“The burden which Habakkuk the prophet did see.” —Habakkuk 1:1

THE word ‘burden’ at the beginning of this hook is somewhat unexpected. The translators of the Revised Standard Version thought ‘oracle’ to be a better rendering of this Hebrew word, massau. Strong’s Concordance gives the meaning as ‘an utterance, chiefly a doom’. In Proverbs 30:1, and 31:1, the word also has been rendered ‘prophecy’. But the thought conveyed by the word burden nicely expresses the prophet’s emotions concerning the vision. God granted him a preview of judgment to come upon Israel, followed by punishment upon the heathen who were to be used by God to execute that judgment. Certainly the collected utterances of Habakkuk can well be categorized as ‘doom’.

We know almost nothing about Habakkuk—where he lived, or for how long; who his parents were; nor can we be sure when he received his prophetic vision of the future. Because of the nature of the prophecy, most experts place the time of its pronouncement before Nebuchadnezzar marched with his armies to overthrow Jerusalem and take the Jews captive to Babylon. Conditions in Israel at that time had deteriorated to the point where the people were no better than the heathen nations surrounding them. They had forgotten about the special relationship they had with God, and their covenant with him.

Chapter One: Habakkuk’s Complaint

It is easy to understand Habakkuk’s distress as he uttered this prayer: “O Lord, how long shall I cry and thou wilt not hear, even cry out unto thee of violence, and thou wilt not save! … For spoiling and violence are before me and there are that raise up strife and contention. Therefore the Law is slacked and judgment doth never go forth: for the wicked doth compass about the righteous; therefore wrong judgment proceedeth.”—Hab. 1:2-4

Habakkuk saw violence, iniquity, and injustice go unpunished, the wicked oppress the righteous, and the law of God, which forbids such things, go unheeded. The opening verses of Habakkuk show that he complained repeatedly about these conditions: “Why don’t you do something?” is his bewildered query to God. God was about to take steps to correct the situation, and he told Habakkuk, “Lo, I raise up the Chaldeans, that bitter and hasty nation, which shall march through the breadth of the land to possess the dwelling places that are not theirs. They are terrible and dreadful [and from them shall proceed the judgment of these, Margin].”—Hab. 1:6,7

Thus, from this prophecy, Habakkuk knew what the future would hold for his people, for the Lord had prophesied that the Chaldeans, or Babylonians, would destroy everything. He acknowledged that they were ordained for the very purpose of the judgment and the correction of Israel, but he was confused as to why the Lord would use a nation so evil. (vs. 12) He asked: “Wherefore lookest thou upon them that deal treacherously, and holdest thy tongue when the wicked devoureth the man that is more righteous than he?” Although Israel was a wicked nation, at least in Habakkuk’s eyes they were better than the heathen, the Babylonians. How could God give a victory to Israel’s enemy when that enemy was still worse than Israel? God’s solution seemed to create more problems than it solved.

Wanting to understand this perplexing situation, Habakkuk stood upon his watch to “see what he [God] will say unto me, and what I shall answer when I am reproved.” (2:1) Habakkuk dared to argue with God about the solution to his original complaint. He knew he deserved to be reproved for this, but he wanted to hear God’s reasons for using the wicked heathen to punish Israel; it seemed such an improbable and unreasonable method. And God did explain the plan of action, and his reasons for it.

Chapter Two: Evil Will Not Really Triumph

“The Lord answered me and said, Write the vision and make it plain upon tables, that he may run that readeth it. For the vision is yet for an appointed time, but at the end it shall speak and not lie; though it tarry, wait for it because it will surely come, it will not tarry.” (Hab. 2:2,3) What vision was the Lord talking about? What was it that Habakkuk was to write? The answer is the book itself: the burden that he saw. This includes what God had told him, as recorded in chapters one and two. Furthermore, he was told to write them on tables, or clay tablets, and not on perishable parchments.

There is a verse in chapter one that the Apostle Paul quoted in Acts 13:41, to emphasize what was happening in his time. That verse, containing a wonderful principle, states: “I will work a work in your days which ye will not believe though it be told you.” (Hab. 1:5) It is easy to disbelieve any prophecy if its fulfillment takes longer than you think it should, and the doom pronounced upon Israel by God through Habakkuk was quite certainly in that category.

Habakkuk never doubted that God’s judgments would come upon Israel, although many in Israel found it very convenient to doubt, and very difficult to conceive that God would ever punish his chosen people by showing favor to a people who were far more wicked and unbelieving than Israel. The question raised then, still remains: Why does God permit evil? The answer, of course, is that although it appears that evil prevails unheeded, there indeed will eventually come a day of reckoning.

