The Perplexities of the Prophet Habakkuk
Main Idea: The prophet Habakkuk is deeply disturbed by the spiritual and social state of affairs in the nation of Judah. He expresses his frustration over witnessing human corruption and depravity throughout Judahite society, and he appeals to God to do something about it. The Lord’s response to Habakkuk’s outcry is completely unexpected.
- I. “What’s Wrong with This Picture?” (1:2-11)
- A. The prophet’s agony (1:2-4)
- B. The divine answer (1:5-11)
- II. “What’s Still Wrong with This Picture?” (1:12–2:20)
- A. The prophet’s response (1:12–2:1)
- B. The divine rejoinder (2:2-20)
“What’s Wrong with This Picture?”
The book of Habakkuk begins with a heightened sense of tension because things are not the way they ought to be and the prophet Habakkuk is deeply troubled by the situation. His prophecy commences with what is essentially the question, “What’s wrong with this picture?”
The Prophet’s Agony (1:2-4)
Habakkuk laments what has become a spiritually and socially dismal state of affairs in the society of Judah. “How long, O Lord, must I call, but You do not listen . . . ?” (author’s translation). He begins with a lament expressed in the form of parallelism in which the prophet has already been calling and crying out to the Lord for divine intervention into the sinful situation of Judahite society. In his appeal to the Lord for help he cries out against “violence!” but the Lord has not responded to him (cf. Job 19:7). Even though the prophet cries out for rescue, the God of salvation refuses to save. Relief from the violence does not seem to be forthcoming. We can sense the deep frustration and perplexity in these words of lament. How long must the spiritual and social disintegration of society continue before the Lord does something to stop it? This plea is reminiscent of King David in Psalm 13:1 when he pleads, “Lord, how long will You forget me? Forever? How long will You hide Your face from me?” David’s agony is real, and so is Habakkuk’s agony.
The prophet has continually sought the Lord for relief from the burden of human misery piled up every day in the streets of the cities of Judah and in the halls of justice in the land. He has witnessed a society that had been falling apart in terms of its moral fabric. From the political leaders to the common people, everyone seems to have plunged themselves into moral madness. Everyone seems to have forsaken the Lord and His covenant with His people. Everyone seems to be striving for personal pleasure and self-promotion. At every level of Judahite society, sin is rampant. There is doctrinal and covenantal unfaithfulness.
The leaders of the nation have forsaken the law of the Lord and instituted their own false righteousness. They have backslidden into idol worship—a pattern that had repeated itself throughout Israelite history. After the demise of King Josiah, both priesthood and political leadership had again become corrupt. The spiritual reforms instituted by King Josiah had been short-lived after his death in 609 BC (2 Kgs 23:29-30). The failure to observe and obey the covenant of the Lord would be the primary reason for the eventual downfall of Judah.
The moral and spiritual bankruptcy of the nation’s leadership also sent the people into the downward spiral toward spiritual and moral disintegration. There was a culture of immorality, greed, deception, hatred, injustice, hypocrisy, oppression, and much more. Habakkuk further expresses his agony when he says, “Why do you make me see iniquity and cause (me) to look at trouble?” (author’s translation). The words translated “iniquity” and “trouble” are in parallel and indicate the general depravity of the society in the eyes of the prophet. This pair of words is found in Isaiah 59:4 where the prophet exposes the chronic injustice in Judah a century before the time of Habakkuk: “No one makes claims justly; no one pleads honestly. They trust in empty and worthless words; they conceive trouble and give birth to iniquity.” Habakkuk is vexed at having to look at trouble and iniquity every day when God does not appear to be doing anything about it.
In the same way, it seems that trouble and iniquity characterize the present cultural landscape of our society. It seems as though people go on sinning against the commands of God with impunity. One question we should ask ourselves is whether we have the same perspective on the sinfulness of human society as Habakkuk. He was disturbed, not amused, by the sinfulness of society. Are we amused by the current state of our society, or are we profoundly concerned for the consequences of sin on humanity? If Christians do not weep over the lostness of society, then there is no hope for society. We are the salt of the earth and the light of the world according to Jesus (Matt 5:13-16).
Habakkuk uses several words to describe the condition he sees: violence, injustice, wrongdoing, oppression, strife, and conflict. This is not a good picture. It underscores the need for divine intervention, repentance, and redemption. Every one of these terms characterizes not only Habakkuk’s milieu but also our present climate at the beginning of the twenty-first century AD. Global jihad and terrorism, mass murder, slavery and human trafficking, racial and economic oppression, political unrest and upheaval, spiritual deception, moral insanity, and social disintegration describe some of the major news headlines of our times. In many ways it seems as though the world is spinning out of control. People often wonder what will happen next.
In verse 4 Habakkuk proceeds to articulate the corrosive effects of these things on the legal system of the nation. As a result of this state of affairs, the law is rendered null and justice is denied. The term law could refer to the law of Moses (the Torah) and therefore the priestly and prophetic instruction that comes from it, or the term could refer to judgments rendered in a law court (Roberts, Nahum, 90). In either case, it refers to the instruction of God that has been nullified by the wicked. The word translated “ineffective” means “to be numb,” “to be powerless” (ibid.). Criminals were succeeding in their schemes everywhere, and the righteous were surrounded by it and justice was perverted. The wicked have overtaken the righteous and made justice crooked in society. They twisted the law, the Word of God, for their own advantage and at the expense of the righteous.
