Introduction to the Prophet Habakkuk


Introduction to the Prophet Habakkuk

Habakkuk 1:1

Main Idea: The prophet reported a dialogue he had with God concerning the sovereignty of God and the wickedness of events on earth.

  1. I. Habakkuk the Prophet
  2. II. Ministry of Habakkuk the Prophet
  3. III. Habakkuk the Prophet Saw
  4. IV. Historical Background

The opening phrase of the book of the prophet Habakkuk contains some slight similarity to the opening words of the previous book of the prophet Nahum. Both prophets employ two words that are standard vocabulary in the prophetic literature. The words translated “oracle” and “saw” (or “vision”) are both commonly used by the prophets of the Old Testament.[24]While both Habakkuk and Nahum use the noun form of the word translated “oracle,” Habakkuk’s usage of the word for “vision” differs from Nahum’s in that Habakkuk employs the verbal form, which is translated “saw” (Hab 1:1). Nahum uses the noun form, which is translated “vision” (Nah 1:1). Habakkuk 1:1 is translated quite literally in the HCSB and ESV: “The oracle that Habakkuk the prophet saw.”

The term oracle indicates the type of literary genre to be expected from the prophecy of Habakkuk. The reader would expect his message to consist of a series of oracular pronouncements. However, Habakkuk’s prophecy actually consists of more than a simple series of oracular statements. Habakkuk’s prophecy is a series of oracular dialogues with God. These dialogues between Habakkuk and God are anything but simple. In fact, they are among the most complex dialogues to be found in the Old Testament. “Oracle” translates the Hebrew word derived from a verb meaning “to lift up.” The term oracle is used in prophetic literature to describe the message from the Lord brought by the prophets (see Andersen, Habakkuk, 87). The message of Habakkuk is brought via an intense dialogue with the Lord where the prophet seeks to reconcile his understanding of the sovereignty of God with what he sees as the incongruous actions of God. This dialogue draws the reader into a deeper reflection on the means and methods of God.

Habakkuk the Prophet

The name Habakkuk might be related to a Hebrew verbal root meaning “to embrace” or “to fold the hands (in idleness)” (Prov 6:10) (Koehler and Baumgartner, Hebrew and Aramaic, 287). It might also be the name for a garden plant, Cassia tora. Nothing in the etymology of the name yields any helpful information, and the name’s meaning remains uncertain. There does not appear to be any significance between the name and the contents of Habakkuk’s prophetic oracles.

Ministry of Habakkuk the Prophet

There is not much information on the prophetic activities of Habakkuk outside his oracular dialogue with God recorded in his book. It is clear from the contents of his book that Habakkuk stands in the tradition of the Old Testament prophets. His prophecy reflects the theological, rhetorical, and literary genius found in the other biblical prophets like Isaiah or Nahum or Jeremiah. Whatever his ministry activities, it becomes clear that he has the prophetic responsibility to enlighten God’s people with an in-depth theological perspective on the events of his day. Habakkuk’s struggle must have been representative of his people Judah, who were about to incur divine wrath from God through an unexpected agent. Habakkuk is a mirror reflecting the struggle within the souls of God’s people. The questions, the perplexities, the divine answers all stretch the mind (and the theology) of God’s people, both then and now. No doubt the ministry of the prophet Habakkuk consisted of much more than we know, but all we can concern ourselves with is what’s in his prophetic book.

Habakkuk the Prophet Saw

What the prophet saw and heard in the presence of the Lord is nothing short of profound in its implications. Francis Andersen comments:

It should be remembered, however, that the prophetic vision was an experience in which the prophet typically saw the Lord in the divine assembly (1 Kings 22:19; Isaiah 6; Jer 1:11; Ezekiel 1; etc.) and so was able to hear what the Lord said. The report of the Lord’s proclamation is then the burden to be carried by the prophet to the people from his meeting with Yahweh. (Andersen, Habakkuk, 88)

Habakkuk had a vision of the Lord in which he (Habakkuk) was allowed to dialogue with the Lord about his struggles and perplexities. While the prophet knows that the Lord is sovereign, his daily experience appears to reflect something quite different. He is struggling to rightly interpret his daily realities. The prophecy of Habakkuk is a deeply personal testament of a believer’s battle with the disobedience of sinners and the doubts of the soul (Andersen, Habakkuk, 88).

The words hearing and seeing are the language of divine revelation, and they reflect the concept of understanding. What the prophet heard and saw and understood is the message of divine revelation. Having been in the presence of the Lord, the prophet has a message for God’s people. The prophet Isaiah was in the presence of the Lord and received the call to go to God’s people and proclaim the divinely inspired prophetic message (Isa 6). What the prophet Habakkuk saw he communicated to God’s people.

Historical Background

Habakkuk’s prophecy deals with the justice of God in light of the wickedness of God’s people and the surrounding nations. The prophet Habakkuk ministered during the final days of the Assyrian Empire and the rise of the Babylonian Empire. This makes Habakkuk a near contemporary of the prophet Nahum. Nahum certainly saw the coming of the end of the Assyrian Empire, but Habakkuk witnessed the end of Assyria and the ascendancy of Babylonia as the new superpower of the ancient Near East.

Scholars disagree as to the date of the prophecy of Habakkuk. The best hypothesis is that Habakkuk’s prophecy took place between the Babylonian defeat of the Egyptian army at Carchemish in 605 BC and Nebuchadnezzar’s first capture of Jerusalem in 597 BC. This is the period in which the Neo-Babylonian Empire had begun to establish its hegemony throughout the region of Syria-Palestine. This is a period of significant political instability among the smaller states of Syria-Palestine due to the recent collapse of the Neo-Assyrian Empire and the ascendancy of the Neo-Babylonian Empire. Judah was one of a number of smaller states struggling to navigate the dangerous political and military crosscurrents of the day. The prophet Jeremiah, a contemporary of Habakkuk, had also prophesied the demise of Jerusalem at the hands of the Babylonians (Jer 1:14).

Reflect and Discuss

  1. What is a prophetic oracle? Does “oracle” represent what’s in the book of Habakkuk?
  2. How much is known about the prophet Habakkuk? Does that affect the meaning or authority of the book?
  3. Can you name other biblical prophets who prophesied as contemporaries of Habakkuk?
  4. What is a prophet? Are there people who fulfill that role today?
  5. What foreign nation is represented in Habakkuk’s prophecy? What principles and standards did that nation illustrate? Do any of those principles and standards show up in your nation?