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Bible Commentaries
Habakkuk 3

Coffman's Commentaries on the BibleCoffman's Commentaries


This chapter is a concluding prayer by Habakkuk, although a great deal of it is more like what would be called a devotional. “All devotional addresses to God are called prayers (Psalms 72:20).”(F1) Stephens-Hodge defended the unity of the whole prophecy and believed that, “This third chapter could hardly be more suitable to what preceded; and it was deliberately designed by Habakkuk as the crown of his whole composition.”(F2) Many students of the Bible have praised this chapter in the manner of McFadyen who declared that, “This writer has entered into the innermost secret of spiritual religion and has bequeathed to us one of the most precious words in the O.T.”(F3) Eiselen took note of frantic efforts critics at one time exercised in their vain attempts to deny this chapter as a genuine part of Habakkuk, concluding that their postulations are “impossible to prove.”(F4)

The thrust of this great prayer is in Habakkuk 3:2, where the prophet called upon God to repeat the former marvelous deliverances which had marked his shepherding of the chosen people, and to do it again, because of the extreme seriousness of the present crisis. There then followed a review of God’s activity, touching events of the earliest periods of Hebrew history. The final verses of the chapter reveal the prophet in an attitude of submission and trust. Whatever might be the final issue of the terrible dangers threatening Israel, he concluded, “Yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will joy in the God of my salvation.” Habakkuk had persistently hoped for the best; but when God finally revealed to him the true state of affairs, the prophet was in a state of collapse (Habakkuk 3:16). Having learned that there were bitter days indeed ahead for God’s people, the prophet composed himself and trustfully awaited the day of trouble.

“Strictly speaking, the entire chapter after Habakkuk 3:1 is a prayer. It is an earnest entreaty for Yahweh to let the world again witness his redemptive work.”(F5)

The purpose of this chapter, according to Robinson was that “of encouragement and to keep alive within the nation a spirit of hope and trust in God.”(F6)

Verse 1

“A prayer of Habakkuk the prophet, set to Shigionoth.”

“Set to Shigionoth” This, as well as “Selah” which occurs three times in this chapter, indicates that the chapter was used liturgically in the temple services, being sung or chanted by the congregation. Shigionoth indicates that it was to be sung “after the manner of the elegies, or mournful odes.”(F7) The plural of this word, Shiggaion, is used as a title (Psalms 7:1). “It is believed to refer to the wild beat of the song, its tempo corresponding to the profound emotions it describes.”(F8) David composed a Psalm in this same metre “when he sang a song in his affliction accompanied by the cursing of Shimei.”(F9)

Verse 2

“O Jehovah, I have heard the report of thee, and am afraid: O Jehovah, revive thy work in the midst of the years. In the midst of the years make it known; And in wrath remember mercy.”

Keil regarded this verse as “the theme of the whole chapter.”(F10)

“Jehovah is displayed in so terrible a manner, that his judgment not only inspires with joy at the destruction of the foe, but fills with alarm at the omnipotence of the Judge of the world.”(F11)

“In the midst of the years” This is a very interesting phrase which was applied by Barnes to “the long period of waiting for the Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed in the flesh.”(F12) “The midstream of history” would be an approximation of it. There have been many such periods, not merely in the lives of individual Christians struggling with mid-life perplexities and frustrations, but also in these “middle years” waiting for the Second Coming of our Lord.

“Make it known” God had delivered Israel with a “high hand” out of Egyptian slavery, showing his absolute superiority over all the so-called “gods” of Egypt; but in the meanwhile, even Israel had forgotten and had reverted to the shameless paganism of the old Canaanites. The pagan nations no longer feared Jehovah; and Habukkuk was pleading for God once again to show his mighty power.

“In wrath remember mercy” Habakkuk acknowledges in this the justice of the destruction coming upon Israel for their abominations; but despite this, he pleads for the mercy of the Father to be extended to the beloved nation. This, of course, was provided, but not to the extent of sparing Israel the punishment of defeat and deportation. The mercy was given in that not all of the people were destroyed; a righteous remnant remained, and in due time the Saviour was born in Bethlehem.

