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Bible Commentaries
Habakkuk 1

The Biblical IllustratorThe Biblical Illustrator

Verses 1-4

Habakkuk 1:1-4

The burden which Habakkuk the prophet did see.


We can see how appropriate is the word “burden” used by the prophets to describe their gift and duty. The obligation laid on them often involved strain and danger. And yet it was a glorious privilege to be commissioned by God, to act for Him, to be His mouthpiece to the people. Habakkuk’s burden was the sight of the general evil and corruption prevalent in the Holy Land, among the chosen people. What burden can be heavier than this, to see evil prevail among God’s people, and to be unable to remedy it? Two lessons--

1. Every privilege entails suffering.

2. Do not lose heart.

The burden is laid on you by the Lord who gave you your glorious privilege. Look at the vocation, not at the burden. (S. Baring-Gould.)

The burden of enlightenment

The light of Divine favour bestowed upon Habakkuk was the source of much perplexity of mind and distress of soul to him. This paradox is common in Christian experience. The prophet’s mission of mercy was a burden to himself.

A burden of enlightenment. He was--

1. A spectator of evil; looking upon the great and terrible disorders that devastated his country.

2. An inspired spectator of evil. “God showed him iniquity,” etc. To see, in the light of heaven the fearful ramifications of evil in society is an essential condition of Christian service.

3. A troubled spectator of evil. His heart strings vibrated with jarring discords at the touch of the workers of iniquity.

A burden of prayer. With a vivid consciousness of God’s almighty power the prophet called upon Him to interpose and save His people. But days rolled on and lengthened into months, and still evil abounded. Oh, the burden of prayers unheard! Oh, the burden of unanswered prayers l Oh, the burden of delay! The heart grows sick with hope deferred.

A burden of discipline. Designed--

1. As a test to see if they will continue to work and witness for God.

2. Still trust in the Lord, even in the presence of the great mystery of iniquity. The burden is--

3. For training, that God’s servants may become strong in faith, giving glory to God. (Joseph Willcox)

Verse 2

Habakkuk 1:2

O Lord! how long shall I cry, and Thou wilt not hear?

The crisis of prayer

The question to be answered is this: How long will God suffer His people to pray, and still neglect to hear? Answer--

1. Till they see the plague of their own hearts--till each one sees his own individual iniquities, and lies in the dust before God.

2. Till the Church feels that she stands in the gap between God and a sin destroyed world.

3. Till they are willing to do whatever of duty He requires, in addition to praying.

4. Till they move the stumbling-blocks out of the way of a revival of His work.

5. If God sees in His people any disposition to withhold from Him the glory of the work He does. We see from this subject--

(1) Why so many prayers seem to be offered in vain.

(2) We see some of the causes of spiritual declension in the Church.

(3) The subject shows how we should set about raising the Church from her low estate.

(4) We see the duty of every Christian to search well his own heart. The hindrances to revivals are the sins of individuals. Each Christian, therefore, must search and purify himself.

(5) How fearful is the Church’s responsibility; and how great should be her watchfulness, lest by her apathy, her selfishness, or her unbelief, she hinder the work of the Lord. (National Preacher.)

The cry of a good man under the perplexing procedure of God

God’s apparent disregard to his earnest prayer. Under the pressure of that “burden” which was resting on his heart, namely, the moral corruption and the coming doom of his country; it would seem that he had often cried unto the Almighty and implored His interposition; but no answer had come. Why are not the prayers of good men immediately answered? In reply to this question three undoubted facts should be borne in mind.

1. That importunity of soul is necessary to qualify for the appreciation of the mercies sought. It is not until a man is made to feel the deep necessity of a thing that he values it when it comes. “How long shall I cry?” Until the sense of need is so intensified as to qualify for the reception and due appreciation of the blessing. Another fact that should be borne in mind is--

2. That the exercise of true prayer is in itself the best means of spiritual culture. Conscious contact with God is essential to moral excellence. You must bring the sunbeam to the seed you have sown, if you would have the seed quickened and developed; and you must bring God into conscious contact with your powers, if you would have them vivified and brought forth into strength and perfection. True prayer does this; it is the soul realising itself in the presence of Him “who quickeneth all things.”

3. That prayers are answered where there is no bestowment of the blessing invoked. “Not my will, but Thine be done.” This is all we want. Acquiescence in the Divine will is the moral perfection, dignity, and blessedness of all creatures in the universe. With these facts let us not be anxious about the apparent disregard of God to our prayers.

God’s apparent disregard to the moral condition of society. “Why dost Thou show me iniquity, and cause me to behold grievance? for spoiling and violence are before me: and there are that raise up strife and contention. Therefore the law is slacked, and judgment doth never go forth: for the wicked cloth compass about the righteous; therefore wrong judgment proceedeth.” The substance of this is the old complaint, “Wherefore doth the way of the wicked prosper?” Two facts should be set against this complaint.

