Commentary on Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:2-4; 3:[3b-6] 17-19
Although at first glance Habakkuk might seem like an unconventional book of the Bible to tap for the first Sunday of Advent, its message of waiting with hope in the midst of despair offers a powerful word for both the Advent season and for the world we live in today.
Habakkuk’s prophecies date to the dawn of the 6th century BCE, when Babylon was bearing down on Judah after defeating the Assyrian Empire to become the dominant regional power. Like many other biblical prophets, Habakkuk interprets Babylon’s incursions as God’s judgment on Judah’s internal politics (see 1:4-6). However, most of the prophet’s wrath seems to be reserved for Babylon itself. While Habakkuk names the Chaldeans (1:4)—in other words, Babylonians—as the specific source of Judah’s misery in the original, ancient context, the poetic forms and broad proclamations against the “treacherous” and the “wicked” (1:13) and the “proud” (2:4) make these prophecies resonate with compelling intensity in today’s unjust world.
The book opens with a personal lament, a genre familiar from the psalms. The prophet’s cry of frustration—“O LORD, how long?”—is shared with over a dozen psalms, as well as with other laments across the prophetic corpus. The question testifies to prolonged suffering; the speaker cannot imagine an end to the misery. Habakkuk does not hesitate to call God to account, giving voice to what he perceives is God’s refusal to respond to the prophet’s cries for help. That in and of itself is an important reminder for congregations: that being angry at God, or feeling that God seems absent, is “allowed,” and in fact has biblical precedents—and yet those feelings of despair are never the end of the story.
Like any good poet-prophet, Habakkuk uses powerful metaphors, and the idea that “the law becomes slack” is a good example of his evocative language. The New Revised Standard Version translates the verb pwg here as “becomes slack,” the New International Version uses “becomes paralyzed,” and the New English Translation has “lacks power.” In all other appearances of the verb pwg in the Hebrew Bible, a human being is numbed, stunned, or wearied; thus, the law is personified with this verb, as if the law is an exhausted or injured person.
I am reminded of those tall, floppy, tubular, air-blown characters used as advertisements outside of some car dealerships. As the air blows through the tube, the tube stands up, only to fall down again immediately—up and down and up and down constantly, but never able to stand upright. To Habakkuk, justice faces similar futility in Judah’s atmosphere of panic and dread.
The opening verse of the second chapter of Habakkuk is essentially the closing verse of the prophet’s complaint from the first chapter. Having laid out his grievances, the prophet positions himself to wait for God’s reply as a watchman who keeps a lookout. God’s reply then begins at verse 2.
God’s first instruction is to “write the vision, make it plain on tablets” (2:2). Writing gives the vision transferability: the “runner,” in the sense of a courier, can take the message far and wide. Writing also gives the vision permanence, something that speaks to the theme of waiting that runs through these prophecies. God assures Habakkuk, “For there is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and does not lie. If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay.”
It is not entirely clear whether the “it” that may seem to tarry is the message itself, or the “end” of which the message speaks. The context would seem to suggest the former, although that would make the second chapter of Habakkuk more of a “meta” vision—a vision about the vision, about the end of the Babylonian threat. In any case, the hope for the future offered by God is one that requires patience. God instructs the prophet and the people to wait with hope for a good word in God’s own time.
Habakkuk 3:3[3b-6], 17-19
The third chapter of Habakkuk is presented as a psalmic prayer (tefillah). Verses 3b-6 assigned in the lectionary give a sampling of the prayer’s style and content. The prophet remembers God’s past saving acts, with an emphasis on epic defeats of God’s enemies—a fitting focus for a book concerned with a looming imperial military invasion. Here as well as in the book of Psalms, the remembrances of what God has done testify to what God can do, and therefore serve to appeal to God to do something now. Habakkuk 3:2, which introduces the prayer, lays out this goal explicitly: “O LORD, I have heard of your renown, and I stand in awe, O LORD, of your work. In our own time revive it; in our own time make it known; in wrath may you remember mercy.”
Habakkuk’s call for God to revive God’s past power and might—“in our own time make it known”—resounds as poignantly today as in the prophet’s own era. Indeed, that is part of the task of preaching: to testify to God’s past saving works and to shine a light on the ways God is reviving God’s renowned power and might in the present. The prophet and the preacher alike are called to root their hope in the stories of God’s mighty acts.
The closing verses of the book of Habakkuk offer a profound declaration of hope, even as they describe Judah’s state of agony. Everywhere the prophet looks are signs of emptiness, hunger, poverty, weakness, and exhaustion: no blossom on the fig tree, no fruit on the vine, no food in the fields, no animal in the stalls. He sees only misery around him. Yet—and what a big “yet” that is!—the prophet will rejoice in the LORD. The prophet himself is not empty but full, finding strength in God. He likens his spiritual renewal to the agility of a deer—an image that brings to mind a similar vision in Isaiah 40:31: “ … those who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles.” In Advent, in the midst of destitution and despair, we join the prophets in their relentless hope, looking for the vision of God’s might and power in a weary world—a vision that will arrive right on time.
PRAYER OF THE DAY
Faithful God, you proved your faithfulness to your people when they cried out to you in distress. Be present in our distress, and show us how to be faithful to you in the midst of suffering. We pray these things in the name of Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.
Bring forth the kingdom, Marty Haugen
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November 27, 2022