Habakkuk opens his prophecy lamenting the deplorable state of Judean society. The prophet’s lament reflects a heart that deeply desires to see the Word of the Lord honored by God’s people. He knows that God’s blessing will be on Judah if the society honors the Lord with obedience to the Word of God. He wants the best even though he has witnessed the worst in human behavior. He appealed for God’s intervention in order to stop the society’s mad dash to perdition. This is the same impulse of every true Christian believer today. We appeal to God for His intervention in our society because we want to see His glory honored above all else. Habakkuk’s lament is not only a lament; it is also a prayer. Lamenting in prayer is better than just lamenting alone. We can learn from this prophet’s example of a lament to God in the form of a prayer. When we turn to the Lord and present our complaint to Him in faith, He will hear us and respond according to His purpose. Let us see how the Lord responded to the prophet Habakkuk in verses 5-11.
The Divine Answer (1:5-11)
The Lord answers Habakkuk’s complaint, indicating that He cares about the concerns of the prophet. The prophet’s complaint reminds us of David’s plea for an answer from the Lord in Psalm 4:1, “When I call, answer me! O God of my righteousness. Give me relief in distress. Be gracious to me and hear my prayer” (author’s translation). The cry for relief from the distress caused by the state of Judean society reflects the deep sense of agony and even desperation the prophet is experiencing in his appeal to the Lord. He wants relief from all that his eyes have had to behold of the sinfulness of humanity among the inhabitants of Judah.
Habakkuk gets an answer from the Lord beginning in verse 5. The Lord answers him with three imperatives: “Look,” “observe,” and “be astounded.” God’s response to the concerns and complaints will be met with utter astonishment from the prophet and everyone else. However, if Habakkuk thinks he is getting relief from his distress, he will indeed be astounded! God is about to do the unthinkable!
This speaks of the impossibility of assuming we always know how God will deal with the events that happen in this world. Just when we think we have everything figured out about God’s purpose, we come to learn that His ways are higher than ours. In Isaiah 55:8-9 the Lord says,
“For My thoughts are not your thoughts, and your ways are not My ways.” This is the Lord’s declaration. “For as heaven is higher than earth, so My ways are higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts.”
What is the unthinkable thing that the Lord is going to do? He will employ the Babylonians as His instrument of divine judgment and justice against His people Judah. For the prophet this must be preposterous. He must be wondering within himself, “What’s wrong with this picture?” How did God arrive at the Babylonians as a solution to the problem of sin and injustice in Judean society? In response to the prophet’s oracle of lamentation concerning the state of Judean society, the Lord brings an oracle of divine judgment that no one would have expected, not even Habakkuk himself! The ways of the Lord are surely higher than the ways of humankind. God has a recipe for Judean society that will certainly purge the land of its unfaithfulness. No one saw this coming!
The divine oracle continues into an extended metaphorical description of the fierce and aggressive nature of the Babylonians. Their imperial ambitions exceeded any of their predecessors in the ancient Near East, and they had the military and tactical prowess to succeed. In verses 6-11 the Lord describes the Babylonian military machine.
They were hostile (v. 6). They were evidently unconcerned about diplomacy. They were instead hostile toward other nations. The words bitter and impetuous describe the imperial policies and practices of the Neo-Babylonian Empire under the leadership of Nebuchadnezzar II who ruled from 605 to 562 BC. The Babylonian military had evidently become battle-hardened and experienced warriors during their years of protracted war with the Assyrians from 626 to 609 BC that finally resulted in the demise of the Neo-Assyrian Empire. They knew how to inflict intense harm on their enemies and had developed a reputation for doing so. The word bitter translates a Hebrew word that could also be understood to mean “fierce.” This reflects the imagery of the savagery of a wild animal that will attack anything (Andersen, Habakkuk, 149).The parallel word impetuous probably doesn’t mean they would act without first thinking or planning, but rather it most likely describes the speed and efficiency with which the Babylonian military was capable of deploying its troops (ibid.). This is a very unsettling prospect for Habakkuk and his homeland, Judah. The Babylonians take whatever they want because they have the power to do so. They seize lands they have no right to.
They were haughty (v. 7). Verse 7 indicates that they were a law unto themselves. They answered to no one higher. They had their own system of justice and rule of law. They did not recognize the territorial sovereignty of other nations, nor did they recognize the gods of other territories. Their arrogance instilled a level of fear in everyone because they had the power to conquer anyone. The Babylonians had a leader who was full of himself and fearless as a result. In Daniel 4 King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon temporarily lost his sanity due to his overweening pride and presumption. When he came to himself, Nebuchadnezzar testified, “[God] is able to humble those who walk in pride” (Dan 4:37b).
They were hasty (v. 8). The efficiency and ferocity of their military cavalry is articulated in the description in verse 8 comparing the swiftness of their horses to “leopards” and their ferocity to “wolves.” In fact, they have the reputation of being faster than leopards and more ferocious than wolves. This is a devastating combination against enemies. Jeremiah, a contemporary of Habakkuk, employs identical language to describe the coming judgment at the hands of the Babylonians when he says, “Look, he advances like clouds; his chariots are like a storm. His horses are swifter than eagles. Woe to us, for we are ruined!” (Jer 4:13). They were resolute in their assault. They charged ahead with reckless abandonment to their mission. They could cover large areas of territory in record time. They resembled the “eagle” when it is fixed on the attack. Whatever they did would happen so quickly that victims hardly had an opportunity to react.
