ALTHOUGH the term appears only once, the book of Habakkuk essentially revolves around the theme of faith. Actually there can be two kinds of questioning in relationship to religious issues. There is the kind we ordinarily think of, those questions associated with skepticism and doubt. But there also has to be room for the questions that must be asked if faith is to grow. It seems to me that Habakkuk's questions fall in this latter category.
Many consider Habakkuk to be quite rash and impertinent in his approach to God, but if we are to enter into a meaningful dialog with the Creator we need to be able to express our concerns and problems. The Lord apparently encourages Habakkuk to do just that.
Not much is known about this prophet who dared to dialog with God. Tradition suggests that he is a Levite. One of the most sublime and moving bits of He brew poetry is the psalm found in the third chapter, which is apparently designed to be sung in the Temple service. This also might indicate that Habakkuk was connected with the priesthood.
In a period of deep apostasy, Habakkuk became tremendously concerned about the apparent prosperity of the wicked in his land who seemed to prosper in spite of their rebelliousness and were persecuting those remaining true to God (see Prophets and Kings, p. 385), In his desperation he raised a cry that seems entirely appropriate to our situation today:
"O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and thou wilt not hear? Or cry to thee 'Violence!' and thou wilt not save? Why dost thou make me see wrongs and look upon trouble? Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise. So the law is slacked and justice never goes forth. For the wicked surround the righteous, so justice goes forth perverted." --Hab. 1:2-4 (R.S.V.)
This was not the first time Bible writers addressed this kind of question to God. Both Job and David, among others, had done so (Job 21; Ps. 73:3). But in this case the question is directly followed with God's answer (Hab. 1:5-11).
"Through His chosen mouthpiece He [God] revealed His determination to bring chastisement upon the nation that had turned from Him to serve the gods of the heathen. Within the lifetime of some who were even then making inquiry regarding the future, He would miraculously shape the affairs of the ruling nations of earth and bring the Babylonians into the ascendancy. These Chaldeans, 'terrible and dreadful,' were to fall suddenly upon the land of Judah as a divinely appointed scourge. . . . Nothing was to be spared." --Prophets and Kings, pp. 385, 386.
Exclaiming "Art thou not from everlasting, O Lord my God, mine Holy One?" (Hab. 1:12) Habakkuk bowed in submission before the Omniscient will, recognizing that even in this most severe punishment God's purpose would be fulfilled. His faith reached beyond the Babylonian captivity as he prophesied, "We shall not die."
As the prophet pondered God's answer to his first question, he began to be troubled by another thought that, in turn, became the basis of his next question. He was perplexed as to why God used a completely pagan and idolatrous nation to punish His people who, at their worst, could not begin to compare with the grossness and immorality of the Babylonians.
The metaphor of the net is used in verses 14-17 of the first chapter to represent the heathen practice of the Babylonians. After hauling in their captives, they metaphorically worship their nets as the means of providing their success. They don't seem to realize that it is the Creator who has used them as His instrument in punishing the people of Judah. Instead they worship their own skill.
The Habakkuk Commentary discovered with the Dead Sea scrolls gives this meaning to the last part of the seventeenth verse in Hebrew: "He shall therefore draw his sword continually to slay nations without showing mercy" (The SDA Bible Commentary, on Hab. 1:17).
Basically, the prophet wants to know how long God is going to allow the Babylonians to go on emptying their nets and filling them again. In actuality, history tells us, Babylon took captives of the Jews three times.
Habakkuk seems to be learning something from his experience with the initial part of the dialog. At least, God seems to be willing to reply to his questions and, of course, comes up with an answer that opens new insights into the divine purpose. So the prophet is eager to continue the dialog and gain further insight. In most interesting fashion he describes his eagerness:
"I will stand at my post, I will take up my position on the watch-tower, I will watch to learn what he will say through me, and what I shall reply when I am challenged."---Hab. 2:1 (N.E.B.)*
In figure he is going to take his place on the watchtower and eagerly await God's response. He seems to feel that God will show up the fallacy in his thinking and is intensely interested in finding out how, so that he can share this new insight with his fellows who are asking the same question.
