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Bible Commentaries
Habakkuk 1

Layman's Bible CommentaryLayman's Bible Commentary

Verse 1


Habakkuk 1:1 to Habakkuk 2:5

Title (1:1)

Along with the other prophetic books and separate sections within these books, the Book of Habakkuk has been given a title by the editors of the prophetic canon of the Old Testament. This title names the prophet and defines his prophetic work without answering many of the questions which we should like to have answered. All that is available is the mere name Habakkuk; no setting for his work and no personal history of the prophet have been passed on by the editors of the prophetic books.

Habakkuk’s work is described as "the oracle of God which . . . the prophet saw." The word "oracle" (the phrase "of God" has been added in the English version) is literally "burden," a word frequently used to describe the prophetic message. Though the idea of an actual burden was a part of the prophet Jeremiah’s understanding of his message (see Jeremiah 23:33-40), the term is generally a stereotyped expression added by an editor to characterize the work of any prophet. In Habakkuk’s case the word "burden" would seem appropriate for the prophet’s own complaint, but in fact it is used to represent the divine message which the prophet "saw" (another stereotyped expression) in answer to his complaint.

Verses 2-4

The Prophet’s First Cry (1:2-4)

The prophet begins his complaint by addressing a series of questions to God (Habakkuk 1:2-3) and by describing briefly the situation in which he finds himself (Habakkuk 1:3-4). In the complaints and descriptive passages it is clear that he does not speak for himself alone, but as a representative of a people oppressed and surrounded by the wicked. Though the words for "wicked" and "righteous" are singular in the Hebrew, the Revised Standard Version is correct in reading them as collectives, involving groups of people in both cases. The use of such collective expressions is common throughout the Old Testament.

Speaking for the oppressed among his people, the prophet asks how long his call for help will go unanswered and why he must continue to see violence and trouble with no one to deliver the victims. Strife and contention arise before his eyes, and worst of all, "the law is slacked" and justice does not issue as the end of the various legal contentions. Instead, "the wicked surround the righteous," and the cases they institute are wrongly decided for their own benefit.

At this point conditions under Jehoiakim may be reflected in the prophet’s words. The "wicked," then, would be the princes and the king himself, against whom Jeremiah raised his voice (Jeremiah 25:1-27). The "violence," the "strife and contention," are within Judah. The "law" is God’s law, perhaps that which had recently been rediscovered in the time of Josiah (2 Kings 22-23) and which is generally recognized to have been Deuteronomy or a major part of it. Some sort of reaction against the reforms of Josiah must have taken place during the reign of Jehoiakim to provoke the language of Jeremiah and the questions of Habakkuk. But the language of Habakkuk is not so specific as to prevent its application to many similar situations when the just order of a society is perverted by a wicked leadership. For every such time Habakkuk voices the perplexity of the faithful.

Verses 5-11

The Oracle Concerning the Chaldeans (1:5-11)

In response to the prophet’s complaint there comes an oracle from God which directs the prophet to look beyond the borders of his people at the astounding work which God is doing. It is to this section and to the second oracle that the title of the book, "oracle" or burden, properly belongs, though it may be noted that the arousing of the Chaldeans is nowhere specifically said to concern the people of Judah or to provide for the punishment of sins committed by the people of God. The oracle provides a descriptive interpretation of the events of the time before the Chaldeans actually invaded Palestine. It is the declaration of verse 6, "For lo, I am rousing the Chaldeans," which makes clear the prophetic character of the passage.

The projected work of the Lord is a thing which would not be believed; it is something to be wondered at. The verbs (as in Isaiah 53:1) suggest the astonishment and near disbelief of people unprepared for the sort of work being accomplished by God. As the remainder of the passage indicates, it is the character of the Chaldeans, not only the fact that God rouses them, that is the occasion for astonishment.

