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The Burden of Habakkuk
"The burden which Habakkuk the prophet did see" ( Hab 1:1 ).
This is the way of the Bible. It is the way of personal testimony. It is the way of individual experience. Habakkuk has not come to comment upon himself, but to tell us what he himself "did see." If prophets and preachers and teachers would do this the world would soon be religiously awakened. What are we apt to do? To deal in photographs. Here is a photograph of what our fathers believed three hundred years ago. What have I to do with that? I look at it, form an opinion about it, and ask about the life of this day. You do not like your own old photographs. You were pleased with them at the time when they were taken, and you generously gave some of them away to your friends, and now you scarcely identify them, and you beg your friends to allow you to replace them with something better. Yet you have photographed the creed of three hundred years ago, and you worship it like a fetish. Why do you not tell us what you have seen, what you feel? We do not want the photograph of the man as he was when he was a child, we want him to-day, his own personality, to stand before us and talk to us the language of the day, and delight us with the recital of his immediate consciousness of God and experience of life. This is the genius of the Bible. We do not find that the men rise up with great anxiety to conform themselves to lines which somebody else laid down a thousand years before; the prophets, man after man, come forward and say, "I saw." Very good; what did you see? Write the biography of your soul; tell us what happened between you and God when you were locked up together in confiding conference. That will do us good. Your ink will be blood; we have had pale ink enough, we now want the vermilion of the heart. But if you do not happen to conform to the testimony which somebody else has borne? So much the better. God is not the God of monotony. But if your testimony should be unique? God be thanked. At present one man is so much like another that we cannot tell which is which. We want uniqueness of religious testimony, poignancy of religious emphasis; we want men who believe something, and who state it, and explain it, and who are prepared to drop it immediately that the true revelation comes to claim the occupancy of the mind and heart. We carry our religion like a load. It does not grow in us, it is not part of ourselves. When we want to know what it is we go to the library. Any religion that is kept on the bookshelves can be stolen. Lay up for yourselves faith where thieves cannot break through nor steal. Have an experience of your own; compare it with the experience of others, either for its confirmation or its expansion, or for its possible adaptation to best uses. Prophet after prophet has come before us in this People's Bible, and each man has come to tell us not what some other man saw, but what he himself beheld and handled of the word of life.
Habakkuk conducts a kind of dialogue, and if the paradox may be allowed it seems to be a dialogue mainly on his own side. To call it a monologue would be hardly correct. He talks to God; he has it out with God; he plies God with sharp questions. He will have practical matters attended to; he says, Lord, this is evil; how did it come to be in thy universe, thou fair One, whose face is beauty, whose voice is music? He could not write a long prophecy in that strain. Jesus Christ could not be a minister more than three years; Habakkuk can only write his three chapters. He was no magician in the elaboration of sentences; every sentence in Habakkuk was itself a Bible. There is no such book in all the canon as Habakkuk. The very word means strong embrace. He gets hold of God, and throws him in the gracious wrestle. He will not let God go. On the one side he represents pessimism or despair as it never was represented before, and on the other he rises to heights of faith which even David did not attain with all his music. We shall find sentences in Habakkuk that leave all the prophets and minstrels of the Old Testament far away down in the clouds, whilst Habakkuk himself is up beyond the cloud-line, revelling in morning light.
He begins with the dark outlook: "O Lord, how long shall I cry, and thou wilt not hear? even cry unto thee of violence, and thou wilt not save!" He apparently forgot that other men had been crying. When a man is praying he must pray all out of his own heart; if he adopt the words of others he must so adopt them as to make them part of himself. We are afraid of egotism; the prophets were not; we are little men, they were great men. "O Lord, how long shall I cry?" not how long shall Moses and all the great prophets of after ages cry, but how long shall I be kept praying when I might receive an answer instantaneously? Why delay the reply? I have cried until my eyes are tears, and my voice is but a hoarse whisper; I can hardly cry any more. This is natural impatience; this is man as he is in his true estate. Man wants to be getting on; the Lord rests in eternity. We cannot tell why he delays, but his delay is goodness. We have lived long enough ourselves to see some outline of that fact. Habakkuk saw only the outside; he saw the violence and the iniquity and the grievance, the strife and the contention, saw only the foam at the top; he did not know why the water boiled so, he did not understand the ministry of conflict; it lay beyond his ken to see how disinfection requires certain processes, and how we have to outgrow ourselves by continual war within and without. There must be an interior view. Even if we had no revelation upon this point, we must, if we receive the first notion of God, come to the conclusion that there is another view than that which is external. John Stuart Mill was right there. He said, If there is a God, he is not almighty, or he would put an end to war and pain and death and trouble of every kind. How difficult it is for a man to be both a logician and a philosopher; how difficult to be both an edge and a point, or a point and an edge. If one view only could be taken of the circumstances which we sum up under the name of providence, and if that view were wholly an external one, such criticism would be just. We can but say to all such young men, Your eyes are blind; and say of them, Lord, open their eyes that they may see. The Lord opened the eyes of the young man, and he came to the old prophet, and he saw that within the range that was occupied by horses and chariots and men of war there was a cordon of angels, a circumference of light. If we can only see the outside, what right have we to pronounce upon the interior? It is enough for us to know that there is an interior view, that God takes it, and that all things are working according to a fixed and unchangeable plan, and that in reality, however much we may be appearing to do, we are doing nothing; we cannot finally resist or turn aside the purpose of heaven.
