I. THE AUTHOR
II. THE BOOK
1. Interpretation of Habakkuk 1 and 2
III. THE TIME
IV. ITS TEACHING
1. Universal Supremacy of Yahweh
2. Faithfulness the Guarantee of Permanency
I. The Author.
Habakkuk (chabhaqquq) means "embrace," or "ardent embrace." Some of the ancient rabbis, connecting the name with 2 Kings 4:16, "Thou shalt embrace a son," imagined that the prophet was the son of the Shunammite woman. The Septuagint form of the name, Hambakoum; Theodotion Hambakouk, presupposes the Hebrew chabbaquq. A similar word occurs in Assyrian as the name of a garden plant.
Practically nothing is known of Habakkuk. The book bearing his name throws little light upon his life, and the rest of the Old Testament is silent concerning him; but numerous legends have grown up around his name. The identification of the prophet with the son of the Shunammite woman is one. Another, connecting Isaiah 21:6 with Habakkuk 2:1, makes Habakkuk the watchman set by Isaiah to watch for the fall of Babylon. One of the recensions of the Septuagint text of Bel and the Dragon declares that the story was taken "from the prophecy of Habakkuk, the son of Jesus of the tribe of Levi." This must refer to an unknown apocryphal book ascribed to our prophet. What authority there may be for calling his father Jesus we do not know. The claim that he was of the tribe of Levi may be based upon the presence of the musical note at the end of the third chapter. According to the Lives of the Prophets, ascribed, though perhaps erroneously, to Epiphanius, bishop of Salamis in Cyprus during the latter part of the 4th century AD, he belonged to Bethtsohar, of the tribe of Simeon. A very interesting story is found in Bel and the Dragon (33-39), according to which Habakkuk, while on his way to the field with a bowl of pottage, was taken by an angel, carried to Babylon and placed in the lions den, where Daniel ate the pottage, when Habakkuk was returned to his own place. According to the Lives, Habakkuk died two years before the return of the exiles from Babylon. All these legends have little or no historical value.
II. The Book.
1. Interpretation of Habakkuk 1 and 2:
It is necessary to consider the interpretation of Habakkuk 1 and 2 before giving the contents of the book, as a statement of the contents of these chapters will be determined by their interpretation. The different interpretations advocated may be grouped under three heads:
(1) According to the first view: Habakkuk 1:2-4: The corruption of Judah; the oppression of the righteous Jews by the wicked Jews, which calls for the Divine manifestation in judgment against the oppressors. 1:5-11: Yahweh announces that He is about to send the Chaldeans to execute judgment. 1:12-17: The prophet is perplexed. He cannot understand how a righteous God can use these barbarians to execute judgment upon a people more righteous than they. He considers even the wicked among the Jews better than the Chaldeans. 2:1-4: Yahweh solves the perplexing problem by announcing that the exaltation of the Chaldeans will be but temporary; in the end they will meet their doom, while the righteous will live. 2:5-20: Woes against the Chaldeans.
(2) The second view finds it necessary to change the present arrangement of Habakkuk 1:5-11; in their present position, they will not fit into the interpretation. For this reason Wellhausen and others omit these verses as a later addition; on the other hand, Giesebrecht would place them before 1:2, as the opening verses of the prophecy. The transposition would require a few other minor changes, so as to make the verses a suitable beginning and establish a smooth transition from 1:11 to 1:2. Omitting the troublesome verses, the following outline of the two chapters may be given:
1:2-4: The oppression of the righteous Jews by the wicked Chaldeans. 1:12-17: Appeal to Yahweh on behalf of the Jews against their oppressors. 2:1-4: Yahweh promises deliverance (see above). 2:5-20: Woes against the Chaldeans.
(3) The third view also finds it necessary to alter the present order of verses. Again Habakkuk 1:5-11, in the present position, interferes with theory; therefore, these verses are given a more suitable place after 2:4. According to this interpretation the outline is as follows:
1:2-4: Oppression of the righteous Jews by the wicked Assyrians (Budde) or Egyptians (G. A. Smith). 1:12-17: Appeal to Yahweh on behalf of the oppressed against the oppressor. 2:1-4: Yahweh promises deliverance (see above). 1:5-11: The Chaldeans will be the instrument to execute judgment upon the oppressors and to bring deliverance to the Jews. 2:5-20: Woes against the Assyrians or Egyptians.
A full discussion of these views is not possible in this article (see Eiselen, Minor Prophets, 466-68). It may be sufficient to say that on the whole the first interpretation, which requires no omission or transposition, seems to satisfy most completely the facts in the case.
