Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Notes on the Book of the Prophet Habakkuk

The Book of the Prophet Habakkuk was probably written not long before the Israelites were led away into the Babylonian exile. Their captors, the Chaldeans, were steadily gaining power when Habakkuk received his message from God. 

Chapter 1: 

This chapter recounts a dialogue between the prophet and God. Habakkuk is not afraid to bring his concerns to God. He is not afraid to ask why bad things happen. And he expects God to answer, which He does, although He does so in a way the prophet can't quite grasp. 

The prophet begins by asking how long he is going to have to wait before God does something about the evil Israel is facing. All kinds of things are going wrong: violence, troubles, destruction, contention, strife, violation of the law, perversion of justice, and wickedness that seems to overcome righteousness. The prophet can't quite figure out why God isn't responding to all this, why He isn't doing something about it. 

Actually, this sounds a lot like today. There is so much evil in the world, and these verses could describe our modern society just as well as they did the Israelite society. We do sometimes find ourselves asking where God is in all this and how come He doesn't do something about it. But this is okay. Like Habakkuk, we can ask God. We can bring our concerns to Him and trust that He will answer us.

God's answer, though, isn't quite what Habakkuk expects. God says that He is doing something new and wonderful, something that will astound Habakkuk, something that people won't even believe when they hear it. He is raising up another people to do His will. But these people aren't like the Israelites. They don't know God even though He knows them well. These people are the Chaldeans, a warlike group that marched through the countryside attacking other peoples and conquering lands and cities. Yet God will use these people for His own purposes even though He describes them and their actions vividly. They are “dread and terrible” and follow their own set of rules. They are swift and fierce, proud and violent. They strike terror into the hearts of people everywhere they go, and they gather innumerable captives. They laugh at their conquests, unafraid of anyone, and they capture whatever they set their minds to. These are powerful, evil men. Yet God uses them. He bends them to His purposes. 

God is certainly using the old shock factor here. Yet, in a way, this is reassuring. God can turn even the worst-looking evil into something useful, something beneficial, something that will work for His people's good. He doesn't create evil, and He doesn't condone it, but since it is there, He uses it for His own purposes. 

The prophet doesn't quite know what to make of God's answer. His response is mixed. It begins with a kind of “Huh?” Habakkuk recognizes that God is everlasting and that He both protects and chastises His people. Perhaps He is using the Chaldeans for chastisement, then, Habakkuk reasons. But he still doesn't understand. God is so pure; how can He even look on that kind of evil? How can He even tolerate it? The prophet paints his own picture of the Chaldeans. They are faithless people who swallow up the righteous. They don't even hesitate. To the Chaldeans, other human beings are no more than fish or slimy, crawling things. They capture them as easily and thoughtlessly as a fisherman nets fish. They are so confident in their own power that it becomes a god for them. Like the fisherman who sacrifices to his nets, the Chaldeans worship their conquering strength. They are completely without mercy and idolatrously without God. 

Chapter 2: 

The prophet just doesn't understand how God could use such people, but he seems to figure that perhaps he doesn't have to understand. He places himself in a position of watching and waiting. He will look closely and see what God will do and say. 

God replies to the prophet again. He tells Habakkuk to write down a vision that He will give him “so he may run who reads it.” This last phrase is somewhat mysterious. According to a Hebrew dictionary, this is a figurative expression for reading smoothly. So God wants His message to be clear. Interestingly, though, the verb involved can also suggest a courier, so perhaps another underlying layer of meaning exists, implying that anyone who reads the vision should be like a courier and pass it on. 

God also tells the prophet to wait for the vision, to have patience. The vision will come on its own time. It may seem slow, but it will come when the time is right, and it will not lie. The prophet must be live by faith. He must believe that God will do what He has promised. This is righteousness, and those with upright souls will not fail. Good will come. Time will tell. Just hold on in faith and wait. This is what God expects. 

The rest of this chapter contains more of God's message to the prophet. He begins by warning His people about greed and arrogance. In doing so, He recognizes that the Chaldeans are greedy and arrogant folks who enjoy collecting people and gathering nations. These people and nations, however, will have the last laugh, so to speak. God tells us that they will speak five woes against their conquers. Each woe lists the Chaldeans' misdeeds and predicts their downfall. 

* Woe #1 – The Chaldeans steal what is not their own, but those who have been plundered will someday plunder them in return. 
* Woe #2 – The Chaldeans build themselves up by doing evil to others, but this will backfire on them, and even their own houses will cry out against them. 
* Woe #3 – The Chaldeans have founded their cities and towns on blood and sin, but someday God will make things right. When the earth is filled with His glory, the Chaldeans' glory will be long gone. 
* Woe #4 – The Chaldeans have made their neighbors drunk with their wrath. They have made people stagger and fall. But someday, God's wrath will descend upon them, and they will be the ones who stagger and fall. The violence they have committed against others will overwhelm them in return. 
* Woe #5 – The Chaldeans are idolaters. They follow lies and worship inanimate things. But the Lord is God. He is in His temple, and the whole earth will be silent in awe and reverence before Him. 

Chapter 3: 

Chapter 3 is really an epic psalm. It begins with an introduction in verses 1-2 in which the prophet tells God that he fears His work (not too surprising since God has just been saying that He is going to use the Chaldeans to achieve His goals). Habakkuk also asks God to renew His work (no matter how scary it is), to make it known, and most of all to remember His mercy.

The psalm then recounts God's powerful work upon the earth. “His glory covered the heavens,” Habakkuk exclaims, “and the earth was full of His praise.” God has shown His light throughout the world. His rays have flashed. His enemies have been destroyed, and the very earth itself has been shaken. Habakkuk depicts God as a powerful warrior. The peoples tremble before Him as His wrath falls down upon the wicked. The psalm sets forth God's power in dramatic language, epic language really, using such images as spears, arrows, lightening, fury, raging waters, and whirlwinds. God saves His people, His anointed, but crushes the head of the wicked and lays them bare in their shame. 

The prophet actually scares himself thinking about all this. He trembles, and his lips quiver. He feels like he might even fall over, like his bones have suddenly become rotten. But he is still willing to believe that God will work all things for the good. He decides to quietly wait for all God has planned. 

In fact, the prophet offers a firm statement of faith. No matter what happens, he will rejoice in God. If the fig trees don't bloom, if the fruit doesn't appear on the vines, if the fields don't yield food, if the flocks and herds die, that doesn't matter. He will rejoice in God anyway. God is his salvation and his strength. No matter what happens, God raises him up. He makes his feet nimble like those of a deer so that he can go up in the high places. The prophet is probably speaking metaphorically here. God has taken Habakkuk up into some pretty high places spiritually, places that most people don't go. After all, he has had a conversation with God. He has brought his questions before God and heard God's response. He has shared in God's plans and listened to God speak. This is a privilege indeed, truly a high place. 

(Source consulted: The Navarre Bible: Minor Prophets)

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