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Introduction to Habakkuk (Habakkuk 1-2) June 28

Habakkuk, whose name appears to mean "Embraced"—that is, it is typically concluded, by God—may have served as part of the temple music service at the time of his writing (see Habakkuk 3:19). The inscription in the Greek Septuagint to Bel and the Dragon, an apocryphal book in which Habakkuk is mentioned, says he was a Levite, which would fit with such musical service (Jamieson, Fausset & Brown's Commentary, introductory notes on Habakkuk).

In his prophecy, Habakkuk decries the wickedness of the Jewish society around him, and God warns that punishment is soon going to come from the Chaldeans—the ruling class of Babylon. The prophet's "reference to the Babylonians indicates that they had already become an independent and terrifying presence, a state of affairs which surely presupposes the accession of Nabopolassar to Babylonian kingship in 626 (1:6-11)" (Merrill, Kingdom of Priests, p. 455). That is, Nabopolassar must already have been on the throne and advancing against Assyrian power. As we have seen, his forces, along with others, finally sacked Nineveh in 612 B.C. and thereupon began a mop-up operation to stamp out pockets of Assyrian resistance. In 609 a residual Assyrian force was defeated at Haran, but Assyria's ally Egypt gained control over Judah and Syria upon the death of Josiah. Four years afterward, in 605 B.C.—as we will see more about later—the Babylonian forces under Nabopolassar's son Nebuchadnezzar crushed the last Assyrian holdouts and their Egyptian allies at Carchemish on the Euphrates. Egypt retreated and Judah came under Babylonian dominion.

For this reason, Habakkuk's book being no later than "605 is virtually certain since the judgment upon Judah appears to be totally in the future. On the other hand, Judah is in such a perilous state—injustice abounds and there is no redress—that one can hardly envision Josiah in power any longer. The description of moral and civil anarchy fits very well the early years of Jehoiakim (608-605) just before the evils of Judah brought divine intervention in the form of Nebuchadnezzar" (p. 455). A date of "somewhere around 607 or 606 b.c." seems most likely (p. 455, footnote).

Habakkuk is disturbed at the rampant sin around him—yet he is disturbed still further at the agents of punishment God is going to use to deal with that sin. "Some people believe that human beings should never question the ways of God. They may even feel that it borders on sin to ask God, 'Why?' But the book of Habakkuk counters that idea. It is filled with a prophet's perplexing questions—and the Lord's penetrating answers. God never seems to reproach his servant for asking two basic questions: Why does the Lord seem not to respond (Hb 1.2-4) to the injustice and violence that Habakkuk sees around him?; How can God use the vicious and idolatrous Babylonians (1.12-17) to judge his people?" ("Questioning God," Word in Life Bible, sidebar on 1:2).

As in Psalm 73, "this problem has troubled believers in one form or another from the beginning. Why does God permit the wicked to succeed in this world? Why doesn't He act, so that the good rather than the wicked prosper? The answers we find in Habakkuk show us that the wicked do not succeed—and that no one, good or bad, can avoid the disciplining hand of God. There are moral and theological questions raised by sin's presence, in our own lives and in the ways of the wicked. Perhaps the best and most satisfying answers to be found in Scripture are revealed here in this small, but vital, Old Testament book" (Bible Reader's Companion, introductory notes on Habakkuk).

It should be noted that while the book of Habakkuk was a message to the people of his day, it well applies to our time too. Indeed, while the terrible societal problems the prophet mentions at the outset no doubt applied to what he himself witnessed in seventh-century-B.C. Judah, it is interesting that the nation of Judah is not actually named. Thus, it could also apply to all of Israel in the end time—which, as is clear from other prophecies, will suffer at the hands of a modern revival of Babylon. Notice Habakkuk 2:3 regarding Babylon's fall: "For the vision is yet for an appointed time; but at the end it will speak...." While this could have applied to ancient Babylon, the fall of which occurred nearly 70 years later, it seems more applicable to events much farther off in time. The "day of trouble" here (3:16) is the time of the fall of Babylon—and the ultimate day of trouble, which will accomplish the ultimate fall of Babylon, is the future Day of the Lord, immediately preceding the time of Jesus Christ's return. Finally, the clearest indication of all that this is a prophecy of the last days is the mention of Christ's future reign over all nations (2:14).