They were harmful (v.9). They were known for one objective: violence. They sought to inflict the greatest harm on their enemies and their victims. The word translated “violence” refers to acts of physical aggression resulting in harm. In verse 3 Habakkuk complains that violence and oppression are everywhere around him, but now God will bring a far worse violence on Judah from the Babylonians. In other words, God is going to give Judah a large dose of its own medicine as a means of discipline, correction, and judgment.
They were hardened (v. 10). They were battle hardened and unafraid of other nations who had reputations for military might. The words mock, joke, and laugh indicate their hardened attitude toward opposition in war. They were so tough they mocked, joked, and laughed at their opposition. Kings, rulers, and fortresses were easily taken down by these soldiers. Undeterred by opposition, they knew precisely how to conduct a successful siege against a city and its defenses. This
refers to the very ancient siege practice of piling up dirt to construct earthen siege walls around a besieged city. These ramps could be used for bringing up siege machines to make a breach in the wall as well as providing an easy approach for infantry to attack the wall or exploit any breach made in it. (Roberts, Nahum, 97).
They were skilled in siege warfare and experienced at making war and intimidating their enemies.
They were hellbent (v. 11). The Babylonians were known to sweep through like a hurricane-force wind and pass on, having left a heap of death and devastation in their path. This is a challenging verse to translate, but it seems that one basic idea is that the Babylonians trusted in themselves and their superior military might. They idolized their own strength. They were hellbent on conquest and trusted their own strength to subdue other nations. This made them guilty before the true God of the universe who sovereignly rules all things. They did not acknowledge God’s sovereignty even though He allowed the Babylonians to grow into an empire. They exchanged the truth of God for a lie (Rom 1:25) and worshiped themselves as the ultimate power. They were guilty before God, and their military strength would be relatively short-lived in history.
While the Neo-Babylonian Empire had defeated the Neo-Assyrian Empire and had become one of the greatest powers that had ever been seen, they were only a tool in the hands of God. God chose to use them as a tool of discipline for His covenant-breaking people. The Babylonians could not even begin to understand that the Lord is far more powerful than any human empire could ever imagine. Man’s power is temporary, but God’s power is eternal. Man’s power is limited, but God’s power is limitless. Man’s power is confined to space and time, but God’s power is not confined at all.
“What’s Still Wrong with This Picture?”
Let us take a moment to put into twenty-first-century language what the prophet Habakkuk must have been thinking in his perplexed mind: “The Babylonians? Really?! Why would God want to use them as His tool for anything at all? They have a reputation for ruthlessness that defies comprehension. How could they be used as an instrument in the hands of God when they deserve divine judgment more than anyone else?” Something is still seriously wrong with this picture when viewed from the prophet’s perspective. Habakkuk’s response is quite revealing, for he continues in verse 12 with questions that he is perplexed about, which began in verses 2-4.
The Prophet’s Response (1:12–2:1)
The eminent biblical scholar Francis I. Andersen offers the following comment on Habakkuk’s response:
Nothing could be more abrupt than the beginning of Habakkuk’s second prayer. There is nothing like it anywhere else in the Bible. God is not approached with courtesy and respect by reverent invocation, as in more decorous prayers. (Habakkuk, 175)
The prophet responds with an oracular prayer in which the starting point is the eternal nature of God Himself. This is particularly striking in light of what he has just learned about God’s plans in time and space. Habakkuk begins with a rhetorical question of immense gravitas. Is not the Lord eternal? Yes, God is eternal. The rhetorical question speaks to the fundamentally immortal nature of God. Because God is eternal and immortal, why would He allow His people to be annihilated by another people who deserve divine judgment even more than God’s people? God is not only acknowledged as eternal but also as holy.
Habakkuk is struggling to reconcile his theology of God with the word of God that has just been revealed to him by God. How does God appoint Babylon to execute judgment and punish Judah for its sins against God without violating God’s own standard of judgment, since God is holy and the Babylonians are worse sinners than God’s people, Judah? How can these things be reconciled theologically for Habakkuk? Habakkuk has deep theological questions for God in light of His revelation of the impending Babylonian invasion. These are not questions of doubt, but rather they are questions coming out of a deep faith seeking understanding of the deep things of God. Habakkuk first has to resolve in his own mind and heart that these things are real and that God has actually determined to employ Babylon against His people, Judah.
Once he acknowledges that God has appointed Babylon to punish Judah, the prophet will begin the process in earnest of seeking to reconcile apparently conflicting theological realities in verse 13. Here Habakkuk refers to the Lord as “my Rock,” a metaphor illustrating that God is the firm foundation, the support and stability on which the faith of the prophet stands. It is the ground for his confidence in the character of God.
