Lecture 31: Habakkuk and Zephaniah
Course: Old Testament Survey
Lecture: Habakkuk and Zephaniah
Here is Habakkuk. It is pretty likely we can date Habakkuk. There is some debate but he is clearly talking about the Babylonians coming in and we know when the Babylonian Empire was, 609-540. When did the Babylonians invade? The answer is it could have been the first invasion in 605; that is very minor. More likely it is the invasion of 598 or even more likely the invasion of 588. That is was Habakkuk sees. Habakkuk says to God, “How can this be? God, I don’t get it. I see the Babylonians, a very evil, corrupt people. They are not godly. They do not have any covenant; they are not keeping a covenant. They are not pleasing you. They are idolatrous. They are wicked. They are brutal. They are cruel. They kill anybody in their path. When they capture a nation, they bleed it financially. How can this be? How can You let this happen?”
A. First Complaint
He gives what is traditionally called “his first complaint”. Complaint just describing the misery that these Babylonians are taking over the known world. “They are coming. They are awful. We see them. How O Lord can you allow this to be so? I don’t get it.” God gives a reply and his reply is, The Babylonians are My agents to do exactly what I want because they are wiping out and punishing injustice in all kinds of forms.” That is an answer, that I’m using them, that is all purposeful. That is why they are having such success.
B. Second Complaint
“Well, how can you let them then have this success?” The answer then is, “Well, it is only temporary.” Habakkuk says what Jeremiah says or what Isaiah said implicitly without naming Babylon or what any number of other prophets also say, “Babylon also will fall.” In the middle of this there is really an amazing message that God provides and that is the message about how you live when all this is happening. It is one thing for God to help Habakkuk to understand that this is all part of a great historical process and that when one looks back from eternity upon the history of the world, one will see that God never let injustice go completely out of hand. He always had means of punishing and of changing and of defeating an oppressor nation, sometimes most often by another oppressor nation, but He always will do that kind of thing. That is one message but there is the other question, what do you do in the meantime? How is it that you are supposed to somehow survive. What do you do in this wicked world. We are not seeing Babylonian invasions per say and so on but we are seeing all the deterioration in our culture, all the kinds of crummy things that people listen to in music or see on television or in movies, all the pornography, all the junk, everything. We just see so much decline, so much deterioration. What do you do? How do you live when all that is taking place, when it seems like everything is getting worse, not better? That is the wonderful message almost buried in Habakkuk. It is not really that way but to the casual reader it can seem that way.
As you know, this message about how the righteous live by faith became a turning point message not merely for Paul who preached it and exposited it in books like the Book of Romans but also for people like Martin Luther. It was Martin Luther who said, “That’s it.” He had grown up in this very sad, medieval and following tradition of the church, this is just the way all Christians were thinking that you had to please God by your good works. That is what it was. Amazingly people basically could not see what the New Testament says plainly. They really could not see that; it was not visible to people. A culture can so permeate your thinking that you do not even have recognition categories for what the Bible is actually saying to you plainly.
C. The Just Shall Live By Faith
The whole concept of works righteous was rampant. Luther finally said, “No.” It is what Paul says in Romans quoting Habakkuk, “The just will live by faith.” That is the principle, it is salvation by faith. That is what you have got to get. Are works important? Absolutely, they come immediately thereafter. They should come, they are positive, and you do want to live a righteous life but righteous, actual life that God gives you, is obtained by faith, not works. Therefore, as Paul says, “Nobody can brag. No way you can ever say I earned it. Nobody can ever say that. God will not allow anybody to say I earned by salvation. It cannot happen. The church during the next thousand years tries to help people earn their salvation. That is how bad things went, how off the wall theology drifted. Habakkuk is the basis of that and you can easily miss it. Here is the thing—with all this trouble, how do you live, what do you, what do you do in a wicked world, a fallen world with all its faults? God says to Habakkuk in 2:2, “Write down the revelation and make it plain on tablets,” then it says in the NIV which I am reading from, “so that a herald may run with it.” Then it gives a footnote, “So that whoever reads it may run with it.” I think it actually says so that even somebody running by can read it. It is so big, like a billboard, that even if you are zipping by you can say, “I saw what that said.” Write it big. “The revelation awaits an appointed time; it speaks to the end and it will not prove false. Though it linger, wait for it; it certainly will come and not delay,” and this whole thing about what God has in mind. “Look, he is puffed up: his desires are not upright—but the righteous will live by his faith.” Then it goes on to talk more about the Babylonians, how greedy the Babylonian nation is and all that but just stuck there virtually like a parenthesis is the statement, “By the way, the righteous live by faith.” It is a great statement and in the midst of all the garbage that the Israelites have to endure in these hard times comes the statement, “The just, or the righteous will live by faith.” Chapter 3 then is very interesting because, what is God’s ultimate solution? It is always deliverance; God is a rescuer, He is a Savior, He is a deliverer; that is who God is. He is always evangelizing, bringing people to faith and saving them from sin and from death. In the third chapter of Habakkuk this is portrayed as a new exodus. Habakkuk is not the only one to have such a theme.
