Lecture 24: Habakkuk, Righteousness and Faith
Course: 52 Major Stories of the Bible
Lecture: Habakkuk and Faith
Let’s pray. Father, we confess to you that everything in our natural self and almost everything in this natural world diverts our attention from you and from what is true. We are thankful for the witness of creation. We are thankful for your special revelation scripture; these things that pull us to you. But Father, the power of flesh and the power of sin is strong and it is so easy to look at life and forget what is really important, and that is You. Father, we pray that as we walk through Habakkuk’s life and the challenges that he had, and your call to him to be faithful, that we would hear the same challenge ring in our ears. In Jesus name, Amen.
The prophet Habakkuk prophesied somewhere around 640 to 610 B.C. Assyria had conquered the Northern Kingdom of Israel about 80 years before he started and the Southern Kingdom of Judah, where Habakkuk was from, had actually seen a spiritual revival. But by the time Habakkuk came on the scene it had degraded back down to being a wicked place. The rich were oppressing the poor, they were in control of the Law Courts and there was no justice. Habakkuk’s world was not a pretty place. The book of Habakkuk contains his discussion with God about this not so pretty place. Normally, in the prophets, we hear God speaking through the prophet to the people. But in this book we get to hear God and the prophet talk back and forth to each other, and twice in this short book Habakkuk asks God a question and God answers, and then in Chapter 3 we get to read Habakkuk’s response to God’s two answers.
First Question (1:2-11)
The first question and answer starts in Habakkuk 1:2-11. What we have in this section is one of the classic statements on what is called the problem of evil. The underlying premise for Habakkuk is that God is a righteous and a just God. That He will reward righteous and that He will punish wickedness. That is the underlying assumption and is stated in verse 13. Tension comes about in the problem of evil in Habakkuk’s life, as he believes this but it appears that evil is triumphing in reality, that God in fact is not rewarding righteous and punishing wickedness. that is the tension of Habakkuk’s life, between what he believes to be true about God and what he sees in reality. Habakkuk 1:2-4: "O LORD, how long shall I cry for help and you will not hear? Or cry to you violence and you will not save? Why do you make me see iniquity and why do you idly look at wrong? Destruction and violence are before me. Strife and contention arise. So the law is paralyzed and justice never goes forth. For the wicked surround the righteousness and so justice goes forth perverted. Judah is not a pretty place during Habakkuk’s life. It is an honest question that Habakkuk is asking God. He is pouring out his heart and he is being bluntly and painfully honest, because the presence of unrighteousness and the presence of wickedness is painful to Habakkuk. It hurts! Have you ever been in that kind of situation yourself? When you are looking at a situation, perhaps in your life or in another's life, and you see that that person is a liar and does not seem to get caught; that the unfaithful spouse does not seem to suffer any consequences. And you look at these kind of situations and say, “That’s not right, God!” “That’s not fair! You are a righteous and a just God; you have committed to rewarding righteousness and punishing wickedness. What is going on?” That is the problem of evil and that is the problem that Habakkuk is facing. Well, God answers Habakkuk. God does not always answer people in the Bible, Romans 9, Job; God does not always answer questions. But there is something about Habakkuk and how he asks the question that calls God to answer and He does. He tells Habakkuk that “I am going to punish Judah’s sin. It will be punished. I am going to punish them by sending them the Chaldeans.” Just another name for the Babylonians. The Babylonians are going to come and they are going to destroy the Southern Kingdom of Judah as punishment for their sins. Look at Habakkuk 1:5-7: "Look among the nations and see wonder and be astounded, for I am doing a work in your days that you would not believe if told." In other words, this is going to really surprise you, Habakkuk, what I am about to do. This is not something that you would expect. "Behold I am raising up the Chaldeans, that bitter and hasty nation, who march through the breadth of the Earth to seize dwellings not their own. They are dreaded and fearsome. Their justice and dignity go forth from themselves…" And the discussion of the Babylonians continues. In other words, God tells Habakkuk “There is a limit to my patience. I will only put up with injustice and wickedness for so long and there is coming a time in which I will punish the wickedness in Judea.”
