Book Overview - Habakkuk
by Joseph Exell
I THINK that an argument for the divinity of Scripture might be found in its silence as well as in its speech. It draws a veil, thick and impenetrable, over very much which men, left to themselves, would have been certain to bring forth to the light of open day. How remarkable, for example, is the reticence of the sacred writers about themselves! But for their names at the commencement of their books we should never have known in many instances to whom we owed these Scriptures which are “beyond all Greek, beyond all Roman fame.” That is not the manner of men. They are very prone to obtrude themselves. The workman does not care to lose his own personality in the work which he performs, or to be remembered only by what he has done; he likes to carve his name over his achievement in bold and striking letters which all can read. We are too self-conscious, too proud, too anxious for praise, to be mere voices crying in the wilderness for God’s glory and the world’s good. There is no better biography in existence than that which James Boswell wrote of Dr. Johnson; it makes the very man live before us once more: but the biographer shows himself at every turn; he must be seen and known and recognised in the company of his hero, for good or for ill, in wisdom and in folly; rather than go unnoticed, he will reveal to us his own weaknesses and foibles. But the methods of the human authors of the Bible are altogether different. God inspired them; and, if there were any uprisings within their minds of the egotism and pride which are so natural to us, His Spirit reproved and suppressed the unworthy thought. To disclose God in His character and will, they wrote; and therefore they kept themselves sedulously in the background. Thoughts like these can scarcely fail to be awakened within us in connection with this prophecy of Habakkuk. Short as it is, it is one of the sublimest books in the Old Testament. It speaks a great and lofty language. It throbs with an intense and ardent feeling. Yet how exceedingly little we know of its author! He is a mere name to us, and not a very pleasant or melodious name, as we imagine, although we may find some cause to modify that opinion by and by. So much were the old Jewish rabbis impressed by this doubt and uncertainty that enveloped the prophet--so unwilling were they to rest content with the obscurity in which Habakkuk himself was perfectly satisfied to remain--that they framed all manner of legends about him. They declared that his mother was the Shunammite woman who built a little chamber in the wall of her house for Elisha, the man of God; that thus he was himself the lad to whom death came so suddenly in the harvest-field as he played among the reapers, but whom Elisha restored to life and gave back to his mother; that, in after years, when the Holy Land was overrun and conquered by the Chaldeans, he fled to a place of hiding in Arabia, and returned again when the foreigner had gone, to live for a long period in peace and to die at last in his own home. It is all a tissue of fables, originating in man’s unwillingness to be contented with the silence of Scripture. One or two facts, however, about the prophet it is possible for us to gather. So let us think first of the man, and then of the book which he has bequeathed to us.
I. His name is full of meaning. To all of us, I suppose, it is a name which sounds harsh and untuneful in the extreme; and others beside ourselves have had the same feeling. About the rough and uncouth title one good expositor of our own writes, “We apprehend that this name has been a great disparagement to our prophet, and has operated in no faint degree in causing many readers to hold the book in less regard than they might otherwise have done.” But such readers have been very superficial, and have not looked below the surface of things. For this ragged name has a beautiful significance. It is like some costly stone, unlovely and apparently worthless at first sight, but needing only to be examined and polished to brighten into the lustre of the diamond or to deepen into the glow of the ruby. Habakkuk means one who “strongly enfolds,” or one who “firmly and closely and tenderly embraces.” Luther puts a delightfully simple interpretation upon the word. The prophet, he says, embraces his people and takes them to his arms; that is, he comforts them and lifts them up as one embraces a weeping child, to quiet it with the assurance that, if God will, all shall be right ere long.” But while it is true that Habakkuk had a very deep and fond love for his people, being patriot no less than prophet, I prefer to regard the name as descriptive of his attitude towards God. He embraces the Almighty; he clings with fast and faithful hold to the Lord of heaven and earth; “in God’s breast, his own abode, he lays his spirit down. That is no fanciful meaning to extract from the Hebrew word. It indicates the real character of the man. In the fellowship of the Old Testament seers Habakkuk stands out pre-eminent as the prophet of faith. More than most, he believed God. His was not always a victorious and jubilant faith, an unclouded assurance. Sometimes it had a sore battle