Verse 3

“God came from Teman, and the Holy One from mount Paran. Selah. His glory covered the heavens. And the earth was full of his praise.”

Here begins Habakkuk’s enumeration of a number of mighty actions of God in his dealings with Israel. There is no indication in these words that God, in any sense, dwelt on Mount Paran (as did the Greek Zeus on Olympus). What is indicated is that in the entire district bordered by Teman (Edom) and Paran, God’s hand had been very visible in his dealings ,with Israel. “It was in this area that Israel experienced the redemptive grace of God, entered into covenant relationship with him; and it was also in these districts that some of the unbelieving generation perished.”(F13)

“His glory covered the heavens”Deuteronomy 33:2 recounts the splendour of the divine appearance spread over Teman and the mountains of Paran.” (F14)

“Selah” “This forms no part of the text,”(F15) but was some kind of signal to the singers when the chapter was being used in the temple services. It is not known exactly what it means, but probably some kind of pause, change of tempo, period of silence, or something similar.

Verse 4

“And his brightness was as the light; He had rays coming forth from his hand; And there was the hiding of his power.”

“He had rays” The Hebrew here actually means “horns,” invariably used in scripture as emblems of power. As Hailey said, “These horns were rays of light.”(F16) In this light there was the hiding of his power. The foolish interpretation of this verse which supposes that we should think of, “flashes of lightning darting out of God’s hand is proved to be untenable.”(F17) Keil further enforced that opinion by showing that it is impossible for the words to mean such a thing. This is important to remember, because one of the strategies of critical enemies of the text is that of postulating such a picture as that given by Ward:

“Yahweh comes in the guise of an armed warrior, horses and chariots, bow and quiver, in storm and lightning from his Mount Olympus in Mount Paran, and affrights land and sea with his thunder and tempest!”(F18)

Of course, such an interpretation is merely for the purpose of making the God of the Hebrews as much like a Greek myth as possible. It has no validity whatever.

Verse 5

“Before him went the pestilence, And fiery bolts went forth at his feet.”

“The pestilence” This was a prominent feature of the plagues visited upon Egypt, “boils and blains” breaking out on man and beast (Exodus 9:9).

“Fiery bolts… at his feet” “Hail mingled with fire was also one of the plagues of Egypt” (Exodus 9:23).

Throughout this whole passage, there is the recollection of God’s wonders manifested in the delivery of Israel from Egypt.

Verse 6

“He stood, and measured the earth; He beheld, and drove asunder the nations; And the eternal mountains were scattered; The everlasting hills did bow; His goings were as of old.”

“He measured the earth… drove asunder the nations” Some thirty-two kingdoms of Canaan were defeated in order for God to re-populate the land with Israel. God’s standing and measuring the earth appears to be a reference to the deliberate purpose and full intention before the event to remove the Canaanites and settle Israel in the place of them.

“Eternal mountains were scattered . . . everlasting hills did bow” These are metaphors for God’s destruction of institutions and nations that had existed for ages, reaching all the way back to the great deluge. As throughout, the background of such declarations was anchored in God’s mighty deliverance of Israel from slavery and their settlement in Canaan.

“His goings were as of old” This means, “As God acted of old, so he acts now. The ancient ways of acting are His (Proverbs 31:27).”(F19)

Verse 7

“I saw the tents of Cushan in affliction; The curtains of the land of Midian did tremble.”

“The tents of Cushan… curtains of Midian” “However these words are understood, “The general reference is to God’s interposition against Israel’s foes of old.”(F20)

Cushan should be read as “Cush,” because the extra syllable, “an” was added for musical reasons, enabling it to correspond to Midian in the following line. There are other examples of this in the Bible, Lot’s name being written in Genesis as Lotan.(F21) Cush has been identified as Cush, King of Syria, the first oppressor of Israel (Judges 3:8-10), from whom Othniel delivered them. Midian was in league with Balak and Balaam in the efforts which led to the corruption at Baal-Peor. Thus, these two names may, in a sense, stand for the first and last opponents of Israel who were discomfited and defeated by the Lord.

The entire Exodus history of Israel continues to appear in these fervent references by Habakkuk; and this no doubt accounts for the chapter’s being incorporated into the public worship of Israel.