1. The good have the best of it, even in this life.

2. The evil will have the worst of it in the next life. (Homilist.)

The expostulation of faith

The prophet is deeply afflicted, for there is little religion in the land, and as little of the true service of God. The one in reality is the measure of the other, although there may often seem more religion than righteousness. He does not, however, begin with attacking vice and irreligion and sin. He knows better than to do this. He carries his complaint to God, and in this way he would find some relief from his perplexity. The prophet expostulates with his God. His work seems almost hopeless, but he is a godly man, and he turns instinctively from man to God. Assuredly there is an expostulation of faith as well as of presumption. It may be good for the prophet, and for those in like circumstances, that at times God is silent. It is not that the prophet distrusts the justice or the mercy of God; it is rather, that in his impatience he would set times and seasons for His working. The times in which the prophet lived were times of ungodliness, of violence, and of misrule. Every one did that which was right in his own eyes. To correct this, the merely human sense of right is powerless. In such times, righteous men, such as wished to “lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and gravity,” must go to the wall. Even thus they cannot escape injustice and violence, scorn and oppression, from the many who have no belief in the Unseen, and who act accordingly. And so they are compassed about with wickedness. The mercy of God may be compassing them about, but for the time they can hardly see any evidences of it, and they are almost in despair. They are tempted to think that “all the foundations of the earth are moved,” and to say, “God hath forsaken the earth.” (P. Barclay, M. A.)

Freedom allowed in prayer

The prophet does not here teach the Jews, but prepares them for a coming judgment, as they could not but see that they were justly condemned, since they were proved guilty by the cry and complaints made by all the godly. Now this passage teaches us that all who really serve and love God, ought, according to the prophet s example, to burn with holy indignation whenever they see wickedness reigning without restraint among men, and especially in the Church of God. There is indeed nothing which ought to cause us more grief than to see men raging with profane contempt for God, and aa regard had for His law and for Divine truth, and all order trodden under foot. When therefore such a confusion appears to us, we must feel roused, if we have in us any spark of religion. If it be objected that the prophet exceeded moderation, the obvious answer is this,--that though he freely pours forth his feelings, there was nothing wrong in this before God, at least nothing wrong is imputed to him: for wherefore do we pray, but that each of us may unburden his cares, his griefs, and anxieties, by pouring them into me bosom of God? Since then God allows us to deal so familiarly with Him, nothing wrong ought to be ascribed to our prayers, when we thus freely pour forth our feelings, provided the bridle of obedience keeps us always within due limits, as was the case with the prophet; for it is certain that he was retained under the influence of real kindness. Our prophet here undertakes the defence of justice; for he could not endure the law of God to be made a sport, and men to allow themselves every liberty in sinning. He can be justly excused, though he expostulates here with God, for God does not condemn this freedom in our prayers. The end of praying is, that every one of us pour forth his heart before God. (John Calvin.)

The deeper plan in human events

In listening to a great organ, played by the hand of a master, there is often an undertone that controls the whole piece. Sometimes it is scarcely audible, and a careless listener would miss it altogether. The lighter play goes on, ebbing and flowing, rising and sinking, now softly gliding on the gentler stops, and now swelling out to the full power of the great organ. But amid all the changes and transpositions this undertone may be heard, steadily pursuing its own thought. The careless listener thinks the lighter play the main thing; but he that can appreciate musical ideas, as well as sounds, follows the quiet undertone of the piece, and finds in it the leading thought of the artist. So men see the outward events of life, the actions, the words, the wars, famines, sins; but underneath all God is carrying out His own plans, and compelling all outward things to aid the music He would make in this world. (Christian Age.)

Verses 5-10

Habakkuk 1:5-10

I will work a work in your days, which ye will not believe, though it be told you.

The doom of a nation of conventional religionists

The Jews were such a nation. They prided themselves in the orthodoxy of their faith, in the ceremonials of their worship, in the polity of their Church. The doom threatened was terrible in many respects.

It was to be wrought by the instrumentality of a wicked nation. “I will work a work in your days, which ye will not believe, though it be told you. For, lo, I raise up the Chaldeans, that bitter and hasty nation, which shall march through the breadth of the land, to possess the dwelling-places that are not theirs.” “Nabopolassar had already destroyed the mighty empire of Assyria, and founded the Chaldeo-Babylonian rule. He had made himself so formidable that Necho found it necessary to march an army against him, in order to check his progress; and though defeated at Megiddo, he had, in conjunction with his son Nebuchadnezzar, gained a complete victory over the Egyptians at Carchemish. These events were calculated to alarm the Jews, whose country lay between the dominions of the two contending powers; but, accustomed as they were to confide in Egypt and in the sacred localities of their own capital (Isaiah 31:1; Jeremiah 7:4), and being in alliance with the Chaldeans, they were indisposed to listen to, and treated with the utmost incredulity, any predictions which described their overthrow by that people” (Henderson). God employs wicked nations as His instruments. “I will work a work.” He says, but how? By the Chaldeans. How does He raise up wicked nations to do His work?