Verse 13. Because of God’s holiness, He is too pure to tolerate “evil,” “wrongdoing,” and treachery to be unleashed against God’s people by those of a worse character. The prophet seems to be having difficulty seeing the justice in such actions on the part of God. It is not consistent with the character of God to do such things, the prophet reasons. God is holy. God is not unjust. Evil, wrongdoing, and treachery all characterize the Babylonians, not God. Habakkuk declares God is too pure to compromise with these vices. The word translated “pure” is commonly found in the ceremonial realm of Israelite worship. In this usage, “pure” is an adjective describing an attribute of God’s nature that is ethically pure (Koehler and Baumgartner, Hebrew and Aramaic, 369). If all these things are true of God, then why would the Lord allow the wicked Babylonians to swallow up Judah even though Judah is more righteous? This is incongruent with the nature of God, according to the rhetorical questions of the prophet.
Though Habakkuk is astonished by God’s revelation of coming judgment from Babylon, it must be noted that this is not a new thing for God and His people. During the eighth century, the prophet Isaiah dealt with this issue in Isaiah 10:5-6:
Woe to Assyria, the rod of My anger—the staff in their hands is My wrath. I will send him against a godless nation; I will command him to go against a people destined for My rage, to take spoils, to plunder, and to trample them down like clay in the streets.
God has used enemy nations to chastise and discipline God’s people when they have acted unfaithfully toward His covenant. This affirms that God will judge sin and He will hold sinners accountable for their disobedience. This is a reflection of the consistent character of God, who loves righteousness and loathes wickedness.
In his prayer the prophet wrestles with serious theological challenges to his faith. His wrestling is honest, blunt, and raw. Sometimes the strongest and most mature Christians can find themselves wrestling with God just like Habakkuk when it comes to theological mysteries of this magnitude.
Verses 14-16. The prophet now goes into an extended metaphor illustrating the vast political and military power God has allowed the Babylonians to possess in the earth. This extended metaphor comes from the realm of deep-sea fishing. Verse 14 uses a simile to describe the plentiful population of humankind that God has created. People are like fish and other marine creatures that are very populous and easy to catch. This underscores something of the magnitude of the threat Babylon poses not only to Judah but to the entire world of that time. They pose a global crisis to the nations because of what the prophet observed about them already in verses 8 and 10: “Their horsemen come from distant lands. . . . They mock kings, and rulers are a joke to them.” They have terrorized the earth, not just Judah. This is why Habakkuk is so deeply disturbed and perplexed that God would take such an action. God’s action defies the simple theological perspective of the prophet. God created the Babylonians just as He created everyone (and everything) else. He is always justified to use His creation in any way that accomplishes His purpose without needing to explain Himself to anyone. In fact, God was gracious to reveal to Habakkuk as much as He did reveal.
Continuing the fishing metaphor in verse 15, the Babylonians are fishermen who haul up huge catches of nations in their net. The verbs are vivid: “pull up,” “catch,” and “gather.” This illustrates the process of securing a load of fish. They do it with a giant “hook,” “dragnet,” “fishing net.” They possess all the tools necessary to haul in the nations like fish, and the Babylonians are known for doing so. This is symbolic of Babylonian strength and skill to master the nations and exert control over the kingdoms. Babylon is the new global bully who imposes its will on the community of nations in the ancient Near East. Its victims are no match for its prowess. But Babylon is no match for the sovereign God who reigns over good and evil nations.
Their success in capturing many nations brings gladness to them. They love the sweet experience of subjugating everyone else, and that is why they rejoice, according to the prophet. They not only rejoice, but this is the occasion for worshiping their nets (v. 16). They worship their own success. Their god is their “dragnet” and “fishing net.” The reason is these tools helped to make them wealthy. Babylon had become a nation of immense wealth under the leadership of Nebuchadnezzar II. He rebuilt and expanded the city, and it was said that it surpassed the splendor of every other city during this time in the ancient world (Brand and England, Holman Illustrated, 159).
In today’s world there is no shortage of people who worship the work of their own hands. Their success is their god. Like the Babylonians, they have exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and they worship and serve created things rather than the Creator, who is praised forever (Rom 1:25). People were created to worship God only, but if they refuse to worship Him, they will certainly worship something or someone.
Verse 17. The next question Habakkuk poses is whether the wicked Babylonians will be allowed to continue their brutal reign of dominance over the world. Will God continue to watch Babylon invade nation after nation, and especially God’s people, without intervening? The prophet is grappling with God’s apparent silence regarding their brutality. The question in verse 17 is rhetorical. Will God continue to allow their wickedness to go unpunished while they punish everyone else, including Judah? It is clear that the prophet is having difficulty reconciling these realities in his mind and heart. Habakkuk is being tested to the core concerning everything he has believed about God. He is struggling to affirm that Babylon’s day of accountability and reckoning is not a matter of if, but only a matter of when. This takes us back to the first question in verse 2 where Habakkuk cried, “How long?” God will deal with the sins of Babylon, but only after He has dealt with the sins of His people, Judah. How can Babylon’s wickedness bring about God’s justice? This is Habakkuk’s main concern.
Chapter 2, verse 1. The prophet concludes his response to the Lord’s revelation by declaring, “I will stand at my guard post and station myself on the lookout tower. I will watch to see what He will say to me and what I should reply about my complaint.” This passage is autobiographical in nature (Andersen, Habakkuk, 191). Habakkuk resolves to wait for an answer from the Lord. It’s as if he sits back with folded arms awaiting God’s answer. He exudes a certain confidence that the Lord will answer him. Exactly what kind of answer the prophet is expecting is not clear. He has to wait on the Lord because he cannot produce a response from the Lord on his own. Waiting on the Lord requires faith in the Lord and the Word of His promise.
