Encouragement from Habakkuk

“Although the fig tree shall not blossom, neither shall fruit be in the vines; the labour of the olive shall fail, and the fields shall yield no meat; the flock shall be cut off from the fold, and there shall be no herd in the stalls: Yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will joy in the God of my salvation. The Lord God is my strength, and he will make my feet like hinds’ feet, and he will make me to walk upon mine high places. To the chief singer on my stringed instruments” (Hab 3:17-19). These inspiring words, taken from the prophecy of Habakkuk, describe a very terrible time when everything in the land of Israel is decimated.

There is nothing left at all. The fruit of the vine and fig tree are gone; there is nothing on the table; the family cannot be fed. Israel is being led away into captivity with nothing but the clothes on their backs.

Yet despite these terrible circumstances Habakkuk says, “I will rejoice in Yahweh”! Habakkuk has a remarkable spirit, and it’s a spirit that I’m sure all of us would love to emulate. It is easy to share in the rejoicing of Habakkuk when circumstances are good and we can see blessings all around us, but it is much harder for us to rejoice if the good things of God are taken away from us. How did the prophet Habakkuk reach this state of mind? And how did he reach such a level of conviction in God that he could rejoice, whatever his circumstance? To answer these questions, we must dig a little deeper into the story of Habakkuk

Back to the beginning

In Habakkuk 1:2-4, we have a very different picture of the prophet: “O Lord, how long shall I cry, and thou wilt not hear! Even cry out unto thee of violence, and thou wilt not save! Why dost thou shew me iniquity, and cause me to behold grievance? For spoiling and violence are before me: and there are that raise up strife and contention. Therefore the law is slacked, and judgment doth never go forth: for the wicked doth compass about the righteous; therefore wrong judgment proceedeth.”

Habakkuk calls out to God in prayer and God doesn’t answer. He calls again and God still doesn’t answer. In grief Habakkuk pours out to God a picture of what he can see in the nation around him. He tells God of the violence and spoiling, strife and contention. And God seems to care nothing for these things, remaining silent. It is as though judgment for these wicked deeds will never come; God isn’t going to listen.

But of course, God does listen and answers the prayer of Habakkuk (v5-11): “Behold ye among the heathen”: God’s opening words to the prophet are worth considering first, as they provide a frame for His response. Habakkuk looks around him – close at hand – in the nation of Israel and he sees things which cause great distress. Perhaps, for us, this is like looking around the ecclesial world and seeing things which are distressing. Hopefully we can’t see violence as Habakkuk did, but things nevertheless which cause great heartache. Perhaps this is within our families or homes. The very first thing that God says in this situation is: “Behold”, or “look up”. Look to the heathen; don’t be overcome, Habakkuk, by what’s happening in the nation; lift up your head and look at the big picture. The big picture will help to clarify your vision. And the message is the same for us: God is working in the nations, and if we take the time to lift up our heads and look around us we can see that God is actively working in the nations today.

God’s response to Habakkuk sketches a picture of destruction coming upon the people of Israel. It is a graphic and poetic picture which God paints – perhaps among the most descriptive in the Bible: “Regard, and wonder marvellously: for I will work a work in your days, which ye will not believe, though it be told you. For, lo, I raise up the Chaldeans, that bitter and hasty nation, which shall march through the breadth of the land, to possess the dwelling places that are not theirs. They are terrible and dreadful: their judgment and their dignity shall proceed of themselves. Their horses also are swifter than the leopards, and are more fierce than the evening wolves: and their horsemen shall spread themselves, and their horsemen shall come from far; they shall fly as the eagle that hasteth to eat. They shall come all for violence: their faces shall sup up as the east wind, and they shall gather the captivity as the sand. And they shall scoff at the kings, and the princes shall be a scorn unto them: they shall deride every strong hold; for they shall heap dust, and take it. Then shall his mind change, and he shall pass over, and offend, imputing this his power unto his god.”

It is a very moving and terrible scene that God describes for Habakkuk. A picture of destruction – like a swift leopard; fierce as an evening wolf; flying as fast as an eagle; taking away everything in its path; despising anyone who stands in opposition; plundering and destroying.

You can’t do that!

