When have the sainted people to whom you preach ever heard a sermon based on God's timeless word to Habakkuk? This week is their chance. Do not let them down.
The Message of the Book
When a lectionary-based pastor preaches on a book like Habakkuk, the challenge is really to preach the whole book, rather than just one passage. The reason for this is that the majority of faithful Christians do not know enough about the book to be able to contextualize a sermon on just a portion of the book.
So what is the message of the whole book? The message of Habakkuk can be summed up in the confession of faith that culminates this week's lesson: "the righteous live by their faith" (2:4). The challenge of preaching Habakkuk is unfolding the meaning of this confession. And the shape of the whole of the book provides an argument that defines who the righteous are and what faith in the one, living, true God looks like.
An aside: As the scholar Jerome Creach has convincingly argued (see his book The Destiny of the Righteous in the Psalms), the term "righteous" is not first-and-foremost a moral term. Rather, it is first of all a relational term. The righteous are those who are dependent on God (and thus, because they know they are dependent, they trust in God's laws and follow them). The wicked, on the other hand, feel free to violate God's laws and their neighbor's needs, because they do not rely on God.
The Shape of the Book (for more on this, see Richard Nysse's fine article on Habakkuk at EntertheBible.org)
1. The book opens with a lament, which is the first portion of this week's lesson. In this lament, the prophet asks God why life inside of the kingdom of Judah is so unjust. The lament functions as a condemnation of God's people, who have not lived up to the vocation of being the Lord's people. The lament can be summarized in verse 4, which involves a pun on the important Hebrew term mishpat. Because the law depends on human agents to function well, the law has become slack. For this reason, "justice (mishpat) never prevails. The wicked surround the righteous--therefore judgment (mishpat) comes forth perverted."
The term mishpat can mean either justice (the abstract concept) or judgment (a particular legal decision). But because the wicked outmaneuver the righteous, the individual decisions (mishpat) actually create injustice (non-mishpat, so to speak).
The prophet's lament is thus a condemnation of God's people.
2. The Lord then answer's the prophet's lament in 1:5-11. In this answer, the Lord says in response to the people's injustice, he is sending "the Chaldeans" (the Babylonians--the time period here is around 600 B.C.E.) as an act of judgment. It might be helpful to remind people at this point that the anger of God is not the opposite of God's love, but an expression of God's love. God punishes those who oppress because God loves the oppressed.
3. The prophet responds to this message of judgment from God with a renewed lament (1:12-17). The gist of the renewed lament is: "Wait a second, God, isn't that worse?" Habakkuk protests that God's act of judgment is even more unjust than the injustice God is supposed to be punishing. After this second lament, Habakkuk vows to wait and hear "what he will answer concerning my complaint" (2:1).
4. Habakkuk then receives a second answer from the Lord--an answer in which the Lord promises a vision (4:2). But the vision does not come right away. God promises that a vision will eventually come, but until the vision comes, God says, "The righteous live by their faith" (4:4). That is, to live as one of God's righteous people means to live as those who have been promised a vision, but who have not yet received it. Do not give up. Keep faith. It may seem that the vision is slow to come, but the righteous (those who rely on God) trust that the vision will come.
5. The vision eventually comes in chapter 3. And when it does come, it is terrifying (see 3:3-16). It is a vision of the advent of an unfathomably holy Lord, who will not be domesticated to human expectations!
6. The book of Habakkuk then ends with a song of thanksgiving in response to this vision. This song is a second picture of what the life of faith is like. The righteous, because they rely on God, do not rejoice only when the barns are full, when the fields are teeming with live stock, and when the orchards blossom. Because the righteous rely on God, they trust in and rejoice in the Lord at all times:
Though the fig tree does not blossom,
and no fruit is on the vines;
though the produce of the olive fails,
and the fields yield no food;
though the flock is cut off from the fold,
and there is no herd in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord,
I will exult in the God of my salvation.
An Old Testament Theology of the Cross
In essence, the book of Habakkuk proclaims an Old Testament version of the theology of the cross. It says God is not found only (or even primarily) in the high points. Rather, God meets us in our suffering.
The book provides two pictures of the life of faith. The first is that the righteous live now in light of the promise they have received. God has promised the vision. We live now in full faith that it will come. Yes, when we look around now, we see a world in which all too often "the wicked surround the righteous." But we trust that God's vision is coming.
The second picture of the life of faith is that of a soul rejoicing in God's blessings, even when the barns, branches, and pastures are empty. It is a picture of a heart that loves God, rather than merely in the blessings God gives--of a heart that rejoices in God the giver, rather than merely in the gifts of God. It is a picture of one who knows life will inevitably bring low moments. And that these low moments are not signs that God has abandoned us. The righteous trust that God will in fact find us in our suffering.