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Journey through Habakkuk

Questions and Answers (1:1-2:5) – Part 1

Note: We encourage you to click the link above and read the section in Habakkuk this post will discuss prior to reading the post.

The first part of Habakkuk comprises a series of questions from Habakkuk followed by God’s answers, which are not the answers that Habakkuk wanted to hear. However, God’s answers fulfill the curses that God warned would come if His chosen people broke the covenant oath that was made between them and God before they crossed the Jordan and went into the Promised Land. (See Deuteronomy 27-28.)

Then in Deuteronomy 29, the people renewed their covenant with God– after knowing what curses would come if they broke the covenant. And in Deuteronomy 29: 24, it is predicted that when all the calamities of the curses fall on the people, they would cry out and ask, “All the nations will ask, ‘Why has the Lord done this to this land? Why this great outburst of anger?’” Yet, the people already would know why. Deuteronomy 29:25 tell us, “Then people will answer, ‘It is because they abandoned the covenant of Yahweh, the God of their fathers, which He had made with them when He brought them out of the land of Egypt.’

Now, we find Habakkuk seeking the answers to the questions that Deuteronomy told us the people would ask.

The Superscription: The Oracle of Habakkuk (1:1)

The first verse informs the reader that the book is the oracle that the prophet Habakkuk saw. The Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary defines oracles as “Communications from God. This term refers to both divine responses to a question asked of God and to pronouncements made by God without His being asked.”[1] While oracles could refer to a prophecy that would occur in the future, they could involve a decision to be made in the present. Snyman adds in Nahum, Habakkuk and Zephaniah: An Introduction and Commentary, “The noun also has the notion of ‘burden’ or ‘load’, suggesting that the oracle is a kind of a burden upon the prophet that must be delivered. The noun can also be rendered as ‘message’, ‘announcement’ or ‘proclamation.’”[2]

Since Habakkuk states that it is the oracle he “saw,” it is generally believed that this oracle was a vision that Habakkuk had. As such, the reader can determine that this oracle was a message received by Habakkuk as God’s revelation to him and should be read as a divine revelation. Miller explains, “The term may indicate seeing with the physical eyes, perceiving, or seeing prophetically— either a literal vision or a prophetic revelation. Here the latter is the idea. God opened Habakkuk’s spiritual eyes to receive a divine message… Habakkuk was a spiritually perceptive person who was in tune with God. For this reason God chose him to receive a message to share with his countrymen.”[3]

Habakkuk’s First Question

First, Habakkuk wants to understand how God could remain silent as His people live in wickedness and sin and why does God not punish the wicked? In verses 2-3, the prophet cries out: “How long, Lord, must I call for help and You do not listen or cry out to You about violence and You do not save? Why do You force me to look at injustice? Why do You tolerate wrongdoing? Oppression and violence are right in front of me. Strife is ongoing, and conflict escalates“(HCSB). Perhaps you have even cried out similar cries to the Lord in our day. However, one must be careful about what one asks for.

God replies to Habakkuk’s question by showing him what is coming for Judah, and it will be more than Habakkuk could possibly think or image as the even more wicked Babylonians arrive on the scene to punish Judah. Listen to God’s response to Habakkuk in verses 5-11:

Look at the nations and observe—be utterly astounded! for something is taking place in your days that you will not believe when you hear about it. Look! I am raising up the Chaldeans, that bitter, impetuous nation that marches across the earth’s open spaces to seize territories not its own. They are fierce and terrifying; their views of justice and sovereignty stem from themselves. Their horses are swifter than leopards and more fierce than wolves of the night. Their horsemen charge ahead; their horsemen come from distant lands. They fly like an eagle, swooping to devour. All of them come to do violence; their faces are set in determination. They gather prisoners like sand. They mock kings, and rulers are a joke to them. And they laugh at every fortress and build siege ramps to capture it. Then they sweep by like the wind and pass through. They are guilty; their strength is their god (HCSB).

Habakkuk Complains to God (1:2-4)

Habakkuk begins his conversation with God with two questions: How long before God will answer his cries for help and why does God not deliver him from violence? The prophet cries out for help from the sovereign and righteous God, but help does not come, and it does not look like relief is coming any time soon. Snyman explains in Nahum, Habakkuk and Zephaniah: An Introduction and Commentary, “The questions imply that the intolerable situation the prophet describes has been going on for a considerable period of time. On more than one occasion in the past the prophet called to the Lord, but apparently to no avail.”[4] Now the prophet cries out in a sense of urgency that expresses an intensity of dire need.

Habakkuk Complains because God is Silent

As a Levitical priest, Habakkuk would have been able to recall how in times past, God had rescued the innocent from the hands of wicked people and nations. For example, when they were slaves in Egypt, God heard their cry and miraculously rescued them. However now, in Habakkuk’s day, God is silent. So, the prophet also wants to know how long he will have to cry out for God’s help.