Habakkuk had a good understanding of his own times. That is precisely what the Church has not; that is, I am afraid, precisely what ministers have not. They have a wonderful understanding about the early centuries; they could discuss themselves into exhaustion by talking over the fourth century. We have nothing to do with the fourth century; to all intents and purposes that century is dead and gone; we want to know about our own century, our own immediate tragedies and necessities. He is not a learned man who lives in the fourth century. I want a learned ministry, but it must be learned in the human heart, learned in human sorrow, learned in the arts and wiles of the devil. I do not want the learning that is archaic and mouldy, but the learning that seeks to illumine and liberate souls this day.
How did Habakkuk state his case? "Therefore the law is slacked"; literally, Therefore the law is chilled. Derivatively, Therefore the law is paralysed. To this condition hast thou brought society, thou deified Indifference! Such would be the apostrophe of ignorance, bordering on blasphemy. Yet from the eternal point of view there is no other criticism to be pronounced. Things do look dark as against the idea of providence. Facts seem to contradict the proposition that there is a God, there is a government, there is a throne, there is a Cross, there is a Spirit of Righteousness, there is a Holy Ghost. Look those facts in the face; but always beware of the sophistry of facts. Wise men handle facts very charily, because they have had every reason to distrust them in the past. As we have often seen, facts are little anecdotes, small occurrences, things that really were, taking the word in its Latin derivation, done; but when looked at in their isolation give false impressions, and false scents to the inquisitive mind, and mislead the Church, and betray its best wisdom into the most inexcusable folly. Have nothing to do with facts, until you have set them in such a relation that they enlighten one another, explain one another, and get into the right perspective and colour; then they pass from the region of fact into the larger region of truth. Truth is larger than fact; parable is larger than occurrence. He only knows the history of his country aright who has read it in the pages of philosophical fiction. We want atmosphere, colour, relation, apocalyptic intermingling of things; and then, without being able to cite the so-called fact, we atmospherically and sympathetically know all that has occurred. It is true that the law in the days of the prophet was chilled or paralysed; is it any better to-day? Not a bit. The law is chilled still slack, chilled, paralysed, in many instances. The law has been turned into a beast of burden; the law has been hired by the long purse; the law has been kept at bay by social dignity and social influence. But by the force of Christian ministry and Christian teaching the law in this country is gradually claiming its proper sovereignty, and it will crush with perfect quietness, with perfect dignity, the plutocratic devils that have sought to pervert it to their own uses. We shall see God in many an event; we shall see the far-spreading wickedness of some cut down, and levelled with the dust; meantime, let prophets cry, and shout out in prayer as if in agony; they disturb not God's eternity, nor does their impatience turn his righteousness into impotent clamour. Stand still, and see the salvation of God. If you are yourself right you shall come out of your difficulties triumphant. Not if you meddle, and unlawfully and foolishly interfere, but if you hide yourselves in the pavilion of God, if you are half-dead you shall live, and if you have one foot in ruin it shall be taken out, and both your feet shall stand on the rock of prosperity. Let us recognise facts, and also let us recognise truth, history, experience, and abide in the sanctuary of God.
Now the cry is: "Behold ye among the heathen, and regard, and wonder marvellously: for I will work a work in your days, when ye will not believe, though it be told you." The word "believe" is a keyword in this prophecy. Habakkuk is the prophet of faith; at last he will sing a song that David would have paused in his harp-playing to have heard; he will entrance the heavens by his triumphant music. The people will not believe the miracles that are being worked in their own day. There are men who would almost die for miracles that were wrought thousands of years ago; there are other men who work themselves up into great perfervidness, amazing distress of mind, in defence of miracles that occurred twenty centuries before they were born. The one thing the Lord cannot get men to do is to believe in the miracles of their own day. There are miracles being worked to-day in abundance, and yet we are standing antagonistically in reference to one another, and calling one another heretics because of a certain relation to miracles that occurred five thousand years ago. O blind men! stupid minds! fools to let the King pass by whilst we are talking about his appearances a millennium since! Who has eyes to see, let him see; who has ears to hear, let him hear. Every day is a new Bible; every event is a new miracle. The ages roll on to the music of miracles. We will be literalists instead of spiritualists; we will bind ourselves down to things that seem to be wrought for us, instead of taking paper and pen, and writing swiftly the things that God is now doing. By this time the Bible would have been larger than the world, if we had recorded the interpositions of God, the miracles of Christ, the triumphs of the Cross.
What is this wonderful work that God is going to do in the days of the prophet? He is going to "raise up the Chaldeans." Read the description:
"For, lo, I raise up the Chaldeans, that bitter and hasty nation, which shall march through the breadth of the land, to possess the dwellingplaces that are not theirs. They are terrible and dreadful: their judgment and their dignity shall proceed of themselves" ( Hab 1:6-7 ).