But as God paints this picture for Habakkuk, and the prophet hears these terrible words ringing in his ears, he’s not convinced that this is the right answer from God. Habakkuk stands, listening to God and his response is: No! No, no! This is not what I asked for! This is not what I want You to do! I will tell You why this is all wrong and what You should be doing instead. Habakkuk begins chapter one very frustrated that God hasn’t heard his prayer. And now from 1:12–2:1, Habakkuk is still frustrated. He’s frustrated because God has heard his prayer but has answered him in the wrong way. Habakkuk argues with God – as did Moses, and Gideon, and Elijah, and Job, and Paul, and many others in Scripture. They are not condemned for what they say – they’re set forward as examples of faith that we are to follow. There are a number of options we have when God answers our prayers and we don’t understand.

We can walk away from God, as many do – which does not answer the problem. Or we can bury our doubts deep inside our hearts – which also does not answer the problem. Doubts will begin to grow and doubts will strangle our faith. Habakkuk doesn’t do either of those things. He comes to God, and he pours out to Him all of his questions. God listens to his prayer, and God works with him. God transforms this man, just as He transformed so many other men and women in Scripture. Habakkuk responds (v12-13) and says: “Art thou not from everlasting, O Lord my God, mine Holy One? we shall not die. O Lord, thou hast ordained them [the enemy] for judgment; and, O mighty God, thou hast established them for correction. Thou art of purer eyes than to behold evil, and canst not look on iniquity: wherefore lookest thou upon them that deal treacherously, and holdest thy tongue when the wicked devoureth the man that is more righteous than he?”

Oh God, We are not going to be destroyed! We, the people of Israel are the ones who are to be saved and it is the Chaldeans who must be judged. Why do you stand silent before this wicked nation?

Continuing his response (v14-17), Habakkuk then tells a parable to God. God is the creator; He has made all the fish in the sea and those fish are like men. A mighty army comes – like fishermen with their rods and tackle and nets, and they fish. They take a great spoil; their catch is enormous and when they have this wonderful catch, they don’t stop to remember God. They make a sacrifice to their nets and to their rods, and to their own power, and they celebrate their own strength – not the victory God has given them. Will they keep on emptying their nets and continue to go forth and slay the nations?

Habakkuk, having put forward his case, now stands before God (2:1) and says: “I will stand upon my watch, and set me upon the tower, and will watch to see what he will say unto me, and what I shall answer when I am reproved.”

He pours everything out to God; and he waits for a response.

Patience

God hears Habakkuk’s prayer, because God always hears the call of the faithful. But we don’t read of God rebuking Habakkuk – we read God’s answer to the frustrated prophet (v2): “And the Lord answered me, and said, Write the vision, and make it plain upon tables, that he may run that readeth it.”

I am going to give you a vision Habakkuk, so clear that everyone will know what it’s about. It’s like enormous letters of writing on a wall that anyone can read even if they’re running past.

God continues (v3-4) and says, “For the vision is yet for an appointed time, but at the end it shall speak, and not lie: though it tarry, wait for it; because it will surely come, it will not tarry. Behold, his soul which is lifted up is not upright in him: but the just shall live by his faith.”

These words are echoed in the New Testament three times: “The just shall live by faith” (Rom 1:17; Gal 3:11; Heb 10:36-38). The faith of the just is connected with the “vision” mentioned in Habakkuk 2:3. When these words are quoted in Hebrews 10:36, the writer is talking to the ecclesia about patience: “For ye have need of patience, that, after ye have done the will of God, ye might receive the promise.”

When Habakkuk speaks about the “vision” (v3), the writer of Hebrews interprets this to be someone who “will come, and will not tarry” (Heb 10:37), and that someone, is Christ. The citation in Hebrews shows us that, at least in some sense, the vision in the second chapter of Habakkuk is about Christ’s appearing. The vision will surely come to pass, and though it might not be today or tomorrow, we need to wait on God. If we draw back from that vision, God has no pleasure in the things that we do.

God concludes his answer to Habakkuk in chapter 2 and describes the Chaldeans. He tells Habakkuk what he thinks of these people, firstly by pronouncing a series of curses.

  • Woe to him that increaseth that which is not his! (v6)
  • Woe to him that coveteth (v9)
  • Woe to him that buildeth a town with blood (v12)
  • Woe unto him that giveth his neighbour drink (v15)
  • Woe unto him that saith to the wood, Awake; to the dumb stone, Arise, it shall teach! (v19)

The Chaldeans were covetous, bloodthirsty, blasphemous drunkards and God hates these characteristics. The message for Habakkuk is: They are doing what is wrong, they will be destroyed, but you need to wait for that destruction to come. It’s not going to happen right now. Habakkuk, I am in control – “But the Lord is in his holy temple: let all the earth keep silence before him” (v20).

