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Notes on the Prophecy of Habakkuk
One of the shortest books of Scripture-the prophecy of Habakkuk-contains important truth which no reverent student of the Word of God can afford to overlook. Brief as it is, it is directly referred to, or quotations made from it, a number of times in the New Testament.
The great apostle to the Gentiles is particularly partial to it, finding in it the inspired authority for the fundamental doctrine of justification by faith, and the certainty of judgment to come upon all who reject the testimony of the Holy Ghost as to the Lord Jesus Christ. Compare Acts 13:40, Acts 13:41 with Habakkuk 1:5; and Romans 1:17; Galatians 3:11; Hebrews 10:38 with Habakkuk 2:4. There is evidently, likewise, very close connection between Habakkuk 3:17, Habakkuk 3:18 and the 4th chapter of the Epistle to the Philippians. As it is purposed to look carefully at these passages in the course of our study, they can be passed over now.
Of Habakkuk personally very little is known. Like John the Baptist, he is “the voice of One,” himself hidden; though the exercises of his soul are vividly portrayed in his vigorous and soul-stirring prophetic poem. Jewish tradition asserts that he was of the tribe of Simeon, and he is commonly supposed to have been contemporary with Jeremiah during the latter part of “the weeping prophet’s” ministry. His book would seem to evidence this, as it was written in view of the Chaldean invasion. Of his birth or death we have no record. He is said to have remained in the land when the mass of the people were carried away by the triumphant armies of Nebuchadnezzar.
The form of the book is that of a dialogue, and the structure is exceedingly simple. Habakkuk, oppressed by a sense of the prevalence of iniquity, unburdens his heart to Jehovah, who in grace answers the cry of His servant. The true divisions are easily found. Chap. 1:l-4 gives the prophet’s complaint. Vers. 5-11 are the Lord’s answer. From ver. 12 to ver. 17 we have Habakkuk’s remonstrance. Ver. 1 of ch. 2 stands by itself. There is no immediate reply to the cry with which the previous chapter was concluded. In vers. 2 Timothy 4:0 the Lord goes far beyond the prophet’s thoughts, and predicts the final bringing in of blessing through Messiah: meantime “the just shall live by his faith.” The actual response to the remonstrance of chap. 1 is given in vers. 5 to 8. The balance of the chapter would seem to be prophetic ministry. Having been made to know the end of the Lord, His servant delivers His word to four classes who walk not in His ways. A woe is pronounced upon each of them: the covetous, vers. 9-11; the unrighteous, vers. 12-14; the intemperate and shameless, vers. 15-17; and the idolatrous, vers. 18-20. Chap. 3 concludes with the prayer of Habakkuk, and is one of the most precious and sublime portions of Old Testament Scripture.
While having its primary application to Israel and Babylon in the dark days following the cut-ting-off of Josiah (the same period covered by the major portion of Jeremiah), this book contains solemn and important principles applicable to all the Lord’s people, and to all seasons. “Written for our learning,” we may well ponder its searching chapters listening like the prophet himself, “to see what He will say unto us, and what we shall answer when we are reproved.”
That God should thus deign to meet the longing cry of His servant’s heart, is for our encouragement and cheer. He regardeth the cry of the humble, but “the proud He knoweth afar off.” “The meek will He guide in judgment; the meek will He teach His way.” Unquestionably, the paramount reason why we get, as a rule, so little out of God’s word, is because of the appalling lack of self-judgment and brokenness before its. Author, so prevalent on every hand. Pride, haughtiness, and self-sufficiency, resulting in headiness and wordy strife, abound on all sides, coupled with grave moral laxity and inability to try the things that differ. True-hearted subjection to God and His Word is very little known or regarded.
In great measure it has been forgotten that there must be a right moral state to enter into the things of God, for “spiritual things are spiritually discerned.” Consequently, carnal, self-complacent Christians, walking as men, are often found seeking to make up for lack of genuine, Spirit-given ministry by receiving or listening to empty platitudes or expressions (true and precious enough in themselves) learned by rote, and given out in a mechanical, parrot-like manner, instead of waiting upon God until His voice is heard in the soul, exercising the conscience of hearer and speaker alike.
