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Bible Commentaries
Habakkuk 1

Coffman's Commentaries on the BibleCoffman's Commentaries


This chapter begins with the salutation (Habakkuk 1:1), and a plaintive summary of Judah’s wickedness (Habakkuk 1:2-3). Then comes the bold and courageous prophecy of the destruction of Judah by the Chaldeans (Habakkuk 1:4-11). But Habakkuk had a problem with regard to the inherent justice of God who would use the wicked Babylonians against a people who, wicked as they were, were yet better than the Babylonians. As a result of that problem, Habakkuk did not withdraw from God and assume the status of an enemy; but he boldly presented it (Habakkuk 1:12-17) and waited patiently for the answer, which came, of course, in the opening verses of the next chapter. It is well to keep in mind that Habakkuk’s concern here was the inherent justice or righteousness of God, a fact that corroborates that as the subject of the apostle Paul in Romans 1:17 ff.

Verse 1

“The burden which Habakkuk the prophet did see.”

“Burden...” “This noun, translated in other versions as oracle, utterance, or lifted up, is synonymous with revelation, a revelation which had come from God.”(F1) The RSV is therefore correct in the addition of “from God.” “It became a technical term for a prophecy spoken against a nation under judgment”;(F2) and that is the usual meaning of it in the Old Testament. Nahum is a “burden” against Assyria; and Habakkuk is a “burden” against both Judah and Babylon. Although the wickedness of Judah is outlined, and the agent of their doom prophesied, the prophet nevertheless directed his words, not to Judah, but “almost entirely to God or the Chaldeans.”(F3)

Verse 2

O Jehovah, how long shall I cry, and thou wilt not hear? I cry unto thee of violence, and thou wilt not save.”

What Christian has not experienced in his heart such questions as these? Rampant wickedness, blasphemy, atheism, rejection of sacred laws, and the arrogant confidence of evil men asserting themselves against truth and righteousness - one who is able to see such things in the light of the word of God may easily feel the frustration and latent doubt that nagged at the heart of Habakkuk. True followers of the Lord “are in danger of being unduly depressed and disheartened by the rising power of the mystery of iniquity.”(F4) Taylor expressed doubt that the extensive wickedness indicated in this verse could have been descriptive of wickedness in Judah prior to 600 B.C., alleging at the same time that it points to a period of 333-63 B.C.!(F5) One cannot possibly imagine what such a “doubt” could have been founded upon. Hosea, Micah, and Amos, and others of the very earliest prophets have written extensively, and even more fully than did Habakkuk, of that very thing. Such “doubts” are part and parcel of the campaign to destroy Habakkuk as a prophecy by the device of dating it centuries after the thing prophesied; and like the whole campaign, this tip of the iceberg which surfaces in such an argument is not founded upon any truth. Hosea wrote: “There is nothing but lying, and killing, and stealing, and committing adultery. They break out, and blood toucheth blood” (Hosea 4:2), and Micah declared of Israel that, “Their rich men are full of violence, and the inhabitants thereof have spoken lies… therefore have I smitten thee with a grievous wound” (Micah 6:12-13). Those prophets described things in Israel at a time much earlier than that of Habakkuk.

Another device is that of applying Habakkuk 1:2-4 to the Chaldeans, or others, instead of to Judah, but, “The rearrangement of the text to support a particular theory is always questionable. It is safer to take the text (Habakkuk 1:2-4) as it stands and refer it to Judah.”(F6)

“I cry unto thee of violence...” “Violence, as used by the prophets refers to any kind of wrong done to one’s neighbor.”(F7) In this passage Habakkuk places himself as a spokesman for the people, some of whom are righteous, crying unto God upon their behalf.

Verse 3

“Why dost thou show me iniquity, and look upon perverseness? for destruction and violence are before me; and there is strife, and contention riseth up.”

