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Bible Commentaries

Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible
Habakkuk 1

 

 

Verse 1

‘The burden which Habakkuk the prophet saw.’

This description of a prophecy as a ‘burden’ occurs regularly. This was firstly because it burdened the prophet’s soul. He could not forebear to speak because the message lay heavily on him. And, secondly, it was a burden because he found it very difficult to deliver. It was rarely a happy message, even though usually containing comfort for the future of God’s people. And yet he had to deliver it because God had told him to, we may assume in the face of fierce opposition. Being a true prophet was by no means an easy task.

This designation as "the prophet" as an opening designation is found in two other prophetic books, Haggai and Zechariah. This is probably because they were official prophets, belonging to the recognised order of prophets and connected with the central sanctuary (see Zechariah 11:12 where Zechariah is due his wages).


Verses 2-4

Habakkuk’s Cry From His Heart - Why Does God Not See and Act? (Habakkuk 1:2-4).

Habakkuk 1:2-4

‘O YHWH, how long shall I cry,

And you will not hear?

I cry out to you of violence,

And you will not save.

Why do you show me iniquity,

And look on perverseness?

For spoiling and violence are before me,

And there is strife, and contention rises up.

Therefore the law is slacked,

and justice never goes forth.

For the wicked crowd round the righteous.

Therefore justice goes forth perverted.’

The prophet is bewildered as he looks around him and sees wickedness triumphant in Jerusalem and Judah. Justice is lacking, the law is not being followed truly, and there is the taking of goods by force, and violence, contention and strife. Obedience to God’s moral instruction is almost non-existent. The powerful and the rich misuse their influence for their own gain and the poor and needy are trodden underfoot.

As an official prophet he would learn much of what was taking place and would indeed probably be consulted by people seeking guidance from God. And he has been so moved by it that he has cried out to God about it. But there has been no answer. He is frankly baffled. Why does God not do something about it?

His concern is not because of how it affects him, but because of how it affects the honour of God. It is God’s name that is shamed when His people fall into sin. It was this that caused him to cry to God with such urgency.

‘How long shall I cry and you will not hear.’ How often we have heard this cry from God’s people. This is a cry about the purposes of God that do not seem to be being fulfilled. People seem to be able to do wrong and get away with it, and the weak and helpless suffer. Compare Amos 5:10-11; Amos 8:4-6; Micah 3:9-11. And he cannot understand why God stands by and does nothing. Why does He not step in and do something about it? Jesus faced the same question in people’s minds, and His reply was that God would do so eventually, even though it might seem that it was not as soon as they hoped (Luke 18:7. Compare also those in Revelation 6:10).

This was the cry of the Psalmist in Psalms 73:3-12. It was the cry of Isaiah 5:7-8; Isaiah 5:18-23. It was the cry of Job about his own personal position. It has constantly been the cry of the righteous down the ages. It is just as true today.

‘I cry out to you of violence and you will not save.’ His prayers had been focused. He had seen much violence, violence within Israel, violence perpetrated by the leaders of the people, violence perpetrated by the rich and influential, violence between neighbours. And he had cried out to God. And yet it seemed as though God had not delivered in any sphere. He had allowed the violent to triumph. This includes ‘violence’ to the God’s laws as well as physical violence. They had been manipulated to men’s hurt.

‘Why do you show me iniquity, and look on perverseness? For spoiling and violence are before me, and there is strife. And contention rises up.’ His heart had been burdened by the sin and iniquity that he found around him. God had shown it to him, and he could see what it was doing to God’s people. But what was the point of it being laid on his heart if God was not going to do something about it? Furthermore he could not understand why God seemed willing to look unmoved at man’s perverseness, at men taking spoil from each other by false means, at man’s continual violence and strife, at the contention that so often reared its ugly face among them, not over good, but over their own selfish concerns.

‘Therefore the law is slacked, and justice never goes forth. For the wicked crowd round the righteous. Therefore justice goes forth perverted.’ And because of this violence, and the misuse of authority, the law of God was not exacted in its purity. It was interpreted slackly, twisted by lawyers to gain their clients’ ends, or made to mean something different from its original intention. Furthermore, pressure was used to prevent true justice, the pressure of those who had authority in Israel who sought their own advantage, the pressure of wicked people ganging up against and isolating the righteous for gain, or to prevent measures that would hinder their own self-advancement. Thus justice was being perverted. Why did God not act?


Verses 5-11

God’s Reply. He Is Bringing the Babylonians As His Chasteners (Habakkuk 1:5-11).