In a day like the present, when “of the making of many books there is no end,” it is very easy for any person of average intelligence to acquire a fair mental acquaintance with the truths of Scripture, and to pose, in the presence of less instructed or unspiritual persons, as an oracle of divine wisdom, when in reality the holy eye of God sees nothing but vain conceit and self-sufficiency in it all.
Truth learned by others in deep exercise in the school of God, is often retailed out to admiring crowds of worldly Christians and Christless professors, incapable of true, godly discernment, by men who themselves have known little or nothing of its power in their own souls, or of that subduedness before God consistent with the teachings they set forth.
Especially will this be found to be the case in regard to the teaching of Scripture as to the Church. How many today talk glibly of the one Body and the unity of the Spirit, who do not appear to have a particle of real concern because of their practical denial of that truth by identification with unscriptural and sectarian systems, where the Head of the Church is in practice disowned, and the Holy Spirit is refused His true place; while a human system of clergy and laity takes the place of the divine order laid down in the book of God!
Many doubtless know Jesus as Saviour, and the Holy Ghost as the earnest of their inheritance, who have never learned to truly own Christ as the Church’s one Head, and the Holy Spirit as the controlling power in the assembly. With large numbers this is unquestionably the result of ignorance, and the Great Shepherd of the sheep will take into account the lack of instruction and the faulty teaching in that day of manifestation, now so near at hand, when “we must all appear before the judgment-seat of Christ.” But, alas, by how many among us can this be pleaded? Knowledge is even boasted of when there is no corresponding concern as to the existing conditions in the house of God, and latitudi-narianism and independency are the order of the day. It is godly exercise that is so sadly lacking, which accounts for the indifference to Christ and the truth everywhere evident.
In Habakkuk we see the very opposite of all this. He is a man deeply exercised both as to the state of his people-yea, his own state and the ways of God in government. Nor can he rest in quietness until he has the mind of the Lord as to it all. His book, therefore, is of special value in our degenerate and Laodicean times, characterized by what another has designated as “high truth and low walk.” It strikingly portrays the working of spiritual sensibilities, and the divine answer to the same, in a man of like passions with ourselves, as each chapter will make manifest.
The Prophet’s Perplexity
The opening verses of the first chapter set before us the deep exercises of the prophet’s soul on account of the fallen estate of the nation of Judah, dear to his heart, not only because they were his people, but because he knew them to be Jehovah’s peculiar treasure; now, alas, so defiled and marred by sin.
“The burden which Habakkuk the prophet did see. 0 Lord, how long shall I cry, and Thou wilt not hear! even cry unto Thee of violence, and Thou wilt not save! Why dost Thou show me iniquity, and cause me to behold grievance? for spoiling and violence are before me: and there are that raise up strife and contention. Therefore the law is slacked, and judgment doth never go forth: for the wicked doth compass about the righteous; therefore wrong judgment proceedeth” (vers. 1-4). In a few graphic touches he depicts, as by a master hand, the various evils afflicting the unhappy nation. He takes no delight in thus portraying the sins of those so tenderly loved. It is into the ear of God, not of man, that he pours his complaint. For long he has been crying to Him; and now, overwhelmed with a sense of the hopelessness of recovery, he appeals to Jehovah in accents fraught with deepest anguish and concern. Could it be that his prayer was to go unheeded? If not, how long must he supplicate ere the Lord gave evidence that He had heard and was about to interfere?
He felt, as many another has done, that it were better not to see the evil than to see it only to be burdened thereby, finding no remedy for the state that so distressed his sensitive soul.
There is grave danger, in the present disordered condition of Christendom, that one who is able to see things in the light of the word of God may be similarly affected. Some there are who, quite conscious of the lapsed state of the Church, and aware of the unholy influences at work, can yet be supremely indifferent to it all; manifesting thereby their lack of real heart for what so intimately concerns the glory of God and the welfare of His saints. Others, whose eyes have been anointed and whose consciences have been exercised by the Holy Spirit, are in danger of being unduly oppressed and disheartened by the rising power of the mystery of iniquity. Quick to see dishonor done to Christ and departure from the truth on the right hand and on the left, they are oppressed in spirit by the seemingly irremediable and distressing conditions prevailing.
Needless to say, both are wrong. Indifferent, no truly exercised soul could or should be. But disheartened none need be; for all has been long since foreseen and provided for. It was so with Israel: it is so with the Church. No failure on the part of man can avail to thwart the purposes of God.