“Tents… curtains” These mean the same thing, and they stand here “by metonomy for the inhabitants of the places mentioned.”(F22)

Verse 8

“Was Jehovah displeased with the rivers? Was thine anger against the rivers, Or thy wrath against the sea, That thou didst ride upon thy horses, Upon thy chariots of salvation?”

This double mention of the rivers was likely prompted by the two miracles: (1) the divine visitation of plagues upon the Nile in the land of Israel’s bondage, and (2) the rolling back of the Jordan at flood in order to enter Israel into Canaan.

The mention of the “sea” almost certainly refers to the passage of that body of water called the Red Sea upon the occasion of Israel’s departure from Egypt.

“Was Jehovah displeased with the rivers… ?” This question and the one in the following clause demand a negative answer. To be sure, God was not displeased with the sea and with the rivers, but with the wickedness of rebellious and sinful men.

“Thou didst ride upon thy horses” It was by the overruling providence of God that Pharaoh led his horsemen into the Red Sea in pursuit of the Israelites, hence God was here said to have ridden upon them. This particular event armed the nation, as they were able to recover the weapons borne by the 250,000 Egyptians who had pursued them, only to drown in the Red Sea.

“Upon thy chariots of salvation” The chariots of Pharaoh by rashly following Israel into the sea proved to be God’s chariots of salvation for Israel. The weapons necessary for their survival as a nation were thus provided. Without any doubt, this mention of the horses and chariots was suggested by the mention of “the sea” in this very verse. It should not be thought, however, that God needs any literal horses or chariots. “Jehovah’s chariots are his angels (Ps. 3:8,19).”(F23)

This verse with strong emphasis upon such natural phenomena as the sea and the rivers suggests something that was pointed out by Nute: “Are not the elements God’s servants?, instruments in His hand for the execution of his glorious purpose?”(F24) Of course, the trumpet judgments of Revelation 8-9, all of them dealing with natural phenomena, represented as subject to heavenly manipulation, strongly suggest the very same thing. Indeed, they do more. They declare it.

Verse 9

“Thy bow was made quite bare; The oaths to the tribes were a sure word. Selah. Thou didst cleave the earth with rivers.”

The Hebrew text is difficult here; but it is not safe to follow RSV and other versions which, “attempting to correct the text (by emending it), make it speak of the power of the divine judgment.”(F25)

“Thy bow was made quite bare” The figure is that of taking a bow out of its carrying case, thus readying it for action. Another similar figure is, “He hath bent his bow and made it ready” (Psalms 7:12).

“The oaths to the tribe were a sure word” This just means that God’s promises to Israel (the tribes) had proved to be dependable and trustworthy. It was not God who had failed Israel in the forthcoming calamity, but Israel who had failed God.

“Thou didst cleave the earth with rivers” This too is of somewhat uncertain meaning. Interestingly, “This may refer to the cleavage of the earth’s surface after an earthquake,”(F26) exactly the same kind of phenomena that probably entered into the forming of the Grand Canyon of the Colorado. Geologists sometimes dispute this explanation, but it is fully consistent with all known facts.

“Selah” See under Habakkuk 3:3.

Verse 10

“The mountains saw thee, and were afraid; The tempest of waters passed by; The deep uttered its voice, And lifted up its hands on high.”

“The deep uttered its voice” This most likely refers, as Garland thought, to “the Red Sea,”(F27) that being fully consistent with what has preceded in the passage: but it is not impossible that “the fountains of the deep” which were opened upon the occasion of the great deluge could be intended. In either case, it was natural phenomena obeying the voice of the Creator.

“And lifted up its hand on high” Either a reference to the turbulent and violent waters of the Red Sea overwhelming Pharaoh, or to the same phenomenon when the flood destroyed the earth. It is really immaterial which was specifically intended.

Verse 11

“The sun and moon stood still in their habitation, At the light of thine arrows as they went, As the shining of thy glittering spear.”

“The sun and moon stood still” “This refers to the phenomenon that occurred in Joshua 10:12 f, where the regularities of nature were suspended in order to guarantee the fullness of the Lord’s victory.”(F28)

Verse 12

“Thou didst march through the land in indignation; Thou didst thresh the nations in anger.”

