Date: May 5, 2019
Speaker: Erik Raymond
Scripture: Habakkuk 1:1–2:1
How do you respond when life doesn’t make sense?
Anxiety, difficulty, hardship, pain, and sadness are as common to us as breathing. It hurts and it’s hard.
We are beginning a four-week study in Habakkuk. He was a prophet in Judah in the early 7th Century BC. His name means “embrace” and you should think of this less as hugging and more as wrestling. In this book, he is wrestling with God over the trouble he is facing. The book is a journey for Habakkuk from doubt to faith. And this time in the prayer closet with Habakkuk wrestling with God will help us.
This morning what we find out is simply this: God’s process is often unexpected but always best. God was doing something that he never expected. This book and especially this chapter is a raw glimpse into a believer’s interaction with God. It’s filled with surprise, honesty, and —if we are honest—some missteps.
This morning we’ll look at Habakkuk’s two questions and then God’s answer in the middle. There’s a Frustrated Question: Why is this happening? (1-4); A Sovereign Answer: I am doing a work. (5-11); and, A Confused Question: How can this be? (12-2:1)
As we turn to the opening verses we find Habakkuk coming to God with his problems. We would do well to learn from the prophet for his practice here. He was greatly burdened and so he made his way to pray. Too often can identify with Habakkuk’s weighty burden but are strangers to his practice of praying. Mark it down and learn from he prophet, burdens are meant to be brought to God in prayer not affixed to your shoulders alone. What is heavy on your heart this morning? Have you prayed about it? Are you taking your concerns to the Lord? Sometimes people say, God will never give you more than you can handle. I don’t that’s true. It’s not biblical. God frequently give us more than we can handle. It is more accurate to say, God will never give you more than he can handle. Your burdens are meant to be brought to God in prayer. We are to cast all of our anxieties upon him because he cares for us (1 Peter 5:7).
The heart of his burden can be found in the questions, “How long?” and “Why?”
Look first at “How Long?” in verse 2.
The prophet talks about this crying for help, and what he perceives as a lack of an answer. Then in verse 2, a cry about the impending violence, without any clear answer. He’s struggling here. What’s going on?
Habakkuk was a contemporary of Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, and Zephaniah. He lived in the early seventh Century. If you’re trying to get your bearings of when this would be, it would be after the dreadful reign of Manassah and likely at the end or after the time of Josaiah’s reforms. Judah was trending towards idolatry and had a storied history of it already. And, if you are thinking about world powers and events, this is a time of international shifting. The Assyrian Empire had dominated the area for over two centuries, were recently defeated in Ninevah by the Babylonians. These same Babylonians were gaining momentum after also defeating Egypt they moved near to Israel’s border breathing out threats.
One commentator notes, these “catastrophic events of the last decades of the seventh-century b.c. and the first decades of the sixth-century b.c. left many people reeling and disillusioned. It was an agitated time, characterized by rapid political change, international turmoil, bloody military encounters, and a growing rebellion against the demands of the covenant by the great majority in Judah. (Kenneth L. Barker, NAC), 251.
Habakkuk’s questions, his prayers come sandwiched between the bookends of horrible, tyrannical kingdoms and a rebellious people who are supposed to be following God. It is a wicked time.
Little wonder then he calls out for help.
How long? Habakkuk is crying out to God in prayer, “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not hear? Or cry to you “Violence!” and you will not save?” (Habakkuk 1:2)
It is obvious here that the prophet is desperate and feels that God is not hearing him, or at least is unwilling to act. There is certainly an assumption that God should act. But, there is an apparent disconnect between what he believes should happen and what he is experiencing.
But it expands. He goes on in verse 3 to talk about the proliferation of violence. “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.
And it continued with the assessment that justice was compromised and the law was paralyzed, “So the law is paralyzed, and justice never goes forth. For the wicked surround the righteous; so justice goes forth perverted.” (Habakkuk 1:3–4)
These are very serious statements. He is feeling this deeply.
While Habakkuk’s bluntness might make you blush a bit, certainly you empathize with his burden, can’t you.
What makes you cry out for the kingdom of God to come?
Habakkuk is frustrated. He laments the spiritual state of his people. He fears that God has abandoned him and is not listening, or even worse, that he refuses to respond. And so he prays. He unloads his heart upon God.
How does God answer him?