1. Not instigatingly. He does not inspire them with wicked passions necessary to qualify them for the infernal work of violence, war, rapine, bloodshed. God could not do this.

2. Not coercively. He does not force them to it, in no way does He interfere with them. They are the responsible party. How then does He “raise” them up? He permits them. He could prevent them; but He allows them. He gives them life, capacity, and opportunities. Now, would not the fact that their destruction would come upon them from a heathen nation, a nation which they despised, make it all the more terrible?


1. The violence would be uncontrolled. “Their judgment and their dignity shall proceed of themselves.” They recognise no authority, and proudly spurn the dictates of others. “They recognise no judge save themselves, and they get for themselves in their own dignity, without needing others’ help.”

2. The violence would be rapid and fierce. “Swifter than the leopard.” “Evening wolves.”

It was to be wrought with immense havoc. In the east wind, or simoom; spreading destruction everywhere. (Homilist.)

The Chaldeans, that bitter and hasty nation.

The Chaldeans

Very graphic is the description of this new and formidable enemy. Gather four lessons for ourselves.

The evil of sin. It separates the soul from God. Wherever sin is it makes the prophet’s roll to be written within and without. “Lamentation, and weeping, and woe.” “All unrighteousness is sin.”

National sins lead to national judgments. They are said to “defile” a land, and to be a “reproach” to any people. Direct judgments come on a nation for its sin; as on Sodom and Gomorrah, Egypt, Israel, etc. Then let our nation take heed.

The power of little things. “He heapeth up dust, and taketh it.” That is, the king of Babylon, by means of mounds of dust, would put himself on a level with the besieged, and rapidly overcome them. It needs no great means when God is using the instrument.

The danger of false security. “They shall deride every stronghold.” When the Lord God is not there, the defence is vain. “The name of the Lord is a strong tower; the righteous runneth in, and is safe.” Every false hiding-place will be swept away in the coining storm. Last year I saw in Pompeii a cellar where eighteen persons had fled for safety in the time of the great overthrow, but it was a false refuge. They were all lost. There is something like that in spiritual things. Many souls are hiding in a refuge of lies. They are trusting to their own merits, or to God’s uncovenanted goodness apart from Jesus Christ, and Him crucified. Without Christ, the God man, you are defenceless and exposed to storm and tempest. (A. C. Thiselton.)

Verse 12

Habakkuk 1:12

Art Thou not from everlasting, O Lord my God, mine Holy One?

we shall not die.

The Christian conception of immortality

We know” that this prophet was inspired, from the profound moral insight and far-reaching spiritual vision revealed in his utterance. His words are his only credentials, but they are amply sufficient. The prophecy dates near the close of the seventh or the beginning of the sixth century, b.c. The circumstances of Habakkuk’s time largely determined the contents as well as the form of his prophecy. What were these circumstances? On the one hand grave disappointment in the development of his own nation. The hope centring in Josiah was dispelled by his death in ill-advised battle. Simultaneously the power of Assyria waned, and the power of Babylon grew. The politician’s despair is the prophet’s opportunity, and grandly does Habakkuk rise to the occasion. The prophet saw that though Babylon was a hindrance to Judah’s political emancipation, yet it was one of the necessary agents of its moral deliverance. Chaldea is to this extent God’s agent, that it will compel Judah to fall back upon its religion and its God. Because the Eternal God is holy, Judah cannot die. The argument deals, strictly speaking, only with the persistence and decay of earthly societies and kingdoms. The life which is inferred from ethical kinship with God is victorious national life. The individual counterpart of the prophet’s argument is given by our Saviour in His inspiring words, “Because I live, ye shall live also.” The relation of the principle to the individual, and individual immortality is, no doubt, more subtle and complicated, especially with regard to the negative results of the principle; but there is a wide field of positive conclusions, where the argument is quite as strong and clear and inspiring in the case of the individual as of the nation, and this profounder and richer application has been fully made in the New Testament. Indeed the whole progress of revelation has been the unfolding of old principles into ampler significance rather than the addition of new ones. In the New Testament the individual is emphasised, and all ethical and religions considerations are first of all studied in reference to the individual. There is a little danger nowadays of losing sight of the individual again, of going back to the old world immature conceptions of society, in which the individual lay latent in the mass. This is a mistake. We shall not create an ideal society by accomplishing superficial reformations in the mass; we must be ever searching through the mass for the individual. The religion of Christ is primarily for the individual. Primarily, therefore, in the application of the Divine message, we have to deal with the spirit of man in its individual relation to God.