This verse is clearly a direct reference to the displacement of the kingdoms of Canaan in order for Israel to be settled in the land they formerly occupied, that being the most prominent example in all history of God “threshing the nations in anger.”

God’s anger at the apostasy and paganism of earthly nations must never be thought of, however, as pertinent solely to the example of Israel and the Canaanites. Such is still the attitude of the Creator toward his human creation; and the impact of this chapter is the promise that God will continue to do such things when the divine judgment views it as necessary to do so. “This is a general statement and is not to be confined to the successes of Joshua and the destruction of the Canaanites.”

Verse 13

“Thou wentest forth for the salvation of thy people, For the salvation of thine anointed; Thou woundest the head out of the house of the wicked man, Laying bare the foundation, even unto the neck. Selah.”

“For the salvation of thy people” The holy purpose of all God’s dealings with ancient Israel was that of procurement of salvation for the redeemed of all ages. Behind all of the apostasies and restorations of the old Israel, there lay the purpose of the Christ’s birth in Bethlehem, “thine anointed” almost certainly being a reference to that same Christ.

“Thou woundest the head” Who is the head “out of the house of the wicked,” if not Satan? Here is a prophetic renewal of the great promise of the Protoevangelium (Genesis 3:15) that the head of the evil one would be bruised.

“Even unto the neck” Jamieson thought this carries the image of a flood reaching to the neck (Isaiah 8:8);(F29) Kerr, however, thought the text should read “rock.” “The figure is that of a conqueror tearing away the foundation down to the rock.”(F30) The imperfection of the text leaves the meaning somewhat obscure; but the principal meaning of the passage shines through nevertheless.

“Selah” See comment under Habakkuk 3:3; Habakkuk 3:9.

Verse 14

“Thou didst pierce with his own staves the head of his warriors: They came as a whirlwind to scatter me; Their rejoicing was to devour the poor secretly.”

“Thou didst pierce with his own staves the head of his warriors” In a passage like this, the evidence of the larger and ultimate meaning is overwhelming. The bruising of Satan’s head was mentioned in the previous verse, and here the manner of Christ’s slaying the devil is clearly indicated “He through death (Satan’s weapon) slew him that had the power of death, that is, the devil” (Hebrews 2:14).

To be sure, there were examples of that same phenomenon in the history of Israel. David, it will be recalled, slew Goliath with Goliath’s own sword. We do not know if Habakkuk had any intimation of the ultimate fulfillment of his words or not; but in all probability, he might have believed that he was merely referring to historical instances in the history of Israel. However, it was God who spoke these words through Habakkuk; hence, the message is for all generations, as well as for those who first heard it.

Barnes pointed out a number of instances in which sinners perished in the very devices they had intended to use against others.

“Pharaoh perished in the very Red Sea to which he had driven the children of Israel. Daniel’s accusers perished in the den of lions where they had contrived to throw Daniel. Haman was hanged on the very gallows he had erected upon which to hang Mordecai.”(F31)

There can be no wonder then that it was written in the Psalms, “The nations are sunk down in the pit that they made: in the net which they hid is their own foot taken.” (Psalms 9:15).

Verse 15

“Thou didst tread the sea with thy horses, The heap of mighty waters.”

“The imagery here is taken from Exodus 1-19.”(F32) In this whole passage (Habakkuk 3:3-15), the backdrop against which all of it is written is God’s dealings with Israel in the Exodus, as has been repeatedly emphasized above. Habakkuk’s reason for calling all of these things to remembrance is to inspire hope on the part of the people that God will again appear for the delivery of his people as in the days of the Exodus. In fact, this whole prayer is precisely for the purpose of pleading with Almighty God to do that very thing. What a pity it was that the sins and rebellion of Israel had at that point in time made it impossible for God, in consistency with his holiness, to do it. Nothing could preserve the hope of all men, finally to be achieved in the Seed (singular) of Abraham, except the destruction and enslavement of the apostate Israelites. When the terrible news of just how bad it was with Israel was revealed to Habakkuk (Habakkuk 3:16), he was reduced to a near-state of collapse.