Habakkuk gets an answer, but it’s not what he expects. This is because God's process is not always what we expect, but it's always what is best.
In verse 5 God answers his prayer without directly answering his questions. He tells him to “Look among the nations, and see; wonder and be astounded, ”Habakkuk asked God about a national problem but God directs him to the nations. He tells him to look at these nations and wonder. Look at Babylon, Egypt, and Assyria. Look at them. I’m doing something that “you would not believe it if I told you.”
Far from being distant, unaware, and unconcerned God is actually very much up to speed with what is going on. In fact, he is doing something unbelievable Isn’t this a surprising turn in the story This is an important point for us to remember as Christians living in a fallen world: even though God’s involvement may be imperceptible to us, we must remember that he is nevertheless actively working out his plan for his ultimate glory and our ultimate good.
Even if we are not so brazen to admit it, if we are honest, there are times when we may feel like God has taken a break from his sovereign reign over this world.
But, he hasn’t. Look what he is doing.
“For 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.” (Habakkuk 1:6)
The Chaldeans are the Babylonians. They are, as said here, bitter and hasty. They were known for their cruelty. They are bad news.
This is a moment when the record would skip. The eyebrows would raise.
Lord, you are answering violence with more violence? You are answering ungodliness with the ungodly? What? Why?
God then provides a description of this surprising servant in verses 7-11. And what we find is the only thing that seems to outrun their power us their pride.
In verses 8-9 their attacks are clear. They ride horses. This was not very common in this time and this area. And the Babylonians use of them gave them a legendary, almost myth-like status. With these horses, they were like wild animals who would attack quickly and mercilessly. They are compared to leopards, wolves, and eagles. And they attack with quickness, pride, and devour their enemies.
And why do they come? We see right there in verse 9, it is for violence. Their faces are going to be set toward Jerusalem for the attack. And they would gather captives.
Look at verse 10, “At kings they scoff, and at rulers, they laugh. They laugh at every fortress, for they pile up earth and take it.” There is no army they fear. There is a fortress to protect from them. They are unstoppable.
This is the reputation they had.
What is God saying here? He is going to do what?
The Lord’s answer to the prophet confused him. He is surprised and shocked, “How can this be?”
Have you ever been surprised by how God has answered your prayer? Perhaps it has seemed like he has been very slow to answer, you might wonder if he even hears at all. Or maybe he answers in a way that completely shocks you. You think about how you have prayed and how God’s will has worked out, and you are surprised. Shocked even.
You may even wonder how this could be happening if you are following God. How could God allow such things to happen in your life? Without seeing the wisdom or ultimate purpose in something, you begin to question God’s wisdom and God’s ultimate purpose. This is where Habakkuk is.
He has asked “How long?” and the Lord had promptly answered, “Very suddenly and very soon.”
And he asked, “Why is not justice upheld?” and the Lord had answered, “My justice shall bring awesome vengeance even on my own people.”
Do you see what has happened? The answer God gave directly dealt with the issues Habakkuk raised, but they ended up troubling him more than his original questions.
What is his reaction? He becomes very bold. He challenges God about using the Babylonians to solve the problem.
His questions to God, his response is really based on two themes, God’s character, and his covenant.
His character, that is who God is. He is saying, this is not consistent with the God I know. How could you do this Lord?
His covenant, that is the relationship he has to God. He does not see how God could judge Judah because they were the people of God. It didn’t make sense.
This is raw. It’s hard.
On the one hand, we admire Habakkuk’s love for God’s holiness and his people. On the other hand, we cringe at how he has indicted God’s character and purpose.
He doesn’t understand.
Look at verse, 12, he is saying that God is eternal. He has no beginning and no end.
He then says “we shall not die.” There is some debate as to whether he is saying “we” or “you” in the original. If it is “we” then he is saying that God would not wipe out his people through the Babylonians. He’ll leave a remnant. If it’s “you” then he is simply laying out his understanding of an eternal God. It’s more likely “you” according to many scholars.
Then in the rest of the verse, he is leaning into God’s character. God is a rock. He is stable. He is the protector of his people. How could this God judge them?
He uses the words “ordained” and “established” to talk about the Babylonians. These people were known as wicked and merciless. They weren’t coming in to give them a pep talk. They would come in to destroy. To wipe them out. How could God use these wicked people to inflict such harm upon those who identify as God’s people?
