetousness to his house”
- 2:12 “Woe to him that buildeth a town with blood”
- 2:15 “Woe unto him that giveth his neighbour drink”
- 2:19 “Woe unto him that saith to the wood, Awake.”
The “woes” are effectively legal charges against the king of Babylon, reasons for the judgements that God will mete out against him.
Again, if I can paraphrase God’s response: “Habakkuk, you accuse me of injustice because I don’t appear to be acting against the violent in Judah, then when I reveal My plan regarding the Chaldeans, you accuse Me of injustice for using a wicked nation against a ‘more righteous’. Well, don’t be concerned; the king of Babylon will be judged in turn. He will be judged for his violent accumulation, for his covetousness, for his bloodthirstiness, for his drunken excesses and for his idolatry. I am not indifferent, Habakkuk. I am in control. And, by the way, Habakkuk, there is only one basis for salvation—that is individual faith, not your estimation of who is ‘more righteous’ (1:13). Finally, Habakkuk, My ways are higher than your ways, My thoughts are higher than your thoughts. You may stand on the bulwark of your own wisdom, but I am in My holy temple. Let all the earth keep silence before Me” (2:20).
Habakkuk’s Song Does Habakkuk get the message? He certainly does, and the final chapter of the book shows this abundantly. Habakkuk 3 is a vision, a prayer, a prophecy and a song. It is clear that it is intended to be sung from its Psalm-like super and subscriptions (in Hab 3:1 and 3:19).
In this final outburst of praise Habakkuk reflects on God’s past victories through Israel over her enemies. Note the references to famous victories over Canaanites by Deborah and Barak, by Joshua over the five kings of the Amorites, by Jael over Sisera and Israel conquering the Egyptians through God’s control of the Red Sea.
Habakkuk also reflects on God’s continuous battle against sin through His people. This battle was ultimately won by His Son. Habakkuk prophesies of this victory in verses 13 and 14—with some obvious links back to Genesis 3, and forward to Christ’s victory over sin through his own death.
Finally Habakkuk 3 is also a prophecy about the future victory of Christ and the saints over the latter day power of Babylon that will again threaten Habakkuk’s people. Note how Habakkuk borrows heavily from Moses’ description in Deuteronomy of the triumphant sweep of Israel up from Sinai to the promised land. This becomes a prophecy of the march of Christ and the saints through the same area, as they begin the campaign against God’s enemies which will culminate in the establishment of Christ as king over all the earth.
Finally chapter three shows the dramatic change that has taken place in Habakkuk. No longer is he defiantly challenging God. Now he is prepared to accept that God is in control, that His judgements are just and that, in the long run, all things work together for good for those that have been justified by faith.