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Sunday, July 14th, 2024
the Week of Proper 10 / Ordinary 15
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Bible Commentaries
Habakkuk 2

Layman's Bible CommentaryLayman's Bible Commentary

Verse 1

Preparation for the Lord’s Answer (2:1)

In response to the second complaint comes a vision for the prophet to record (Habakkuk 2:2-5) after he has announced that he is stationing himself as a lookout "on the tower" (Habakkuk 2:1) to see what answer he may have concerning his complaint.

Whether Habakkuk’s words indicate his own decision at this point to seek a revelation from God at a particular tower (of the Temple?), or whether they provide the setting for the composition of the whole episode of complaints and revelatory oracles, can only be conjectured. The expression "what I will answer concerning my complaint" raises another problem: Is the "I" an indication of the prophet’s representative character as spokesman for the people of God and as spokesman for God to the people, and hence of a mediatorial role, or is it a mistake in the text for which only the Syriac translation provides the correct reading, "He will answer"? The question cannot be answered with certainty, and it is actually of small concern.

Verses 2-3

The Lord’s Answer (2:2-3)

The Lord’s answer begins by directing the prophet to write the vision plainly upon tablets, "so he may run who reads it." We are given no indication of the nature of the tablets, whether of wood, stone, or clay, or of the size of the writings. What is important is that the vision be easily read and understood, and that it be preserved to the certain time of fulfillment. The full significance of the reader’s running and the timing of the fulfillment are difficult to discover. Either the vision is to be such as will send the reader on the run toward the hastening fulfillment, or, as many commentators prefer, the vision is to be so clearly read — like a billboard — that even a runner may read it without pausing. The vision is also one that awaits its time, hastening certainly to its end but seeming to be slow and to require patient waiting.

In spite of all the possibilities raised by the superficially simple language of the introduction to the vision, it is clear that the prophet and his readers are to expect a direct oracular statement from the Lord which will answer his complaints, resolve the uncertainties of the moment, and provide a basis for patience during a period of waiting before the "end."

Verses 4-5

The Vision (2:4-5)

What follows is a "vision" only in the sense of a prophetic message from God, which could range from the simple "word of the Lord" (1 Samuel 3:1) to the graphic visions of Daniel (Daniel 8:1 and following). The vision granted to Habakkuk combines a word of assurance to the faithful and words of warning to the arrogant and greedy. Uncertainties in the text make the precise meaning of the lines of the vision difficult to determine, but the combination of assurance and warning is entirely clear.

The warnings concern him "whose soul is not upright" (Habakkuk 2:4), "the arrogant man," and those — evidently the Chaldeans — whose greed leads them to collect "all nations" (Habakkuk 2:5). Perhaps the oppressive Jews of Habakkuk’s time are included among the "not upright" and the "arrogant." The reference to the treachery of wine (the Qumran commentary has "wealth" for wine) is not clear, since the parallel line is obscure; both lines appear to refer to the heady effect of overpowering greed demonstrated in the insatiable conquests of the Chaldeans or in the oppressions of Jerusalem’s nobility during Jehoiakim’s time. Even the warning is not clear, since the word "shall fail" of verse 4a is a conjecture; its actual content is left for the woes of 2:6-19.

The heart of the message of Habakkuk is found in the half verse (Habakkuk 2:4) which directs attention to the righteous. As at Habakkuk 1:4 and Habakkuk 1:13 the word "righteous" must be taken in the relative sense it commonly has in the Old Testament. "The righteous" is the man who "speaks truth from his heart; who does not slander with his tongue . . . and does not take a bribe against the innocent" (Psalms 15:2-5). Habakkuk does not evidence the awareness the Apostle Paul had of the impossibility of achieving a righteousness acceptable to God. The God-fearing oppressed man and the sympathetic prophet of pre-exilic Hebrew times applied this term to themselves as believing men, or men of the Covenant.

