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Bible Commentaries

Dr. Constable's Expository NotesConstable's Expository Notes

- Habakkuk

by Thomas Constable



The title of the book is the name of its writer.

All we know for sure about Habakkuk was that he was a prophet who lived during the pre-exilic period of Israel’s history. We know equally little about his seventh-century B.C. contemporaries Nahum and Zephaniah. The meaning of his name is questionable. It may come from the Hebrew verb habaq, which means "to fold the hands" or "to embrace." In this case it might mean "one who embraces" or "one who is embraced." Luther thought it signified that Habakkuk embraced his people to comfort and uphold them. Jerome interpreted it to mean that he embraced the problem of divine justice in the world, the subject of the book. [Note: See J. Ronald Blue, "Habakkuk," in The Bible Knowledge Commentary: Old Testament, p. 1505.] The simple designation "the prophet" with no other identifying description characterizes only two other prophetical books: Haggai and Zechariah. So Habakkuk is the only book so designated among the pre-exilic Prophets. The content of the book, which includes wisdom literature and a psalm of praise, indicates that Habakkuk was a poet as well as a prophet.

The New Testament writers told us nothing about the prophet. There are traditions about who Habakkuk was that have little basis in fact but are interesting nonetheless. Since the last verse of the book gives a musical notation similar to some psalms, some students concluded that he was a musician and possibly a Levite.

"The precise relationship of the prophets with the temple is one of the most debated elements in Old Testament study." [Note: Tremper Longman III and Raymond B. Dillard, An Introduction to the Old Testament, p. 463.]

The Septuagint addition to the Book of Daniel, the apocryphal Bel and the Dragon, mentions Habakkuk in its title as the son of Jeshua of the tribe of Levi. It records a legend about him that is pure fantasy. Supposedly an angel commanded Habakkuk to take a meal to Daniel, who was in the lions’ den a second time. When the prophet complained that he did not know where the den was, the angel picked him up by a lock of his hair and carried him to the spot (Bel vv. 33-39). According to rabbinic sources, Habakkuk was the son of the Shunammite woman whom Elisha restored to life (2 Kings 4). The basis for this theory is that Elisha’ servant told the woman that she would "embrace" a son (2Ki_4:16), and Habakkuk’s name is similar to the Hebrew word for "embrace."


The major challenge to the unity of the book has come from liberal scholars who view psalmic material such as chapter 3 as postexilic. The commentary on Habakkuk found at Qumran does not expound this psalm either. However, the continuity of theme that continues through the whole book plus the absence of any compelling reasons to reject chapter 3 argue for the book’s unity. [Note: See O. Palmer Robertson, The Books of Nahum, Habakkuk, and Zephaniah, pp. 212-14.]


References in the book help us date it approximately but make it impossible to be precise or dogmatic. The Lord told Habakkuk that He was raising up the Chaldeans (Neo-Babylonians), the fierce and impetuous people who were already marching through the whole earth, and that they would expand their territory even farther (Hab_1:6). The first of the Neo-Babylonian kings was Nabopolassar (627-605 B.C.). This reference points to a time before 605 B.C. when Babylon defeated the united forces of Egypt and Assyria at the battle of Carchemish and became the major power in the ancient Near East. It may even point to a time before 612 B.C. when the Babylonians (with the Medes and Scythians) destroyed Nineveh. However other references in the book that describe conditions in Judah and the ancient Near East support a date between 608 and 605 B.C. (cf. Hab_1:7-11). [Note: See ibid., p. 37.] King Jehoiakim ruled Judah from 609-598 B.C., so it was apparently during his reign that Habakkuk prophesied (cf. 2Ki_23:36 to 2Ki_24:7; 2Ch_36:5-8). The background to Habakkuk is the decline of the Judean kingdom that began with the death of King Josiah in 609 B.C. Leon Wood dated this book more precisely at about 605 B.C. [Note: Leon J. Wood, The Prophets of Israel, p. 323.]

"On the one hand, Habakkuk announced the Babylonians’ rise to prominence as if it would be a surprise (Hab_1:5-6). . . . On the other hand, the prophecy seems to assume the Babylonians had already built a reputation as an imperialistic power (see Hab_1:6-11; Hab_1:15-17; Hab_2:5-17). . . . Perhaps the best way to resolve the problem is to understand the book as a collection of messages from different periods in the prophet’s career." [Note: Robert B. Chisholm Jr., Handbook on the Prophets, p. 433.]