Habakkuk's Questions; Chaldean Invasion (Habakkuk 1-2)

The book begins with Habakkuk's first question. He asks God about the violence, lack of justice, and lawlessness he sees (1:2-4). He does not state where these problems are occurring, but "when these terms are used in the O[ld] T[estament] without reference to some specific foreign enemy, they typically characterize conditions among God's people" (Bible Reader's Companion, note on verse 3). Indeed, it is likely that this is what Habakkuk witnessed in the society of Judah in his day. However, his words "Why do You show me...and cause me to see...?" may also indicate that these were visions God gave him of the future—of our day.

Verse 4 says, "Therefore the law is powerless." This can be viewed in one of two ways. For one, all the law that God gave is powerless to itself properly direct one's conduct. It is up to each person's choice and will whether or not he or she will obey God. The apostle James later described how someone could look at God's instructions and ignore them (James 1:22-25). Yet, while a true principle, that may not be Habakkuk's actual point here. The NIV renders his words, "Therefore the law is paralyzed." The implication seems to be that the legal system—the administration of law as given in the Law of Moses—is supposed to function so that the innocent are vindicated and the guilty are punished. But when witnesses and those who run the system are given over to wrong values and behavior, the law—again, the legal system—is prevented from functioning as it should. That was true when Habakkuk wrote—and it is sadly true today (considering that numerous elements of modern justice systems in the free world derive from Mosaic precepts).

In the face of such rampant evil and corruption, Habakkuk essentially asks God, "Why don't You do something about all this? When are You going to act?"

God responds in verses 5-11. He has an "astounding" plan underway to punish His people. God says this will happen "in your days" (verse 5). But it is not clear exactly whom God is speaking to here. It could be Habakkuk. But God says, "...which you would not believe, though it were told you" (same verse). While this could perhaps mean that it was too horrible for any person to really grasp even if he thought he did, it seems more likely to refer to a faithless rejection of God's message. Since Habakkuk himself does believe God, as the rest of the book shows, the message would appear to be directed at God's faithless people—God speaking through Habakkuk but to them. Thus, the "your days" would be their days. It likely did apply to the Jews of the prophet's time. But it could also be addressed to all Israel of our day.

In responding, God lays out the terrible punishment that is coming. The instruments of punishment will be the Chaldeans, a terribly fierce people (verses 6-11). During earlier days of Assyrian rule, these people had moved southeast from the area of Armenia down into Babylonia. The emerging Neo-Babylonian Empire was thus a mixture of earlier Babylonians and the Chaldeans—the Chaldeans actually making up the ruling class. Babylon was currently ruled by the Chaldean king Nabopolassar, who led the overthrow of Assyria. His son and soon-to-be successor Nebuchadnezzar would soon visit destruction on Judah—an obvious fulfillment of this prophecy. But it was also a prototype fulfillment of a greater fulfillment to come in the end time. As explained earlier in the Bible Reading Program, many of the descendants of the Babylonians—original and Chaldean—later ended up in Italy and other areas of southern Europe (see highlights for Isaiah 13:1-14:2). In the last days, they and the modern Assyrians of north-central Europe will together form a final revival of the Roman Empire that the Bible refers to as Babylon (see Revelation 17-18). This final Babylon—a significant portion of its population actually being Chaldean—certainly fits the description given in Habakkuk's prophecy. This coming empire will be used to invade and destroy end-time Israel and Judah and take those who are left of them into captivity.

The translation of Habakkuk 1:11 is not certain. This rendering makes sense: "Then they sweep on like the wind and are gone [on to some new conquest], these men whose power is their god" (Today's English Version).