to wage with doubt. Frequently he was cast down. It was an enigma to him, as it has been to many, that the Judge of all the earth should act as He did. “Thou that art of purer eves than to behold evil.” he exclaimed “wherefore lookest Thou upon them that deal treacherously, and boldest Thy peace when the wicked swalloweth up the man that is more righteous than he?” But it was the very simplicity of his dependence, the very thoroughness of his confidence, which led him to speak in these expostulating tones. He could not satisfy himself, as we do, with empty phrases, telling his heart that no doubt the mystery would be solved in good time, and that all was for the best. Just because he had an absolute faith in God’s rectitude and mercy--just because he leaned on Him entirely and had an unquestioning trust in His character and ways, it was puzzling to him to see the unrighteous prosperous and the good downtrodden. And when the gloom and the perplexity have passed, Habakkuk’s eyes are still directed heavenward; his affections are above. Through the calm and the storm; in the daytime of peace and the night-season of sorrow; when the fields wave with the yellow grain, and when the fig-tree does not blossom and there is no fruit in the vines--he keeps the even tenor of his way; his heart is fixed; he rests in the Lord and waits patiently for Him. We learn from his prophecy, too, what his calling and occupation were. The closing chapter of his book contains a magnificent ode or hymn in praise of God--a hymn to which he has appended the words, “For the chief musician, on my stringed instruments,” meaning thereby, no doubt, “Let this ode be sung in the Temple service to the sound of the harps, viols, psalteries, which I am myself accustomed to employ when I minister in God’s sanctuary.” And so it has been reasonably inferred that Habakkuk was an accomplished musician as well as a poet of the highest order--that he belonged to those bands of Levites who were set apart to sing and play before the Lord--that perhaps he was even a choir-master in the holy house on Zion, one whose duty and privilege it was to arrange appropriate harmonies for the psalms and hymns and spiritual songs which were sung there, and to see that they were rendered well and fitly, with grave sweet melody. We may think of him going out and in, like Samuel, in the sacred courts; praising the Lord with heart and voice; delighting to join in the glad and solemn and thrilling music of the hallowed place. He tells us--does he not?--that we should worship God by our songs as well as invoke His mercy and succour by our prayers. God looks for this glad and open tribute, and we disappoint Him when we withhold it or when we render it only in a formal way. Let Habakkuk teach us to praise the Lord, for He is good and His mercy endureth for ever. One other question about the man we can decide, in part at least--the question of the age in Jewish history at which he lived and prophesied. There has, indeed, been a difference of view regarding the matter. Habakkuk has received an earlier date from some, who have placed him in the closing years of Manasseh--the years when the king, as quaint Thomas Fuller says, “being carried into a strange land, came home to himself”; a later date from some others, who assign his preaching and activity to the days of Jehoiakim when Judea was tottering to its fall, so making him one of the prophets of the Captivity. But we may follow those who steer a middle course, and who fix upon t-he reign of Josiah as the most probable period of Habakkuk’s life and work. His prophecies were spoken, we know, before the Babylonian invasion, for he predicts it in graphic and powerful words. But that invasion took place very soon afar good King Josiah had fallen in battle with Egypt, and after all Jerusalem and Judah had mourned for him who seemed to be taken away from the evil to come. What more likely, then, than that this seer and singer lived and wrote and sang in the short epoch of prosperity which preceded the catastrophe? In those days there was stern work to be done by the preacher of righteousness and judgment; for though it was a time of revival, wickedness still dwelt in the land, and God’s punishment was not far away.
II. Let us turn to look at the book which he has left to us. It divides itself into two parts, the one containing the first and second chapters, the other the sublime poem of the third. But the opening division breaks itself up, again, into two lesser sections, in the earlier of which God’s judgment on Judah is described; in the later, God’s judgment on the Chaldeans who had led Judah captive and wasted and destroyed it. Habakkuk, the prophet of faith, shows us, first of all, faith struggling and perplexed at the sight of the sufferings measured out to the Lord’s chosen people; and then faith filled with a stern joy when it beholds the utter overthrow of the conqueror and tyrant. And in the end he sings a song which has faith for its theme--how it takes comfort amid the fears and glooms of the present from the deliverances of the past; how it bates not a jot of heart or hope; how it rejoices in the Lord and exults for joy in the God of salvation.
