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Bible Commentaries
Habakkuk 1

Dr. Constable's Expository NotesConstable's Expository Notes

Verse 1


The writer described this book as an oracle that Habakkuk the prophet saw in a vision or dream. This burden (Heb. massa’, something lifted up) was a message predicting judgment on Judah and Babylon.

"Habakkuk’s prophecy possesses a burdensome dimension from start to finish." [Note: Robertson, p. 135.]

We know nothing more about Habakkuk with certainty than that he was a prophet who also had the ability to write poetry (ch. 3).

"Like Haggai and Zechariah in the books that bear their names (Haggai 1:1; Zechariah 1:1) Habakkuk is called the prophet. This may mean that Habakkuk was a professional prophet on the temple staff . . ." [Note: F. F. Bruce, "Habakkuk," in The Minor Prophets, p. 842. Johannes Lindblom, Prophecy in Ancient Israel, pp. 208, 254, advanced this view. ]

These temple prophets led the people in worshipping God (cf. 1 Chronicles 25:1). [Note: On the subject of prophets who led the people in worship, see Aubrey R. Johnson, The Cultic Prophet in Ancient Israel.]

"One of the functions of temple prophets was to give responses to worshipers who came seeking divine guidance: when the problem was stated, the prophet inquired of God and obtained an answer." [Note: Bruce, p. 832.]

Verse 2

In prayer the prophet asked Yahweh "how long" would he have to call for help before the Lord responded (cf. Habakkuk 2:6; Exodus 16:28; Numbers 14:11). God hears all prayers because He is omniscient, but Habakkuk meant that God had not given evidence of hearing by responding to his prayer. He had cried out to the Lord reminding Him of the violence that he observed in Judah, but the Lord had not provided deliverance (cf. Genesis 6:11; Genesis 6:13; Job 19:7). Normally where "justice" (Heb. mishpat) and "violence" (hamas) are in opposition in the Old Testament, as here, the wicked are Israelites unless they are clearly identified as being others (e.g., Exodus 23:1-9; Isaiah 5:7-15). God had apparently not heard, and He certainly had not helped the prophet.

Verses 2-4

A. Habakkuk’s question about Judah 1:2-4

This section is a lament and is similar to many psalms of lament (e.g., Psalms 6:3; Psalms 10:1-13; Psalms 13:1-4; Psalms 22:1-21; Psalms 74:1-11; Psalms 80:4; Psalms 88; Psalms 89:46; cf. Jeremiah 12:4; Zechariah 1:12).

Verses 2-20


The prophet asked Yahweh two questions and received two answers.

Verse 3

Habakkuk wanted to know why Yahweh allowed the iniquity and wickedness that he had to observe every day to continue in Judah. Destruction, ethical wrong, strife, and contention were not only common, but they were increasing. Yet Yahweh did nothing about the situation.

"Violence" (Heb. hamas) occurs six times in Habakkuk (Habakkuk 1:2-3; Habakkuk 1:9; Habakkuk 2:8; Habakkuk 2:17 [twice]), an unusually large number of times for such a short book. The Hebrew word means more than just physical brutality. It refers to flagrant violation of moral law by which someone injures his fellowman (e.g., Genesis 6:11). It is ethical wrong, and physical violence is only one manifestation of it. By piling up synonyms for injustice, Habakkuk stressed the severity of the oppression.

"This is not an instance of the earthen vessel finding fault with the potter who made it-an attitude rebuked by Isaiah and Paul. It is to the one who answers back in unbelief that Paul says, ’Who indeed are you . . . to argue with God?’ (Romans 9:20). But there are others who answer back in faith; their words, when they do so, are the expression of their loyalty to God." [Note: Ibid., p. 844.]

Verse 4

Since God had not intervened to stem the tide of evil, as He had threatened to do in the Mosaic Law, the Judeans were ignoring His law. They did not practice justice in their courts, the wicked dominated the righteous, and the powerful perverted justice. These conditions were common in Judah.

It is clear from the Lord’s reply that follows that others in the nation beside Habakkuk were praying these prayers and asking these questions. The prophet spoke for the godly remnant in Judah.

Verse 5

The Lord told Habakkuk and his people (plural "you" in Hebrew) to direct their attention away from what was happening in Judah to what was happening in the larger arena of ancient Near Eastern activity. They were to observe something there that would astonish them and make them marvel. They would see that God was doing something in their days that they would not believe if someone just told them about it.