This brings Habakkuk to his second question. He is glad that God is going to take action on his initial complaint—and that God will deliver the righteous in the land. But he is confused as to why God would use the wicked Babylonians to bring judgment. He basically asks God, "How can you, the Holy God, use an evil, treacherous people for correcting your nation? The Babylonians' sins are worse!" (compare verses 12-13). Habakkuk wants to know why God would allow it to appear "that mankind is like fish in the sea, with no moral governor supervising human affairs. How can God permit the wicked to prosper and thus raise questions, not only about His moral governance of the universe, but about His very existence?" (Bible Reader's Companion, note on verses 13-17). Habakkuk reasons with God this way: "With the Babylonians allowed to continue conquering other nations, they're not learning to worship You. They're worshiping their tools of conquest. So why do You let them enjoy the fruit of their conquests and keep devouring other nations?" (compare verses 15-17).

Habakkuk then recommits himself to the responsibility God has given him to serve as a watchman and relate what he sees and hears to others. He is most interested to hear what God has to say in response to what he's just said (2:1). Indeed, his wording almost makes it look like he is braced for impact—knowing that he has made some pretty bold statements. But he is in no way antagonistic toward God. In fact, he deeply wants God to set Him straight (same verse).

The Just Shall Live by Faith; Woes for the Wicked (Habakkuk 1-2)

The rest of chapter 2 is God's answer. God tells Habakkuk to write it "in large legible characters...upon tables—boxwood tables covered with wax, on which national affairs were engraved with an iron pen, and then hung up in public, at the prophets' own houses, or at the temple, that those who passed might read them" (Jamieson, Fausset & Brown's Commentary, note on verse 2). "We might paraphrase the meaning here by saying 'Write it on a billboard, so large a running man might read it.' What God is about to reveal to the prophet is important, and everyone [not just Habakkuk] needs to understand the Lord's response" (Bible Reader's Companion, note on verse 2).

In verse 3, God is basically saying, "Look, what I'm about to tell you isn't going to happen overnight. It's going to take time for the full measure of these words to be demonstrated—indeed, that won't happen in an ultimate sense until the end of the age. But just wait—you'll eventually see that it's just as I'm saying." The New Testament book of Hebrews, likely written by the apostle Paul, quotes this verse as applying to the return of Christ, who will bring with Him the full measure of reward to the righteous and of punishment to the wicked (10:37).

Returning to Habakkuk 2, God's explanation then begins. "The proud" of verse 4 refers to the Babylonians, those exulting in great conquests, as is clear from verses 5 and 8. "His soul is not upright in him" could simply mean "His life is not straight," that is, his path of life is crooked and twisted—cursed. On the other hand, "the just shall live by his faith." In contrast to the cursed path of the wicked, the righteous have a blessed life—a happy and hopeful life guided by faith. This doesn't mean nothing bad ever happens to them. But by faith they know that God's way is right and will ultimately bring great reward; and this causes them to live the right way and experience true blessings thereby—ultimately life eternal. Verse 4 is quoted in Hebrews 10:38, just after the Hebrews quote previously mentioned, to show that faith gives us endurance to ultimately be saved (see verses 35-39). Paul also quoted Habakkuk 2:4 in relating the fact that we as Christians must live through believing the gospel message Christ brought—as it is the way to eternal salvation (see Romans 1:16-17). And in another context he used the same verse to show that justification—being right with God—comes through faith (Galatians 3:11).

Continuing in Habakkuk 2, God then runs through the cursed life of the proud such as Babylon. "The Lord shows Habakkuk that He does not tolerate the treacherous. Even as the wicked appear to triumph, God is in fact at work judging them! Their success is superficial, for the wicked are never satisfied (vv. 4-5). Their mistreatment of others creates enemies (vv. 6-8). They are driven to build 'secure' retreats which will never protect them (vv. 9-11), for they have no future (vv. 12-14). Coming disgrace is certain (vv. 15-17), for they have no place to turn for guidance or help (vv. 18-20). When we understand what is going on within the heart of the wicked, and when we understand that forces their wicked acts set in motion will surely destroy them, we realize that God does not tolerate them. At the height of their success He is in the process of judging them. Severely" (Bible Reader's Companion, chapter 2 summary).