Use of Habakkuk’s words by the Apostle Paul has somewhat obscured the message of assurance for the believing righteous of the period just before the fall of Jerusalem. Paul’s use of the term "faith" as the acceptance of God’s gracious work in Christ and as personal commitment to Christ goes far beyond the meaning of Habakkuk’s word. With Habakkuk faith means "faithfulness," as the marginal note indicates. When the oracle from God declares that the righteous shall live by his faith, the righteous believer is to understand that the means of his continued life through difficulty and oppression is to be his steadfast effort to maintain his righteousness and to avoid the behavior for which a divinely approved disaster is stored up. His behavior, then, is an effort to avoid the sort of thing indicated in the woes which follow. God did not grant Habakkuk or the oppressed believer of ancient Israel a complete answer to the burdensome question; instead, the ancient believer was asked to continue steadfast in the effort to obey the ethical aspects of divine instruction. The divine oracle promises life through such steadfastness and faith. Such is the answer to the prophet’s complaints.

Verse 6


Habakkuk 2:6-20

The Viewpoint of the "Woes" (2:6)

At the end of the divine oracle the prophet or an editor introduces the series of five stanzas of threats against those who have prospered in their wickedness. The first half of verse 6 is a question which ascribes the series of woes to the peoples referred to in verse 5, who will one day be in a position to deride their former oppressors. Thus, in the actual setting of the book the series of taunts appears to be the language of oppressed believers rather than of God. Unlike the long taunt poem of Nahum (Nahum 2-3) where the Lord himself speaks (Nahum 2:13; Nahum 3:5-6), the taunts of Habakkuk express only the point of view of a human observer who is a believer in the Lord.

Verses 6-8

The Taunt Against the Cruel Plunderer (2:6-8)

The first "woe" is directed against the plunderer, but it concerns two specific areas. The first expression is general, pronouncing a woe to one "who heaps up what is not his own" and continuing with a specific reference to a local oppressor who "loads himself with pledges." Before the end of the stanza, however, attention is redirected to a world power which has "plundered many nations." In the taunts, as in the dialogue with God, this twofold concern appears, on the one hand with oppression within the Judean state and on the other with oppression from a foreign power.

The two aspects of oppression can be distinguished some of the time, but in the third and fourth woes they merge into single statements. Any effort to separate an original form of the woes from a reworking of them is doomed to failure.

The Judean oppressor may well be Jehoiakim, whose building operations were condemned by Jeremiah (Jeremiah 22:13-17), but the foreign oppressor appears to be Assyria rather than Babylon, whose plundering of the nations was just beginning in Jehoiakim’s time.

For both the oppressive creditor at home and the plundering world power the woe pronounces a definite doom: retribution. For the one, it is the debtors who will suddenly arise, and for the other, "all the remnant of the peoples shall plunder you." In either case the retribution is a direct result of the ill will produced by the oppression. God is not mentioned, and presumably he only permits the retaliation. The taunt anticipates the human reaction.

Verses 9-11

The Taunt Against the Greedy Builder (2:9-11)

The second taunt is directed against one who has used evil gain for the building of his house, and again the oppression of Judean by Judean (Jehoiakim?) merges into the oppression of God’s people by foreigners (Chaldeans or Assyrians?) who have cut off "many peoples." In either case the house that has been built with evil in an effort to reach earthly security will itself "cry out" against the evildoer. Again the principle of retaliation is strongly stated, though the means of retaliation is expressed through figurative language. Even the "cutting off [of] many peoples" will be matched by a forfeit of life (vs. 10). What is said rests upon a strong sense of justice, but it is not explicitly said that this is the action of God.

Verses 12-14

The Taunt Against the Guilty City Builder (2:12-14)

The third taunt is directed against one who founds and builds a city with blood-guilt (compare Micah 3:10), that is, after military conquest of an area or after an assassination. No historical allusion can be detected.

Having uttered the word of woe, the prophet-poet indicates his belief that people of the various nations will not forever allow themselves to be used for the vanity ("naught") of their leaders. But it is also the prophet’s belief that the attitude found in the peoples is "from the Lord of hosts."

