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Baker's Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology

Habakkuk, Theology of

The prophet Habakkuk faced the violence and injustice of King Jehoiakim (609-597 see Jeremiah 22:13-18 ) as well as the cruel onslaught of Babylonia. Interestingly the book that bears his name begins with an extended description of the coming of the Chaldeans. This has an unsettling effect on Habakkuk (1:6-11), causing him to focus on the problems around him even more. The book ends with a revelation of the coming of the awesome God (3:3-15). This causes Habakkuk to focus on God, resulting in joyous peace (3:17-19).

The book begins with a lament asking "why" and "how long, " but ends with a song of victory. The triumph of faith in the life of Habakkuk illustrates that our greatest struggles come not in our relationship with other people but in our relationship with God.

God . God's works are incomprehensible, stupefying, and sometimes horrifying (1:5; 3:2,16). He has sovereign control over human history. The seemingly invincible Chaldean army becomes totally subservient to his every wish (1:6). His decrees seem slow but they are infallible and sure (2:3). He is enthroned in his holy temple and all the earth must keep silent before him (2:20).

God is eternal and immortal (1:12). He is holy and unable to look on evil (1:13). His glory and brilliance eclipse all the forces of nature. The sun and the moon are overwhelmed by his brilliance (3:3,11). All the dreadful phenomena of the storm attend his coming, yet he is separate from all this. All nature is a passive creation that must do his bidding. He is exalted in his temple (2:20), yet he is a personal God who can be called "my God" (1:12). He possesses such unchangeable stability that he can be called "Rock" (1:12).

God is not affected by age. He can act today with just as much power as he ever did. Habakkuk finds upon his watch tower a theology sufficient even for a nation confronted with its demise. The psalm in chapter 3 reflects Habakkuk's thoughts about God's saving Acts of the past (v. 2). Perhaps he regularly heard singing about God's redemptive Acts for Moses (Deuteronomy 33:2-5,26-29 ), for Deborah and Barak (Judges 5 ), and for David (Psalm 18 ). His psalm has almost direct quotes from them (cf. Psalm 18:33; with Habakkuk 3:19 ).

The most striking difference is that the old traditions the prophet draws on for strength regularly portray the coming of the Divine Warrior in the perfect tense of the Hebrew verb, denoting completed action. Habakkuk, however, consistently uses the imperfect tense to emphasize progressive action, vividly showing that he sees those fortune events happening before his very eyes in a vision of faith.

Habakkuk sees God coming, not to defeat the sea god as in Canaanite mythology, but on behalf of his scattered, downtrodden people. Through eyes of faith Habakkuk can see God's awesome power unleashed in his very own day against the arrogant nations who would destroy God's chosen ones (3:13,16).

All the forces of death and destruction are under God's command. All manner of invincible weaponry are at his disposal. Chariots do not belong to Pharaoh but to God. His brilliant lance and his dazzling arrows frighten even the sun and moon into stunned silence (3:11). He tramples the ancient sea in his fury (3:8,15). The most permanent and immovable objects are shaken violently at his coming (3:6,10). Geography itself is radically altered before him (3:9). Spectators along the route of his march are shaken (3:7). Baal's palace crumbles into dust when Yahweh, the Divine Warrior, passes by on his way to battle elsewhere.

Humankind . People are apt to be violent, impulsive, destructive, and unjust. Human nature is such that if justice is delayed, they will be swift to do evil. Humans are prone to gather up what does not belong to them with insatiable greed (1:5-6,9; 2:5-8). They worship might, or whatever they perceive to be necessary for an elegant lifestyle (1:11,16).

But while people can be fierce, they are also frail, undependable, and prone to self-destruction (1:14-15). They can be as helpless as fish caught in a net (1:14). They can be as erratic as creatures creeping upon the earth. Only a direct act of God can save us from ourselves. True life is not to be found in an arrogant, self-assured attitude, but through faith in God (2:4).

Salvation . Habakkuk searches feverishly for theoretical answers, but instead he is given a practical way of relating to his life. He is challenged to a life of faith that will take him through the period between prophecy and fulfillment: "The righteous will live by his faith" (2:4).

Faithfulness is an inner feeling of total dependence, an inner attitude as well as the conduct it produces, rather than an outer behavior. Those of faith will look back to God's known saving Acts and be able to face the unknown future unafraid. Habakkuk's faith is so vivid that through the eyes of his soul he can already see the salvation of God.

Habakkuk's faith comes by hearing the word. He fills his heart with God's words. They become so real to him that he is able to speak forth, to add his own testament to faith as one of the greatest affirmations of trust in the entire Bible. He senses that in his lifetime he might see deprivation and famine, but his faith, grounded in the old traditions and alive in his heart in the present, gives him joy (3:18). His faith provides relief and ecstasy. He is as free as a deer on the mountains (3:17-19).

The person who lives by faith is contrasted with the arrogant, puffed up person whose soul is not right with God. The writer of the Book of Hebrews follows the Septuagint, which renders the first part of the verse as "if he shrinks back, I will not be pleased with him" (Hebrews 10:38 ), and then goes on to say that "we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who believe and are saved."

Ethics . Insatiable greediness leads only to frustration (2:5). Such people will become the victims of stinging proverbs (2:6). Personal property is inviolable in God's sight (1:6). Those who live only for things and try to enslave or use their neighbors for their benefit will meet the same fate (2:6-7). God is especially sensitive to the plight of the weak and defenseless, pronouncing a woe on those who prey on them (2:10-12). Building is not wrong in itself but doing it at the expense of others makes even the rafters cry out (2:11-12). God is equally concerned about the exploitation of natural resources such as cedars of Lebanon used in Nebuchadnezzar's building program and the animals that he ruthlessly hunted down (2:17).

People who are arrogantly trying to set their nest in the heavens at the expense of others are really sinning against themselves (2:9-10). It is not clear whether the woe pronounced against drink is literal or figurative, but the cup will eventually pass back to the one who first offered it (2:15-16). Idolatry carries its own judgment by leaving the worshiper without hope (2:18-19).

The various woes pronounced by God indicate that he sees everything, certainly more than the prophet does. In his own good time he will take action. But he will not be driven by emotions. He will not act until the fullness of time comes.

Eschatology . There will be a day when the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of God as the waters cover the sea (2:14). This is the final goal of all God's work. History is not cyclical, a never-ending recurrence of one bad thing after another. It is linear, moving toward the goal of the kingdom of God. The prophet knows that there is no power in the world of nature or any human ruler that can subvert God's plan for the world.

God is still working in the arena of human history. He has not yet abandoned the prophetic for the apocalyptic. We need Habakkuk's keen sense of faith. What is happening in our world is the work of God, although we do not always understand that work.

Paul Ferguson

See also Israel; Prophet, Prophetess, Prophecy

Bibliography . D. Baker, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah; R. D. Haak, Habakkuk; A. Jepsen, TDOT, 1:316-20; R. D. Patterson, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah; J. J. M. Roberts, Nahum, Habakkuk, and Zephaniah; R. L. Smith, Micah-Malachi; M. E. Szeles, Habakkuk and Zephaniah; J. D. Watts, The Books of Joel, Obadiah, Jonah, Nahum, Habakkuk and Zephaniah .


Copyright Statement
Baker's Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology. Edited by Walter A. Elwell
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of Baker Book House Company, PO Box 6287, Grand Rapids, Michigan 49516-6287.
All rights reserved. Used by permission.
For usage information, please read the Baker Book House Copyright Statement.

Bibliography Information
Elwell, Walter A. Entry for 'Habakkuk, Theology of'. Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology. http://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/bed/view.cgi?n=316. 1996.

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