Another writer believed that some of the oracles date from before 605 B.C. and others from after 597 B.C., and that the final form of the book reflects Habakkuk’s post-597 B.C. perspective. [Note: J. J. M. Roberts, Nahum, Habakkuk, and Zephaniah, pp. 82-84.]


Since the Chaldeans were on the rise when Habakkuk wrote, the prophet must have lived in Judah. The Northern Kingdom of Israel had passed out of existence in 722 B.C. with the Assyrian invasion. Thus Habakkuk was a prophet of the Southern Kingdom who lived in times of increasing degeneracy and fear.


The people to whom Habakkuk ministered were Judeans who apparently lived under the reign of King Jehoiakim. During his reign the Israelites were looking for help in the wrong places, Egypt and Assyria, in view of growing Babylonian power. They should have been looking to the Lord primarily, and their failure to do so was one of the burdens of Jeremiah, Habakkuk’s contemporary.

Habakkuk’s concerns were more philosophical, however. What disturbed him was that the sovereign Lord was not responding to Habakkuk’s evil generation and its internal injustices. He voiced his concern to Yahweh in prayer (Hab_1:2-4). The Lord replied that He was working. He was raising up a nation that would punish His people for their covenant unfaithfulness (Hab_1:5-11). This raised another problem for Habakkuk, which he also took to the Lord in prayer. How could He use a more wicked nation than Judah to punish God’s chosen people (Hab_1:12 to Hab_2:1)? The Lord explained that He would eventually punish the Babylonians for their wickedness too (Hab_2:2-20). The final chapter is a hymn of praise extolling Yahweh for His wise ways. The purpose of the book, then, was to vindicate the justice of God so God’s people would have hope and encouragement.

"Until the day God avenges the Babylonians and restores Jerusalem, the just live by faith (Hab_2:1-4), waiting with confidence for the fulfillment of I AM’s unfailing promise that the wicked will be destroyed (Hab_2:5-19) and his legitimate claim to the whole world will be universally acknowledged (Hab_3:1-16)." [Note: Bruce K. Waltke, An Old Testament Theology, p. 842.]


This book employs a variety of literary forms. The first part of the book contains a dialogue between Habakkuk and his God that alternates between lament and oracle (Hab_1:2 to Hab_2:5). The second part is a taunt or mocking song that the prophet put in the mouths of the nations that had suffered under Babylon’s oppression. It consists of five "woes" (Hab_2:6-20). The third part is a psalm, complete with musical directions (ch. 3).


"Habakkuk is a unique book. Unlike other prophets who declared God’s message to people this prophet dialogued with God about people. Most Old Testament prophets proclaimed divine judgment. Habakkuk pleaded for divine judgment. In contrast with the typical indictment, this little book records an intriguing interchange between a perplexed prophet and his Maker." [Note: Blue, p. 1505.]

"The prophet asked some of the most penetrating questions in all literature, and the answers are basic to a proper view of God and his relation to history. If God’s initial response sounded the death knell for any strictly nationalistic covenant theology of Judah, his second reply outlined in a positive sense the fact that all history was hastening to a conclusion that was [as] certain as it was satisfying.

"In the interim, while history is still awaiting its conclusion (and Habakkuk was not told when the end would come, apparently for him prefigured by Babylon’s destruction), the righteous ones are to live by faith. The faith prescribed-or ’faithfulness,’ as many have argued that ’emunah should be translated-is still called for as a basic response to the unanswered questions in today’s universe; and it is this, a theology for life both then and now, that stands as Habakkuk’s most basic contribution." [Note: Carl E. Armerding, "Habakkuk," in Daniel-Malachi, vol. 7 of The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, pp. 495-96.]

"If Zephaniah stressed humility and poverty of spirit as prerequisites for entering into the benefits of the company of the believing, Habakkuk demanded faith as the most indispensable prerequisite. But these are all part of the same picture.

"Whereas Zephaniah stressed Judah’s idolatry and religious syncretism, Habakkuk was alarmed by the increase of lawlessness, injustice, wickedness, and rebellion." [Note: Walter C. Kaiser Jr., Toward an Old Testament Theology, p. 225.]