Despite all of the terrible wickedness, God apparently did nothing about it; at least it seemed so to Habakkuk. Everywhere he looked, he continued to “behold iniquity and perverseness in the character and conduct of his (God’s) people.”(F8) The question in Habakkuk’s heart was, “How could God look on this condition without punishing it, thus bringing it to an end?”(F9)

Verse 4

“Therefore the law is slacked, and justice doth never go forth; for the wicked doth compass about the righteous; therefore justice goeth forth perverted.”

“The law is slacked” “The commandments of the Pentateuch, in other words, are not kept.”(F10) This reference to God’s law indicates positively that the people who were supposed to keep that law were the ones addressed in these verses. “The courts fail to meet the problem posed by violence.”(F11) A certain indication of the decadence of a society and its approaching ruin is always a breakdown of the system for administering justice.

“The wicked doth compass about the righteous” Watts identified the persons meant by these words as “the guilty” and the “innocent,”(F12) basing his view upon the emergence here of opponents “in a legal contest.”

The purpose of Habakkuk 1:2-4 in Habukkuk’s prophecy was that of citing the reason why God was sending punishment and doom upon them. That basis having been adequately stated, he announced the doom.

Verses 5-6

“Behold ye among the nations, and look, and wonder marvelously; for I am working a work in your days, which ye will not believe though it be told you. For lo, I raise up the Chaldeans, that bitter and hasty nation, that march through the breadth of the earth, to possess dwelling places that are not theirs.”

“Behold ye among the nations” There was nothing upon the historical horizon that indicated any possibility of a power about to rise up and destroy the Southern Israel, which had already survived the onslaught of the Assyrians which had carried away Samaria in 722 B.C. Something like an entire generation had passed since that disaster, and the southern nation of Israel had, in a sense, accommodated to the world-dominance of Assyria, expecting no trouble from them. Furthermore, Babylon, at the time of Habakkuk, was itself tributory to Assyria, affording no kind of threat to any nation. What Habakkuk was saying here was, that there was absolutely nothing in sight that would enable the people even to believe the disaster coming upon them. How could it even be imagined that such a declaration as this would have been boldly presented after the events prophesied had occurred? Whoever, throughout history, ever did such a thing? The prophets of God? Absolutely NO!

“And wonder marvelously” Habakkuk continued to stress the incredibility, from all human consideration, of the word of God which he here announced.

This whole verse strongly emphasizes the apparent impossibility of what Habakkuk was prophesying by the word of God.

The words (Habakkuk 1:5) are building up to a conclusion which the people would not believe if told. The work to be performed is so incredible that they would not think it possible, even if they were told. Such an extraordinary event must be seen to be believed.(F13)

This passage, so vigorously attacked by Biblical enemies, has the advantage of New Testament attestation:

The apostle Paul quoted this verse, applying the principle of God’s dealings in Habakkuk’s day to the situation in the church in his own day (Acts 13:41). God’s work of calling the Gentiles into his church would be just as astonishing as his work of using the Babylonians to punish Judah.(F14)

Paul quoted it at Pisidian Antioch in the Jewish synagogue, using their version of the Old Testament (LXX), which begins: “Behold ye despisers, and wonder, and perish.” That rendition of the place, plus Paul’s usage of it, proves that Habakkuk was right and that the people of his time did not at all believe his prophecy. Paul’s meaning was that the Jews who would not believe that God was calling the Gentiles would themselves perish in their stubbornness and unbelief.

“For lo, I raise up the Chaldeans” This prophecy, given at a time prior to the emergence of the Chaldeans as a world power, requires the dating of the prophecy at some time prior to 627 B.C. The problem with the critics is how to get rid of this troublesome word “Chaldeans.” Some of them have freely admitted that as long as this reference stands, it is a tortuous and impossible assignment to late-date it. Accordingly, some have boldly changed the word:

“They emend (meaning, they substitute their own word for the word of Habakkuk) the word `Chaldeans’ to `Kittini,’ which they then take to refer to the Macedonian Greeks and the Asiatic campaigns of Alexander the Great (336-333 B.C.)!”(F15)

Indeed, indeed! There is equal authority for “emending” the word to mean Romans, Visigoths, Germans, or Japanese, that is, none at all. What should be said of the conceit of men who will take a passage, clear and authentic enough as regards the text, and then deliberately change it to suit their theories? The greatest hoax of all is involved in the fact that, after having done so, they proceed to sell commentaries on “the Bible”; but what they are commenting on in such instances is not the work of a holy prophet, but their own words!