In regard to Judah, the greatest danger was from the spirit of strife and contention prevailing among the people, giving rise to spoiling and violence. As a result, the law was ignored, and judgment miscarried. The wicked were in high places, and perverted statutes proceeded from them.
It was surely enough to bow the soul before God, not as one competent to pass sentence upon others, but as one who was a part of that which had so grievously failed. This is where Habakkuk is found. He was one of them that sighed and cried for the abominations done in what had once been the holy city.
Nor does Jehovah ignore His servant’s cry; but He answers him, telling of the chastisement He had prepared for the instruction of His disobedient and rebellous people. “Behold ye among the heathen, and regard, and wonder marvelously, for I will work a work in your days, which ye will not believe, though it be told you” (ver. 5). This is the verse quoted by Paul at Antioch of Pisidia, when warning the Jews of the danger to which they were exposed if they neglected the gospel of Christ (Acts 13:40, Acts 13:41). There, the work so wondrous, in which none would believe though it be told them, was the work of grace wrought out on Calvary’s cross. In the Lord’s reply to Habakkuk’s entreaty, it was His strange work of judgment. Though it seem to be unbelievable, He was raising up the Chaldeans -”that bitter and hasty nation”-to “march through the breadth of the land, to possess the dwelling-places that were not theirs.” Terrible and dreadful, carrying out what they thought were but the purposes of their own hearts, they should come up with their vast and irresistible armies against Jerusalem, like the eagle hastening to its prey! They should be permitted to override all the power and dignity of Judah; as a result of which they would be lifted up in pride, imputing their power unto their false gods. In such manner Jehovah was about to deal with His wayward people (vers. 6-11).
Is there not for us a weighty lesson in all this? Of old, in regard to the Egyptians, we are told that God “turned their heart to hate His people” (Psalms 105:25). In our short-sightedness we might only have seen the energy of Satan’s power; but it was the Lord that used even Satan to chasten His people. So here: He it is who brings the armies of Nebuchadnezzar to the gates of Zion!
And has He not dealt in a similar manner with the Assembly? It is customary to bewail the divisions and the distressing state of Christendom, and particularly of those who have learned the truth as to the Church. But are not these very things the evidences of the Lord’s discipline? He loves His people too well to allow them to prosper and remain a united company when pride and worldliness have usurped the place of humility and the pilgrim character. So He permits the power of Satan to work, and the result is dispersion and scattering. How this should call for confession and brokenness on our part! In Habakkuk’s case, he was amazed that God should so deal with the sheep of His pasture as to give them into the power of the wild beast of the nations. Discipline and chastening he knew were deserved, but he is astounded when he learns who the agent of their punishment is to be. But at once he turns again to the Lord, pouring out his prayer into His ear. “Art Thou not from everlasting, O Lord my God, my Holy One? We shall not die. O Lord, Thou hast ordained them for judgment; and, 0 mighty God, Thou hast established them for correction” (ver. 12). His faith is very simple, and very beautiful. They were in covenant-relation with the everlasting One, who “will not call back His words.” Therefore, however sorely they might be afflicted, it could never be that they should utterly be cut off. Corrected in measure they must be, but cast off forever they could never be without violating the sure mercies of David.
But that so evil a nation should be the instrument in the Lord’s hand for the punishment of His wayward people, passes the prophet’s comprehension. “Thou art of purer eyes than to behold evil, and canst not look on iniquity,” he rightly declares; but then asks, in perplexity, “Wherefore lookest Thou upon them that deal treacherously, and holdest Thy tongue when the wicked devoureth the man that is more righteous than he?” (ver. 13). He goes on to recite the cruelties and iniquities practised by the Chaldeans; their inhumanity, and their gross idolatry; for of the latter Babylon was the mother. If permitted to take Judah in their net, will they not give the glory to their own prowess, and to their false and revengeful deities? How can so perverse a people be Jehovah’s agency? It is what has perplexed more than Habakkuk-the toleration and use of the wicked to further the counsels of God.
The chapter closes without an answer; but in the next a reply is given that is altogether worthy of God, far transcending the prophet’s highest thoughts, and leading to abasement of soul in His holy presence.
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Ironside, H. A. "Commentary on Habakkuk 1". Ironside's Notes on Selected Books. https://www.studylight.org/
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