Michael S. Heiser
God is the central character in many Bible passages. This should come as no surprise to us. How His presence is depicted, however, can be quite unexpected. We typically think of God as an invisible spirit, as Jesus describes Him in John 4:24, or as a man, even before Jesus was born (e.g., Gen 18; 28:10–22; Exod 23:20–23). But Habakkuk pictures Him differently:
God came from Teman, and the Holy One from Mount Paran. His splendor covered the heavens, and the earth was full of his praise. His brightness was like the light; rays flashed from his hand; and there he veiled his power.… You stripped the sheath from your bow, calling for many arrows. You split the earth with rivers. The mountains saw you and writhed; the raging waters swept on; the deep gave forth its voice; it lifted its hands on high. The sun and moon stood still in their place at the light of your arrows as they sped, at the flash of your glittering spear (Hab 3:3–4, 9–11).
The portrait of God as Divine Warrior in Habakkuk 3 is a theophany—an appearance of God. Old Testament theophanies can be frightening. This particular one harkens back to Mount Sinai, where the Israelites witnessed the appalling power and overwhelming glory of God, who arrived with “thunders and lightnings and a thick cloud” to speak to Moses and the people (Exod 19:16). The mountain trembled and was “wrapped in smoke” when God descended on it “in fire” (19:18). Prophets like Habakkuk who call up the “flashing fiery mountain” imagery wanted their readers to experience the emotion and fear of the Sinai encounter, an event that precipitated the conquering of the promised land. But this military metaphor is not all Habakkuk has in mind. A close look at the weaponry symbolism turns the focus. The most common type of Old Testament theophany relies on the phenomena of nature—lightning, thunder, dark clouds, flooding, hailstones and violent winds. To the people of the ancient biblical world, these natural forces were a terrifying mystery. They were also an essential part of survival, since the storms brought life-giving rain and subsequent good crops. Habakkuk 3 contains several “storm theophany” elements used throughout the Old Testament: God riding on a chariot through the heavens and through thick, dark clouds (Pss 18:11; 104:3)—commanding the winds and sending thunder and “arrows” of lightning, which He wields like weapons (Job 36:29–30; Psa 77:17–18; Zech 9:14).
Second Samuel 22:8–16 uses these elements in a similar way: He made darkness around him his canopy, thick clouds, a gathering of water. Out of the brightness before him coals of fire flamed forth. The Lord thundered from heaven, and the Most High uttered his voice. And he sent out arrows and scattered them; lightning, and routed them. Then the channels of the sea were seen; the foundations of the world were laid bare, at the rebuke of the Lord, at the blast of the breath of his nostrils (2 Sam 22:12–16).
Prophets like Habakkuk wanted to connect their audience to the Sinai encounter; they also wanted to communicate that God is the creator and master of the natural forces that both terrified and sustained them. He can summon the elements—rain, hail or fire—and make the earth tremble and split.
The message is simple but profound. God is not only the awesome power behind nature—He is greater than those incomprehensible forces. He can control that power and use it to punish or provide. He can wipe out the enemies of His people with the maelstrom, or throttle that fury to preserve life. When He speaks, we should listen.
Scripture quotations are from the English Standard Version (ESV).