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On the Look Out
"I will stand upon my watch, and set me upon the tower, and will watch" ( Hab 2:1 ).
This was the conclusion of asking questions of the most painful and distressing kind. Here then is a lesson for all time. A strong-headed man like Habakkuk, whose very name suggests, etymologically, "strong embrace of God," has his questions; he is puzzled and perplexed by the whole play of things: the tragedy seems to have no beginning, no key, no end. Habakkuk therefore puts his questions "Art thou not from everlasting?" Then why this contention, collision, confusion? Why this universal misery? Art thou not of purer eyes than to behold iniquity? Why then dost thou look on when the wicked man eats up, devours that is the word swiftly and cruelly shuts his jaws upon the man that is more righteous than himself? Why dost thou make us, as if in mockery, like the fishes of the sea, yea, as the creeping things, that have no ruler over them a wild and furious democracy of disorder? Other questions he puts. Thus he tortures himself, until he says, Away with you! I will stand, I will watch, I will wait. Etymologically, Habakkuk says he will stand as a servant stands. Everything depends upon the spirit of our standing. There be fine critics who stand, and the Lord takes no notice of their posture; he allows them to stand until they drop down dead: he has nothing to say to the merely intellectual vanity of criticism. Habakkuk will stand as a servant. The attitude is indicative of reverence, expectancy, willingness to respond. What a stoop there is in the attitude, even though it be upright to the eye; There is a line of inclination which God sees even in the upright attitude, and in that line he sees condescension, homage, obedience. They who stand so are refreshed by their standing the exercise gives them further strength; it is not a position of exhaustion, but a self-recruiting position, and whilst it is being exhibited and realised, time is nothing. Philosophy has tried to humiliate time; philosophy has laughed at both time and space; in some of its most audacious moods philosophy has denied both. Philosophy has always been struggling to be almost religious. It is difficult for a metaphysician to be flippant. He deals with shadows, symbols, ghostly typologies, and beginnings of things. He lives where he wants great silence, or the line of his thought will be broken, and he shall have his many pains for nothing. But this is a religious emotion which destroys time and space and labour, and seizes but one grand thought Immortality. Philosophy is vexatious; religion is calm, and is, being calm, tranquillising in its effect upon the soul.
"I will stand and watch": literally, I will spy out. There is a microscopic gaze as well as a telescopic survey. The telescope is proud; it admits nothing but planets and solar systems into its sanctum of vision. Right proud lenses are they that are in the telescope: suns may look at themselves in such mirrors, but little things, tiny specks, animalcular life, such cannot come within the dignity of the telescope. But they have their mediums, instruments; they have their microscope, and to the microscope they all come forth at once, saying, with the thunders and the lightnings, Here are we also, part of thy household, thou great Father of every life. Habakkuk says, Not the telescope now, but the microscope. I will spy out little things; or, I will have an instrument made that can see the very least things at a distance. Great religious enthusiasms are not tramelled by your mechanical limitations, or pestered by your little metaphorical consistencies. Great religious emotion says, I will combine the telescope and the microscope; I will have a binary instrument of some sort, and it shall show me not the great only but the little, not the little only but the great; I will sweep horizons, and read the story of the grass blade.
Habakkuk will stand therefore on what the mariner calls the look-out. When you have been to sea you have observed men at the front of the vessel who were apparently doing nothing but walking across the ship backward and forward; looking now and then furtively; but they were doing a special and necessary business, namely, looking out. When the layman looked out he saw nothing; the skilled mariner, the trained eye looked, and rang a bell. We have looked after the ringing of that bell to see what the ringing meant, and the horizon was all grey, dull, without one broken line upon it; but presently after a few more throbbings of the engine there was a tuft of steam in the far distance, or a sail; it was that the man on the look-out saw, and when he saw it he announced the event to those who were in charge of the vessel. Habakkuk says, I will be on the look out to-night; I will sit up all through the darkness and I will watch, because at any moment there may be a vision. God's stars sometimes come forth suddenly, and I cannot tell when they may appear; I will therefore look out. The world sleeps the prophet is spying, peering, watching, searching the horizon for signs of coming devastation or dawning light. Bless God for the prophets. They have a hard time of it; it must have been agonising to have been taken up and made a prophet. It is better within given limits to be commonplace, to buy and sell and get gain, and live by the hands. All this fancy life, this discipline that comes through a fiery imagination, this horrible power of seeing the unseen, and this maniac madness of telling men that there are things in front of them which it is impossible for them to discern, this should be the preacher's life. He should always be ten years ahead of everybody; so far ahead as to be called foolish, mad, eccentric, absurd, raving; and yet he should have such patience, the very quietness of God, that when he hears men say seven years after that he was right, he should simply smile at their tardiness. He knows that he is right. But for this consciousness the prophets could not have lived: it could not have been an easy thing to have been called a madman seven times a day.