D. New Exodus
There is a lot of new exodus language in Isaiah and in some of the other prophets as well but Habakkuk has it in a very beautiful way. If you read his prayer, it really comes around to being what we would call a history hymn. It is just like that category of hymns, the history hymn. Verse 3, “God gave from Teman, the Holy One from Mount Paran.” Those are locations down in the general Edomite area around which the Israelites marched. “His glory covered the heavens and his splendor and so on like this. Plague went before him; pestilence followed him. He shook the earth, made the nations tremble, the ancient mountains collapse. He goes up through Midian, the angry rivers. He crosses, he splits the earth. The sun and the moon stand still.” Read about that in Joshua chapter 10 and so on. You just follow the story and it is God leading His people in a great new exodus up from the south into the Promise Land. Thus, there is encouragement. What do you do? Do you say, “Yeah, that is all theoretical?” No, in the present time when things are hard, you still trust in the Lord. The righteous lives now by faith. In this particular hymn it is put this way, verse 17 and 18 of the last chapter, though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, all the crops fails, fields produce no food, no sheep in the pen, no cattle in the stalls, I am going to rejoice in the Lord. I am going to be joyful in my Savior. You can have real joy says Habakkuk in this fallen world. You do not have the joy from the fallen world, however, that is not where the joy comes. The joy comes in spite of the fallen world. It is a great message.
Zephaniah, another short book. Zephaniah is a day of the Lord prophet visibly and openly so.
A. Historical Setting
It appears that Zephaniah is preaching in a time contemporaneous with Jeremiah, from everything that we can figure out. It says he preached during the reign of Josiah, King of Judah. That is when Jeremiah started too. It appears that he did preach also in those few years prior to the great revival of 622 BC. Jeremiah started in 627 and preached for five years before the revival. Apparently in that same time period also Zephaniah preached. Here are two prophets that we know about who were pushing the same kinds of things, “Watch out! Judgment is coming unless you repent.” They were helping pave the way for the Josiah revival. That is kind of the historical setting.
B. "Day of the Lord" Prophecy
In chapter 1 and on into part of chapter 2 there is a very powerful day of the Lord prophecy and it actually contains much what we would call hyperbole. Hyperbola is exaggeration for effect. You overdo in order to be sure that the impact that you want to make is made. Here is how he says it, Zephaniah 1:2, “I will sweep away everything from the face of the earth, declares the Lord. I will sweep away both men and animals; I will sweep away the birds of the air and the fish of the sea. The wicked will have only heaps of rubble when I cut off man from the face of the earth.” That looks like at least as bad as the flood under Noah. It is literal? No, not really. It is not really what is being described but it is a description of cataclysmic judgment. God is going to eliminate evil and make a big difference in this world and so the possibility of repentance is always in the background. “Gather together before the appointed time arrives says chapter 2:2. “Before the fierce anger of the Lord comes upon you, before the day of the Lord’s wrath. Seek the Lord, seek righteous, seek humility; perhaps you will be sheltered from the day of the Lord’s anger.” This is an angle on the day of the Lord that is useful to get. Day of the Lord, great judgment, it sounds horrible and horrific, who can endure it, who can stand it, it is dreadful, it is this it is that. But the prophets are also saying, “But you know, no matter what happens physically to you in this world, if you can be right with God you’re okay, it all bypasses ultimately, then you are in a separate track and you are protected and blessed from God.” They are always calling people to be rescued, to get out of the danger zone and to be in the right position. Zephaniah then gives a number of oracles against foreign nations but does not have one against Edom. He must have forgot because it is so popular. No, not necessarily. But he does not happen to have one; most prophets do.
Then when he is attacking Assyria he shifts neatly into attacking Israel. It may even be that when people heard him preach this they did not even notice the transition. In his attack on Assyria at the end of chapter 2 he is saying, “This is the city that thought itself safe. She said I am and there is none besides me. What a ruin she has become; a lair for wild beasts! All who pass by her scoff and shake their fists.” Then he goes on to say, “Woe to the city of oppressors, rebellious and defiled! She obeys no one, accepts no corruption.” Well, it sounds like it is still Assyria maybe. Then he says, “She does not trust in the Lord, does not draw near to her God.” You have to say he is talking about Jerusalem now. But same kind of judgment language now against Jerusalem. That means he is really hitting hard the corruption of that day.
But God never leaves this story untold. He does not say, “That’s it, I’m going to punish everybody and good for them.” There is always a hope, always a prediction of the good things to come. So this book ends with some wonderful predictions about a great future. He says in the very last verse, “At that time I will gather you; I will bring you home; I will give you honor and praise among the peoples of the earth when I restore your fortunes before your very eyes says the Lord.” That is the restoration promise for the time after the exile and of course, the time of Christ until the time of the New Covenant until the time we ourselves are in.
Let’s close in prayer. Thank you Father for a chance to look further in Your Word. Thank you for the encouragement it gives. Thank you for the ways in which we can see in Your Word the things that really relate directly to us and are genuinely practical in the best sense. If we really know what life should be about, these are truly practical books for us. Help us as we try to assimilate all the material, to do so in a way that shows real respect to the quality of what You have done and as we learn from it also remember it is a precious trust and we are not just to enjoy what we know, we are to use that knowledge to help others as well. We pray that for Christ’s sake. Amen.