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Bible Commentaries

Expositor's Bible Commentary
Habakkuk 3

 

 

Verses 1-19

Habakkuk 3:1-19

The third chapter, an Ode or Rhapsody, is ascribed to Habakkuk by its title. This, however, does not prove its authenticity: the title is too like those assigned to the Psalms in the period of the Second Temple. On the contrary, the title itself, the occurrence of the musical sign Selah in the contents, and the colophon suggest for the chapter a liturgical origin after the Exile. That this is more probable than the alternative opinion, that, being a genuine work of Habakkuk, the chapter was afterwards arranged as a Psalm for public worship, is confirmed by the fact that no other work of the prophets has been treated in the same way. Nor do the contents support the authorship by Habakkuk. They reflect no definite historical situation like the preceding chapters. The style and temper are different. While in them the prophet speaks for himself, here it is the nation or congregation of Israel that addresses God. The language is not, as some have maintained, late; but the designation of the people as "Thine anointed," a term which before the Exile was applied to the king, undoubtedly points to a post-exilic date. The figures, the theophany itself, are not necessarily archaic, but are more probably molded on archaic models. There are many affinities with Psalms of a late date.

At the same time a number of critics maintain the genuineness of the chapter, and they have some grounds for this. Habakkuk was, as we can see from chapters 1 and 2, a real poet. There was no need why a man of his temper should be bound down to reflecting only his own day. If so practical a prophet as Hosea, and one who has so closely identified himself with his times, was wont to escape from them to a retrospect of the dealings of God with Israel from of old, why should not the same be natural for a prophet who was much less practical and more literary and artistic? There are also many phrases in the Psalm which may be interpreted as reflecting the same situation as chapters 1, 2. All this, however, only proves possibility.

The Psalm has been adapted in Psalms 77:17-20.

"IN THE MIDST OF THE YEARS"

Habakkuk 3:1-19

WE have seen the impossibility of deciding the age of the ode which is attributed to Habakkuk in the third chapter of his book. But this is only one of the many problems raised by that brilliant poem. Much of its text is corrupt, and the meaning of many single words is uncertain. As in most Hebrew poems of description, the tenses of the verbs puzzle us, we cannot always determine whether the poet is singing of that which is past or present or future, and this difficulty is increased by his subject, a revelation of God in nature for the deliverance of Israel. Is this the deliverance from Egypt, with the terrible tempests which accompanied it? Or have the features of the Exodus been borrowed to describe some other deliverance, or to sum up the constant manifestation of Jehovah for His people’s help?

The introduction, in Habakkuk 3:2, is clear. The singer has heard what is to be heard of Jehovah, and His great deeds in the past. He prays for a revival of these "in the midst of the years." The times are full of trouble and turmoil. Would that God, in the present confusion of baffled hopes and broken issues, made Himself manifest by power and brilliance, as of old! "In turmoil remember mercy!" To render "turmoil" by "wrath," as if it were God’s anger against which the singer’s heart appealed, is not true to the original word itself, affords no parallel to "the midst of the years," and misses the situation. Israel cries from a state of life in which the obscure years are huddled together and full of turmoil. We need not wish to fix the date more precisely than the writer himself does, but may leave it with him "in the midst of the years."

There follows the description of the Great Theophany, of which, in his own poor times, the singer has heard. It is probable that he has in his memory the events of the Exodus and Sinai. On this point his few geographical allusions agree with his descriptions of nature. He draws all the latter from the desert, or Arabian, side of Israel’s history. He introduces none of the sea-monsters, or imputations of arrogance and rebellion to the sea itself, which the influence of Babylonian mythology so thickly scattered through the later sea-poetry of the Hebrews. The Theophany takes place in a violent tempest of thunder and rain, the only process of nature upon which the desert poets of Arabia dwell with any detail. In harmony with this, God appears from the southern desert, from Teman and Paran, as in the theophanies in Deuteronomy 33:1-29, and in the Song of Deborah; a few lines recall the Song of the Exodus, [Exodus 15:1-27] and there are many resemblances to the phraseology of the Sixty-eighth Psalm. The poet sees under trouble the tents of Kushan and of Midian, tribes of Sinai. And though the Theophany is with floods of rain and lightning, and foaming of great waters, it is not with hills, rivers, or sea that God is angry, but with the nations the oppressors of His poor people, and in order that He may deliver the latter. All this, taken with the fact that no mention is made of Egypt, proves that, while the singer draws chiefly upon the marvelous events of the Exodus and Sinai for his description, he celebrates not them alone but all the ancient triumphs of God over the heathen oppressors of Israel. Compare the obscure line-these be "His goings of old."

The report of it all fills the prophet with trembling (Habakkuk 3:16 returns upon Habakkuk 2:6), and although his language is too obscure to permit us to follow with certainty the course of his feeling, he appears to await in confidence the issue of Israel’s present troubles. His argument seems to be, that such a God may be trusted still, in face of approaching invasion (Habakkuk 3:16). The next verse, however, does not express the experience of trouble from human foes; but figuring the extreme affliction of drought, barrenness, and poverty, the poet speaking in the name of Israel declares that, in spite of them, he will still rejoice in the God of their salvation (Habakkuk 3:17). So sudden is this change from human foes to natural plagues that some scholars have here felt a passage to another poem describing a different situation. But the last lines with their confidence in the "God of salvation," a term always used of deliverance from enemies, and the boast, borrowed from the Eighteenth Psalm. "He maketh my feet like to hinds’ feet, and gives me to march on my heights," reflect the same circumstances as the bulk of the Psalm, and offer no grounds to doubt the unity of the whole.