When the Lord did speak to Habakkuk he delivered a brief discourse which ought to constitute the first lesson, the middle and the last lesson of every Christian preacher. We need no book of lectures so long as we have these words:
"And the Lord answered me, and said, Write the vision, and make it plain upon tables, that he may run that readeth it. For the vision is yet for an appointed time, but at the end it shall speak, and not lie: though it tarry, wait for it; because it will surely come, it will not tarry. Behold, his soul which is lifted up is not upright in him: but the just shall live by his faith" ( Hab 2:2-4 ).
Writing has a function. Fasten this thing down in words; the words will be very poor to him who reads words only, but they will be full of intellectual stimulus, suggestion, wealth, to him who sees in every letter a thought, in every shadow a variety of high colour. We must have a book. No one man can write it all. It must be a book of letters in our mother tongue, and if there be in it no contradictions, swift, sharp collisions, suspect it suspect it! Any man can make a smooth surface; the very poorest mechanic that ever shouldered a bag of tools can make a fair show on the outside. A kitchen table looks much more respectable than a forest: there is an evident respectability about the one, there is a ruggedness about the other; there are caverns and dark places that might house lions and tigers about the other. God's Bible is full of cavernous recesses, tangled jungles, and cataracts of names we cannot remember two moments together; and yet, reading it all, and reading it all at once, it falls into harmony and music, as the world becomes quite beauteous when swung with astronomic force around the central fire. The earth is geographically about as rough as it can be, there is hardly space upon it to sit down on with any comfort; but caught astronomically, swung round the sun, they say it is beautiful even to shining. You can deal with the Bible geographically or astronomically; fool is he who never rises to the astronomic use and vision of revelation. "Make it plain upon tables." There must be some very plain words in revelation; the presence of these plain words will make the presence of other words almost contradictory and offensive; for we say now and again, as we read the vision, "That is plain; why is not all as plain as that?" Through and through the Bible there are short sentences, definite lines, as to the scope and meaning of which there can be no mistake, and then on the next page there is nothing but cloud, sometimes breaking a little as if in calculated mockery, and then closing so suddenly as to constitute a frown. It is to be written so plainly that he may run that readeth it, or he may read it that runneth. Make your statements to suit the people to whom you make them. If the young preacher will heed that he will be wise as Solomon to the end of his ministry. So write as to suit the age, the occupations of the men that are round about you. Are the men leisurely? Are they enjoying so much of this world's goods that they can take time so easily? Then you may write accordingly. Are they in haste, are they swiftly passing to and fro, is it a moment and no more here gone? Who shall preach to that swift-moving age? The man who can photograph instantaneously, the man in whose every sentence is a condensed Bible, the man of swift heart-speech. Yet there are those little Habakkuks who will not do this; they will only write for one kind of people, and that kind of people they can never persuade to pay the least attention to them. They will write for the absentees; they will answer the people who have never spoken, and they will set up objections which their own hearers never imagined; they will offer prizes for amateur infidelity.
The vision does not come true all at once, and you may have to wait for a long time. We have to wait the appointed time. Everything is calculated. God is the timekeeper. You can hasten nothing, you can stop nothing: God reigneth. When he wants you at the front no man can keep you back, and when he does not want you at the front you cannot even force yourself into conspicuousness. O that men were wise, that they understood these things, that they would believe that everything is settled for them every soul a plan, every day a divine study, every soul a divine care: "O rest in the Lord, and wait patiently for him, and he shall give thee thine heart's desire." It is not in life to disappoint the expectation that is just, the expectation that is reverent and grateful. God's words are seeds; they are immediately blessings, and they are harvests in promise. In all the Bible there is something to be going on with just now; there is an immediate feast, and yet the feast on which we now regale the soul is but a dim outline of that banquet which shall last throughout eternity.
God then rebukes a certain class of the community, saying, "Behold, his soul which is lifted up is not upright in him." God is against all swollenness, vanity, self-exaltation, self-trust So are you, if you have learned the lessons of experience. God is in these respects but man infinitised. Thus God speaks of himself, "Like as a father" but a father multiplied by infinity; like as a mother, but a mother that represents ideal womanhood. So the Lord will not have the self-exalting man. Find a young man who is going to do everything, who thinks that he can manage all things easily, so much so that he need never pay the faintest attention to them; find a boy who laughs at examinations, who calls them "exams.," and then thinks that they are done; find a man who is going to arrange and settle everything, and you find a man who will one day be about the poorest looking creature you ever saw drenched through and through on the top of a hill. It comes to this always. All bounce is condemned. Find a young life that says, I will try: I am rather afraid I shall not be able to do it all at once, but I will do all I can; let that be the frank, sincere speech of a childlike heart, and it comes to honour, and none can keep it back from the wages of merit. Humility is always crowned, not mock-humility, but sincere self-distrust, that peculiar quality of self-distrust which says, If this has to be done I must do a great deal of it when nobody is looking at me; I will wait until all the others retire, and then I will have two hours to myself, and see if I can manage it. That man shall be crowned and envy cannot hinder the coronation, nor calumny destroy the fair fame that is built on reason and on industry.