I.    Heading Hab_1:1

II.    Habakkuk’s questions and Yahweh’s answers Hab_1:2 to Hab_2:20

A.    Habakkuk’s question about Judah Hab_1:2-4

B.    Yahweh’s answer about Judah Hab_1:5-11

C.    Habakkuk’s question about Babylonia Hab_1:12-17

D.    Yahweh’s answer about Babylonia ch. 2

1.    The introduction to the answer Hab_2:1-3

2.    The Lord’s indictment of Babylon Hab_2:4-5

3.    The Lord’s sentence on Babylon Hab_2:6-20

III.    Habakkuk’s hymn in praise of Yahweh ch. 3

A.    The introduction to the hymn Hab_3:1

B.    The prayer for revival Hab_3:2

C.    The vision of God Hab_3:3-15

1.    Yahweh’s awesome appearance Hab_3:3-7

2.    Yahweh’s angry actions Hab_3:8-15

D.    The commitment of faith Hab_3:16-19 a

E.    The concluding musical notation Hab_3:19 b


Armerding, Carl E. "Habakkuk." In Daniel-Minor Prophets. Vol. 7 of The Expositor’s Bible Commentary. 12 vols. Edited by Frank E. Gaebelein and Richard P. Polcyn. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1985.

Baker, David W. Nahum, Habakkuk and Zephaniah: An Introduction and Commentary. Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries series. Leicester, Eng., and Downers Grove, Ill.: Inter-Varsity Press, 1988.

Blue, J. Ronald. "Habakkuk." In The Bible Knowledge Commentary: Old Testament, pp. 1505-22. Edited by John F. Walvoord and Roy B. Zuck. Wheaton: Scripture Press Publications, Victor Books, 1985.

Bright, John. A History of Israel. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1959.

Bruce, F. F. "Habakkuk." In The Minor Prophets: An Exegetical and Expositional Commentary, 2:831-96. 3 vols. Edited by Thomas Edward McComiskey. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1992, 1993, and 1998.

Chisholm, Robert B., Jr. Handbook on the Prophets. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 2002.

_____. "A Theology of the Minor Prophets." In A Biblical Theology of the Old Testament, pp. 397-433. Edited by Roy B. Zuck. Chicago: Moody Press, 1991.

Coogan, M. D. Stories from Ancient Canaan. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1978.

Dyer, Charles H., and Eugene H. Merrill. The Old Testament Explorer. Nashville: Word Publishing, 2001. Reissued as Nelson’s Old Testament Survey. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2001.

Haak, R. D. Habakkuk. Vetus Testamentum Supplement 44. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 1992.

Johnson, Aubrey R. The Cultic Prophet in Ancient Israel. 2nd ed. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1962.

Kaiser, Walter C., Jr. Toward an Old Testament Theology. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1978.

Kerr, David W. "Habakkuk." In The Wycliffe Bible Commentary, pp. 871-81. Edited by Charles F. Pfeiffer and Everett F. Harrison. Chicago: Moody Press, 1962.

Laetsch, T. Bible Commentary: The Minor Prophets. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1956.

Lindblom, Johannes. Prophecy in Ancient Israel. Philadelphia: Fortress, and Oxford, England: Blackwell, 1962.

Lloyd-Jones, D. Martyn. From Fear to Faith: Studies in the Book of Habakkuk and the Problem of History. London and Downers Grove, Ill.: Inter-Varsity Press, 1953.

Longman, Tremper, III and Raymond B. Dillard. An Introduction to the Old Testament. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006.

Morgan, G. Campbell. Living Messages of the Books of the Bible. 2 vols. New York: Fleming H. Revell Co., 1912.

The New Scofield Reference Bible. Edited by Frank E. Gaebelein, William Culbertson, et al. New York: Oxford University Press, 1967.

Roberts, J. J. M. Nahum, Habakkuk, and Zephaniah. Old Testament Library series. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1991.

Robertson, O. Palmer. The Books of Nahum, Habakkuk, and Zephaniah. New International Commentaries on the Old Testament series. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1990.

Rudolph, W. Micha-Nahum-Habakuk-Zephanja. KAT 13/3. 2nd ed. Gütersloh: Gerd Mohn, 1975.

Waltke, Bruce K., with Charles Yu. An Old Testament Theology: an exegetical, canonical, and thematic approach. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007.

Wiersbe, Warren W. "Habakkuk." In The Bible Exposition Commentary/Prophets, pp. 411-24. Colorado Springs, Colo.: Cook Communications Ministries; and Eastbourne, England: Kingsway Communications Ltd., 2002.

Wood, Leon J. The Prophets of Israel. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1979.

Yadin, Yigael. The Art of Warfare in Biblical Lands. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1963.

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