PSALM OF HABAKKUK THE PROPHET

"Lord, I have beard the report of Thee; I stand in awe! Lord, revive Thy work in the midst of the years, In the midst of the years make Thee known In turmoil remember mercy! God comes from Teman, The Holy from Mount Paran. He covers the heavens with His glory."

"And filled with His praise is the earth. The flash is like lightning; He has rays from each hand of Him, Therein is the ambush of His might. Pestilence travels before Him, The plague-fire breaks forth at His feet. He stands and earth shakes, He looks and drives nations asunder; And the ancient mountains are cloven, The hills everlasting sink down. These be His ways from of old."

"Under trouble I see the tents of Kushan The curtains of Midian’s land are quivering Is it with hills Jehovah is wroth? Is Thine anger with rivers? Or against the sea is Thy wrath, That Thou ridest it with horses, Thy chariots of victory? Thy bow is stripped bare; Thou gluttest(?) Thy shafts. Into rivers Thou clearest the earth; Mountains see Thee and writhe; The rainstorm sweeps on: The Deep utters his voice, He lifts up his roar upon high. Sun and moon stand still in their dwelling, At the flash of Thy shafts as they speed, At the sheen of the lightning, Thy lance In wrath Thou stridest the earth, In anger Thou threshest the nations Thou art forth to the help of Thy people, To save Thine anointed. Thou hast shattered the head from the house of the wicked, Laying bare from to the neck. Thou hast pierced with Thy spears the head of his princes. They stormed forth to crush me; Their triumph was as to devour the poor in secret. Thou hast marched on the sea with Thy horses; Foamed the great waters."

"I have heard, and my heart shakes; At the sound my lips tremble, Rottenness enters my bones, My steps shake under me. I will for the day of trouble That pours in on the people. Though the fig-tree do not blossom, And no fruit be on the vines, Fail the produce of the olive, And the fields yield no meat, Cut off by the flock from the fold, And no cattle in the stalls, Yet in the Lord will I exult, I will rejoice in the God of my salvation. Jehovah, the Lord, is my might; He hath made my feet like the hinds’, And on my heights He gives me to march."

This Psalm, whose musical signs prove it to have been employed in the liturgy of the Jewish Temple, has also largely entered into the use of the Christian Church. The vivid style, the sweep of vision, the exultation in the extreme of adversity with which it closes, have made it a frequent theme of preachers and of poets. St. Augustine’s exposition of the Septuagint version spiritualizes almost every clause into a description of the first and second advents of Christ: Calvin’s more sober and accurate learning interpreted it of God’s guidance of Israel from the time of the Egyptian plagues to the days of Joshua and Gideon, and made it enforce the lesson that He who so wonderfully delivered His people in their youth will not forsake them in the midway of their career. The closing verses have been torn from the rest to form the essence of a large number of hymns in many languages.

For ourselves, it is perhaps most useful to fasten upon the poet’s description of his own position in the midst of the years, and like him to take heart, amid our very similar circumstances, from the glorious story of God’s ancient revelation, in the faith that He is still the same in might and in purpose of grace to His people. We, too, live among the nameless years. We feel them about us, undistinguished by the manifest workings of God, slow and petty, or, at the most, full of inarticulate turmoil. At this very moment we suffer from the frustration of a great cause, on which believing men had set their hearts as God’s cause; Christendom has received from the infidel no greater reverse since the days of the Crusades. Or, lifting our eyes to a larger horizon, we are tempted to see about us a wide, flat waste of years. It is nearly nineteen centuries since the great revelation of God in Christ, the redemption of mankind, and all the wonders of the Early Church. We are far, far away from that, and unstirred by the expectation of any crisis in the near future. We stand "in the midst of the years," equally distant from beginning and from end. It is the situation which Jesus Himself likened to the long double watch in the middle of the night-"if he come in the second watch or in the third watch"-against whose dullness He warned His disciples. How much need is there at such a time to recall, like this poet, what God has done-how often He has shaken the world and overturned the nations, for the sake of His people and the Divine causes they represent. "His ways are everlasting." As He then worked, so He will work now for the same ends of redemption. Our prayer for "a revival of His work" will be answered before it is spoken.

It is probable that much of our sense of the staleness of the years comes from their prosperity. The dull feeling that time is mere routine is fastened upon our hearts by nothing more firmly than by the constant round of fruitful seasons-that fortification of comfort, that regularity of material supplies, which modern life assures to so many. Adversity would brace us to a new expectation of the near and strong action of our God. This is perhaps the meaning of the sudden mention of natural plagues in the seventeenth verse of our Psalm. Not in spite of the extremes of misfortune, but just because of them, should we exult in "the God of our salvation"; and realize that it is by discipline He makes His Church to feel that she is not marching over the dreary levels of nameless years, but "on our high place’s He makes us to march."

"Grant, Almighty God, as the dullness and hardness of our flesh is so great that it is needful for us to be in various ways afflicted-oh, grant that we patiently bear Thy chastisement and under a deep feeling of sorrow flee to Thy mercy displayed to us in Christ, so that we depend not on the earthly blessings of this perishable life, but relying on Thy word go forward in the course of our calling, until at length we be gathered to that blessed rest which is laid up for us in heaven, through Christ our Lord. Amen."

 


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Bibliography Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Habakkuk 3:4". "Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/teb/habakkuk-3.html.

Lectionary Calendar
Wednesday, December 11th, 2019
the Second Week of Advent
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