"The Apostle Paul, quoting from the LXX on this verse, applies the principle of God’s dealings in Habakkuk’s day to the situation in the church in his own day (Acts 13:41). No doubt God’s work of calling the Gentiles into his church would be just as astonishing as his work of using the Babylonian armies to punish Judah." [Note: David W. Kerr, "Habakkuk," in The Wycliffe Bible Commentary, p. 873.]

Verses 5-11

B. Yahweh’s answer about Judah 1:5-11

Though God had not responded to the prophet’s questions previously, He did eventually, and Habakkuk recorded His answer. The form of this revelation is an oracle.

"The hoped-for response to a lament (cf. Habakkuk 1:2-4) would be an oracle of salvation, but here the response is an oracle of judgment." [Note: David W. Baker, Nahum, Habakkuk and Zephaniah, p. 52.]

Verse 6

The Lord urged the prophet and his people to see that He was in the process of raising up the Chaldeans as a force and power in their world. The name "Chaldeans" derives from the ruling class that lived in southern Mesopotamia and took leadership in the Neo-Babylonian Empire. The last and greatest dynasty to rule Babylon was of Chaldean origin. Thus "Chaldean" was almost a synonym for "Babylonian." The Chaldeans were Semites, descendants of Kesed, the son of Nahor, Abraham’s brother (Genesis 22:22). Some modern Iraqis, especially those from southern Iraq, still identify themselves as Chaldeans. The Neo-Babylonian Empire began its rise to world domination with the accession of Nabopolassar to the throne of Babylon in 626 B.C. This aggressive king stimulated the Babylonians to become a ruthless and impetuous nation that had already marched through the ancient Near East and conquered several neighboring nations (cf. Ezekiel 28:7; Ezekiel 30:11; Ezekiel 31:12; Ezekiel 32:12). Thus Babylonia would be the rod of God’s punishment of Judah as Assyria had been His instrument of judgment of Israel.

"The seventh-century prophets depicted the Lord as the sovereign ruler over the nations." [Note: Robert B. Chisholm Jr., "A Theology of the Minor Prophets," in A Biblical Theology of the Old Testament, p. 415.]

Verse 7

Many nations feared the Babylonians, who were a law unto themselves. They lived by rules that they made rather than those that were customary at the time. Similarly the Third Reich called error truth and right wrong to suit its own purposes.

"If God’s people refuse to fear him, they will ultimately be compelled to fear those less worthy of fear (cf. Deuteronomy 28:47-48; [sic] 58-68; Jeremiah 5:15-22)." [Note: Armerding, p. 503.]

The Jews of Habakkuk’s day did not believe that God would allow the Gentiles to overrun their nation (cf. Jeremiah 5:12; Jeremiah 6:14; Jeremiah 7:1-34; Jeremiah 8:11; Lamentations 4:12; Amos 6). Yet their law and their prophets warned them that this could happen (cf. Deuteronomy 28:49-50; 1 Kings 11:14; 1 Kings 11:23; Jeremiah 4; Jeremiah 5:14-17; Jeremiah 6:22-30; Amos 6:14).

Verse 8

The military armaments of the Babylonians were state of the art. Their horses, implements of war in the ancient world, were the swiftest, faster even than leopards, one of the fastest animals in the cat family (hyperbole?). They were more eager to attack their enemies than wolves (cf. Jeremiah 5:6). Their mounted soldiers swooped down on their enemies as fast and unsuspected as an eagle (or vulture) plummeting from the sky to devour a small animal on the ground (cf. Jeremiah 5:17; Lamentations 4:19). All three of these animals that God used for comparison with the Babylonians were excellent hunters, fast and fierce.

Verse 9

The Babylonians loved violence. The faces of their warriors showed their love for battle as they moved irresistibly forward in conquest. They were as effective at collecting captives from other countries as the sirocco winds from the East were at driving dust before them (cf. Jeremiah 18:17; Ezekiel 17:10; Ezekiel 19:12; Jonah 4:8). This enemy was advancing like a whirlwind and gathering captives as innumerable as the sand.

Verse 10

The kings and rulers of the lands they overran were no threat to them. They laughed at them and their fortified cities in contempt (cf. 2 Kings 25:7). They heaped up rubble to conquer fortifications; they did not need special machines but used whatever they found to build siege ramps to conquer them (cf. 2 Samuel 20:15; 2 Kings 19:32; Ezekiel 4:2; Ezekiel 21:22; Ezekiel 26:8-9). [Note: See Yigael Yadin, The Art of Warfare in Biblical Lands, pp. 17, 20, 315.]

Verse 11

The Babylonians would sweep through the ancient Near East like the wind and pass on from one doomed nation to the next. Yet Yahweh promised to hold them guilty because they worshipped power instead of the true God. This is the reason God would judge them.