Deane gave the correct understanding of this verse (Habakkuk 1:6) as follows:

“This signifies the soldiers or inhabitants of Babylon, which won its independence and commenced its wonderfully rapid career of conquest after the fall of Nineveh between 626 and 606 B.C. At the time when Habakkuk wrote, the Chaldeans had not appeared in Judaea.”(F16)

It would be difficult indeed to cite a better example of inspired predictive prophecy than this passage from Habakkuk. Of course, the obvious truth of this is behind the fact of the book’s having been treasured throughout millenniums of time and of its being given a place in the sacred Canon of the Word of God. To suppose otherwise is to suppose a miracle greater than that evident in such a remarkable prophecy.

“That march through the breadth of the earth” This is not merely a prophecy of the judgment and destruction of Judaea, but also of the rise of a world-power, the Chaldeans, who until this prophecy had never been supposed to be capable of world dominion.

“That bitter and hasty nation” One of the amazing characteristics of the Chaldean rise to worldwide authority was the speed of its accomplishment, another facet of Habakkuk’s remarkable prophecy.

Verse 7

“They are terrible and dreadful, their judgment and their dignity proceed from themselves.”

“Their judgment and dignity proceed from themselves” God’s people, having rejected the authority of their God, should, in the rise of Babylon, be judged by a nation without regard for God. “His own will (the will of the invader) shall be his only law for himself and for others. His elevation too, in his thoughts, are from himself alone.”(F17)

Note the reference to “dignity.” The new, monolithic, world-power, “will have, like all great world-powers, a real dignity and majesty, but a dignity held independently of God.”(F18) Thus, a study of the passage reveals a most precise and adequate description of the forthcoming successor to Assyria, i.e. Babylon, the third such entity to rise out of the seas of human populations, and visible in the apostle John’s Scarlet, Seven-Headed Sea Monster (Revelation 13), and easily identifiable as the Third head, Egypt and Assyria having been the other two.

Verses 8-9

“Their horses also are swifter than leopards, and are more fierce than the evening wolves; and their horsemen press proudly on: yea, their horsemen come from far; they fly as an eagle that hasteth to devour. They come all of them for violence; the set of their faces is forwards; and they gather captives as the sand.”

A careful reading of these verses shows no evidence whatever of their being any such thing as an eye-witness account of what the prophet had already seen in the past. The feature of these verses is their quality of mystery and enigma. Habakkuk was not describing a conquest he had witnessed, but was reporting an inspired vision from God, as the first verse of the prophecy stated. As Watts truly discerned, “The description is more stereotyped than historical.”(F19) It is similar to the prophetic picture of the advance of God’s armies in Isaiah (Isaiah 5:26-30), and Jeremiah (Jeremiah 4:13). The message behind the lines is that the finger of the Almighty is moving in history. The Second head of the Scarlet Sea Beast will be succeeded by the Third.

In the character of Assyria, Habakkuk could have read that of Babylon, both of them being, in essence, the same entity. Nevertheless, that entity is controlled and directed from heaven. “The crisis that God will resolve is related to the events of history, but it is much deeper than anything that history alone can record.”(F20)

The specifics here, the effective use of cavalry (the military equivalent of tanks in those ages), the pressing relentlessly forward for attack, the swiftness and suddenness of attack, and the gathering of innumerable captives - such specifics do not describe any particular siege, but all sieges, all of those things being inherent in the prophecy that the Chaldeans would destroy Judea.

“The set of their faces is forwards” This version (ASV) is far preferable to some of the translations which have been proposed for this difficult verse. One manuscript makes it read, “The set of their faces eastward”; but as Taylor aptly suggested, someone probably “altered a passage to make a reference to the Greeks.”(F21)

Verse 10

“Yea, he scoffeth at kings, and princes are a derision unto him; for he derideth every stronghold; for he heapeth up dust and taketh it.”