Habakkuk 1:5-6

‘Behold among the nations and regard, and wonder marvellously (‘wonder with wonder’). For I work a work in your days which you will not believe though it be told to you. For, lo, I raise up the Chaldeans, that bitter and hasty nation, who march through the breadth of the earth, to possess dwelling places that are not theirs.’

God points out to Habakkuk and his followers (plural verb) that what He is doing is something that will be mysterious and inexplicable to them. Or possibly he is pointing it out through Habakkuk to the evildoers who will be punished as a result of their activity. Either way it will seem unbelievable to them. It will make them marvel. God’s ways are ever so. His ways are not our ways, and His thoughts are not our thoughts. But in the end they achieve what our way would never have achieved.

‘Which you will not believe though it be told to you.’ This indeed was their problem, lack of belief in what God says. This is in contrast with the righteous in Habakkuk 2:4, stressing that there it is faith that is the prominent idea. These do not believe, while those in Habakkuk 2:4 believe what God says and find strength from it and ‘live’.

And what was this amazing thing? In order to see it they must look among the nations, and consider carefully. They must consider what they saw around them. It was that He would use the Chaldeans (the Babylonians) as His instruments. Ezekiel had said the same thing, even seeing Nebuchadnezzar as someone whom God paid wages to for his services (Ezekiel 29:18-20), and as the one who bore the sword that YHWH had given to Him, YHWH’s own sword (Ezekiel 30:24-25).

The Neo-Babylonian empire began its rise to ‘world’ domination with the accession of Nabopolassar to the throne of Babylon in 626 BC, whose first task was to finally free Babylon from being tributary to Assyria. Like Israel and Judah they had every now and again sought to free themselves from the Assyrian yoke, and they had suffered under their transportation policy. Thus their rise resulted from a sense of bitterness at the way they had been treated, and they were out to make up for it.

And they seemed to be in a hurry, for within a short time of destroying Assyria with the aid of the Medes and the Scythians, and defeating Egypt, who sought to aid Assyria against them, they were out to take over their empire. Thus are they here described as ‘bitter and hasty’, and that ‘bitterness’ was seen as continuing in the way in which they treated the conquered nations who would not submit to them. By 605 BC they were at the gates of Jerusalem, and the first of a number of transportations began, which included Daniel. For their attacks on Egypt see Ezekiel 28:7; Ezekiel 30:11; Ezekiel 31:12; Ezekiel 32:12.

So the fact that God uses them is no recommendation of the Chaldeans. He describes them as a ‘bitter and hasty’ nation, who go everywhere taking dwellingplaces that are not theirs. They are as bad as the Assyrians, but He nevertheless uses them to punish the Assyrians, and also finally to punish the wicked and violent in Judah and Jerusalem, as Ezekiel makes clear.

This is a clear statement that YHWH is the Lord of history and makes history fulfil His will. Out of evil He produces good. He can use as His instruments even the most unworthy. This is not to make Him responsible for how they do it. Man acts as he is, freely, and often cruelly and reveals his true nature. As Daniel shows us he is like a wild beast. But over all YHWH is sovereign, bending all things to His will.

Habakkuk 1:7-9

‘They are terrible and fearsome.

Their judgment and their dignity proceed from themselves.

Their horses also are swifter than leopards,

And are more fierce than the evening wolves.

And their horsemen spread themselves.

Yes, their horsemen come from far.

They fly as an eagle which hastens to devour.

They come all of them for violence,

The eagerness of their faces is as the east wind,

and they gather captives as the sand.’

A fuller description of Babylon is now given. God does not want Habakkuk and his hearers to be under any illusions. These are a terrible foe who cannot be thwarted or turned aside. Jeremiah later tells the people that they must submit to them because it is God’s will. Not only do they seize what is not theirs, but in doing so they appear terrible and fearsome. They are proud and self-sufficient. They behave as they wish to behave and have their own way of doing things, which is not always very pleasant to say the least. They make their own decisions and pass their own judgments. They are not to be thwarted. There is irony here for we will soon learn that YHWH can thwart them.

They are also powerful warriors. Swift as the leopard, fierce as hungry wolves in the evening (compare Jeremiah 5:6; Zephaniah 3:3), eager to satisfy their hunger. Moreover they spread themselves, they reach out further and further, and come great distances. They swoop like the eagle hastening on its prey (Deuteronomy 28:49; Job 9:26; Lamentations 4:19). And their aim is violence, in which they are eager and determined like the scorching east wind. The picture of faces eager to scorch up the earth is a vivid one.

The east wind is a dry wind from the wilderness (Job 1:19; Jeremiah 4:11; Jeremiah 13:24), strong and gusty (Exodus 14:21; Job 27:21; Job 38:24; Jeremiah 18:17) and of scorching heat (Amos 4:9; Hosea 13:15). Its attentions are therefore very unwelcome and unpleasant.