God may seem to be strangely silent and inactive in provocative circumstances. He sometimes gives unexpected answers to our prayers. And He sometimes uses strange instruments to correct His people. [Note: See D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, From Fear to Faith: Studies in the Book of Habakkuk and the Problem of History, pp. 15-18.]

Verse 12

Power was not Habakkuk’s god; Yahweh was. The Lord’s revelation of what He was doing in the prophet’s day brought confidence to his heart and praise to his lips. With a rhetorical question, Habakkuk affirmed his belief that Yahweh, his God, the Holy One, was from everlasting (or antiquity). The implication is that Yahweh is the only true God and that history was unfolding as it was because the God who created history was in charge of events (i.e., sovereign).

Habakkuk believed the Judeans would not perish completely because God had promised to preserve them forever (2 Samuel 7:16). The prophet now understood that Yahweh had appointed the Babylonians to judge the sinful Judeans. The God who had been a rock of security and safety for His people throughout their history had raised up this enemy to correct His people, not to annihilate them.

Verses 12-17

C. Habakkuk’s question about Babylonia 1:12-17

This section is another lament (cf. Habakkuk 1:2-4). It expresses the problem of excessive punishment.

Verse 13

Because Yahweh was the Holy One, Habakkuk knew that He was too pure to look approvingly at evil nor could He favor wickedness. This was a basic tenet of Israel’s faith (cf. Psalms 5:4; Psalms 34:16; Psalms 34:21). But this raised another, more serious, problem in the prophet’s mind. Why did the Lord then look approvingly on the treachery of the Babylonians? Why did He not reprove them and restrain them when the Babylonians slew people who were more righteous than they?

The prophet’s first question (Habakkuk 1:2-4) arose out of an apparent inconsistency between God’s actions and His character. He was a just God, but He was allowing sin in His people to go unpunished. His second question arose out of the same apparent inconsistency. Yahweh was a just God, but He was allowing terrible sinners to succeed and even permitted them to punish less serious sinners. These questions evidenced perplexed faith rather than weak faith. Clearly Habakkuk had strong faith in God, but how God was exercising His sovereignty baffled him.

"It is one thing to face the problems that confront everyone who believes in a good and omnipotent God and ask why things are so, or how they can be so. It is something quite different to question the Divine goodness or justice, or the very existence of God, simply because one cannot answer these questions." [Note: Kerr, p. 875.]

Verse 14

Habakkuk asked the Lord why He had made people like fish and other sea creatures that apparently have no ruler over them.

"This statement probably represents the prophet’s most pointed accusation against the Almighty. In recognizing the sovereignty of God among the nations, he must conclude that God himself is ultimately behind this massive maltreatment of humanity." [Note: Robertson, p. 162.]

Big fish eat little fish, and bigger fish eat the big fish. The same thing was happening in Habakkuk’s world. Babylon was gobbling up the smaller nations, and Yahweh was not intervening to establish justice.

Verses 15-16

Babylon was like a fisherman who took other nations captive with hook and net and rejoiced over his good catch. Earlier the prophet compared the Babylonians to hunters (Habakkuk 1:8). Babylonian monuments depict the Chaldeans as having driven a hook through the lower lip of their captives and stringing them single file, like fish on a line. [Note: W. Rudolph, Micha-Nahum-Habakuk-Zephanja, p. 211.] This was an Assyrian practice that the Babylonians continued. In another Babylonian relief, the Chaldeans pictured their major gods dragging a net in which their captured enemies squirmed. [Note: T. Laetsch, Bible Commentary: The Minor Prophets, p. 326.] The Babylonians even gave credit to the tools they used to make their impressive conquests rather than to Yahweh (cf. Habakkuk 1:11). They had as little regard for human life as fishermen have for fish. That God would allow this to continue seemed blatantly unjust to Habakkuk.

"Idolatry is not limited to those who bring sacrifices or burn incense to inanimate objects. People of position, power, and prosperity often pay homage to the business or agency that provided them their coveted status. It becomes their constant obsession, even their ’god.’" [Note: Blue, p. 1512.]

Verse 17

Habakkuk concluded his question by asking the Lord if the Babylonians would continue to carry on their evil practices without sparing anyone. Yahweh’s policy of not interfering with Babylon’s wickedness baffled Habakkuk more than His policy of not interfering with Judah’s wickedness. It was Yahweh using a nation that practiced such excessive violence to judge the sins of His people that Habakkuk could not understand.

Bibliographical Information
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Habakkuk 1". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/dcc/habakkuk-1.html. 2012.
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