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The Burden of Habakkuk
The prophecy is called “oracle” or “burden”. It is called a burden because the message Habakkuk receives is placed on his heart as a burden. He feels its weight. That burden weighs so heavily on him, that he is thrown down by it, but not in such a way that he is destroyed by it (cf. 2Cor 4:9b). The burden brings him to his knees and he brings the burden to God. We see in him the weakness of the earthen vessel in which the power of God becomes manifest (2Cor 4:7-9). We see this in the wonderful testimony to which he is brought by God’s grace in the last verses of his book.
Habakkuk is called “the prophet”. He speaks words that he must pass on to the people in the name of God. The message he has to pass on is not in words that have come to him, but is something he “saw”. Habakkuk complains about the sins of Israel and then about the sins of their enemies. What he has seen is the judgment of Israel and of their enemies.
How Long, O LORD?
This opening verse of the dialogue between Habakkuk and the LORD sets the tone for what follows in this chapter. We feel in this chapter the tension a righteous person experiences when his prayer is not answered satisfactorily or in a way that raises even more questions.
The prophecy is meant for the people. Yet Habakkuk does not address the people, but the LORD. By writing down in a book what he speaks to God, the people become involved in his prayer. He calls for help (cf. Jona 2:2) and salvation that does not come. This call is not selfish, but is related to the honor of God. How long will God endure the dishonor inflicted upon His Name? Habakkuk expresses the feelings of the God-fearing remnant of the people. He does not speak about the sins of the people with his countrymen, but with God.
His cry for help does not appear to have just begun. For a long time he has been in a situation where he calls for help. That appears from the words “how long”. He asks “how long” he has to go on calling for help before an answer comes from God. The exclamation “how long?” is an exclamation typical of a complaint. It is done in a crisis situation from which the speaker wants to be delivered and for which he asks for help (Psa 13:1-2; Psa 6:3; Psa 89:46; Jer 12:4; Zec 1:12).
Habakkuk asks God why He is not hearing. The word “hear” means that an answer is expected to what has been asked. God hears him calling, but the answer is not given. This can lead to a crisis of faith. If no answer is given to a question for help, it can raise the question of the righteousness of the questioner or of the One to Whom the question is asked (cf. Job 19:7; Job 30:20; Psa 18:41). Is one of them perhaps unjust? Habakkuk struggles with this.
Habakkuk exclaims to God that violence is being committed. He wants God to deliver him from it. He uses this word “violence” – Hebrew hamas – several times in his book (Hab 1:2; 3; 9; Hab 2:8; 17). It is a key word in his prophecy. Violence is an evil act that causes injury and damage to a person or his property.
Violence is common among God’s people. Habakkuk observes that exploitation takes place on a large scale in a cruel manner, purely for one’s own sake. He wants God to deliver from that, to take away the pressure of it. Violence is one of the main manifestations of sin. Sin can be summarized in two concepts: lust and violence. Sin has come into the world through lust: Eve coveted to be God. The second sin, as a consequence of the first, is that of violence: Cain killed his brother. When the bond with God is broken, there is no respect for what belongs to the other. Lust leads to violence. Both of these main streams of sin have caused the flood (Gen 6:11).
In the time in which we live we see the pair of lust and violence become stronger and stronger in all kinds of manifestations. The lust for certain things is followed by forcibly appropriating the coveted. This is strikingly illustrated by a young person being interviewed after a robbery of a jeweler (March 2014). He shows a certain understanding for the fact that a robbery is committed ‘in order to be able to buy something nice’. Only through repentance of sins and conversion to God, can lust and violence then be stripped of their power.
Like the question “how long?” in the previous verse, the question “why?” in this verse is a question typical of the faithful remnant. The prophet as the type of the faithful remnant wonders why he, who can do nothing about it, should see all this injustice without anyone doing anything about it, not even God. Surely God sees everything, even all the injustice and the trouble it causes, doesn’t He?