Now, interestingly, He never tells Habakkuk when He is going to do this. We know from history that it happened in 586 B.C., probably some 30 or so years after Habakkuk started prophesying. The Babylonians came down and captured and destroyed the Southern Kingdom of Judah. But Habakkuk is never told when it was going to happen. So God answers Habakkuk’s first question, but instead of solving the problem, in Habakkuk’s mind, God has only made it worse. Because in Habakkuk’s mind, as bad as the Judeans are, the Babylonians are worse! So we move into his second question that starts at verse 12. And please, when you see verse 12, see the faith. There is faith all the way through verse 12.
Second Question (1:12-2:1)
Habakkuk’s second question: "Are you not from everlasting, O LORD, My God, My Holy One. We shall not die." (In other words, the nations shall not perish.) "O LORD, you have ordained them (the Babylonians) as a judgment and you, O Rock, have established them for reproof." You see, that is a great statement of faith. It is Habakkuk saying, “Okay, I accept your answer. I understand it. You are going to use the Babylonians to punish the sins of the Judeans, but I still do not understand why you are using the Babylonians!” Look at verse 13: "You who are of purer eyes than to see evil and cannot look at wrong, why do you idly look at traitors and remain silent when the wicked swallows up the man more righteous than he? You see, Habakkuk is reasserting his faith in the goodness and the perfection of God. You are not an evil God. You are a good God. Let me supply antecedents. “Why do you idly look at the Babylonians? Why are you silent when those wicked, wicked Babylonians swallow up the Judeans? Even though they are bad, they are not as bad as the Babylonians.” Do you see Habakkuk’s problem? “Why are you using something even worse to punish something that is bad?” That was why God’s first answer made Habakkuk puzzled that much more. So God answers, starting at 2:2 and following. Look especially at verse 3. God tells Habakkuk: "For still the vision awaits its appointed time. It hastens to the end. It will not lie." In other words, I am going to tell you what I am going to do. I am going to tell you in a vision what I am going to do. And that vision will come to fruition. What I am saying is going to happen. And God says, I am going to tell you what is going to happen, and it surely will happen. If it seems slow, wait for it! It will surely come. It will not delay. God is saying, I am going to answer your question. I am going to take care of the Babylonians, but I am going to do it when I am jolly well ready to do it. God doesn’t work in our time frame. When we see wickedness and unrighteousness, when we see things that are not fair, we tend to quickly jump to judgments and say, “God, you need to do something about it! This is how you have to do it! And, oh by the way, you need to have done it yesterday!" But God says “I am going to deal with this problem, Habakkuk, but I am going to do it when I am ready to do it, and your job is to be patient and is to wait for me to do what I am going to do.” Then there is a series of 5 woe statements starting in 2:6, where God makes it very clear that He will turn around and destroy the Babylonians for their sin once He has used them to punish the Judeans for their sin. God is truly a righteous and just God who will reward righteousness and who will punish wickedness, but only when he is jolly well ready to do that. Once again, Habakkuk is not told when this is going to happen. We know, again from history, that it happened in 539 B.C., about 47 years after the Babylonians destroyed the Southern Kingdom, and they themselves were conquered and destroyed as a nation. It is interesting that Habakkuk probably never saw it. Habakkuk probably died before the Babylonian empire was punished for their sin. Yet he was called to believe that God would punish their wickedness.
Okay, all of that is kind of theological and historical backdrop to the central question of the Book of Habakkuk. The central question of the Book of Habakkuk is, How do you live in the in-between time? How do you live in the meantime? On the one hand there are certain things that we know. We know that God is righteous. But, over on the other hand, we look at experience and we see that the righteous are not yet fully rewarded. We know that the wicked are not yet punished, or not yet fully punished. So those are the 2 sides. That was the promise and the fulfillment.
There are certain things that we know about God to be true: He is a just and a righteous God. But we do not always see righteousness rewarded. We do not always see wickedness punished. So the question is, How do we live in the meantime? How do we live in the in-between time of what God has said he is going to do and when he actually does it? Is that clear? I have struggled with trying to figure out how to make this clear. When you finish today, please talk to each other and to your kids to make sure they understand this concept of promise and fulfillment. Of God’s character and God’s promises and the fulfillment of that and how we live in the middle. Make sure you understand that, please. For example: How do you live if the middle, when you go to school and it is the immoral student who gets all the attention and the modest student gets no attention at all. You see, that is living in the meantime. That is living in the in-between time. You go to work on Monday and perhaps it is the unethical person who is going to get the promotion, and the hard-working, ethical person sits where they are on the corporate ladder and squeaks by. We sang earlier, “We are the broken, you are the healer.” That is over on this side, and yet, as we look at life, we see teenage daughters that struggle every day with pain. We see people whose blood flow does not come back to their leg and it has to be amputated. And we have to live in the middle. And how can you be a God who is good and powerful and righteous and just and yet these are the kinds of things that we experience day in and day out. How do we live in the middle of all that? How do we live in the tension? That is the central question of the Book of Habakkuk, and probably why it should be earmarked in your Bibles and read frequently.
