Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4
The book of Habakkuk is composed of two complaints or laments by Habakkuk (1:2-4 and 1:12-17), two responses by Yahweh (1:5-11 and 2:2-20), and a psalm (chapter 3).
The opening words of chapter 3 are, “A prayer of Habakkuk, the prophet, set to victorious music,”—which leads some scholars to believe that chapter 3 was added by another author later. The psalm of chapter 3 acknowledges Yahweh’s great power, confesses fear at the prospect of the judgment that Yahweh has foretold, and promises to “rejoice in Yahweh” (3:18) even in the midst of terrible trouble.
The best clue we have to the time of Habakkuk’s prophecy is the reference in 1:6 to the Chaldeans (also known as the Babylonians). In 626 B.C., Nabopolassar of Chaldea (the southern part of the Tigris-Euphrates region) revolted against Assyria (the northern part of the Tigris-Euphrates region) to capture the city of Babylon. He then defeated Assyria (612 B.C.) and Egypt (605 B.C), his two strongest rivals.
Nabopolassar’s son, Nebuchadnezzar, attacked Jerusalem in 597 B.C. He sacked the city in 587 B.C., killing thousands, and taking most of the rest into exile. The Babylonians remained in power until they were defeated by Cyrus of Persia in 539 B.C. Cyrus allowed the Jewish exiles to return to Jerusalem and to rebuild the temple.
Habakkuk probably served as a prophet sometime after the death of the good King Josiah in 609 B.C. and prior to the sack of Jerusalem in 587 B.C. His prophecy is directed at Judah (the southern kingdom), because Israel (the northern kingdom) had been crushed by Assyria and had long since ceased to exist as an autonomous nation.
HABAKKUK 1:1-4. AN ORACLE OR A BURDEN
1The oracle (Hebrew: massa—oracle or burden) which Habakkuk the prophet saw.
2“Yahweh how long will I cry, and you will not hear?
I cry out to you ‘Violence!’
and will you not save?
3Why do you show me iniquity, and look at perversity?
For destruction and violence are before me.
There is strife, and contention rises up.
4Therefore the law is paralyzed,
and justice (Hebrew: mis∙pat) never goes forth;
for the wicked surround the righteous (Hebrew: seda·qa);
therefore justice (Hebrew: mis∙pat) goes forth perverted.”
“The oracle (massa) which Habakkuk the prophet saw“ (v. 1). The word massa can mean either oracle or burden. Perhaps the meaning here is that Yahweh has burdened Habakkuk with the responsibility for seeing and promulgating an oracle (a wise saying).
This verse says that Habakkuk is a prophet. A prophet is an intermediary whose function is to proclaim the word of God. It is unusual for the superscription of a book of prophecy to identify the author as a prophet, although Haggai 1:1 and Zechariah 1:1 also do that.
“Yahweh (YHWH) how long will I cry, and you will not hear? I cry out to you “Violence!” and will you not save?“ (v. 2). Verse 1 said that Habakkuk saw an oracle, so we would expect this verse to be the first part of that oracle. This verse, however, begins a lament—an expression of sorrow over a loss.
A lament might be inspired by any form of calamity, such as defeat in battle, exile, illness, or death. The purpose of the lament was typically to persuade God to provide relief from the calamitous circumstances.
This lament is inspired by violence. Has this violence been fomented by internal forces (Jewish leaders) or external forces (Babylonians). Either is possible:
• The late King Josiah had found a copy of the law and had implemented a number of reforms to comply with the law. However, his son, Jehoiakim, who reigned from 609-598 B.C., abandoned the reforms begun by his father. The people of Judah are therefore suffering under evil leadership (2 Kings 23:37). Habakkuk might be protesting that Yahweh has neither listened to his people’s cries for help nor exercised his power to save them from their leaders.
• But Babylon has been exercising its considerable power to dominate and control Judah, so the violence of which Habakkuk speaks could be from Babylonia.
“Why do you show me iniquity, and look at perversity? For destruction and violence are before me. There is strife, and contention rises up“ (v. 3). The prophet uses three couplets—wrongdoing and trouble, destruction and violence, and strife and contention—to portray the problems that he has seen. He cannot understand why Yahweh has permitted these things—has failed to take action to stop them. He expresses the kind of outrage that we would feel if we were to see a police officer standing by, doing nothing, as a crime took place right in his presence.
“Therefore the law is paralyzed, and justice (mis∙pat) never goes forth; for the wicked surround the righteous (seda·qa); therefore justice (mis∙pat) goes forth perverted “ (v. 4). Habakkuk portrays a scene resembling a courtroom where court officials no longer honor the law, but permit injustice to reign.