The figure in this verse of God’s treading upon the sea and the mighty waters are merely appropriate, poetic devices for praising God’s mighty deliverance of the Israel of old.

Verse 16

“I heard, and my body trembled, My lips quivered at thy voice; Rottenness entereth into my bones, and I tremble in my place; Because I must wait quietly for the day of trouble, For the coming up of the people that invadeth us.”

The great thrust of this verse (Habakkuk 3:16 a) is that God answered Habakkuk and revealed to him that his plea for the deliverance of Israel could not be granted. Habakkuk’s trembling body, quivering lips, and debilitated bones show what a shocking and terrible impact the answer had upon Habakkuk.

“I must wait quietly for the day of trouble” With a spirit of resignation for what he must do, Habukkuk will submit patiently to the will of God. God’s ways are righteous, whether they are in accord with our personal desires, or not. There came a time when Samuel the prophet was forbidden any longer to grieve over Saul (1 Samuel 16:1). God’s punishment of the incorrigibly wicked is as much a part of his eternal love and justice, as the rich rewards of his favor and blessing.

“For the coming up of the people that invadeth us” This refers to “the day when the Chaldeans attack the Israelites.”(F33) All men, including the prophet Habakkuk knew the terror of military disaster, and he immediately referred to some of the results that were sure to attend the approaching invasion.

Verse 17

“For though the fig tree shall not flourish, Neither shall fruit be in the vines; The labor of the olive shall fail, And the fields shall yield no food; The flock shall be cut off from the fold, And there shall be no herd in the stalls.”

This is a vivid description of the results of the “scorched earth” policy of the Babylonian invaders. The end result of such destruction would be starvation and death to multiplied tens of thousands of the population. Everything of value that could be transported would be carried away by the ruthless invaders, and what remained would be wantonly destroyed for the precise purpose of making the lands uninhabitable. That such a prospect was a source of great agony in the heart of Habukkuk is certain. Leaving such a pitiful lament without any further comment, Habakkuk went on to declare his joyful trust in the Lord no matter what would happen. The conclusion of this magnificent prayer-psalm reminds one of the words of Job, “Though he slay me, yet will I trust him” (Job 13:15). As Nute said, “Habakkuk’s words here are worthy to stand alongside the ’if not’ of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego (Daniel 3:18).”(F34) Such a spirit is surpassed only by the words of Jesus in Gethsemane, “Nevertheless, not my will, but thine be done!”

Verse 18

“Yet I will rejoice in Jehovah, I will joy in the God of my salvation.”

See the comment on this spirit of joyful resignation under the preceding verse (Habakkuk 3:17). Habakkuk’s love of God and loyalty to his Creator did not depend upon God’s answering his prayer in the manner Habakkuk had hoped.

The words of this response have inspired the men of all generations; and Christians, throughout history, have treasured them in moments when all earthly prospects failed, and the soul was left no alternative except that of passing through the shadow of death.

There is no more moving comment on the prime words of this prophecy, that, “The just shall live by faith,” than that which is contained in these verses. The affirmation is exquisitely and nobly worded.(F35)

Habakkuk’s unwavering faith in God is not blind. He exercised it in the full knowledge of the horrors that were to come upon his native land and the people whom he loved.

“I will rejoice… I will joy” The secret of such a response is in the object of his love, trust, and affection; it is God Himself. “The salvation” (Habakkuk 3:13) has here become “my salvation,” in prosperity and in adversity, in joy and in sorrow, in victory and in defeat.

Verse 19

“Jehovah, the Lord, is my strength; And he maketh my feet like hind’s feet, and will make me to walk upon my high places.”

“In fruitful fields and flocks men had been taught to look for the presence and blessing of God; but here is a man who can dispense with all that, who can believe where he cannot see, who loves God, not for his gifts, but for himself, who can dispense with them all if he has but him.”(F36)

“Like hind’s feet” The hind is the deer, the most sure-footed of creatures; and the figure means that no matter how rough the going gets, Habakkuk will not stumble and fall.

Thus, ends the magnificent words of this wonderful prophecy. May God indeed bless all who take time to read and meditate upon it. How precious indeed is the word of the Lord.

Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Habakkuk 3". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/bcc/habakkuk-3.html. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.
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