This is a continuation of the thought of the previous two or three verses. The inherent arrogance and conceit of great world-powers was a single quality in all of them. Such dignities as kings, princes, judges and nobles were all marked for the utmost humiliation, punishment, and death. The great fortresses, or strongholds, would all be besieged; mounds of earth would be erected against them; and the invaders would capture them. The sub-thought in all of this is that there would be no refuge or place of escape for the people of God. They had rejected God, and in that rejection was their choice of the Sea-Beast; just as, centuries later, their rejection of Christ was again their choice of the Sea-Beast (Rome, the Sixth head). “We have no king but Caesar,” they cried.

“Heapeth up dust and taketh it” On Assyrian monuments, one sees “representations of these mounds, or inclined planes, to facilitate the approach of the battering-ram.”(F22)

“He scoffeth at kings” Jehoikim and Jehoikin, both kings of Israel, suffered the greatest indignities at the hands of Nebuchadnezzar (2 Chronicles 36:6; 2 Chronicles 2 King 24:14,15; and Jeremiah 22:19).

Verse 11

“Then shall he sweep by as a wind, and shall pass over, and be guilty, even he whose might is his god.”

This prophecy, by extension, was applicable to the great Sea-Beast, and to all of its seven heads, and to each of the powers in the phase of the ten horns that came after the heads. It must ever be a part of the eternal will of God that godless states of this world, arrayed in arrogance against the God of heaven and earth, shall one by one fill up the cup of wrath and suffer the fate of all their predecessors.

“Sweep by as a wind, and shall pass over...” This is the destiny of every godless state. No matter how long and terrible may be their sway upon earth, no matter what powers and fortification sustain them, no matter how many millions of their fellow-human beings are subjugated and exploited by them, they shall eventually be “Gone with the Wind.” They shall pass over the earth, all right but they shall have no permanence. Like a bad dream, they will eventually “pass over.”

“Shall pass over and be guilty” According to Jamieson, there is indicated in this passage a “change of mind” on the part of the new world-power.

“The language here is very similar to that describing Nebuchadnezzar’s `change’ from man’s heart to the heart of a beast, because of pride (Daniel 4:16; Daniel 4:30-34). This was an undesigned coincidence between the two sacred books written independently.”(F23)

Thus, the enigmatical element in all genuine prophecy appears in this most remarkable intimation of what would befall Babylon and Nebuchadnezzar. All true prophecy, upon its fulfillment, exhibits such intimations which would have been understood, prior to fulfillment, in a secondary or subordinate sense, but which, after fulfillment, are understood more fully as the most remarkable pre-knowledge of some of the world’s most astounding and significant events. This enigmatical reference to what happened to Nebuchadnezzar is an example.

“Whose might is his god” This was the culmination of guilt on the part of Babylon, which would, in turn bring the wrath and destruction of God upon them, no less than upon Assyria and Egypt, their predecessors, and upon all their successors who would become enemies of the Lord. (See more on this thought under Habakkuk 1:16, below.)

Verse 12

“Art not thou from everlasting, O Jehovah my God, my Holy One? we shall not die. O Jehovah, thou hast ordained him for judgment; and thou, O Rock, hast established him for correction.”

The last paragraph of Habakkuk 1 (Habakkuk 1:12-17) is to be understood in connection with what has preceded.

Question: Habakkuk asked God, “How long” would the wickedness of Judea be tolerated? (Habakkuk 1:2-4).

Answer: God’s reply (Habakkuk 1:6-11) was the revelation that a vicious new world-state would soon arise and destroy both Assyria and Judah.