The spiritual man’s conviction of immortality. The Scriptures nowhere assert the general principle of human immortality. There is certainly no clear indication of conditional immortality. The biblical revelation of immortality is in part bright and clear as the noonday, in part obscure and shadowy. We must not confound the method of Plato and Butler with the biblical method. One thing is clear. As man is, like God, an essentially ethical being, he cannot be destroyed by a merely physical change like death. The sense of spiritual kinship with God gradually compelled the personal conviction of immortality. The revelation has always come in the intense individual conviction, “I live in God, and so live for ever.” The manifest aim of revelation has been to develop the Christian consciousness, not to satisfy all our curiosity about the eternal future. It is sometimes said that the only certain proof of immortality is the resurrection of Jesus Christ. This is correct, if it is carefully stated. It is correct, when the resurrection of Christ completes the Christian consciousness, and is vitally related to it. Paid argues thus, “If the resurrection of Christ be not a historic fact, then the deepest and noblest spiritual consciousness of men is a vanity and a falsehood, for that depends upon and demands a risen Christ.” The Christ within me is the final assurance of life and immortality.

The christian contents of this conviction. It is a conviction, not of mere continued existence, but of eternal life, rich and varied in its content, a life filled to overflowing with the fulness of the Eternal.

1. The Christian conviction of immortality involves the assurance of a great increase and expansion of life after death. This assurance of expansion of life does not imply a breach of continuity between this life and the next.

2. The contents of this conviction include the resurrection of the body. Scepticism on this subject has arisen from supposed intellectual difficulties which have been allowed to obscure the utterance of the living voice of the Christ-spirit within. The denial of the resurrection of the body is virtually a denial of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Are there then no difficulties? None at all, except those created by superficial theories of the resurrection. The continuity and redemption of our wonderful complex life will be complete. (John Thomas, M. A.)

The eternity, providence, and holiness of Jehovah

The prophet regards the eternity of Jehovah as an argument for their preservation. “Art Thou not from everlasting?” The interrogatory does not imply doubt on his part. The true God is essentially eternal, He “inhabiteth eternity.” From His eternity the prophet argues that His people will not perish,--“we shall not die.” There is force in this argument. His people live in Him. Christ said to His disciples, “Because I live, ye shall live also.” Man’s immortality is not in himself, but in God.

He regards His providence as a source of comfort. “O Lord, Thou hast ordained them for judgment; and, O Mighty God, Thou hast established them for correction.” “Jehovah, for judgment Thou hast appointed it, and, O Rock, Thou hast founded it for chastisement” (Delitzsch). Whatever evil of any kind, from any quarter, comes upon the loyal servants of God, comes not by accident: it is under the direction of the All-wise and the All-beneficent. These Chaldeans could not move without Him, nor could they strike one blow without His permission; they were but the rod in His hand. All the most furious fiends in the universe are under His direction. Whatever mischief men design to inflict upon His people, He purposes to bring good out of it; and His counsel shall stand.

He regards His holiness as an occasion for perplexity. “Thou art of purer eyes than to behold evil, and canst not look on iniquity: wherefore lookest Thou upon them that deal treacherously, and holdest Thy tongue when the wicked devoureth the man that is more righteous than he?” Jehovah is the Holy One. As if he had said, Since Thou art holy, why allow such abominations to take place? why permit wicked men to work such iniquities, and to inflict such suffering upon the righteous? This has always been a source of perplexity to good men. (Homilist.)

Verse 13

Habakkuk 1:13

Thou art of purer eyes than to behold evil, and canst not look upon iniquity.

The holiness of God

There is in our Maker a purity of nature, and an essential sort of holiness which render Him incapable of enduring sin in any person, or under any circumstances. I believe this is the very foundation of all religious feeling whatever. The true fear of God is the fear of His holiness.

1. This is no contradiction to the character in which God is exhibited to us in the Gospel, as a God of love. But we must notice the limits under which the love of God must be taken in application to ourselves. Only in the Gospel is it revealed.

2. God has always shown a sort of instinctive abhorrence of sin, which no worth of the individual sinner could induce Him to overcome. This holiness of God is opposed to sin in every form and degree. There is nothing in man which can reconcile the nature of God to sin. Is sin regarded by us, as we must know and believe it is regarded by God? (H. Raikes, A. M.)

The holiness of God

His holiness is universally manifest.

1. It is manifest to man.

(1) In law. The principles of His moral law are holy, just, and good.

(2) In providence. Justice is but holiness in action, and through all ages God has expressed His abhorrence of sin in the judgments He has inflicted.

(3) In Christ. He sent His Son into the world. What for? “To put away sin.” To cleanse humanity by His self-sacrificing life.

(4) In conscience. The moral constitution of man, which recoils from the wrong and sympathises with the right, manifests God’s holiness. There is no room for man, then, to doubt God’s holiness.

2. It is manifest to angels. They live in its light. They are adorned with its beauties, they are inspired with its glories, and their anthem is, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty.”