The prophet is in the midst of a people who do not take God into account. He observes a multitude of evil things that are expressions of violence. He speaks of “iniquity”, “wickedness”, “destruction and violence”, “ strife and contention”. The prophet uses three pairs of words: “iniquity” and “wickedness”, “destruction and violence”, “strife and contention”. Each word pair consists of words that are connected to each other according to their meaning. They describe the same situation, but with a different accent.
That it is not about evil in general in the world, but about the evil of God’s people, is shown by the fact that in Hab 1:5-6 God raises up the Chaldeans to chastise His people for it. “Destruction and violence” is being committed. Everyone wants to enrich himself at the expense of others. Because of this there is strife that leads to contention. There is no unity and no peace. Habakkuk feels powerless, but he knows that God is not. Why, then, does He do nothing about it?
In the church we unfortunately also see strife and contention. These arise when there is ‘iniquity’ among believers that causes ‘wickedness’. Often this is the result of domineering leaders who do not allow themselves to be corrected. They are shepherds who pasture themselves. Diotrephes is an example of this (3Jn 1:9-10). Such leaders abuse their position and act destructively and violently against anyone who does not submit to them. Such behavior does not work togetherness, but strife and contention. As a result, the church finally falls apart.
The silence of God in human affairs has always been difficult to understand. But it does not mean that there is no answer and that Divine wisdom is incapable of solving these difficulties. God sees everything and everything remains under the control of His mighty hand. This also applies to all the iniquities we see in Christianity. God does not want us to consider it small, nor does He want us to succumb to it, but to present it to Him and ask Him what He wants us to do.
The Law Is Ignored
The fragmentation of society and the cohesion among God’s people is closely related to the ignoring of “the law” and “justice”. The order in Israel is based on “the law”, while “justice” sees to it that people live according to the law (Deu 17:11). If one abides by the law and justice they process the unity desired by God. The law – Hebrew torah, the five books of Moses – almost always refers to God’s law, in which He reveals His will and directs man’s life. Justice – Hebrew mispat – implies not only the exercise and maintenance of lawful decrees, but also all functions of government that are entrusted with them.
Because sentence is not executed quickly, the law loses its authority and power over consciences (Ecc 8:11). There is a cooling of feelings towards the law. Because of this, the law no longer has an entrance in the hearts and consciences. It can be compared to hands that become unusable when they are cold. God’s law is ignored because of the spiritual coldness of people’s hearts. It is not the law, but the hard, cold heart of man.
When the law is ignored, the wicked surrounds the righteous unhindered. Justice comes out in a perverted form. The wicked fixes the righteous so that he cannot carry out the law, and acts according to his own ideas, but only in twisted form. The wicked secures the righteous so that he cannot executes justice and acts according to his own judgment, so that the law is perverted and turns into the opposite of justice (cf. Psa 82:2). This is a dramatic change in which God is completely sidelined and everything completely turned upside down.
God Is Doing Something
When Habakkuk has expressed his complaint, he gets an answer from God. This shows that God is anything but an uninterested spectator of what is happening on earth. God is going to inform Habakkuk about His reaction and promises that He will judge evil. To let Habakkuk see this, He invites him and the people of Judah to look around and to look attentively among the Gentiles what He will do.
Then they will see that the Assyrian empire is being destroyed by, among others, the Babylonians, the people He will use for His work. That work is that He will distress Jerusalem by the Chaldeans, or Babylonians, in three consecutive sieges with the ultimate result of the destruction of Jerusalem.
The order to see around means that the state of the world around them must be carefully looked at so that they will not miss anything of what is going to happen. For us, it means keeping a close eye on the current news in view of what God’s Word says about future events. They think God is doing nothing, but if they pay attention, they will see how much they are mistaken.
That they will then be astonished means that the answer to Habakkuk’s prayer is anything but predictable. The astonishment is repeated in two verb forms – astonishment and wonder – to emphasize the repeated and ultimately total astonishment that will overtake them (cf. Gen 43:33; Psa 48:4-5; Isa 29:9). When they have recovered from one astonishment, another astonishment will overtake them.