The remainder of chapter two predicted five woes against the invader, whose soul was “lifted up”: “Woe to him who heaps up what is not his own.” (vs. 6) “Woe to him who gets evil gain for his house.” (vs. 9) “Woe to him who builds a town with blood and … iniquity.” (vs. 12) “Woe to him who makes his neighbors drink of the cup of his wrath.” (vs. 15) “Woe to him who says to a wooden thing, Awake, to a dumb stone, Arise!” (vs. 19) These are all quoted from the Revised Standard Version.

Here was the answer to Habakkuk’s puzzle: the Chaldeans, the most powerful empire the world had ever seen—pictured by the head of gold on Nebuchadnezzar’s image—would be thoroughly humbled and punished in God’s due time. Mighty Babylon, as Isaiah prophesied, would be completely destroyed. “Babylon, the glory of kingdoms, the beauty of the Chaldees’ excellency, shall be as when God overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah. It shall never be inhabited, neither shall it be dwelt in from generation to generation.” (Isa. 13:19,20) This prophecy was fulfilled so completely that even to this day only wild beasts live in the ruins of Babylon.

We see many similarities between what we call ‘typical Babylon’ of Habakkuk’s prophecy, and ‘antitypical Babylon’ of today—“Babylon the great, the mother of harlots, and abominations of the earth. And I saw the woman drunken with the blood of the saints and with the blood of the martyrs of Jesus.” (Rev. 17:5,6) This Babylon prophesied of by John in Revelation is not the literal Babylon of Habakkuk’s day. That world empire had already passed from the world scene before Revelation was written. This Babylon represents another great power which has oppressed God’s people. And once again the faithful may wonder, why does God permit such evil to prevail? The Revelator tells us, “Babylon the great is fallen, is fallen. Therefore shall her plagues come in one day, death and mourning, and famine: and she shall be utterly burned with fire: for strong is the Lord God who judgeth her. Babylon shall be thrown down and shall be found no more at all.”—Rev. 18:2,8,21

If sometimes you begin to think that the forces of evil are winning, or that the unjust live equally as well, or better, than the just, or that the establishment of the kingdom is tarrying—remember the prophecy of Habakkuk. The destruction foretold by God did indeed come upon Jerusalem, despite the fact that the people did not believe this would ever happen. The destruction God had foretold would come upon literal Babylon did come to pass. Therefore we are certain that the destruction upon antitypical Babylon will also occur, whether or not the prophecy seems to tarry.

We have no pleasure in destruction, but we know present evil conditions must be destroyed before the blessings of the kingdom can flow to the people, and this is where our interest lies. Habakkuk, too, was concerned about the blessings. He said, “The earth shall be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.”—Hab. 2:14

The proud Chaldeans put their trust in their might, “They sacrifice unto their net [their own strength].” Since they make sacrifice to their net, it becomes a ‘god’—a god which has no breath at all! What a contrast to the only true and living God—a God who dwells in a holy temple and has the power to silence all the earth before him, including the false gods of man’s making.—Hab. 2:20

The Just Shall Live by Faith

The fourth verse of chapter two is extremely important. It is one of only two verses in this book which are quoted in the New Testament. This particular verse provided proof to the Apostle Paul for a key doctrine: justification by faith. The Book of Romans has much to say about faith. The word appears thirty-nine times in that book alone. After a few introductory words, Paul quoted from Old Testament Scripture, saying, “Therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith, as it is written, The just shall live by faith.”—Rom. 1:17

Is this true? Do not the unjust live as long as the just? In this life, of course, they do; but as far as God’s eternal purpose is concerned, they do not. Paul raised Habakkuk’s words to a higher plane when he showed that the life enjoyed by a just man can only come through belief in and acceptance of Christ. In the preceding verse he had stated, “The Gospel of Christ is the power of God unto salvation to everyone that believeth.” This salvation is what constitutes ‘living’, and it is only available to those who have faith. In the next few verses Paul explains how the wrath of God is upon those who have no faith, and that without God’s favor no one can receive the blessing of everlasting life.

The Jews of Paul’s day believed it was necessary to earn God’s favor by keeping the Law—justification by works. In his letter to the Galatians, the Apostle Paul used this Habakkuk text to prove this premise wrong: “That no man is justified by the Law in the sight of God is evident for, The just shall live by faith. And the Law is not of faith.” (Gal. 3:11,12) Again Paul used this Habakkuk text to prove his assertion concerning the importance of faith as compared with works.

Chapter Three: A Psalm of Salvation

We have seen that chapters one and two of this book contain the burden, or oracle, which God gave to Habakkuk. Chapter three is in a different style. It is a psalm—beginning with a subscription, and concluding with a superscription, in the manner of David’s psalms.