3. It is manifest to the lost. They are bound to exclaim, “Just and right are Thy ways, Thou King of saints.”

His holiness is eternally original. The holiness of all holy intelligences is derived from Him.

His holiness is gloriously effulgent. “He is glorious in holiness.” He is light, in Him there is no darkness at all.

His holiness is absolutely standard. It is that to which the holiness of all other beings must come, and by which it must be tested. The law is, we are “ to be holy as He is holy.” But how can fallen man be raised to this standard of holiness? Here is the answer, and the only satisfactory answer: “For the grace of God that bringeth salvation hath appeared to all men,” etc. (Homilist.)

Wherefore lookest Thou upon them that deal treacherously?--

Things that suggest mistrust of God

St. Hierom’s opinion is that the name Habakkuk is derived from a word that signifies embracing, and may imply the embraces of a wrestler, who clasps his arms about the person he contends with. In this chapter we have the prophet contending with no less an antagonist than the great God, and upon no lower subject than His holiness, justice, and goodness. Is it not a very bold and daring thing for a creature thus to arraign the justice of His Creator? The father fore-mentioned explains that the prophet in his own person represents the frailty and impatience of man. We understand Habakkuk to be really saying, “True it is, O Lord, we are a very wicked and sinful people; but yet not so bad as the tyrannous Nebuchadnezzar, and his idolatrous Chaldeans. How then can it be consistent with Thy justice and hatred to sin, to permit the greater sinners to prosper in their oppression of the less, of those that are better than themselves?” “Why dost Thou favour them in their treacherous enterprises?” The words of the text contain an expostulation with God, concerning that seemingly strange dispensation of His providence in suffering the wicked to prosper and thrive, and that by the afflictions and oppressions of the righteous.

The ground and occasion of this expostulation of the text. Good men cannot oppress, or take indirect methods to thrive; they have a God above, and a conscience within, which overawe them, and will not suffer them to do it. Nor can they be supposed to use such means as may effectually secure them from the violences and oppressions of others; for the good man, charitably measuring others by himself, does not stand upon a constant guard, nor use preventive methods to keep off those injuries that he is not apprehensive of. But a bad man has none of those restraints of God, or conscience, or charity, to hinder him from falling upon the prey that lies exposed to him. It is not then to be wondered at that “those who deal treacherously prosper,” or “that the wicked devoureth the man that is more righteous than he.”

Inquire into the objections that are made against God’s permission hereof. How comes it to pass that God does not interpose, that He does not hinder the evil and defend the good? This has been a stumbling-block in all ages. It was to holy Job; to Jeremiah; and to Asaph. It is a great argument of the atheists to banish the belief of a God and His providence out of the world. They say, If God would hinder them but cannot, then is He not omnipotent; if He can, but will not, then is He not just and good; so that either His power, or His justice and goodness, must be given up; or else those attributes must be salved by the imperfection of His knowledge. But the true notion of God is a Being infinite in all perfections, and therefore he that is defective in knowledge can no more be God than he that is not infinite in power, justice, or goodness. And so they would dispute God out of being.

Vindicate the Divine providence by showing the weakness of these objections. It may be very consistent with the justice and goodness of God to permit these things. The objection is built upon the contrary supposition.

1. It is not inconsistent with God’s justice and goodness to suffer good men to be afflicted in this world, because--

(1) Afflictions are not always punishments, but means whereby God does a great deal of good and benefit to them that are exercised with them. He weans them from the world, reduces them (leads them back) when they are going astray, tries and proves their faith, patience, submission, resignation, etc.

2. Supposing afflictions to be punishments, the best men will find failings and sins enough in themselves to make the punishment reasonable. They may well think God good and merciful in thus chastising them.

3. He has appointed a day wherein He will abundantly recompense all the troubles and sorrows and sufferings of pious men with joys unspeakable.

4. It is not inconsistent with God’s justice and goodness to suffer bad men to be prosperous here.

(1) Prosperity is not always a blessing. If the impunity of the wicked be their hardening and judgment, it is certainly not unjust with God to suffer it.

(2) There is hardly any man so bad but has something of good in him, by which he is useful and serviceable to the world. For God to reward the natural or moral goodness of otherwise bad men, with outward temporal blessings, is agreeable to His rule of rewarding every one according to his works.

(3) It cannot argue want of justice or goodness in God to try all means to reduce wholly wicked men and make them better.

(4) There is a day of retribution coming.

5. It is not inconsistent with God’s justice and goodness to suffer bad men to be the instruments whereby good men are afflicted. If a thing has to be done, and is right to do, it cannot matter whether the agent employed is good or bad, so long as he is efficient for the work. And can the good be employed in many of these judgments, or calamities, or wrongs? If God may work by such things, He must use the sort of people who can do them. Inferences--

1. This subject gives us an irrefragable assurance of a future judgment and state.

2. Learn not to “love the world, nor the things of the world.”

3. The facts dwelt on should excite and inflame our desires and longings after the other world, where the wicked shall be made miserable, and the good man happy.