Miller notes in Holman Old Testament Commentary, “How long, a phrase that occurs sixty-five times in the Bible, often expresses anguish over God’s perceived delay in bringing justice.”[5]

Thomas writes in Habakkuk: Two Horizons Old Testament Commentary, “Questions like these [“how long” and “why”] in the Old Testament quite often carry with them a rhetorical purpose— they are used to draw God’s attention to the situation so that he might respond out of his goodness.”[6]

Habakkuk’s Frustration and Confusion

From Habakkuk’s questions, the reader can sense the prophet’s frustration and confusion in these questions that are asked of the same God who had previously delivered His people from the Egyptians but is now silent. His questions stem from wondering if God even cares that His people were being mistreated and the wicked were prospering and the nation was overrun with crime. Miller states, “The Hebrew word rendered violence (chamas) may refer to injurious language or harsh treatment but is used specifically of physical violence. Godly people were being harmed by these thugs, and yet God had not intervened to save them.”[7]

Habakkuk Complains because He Witnesses Injustice and God Does Not Stop It

These two questions are followed by two others: Why do you force me to witness injustice and why do you put up with such wrongdoing? The questions imply that God sees exactly what is going on and God does nothing about it. In verse 3 alone, Habakkuk uses six words that described the society in which the prophet lived – injustice, wrongdoing, destruction, violence, conflict, and strife – a society that experiences suffering due to mistreatment. Kaiser points out, “Five times in this brief book Habakkuk decries the overwhelming presence of violence (1:2,3,9; 2:8,17). Noah used the same word to describe the society in his day, which God found necessary to destroy with the flood (Gen. 6:11). The violence was the manifestation of the meaner, baser, and more selfish instincts of the haughty persons against the weaker elements of their culture.”[8]

Habakkuk Concludes that because God does not take action, the Law Lacks Power

Verse 4 begins with “therefore” or “For this reason,” which implies that Habakkuk has made a conclusion and he moves with audacity to complain to God that because of God’s inaction, the law lacks power, justice is never carried out, the wicked intimidate the innocent, and justice is perverted. Thomas states that this does not mean that the law is ineffective but that because of the rebelliousness of God’s people, they refuse to follow the law. He writes:

God’s law was never intended to change the hearts of God’s people, so of course it was impotent to effect such change… Faith is secured not by law but by hearts that are changed by a gracious and loving God, but a God who first loved and who gave the torah as a gift. In this way, God’s law cannot be called a failed project. Rather, hearts of men and women who reject God’s torah are the real problem, which is Habakkuk’s point. [9]

Chisholm uses the term “paralyzed” to explain the powerlessness of the law. He writes, “He pictured the law as “paralyzed.” The term translated “paralyzed” is used elsewhere of a heart or hand growing numb (see Gen.45:26; Ps 77:2). When this happens the affected body part cannot function normally. In the same way, the laws God had established to govern the socioeconomic life of the covenant community were being ignored, causing the law to be incapacitated.”[10]

Habakkuk Feels God is Absent and Unobservant

However, Habakkuk’s issue is not only the violence, destruction, and the powerless law, but that God seems to be absent and unobservant to the violence and the plight of those who suffer because of it. Synman writes, “yhwh is known to be the God of justice, so in the apparent absence of justice, a serious theological question arises: where is hywh, the God of justice?”[11]

Come back tomorrow to hear God’s answer – a answer Habakkuk would not want to hear.

[1] Brand, Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary, 1194.

[2] Snyman, Nahum, Habakkuk, and Zephaniah, 55.

[3] Miller, Holman Old Testament Commentary, 60.

[4] Snyman, Nahum, Habakkuk, and Zephaniah, 57.

[5] Miller, Holman Old Testament Commentary, 61.

[6] Thomas, Habakkuk, 63.

[7] Miller, Holman Old Testament Commentary, 61.

[8] Walter C. Kaiser, Mastering the Old Testament: Micah – Malachi (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 1992), 153.

[9] Thomas, Habakkuk, 81.

[10] Robert B. Chisholm, Jr. Handbook on the Prophets: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentation, Ezekiel, Daniel, Minor Prophets (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic,2002), 434-435

[11] Snyman, Nahum, Habakkuk and Zephaniah, 58.

One Year Bible Reading Plan: March 19

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Deuteronomy 33-34

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Praying, Meditating, and Journaling the Psalms:

Choose one of the following Psalms: Psalm 19, 49, 79, 109, or 139.

1: Read the psalm through in its entirety.

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5: Move to the next verse. Continue through the entire psalm this way.

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