The location of Habakkuk’s waiting on the Lord’s reply is the “lookout tower.” This is an instructive location because it is the place where guards are posted to keep watch for security purposes. It appears that the prophet Habakkuk, like Ezekiel, may have been a literal or figurative watchman (Ezek 3; 33). It is both symbolic and significant that the prophet is in the watchtower waiting for the Lord to come to him again. The tower was a place of watching and waiting. In Ezekiel 3:17 the Lord says to the prophet Ezekiel, “Son of man, I have made you a watchman over the house of Israel. When you hear a word from My mouth, give them a warning from Me.” So the responsibility of the watchman was to warn God’s people whenever the Lord warned him.
What is Habakkuk expecting to receive from the Lord when He replies? What does he think God is going to say? So far the Lord’s word has been anything but predictable for the prophet. “The silence of God vexed and grieved him, but he knew that there was nothing he could do about it. Or rather, all he could do was keep on praying, keep on waiting, keep on watching” (Andersen, Habakkuk, 196). This is something of a wisdom problem for Habakkuk. Surely God had a greater purpose in all these events, but Habakkuk has not yet ascertained it. It will take divine wisdom to understand divine action. Habakkuk is struggling for lack of wisdom and insight into the ways of God. What is God doing? Only God can reveal it to the prophet.
This scenario also raises the question, What are we to think when God does something beyond comprehension? The wisdom of Proverbs 3:5-6 is instructive in such cases: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not rely on your own understanding; think about Him in all your ways, and He will guide you on the right paths.” Faith precedes understanding, not the reverse. We must trust the Lord even when we do not understand everything. The Lord is testing Habakkuk’s trust in Him. The Lord did in fact answer him, as we will see in the next verses.
The Divine Rejoinder (2:2-20)
How long Habakkuk had to wait for the Lord’s reply is not clear (Roberts, Nahum, 108). Whatever the length of time, it was probably agonizing for the prophet, especially since he had determined to put everything else on hold until he heard from the Lord in reply to his complaint. God’s response is not based on our terms but on His terms. He does not respond according to human timetables but rather His own sovereign timetable. In our day we are accustomed to instant everything: instant news, instant food, instant solutions. But this is not the way our Creator often works. He requires faith and patience in walking with Him. There are very few instant solutions to the challenging realities of life. Things often do not go the way we plan, and things often do not happen as fast as we want. Like the prophet Habakkuk, we must learn to exercise patient trust in waiting for the Lord to give an answer to whatever we need. Many impatient Christians’ faith fizzles before the finish line. We give up on God’s answer to our problems because of our impatience. Let us not grow weary because we will reap the blessings of patience if we do not quit (Gal 6:9). God’s answer is always worth the wait. Isaiah 30:18 says, “The Lord is a just God. All who wait patiently for Him are happy.”
Verses 2-3. The Lord finally answers the prophet, but not the way he might have expected. His answer begins with instructions to write down the vision and make it legible. In Isaiah 30:8 a similar command is given to the prophet Isaiah, whose oracle condemned Judah’s trust in Egyptian protection rather than in the Lord’s protection. Habakkuk is instructed to make his writing easy to read so that it may be accessible to the most people. He is commanded to write the vision the Lord is about to give him in preparation for its use at a future time. The vision was to be written so that it could be preserved. The importance of the written record of God’s word cannot be overstated. In addition to its use at an undetermined future date, the written vision itself also pertains to the “end” times.
The Lord affirms the trustworthiness of the written vision—that it will reveal the truth and not lie. It will not lie because God cannot lie (Heb 6:18). The fulfillment of the vision may require waiting, but it will come to pass at the right time (Hab 3:3b).
Dan 4). James 4:6 says, “God resists the proud, but he gives grace to the humble.” The Babylonians had a reputation for arrogance and pride. They were swollen with pride. Those who are arrogant lack integrity. There was no uprightness about them. They were crooked in their character.
Verse 4b says, “But the righteous one will live by his faith.” This is a complete contrast to the character of the Babylonians. The unrighteous will die by their arrogance, but the righteous will live by faith. Isaiah 26:2, which is a song celebrating the salvation of Judah, contains similar language: “Open the gates so a righteous nation can come in—one that remains faithful.” Isaiah equates righteousness with the nation that remains faithful to the Lord. In other words, those who are righteous keep the faith. This is the meaning of Habakkuk’s declaration here in verse 4b. Habakkuk 2:4b is also referenced in the New Testament in Romans 1:17; Galatians 3:11; and Hebrews 10:38.
In Romans 1:17 the apostle Paul quotes Habakkuk 2:4b in his exposition of the saving power of the Christian gospel. Romans 1:16-17 is the theme statement for his letter to the Christians at Rome:
For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is God’s power for salvation to everyone who believes, first to the Jew, and also to the Greek. For in it God’s righteousness is revealed from faith to faith, just as it is written: The righteous will live by faith.
Paul appropriates Habakkuk 2:4b as the biblical foundation for the gospel. The foundation for righteousness is genuine faith. The righteous are those who trust God’s righteousness and not their own righteousness. The connection of Romans 1:17 with the original context of Habakkuk 2:4b is that genuinely righteous faith perseveres in trusting the vision from God that the prophet was commanded to write down. That vision is synonymous with the word of God. Genuine faith trusts the word of God through and through. This is how the righteous would live by faith, in contrast to the Babylonians who trusted only in themselves.