Justice (mis·pat) and righteousness (seda·qa) are related. Justice involves bringing people into a right relationship with Yahweh and each other, and these right relationships produce righteous lives. When justice is perverted, righteous people suffer.
God’s law provides very specific guidance with regard to just behavior. It requires witnesses to be honest and impartial (Exodus 23:1-3, 6-8). It requires special consideration for widows, orphans, and other vulnerable people (Deuteronomy 24:17). While Israel is always tempted to define its service to God by the performance of cultic duties (ritual sacrifice, Sabbath observance, etc.), the prophets keep reminding them that justice is a basic duty of the faith community (Micah 6:8).
But the law has become slack so that the people whom it was designed to protect are suffering. Why is Yahweh allowing this to happen?
HABAKKUK 1:5-20. THE WOES OF THE WICKED
These verses are not in the lectionary, but the preacher needs to be aware of them. Verses 5-11 constitute Yahweh’s response to Habakkuk’s first complaint (1:2-4). Then Habakkuk issues a second complaint (1:12-17), which Yahweh will answer in chapter 2.
HABAKKUK 2:1-4. YAHWEH ANSWERED ME
2:1 I will stand at my watch, and set myself on the ramparts,
and will look out to see what he will say to me,
and what I will answer concerning my complaint.
2Yahweh answered me, “Write the vision, and make it plain on tablets,
that he who runs may read it.
3For the vision is yet for the appointed time,
and it hurries toward the end, and won’t prove false.
Though it takes time, wait for it;
because it will surely come. It won’t delay.
4Behold, his soul is puffed up (Hebrew: apal).
It is not upright in him,
but the righteous will live by his faith.”
“I will stand at my watch, and set myself on the ramparts, and will look out to see what he will say to me, and what I will answer concerning my complaint“ (v. 2.1). Habakkuk has made his point. Now he stands waiting, like a guard on the ramparts, to see how Yahweh will answer his complaints.
“Yahweh answered me, ‘Write the vision, and make it plain on tablets, that he who runs may read it‘” (v. 2). Yahweh orders Habakkuk to write his vision plainly on tablets. This is significant, because a written prophetic record, shared with others prior to its fulfillment, makes the prophecy testable against its subsequent fulfillment.
• The Lord ordered Isaiah to write down prophecy “that it may be for the time to come forever and ever” (Isaiah 30:8; see also Isaiah 8:1, 16).
• The Lord ordered Jeremiah to “take a scroll of a book, and write therein all the words that I have spoken to you against Israel, and against Judah, and against all the nations” (Jeremiah 36:2).
• The Lord orders Habakkuk to write what he has seen on tablets. He is to write it plainly, which suggests both clear language and legible script. He is to make it so large and clear that a runner passing by can read it—a sort of mini-billboard.
“For the vision is yet for the appointed time, and it hurries toward the end, and won’t prove false. Though it takes time, wait for it; because it will surely come. It won’t delay“ (v. 3). This is an eschatological vision—a vision to be realized in God’s good time. To humans, God’s time might seem slow, because “one day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day” (2 Peter 3:8). There is, therefore, a good deal of uncertainty regarding when the appointed time will come—but no uncertainty with regard to whether it will come.
“Behold, his soul is puffed up. (apal) It is not upright in him“ (v. 4a). We are caught in a quandary here with regard to the issue of pride. We know that a certain kind of pride is helpful—the kind of pride that we might label self-confidence—the kind of pride that manifests itself as dignity. But we also know that pride can easily metastasize into something ugly—narcissism—vanity—conceit.
The Hebrew word that is translated “puffed up” here is apal, which suggests someone who is full of pride or presumptuous.
• This kind of pride obstructs relationships with God, because the prideful person finds it difficult to imagine that his/her success is anything other than the result of his/her brilliance or hard work. He/she will find it difficult to comprehend that he/she should approach God on bended knee to give thanks for the gifts that God has provided.
• This kind of pride also gets in the way of human relationships, because the prideful person preoccupation with self leaves little room for compassion or concern for others.
“but the righteous will live by his faith“ (v. 4b). This phrase is quoted in three places in the New Testament, twice by the Apostle Paul (Romans 1:17; Galatians 3:11) and once by the author of Hebrews (10:38). It is one of the most important verses in the Old Testament because of its influence on the Apostle Paul—and later on Martin Luther.
The kind of faith indicated here is something more than the acknowledgement that God exists. It is the kind of faith that causes the believer to live by faith—to act in accordance with the believer’s belief, even when that might not seem to serve his or her own self-interest. The person who possesses this kind of faith will be faithful even when times are tough—even when it seems that God is nowhere to be found. They do not require evidence of God’s love, because they live by faith that God loves them.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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Copyright 2010, Richard Niell Donovan