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Monday, July 15th, 2024
the Week of Proper 10 / Ordinary 15
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Bible Commentaries

Layman's Bible CommentaryLayman's Bible Commentary

- Habakkuk

by Various Authors



The Book

The Book of Habakkuk may be divided very easily into three sections, corresponding to the three types of material of which it is composed. The first section (Habakkuk 1:1 to Habakkuk 2:5) is in the form of a dialogue between a representative of the people of God and God himself; the second section (Habakkuk 2:6-20) consists of a series of taunts or woes against evildoers, spoken by the prophet on behalf of the people afflicted by the misdeeds of the evildoers; the final section (Habakkuk 3:1-19) is in the form of a psalm and consists of a review of God’s mighty actions against the inhabited lands and a prayer for the renewal of his ancient work.

The unity of the book has been questioned, in part because of the variety of literary forms found in it, in part because of the inconsistency regarding the identity of the evildoers referred to in the several parts of the book. Did the same author write all three sections? We cannot answer with certainty, but we may discover a unity in the parts of the book as it now stands. Whether produced by one author or by editorial combination, the book now deals with the problem facing the prophet of God’s afflicted people who sees the immediately projected action of God as inconsistent with the character of God as he has been understood. The unity of the book does not lie in singleness of actual authorship, or in a uniform treatment of the problem, or in a single historical setting of that problem. Rather it is in the actual nature of the problem, which is viewed in a variety of emotional moods ranging from doubt to faith and including righteous indignation. Differing historical manifestations of the one problem and differing efforts to deal with these may account for some of the difficulties found in the text of the book.

The Author

Of the man Habakkuk almost nothing can be said except what can be determined by a careful examination of the book. His name has been identified with an Assyrian garden plant, and it has been suggested that he may have been a captive living at Nineveh or at some other point in the Mesopotamian world, but for this guess no evidence exists except the name. Tradition (found in the title to the Greek version of the apocryphal book Bel and the Dragon) refers the story of Bel to the prophet "Hambakoum son of Jesus of the tribe of Levi." This suggests that the prophet was a priest, like his contemporary Jeremiah.

The book (or its core, in the dialogue with God in 1:2-2:5) reveals the man through the personal testament of a soul confronting God in the face of difficulties. Here the prophet appears as a person of high ethical sensitivity, capable of the same kind of graphic descriptive writing as that found in the latter two chapters of Nahum.

It appears that Habakkuk, like Nahum, played no significant part in the history of his time, but made his literary contribution to those few of his contemporaries who were close enough to hear him read or recite it. The circumstances of this first recitation and the extent of the recitation can no longer be defined.

The ’Wicked" and die Setting of die Book

Something can be learned regarding the setting of the book from an examination of the question: Who are the wicked referred to in 1:4, 13, and elsewhere? A study of the several sections of the book suggests that at different points the wicked to whom the book refers are the oppressive wealthy class native to Judah during its last days and the emissaries of a foreign power during that same period. The reference to the Chaldeans (Habakkuk 1:6) definitely identifies the foreign power about to be raised up by God to bring violence and oppression upon the Jews, and there is no sufficient reason to change this word in order to identify some other oppressive foreign power at a different period. The most likely moment from which a prophet might look forward to the coming of the Chaldeans is in the latter days of the Judean kingdom in the period of Jehoiakim’s rule, between 609 and 597 B.C.

The problem is the apparent identification of the "wicked" with native Judean oppressors in 1:4 and 2:6-17, and their identification with the foreign invaders in 1:11, 17; 2:5, 8, and elsewhere. This problem is further complicated by the impression that many of the taunts of 2:6-19 have their setting in the later postexilic period and by the fact that this section of the book quotes from or is influenced by other prophetical books, particularly the postexilic Zechariah.