The final declaration of the third taunt is a somewhat modified quotation of Isaiah 11:9. It is an attempt to set forth an attitude opposite to that of the iniquitous builders of cities: for the righteous it remains certain that in the future the earth "will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord," an all-encompassing blessedness the very opposite of the "fire" and "nothingness" for which the peoples of the nations have been forced to work. It is thus not according to the purpose of God that towns should be built with blood and that the nations should weary themselves to no avail. All such efforts, the reader must understand, will fail; only the glory of the Lord lasts to fill the earth.

Verses 15-17

The Taunt Against One Who Makes His Neighbors Drunk (2:15-17)

The fourth "woe" concerns one who leads his neighbors into drunkenness and immodesty. Like the first two taunts it sees the fitting punishment in terms of humiliation and disgrace like that he has caused. The text of this taunt is somewhat confused, but the meaning is not obscured by the difficulties which exist. The taunt describes the evildoer as one who enjoys the humiliation of his neighbors when he can make them drunk; "his wrath" is not anger against the neighbors, but ill will, the desire to see them humiliated. Such an attitude may appropriately be ascribed either to an individual in the community or to a nation in relation to other nations.

Retaliation in the form of similar humiliation comes from the Lord’s right hand, and instead of glory the evildoer will find shame. "Glory" is to be understood as "reputation"; the oppressor’s reputation may have been good, but divine justice will bring shame and disgrace in its place. This is the thought of Nahum (3:5-7) with regard to the reputation of Nineveh.

Thus far (Habakkuk 2:15-16) the fourth woe has expressed only figuratively the shame and disgrace threatened for an oppressing nation. In verse 17 the figurative expression of drunkenness and shame gives way to a reference to "the violence done to Lebanon" by the various invading nations. The oppressing nation against which the taunts are directed — whether Assyria or Babylon — will reap what it has sowed: bloodshed and violence both to the land and to the cities. The principle of appropriate judgment, where the punishment fits the crime, is applicable both to individuals and to nations.

Verses 18-20

The Taunt Against the Makers of Idols (2:18-20)

The final taunt does not begin with the word "woe" as do the others, but with a question regarding the value of an idol to its maker. The absurdity of idolatry is clearly stated in the poet’s next declaration, "For the workman trusts in his own creation when he makes dumb idols!" Finally the "woe" is expressed against anyone who calls for a word of revelation from "a wooden thing." Visualizing the construction of the idol, the prophet sees that "there is no breath at all in it," and hence it cannot offer any significant word.

In contrast "the Lord is in his holy temple," and all of the earth may profitably keep silence before him, not primarily in awe-struck worship but to hear and receive instruction, as in Micah 4:1-4 and Isaiah 2:2-4. The similarity in thought to Isaiah 44:9-11, which is generally considered to date from after the fall of Jerusalem, and the lack of relationship to the other taunts of the chapter, have suggested to many that the fifth stanza as a whole is an addition by an exilic or postexilic scribe or editor. On the other hand, it is not safe to be dogmatic, for Habakkuk has already referred to the false worship of the oppressing nation (Habakkuk 1:11; Habakkuk 1:16) , and it is not impossible that he sensed and expressed the futility of idolatry some sixty years before the Prophet of the Exile developed the theme. It was, in fact, the conception of God as the living God which led Habakkuk to his problem. The concern of God for the purity of his people could not exclude concern for the purity of the instruments he would use in chastising his people, for God is a personal Being. Because God is personal, he may be addressed with such complaints as Habakkuk has uttered for his people, and he responds with such oracles as have been included in the book. Because God is personal, the law of just punishment for evils committed operates in the created world. The series of taunts voiced for the peoples of the world by the prophet indicates confidence in the operation of this law. No idol can respond in this personal way, even though it may be addressed as a personal being by an idolater. But the Lord can and will speak from his holy temple.

Bibliographical Information
"Commentary on Habakkuk 2". "Layman's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/lbc/habakkuk-2.html.
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