The contents of Habakkuk 1 and 2 are indicated in the preceding paragraph. Habakkuk 3 contains a lyrical passage called in the title "Prayer." The petitioner speaks for himself and the community. He remembers the mighty works of Yahweh for His people; the thought of them causes him to tremble; nevertheless, he calls for a repetition of the ancient manifestations (3:2). In majestic pictures the poet describes the wonderful appearances of Yahweh in the past (3:3-11) for His chosen people (3:12-15). The remembrance of these manifestations fills the Psalmist with fear and trembling, but also with joy and confidence in the God of his salvation (3:16-19).
Only the Hebrew student can get an adequate idea of the literary excellence of the Book of Habakkuk. "The literary power of Habakkuk," says Driver, "is considerable. Though his book is a brief one, it is full of force; his descriptions are graphic and powerful; thought and expression are alike poetic; he is still a master of the old classical style, terse, parallelistic, pregnant; there is no trace of the often prosaic diffusiveness which manifests itself in the writings of Jeremiah and Ezekiel. And if Habakkuk 3 be his, he is, moreover, a lyric poet of high order; the grand imagery and the rhythmic flow of this ode will bear comparison with some of the finest productions of the Hebrew muse."
More than half of the book, including Habakkuk 1:5-11; 2:9-20, and chapter 3 entire, has been denied to the prophet Habakkuk. If the prophecy is rightly interpreted (see above), no valid reason for rejecting 1:5-11 can be found. Habakkuk 2:9-20 are denied to Habakkuk chiefly on two grounds:
(1) The "woes" are said to be in part, at least, unsuitable, if supposed to be addressed to the Chaldean king. This difficulty vanishes when it is borne in mind that the king is not addressed as an individual, but as representing the policy of the nation, as a personification of the nation.
(2) Some parts, especially 2:12-14, "consist largely of citations and reminiscences of other passages, including some late ones" (compare 2:12 with Micah 3:10; Habakkuk 2:13 with Jeremiah 51:58; Habakkuk 2:14 with Isaiah 11:9; Hav 2:16b with Jeremiah 25:15,16; Habakkuk 2:18-20 with Isaiah 44:9; 46:6,7; Jeremiah 10:1-16).
Aside from the fact that the argument from literary parallels is always precarious, in this case the resemblances are few in number and of such general character that they do not necessarily presuppose literary dependence. Habakkuk 3 is denied to the prophet even more persistently, but the arguments are by no means conclusive. The fact that the chapter belongs to the psalm literature does not prove a late date unless it is assumed, without good reasons, that no psalms originated in the preexilic period. Nor do the historical allusions, which are altogether vague, the style, the relation to other writers, and the character of the religious ideas expressed, point necessarily to a late date. The only doubtful verses are 2:16, which seem to allude to a calamity other than the invasion of the Chaldeans; and Driver says, not without reason, "Had the poet been writing under the pressure of a hostile invasion, the invasion itself would naturally have been expected to form a prominent feature in this picture." Hence, while it may be impossible to prove that Habakkuk is the author of the prayer, it is equally impossible to prove the contrary; and while there are a few indications which seem to point to a situation different from that of Habakkuk, they are by no means definite enough to exclude the possibility of Habakkuk's authorship.
III. The Time.
The question of date is closely bound up with that of interpretation. Budde, on theory that the oppressors, threatened with destruction, are the Assyrians (see above, 3), dates the prophecy 621 to 615 BC. Granting that the Assyrians are in the mind of the prophet, the date suggested by Betteridge (AJT, 1903, 674), circa 701 BC, is to be preferred; but if the Assyrians are not the oppressors, then with the Assyrians fall the dates proposed by Budde and Betteridge. If the prophecy is directed against Egypt, we are shut up to a very definite period, between 608 and 604 BC, for the Egyptian supremacy in Judah continued during these years only. If the Egyptians are not the oppressors, another date will have to be sought. If the Chaldeans are the oppressors of Judah, the prophecy must be assigned to a date subsequent to the battle of Carchemish in 605-604, for only after the defeat of the Egyptians could the Chaldeans carry out a policy of world conquest; and it was some years after that event that the Chaldeans first came into direct contact with Judah. But on this theory, Habakkuk 1:2-4,12; 2:8, presupposes the lapse of a considerable period of conquest, the subduing of many nations, the cruel oppression of Judah for some length of time; therefore, Nowack is undoubtedly correct, on this theory, in bringing the prophecy down to a period subsequent to the first exile in 597, or, as he says, "in round numbers about 590 BC."