Paul quotes this verse after a preaching to warn the scoffers of the judgment (Acts 13:40-41). By “a work” he means the work of Christ for the redemption of sins for all who believe. Because it is not accepted, He Who accomplished this work will judge them. It has always been the case that man has refused to accept what God says about judgment. So it was with the deluge, with the judgment of Sodom and Gomorrah, with Ahab and Jezebel, now with regard to the judgment of Jerusalem by the Chaldeans (Jer 5:12) and also with regard to the gospel (Isa 53:1).
God Raises up the Chaldeans
Just as Isaiah describes the character of the Assyrians (Isa 5:26-30), so the LORD describes for Habakkuk the character of the Chaldeans (Hab 1:6-11). He describes the nature of this enemy, his methods and intentions, his weapons, his attitude towards others and the deepest reason for his definitive fall.
God Himself raises up this enemy to chastise His people (cf. Psa 105:25). He “raises up the Chaldeans” (cf. Jdg 2:16). In our shortsightedness, we would only see satan’s striving to destroy God’s people. But it is important to see that the LORD Himself uses satan to discipline His people. This means that we are in His hands and not in the hands of our enemies.
The LORD gives that cruel people the opportunity to march throughout the earth (Deu 28:49). This indicates the exercise of power over an unlimited area. As a result, the Chaldeans will also conquer Israel and in the land of God “to seize dwelling places which are not theirs”. With this, God’s people will receive the righteous retribution for the behavior they themselves have so often shown towards others by taking possession of the possessions of others (Mic 2:9).
Babylon Is Himself to God
Babylon’s performance is “dreaded and feared”. Babylon’s character is rooted in self-satisfaction. He recognizes no higher authority and no dependence on anyone, which is equivalent to self-deification. His only law is what he wants, what comes out of him, and that determines the norm of his actions. Babylon behaves according to rules he has drawn up for himself, considering himself to be a power accountable to no one, not to God and not to any human being.
He does not think that anyone could be higher than himself (cf. Ecc 5:7). That is his attitude from the beginning of his existence (Gen 11:4). The Babylonians do not realize that in the role they take on, they do what God wants and that He has control over them.
From a military point of view, Babylon is not lacking in anything, not in equipment and not in the greed for conquest. Everything has been prepared down to the last detail. The distance is not an objection. In raging speed they will reach their goal, because their “horses are swifter than leopards”. They arrive with a ferocity worse than that of hungry evening wolves. Once they see their prey, they shoot at it like an eagle to devour it (cf. Jer 48:40; Jer 49:22; Lam 4:19).
The cavalry of Babylon is compared to three predators, “leopards”, “wolves in the evening” and “an eagle”. These three predators are symbols of God’s judgment of Judah (cf. Jer 5:10). Wolves in the evening are hungry because of their lack of food during the day and therefore they go out for prey in the evening (Zep 3:3). When Moses tells the people what will happen to them if they are unfaithful, he speaks of a cruel people who will come to them and compares that people to an eagle. What Habakkuk says here is the fulfillment of what Moses said (Deu 28:49-50).
They come with the intention to commit violence. Violence is the sin of Israel (Hab 1:2-3). Now the people themselves will be punished with violence. The intention to commit violence drives “all of them”. It is not just a collective intention, in which there may be exceptions, but every soldier in that army is willing to commit violence. Their advance is unstoppable.
“Their horde of faces [moves] forward” indicates that they are completely purposeful, without looking back or aside, on their way. Everything which they encounter in opposition on their way to their goal, is knocked down. The number of prisoners of war that they make is innumerable as the sand.
Babylon Mocks With Any Power
The autonomy of Babylon brings him to contempt of all other governments (cf. Job 41:25). He mocks every opposition and every opponent. He acts with the greatest self-assurance, that is how sure he is of his power. Every resistance is useless and fruitless. With ease every fortress is taken. Without any effort rubble is heaped up against the wall of a city, after which they come over the wall and capture the city.
His Power Is His God
When Babylon is so busy, he will change his mind as the wind changes direction. That he passes on, means that he goes too far in his treatment of Israel. By doing so he makes himself guilty, he loads guilt on himself by overplaying his hand. In his pride he indulges in excessive violence.