In Galatians 3:11 Paul is making the argument that those who do not continuously live in perfect conformity with the law of Moses cannot be counted as righteous.
For all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse, because it is written: Everyone who does not continue doing everything written in the book of the law is cursed. Now it is clear that no one is justified before God by the law, because the righteous will live by faith. But the law is not based on faith; instead, the one who does these things will live by them. (Gal 3:10-12)
In other words, there is no salvation in the law. There is salvation only by faith. In connection with the original context of Habakkuk, the righteous persevere in their faith in God, in contrast to the Babylonians who only trusted in themselves. In Paul’s day the righteous would live by faith, in contrast to those who trust in their own self-righteousness in the law.
In the Hebrews 10:37-38 passage the writer incorporates elements from Isaiah 26:21 and Habakkuk 2:3-4. The immediate context of Hebrews 10:37-38 is closer to the original context of Habakkuk 2:3-4 in that the writer of Hebrews is addressing the theme of patient endurance through suffering. The major difference between Habakkuk 2:3-4 and Hebrews 10:37-38 is that in Habakkuk God’s people were going to suffer because of their unfaithfulness to the Lord, whereas in Hebrews God’s people were suffering because of their faithfulness to the Lord. J. J. M. Roberts has commented,
Hebrews 10:38, in particular, remains very close to the original intent of the Habakkuk passage when the author of Hebrews cites Habakkuk in order to encourage despairing Christians, to reassure them that God’s promised intervention will surely come at its appropriate time. (Nahum, 111)
Verse 5. The Babylonians have become intoxicated with their own pride, presumption, imperial ambitions, and insatiable appetite for more power. “Wine,” in addition to the inflated ego mentioned in verse 4, has betrayed the Babylonian leader into thinking Babylon is invincible. The more he takes, the more he wants. His appetite is never satisfied. Babylon is compared to “Sheol.” Proverbs 30:15b-16 says, “Three things are never satisfied; four never say, ‘Enough!’: Sheol; a childless womb; earth, which is never satisfied with water; and fire, which never says, ‘Enough!’”Sheol is an Old Testament term for the grave and is synonymous with death. The Babylonians have no self-control, and neither does their leader Nebuchadnezzar II. They will never stop devouring everything in their path. They will devour Judah because of its sins, but God will stop them at His appointed time.
While the prophet Habakkuk has been given bad news of impending judgment on Judah for the many sins about which the prophet complained in 1:2-4, there will be judgment for the Babylonians as well. These judgments are written in the form of five woe oracles in verses 6-20. “The set of five ‘woe oracles’ constitutes the speech to be delivered by ‘the reciter’ from the vision written on the tablets” (Andersen, Habakkuk, 225). The five oracles share the common theme of divine judgment on Babylon for all its deeds. Habakkuk can be assured that God will hold the Babylonians accountable for all their sins as a nation. In the first woe oracle (vv. 6-8) Babylon will be plundered by those it had plundered; in the second woe oracle (vv. 9-11) their security will become unsecured; in the third woe oracle (vv. 12-14) their civilization will be replaced with devastation; in the fourth woe oracle (vv. 15-17) their glory will be turned to shame; and in the fifth woe oracle (vv. 18-20) their idols are exposed as worthless in light of the Lord who is the one true God.
The plunderer will be plundered (vv. 6-8). Verse 6a transitions into a rhetorical question that is intended to set up the woe in this oracle. The rhetorical question contains three words that prepare the reader for the content of all five oracles. All the nations who had been confiscated by Babylon’s imperial ambitions will have their say against the nation. They will “taunt” Babylon with “mockery and riddles.” The word taunt is used in Micah 2:4 to refer to the ridicule spoken against the recipients of divine judgment. In Psalm 44:14 Israel complains to God that its calamity has become a taunt or a joke among the nations. Mockery is related to the verb “to scorn” (Brown, Driver, and Briggs, Hebrew and English, 539). Riddles refers to enigmatic or perplexing sayings and together with taunts and mockery forms the idea of Babylon becoming the joke or byword of the nations it once terrorized (ibid., 295). O. Palmer Robertson has commented,
Israel itself had been warned that if it did not keep the commandments of God, it would become the object of taunts among all the nations of the earth (Deut. 28:37; 1 K. 9:7). Now the Lord declares that the day shall come when all those nations whom the Chaldeans have bullied shall mock their conqueror. (Nahum, 185)
Verses 6b-8 contain the first oracle of woe against Babylon. The Babylonians have ruthlessly taken wealth not rightly belonging to them. As a result, the day will come when nations that remain will come to collect what was rightly theirs. Like creditors who come to collect their goods, they will plunder the Babylonian plunderers. What the Neo-Babylonian Empire has done to the nations it conquered will be done to it.
God does not forget the evil that men do. Neither individuals nor nations get away with wrongdoing. He will exact the appropriate punishment at the appointed time (v. 3). These Babylonian practices are eerily similar to many practices used in modern societies where lenders use excessive interest payments and exploitative lending practices to cripple and take advantage of those who are financially vulnerable. In our society there is no shortage of lending institutions that use deceptive marketing practices to lure unwitting customers for the purpose of making as much money as possible and to take as much as they can get away with from honest, hardworking people. Proverbs 14:31 says, “The one who oppresses the poor person insults his Maker, but one who is kind to the needy honors Him.”
