Israel P. Loken
When we’re hit by chaos or confusion, we often feel like God has left us on our own. When the prophet Habakkuk surveyed the situation in Judah in 630 BC, he felt much the same way.
O Yahweh, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? How long will I cry out to you ‘Violence!’ and you will not save? Why do you cause me see evil while you look at trouble? Destruction and violence happen before me; contention and strife arise (Hab 1:1–3).
Judah was in a state of complete chaos after more than 50 years of deadbeat leadership. Manasseh (696–642 BC), one of the nation’s most evil rulers, built altars to Baal and consulted spiritists and mediums instead of prophets. He had even sacrificed his sons to foreign gods and erected an image of the Canaanite goddess Asherah in God’s temple. Then, after his death, his son Amon reigned for just two years before he was assassinated by his servants. In the early years of Josiah’s reign, the nation was still living in apostasy.
Wrestling with God
It’s in this context that the prophet demands answers from God. Habakkuk’s name was probably derived from the Hebrew word for “embrace” (habak), a word sometimes used in the context of wrestling. He lives up to his name as he clamors for deliverance and justice while “the wicked surround the righteous” and “justice goes forth perverted” (Hab 1:4). He believes God should have intervened long ago.
When God reveals to Habakkuk that He has a plan, it’s far from what the prophet expected. God says He will judge the apostate Judah by raising up the Babylonians to be His instrument of judgment. Habakkuk is understandably appalled. Lexham Bible Dictionary tells us that Babylon had historically been “a symbol of opposition to God and His people.” Habakkuk questions how a holy God could use such an ungodly people to carry out His work. The prophet rebukes God, stands in defiance and waits for the Lord’s response (Hab 1:12–17).
Trusting in God’s Justice
God responds to Habakkuk by assuring the prophet of His justice. Using a series of woe pronouncements, God announces that Babylon, too, will be utterly destroyed. The Hebrew term translated “woe” (hoy, הוי) appears frequently in prophetic literature as a warning of God’s chastisement (Hab 2:6–20, see also Isa 5:8, 11, 18, 20–22). Called out during funeral processions (see 1 Kgs 13:30), hoy meant “woe is me” or “alas.” God’s prophets adapted it as a word of warning: The pronouncements of the Lord’s judgment were so certain to take place that mourning for offenders began immediately, as if they were already dead.
God’s decision to judge Babylon for its many sins—including covetousness, violence and idolatry—would have comforted the righteous in Judah, since He had promised to curse those who abuse His people (e.g., Gen 12:3). Paul reminds us that God has made a similar promise to the Church: “Do not take revenge yourselves, dear friends, but give place to God’s wrath, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord” (Rom 12:19).
Living by Faith
But what about Judah? God hasn’t forgotten about His people. He tells the prophet that “the righteous shall live by his faithfulness” (Hab 2:4). While God welcomed the prophet’s cries for help, both Habakkuk and the righteous people of Judah needed to have faith that God was involved in events—even when they had no tangible evidence of His presence. Such faith would help them endure the difficult times ahead.
We’re familiar with this phrase, “living by faith,” in part because it’s quoted three times in the New Testament. In Romans 1:17, Paul reminds believers that we’re granted God’s righteousness by faith in Jesus Christ. In Galatians 3:11, Paul uses the phrase as the proof-text that a believer is justified by faith, not works. And in Hebrews 10:38, the author quotes it to explain why a righteous person must persevere by faith. In effect, these seven words (“the righteous shall live by his faithfulness”) reveal not only our salvation, but how God’s grace plays out in our lives as believers. He wants us to depend on Him alone and live lives of faith in the midst of chaos and confusion.
We see this in the closing chapter of Habakkuk. As the once-defiant prophet offers a prayer to Yahweh, the revelation of the Lord has filled him with awe. He acknowledges the certainty of God’s plan and requests simply, “In wrath, may you remember to show compassion” (Hab 3:2 leb). Habakkuk moves from doubting God’s presence and questioning His sovereignty to expressing certainty in His plan despite what his surroundings suggest. “Though the fig tree does not blossom, nor there be fruit on the vines; the yield of the olive tree fails, and the cultivated fields do not yield food; the flock is cut off from the animal pen, and there is no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in Yahweh; I will exult in the God of my salvation” (Hab 3:17–18).
As we encounter difficulties in our own lives—and they will come—the words of Habakkuk can give us comfort. Even when we cannot see Him at work, God has plans and a purpose. In those times, call upon Him.
Scripture quotations are from the Lexham English Bible (LEB).