4. Learn not to think hardly of God, nor to envy wicked men when He permits them to persecute His Church, and to triumph in the miseries and ruin of His best servants. (W. Talbot, D. D.)

“Wait, and you will see”

Linnell, the artist, had a commission to paint a picture, for which he was to receive £1000. Not wishing any one to inspect it until perfected, he veiled it when not working at it, and wrote over it in Latin, “Wait, and you will see.” The final issue of much of God’s work is now hidden from us, but assured that, even in times of affliction, God is acting wisely, we must wait until He is pleased to let us see the finished glory of His work. (Gates of Imagery.)

Verses 14-17

Habakkuk 1:14-17

And makest men as the fishes of the sea

Rapacious selfishness in power

Illustrated in Nebuchadnezzar.

Selfishness is the root and essence of sin. All unregenerate men are therefore more or less selfish, and rapacity is an instinct of selfishness. Selfishness hungers for the things of others.

It practically ignores the rights of man as man. “And makest man as the fishes of the sea, as the creeping things, that have no ruler over them.” The Babylonian tyrant did not see in the population of Judea men possessing natural endowments, sustaining moral relationships, invested with rights and responsibilities similar to his own fellow-men; but merely “fishes”;--his object was, to catch them and turn them to his own use. It is ever so with selfishness: it blinds man to the claims of his brother. What does the selfish employer care for the man in those who work in his service and build up his fortune? He treats them rather as fishes to be used, than as brethren to be respected. What does the selfish despot care for the moral humanity of the people over whom he sways his sceptre? He values them only as they can fight his battles, enrich his exchequer, and contribute to his pageantry and pomp. What were men to Napoleon? etc.

It assiduously works to turn men to its own use. “They take up all of them with the angle, they catch them in their net, and gather them in their drag; therefore they rejoice and are glad.” Ah me! Human life is like a sea--deep, unresting, treacherous; and the teaming millions of men are but as fishes, the weaker devoured by the stronger. The mighty ones use the hook to oppress individuals one by one, the net and the drag to carry multitudes away. As the fisherman works by various expedients to catch the fish, the selfish man in power is ever active in devising the best expedients to turn human flesh to his own use.

It adores self on account of its success. “Therefore they sacrifice unto their net, and burn incense unto their drag; because by them their portion is fat, and their meat plenteous.” Because men are everywhere selfish, they are everywhere “sacrificing unto their” net, and burning incense unto their drag. The selfish statesman says, There is no measure like mine; the selfish sectarian, There is no Church like mine; the selfish author, There is no book like mine; the selfish preacher, There is no sermon like mine.

It remains unsatiable notwithstanding its prosperity. “Shall they therefore empty their net?” etc. An old author thus paraphrases the language, “Shall they enrich themselves and fill their own vessels, with that which they have by violence and oppression taken away from their neighbours? Shall they empty their net of what they have caught, that they may cast it into the sea again to catch more? And wilt Thou suffer them to proceed in this wicked course? Shall they not spare continually to slay the nations? Must the numbers and wealth of nations be sacrificed to their net?” Conclusion--What an awful picture of the world we have here! (Homilist.)

The baits of Satan

All sorts of baits are used to catch human souls. One of the old fathers of the Church says that Satan is the ape of God. That is, Satan imitates whatever God does, but with a different object. God uses the beautiful things He has made to draw you to Him. Satan uses the same things to lure you into his power, and draw you away from God. Since man has been in the world, he has had to work. And God has blessed work. But Satan takes work, and tries to make mischief with it. He tries to make you care for your work apart from God, and thus it is turned into dead, graceless, unprofitable work. The world--the society of your fellows--may draw the souls of those who move in it to God; for there is a great deal of good in the world. You cannot always say that this or that is bad in itself. It is bad only when Satan has put his hook through it. Consequently you must not rashly denounce an amusement or a pursuit, as bad, unless you can see the hook in it. Look at some scriptural instances of Satan’s fishing. Case of Job; of David; of Judas Iscariot. As you go through life you will meet with all sorts of temptations. Temptations are Satan s baits. Then, whatever you undertake, keep God before your eyes: keep God in your thoughts. Directly you begin to lose sight of God and to forget Him--then beware! Recover yourself as quickly as you can; you have somehow got hold of a bait which Satan is pulling towards him. (S. Baring-Gould, M. A.)

Verse 16

Habakkuk 1:16

Therefore they sacrifice unto their net, and burn incense to their drag; because by them their portion is fat, and their meat plenteous.


Nebuchadnezzar is here represented as gathering the people into his net, and then, forgetting that he was only an instrument, doing homage to his own power and skill, as though they had won for him the victory.