The Lord seems about as eager to answer as Habakkuk is to ask. Not only is God's message directed to the questioning prophet but it is for all like him through the ages who are troubled by the same kind of questions. The reply is to be made so plain that "he may run that readeth it" (chap. 2:2).
The certainty of this vision is described in the third verse. "It will surely come." Ellen White makes an interesting last-day application of this prophecy in The Great Controversy, page 392. After discussing Charles Fitch's prophetic chart and stating that it "was regarded as a fulfillment of the command given by Habakkuk" to "write the vision, and make it plain," she adds, "No one, however, then noticed that an apparent delay in the accomplishment of the vision a tarrying time is presented in the same prophecy. After the disappointment, this scripture appeared very significant: [Quotes Hab. 2:3]."
Verse 4 is the central or theme verse for the book. Paul quotes it as a key thought in three of his dissertations (Rom. 1:17; Gal. 3:11; Heb. 10:36-39), and Martin Luther made it the battle cry of the Reformation. The thrust of this inspiring text is clearly evident in the R.S.V. translation:
"Behold, he whose soul is not upright in him shall fail, but the righteous shall live by his faith."
The conjunction BUT is probably the most important word in Habakkuk's book. Here is God's answer. He contrasts the eternal destinies of the righteous and the wicked. In Habbakuk 1:4 the prophet viewed the position of the unjust as being the ascendant or ruling position with the righteous being surrounded and even persecuted by them. Habbakuk 2:4 out lines God's viewpoint, which reveals that ultimately the unjust shall fail and the righteous shall live by faith. Habakkuk judges by transitory appearance, but God sees the end from the beginning.
Verse 5 illustrates and enlarges upon this theme. The Dead Sea scrolls indicate that the word translated "wine" here might instead refer to "wealth" or "power." The concept introduced in this verse and running through the rest of the chapter is that inherent in evil itself is its own destruction.
The persecuted and enslaved take up a taunt against their conquerors, which is expressed in five anathemas or woes that make up the balance of this chapter.
First Woe (verses 6-8) He who enriches himself with that which is not his own should remember that the plunderer himself shall be plundered, the robber shall in turn be robbed.
Second Woe (verses 9-11) The one who lives on that which he has defrauded from others will not find happiness. The very stones and beams in the house constructed at the expense of others are a memorial and reminder of his shame.
Third Woe (verses 12-14) Even those who attempt to accomplish worthy objectives through foul means are condemned by their own deeds. All will prove vain and in the end the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord. Only that which fits this objective will last.
Fourth Woe (verses 15-17) Those who cause and glory in others' shame will in turn find shame, not glory.
Fifth Woe (verses 18-20) Man's self-worship and idol worship degrade him. He cannot rise above that which he worships.
God's Answer Summarized
Verse 20 is often applied to reverence in divine worship. Actually it is the key to and the summarization of all that God has said in reply to Habakkuk. Habakkuk, and all of us, for that matter, need to realize that God is on His throne. He's in charge of what is happening. His purposes are righteous and just and will ultimately prevail. If we can truly sense this, our worries and anxieties will be seen in their proper perspective, all in vain.
Chapter three concludes with a paean of praise and expression of trust in God. There has been an interesting progression in the prophet's attitude toward and understanding of God. In chapter one he seems to be saying, "I cry, but You don't even seem to be paying attention to me." Then, when God answers the first time, he seems to question, "You can't really mean what You're saying."
As chapter two begins he seems intrigued with God's ability to explain that which seemed unexplainable, and he desires to hear more. Chapter three reveals a humbled and yet more confident prophet. He still fears the day of trouble ahead, but states, "No matter what happens, no matter how terrible things get, I will rejoice in the Lord. I can trust in Him no matter what happens. He's in charge, so everything will turn out all right." (See Hab. 3:17-19.)
The questions have been resolved. The prophet, through this most interesting dialog with God, has developed a stronger, more confident relationship with his Creator than ever and has learned God's answer to a question that still puzzles those who have yet to discover what he discovered.
* From The New English Bible. © The Delegates of the Oxford University Press and the Syndics of the Cambridge University Press 1970. Reprinted by permission.