1. Habakkuk speaks of the doom that is about to fall on his own country and people. It is a daily grief to him, he says, to see the violence and oppression and strife and plunder which prevail around him, the powerlessness of the law, the crookedness of justice, the entrapping of the righteous by the wicked. He finds it hard to understand why God does not interpose to take vengeance on the evil and to diadem the right. “How long shall I cry,” he complains, “and Thou wilt not hear?” But, even while he wonders and questions, God answers that a day of terrible retribution is fast approaching; that He is about to raise up the Chaldeans, a bitter and hasty nation, against His erring children; that a sore and fearful experience, a furnace heated seven times, lies before them in the near future. It is a vivid picture which the prophet draws of these Chaldeans, the instruments of God’s anger. What ruin they bring with them, what misery, what helplessness and despair! The desire of Habakkuk for the punishment of those who were evildoers in his nation was more than satisfied now. It seemed to him, indeed, that this penalty was too severe, this chastisement too sweeping and terrible. It fell on all alike, the good as well as the bad. It overwhelmed land and people in utter destruction. Once again, therefore, he ventured to plead with God. Was it just and fitting to go so far? Was it right to give free rein to so godless a power--one which sacrificed to its own net, and lifted itself in pride to the very heavens? Thus the doom of Judah, the burden which the seer beheld with reference to his native land, is brought to a close. Here let us pause for a moment, that we may learn something for ourselves from the attitude of the prophet. He is a pattern to us. Ought we not, like him, to desire that evil may be wholly rooted out from among God’s redeemed and renewed people; that, at whatever cost and with whatever trying discipline, they may be made entirely pure? And ought we not to pray, too, that the chastisement be not too sharp and grievous, and that God may stay His rough wind in the day of His east wind? The entreaties of Habakkuk were heard. He waited for a while, tarrying in patience like a sentinel on his watchtower; and then again the Lord spoke to him. It was the doom of the arrogant Chaldeans which was disclosed now. The mighty were ultimately to be cast down from their seats; the proud were to be abased. Over and over again the prophet reiterates this assurance of his Lord; he glories in it; it is hard for him to let it go. He tells how the Babylonian plunderer, who had increased that which was not his, and had loaded himself with pledges, should become in turn the booty of others; how the Babylonian tyrant, who had set his nest on high, was really flinging away his life and exposing himself to the wrath of the Almighty; how the Babylonian league-breaker, who had enticed other people into alliances which were turned to their shame and ruin, should drink of the same cup with which he had intoxicated them; how the Babylonian idolater, who forsook the living God for dumb idols, should be left unanswered and unaided in the hour of his need. These seem pitiless threats to utter even against a sinful race, and this mood of the prophet looks harsh and intolerant. But when men cry out against the denunciations and judgments of the Bible, they should remember that God only puts into exercise that right with which no earthly sovereign would or could dispense--the right of removing offenders from the earth. And Habakkuk did well to approve of it. Finally, he breaks out into that glorious song in honour of the God whom he trusted and loved. It is a song which is to be sung, he declares, ‘al shigyonoth, that is, in wandering measures, in music of an impulsive and passionate kind, full of sudden changes and transitions, such as the words of the ode demand. For it passes rapidly from one theme to another, from one mood and feeling to another. It is like the slave whom Longfellow heard singing the Psalms at midnight; its tones “by turns are glad, sweetly solemn, wildly sad.” Habakkuk sets out with the request that those judgments which he had foreseen may come quickly, but that mercy may be mingled with them too. Then, to revive his faith, he recalls the years of the right hand of the Most High, the mighty deeds done of old by God. He speaks of the Lord’s giving of the law from Sinai, when “His brightness was as the light, and He had rays coming forth from His hand, and there was the hiding of His power”; of the ravages of plague and pestilence in the desert; of the terror of the inhabitants of Canaan when the hosts of Israel crossed their border; of the memorable victory gained by Joshua, when “the sun and the moon stood still in their habitation.” All these had been manifestations of Jehovah’s power, terrible to His enemies, but most gracious and comforting to such as confided in Him. From the contemplation of them Habakkuk takes hope and courage. All will be well, he assures himself, with him who has God on his side. And so he closes his hymn with those confident and victorious lines, whose beauty and music are not surpassed in any literature. In his song the prophet shows us the secret of real tranquillity in the midst of outward alarms and distresses. It lies in the possession of a personal trust in the Lord. “The just shall live by his faith,” and are told in another part of this book--live in calm through trouble and danger and temptation, if he believe God and cling to Him. No evil will befall him, and no plague come nigh him. God, he feels, has wrought wondrously in the past, and He can save him still. (Original Secession Magazine.)
the First Week after Epiphany