‘They gather captives as the sand.’ Both in subjugating nations and transporting people into exile they deal with huge numbers. Their captives are numberless like the sand by the seashore.

So while they are being used as God’s chastening instruments, in a similar way to the Assyrians, ‘the rod of God’s anger’ (Isaiah 10:5), this does not recommend them as worthy. Rather God is to be seen as turning the beastliness of man to fulfil His own purposes.

Israel were constantly confident, in their few times of independence, that God would not again allow the Gentiles to overrun their nation or destroy their temple (see Jeremiah 5:12; Jeremiah 6:14; Jeremiah 7:1-34; Jeremiah 8:11; Lamentations 4:12; Amos 6:1-14). Yet their law and their prophets warned them again and again that it would happen, because of their sinfulness (see Deuteronomy 28:49-50; 1 Kings 11:14; 1 Kings 11:23; Jeremiah 4:1-31; Jeremiah 5:14-17; Jeremiah 6:22-30; Amos 6:14). But that was a message that they did not want to hear. So God stresses through Habakkuk the powerful nature of the forces that are coming. They are irresistible. And He stresses that though they may be seen as far away they will come swiftly and unstoppably.

Habakkuk 1:10-11

‘Yes, he scoffs at kings,

And princes are a derision to him.

He derides every stronghold,

For he heaps up soil and takes it.

Then will he sweep by as the wind,

And will pass over, and be guilty.

Even he whose might is his god.’

The king of Babylon is so mighty that he sweeps minor royalty aside in derision, he mocks at fortresses and strong defences, for he puts up his siege mounds and takes them. Thus let not the king of Judah think that he can stand against him. He comes like the wind, the east wind (Habakkuk 1:9), and then he passes on like the wind, and he leaves behind the devastation and barrenness that has increased his guilt. For even kings like the king of Babylon have their sins counted against them. But for the time being at least, he sees might and power as his god. He looks to them to be the foundation of his life, a foundation that one day will crumble (and all too soon, for within seventy years the Babylonian empire was no more).


Verses 12-17

Habbakuk Is Even More Put Out. How Can God Use Such Instruments to Chasten His People? (Habakkuk 1:12-17).

Habakkuk 1:12

‘Are you not from everlasting, O YHWH?

My God, my Holy One, We will not die.

O YHWH, you have ordained him for judgment,

And you, O Rock, have established him for correction.’

Habakkuk acknowledges that he recognises that they are coming as instruments of chastening, and that God is over all and that therefore there was no need for despair. God will not finally allow His people to cease to be (die). But he is still baffled. Why such instruments?

An alternative reading to ‘you will not die’ in very ancient manuscripts, which were said to have been corrected by Ezra and the Scribes (there were eighteen such corrections), is ‘You shall not die’. This would be contrasting the eternal God to the gods who could die and then live again, and further strongly asserting His everlastingness. It may well be correct, the emendation being made at the horrific suggestion that death could be associated with YHWH, even theoretically.

His first confidence is in the everlastingness of God. Empires come and go, but YHWH is from everlasting and goes on for ever (Genesis 21:33; Psalms 41:13; Psalms 90:2; Psalms 93:2; Isaiah 40:28; Jeremiah 10:10). He has everlasting power. That is why He can show everlasting mercy (Psalms 100:5; Isaiah 54:8; Jeremiah 31:3), He can make an everlasting covenant (Genesis 9:16; Genesis 17:7; Genesis 17:19; Psalms 105:10; Isaiah 55:3; Jeremiah 32:40; Ezekiel 37:26), He can establish an everlasting kingdom (Psalms 145:13; Daniel 4:3; Daniel 4:34; Daniel 7:14; Daniel 7:27), He can deliver with an everlasting deliverance (Isaiah 45:17), holds His true people in His everlasting arms (Deuteronomy 33:27), and will finally give them everlasting life (Daniel 12:2). All these privileges His true people will enjoy. This was certainly not true of the king of Babylon.

His second confidence was in the fact that God was his own God, as ‘the Holy One’, the One Who was ‘set apart’ as different, the One Who was unique (Exodus 15:11; 2 Samuel 7:22; 1 Kings 8:23), the One Who was ‘wholly other’, totally distinctive from the world which He had created. And that holiness included a moral purity as revealed in His Law, and in His final dealings with man, which is why He will call all men to account (Genesis 18:25; Exodus 34:7; Nahum 1:3), so that when men experienced His presence they felt as though they were dust and ashes, they felt totally unclean, they were filled with awe and reverent fear (Job 41:5-6; Isaiah 6:5; Isaiah 33:14; Genesis 15:12; Genesis 17:3; Ezekiel 1:28; Ezekiel 3:23).