The original core of the book was evidently concerned not only with the problem posed by the coming of the Chaldeans, but also with the injustices perpetrated by leading Jews during the reign of Jehoiakim. The wicked, therefore, are both within the people of God and also outside, those outside being the instrument of God to deal with the ones within. To the prophet’s complaints about this situation the divine oracles of 1:5-11 and 2:2-4 were addressed. Later, additions were made to the book as new manifestations of the problem were dealt with in new ways, by elaboration of the counsel to faithfulness in the presence of wickedness (Habakkuk 2:5, if this is an addition), by expressions of threats against the wicked in the name of the holy Lord (Habakkuk 2:6-20), and by the psalm of confidence in the avenging might of God (Habakkuk 3:1-19). Each addition is made to the book in the confidence that it helps to meet the basic problem posed by the presence of moral evil in the divinely permitted actions of mankind.

The Interpretation of the Book

The additions to the original core of the book provide the first interpretation of the prophet’s message. Out of new (or different) manifestations of the problem the editors of the book brought together available insights into the solution of the problem posed by Habakkuk’s original complaint as stated in Habakkuk 1:13, "Why dost thou look on faithless men . . .?" But the problem of the prophet Habakkuk, like all profound theological and philosophical problems, refused to remain solved.

In the first and second centuries before Christ and continuing to about A.D. 70 a group of pious Jews, vexed with impure and oppressive leadership on the part of the priestly hierarchy in Jerusalem, retreated to the desert area of Judea, overlooking the Dead Sea, and there established a community at a point now known as Qumran. They looked out upon a world in which violence and oppression were widespread, both within the people of God and from foreign powers. The Hellenistic Seleucid rulers were in control of Palestine at the beginning of the second century B.C. Later, after the Hasmoneans (or Maccabees) became Hellenized and corrupted with power, the Idumeans and the Romans intervened in Judean affairs. At some time during this period an unknown member of the group composed a commentary on the first two chapters of Habakkuk. This commentary, or pesher, as it was called, is an attempt to discover in the words and phrases of the Book of Habakkuk a special insight into the events of the difficult times through which the Jewish people were passing during the last centuries before the Christian era. Identifying the evildoers of the book with his contemporaries, but using terms which authorities have interpreted differently, the unknown commentator found insight into the problems confronting him and encouragement to remain faithful to the commands of God no matter how long the time of trouble might be. For this unknown commentator at Qumran, Habakkuk’s problem was his problem, and the practical solution was to await patiently what God would do.

In the first Christian century the Apostle Paul turned to Habakkuk’s words in his presentation of the contrast between a righteousness which depends on the effort a person makes to obey God’s law and a righteousness which is received as a gracious gift from God (Romans 1:17; Romans 3:21-22; Galatians 3:11; and Philippians 3:9, quoting or referring to Habakkuk 2:4). In Paul’s use of the words of Habakkuk can be seen a radical transmutation of one of the central declarations of Habakkuk: the evildoers of the prophet become all men, including those who seek to obey God’s law; faithfulness becomes belief involving personal commitment but stressing the acceptance of a free gift from God through Christ; the hope of a religious man in the midst of difficulties ceases to be a mere endurance of evil, but becomes the power of God which enables that man to be more than a conqueror through Christ. With the insight common to the early Christian Church, Paul saw that the problem of evil was a deeper problem than that which Habakkuk had seen, involving even the "righteous" (in Habakkuk’s sense), and that Christ had dealt finally and effectively with the heart of this problem.

It was Luther’s rediscovery of Paul’s understanding of the solution to the problem of personal evil as expressed in the Letter to the Romans which brought about the beginning of the Reformation. So again the vision granted to Habakkuk became the means of grace for troubled souls.

The problem of the evildoer as opposed to the righteous remains a practical problem, even for those who have received the righteousness of God through faith in Christ. To such the Book of Habakkuk continues to offer the personal testimony of a troubled soul and the answering vision from God himself, a vision of a long-suffering God "of purer eyes than to behold evil," who came as "the Holy One from Mount Paran" for the salvation of his people.


A Dialogue with God. (Habakkuk 1:1 to Habakkuk 2:5)

The Five Taunts. (Habakkuk 2:6-20)

The Psalm of Habakkuk. (Habakkuk 3:1-19)

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