In verse 5, the transgression appears to begin with wine. "Love of wine often begets a proud contempt of divine things, as in Belshazzar's case, which was the immediate cause of the fall of Babylon (Dan. 5:2-4, 30; cf. Prov. 20:1; 30:9; 31:5)" (JFB Commentary, note on verse 5). However, the wine here is most likely figurative—expressive of intoxication over former success. It is also possible that it relates to false ideology, as Revelation 17:2 mentions the "wine" of Babylon's immorality. This is what leads them into their false pursuits. In any case, whatever they have is not enough. They are never satisfied (Habakkuk 2:5; drawing imagery from Proverbs 27:20). "What a terrible judgment this is. To have everything you want—except satisfaction" (Bible Reader's Companion, note on Habakkuk 2:4-5).

Verse 6 introduces a taunting song or poem: "The 'derisive song' here begins [with the word 'woe'], and continues to the end of the chapter. It is a symmetrical whole, and consists of five stanzas.... Each stanza has its own subject, and all except the last begin with 'woe'; and all have a closing verse introduced with 'for,' 'because,' or 'but'" (JFB, note on verse 6).

In the first stanza (verses 6-8), God condemns Babylon's aggression, thievery and bloodshed. He states that the conquered peoples who've been stolen from will rise up and demand what is theirs—and seek vengeance over the harm they've been done (verses 7-8). In the second stanza (verses 9-11), the taunt is over their covetousness and attempt to secure themselves through wealth. In verse 10, Babylon has conquered many peoples to build its "house" or empire but this will come back on its head—for various parts of the "house" will call for rebellion and others will join in (verse 11).

In the third stanza (verses 12-14), the concern is over building an empire through bloodshed and lawlessness. The fact of the matter is that all their efforts are going into something that will ultimately be burned to the ground (verse 13). In verse 14 God reiterates His wonderful millennial prophecy from Isaiah 11:9. "God intends to fill the earth with the knowledge of the Lord, not with monuments to murderers. Whatever the wicked accomplish will crumble, and the wicked person himself will be forgotten" (Bible Reader's Companion, note on Habakkuk 2:12-14).

The fourth stanza (verses 15-17) describes the inhumanity of the evil Babylonian system, which seeks to make others drunk in order to molest them. Ancient Babylon's captives suffered a condition comparable to drunkenness—swooning, humiliation and utter incapacitation. And this prophecy certainly ties to Revelation 17, where Babylon, the great false church of the end time, is described: "Come, I will show you the judgment of the great harlot who sits on many waters, with whom the kings of the earth committed fornication, and the inhabitants of the earth were made drunk with the wine of her fornication" (verses1-2). This system is pictured with "a golden cup full of abominations and the filthiness of her fornication" (verse 4). Horrifyingly, it is drunk with the blood of God's saints (verse 6). God says he has a new cup for this system to drink (Habakkuk 2:16)—one of retribution (verse 17). Babylon itself will be attacked and defiled and ultimately revealed as uncircumcised—despite its claim to being the spiritually circumcised church of God. The "Lebanon" of verse 17 most likely refers to Jerusalem (see again the highlights on Jeremiah 22:10-17). What Babylon has done to God's people will be done to Babylon in return.

The fifth stanza (verses 18-20) condemns the idolatry of Babylon. Even today, the system of worship descended from ancient Babylon still venerates idolatrous images. In contrast to lifeless idols, God is very much alive in His holy temple in heaven—from where He sees everything and hears the constant din of billions of false prayers to false concepts of divinity. God orders everyone to just "shut up" (see verse 20)—for judgment is about to fall (compare Zephaniah 1:7; Zechariah 2:13).

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