Some Biblical scholars have thought this psalm was a later addition to the book, but that seems unlikely. When you consider Habakkuk’s state of mind and his knowledge that the Chaldeans were destined to come into Israel, wreaking destruction upon the nation, how would we expect him to act? As a man of faith, he naturally turned his thoughts to God, and he composed a hymn of praise to the great Creator, remembering the many times past when he had intervened with special salvation for Israel. Since it is written in a poetic style, it is more difficult to understand the specific references, but these can be identified with thoughtful consideration.

In verse six, he speaks of the time when God “drove assunder the nations,” referring to Israel’s entrance into the land of Canaan. Again, salvation came about when “the deep uttered his voice and lifted up his hands on high,” referring to the walls of water Israel passed through in crossing the Red Sea. (vs. 10) A reference is made to the battle of Joshua at Gibeon, when “the sun and moon stood still in their habitation.”—vs. 11

The thrust of this psalm is summarized in verse thirteen: “Thou wentest forth for the salvation of thy people.” By recalling these marvelous examples of God’s intervention on behalf of his people, Habakkuk’s hopes were raised that God would once again remember Israel in their time of trouble. Although he believed God’s word that the Chaldeans would be punished, this did not prevent him from continuing to hope that God would save his people. And, although this did not happen in Habakkuk’s day, we know, in harmony with his prophecy, that this is exactly what God has done at this end of the age.

Habakkuk prayed that he might rest in the day of coming trouble upon Israel. (vs. 16) Whether he meant he wanted to be at rest spiritually, or whether he prayed for rest in death, is not clear. No matter which is the case, the principle is what is important. In times of trouble, our prayers should be that we might rest in the Lord, knowing he has full control over every experience which comes to us.

Lessons for Our Own Time

If this book were only concerned with the destruction upon Israel in Habakkuk’s day, and the destruction that came later upon the Chaldeans, ‘God would not have directed Habakkuk to write it on permanent clay tablets so that it would be preserved for our use. All the books of our Bible contain lessons on many different levels. Let us consider a few thoughts from which we can profit today:

“I will work a work which ye will not believe, though it be told you.” (Hab. 1:5) Israel should have believed the message given especially to them by God’s prophet; but few did. Those born under the Jewish Law in Paul’s day could not believe God was widening his perspective to include Gentiles. Today? We preach the coming kingdom, and the ending of this long night of sin and death. And most people simply say it is too good to believe. Faith is, and always has been, a scarce commodity!

God has his own methods of solving problems, and God’s way of dealing with a problem is probably not our way, since he has particular lessons in mind which the experience is designed to teach. How many times do we go to God with a solution to a problem, instead of with the problem? We tell him we need better health to serve others, or money to attend a convention, or a more reliable car to take people to a Bible study meeting. These are all solutions.

From the beginning of time, God has moved in what appears to be a mysterious way to accomplish his plans, and therefore we must seek to be in tune with him to understand how we can work with him. God was not angry with Habakkuk for being concerned about Israel. He will not be angry with us when we bring, our problems to him; but let us remember that his ways are higher than our ways, and are always best.

The wicked prosper, and it does not mean a thing. We all know that it is not wise to judge a book by its cover, yet we are still prone to do so anyway. Worldly agencies, religious groups, social and political organizations, all appear to achieve great advantages for their members. But appearances do not mean anything. Our affections must be set on things above. Earthly prosperity is not part of our covenant of sacrifice. Since the wicked are not in covenant relationship with God, what happens to them in this present evil world should not be our concern.

Why does God permit evil? This is perhaps one of the hardest questions Christians face. Habakkuk made it clear that God had no intention of permitting evil indefinitely, but only as long as it suited his purposes, and accomplished his designs. There came a time when he brought Israel’s favor to an end because of their evil practices. The time came when the Chaldean empire was totally destroyed from off the face of the earth. And he will indeed put an end to evil in a great time of trouble which has begun to engulf the world. Let us use this penetrating question as an aid to giving a witness in our contact with others, and share the answers which the truth has given us, which answers are found nowhere else.

“Oh that I might rest in the day of trouble,” Habakkuk prayed. We have also been given a great vision of a coming time of terrible trouble. But the troubles in the world cannot affect our faith. Like Habakkuk, we too should rest in the providences of God, waiting for his promised deliverance.

The prophecy of Habakkuk, when viewed in this light, has contemporary importance. May the Lord grant each of us the strength to be faithful to the vision we have received, and run with patience the race set before us.

Dawn Bible Students Association
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