The Chaldeans are described in unique language as "that bitter and hasty nation." Though they were probably no more fierce than the Assyrians, whom they succeeded as masters of the world, the rapidity with which they built their empire makes the latter word appropriate. It is to their swift action in conquering the world in a short period of time that the figures of verses 8-10 refer. In poetic language the prophet endows their horses with fantastic capabilities.

The terror provoked by the aroused Chaldeans is suggested in verses 7, 9, 10, and 11. Together these verses give the impression that the Chaldeans acknowledged no law but their own, and that they worshiped their own strength. The descriptive expression "guilty men" of verse 11 is an effort to make the best of a difficult Hebrew text. The description of a terrifyingly swift conqueror, who has no particular concern for the rights of the conquered, is clear from the passage. It is this character of the Chaldeans, whom God is arousing, which is to astound the onlooker. As with Jeremiah, evil appears within the people and around the people. With Habakkuk, however, the oracle declares that the rousing of the bitter and hasty nation is performed by God himself.

Verses 12-17

The Second Complaint (1:12-17)

Speaking for the people a second time, the prophet addresses God with a further complaint. In it he appeals to the being and character of God, and from this perspective he reviews the circumstances which God seems now to be permitting, asking why God does not end the injustice.

The second complaint begins with a question which affirms belief in the distinctive existence of God. The initial question looks back to the existence of God as early as the mind of man can reach. The expression, "We shall not die," is one of the so-called "corrections of the scribes." The original Hebrew of this phrase would have been "Thou shalt not die," a proper affirmation of God’s continued existence. Early scribes, however, felt that even this affirmation implied some doubt, so they changed it to the innocuous reading of the text. The prophet further characterizes God as "my Holy One" and in verse 13 refers to his purity. God, he alleges, cannot look upon wrong.

The second half of verse 12 addresses God as "Lord" and a: "Rock," declaring that he has ordained "them" as a judgment an( for chastisement. Some commentators have argued that this descriptive statement belongs properly to one of the oracles and no to the complaint, since it provides a clue to the purpose of the arousing of the Chaldeans. But such an interpretation does not ii fact deal with the heart of the problem which engaged the attention of Habakkuk. The prophet and his people would no doubt have welcomed the punishment of the wicked oppressors of the poor among the people of Judah, assured that God had arrange( for it, for they understood God’s character as a righteous judge But the problem of Habakkuk is clearly expressed in verse 13, and in the light of the conception of God who provides for judgment and chastisement as expressed in the latter part of verse 12, the problem is all the more pointed. How can the God of righteous judgment and chastisement permit the wicked and the faithless to swallow up "the man more righteous than he"? The prophet speaks for the relatively innocent victims of Judean oppression faced with the prospect of sharing the chastisement of their oppressors. And thus he speaks for the humble victims of man’s in humanity to man in all ages.

In verse 14 the prophet continues to address the Lord, but from this point onward he directs his attention more specifically to the situation in which his people find themselves. His description of that situation is entirely figurative to the end of the complaint. In the first place, he complains to God that men have been reduced to the leaderless condition of the fish of the sea and of crawling things. Instead of being rulers of the lower forms of life as they were intended to be (compare Genesis 1:26; Genesis 1:28 and Psalms 8:5-8), men are now disorganized and are the victims of the rapacity of the wicked.

Habakkuk’s references to the "net" and "seine" (it has been suggested that the "hook" is an addition) are apparently a description of the grasping tyranny of the Chaldeans and of the luxury in which they lived as a result of their conquests. (See a similar reference in Jeremiah 16:16-18.)

The reference to sacrifices to the net and the burning of incense to the seine (Habakkuk 1:16) has been understood as figurative language for a cult of military weapons or of the war gods Marduk, Adad, and Ishtar. It is the idolatry of the wicked and their blatant opposition to the Lord which disturbed Habakkuk. Can God let this go or forever? The prophetic complaint speaks for the relatively innocent victims of oppression and of warfare.

Bibliographical Information
"Commentary on Habakkuk 1". "Layman's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/lbc/habakkuk-1.html.
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