The secure will become unsecured (vv. 9-11). The second woe oracle charges Babylon with using ill-gotten wealth to build security against the threat of disaster. The theme of ill-gotten wealth in this second oracle builds on the first oracle, which dealt with Babylon having taken what did not rightfully belong to it (6b). The Babylonians not only employed force but also fraud to enrich themselves. They practiced the exploitative imposition of crippling tribute on conquered nations (Andersen, Habakkuk, 240). The success and security they intend to achieve will not happen. All their security will become unsecured when what they have done to other nations is done to them. Disaster will surely reach them. Whoever lives on ill-gotten gain will be put to shame. Verse 10 is similar to Proverbs 1:18-19: “But they set an ambush to kill themselves; they attack their own lives. Such are the paths of all who make profit dishonestly; it takes the lives of those who receive it.” The Babylonians have sinned against themselves in that dishonest gain is self-defeating.
Verse 11 is reminiscent of the phrase “If walls could talk.” “Here the rafter is not responding to the stone; it is joining in, making an antiphon. The wood and stone bear united witness against the tyrant” (Andersen, Habakkuk, 241). The stolen wealth with which Babylon built its empire will cry out against it. Roberts aptly comments,
Two witnesses continue to cry out against the oppression of the Babylonian, even after he has cut off many peoples. The city built on oppression will not be secure, for even if the accusing voice of the oppressed peoples is suppressed, the very stones and beams of which the city is constructed will take up their cry, and the implication is that God will not ignore indefinitely such a continuous cry (cf. Gen 18:20-21). (Roberts, Nahum, 122)
This outcry for justice from the inanimate stones and rafters is reminiscent of Genesis 4:10 where, in the aftermath of Cain’s murder of his brother Abel, God said, “What have you done? Your brother’s blood cries out to Me from the ground!” God hears the cry for justice, and He will defend justice by punishing injustice.
Their civilization will be replaced by devastation ( vv. 12-14). Bloodshed and injustice were the foundation of the Neo-Babylonian Empire. When a civilization is built on a foundation of violence and injustice, it has already sowed the seeds for its own eventual destruction. Proverbs 14:34 says, “Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a disgrace to any people.” Tyrants build their kingdoms on violence, oppression, deception, abuse, fear, intimidation, confusion, uncertainty, revenge, cronyism, corruption, and the like. God will cause the forced labor of the oppressed to become the fuel for a fire that will burn down the civilization. All the hard labor spent to build the corrupt civilization will not save it in the day of divine judgment. All the effort and labor will have been wasted.
Habakkuk in verse 14 says, “For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord’s glory, as the waters cover the sea.” This has been a difficult verse for many scholars to understand in relation to verses 12-13. Perhaps the glory of the Lord will be seen in the judgment that the Lord will bring on the Neo-Babylonian Empire by using Cyrus and the Persian Empire to conquer them. God’s glory will be on display when He brings down the tyrant Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonians. “Only when the problem of the wicked is resolved will the glory of God fill the earth. Only when righteous judgment rewards the wicked according to their deservings will true knowledge of God’s holiness shine forth in all its splendor” (Robertson, Nahum, 198).
Their glory will be turned to shame (vv. 15-17). Babylon in its imperial ambitions made the nations drink from the metaphorical cup of its anger. The metaphor of drunkenness is powerful because it illustrates the hideous nature of Babylonian imperial aggression. The oppressor sought to intoxicate and then rape, ravish, and systematically strip away everything of value from the nations it conquered. Babylon’s purpose was to expose all the riches and wealth of the nations so it could take all that away. The Babylonians were a nation of predators always seeking prey; they had an insatiable appetite for plunder (cf. Nah 3:1). Inducing the nations to drunkenness made them weak and vulnerable to attack. The metaphor of nakedness indicates the shame, humiliation, and destitution brought on by the Babylonian onslaught. But God will turn the Babylonians’ glory to shame. What the Babylonians aspire to and expect will be shockingly reversed. They will become drunk and exposed in the same way they have done to others because of the cup of the Lord’s wrath. They will be overwhelmed by the violence with which they overwhelmed other nations. This is a stunning reversal of expectations for Babylon and its king. Babylon will receive what it deserves because God is just. One cannot resist seeing the eschatological implications of divine judgment against Babylon. In the future Babylon will be ultimately judged by the Lord according to the angelic announcement in Revelation 18:2-3:
He cried in a mighty voice:
It has fallen, Babylon the Great has fallen! She has become a dwelling for demons, a haunt for every unclean spirit, a haunt for every unclean bird, and a haunt for every unclean and despicable beast. For all the nations have drunk the wine of her sexual immorality, which brings wrath. The kings of the earth have committed sexual immorality with her, and the merchants of the earth have grown wealthy from her excessive luxury.
In Habakkuk’s time the Neo-Babylonian Empire would be judged by the Lord for its brutal attempt at world domination. The prophet can rest assured knowing that, even though God would employ the Babylonians as a tool of discipline against Judah, it was only for the redemptive purpose of purging the evil from among His people and not ultimately to destroy His people. In the future, however, God will ultimately destroy Babylon.