I know what is happening in the earth, says God to Habakkuk. You need to wait. In the meantime I will give you a vision, which will be fulfilled, “For the earth shall be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea” (v14). This is one of the iconic verses in Scripture which summarises God’s whole plan and purpose in a single verse. When we look at the water in the sea we need to think about this verse. If there is water in the sea, God’s purpose will be fulfilled – it is a clear, simple vision; and it will come to pass.

The vision ahead

Now we come to the final chapter of Habakkuk. God has responded to Habakkuk and the prophet considers what he has heard: “O Lord, I have heard thy speech, and was afraid: O Lord, revive thy work in the midst of the years, in the midst of the years make known; in wrath remember mercy” (3:2).

The repeated phrase “in the midst of the years” can be translated “in our time” (NET). Habakkuk still wanted the vision to take place in his own day, just as all those through time have wished for God’s salvation to come in their time. Likewise, we wait in faith and, like Habakkuk, we would each like the vision to be fulfilled in our own day.

Habakkuk next describes a vision (v3-15) of the destruction that God will bring on the enemies of Israel. The vision applies to the destruction of the Chaldeans but also to the future: “God came from Teman, and the Holy One from mount Paran. Selah. His glory covered the heavens, and the earth was full of his praise” (v3).

Teman and Paran are two areas to the south of Israel, and we have a hint that the vision has a future application.“[God’s] glory covered the heavens and the earth was full of his praise” is similar language to 2:14, a time when God is universally recognised. Further, the phrase “Holy One” is applied to Christ (Acts 3:14). So perhaps this part of the prophecy has at least one application to the coming of Christ. In 2:3 we have seen already that the vision which God gave to Habakkuk refers to the coming of Christ, so perhaps the third chapter has an application to the destruction of the wicked at Christ’s appearing.

“And his brightness was as the light; he had horns coming out of his hand: and there was the hiding of his power” (v4). The word “horns” should be translated “rays” (rays of light). It is a picture of a man with an open hand and light shining out of his hand. The same verse also describes the man’s brightness. Here is a man who is glowing with brightness and who has light shining out of his open hand. Similarly, Revelation 1:13-16 describes a man whose face shines as the brightness of the sun, and in his hand he holds seven stars which shine forth light. It has been argued that the vision in Revelation is a symbolic picture of Christ with the saints coming for the destruction of the wicked in the age to come.

“Before him went the pestilence, and burning coals went forth at his feet. He stood, and measured the earth: he beheld, and drove asunder the nations; and the everlasting mountains were scattered, the perpetual hills did bow: his ways are everlasting” (v5-6). Habakkuk uses very symbolic language in these verses. Mountains and hills are referred to, language that signifies the nations. It seems that the mountains denote people, as do the rivers, later in the chapter (v8). Isaiah 8, Jeremiah 2 and Jeremiah 51 speak about mountains and rivers as nations and peoples—the same symbols used here by Habakkuk.

“I saw the tents of Cushan in affliction: and the curtains of the land of Midian did tremble” (v7). Here, Habakkuk refers to the Bedouin Arabs dwelling in tents, terrified at the coming of this army.

“Was the Lord displeased against the rivers? was thine anger against the rivers? was thy wrath against the sea that thou didst ride upon thine horses and thy chariots of salvation? Thy bow was made quite naked, according to the oaths of the tribes, even thy word. Selah. Thou didst cleave the earth with rivers” (v8-9). Where we read “according to the oaths of the tribes, even thy word”, some translations read “calling on many arrows” (ESV ), and this fits the verse well. An army is charging through the land, the bow is made plain, the rider continues to fill the bow with arrows and shoot against the enemy. The vision is describing the destruction of the wicked.

“The mountains saw thee, and they trembled: the overflowing of the water passed by: the deep uttered his voice, and lifted up his hands on high. The sun and moon stood still in their habitation: at the light of thine arrows they went, and at the shining of thy glittering spear. Thou didst march through the land in indignation, thou didst thresh the heathen in anger” (v10-12). In chapter 1 there is an army streaming through the land of Israel, the army of the Chaldeans. Now in chapter 3 there is a picture of another army, an army that has come to destroy the destroyers of Israel.