1. The most numerous illustrations of this spirit are those which may be found in the conduct of our secular work. The ungodliness of the daily life of men is a fact too manifest to be disputed. They see in every increase of their wealth and power a fresh evidence of their skill and strength; and, intoxicated with pride or vanity, burn incense only to their own net. Among those who bear the Christian name there are evidences only too palpable of its presence and power, now prone are we, in secular matters, to forget the relation in which we stand to God. The precept, “In all thy ways acknowledge Him,” is either wholly ignored, or its application restricted to special spiritual exercises and duties. We need a more thorough and pervading sense of God’s presence, and our reliance on Him to penetrate our lives. The danger is one to which we are specially liable in an age when the science and industry of man have achieved so much. Science has unveiled so many secrets of nature that we begin to fancy that there is nothing so hidden that the same skill may not drag it from its retreat. It is not wonderful that man should deify intellect, and forgetful of Him from whom comes every talent, should ask, “Is not this great Babylon, that I have built?” Everywhere, in fact, do we see men thus exalting themselves and their own wisdom. They would fain put God out of His own world, by enthroning man in His place. To correct these godless views of life, God, from time to time, sends us solemn and emphatic warnings of His power and our dependence. The wise hear the rod, and who hath appointed it. Judgment instructs those whom the gentler voice of mercy did not reach.

2. Mark the development of this spirit in our spiritual life. Much apparently Christian service would not abide the Master’s test, because so much of this earthly element enters into the spirit by which it is inspired. Is there not too often a disposition to trust in the wisdom of our plans and the efficiency of our instruments, rather than in that blessing which alone can make rich? Self-reliance, self-conceit, self-exaltation, self-seeking, self-worship, are evils that intrude even into religious institutions.

(1) This spirit may reveal itself in the motives that induce activity in the service of the Church. Love to Christ is the only true and enduring motive of all Christian labour. But we may work to extend our party rather than to glorify God. There is danger in mere sectional attachments. Our motives may be more directly personal. We may labour only to gratify our own ambition or fancy. Our vanity may be pleased by the rich incense of flattery. Our desire for power may be gratified by the influence we gain over other men. There are tests which we may all employ with advantage to prove the character of our work.

(2) The spirit displays itself in regard to the modes of Christian labour. There are two opposite extremes against which we have to guard. There are not a few who are crying out for a new Gospel. There are those who are sticklers not only for truth, but for the very phrases in which it is set forth. These two parties are wide as the poles asunder, yet they agree in this--they are both burning incense to their own net.

(3) This spirit may reveal itself in the way in which we regard the results of Christian labour. In the hour of success we think more of the efficiency of the instrument than of the grace of the Divine Spirit. The greatest talent is insufficient if alone. We want all the power that Christians possess sanctified to Christ. We want to see the most perfect instrumentality, but we want something beyond that. There is no real power unless the Spirit of God be in our midst. (J. Guinness Rogers, D. D.)

The worship of the net

The word “drag” simply means a large fishing net. The bold metaphor of the text is that of a fisherman whose mind is so overborne by the large draughts of fish which he is continually taking that he begins actually to worship those nets which are the instruments of such wonderful success. The prophet is portraying the condition of the Babylonian Empire. It had been swallowing up the smaller nations. Puffed up by its military successes, it had sunk into a condition of practical atheism. They came to worship the resources which they had at their disposal. They paid homage to material power. In answer to his prayer the prophet receives a vision of judgment. Haughty, idolatrous Babylon will not continue for ever. They worshipped the net; they would be captured by the net of another military empire. The sin of man keeps repeating itself throughout the ages. Notwithstanding all the lessons of the past, there are still multitudes who forget the living God. They seek their own gratification and aggrandisement. When they are successful they are puffed up with pride. They boast themselves of the means and methods which have been the instruments of their success. Let us be thankful that the righteousness of God keeps repeating itself too. The principles of the Divine government are eternal. God was in the history of old Judaea and Assyria, but He is also in the history of every nation of modern Europe. His providence must not be left out of human calculations. Have we in England learnt the lesson that only “righteousness” can really and permanently exalt any nation? How prone are we to magnify the instruments of our national greatness! We worship rank, wealth, intellect, business. But God is not mocked, and in many ways He breaks men’s idols before their eyes. (T. Campbell Finlayson.)

The idolatry of work

In our times the idolatry of work has replaced the thirst for wisdom; there is no time to fill the treasure-house, and there is no time to dispense its stores. The consequences of this sort of life are sufficiently mischievous before we bring in on it the light of Christ and the Gospel. What was our Lord’s teaching in correction of this tendency to an idol-worship of work? He taught that work is not an end, but a means. It may be fruitful or unfruitful, stopping with itself, or producing something. It is essentially of two kinds--it may begin with itself, or it may have a beginning behind it; it may be (so to say) its own life, or it may be the manifestation of a life prior and ancient. Not the work, but the workman, is the all-important thing. All depends, not upon what the man wrought, but upon what he was. (C. J. Vaughan, D. D.)