A different date must be sought if Habakkuk 1:2-4 is interpreted as referring to the oppression of Jews by Jews, and 1:5, as a threat that Yahweh will raise up the Chaldeans, already known as a nation thirsting for blood, to punish the wickedness of Judah. These verses would seem to indicate (1) that the Chaldeans had not yet come into direct contact with Judah, and (2) that they had already given exhibitions of the cruel character of their warfare. Nebuchadnezzar advanced against Judah about 600 BC; but the years since the fall of Nineveh, in 607-606, and the battle of Carchemish, in 605-604, had given abundant opportunity to the Chaldeans to reveal their true character, and to the prophet and his contemporaries to become acquainted with this cruel successor of Nineveh. On this theory, therefore, the prophetic activity of Habakkuk must be assigned to shortly before 600 BC.
If Habakkuk prophesied about 600 BC, he lived under King Jehoiakim. The pious and well-meaning Josiah had been slain in an attempt to stop the advance of Egypt against Assyria. With his death the brief era of reform came to an end. After a reign of three months Jehoahaz was deposed by Pharaoh-necoh, who placed Jehoiakim on the throne. The latter was selfish, tyrannical and godless. In a short time the deplorable conditions of Manasseh's reign returned. It was this situation that caused the prophet's first perplexity:
"O Yahweh, how long shall I cry, and thou wilt not hear? I cry out unto thee of violence, and thou wilt not save" (Habakkuk 1:2).
IV. Its Teaching.
In the Book of Hab a new type of prophecy appears. The prophets were primarily preachers and teachers of religion and ethics. They addressed themselves to their fellow-countrymen in an attempt to win them back to Yahweh and a righteous life. Not so Habakkuk. He addresses himself to Yahweh, questioning the justice or even the reality of the Divine Providence. He makes complaint to God and expostulates with Him. The prophet Habakkuk, therefore, is a forerunner of the author of the Book of Job. "As a whole, his book is the fruit of religious reflection. It exhibits the communings and questionings of his soul--representative, no doubt, of many other pious spirits of the time--with God; and records the answers which the Spirit of God taught him for his own sake and for the sake of tried souls in every age.
Habakkuk has been called the prophet of faith. He possessed a strong, living faith in Yahweh; but he, like many other pious souls, was troubled and perplexed by the apparent inequalities of life. He found it difficult to reconcile these with his lofty conception of Yahweh. Nevertheless, he does not sulk. Boldly he presents his perplexities to Yahweh, who points the way to a solution, and the prophet comes forth from his trouble with a faith stronger and more intense than ever. It is in connection with his attempts to solve the perplexing problems raised by the unpunished sins of his countrymen and the unlimited success of the Chaldeans that Habakkuk gives utterance to two sublime truths:
1. The Universal Supremacy of Yahweh:
Yahweh is interested not only in Israel. Though Habakkuk, like the other prophets, believes in a special Divine Providence over Israel, he is equally convinced that Yahweh's rule embraces the whole earth; the destinies of all the nations are in His hand. The Chaldeans are punished not merely for their sins against Judah, but for the oppression of other nations as well. Being the only God, He cannot permit the worship of other deities. Temporarily the Chaldeans may worship idols, or make might their god, they may "sacrifice unto their net," and burn incense "unto their drag," because by them "their portion is fat and their food plenteous"; but Yahweh is from everlasting, the Holy One, and He will attest His supremacy by utterly destroying the boastful conqueror with his idols.
2. Faithfulness the Guarantee of Permanency:
The second important truth is expressed in Habakkuk 2:4:
"The righteous shall live by his faith" (the American Revised Version, margin "faithfulness"). Faithfulness assures permanency. The thought expressed by the prophet is not identical with that expressed by the apostle who quotes the words (Galatians 3:11); nevertheless, the former also gives expression to a truth of profound significance. "Faithfulness" is with the prophet an external thing; it signifies integrity, fidelity, steadfastness under all provocations; but this implies, in a real sense, the New Testament conception of faith as an active principle of right conduct. A living faith determines conduct; religion and ethics go hand in hand, and especially in the hour of adversity a belief in Yahweh and unflinching reliance upon Him are the strongest preservers of fidelity and integrity. Faith without works is dead; faith expresses itself in life. Habakkuk places chief emphasis upon the expressions of faith, and he does so rightly; but in doing this he also calls attention, by implication at least, to the motive power behind the external manifestations. As an expression of living faith, 3:17-19 is not surpassed in the Old Testament.
Commentaries on the Minor Prophets by Ewald, Pusey, Keil, Orelli, G. A. Smith (Expositor's Bible), Driver (New Century Bible), Eiselen; A. B. Davidson, Commentary on "Nah," "Hab," "Zeph" (Cambridge Bible); A. F. Kirkpatrick, Doctrine of the Prophets; F. C. Eiselen, Prophecy and the Prophets; F. W. Farrar, Minor Prophets ("Men of the Bible"); Driver, LOT; HDB, article "Habakkuk"; EB, article "Habakkuk."
Frederick Carl Eiselen