Their idols are worthless before the Lord (vv. 18-20). The Babylonians were known for their worship of the god Marduk, the chief deity of the Babylonian pantheon. But Habakkuk exposes the reality of idols and idol worship. Idols, including Marduk, were only a creation of depraved human imagination. Idols represent gods that do not exist. The prophet begins the final woe oracle with a rhetorical question, the answer to which is negative (Roberts, Nahum, 126). What use is an image after the craftsman has finished making it? Absolutely none! The idol cannot speak. It cannot move itself. It has no breath in it. It cannot save. So what’s the point? The one who created the idol trusts in the idol, so it is all in the mind and heart of the worshiper. Humans have been imagining idols to be real since time immemorial. But this does not make idols true. Habakkuk calls the idol “a teacher of lies.” The lies are all in the mind of the idolatrous believer. The prophet Isaiah has one of the most vivid descriptions of the folly of idolatry:
All who make idols are nothing, and what they treasure does not profit. Their witnesses do not see or know anything, so they will be put to shame. Who makes a god or casts a metal image for no profit? Look, all its worshipers will be put to shame, and the craftsmen are humans. They all will assemble and stand; they all will be startled and put to shame.
The ironworker labors over the coals, shapes the idol with hammers, and works it with his strong arm. Also he grows hungry and his strength fails; he doesn’t drink water and is faint. The woodworker stretches out a measuring line, he outlines it with a stylus; he shapes it with chisels and outlines it with a compass. He makes it according to a human likeness, like a beautiful person, to dwell in a temple. He cuts down cedars for his use, or he takes a cypress or an oak. He lets it grow strong among the trees of the forest. He plants a laurel, and the rain makes it grow. It serves as fuel for man. He takes some of it and warms himself; also he kindles a fire and bakes bread; he even makes it into a god and worships it; he makes an idol from it and bows down to it. He burns half of it in a fire, and he roasts meat on that half. He eats the roast and is satisfied. He warms himself and says, “Ah! I am warm, I see the blaze.” He makes a god or his idol with the rest of it. He bows down to it and worships; he prays to it, “Save me, for you are my god.” Such people do not comprehend and cannot understand, for He has shut their eyes so they cannot see, and their minds so they cannot understand. No one reflects, no one has the perception or insight to say, “I burned half of it in the fire, I also baked bread on its coals, I roasted meat and ate. I will make something detestable with the rest of it, and I will bow down to a block of wood.” He feeds on ashes. His deceived mind has led him astray, and he cannot deliver himself, or say, “Isn’t there a lie in my right hand?” (Isa 44:9-20)
Isaiah gives one of the clearest expositions of the folly of idolatry in the Bible. This is why Habakkuk says in verse 19, “Woe to him who says to wood: Wake up! or to mute stone: Come alive!” The idol worshiper cannot even realize that his idol is nothing more than a fantasy. Babylon was blinded by its own idolatry, and in due time it would incur the divine consequences of trusting its false gods.
Verse 20. The prophet contrasts the vanity of idols with the awesome presence of the one true God. “But the Lord is in His holy temple; let everyone on earth be silent in His presence.” What a fitting doxology to the dialogue between the Lord and the prophet! The Lord is not mute, dumb, deaf, and powerless like the idol gods. He is enthroned in His temple. He is reigning over the universe He created. He is sovereign in all things. God is in control even when everything and everyone seems out of control. The whole world should be in silent reverence before His holy presence. The Lord’s presence in His temple means that He has not forsaken His people. His apparent silence should not be mistaken for abandonment of Judah (1:2). He will act to fulfill His purpose at the appointed time (2:3).
Habakkuk began his dialogue with the Lord in the form of a frustrated complaint about the state of affairs in Judah and God’s apparent silence about it. Now the prophet is hushed in reverential awe before the Lord in His temple (Robertson, Nahum, 211). When we find ourselves in the presence of the Lord in worship, it can profoundly transform our perspective on all things in this world. When vexed by the sinfulness of society, Christians must go to the house of the Lord and worship Him in order to gain the strength, wisdom, and insight we need to rightly understand the world we are passing through as sojourners.
These five woe oracles form the vision that Habakkuk was commanded to write as an answer to resolve the questions of his perplexed mind.
Reflect and Discuss
- What was Habakkuk’s emotional state when he asked God, “How long?” Have you ever asked God, “How long?” What was the issue for you?
- Have you ever been frustrated with God’s timing? Read 2 Peter 3:9. How are God’s timing and His patience related?
- Why was Habakkuk so upset with God’s first answer in 1:5-11?
- Have you ever received an answer from God that you did not like? Have you read clear teachings in the Bible that you disagree with? How did you resolve the issue?
- What is the difference between doubting God and waiting to understand God’s purposes? Can you give an example of each from the Bible? From yourself or people you know?
- Habakkuk 2:4b says, “The righteous one will live by his faith.” What does this mean?
- Have you ever seen people “get a taste of their own medicine” or “fall into their own traps”? How did that make you feel? Did you ever take it as a warning for yourself?
- What idols do people worship today? In what ways are they powerless and foolish compared to God?
- What does Habakkuk teach us about the gospel in chapters 1 and 2?
- What does God reveal to Habakkuk (and us) about Himself in chapters 1 and 2?