This answer did not completely solve the problem as it was understood by Habakkuk. The destruction of Assyria which had already been revealed through other prophets by the Lord was welcome news indeed; but the answer God gave in Habakkuk 1:6-11 was a vision of another Assyria, a variation of the same old disaster. This meant that there was to be no permanent improvement of life upon earth. Furthermore, the evil states used by God in the punishment of his people, were even more wicked than the ones punished. How could the holy and righteous God do such a thing? The faithful prophet, perplexed though he was, did not complain about God to men, but brought his perplexity and doubt to God himself and waited patiently for the answer (Habakkuk 2:1 f).

The complete answer to the theological problems raised by Habakkuk and thoughtful men of all ages was not given all at once to any single prophet, but “line upon line, here a little and there a little, precept upon precept, line upon line” throughout the ages, all of the holy prophets participating in the giving of the total answer.

Despite the fact of many mysteries yet remaining, the Christian students of the present age may clearly discern the broad outlines of the total purpose of God in his government of human affairs. A brief statement of that appears thus:

“In that rebellion of the human race in Eden, the whole human family rebelled against God and chose the service of the devil. “God had already given the sentence for such conduct. `In the day that thou eatest thereof, thou shalt surely die.’

“God neither repealed, commuted, nor changed that penalty. It still stands, and it will be executed upon Adam and Eve in the person of their total posterity `in that day,’ interpreted to mean this current dispensation of God’s mercy. The sole survivors of that eventual punishment will be the true people of God.

“God deferred the penalty of death upon humanity in order to prevent the frustration of his purpose of redeeming unto himself a people from among the posterity of Adam.

“The continuity of Adam’s race upon earth in a confirmed state of rebellion against God necessarily entails the proliferation of injustice, tyranny, war and bloodshed in perpetuity. The Lord warned that `wars and rumors of wars’ would not be the sign of the approaching end of the world. These shall continue until God’s purpose is achieved and the state of human rebellion has attained a condition requiring the execution of the long-deferred penalty of death for all men. That must be identified as the time of the Second Advent of Christ and the final judgment.

“The prospect is therefore not a bright one; but what else could be expected by a Creaturehood in rebellion against its Creator? There was no justice or reason in Habakkuk’s bold arraignment of God. Troubles ahead for God’s people? Certainly! But what else could reasonably be expected by citizens of the kind of world in which we live.”

That there are problems for the devout believer in such considerations as these is evident. Hailey paraphrased Habakkuk’s complaint thus: “How can Jehovah, a righteous God, use a wicked nation like the Chaldeans?”(F24) “The answer is given in Habakkuk 2:1-4.”(F25) The answer, more fully given in the passage cited, was simply that God knows what he is doing, that the whole chain of events is related ultimately “to the end, the appointed time” when God will summarize and conclude his Operation Adam.

“Art not thou from everlasting...?” In this, Habakkuk already had the essential element in the answer which he sought. Of course, God is indeed from everlasting.

“We shall not die...” The meaning of the Hebrew here (Masoretic text) is that, “Since Jehovah ever has been and ever shall be, he will in some way spare Judah from total destruction.”(F26) The Eternal will not be frustrated in his purpose of redemption. Here indeed is the anchor of the soul, sure and certain throughout all time to Eternity.

“Ordained him for judgment… established him for correction” The answer in this is, “Yes.” Indeed God was using powers like those of both Assyria and Babylon to achieve his purpose on earth. Such powers are God’s battle-ax (Jeremiah 51:20-21) and God’s razor (Isaiah 7:20), in that latter passage the king of Assyrian being identified as the razor.

Verse 13

“Thou that art of purer eyes than to behold evil, and that canst not look on perverseness, wherefore lookest thou upon them that deal treacherously, and boldest thy peace when the wicked swalloweth up the man that is more righteous than he?”