The vision is very much about destruction, and lest we think that God takes pleasure in destruction, there is a phrase introduced in verse 12, an analogy, of threshing. Threshing is the practice of taking grain and separating the chaff from the wheat. It is one of the final steps in the grain cycle. First seed is sown, the crop grows, and then the crop is gathered into one place (the harvest). Joel 3 describes a harvest of nations at the coming of Christ. Then after the gathering, there is a threshing. The purpose of the threshing is not simply to destroy the chaff. The purpose of threshing is to collect the grain. And that is what Habakkuk describes here— threshing the heathen — not because God likes destroying them, but because separating the chaff is required if the valuable grain is to be extracted. And this is what Habakkuk describes next (v13-15):

“Thou wentest forth for the salvation of thy people, even for salvation with thine anointed; thou woundedst the head out of the house of the wicked, by discovering the foundation unto the neck. Selah.

Thou didst strike through with his staves the head of his villages: they came out as a whirlwind to scatter me: their rejoicing was as to devour the poor secretly. Thou didst walk through the sea with thine horses, through the heap of great waters.”

God’s destruction is not haphazard. It is destruction for a purpose — for salvation. These men are destroyed for their wicked deeds: God knows even the secret wicked deeds and he won’t remain silent forever. Then the prophecy stops, and Habakkuk describes his thoughts, having seen this vision (v16):

“When I heard, my belly trembled; my lips quivered at the voice: rottenness entered into my bones, and I trembled in myself, that I might rest in the day of trouble: when he cometh up unto the people, he will invade them with his troops.” One version (ESV ) reads, “Yet I will quietly wait for the day of trouble to come upon people who invade us.”

Habakkuk is quite content now to wait patiently for that day to come. He accepts that the Chaldeans would be destroyed, but perhaps not today. He is happy to wait for God’s good time, because God has a plan and purpose.

A process of change

We now come to verses 17 and 18, where we commenced, and we see the wonderful frame of mind that Habakkuk has been transformed to. At the beginning of the prophecy we saw a man who was in great anguish because his prayers were not heard or answered; a man in great distress at the state of his people; frustrated that God did not take immediate action. He continues to challenge God for raising up the wicked and for using a blasphemous and idol worshipping people for His purpose. But now Habakkuk has been enlightened. He has been reminded by God that the just will live by faith; that God does have a plan and the plan has been clearly revealed in vision. Habakkuk has been reminded that the vision will most certainly be fulfilled, but it does require patient waiting. The earth will be filled with God’s glory, the wicked will be destroyed and the righteous saved. The challenge is to heed God’s words to Habakkuk and experience the same transformation.

That brings us back to our question: How did Habakkuk reach this state of mind? And how was it that he had so much faith that he could rise above circumstance? It was a long process for Habakkuk. It didn’t just happen. It happened after great frustration, after pouring out his heart and all his doubts to God in prayer. It happened after patient waiting and listening, listening, listening to God. It happened after seeing a very clear vision of what lay ahead. It happened after he came to the full understanding that the just will live by faith and by nothing else.

Christ our example

Each week when we remember Christ, we consider a man who was tempted in every point as we are. Christ experienced the same doubts and fears and frustrations that we experience. And Christ overcame them all. We remember Christ, who cried out to God in heartfelt anguish and it appeared that his prayer was not answered: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? Why art thou so far from helping me, and from the words of my roaring? O my God, I cry in the daytime, but thou hearest not; and in the night season, and am not silent” (Psa 22:1-2).

Christ also looked around him and saw great wickedness amongst his own friends and in his nation, which caused enormous distress for him: “Many bulls have compassed me: strong bulls of Bashan have beset me round. They gaped upon me with their mouths, as a ravening and a roaring lion. I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint: my heart is like wax; it is melted in the midst of my bowels. My strength is dried up like a potsherd; and my tongue cleaveth to my jaws; and thou hast brought me into the dust of death. For dogs have compassed me: the assembly of the wicked have inclosed me: they pierced my hands and my feet” (Psa 22:12-16).

Yet despite his prayers (which appeared to be unanswered); despite the anguish that he experienced (from the thoughts in his head, from his companions, and from his nation); Christ endured the cross. Christ despised the shame, and for the joy that was set before him he endured all these things. He had a very clear vision of what lay before him, a vision of the world, filled with the glory of God and all pain and sorrow gone forever. It was this vision that gave him strength to conquer all. Christ is our salvation and in the memorials we remember his perfect example: “Let us rejoice in Yahweh; let us joy in the God of our salvation” (Hab 3:18).