by Rev. David A. Moffat
I have recently re-read the prophecy of Habakkuk. Like the other minor prophets, Habakkuk is easily glossed over and pushed aside in favour of the longer books of Isaiah, Jeremiah & Ezekiel. This is unfortunate. One of the advantages of this collection of shorter books is their brevity – one can easily gain an appreciation of the full sweep of the prophet’s message, and even read the entire book in one sitting.
Habakkuk’s prophecy contains a conversation with God. Like his contemporary Jeremiah, Habakkuk complains to the Lord about the circumstances around him, and the Lord answers (compare Jeremiah chapter 12). The third and final chapter is a psalm-like prayer that the Lord will redeem His people once more. It is right at the end of the book that we find the words: “The Sovereign Lord is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer, he enables me to go on the heights.” (3:19 NIV)
The central concern of the prophet is the evil he sees around him in the world. Violence and injustice seem to be the prevailing patterns of life. Those who try to live honest lives are thwarted by the wicked. So, Habakkuk turns to the Lord and asks why He does not intervene. The Lord answers Habakkuk’s challenge, with a promise to punish the wicked nation.
But I get the feeling that the cure is worse than the complaint – the Babylonians! Habakkuk is hardly comforted by these words. In fact, he questions the Lord again. This time, the Lord’s answer speaks of a judgment upon the evil, when they will reap the destruction they sow. He promises an end to theft and extortion, the apparent security of ill-gotten gains, violence, pleasure in another’s misfortune, and idolatry. With this the prophet seems satisfied, and waits eagerly for that day.
So, what should the modern reader gain from Habakkuk? Different contexts reveal different messages. In the prophet’s own time, we can see the Babylonian empire invading Judah and the surrounding region, and the Jewish exile in Babylon. Swedenborg suggests that the nations who attacked and invaded Israel and Judah actually represented the evils which had already invaded their minds (Arcana Caelestia 10481.2; Apocalypse Explained 817.7). Whatever Babylon represents, that pattern is clearly revealed here, in Habakkuk’s second complaint. Although commentaries assure us that Habakkuk is talking about Babylon rather than Judah, the distinction is not always totally clear – Babylon is merely practising an extension of the evils already found in the prophet’s own nation.
I wonder whether the same principle might apply to the modern world. Habakkuk is certainly not alone in comparing the hostile nations of the time to the evils of his own people. His writing proclaims judgment upon every form of evil – those found outside the nation, and those found within it. We seem to lack this balance in our world. We are very good at proclaiming justice when our nation or its allies are wronged. But are we as aware of evils we cause and participate in ourselves?
We can also read Habakkuk’s message in the context of the Lord’s coming. Here the writer points beyond his own time to the re-establishment of the Lord’s kingdom, at His Incarnation. But look how the Lord acheived that end. If we read the prophet literally, we might expect a grand entrance. The picture of the Lord’s salvation conjured up in chapter three is one of terrifying glory. But remember: two wrongs don’t make a right. Habakkuk was rightly horrified to think that the Lord might use one evil to punish another. And so, the Lord did not come in a blaze of glory, slaughtering millions in his wake. He entered history as a baby, suffering himself to be used and abused by the religious and secular authorities. Yet, hear the truth of the prophet’s words, “His glory covered the heavens and his praise filled the earth.” (3:3 NIV). A show of military might would only have caused a blip in the flow of history – a single man, unarmed and speaking words of love, turned the world upside down for ever.
Finally, we can also read Habakkuk in the context of our own spiritual development. I draw two lessons from this, although you may find others. Firstly, the Lord achieves all this in us. I sometimes feel that the flow of my life is more often downwards than upwards. It is certainly true to say that without the Lord’s mercy, none would find the way home. The Lord works with us, and sometimes despite us, to bring us into the heavenly realm.
My second lesson is this. I marvel at Habakkuk’s trust and patience in the Lord. His last chapter is written against a backdrop of hopelessness. There is no physical evidence to suggest that the Lord is going to do any of the things that He has promised (except perhaps Babylon’s immanent invasion of Judah). There is no tangible reason why the prophet should believe any of his own words. Yet he believes!
Though the fig-tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD, I will be joyful in God my Saviour. The Sovereign LORD is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer, he enables me to go on the heights. (3:17-19 NIV)
Whatever the circumstances around us, whatever the cause of our distress, there is hope. I find that uplifting when I worry about the world we live in, with its penchant to proclaim war instead of repentance. I find it consoling when I consider my own poor record in regard to the virtues of love and forgiveness – I may have many reasons to give up, but the Lord calls us to hope, not despair.