How can the holy and good God permit the wicked to swallow the people who, however sinful, are yet better than the destroyer? The answer to this lies in the truth that the redemption of anyone on earth was related to the fidelity and perseverance of a remnant of Israel until, in the fullness of time, the Messiah would be delivered upon the earth. Furthermore, the wickedness of Israel had reached a degree that threatened the achievement of that goal; and it was the utmost necessity of preserving a remnant of Israel to remain faithful to God that resulted in their destruction, judged a necessity by the Lord. God does not view righteousness and wickedness in relative degrees. The wickedness of states like Assyria and Babylon make no real difference anyway; they were members of rebellious mankind organized and arrayed against God; but Israel was the Covenant people. That made all the difference. “It is an invariable law of God that the righteous must suffer along with the guilty.”(F27) This is not due to any action of God, but to the wicked rebellion of Adam and Eve that gave their posterity this type of world. The only alternative possible would be that of the total destruction of mankind, but that would frustrate, partially, the purpose of redemption.

“The man that is more righteous” Some have supposed that this spoke of the relative righteousness of Judah as a whole and that of the Babylonians, and this certainly may be true, for it was a fact. The forthcoming invaders would be worse than “the evening wolves” who were Judah’s judges (Zephaniah 3:3); but despite this, it is very likely that “the righteous remnant” constituting the true Israel of God in all ages was the group referred to here. Deane, Keil, and Delitzsch believed that, “The persons intended are the godly portion of Israel.” (F28)

A very significant thing in this question on Habakkuk’s part was thus cited by Jamieson, “Instead of speaking evil against God, he went to God himself for the remedy of his perplexity.”(F29)

Verse 14

“And makest men as the fishes of the sea, as the creeping things, that have no ruler over them?”

This verse is a continuation of Habakkuk 1:13, being the last part of the question, “Wherefore lookest thou (the perfect and righteous God) upon him that swalloweth the righteous... and makest men as the fishes? etc.” It is not necessary to press this metaphor down upon all fours. As Luther said, “These hooks, nets, and fishing nets are nothing more than the great and powerful armies”(F30) coming upon Israel.

Verse 15

“He taketh up all of them with the angle, he catches them in his net, and gathereth them in his drag; therefore he rejoiceth and is glad.”

The successful mopping up of whole populations by the ruthless invader is metaphorically described. Since Habakkuk was NOT describing what he had already seen in the past, but was uttering a prophecy of what would appear in the future, it was essential that metaphor be employed. The use of such language establishes it as having been written before the events prophesied.

Verse 16

“Therefore, he sacrificeth unto his net, and burneth incense unto his drag; because by them his portion is fat, and his food plenteous.”

Most of the commentators suppose that this language is altogether metaphorical, as is the preceding verse. “It means that the Babylonians recognized not God’s hand, but attributed their success to the means which they employed... There is no evidence in Chaldean monuments of their paying divine honors to weapons, etc.”(F31) Any person, or any people, who trust not in God, but attribute all of their success, wealth, and prosperity to their system of government, their fertile lands, their natural resources, their powerful armies, their great armaments, their army navy, or airforce, or anything else that was given to them by the bounty of heaven or achieved by them through their intelligence and labors - all such persons are worshipping their nets and burning incense to their drags!

Verse 17

“Shall he therefore empty his net, and spare not to slay the nations continually?”

It is the continuity of the state of affairs that already existed in Habakkuk’s day that constituted the focus of his perplexity. God had just revealed through him the rise of a new power that .would crush Assyria (and Judah); but it would not be a righteous power at all, but essentially a continuation of the old order under a new name. We have already noted that such a continuity was due, actually, to God’s mercy in deferring the well-deserved destruction of humanity throughout the historical period while the redeemed from all the earth were being gathered. But that mercy could not change the nature of the rebellious sons of Adam “born in Adam’s image” (Genesis 5:3) who without restraint (except that of other rebellious states raised up against them) would continue to devastate the earth as long as God’s mercy for all men (in the purpose of redeeming some of them) would prevail.

The answer to this question by the prophet, “He himself gave by inspiration in Habakkuk 2.”(F32) That answer lay in the prophecy of the doom of Babylon, “The remnant of the peoples shall plunder thee”; but such an answer did not promise any alleviation of the distress of humanity derived from rampant unrighteousness that without intermission prevails among the posterity of Adam.

Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Habakkuk 1". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/bcc/habakkuk-1.html. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.
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