Central Answer of the Book
The answer is in Habakkuk 2:4. It is probably one of the top 10 verses in the entire Old Testament. It is quoted 3 times in the New Testament, twice by Paul, as pivotal arguments for his theology. This is one of those critical, critical verses in the Old Testament. God tells Habakkuk, “Behold his soul [meaning the Babylonian soul] is puffed up. It is not upright within him. But the righteous shall live by his faith." The life of righteousness, the life of the person who is right with God, is characterized, is permeated by faith. It is our faith that enables us to live in the tension between what we believe and know about God and what we see day in and day out. Let’s talk about faith for a moment. I think we generally think of faith mostly in connection with becoming a disciple of Jesus Christ. When we talk about faith, what we are often talking about is how do I become right with God? Well, we believe that you do not become right with God by works. We do not believe that we become right with God by doing certain things. We do not come to the foot of the cross with things in our hands. Look how good I am. I am so much better than my neighbor. I gave $10.00 once when I was a kid. I mean, we do not come to the cross with things in our hands, do we? Those are works and they will all fail because there is nothing we can give in exchange for our soul. So we talk about coming to the cross, coming to Christ, and believing not by earning favor with God, because you cannot, but by simply believing that we are sinners, that we are called to repent of our sin, that we are separated from God, and we simply believe that what Jesus did on the cross is sufficient to pay the penalty for our sins. That is normally the context when we think of faith; that is what we think of. In fact, this is what Paul pulls out of these verses. When he quotes Habakkuk 2:4 in Romans 1:17 and Galatians 3:11, this is the main point that he is trying to make, that we become right with God not because of what we do, but because of our faith. Because of what we believe happened on the cross. But there is more to God’s answer to Habakkuk than just that. You will notice in most of your Bibles that you have a footnote on the word “faith” and the footnote says “or faithfulness.” The Hebrew means both. The righteous shall live by his, or her, faithfulness. Now what does that mean? It means that, yes, we do become a disciple of Jesus Christ by faith. That is how our relationship with Him begins. By believing, by having faith, that He is who He says He is and that He will do what He says He will do. But then we live every single day being faithful to Him. Do you see the difference? We start being a disciple of Jesus Christ by faith. We believe certain things about Him. But then that faith permeates our lives that day in and day out, when we look at the problems and the yucky stuff of this life and we may not understand it, we continue to be faithful to God. When we look at the problems we say “I don’t understand all of this, but I will live knowing that You are righteous and that You are just and that You are fair, and that You are good and that You are powerful. And every day we reassert our faith in Jesus Christ. We reassert our faith in God; and we are faithful to Him. The other place that Habakkuk 2:4 is quoted is Hebrews 10. This is precisely the point that the author is making in Hebrews 10. The whole book of Hebrews is concerned with apostasy. It is concerned with people leaving the Christian faith, of abandoning it because of persecution. And so while there is a lot of good theology in Hebrews, the practical point that the book is trying to make is that you must persevere. You must endure. You must continue to live a faithful life. The quotation is actually in Hebrews 10:38, but the context starts at verse 36: "For you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God you may receive what is promised." (He quotes Habakkuk 2:4) and then in verse 39, "but we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who have faith and preserve their souls." You see, the author of Hebrews understands, and Paul did too, that there is more to Habakkuk 2:4 than just that initial issue of faith. That initial issue of faith is to permeate our lives that day in and day out it calls to us to persevere, to hang in there, to keep believing God, to keep the faith and to not give up on it. The just shall live by faith. The just shall live by faithfulness. Do you understand the distinction? It is one of those things where you just have to mull this one over for a while, perhaps. Habakkuk’s response then is in Chapter 3, and there is a discussion of the Exodus and God’s saving work in the Exodus. Then in the second half of Habakkuk 3:16, there is his explicit statement of faith, that "I will continue day in and day out to have faith in God, no matter what I see, I will continue to be faithful," And Habakkuk says, "Yet I will quietly wait [same word that we saw in 2:3] for the day of trouble to come upon people who invade us. To come upon the Babylonians who are going to invade the Judeans." I think this is why God answered Habakkuk. All the way through this book Habakkuk is a man of faith who has honest questions of God and he wants to understand, because the presence of wickedness is so painful to him. And yet he is a man of faith and God responds, and Habakkuk responds in faith and he says, “Okay, I will quietly wait because I believe that You are who You say You are, that You are going to do what You say You are going to do.”