"The just shall live by his faith." We do not get the full force of these words. The greatest annotators upon the Hebrew text assure us that the words, "shall live" mean shall live eternally. There is immortality then in the Old Testament. We have had this sentence in the negative in the first chapter, in the twelfth verse; Habakkuk says, "We shall not die." Believe the higher emotion and not the merely critical pedantry of men. The soul is only its very self now and then, but in that now and then it sees God's word, it realises God's promise, it is what God meant it to be. Here is a man in times that we call pagan who stands up and says that we shall not die; and on what does he base this challenge to death? On God's own everlastingness; there is quality touching quality: "Art thou not from everlasting, O Lord my God, mine Holy One? We shall not die." "The just shall live by his faith": the just shall never die; the just may be regarded as immortal. There must be immortality in the Old Testament; if there is little of it literally it may be because there is so much of it assumptively; instead of looking upon it as a thing to be argued, it is the one thing that is beyond controversy.
There is a meaner life, there is a life that must die:
"Woe to him that increaseth that which is not his! how long? and to him that ladeth himself with thick clay! [Felicitous contempt, delicate scorn, satire all sting! Think of a man lading himself with thick clay! This is what men do who serve mammon only: their cry is all day, More, more, more clay, more covering!] Shall they not rise up suddenly that shall bite thee, and awake that shall vex thee, and thou shalt be for booties unto them? Because thou hast spoiled many nations, all the remnant of the people shall spoil thee; because of men's blood, and for the violence of the land, of the city, and of all that dwell therein. Woe to him that coveteth an evil covetousness to his house, that he may set his nest on high, that he may be delivered from the power of evil!" ( Hab 2:6-9 ).
God will not have these high nests. You know it. When you were young, what you were going to be! What adornment and finery and vanity and presumption! Now that you are a wrinkled old woman tell us what life really is; tell us what you would be and do if you had the chance to begin again. And when you came from school to college, you remember, you were going to trample down everybody and set everything right, and now that you are a disappointed old grey-beard, tell us what is life: how would you do if you had to start once more? Where is the girl that was simple, frank, self-distrustful, industrious, almost silent, and absolutely without pretence? She is crowned among the mothers of Israel. Where is the young man that began at the bottom, and went up and said, I am afraid I am getting almost too high now: what am I in my father's house that I should have this elevation? Where will he end? In heaven. Here is your choice then: the life of the just, or the life of the clay-gatherer; the life of holiness, or the life of covetousness; the life that will have nothing that reason cannot explain and conscience justify and merit claim, or the life that will have a high nest without working for it and without climbing to it. It need be no Habakkuk who can forecast the future of men now. The Bible has, if we have inhaled its true spirit, made us all prophets. Show me a man, and I will tell you his end; not by my own sagacity, but by reading God's Book and watching the issues of divine history. Has Habakkuk anything evangelical about him? Does he ever in all this faith-life of his touch the very highest line of vaticination? He does; he says, "The earth shall be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea." Oh, that is a great evangelical song! God's will be done: thy kingdom come: thy will be done on earth as it is done in heaven.
What is the end of all Habakkuk's waiting and watching and spying out? This:
"The Lord is in his holy temple: let all the earth keep silence before him" ( Hab 2:20 ).
It is the Lord's doing; he setteth up, he pulleth down; he is indeed watching the wicked man devouring the upright, but presently he will lock his jaw, and send him away into everlasting darkness. The wicked man is doing menial service in God's house, and is showing that nothing can hinder the triumph and coronation of the righteous. "The Lord is in his holy temple: let all the earth keep silence before him." The wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God: you do nothing by all your exclamation and fury and protection of the truth and watching lest anybody should injure the ark of God. Away with it! God will take care of his own ark; God will defend his own truth; God will bring forth the judgment of the just like the morning; yea, he shall set it on high like the glory of noontide. If religious men cannot be quiet, what men can enter into the mystery and the joy of tranquillity? Everything is settled, foreappointed, arranged. In that faith I live. Therefore no man can make me afraid. Your bitterest enemy cannot take one hair out of your head more than God counts and looks after and permits to go. And when the right time comes he will show you his purpose. You will first be humbled by the vision, and then you will ask for eternity in which to give sufficient praise.
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Text Courtesy of BibleSupport.com. Used by Permission.
Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Habakkuk 2". Parker's The People's Bible. https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 9 / Ordinary 14