The over-estimate of one’s capabilities and powers, and the depreciation of the capabilities and Dowers of all other people. Self-knowledge is not self-conceit. Nor is the right and diligent use of the talents with which God has entrusted us any indication of self-conceit. Illustration-The principle contained in the words, “They sacrifice unto their own net,” etc.

Men do this when they attribute their temporal prosperity to their own skill and energy, and not to God. Wealth may, or may not, be a proof of skill and industry. Self-reliance is a noble quality; it is different from self-sufficiency. But we are dependent upon God.

When they attribute the discoveries of science and the inventions that have benefited the world to the human intellect and not to God. Man’s discoveries are God’s revelations.

When they attribute the prosperity of a country to any other source than to God. Patriotism is a virtue. Our prosperity may be ascribed to different causes. Let us honour God; let not our pride weaken us.

In their treatment of God’s merciful revelation to the world.

When they depend for the spread of God’s rule on human plans and organisations, and not on the blessing of the highest. “The excellency of the power is of God.” Without God’s presence and blessing all that we do is in vain. (James Owen.)

Conceit born of success

This passage discovers to us the secret impiety of all those who do not serve God sincerely and with an honest mind. There is, indeed, imprinted on the hearts of men a certain conviction respecting the existence of a God; for none are so barbarous as not to have some sense of religion; and thus all are rendered inexcusable, as they carry in their hearts a law which is sufficient to make them a thousand times guilty. But at the same time the ungodly, and those who are not illuminated by faith, bury this knowledge, for they are enveloped in themselves; and when some recollection of God creeps in, they are at first impressed, and ascribe some honour to him; but this is evanescent, for they soon suppress it as much as they can; yea, they even strive to extinguish (though they cannot) this knowledge, and whatever light they have from heaven. This is what the prophet now graphically sets forth in the person of the Assyrian king. He had before said, “This power is that of his God.” He had complained that the Assyrians would give to their idols what was peculiar to God alone, and thus deprive Him of His right; but he says now, that they would “sacrifice to their own drag, and offer incense to their net.” This is a very different thing; for how could they sacrifice to their idols if they ascribed to their drag whatever victories they gained? Now by the words “drag” and “net” the prophet means their efforts, strength, forces, power, councils, and policies, as they call them, and whatever else there be which profane men arrogate to themselves. But what is it to sacrifice to their own net? The Assyrian did this, because he thought he surpassed all others in craftiness; because he thought himself so courageous as not to hesitate to make war with all nations, regarding himself as well prepared with forces, and justified in his proceedings; and because he became successful, and omitted nothing calculated to ensure victory. Thus the Assyrian regarded as nothing his idols; for he put himself in the place of all his gods. But if it be asked, whence came his success? we must answer, that the Assyrian ought to have ascribed it all to the one true God; but he thought that he prospered through his own valour. If we refer to counsel, it is certain that God is He who governs the counsels and minds of men; but the Assyrian thought he gained everything by his own skill. If, again, we speak of strength, whence is it? And of courage, whence is it but from God? But the Assyrian appropriated all these things to himself. What regard, then, had he for God? We see how he now takes away all honour even from his own idols, and attributes everything to himself. But this sin belongs to all the ungodly; for where God’s Spirit does not reign there is no humility, and men ever swell with inward pride until God thoroughly Cleanse them. It is, then, necessary that God should empty us by His special grace, that we may not be filled with this Satanic pride, which is innate, and which cannot by any means be shaken off by us until the Lord regenerates us by His Spirit. God cannot be really glorified except when men wholly empty themselves. (John Calvin.)

Sacrificing to the net

There is a curious passage in the prophecy of Habakkuk which speaks of fishermen who “sacrifice to their net, and burn incense to their drag.” I think that sometimes very true and earnest Christians are in danger of doing that. They almost worship the visible Church, which, after all, is only a net “to catch men” for Christ. They delight in its historic character. They glory in its apostolic order. They venerate every feature of its organic structure. In one word, it becomes no more a spiritual Church, but a kingdom of this world. But by and by a terrible shock shakes them like an earthquake. Some iniquity appears in Zion. Wickedness shelters itself under the robes of piety. Political scheming creeps into ecclesiastical councils. The very law of the Church is made an instrument of oppression. They stand confounded and amazed. What means it all? Why, it means just this, that Christ is telling you that no earthly kingdom is the Church of Christ. This is not your rest. The marriage supper of the Lamb is not in the poor feast of a visible Church. The “New Jerusalem” is not yet let down from God Out of heaven. (Bishop Cheney.)


Bibliographical Information
Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on "Habakkuk 1". The Biblical Illustrator. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/tbi/habakkuk-1.html. 1905-1909. New York.
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