Habakkuk never saw God fulfill His second promise, and yet he was going to quietly wait because he believed that He would. And then, in two of the greatest verses in the Old Testament, verses 17 and 18, Habakkuk looks ahead to the agricultural devastation that is sure to come when the Babylonians come and listen to what he says. “Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail, the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold, there be no herd in the stalls," In other words, no matter how bad it gets, God, no matter how bad the destruction, no matter what they do to our fields, no matter what they do to our animals--and this is an agricultural economy, this is their life!-- And Habakkuk is saying that he does not care how bad the experience is, he will rejoice in the LORD. He will take joy in the God of his salvation. Habakkuk’s faith is not passive. There is no sense of resignation. There is no sense of fatalism. It is active! He said, “I am going to rejoice! I will take joy!” You see, Habakkuk’s faith has freed him, the shackles of fear have fallen off and he has been freed up. Not to be passive and say “Okay God, I guess you are going to keep your will, I’ll sit.” There is none of that in Habakkuk! But even in the face of extreme disaster, Habakkuk will be faithful and that means that every day he is going to rejoice in God! He will joy in God, his Savior! He will laugh in the face of difficult circumstances. He will say “So what! So what Babylonians! I still believe. I will be faithful."
Fundamental Things Required of His Disciples
What does God require of his disciples? What is the most basic, fundamental thing that God requires of you and me? At the very bedrock of our existence, what does God require of us? It is not to feel good about Him and to feel good about ourselves. It is not to go to church, read our Bibles, believe the right things, do good things and do not do bad things. Those are all good things that are to characterize our life, but ''none'' of them are the most basic, fundamental, bedrock kind of thing that God requires of you and that He requires of me. The most basic, fundamental thing that God requires of you and me is that we have faith! Hebrews 11:6: "Without faith it is impossible [(not difficult, it is impossible)] to please God." No amount of church going and doing the right thing and not doing the wrong things and reading our Bibles will please Him. If that is all that we do but do not have faith, if we are not faithful day in and day out, then we are not pleasing Him. It is faith that is the most fundamental, basic level of pleasing Him. God calls you and me to have faith, no matter what happens. To believe that He is righteous and just. To believe that He will reward righteous, that He will punish wickedness, that His ways are always the best, and then to live every single day, no matter what be the circumstances, no matter what comes up in front of us. And we say, “I may not understand this, God. My husband still divorced me. I don’t understand how this can be, but I believe that You are good and powerful and righteous and just and that is enough." That was God’s answer to Job, by the way. He never explained the courtroom scene to Job. He asked, “Am I enough?” and Job said “Yes, You are enough.” This is again what is going on in Hebrews 11, starting at verse 1. This is the great chapter on faith, where the author of Hebrews holds up the giants of faith in the Old Testament. Hebrews 11 starts, "Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen." That is what God wants! God wants us to live our lives with absolute assurance, absolute conviction even though we cannot see it. That is at the bedrock of what makes God smile more than anything else.