So because God offered everlasting mercy and everlasting deliverance, and was faithful to His everlasting covenant, Habakkuk knew that His true people could not ‘die’, they could not cease to be.

‘You have ordained him for judgment, and you, O Rock, have established him for correction.’ He accepted that God had ordained the king of Babylon as His means of chastisement and correction for His people. But he will now argue that he does not think that they are fit instruments. What he did not realise, however, as God did, was how deep was the sin of his own people, how greatly it had offended Him, and how difficult it would be to root out. Most of us fail to recognise the difficulty that God has in rooting out sin in inveterate sinners like us. That is why we too often have to suffer. Note the fact that in the final analysis the king of Babylon was ordained and established by God. Nabopolassar and Nebuchadnezzar were his instruments.

These ideas must be held in tension. These kings were free men, with freedom to choose and act as within their limits they wished. Nor did God force them into their behaviour. But nevertheless He was sovereign over them in a way they could never have dreamed of, and they therefore unknowingly fulfilled His will. (But that does not mean that all that they did was His will).

‘O Rock.’ This is in contrast with these kings who are but as sand. He is the Rock, unshakeable, unchanging, permanent, a tower of strength (Deuteronomy 32:4; Deuteronomy 32:18; Deuteronomy 32:30-31; 1 Samuel 2:2; 2 Samuel 22:2; 2 Samuel 22:32; 2 Samuel 23:3; Psalms 31:3 and often; Isaiah 17:10). Habakkuk is declaring His confidence that although he cannot fully understand what is happening, He is confident that in the end God is their Rock.

Habakkuk 1:13

‘You are of purer eyes than to behold evil,

And you cannot look on what causes wretchedness.

Why do you look on those who deal treacherously,

And hold your peace when the wicked swallow up the man who is more righteous than he?’

Habakkuk cannot understand why the Rock, the Everlasting One, the Holy One, will allow this situation to happen. He knows that God is pure, and so pure that He cannot look with equanimity on evil and wrongdoing (see for example Psalms 5:4-6; Psalms 34:16; Psalms 34:21). He knows that He cannot bear what causes wretchedness. (The root ‘ml refers to what causes wretchedness, such as labour and toil, distress and trouble, disaster and evil, and so on). So why does He stand by and allow this, yes, even bring it about? Israel may be wicked, but not as wicked as Babylon which was proverbial for wickedness. Why then allow Israel to be ‘swallowed up’ by them, with the result that they become leaderless and helpless? (As with the Assyrians it was Babylonian policy to remove the leadership of rebel nations so as to tame them).

Habakkuk 1:14-17

‘And make men as the fish of the sea,

As the creeping things that have no ruler over them?

He takes all of them up with his hook,

He catches them in his net,

And he gathers them in his dragnet.

Therefore he rejoices and is glad.

Therefore he sacrifices to his net and burns incense to his dragnet,

Because by them his portion is fat,

And his food plenteous.

Shall he therefore empty his net,

And not spare to slay the nations continually?’

The smaller nations, including Israel and Judah, are likened to fish and creeping things, who have no ruler (while not true of all fish and creeping things this is certainly true of many, and in those days it appeared even more so). The nations have no proper ruler because their rulers have been removed into captivity. And Babylon is likened to fishermen using every possible means, hook, net and dragnet, in order to catch the fish.

And because he catches so many fish, giving him a fat reward and plenty of food, he sacrifices to his net and burns incense to his dragnet. He worships what he sees as the means of his provision. The net and dragnet are metaphorical. They did not really exist. So the prophet cannot mean that he literally worships them. Rather he sees behind them the gods who grant them to him. He sees the gods themselves as making provision for him through his activities and conquests. Thus it is the gods behind his net and dragnet that he is worshipping. So as it makes him rich with plenty can anyone therefore imagine him ceasing to use the net, leaving it empty, and ceasing to spoil the nations?

We do not need to particularise the details, it is the impression that counts. His net includes the gathering of regular tribute, the looting of cities, the obtaining of wealth by violent means, the seizing cattle and sheep, exactions by crooked officials, the robbing of temples and so on. In fact any means by which the Babylonians could enrich themselves. And Habakkuk’s problem is that in the face of this YHWH does nothing. What is the explanation?

 


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Bibliography Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Habakkuk 1:4". "Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/pet/habakkuk-1.html. 2013.

Lectionary Calendar
Sunday, October 13th, 2019
the Week of Proper 23 / Ordinary 28
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