Babylon makes himself guilty because he only trusts in his own power, makes his power his god. He does not take the God of heaven, the God of Israel, into account at all. He abuses the power God has given him to pursue his own interests. His desire to conquer prevails.
Habakkuk Continues to Ask
After this description of Babylon’s actions as the disciplinary rod for God’s people, the problem for Habakkuk is not gone. God’s statements about the disciplinary rod upset him completely. Rather, it has made his problem worse. Should this people, whose ungodliness is much greater than that of Israel, serve as a disciplinary rod for Israel? Surely that cannot be true?
He talks about this with God. That gives him a certain degree of peace in his tormented mind. This is an example for us. We are allowed to go to the Lord with everything we experience, with our joy and our sorrow. Then our daily experiences will lead us to get to know Him better.
Habakkuk speaks to God as the representative of his people. He speaks to God with some familiar names:
1. “The LORD” is the God of the covenant. That is He “ from everlasting”, which indicates that He is of eternity. He is the Eternal One.
2. He is “God”, Who chose His people to be His property.
3. He is the “Holy One”, Who is perfectly pure, Who cannot see or tolerate evil.
By speaking of “my God” and “my Holy One,” he appropriates these names and thus takes possession of God, as it were, in that special trial of faith. From that personal relationship with God in the knowledge of Him as the Eternal One, the Pure One and the Holy One, Habakkuk knows by faith that God’s plans will not fail. Those who believe will not die and therefore will not miss the promised blessing. The statement “we will not die” is a certainty and not a wish. Habakkuk complains, but he is not rebellious. He believes that God is righteous and sticks to His plans. He will preserve His people, despite the devastation that the Chaldeans will cause.
Here we see the government or providence of God. It is about the question of how God rules the world. Often things go differently than we expect. God is the holy God, who cannot endure sin, while sin continues and increases. On the other hand God promises to bless the righteous. But we see that the righteous suffer, that they are persecuted and oppressed. How does God’s government deal with this? The wicked ones surround the righteous. How is it possible that God allows that to happen? How is it possible that the wicked prosper and the righteous suffer?
Asaph also struggled with that problem (Psa 73:10-14). Until he entered God’s sanctuary and learned to see things from God’s perspective (Psa 73:15-16). It is all about patience and trust that God is not going out of control. It will be all right. Job also struggled with it, as we read in his book. Job argues: ‘God rewards the righteous and punishes the ungodly. I am a righteous one and yet God punishes me. How is that possible?’ His friends think they know the answer, and say that he must have sinned heavily because he suffers so much.
We see the same problem in the book of Esther, where evil also seems to prevail. God does not seem to be present, but He is there anyway. The book of Ecclesiastes is also about the government of God, in which so much is described that we cannot understand, but from which we learn that we may leave everything to Him.
From all these examples we learn that God does not allow Himself to be called to account. What we also learn is that the great answer to this problem is God Himself and that we can trust Him. Ultimately, His right will triumph. We cannot understand God, but we can trust Him. We can try to explain something to our children, but see that they don’t understand. Then we say that they are too little to understand, but that they can trust us. Leave it to Father. We have to learn to depend on God and to go our way in trust in Him.
This is always the answer of faith to things that overwhelm the believer, things over which he has no control. The righteous trusts in God Who is the Rock. He is omnipotent and unshakable. God’s intentions can be nullified by nothing and no one. Habakkuk then says in faith that the Chaldeans are “appointed to judge” and not to destroy. A disciplinary rod is to restore, not to destroy.
A father punishes his child not to kill it, but to form his character (Heb 12:10). God recognizes us as His children when He punishes us. He punishes us precisely because we are His children (Pro 3:12; Job 5:17). This is also what Habakkuk believes most deeply. Therefore, he does not allow the problem he sees to undermine his faith. His questions do not come from distrust, but from incapacity and incomprehension.
Why Does God Not Intervene?