But as you go through the giants of faith in Hebrews 11, look at the examples of faith. Abel offered a sacrifice to God. Enoch did not have to die. Noah built an ark. Day in and day out, year in and year out and finally went in. Abraham left his home. Sarah believed that she would have a child. Abraham offered up his only son because he believed that God would raise him from the dead. Jacob had faith and blessed his children. Joseph had faith and asked that his bones be taken from Egypt when God took the children of Israel, eventually, back to the Promised Land. These are all examples, not of what we call saving faith, not the faith by which we become disciples, but these are all examples of the faith where day in and day out, as we meet life head on and it does not seem to be right and fair, we still say “I believe and I will live faithful to my God.” It is a freeing kind of faith. Oh that we could all be freed by that kind of faith every day of our lives. To see our faith, to see our faithfulness permeating every aspect of our life. That in the face of apparently insuperable odds we still believe that God is who He says He is and that He will do what He says He will do. No matter how good or bad life becomes, we still believe God is righteous. We still believe that God is just. No matter what I see and no matter what I hear, I still believe that God’s ways are best! And that the world’s ways are worse. This is the kind of faith that frees us from this world. It frees us from the need of being accepted at school. Because we believe that knowing God is sweeter than friends.It is the kind of faith that frees up young girls; frees them up from the need of wearing tight shirts that do nothing but sell their bodies, because they believe it is better to be clothed in righteous and adorned with modesty (1st Timothy 2:9). It is the freeing kind of faith that frees up young boys and young men from being sexual predators in order to prove themselves, because they believe that sex is a bond only to be enjoyed in marriage. It is the kind of faith that frees us up from spending our lives trying to earn financial security--and there is no such thing--but still we look at the world and we strive for the bigger house, the more toys, the greater luxury. But the faith that frees, in the language of Hebrews 11, says “No. We are strangers and we are exiles. We are seeking a heavenly homeland. This world is not my home, I am just passing through." That is what we believe. That is what we know to be true. Despite everything the world says to us, in the meantime, we say “God’s ways are best and this world. Praise the Lord, this is not my home! I do not want it. I do not even think I want the New Jerusalem and New Heaven, frankly. I want out of here. I want to go home! That is what faith does. Faith frees you when you see beyond the hurts and the pains, the disappointments and the sorrows of life. It frees us up so that we can look in the face of what Habakkuk calls “iniquity, destruction, and violence,” and our faith says, “God is still who He says He is. He is righteous and He is just.” Our faith says, “God will do what He says He will do when He is jolly well ready to do it. He will reward righteousness and he will punish wickedness. In the meantime, I will, by the power of Jesus Christ and the Spirit of God, be faithful to Him, living out my convictions. Never wavering. Never straying. Always being true.
The question of Habakkuk is very straight forward. It is very simple. Do you believe God? That is Habakkuk. Do you believe God? Will you be faithful to Him day in and day out, in every day of pain and uncertainty? In every day of comfort and apparent security. Will you cry out to God, ”Though the fig tree should not blossom nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls. Even when it rains on the Palouse at harvest time I will rejoice in the LORD. I will take joy in the God of my Salvation. That is the question of the Book of Habakkuk. Will you and I have faith and will you and I live faithful lives, every day, no matter what the world throws at us?
Let’s pray. Father, the problem of evil is one of those fundamental issues that everyone struggles with. We confess that it is a struggle when we see the pain and the suffering and hurt and what appears to be such unfairness around us. It is difficult, Father, to understand. Yet, Father, by faith we do believe that You are a righteous God, that You are a just God, that You are a good God, that You are a powerful God. These are things that we believe and these are the things that we cling to most, Father, when we face difficult times on every day. When we are trying to figure out what clothes to wear, what jokes to tell, how hard to work at work, all these good things that you have called us to do. First and foremost, Father, may we be faithful to you. May we, in everything we say and do, and everything we do not say and do not do, may we bring glory to you by being faithful, holding to our convictions, and continuing in our belief and our faith in You. In Jesus name, Amen.
There is something freeing about caring what the world thinks. There is something freeing in knowing that we are only here for a blip and we get the joyous responsibility of being faithful to our God. I would encourage you to go out and in the face of persecution, in the face of conflict, and just laugh at it. Because our God is powerful and He wins! I have read the last book in the Bible. We win and They lose. Go forth with that conviction.
“The righteous shall live by his faith” (Habakkuk 2:4).
- What is the “Problem of Evil”? What are some examples you have personally experienced?
- Have you ever seen God use an evil person/thing to punish another evil person/thing? What did you think of it at that time? After reflection, would you think differently of it now?
- Has God ever asked you to believe something, even though years later you still have not seen the fulfillment of His promise? What are some things you can do to help yourself continue in your faith over the years?
- What are ways in which the world tells us God is wrong and we are challenged to believe God is right? This is the hard question. Try to be specific, thinking of whatever situation you live in — school, neighborhood, work, etc.
- What are some ways in which you have struggled to be faithful to God?
- What does a life permeated with faith look like?