See what they do in Hab 1:9 and Habakkuk 1:10 :
"They shall come all for violence: their faces shall sup up as the east wind, and they shall gather the captivity as the sand. And they shall scoff at the kings, and the princes shall be a scorn unto them: they shall deride every strong hold; for they shall heap dust, and take it."
God raises up the enemy; Gods sends the pestilence; God tells the wolf to go out and bite the flock; God fills the air with destruction. He is not afraid to say so. All this means that we are governed upon central principles, that conduct is the touchstone, and that by our life we make the world what it is even from the divine standpoint. Blessed be God for opposition. We are made by conflict; we are chastened and perfected by depletion and sorrow. Thank God for all the unanswered questions in the mind. There are those who would have no questions unanswered. What a world it would be to live in if there were no interrogatories that lay beyond our imagination. Questions serious, profound, practical are as the shore-line; they mark the termination of the land. We would have them answered, and we can only answer them by drowning ourselves in the great ocean. Questions are inspirations; questions are humiliations; questions are invitations. We should die without questions hard questions, insoluble, obstinate, mocking questions; they keep us at the right point, subdue us into the right spiritual condition, and yet promise us that by-and-by all that is necessary for us to know shall be revealed. We shall have questions under our review, when our time is no longer broken up by sin and pain and sorrow and night; for in the higher school there is no night, it is all working time, and as for sorrow and sighing, they will have fled away. When we ask God to account for the mysteries of his providence he turns away from us as we would turn away from impertinent inquirers. Life is so made, account for it as we may, that it can only be developed, strengthened, chastened, purified, perfected by daily suffering.
How does Habakkuk get rest? He gets rest by a right view of God: "Art thou not from everlasting?" The very word soothes and comforts the troubled soul. Given a life seventy years long, and oh the trouble, the disquiet, the discomfort, the unrest, the questioning, the practical atheism; but given a conception of eternity, and the billows roll themselves into harmonic peace, and become elements of controlled strength. What time we are afraid we should hide ourselves in the years of the Most High. When we think everything is going to ruin we should invoke the genius of eternity. This brings us to an illustration often employed, but always useful. The earth lies on one side within the limits of geography, on the other it enters into the mystery of astronomy. As a measurable globe it is full of inequalities; it has great warts upon its face called mountains, it has great delvings in its side called valleys, it is punctured with immense caves. Nothing can be more irregular than the surface of the earth; but taken up into astronomic motion, where are the great mountains, caverns, valleys, inequalities? Where are they? Lost, when the world is swung like a censer around the central fire. So it is with us. What mountainous difficulties we have, what cavernous troubles, what beatings of the sea upon our little shore, what shakings of the hills! That is the geographical view: but caught up in the wider gravitation, and made part of a grand solar system, inequalities there are none, velocity smooths them all out, and the higher relations settle into unity and beauty and music, things that were aberrant, eccentric, and unmanageable. Blessed God, so it shall be in the winding up of all this little scheme of things. We talk of Chaldeans, invasions, wars, troubles, commotions, earthquakes, pestilences, forgive the babble of thy nursery children. When we are men, and clothed with light, we shall look down upon this elementary criticism as almost bordering upon profanity; but we shall recover ourselves, and say, In the days of our ignorance God winked at our folly, but now in the days of our manhood we will say, He hath done all things well.
Holt, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty, heaven and earth are full of thy glory. Who is holy as the Lord? The heavens are not clean in thy sight, nor are the angels guiltless of folly. Yet hast thou said unto us by thy Son, Be ye holy, as your Father in heaven is holy. Who can attain? who can apprehend? We are dust and ashes; we are a wind that cometh for a little time and passeth away: how can we be perfect with the perfectness of God? But thou hast sent unto us thy Holy Spirit that he may take of the things of Christ and show them unto us, that he may dwell in us, that he may sanctify us wholly, body, soul, and spirit, and make us beautiful as a palace built for God. The blood of Jesus Christ thy Son cleanseth from all sin: by that blood we become a holy Church, without spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing; glorious Church. Help us daily in this upward direction; strengthen every good resolve; help us to resist every temptation; may we know the enemy, his wiles, his persistence, his strength. Comfort us with the assurance that he that is with us is more than all that can be against us: thus may our courage be sustained, thus may we be saved from despair. Teach us that growth is imperceptible, assure us that we may be growing in grace without ourselves fully knowing it; may we cling the more closely to Christ because of our weakness, may we tarry within the shadow of the Cross. Save us from ourselves, from trust in our own power, which is as a cloud driven by the wind; lead us to repose completest faith upon God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. Encourage us; let some beam of sunshine fall upon the loneliest path; let some word or tone of music come to the addest heart. May the weakest soul say, in the power of the Holy Ghost, hat from this moment he will be better. The Lord hear the oath, and seal it in heaven. Amen.
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Text Courtesy of BibleSupport.com. Used by Permission.
Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Habakkuk 1". Parker's The People's Bible. https://www.studylight.org/
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