Though there is trust, faith has its exercises when it sees that God sees such an injustice and remains silent. Habakkuk is sure that God’s “eyes are too pure to approve evil”. He knows that from the teaching of God’s Word and through his own dealings with God. The purity of God is something that is constantly taught to God’s people. In the wilderness their camp had to be pure because of the presence of the holy God in their midst. No one who was unclean was allowed to enter the sanctuary of the LORD (2Chr 23:19). Habakkuk also knows that God cannot look on wickedness with favor.
It is precisely the knowledge that God cannot see all this that causes the tormenting question of why God remains unmoved when He sees how there are people “who deal treacherously” with His people. The word “treacherously” also has the meaning of being unfaithful to appointments or agreements. It is the unscrupulous promise of something, with the intention of not keeping the promise. How can God tolerate such behavior? How can He remain silent, when He sees that “ the wicked one” serves as a disciplinary rod for someone “more righteous” than that wicked one? By “those more righteous,” is meant the believing remnant.
Habakkuk is dismayed that Babylon is so raging against the people. God gives people “like the fish” and “like creeping things” in his hand. By letting the Babylonians, for whom the life of a human being is like the life of a fish and creeping things, loose on His people, God makes the life of His people as cheap as those things. Fish are caught with a net, with no chance of escape.
Fish and creeping things are dumb, they don’t make a sound and have no right or defense, there is no one to protect and defend them. In this way they, who fall into the hands of the Babylonians, are unable to help themselves. In addition, they are “without a ruler”, which means that they lack effective leadership to organize their defense. The king who reigns over His people does not give leadership, but is only concerned with how he can save himself. It seems as if God has ceased to be their King (Isa 63:19).
The Success and Joy of Babylon
The previous verse shows Judah as defenseless fish being fished out of their land and brought to Babylon. In this verse we see the materials, the means the Chaldeans use to achieve their successes, the subjugation and extermination of peoples. They are called a “hook”, “net” and “fishing net”. The Chaldeans “ rejoice and are glad” about these means and the successes achieved by them.
The words “rejoice” and “glad” are often used in connection with worship and praise (1Chr 16:31; Psa 14:7; Joel 2:21; 23; Zec 10:7). It is not only joyfulness, but a reaction to something that is appreciated and honored. It means here that Babylon idolizes himself. He praises his material and is proud of himself for the successes he has achieved. The following verse shows even more clearly the religious homage to himself.
Tribute to the Idols
The word “therefore” links this verse to the previous one, where the idolization of his power has already been hinted at. He does not attribute his successes to God, but to his means. That is why he offers sacrifices to them. With this he idolizes those means, in which we have to think especially of his military strength (Hab 1:11). The sacrifices consist of animals that are slaughtered and sacrificed to the idols. It is a false, idolatrous worship that arises from the greatest arrogance. We have a clear example of this in the golden image Nebuchadnezzar had made of and for himself, which was to be worshiped (Dan 3:1-7).
Because of his enormous military strength, his “catch is large [or: fat]”, and his “food is plentiful”. Everything he has captured serves to enable him to live his life in luxury and prosperity. With his hook, his net and his fishing net, Nebuchadnezzar drags, among others, the inhabitants of Judah into exile to his country. To him they are a fat booty.
Does Evil Always Continue?
Habakkuk returns to his question in Hab 1:13. Can the iniquity represented in the intermediate verses always be tolerated by a God of righteousness? In his despair and defeat, the prophet asks how long the Chaldeans will be successful, without stopping them. Will he always empty his net, in which there is a rich booty, and then take new booty? Can he continue to ruthlessly subjugate and exterminate peoples? The answer will come in the next chapter.
Habakkuk asks the LORD how He can allow that to happen. He struggles with the fact that God does not intervene. After all He has the power to do so, hasn’t He? Like Habakkuk, we would also do well to bring our doubts and confusion to God and leave them with Him for a final solution.
Kingcomments on the Whole Bible © 2021 Author: G. de Koning. All rights reserved. Used with the permission of the author
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de Koning, Ger. Commentaar op Habakkuk 1". "Kingcomments on the Whole Bible". https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 7 / Ordinary 12