Then in verse 13, he talks about how God’s eyes are too hold to behold iniquity. And, he’s right. But what Habakkuk overlooks here is that it this is precisely the reason he is going to judge Judah by the Babylonians. They are living in a wicked and licentious way.
These promised actions do not line up with what Habakkuk understands about God’s character and his covenant. He doesn’t get it.
And now he presses on it further by rehearsing what he knows about the Babylonians. In verses 14-17 he shows how wicked they are. It’s like he is trying to bolster his case by reminding God who they really ar.
In then end of verse 13, he asks why God would be idle and do nothing when they attack.
In verse 14 he is pointing out that humanity is fairly vulnerable. Like the creatures of the water, they just go about and can be susceptible to all kinds of other animals in the water.
Some historians note that the Babylonians would capture people and lead them away with a hook in their mouth, fixed into their cheeks, like fish captured in the sea. Habakkuk is likely picking up on this dreadful practice here.
Then he shows how the Babylonians are just going to promote further ungodliness with what they do. They are going to rejoice in their plunder and then worship themselves (v.16) and perpetuate this merciless killing of the nations forever (v.17).
Habakkuk has a couple of options at this point. He can allow his doubts to destroy his faith in God or it can be used to strengthen it.
We see his response in verse 1 of chapter 2, “I will take my stand at my watchpost and station myself on the tower, and look out to see what he will say to me, and what I will answer concerning my complaint.”
He is going to wait for God to answer. And then he too will continue this prayerful dialog. He is confused but he has not given up.
How does God respond? You’ll have to come back next week.
In the meantime, let’s think about what we have seen here in this section.
First, one of the ways this section is quoted in the New Testament is to warn against God’s judgment. In the 13th chapter of Acts, the Apostle Paul is speaking to religious leaders in Israel. They had rejected God’s Messiah and were now intent on continuing in their rebellion. The passage is a warning to those who would presume they were right while rejecting God’s Word. In other words, God warns of judgment to those whose lives do not line up with the Bible. The Babylonians came. The Romans came. And now, ultimately, God is going to come in judgment. Not another nation. But God.
Second, this passage reminds us that we live in a post-Genesis 3 world. I mean by this, this world is broken. We are not promised that life is going to be full of ease. Instead, God warns us over and over again that it will be difficult. We must be sure that we are not believing a soft-prosperity Gospel that presumes that we are going to have ease, success, health, and wealth in this world. Jesus is quite clear, he promises trouble here and everlasting joy in the world to come.
Third, we may be tempted to avoid prayer when there is real trouble going on. Habakkuk reminds us that it is right to come to God in prayer. We should never disengage with indifference but rather engage with fervent prayer.
Fourth, we might be tempted to question God’s character when things are not going the way we want them to go. But, we have to be careful to not interpret God’s character in light of circumstances but rather our circumstances in light of God’s character. What might Habakkuk have said if he did this?
Fifth, this is not the first time that God uses the godless for his purposes. He is so sovereign that he can allow the nations to do what they want (and be culpable for it) and at the same time accomplish his purposes for his people. Think of the Egyptians. Or the Assyrians. The Babylonians would do this. Then of course who could forget the Romans.
Only here there is a difference isn’t there?
In the case of the Romans it’s Jesus, God’s son, who is in the cross-hairs. He is the one who suffers.
He is the only one who could cry the words of verse 2-3,
“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.” (Habakkuk 1:2–3)
Upon the cross, Jesus suffered and died for sinners like you and me.
Because God’s eyes are too pure to behold evil and cannot look at wrong, he turned his face away in judgment upon the cross as Jesus bore the wrath that we deserve.
God used the Romans to accomplish his ultimate purpose not to destroy his people but to save them.
We don’t have every answer when life doesn’t make sense. But we do have the cross. Look there and cling to that.
It’s not only all you can do, but it’s also the best thing you can do.
Our Father, like Habakkuk we admit that we don’t fully grasp the enormity of our sin and what it deserves. Reading and studying this passage of everyday people like us who had gotten so tied up in sin reminds us of our great need for a Savior. We thank you for Jesus Christ, our King, and Redeemer. We thank you that he drank dry the cup of damnation that we might eternally sip the cup of blessing. We ask you, Father, that we as a church would be a people who are marked by trusting you, even when things are difficult to understand. Help us O God, to refasten our grip of faith upon you. You have proven yourself true and faithful in our salvation.