Commentary on Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:2-4; 3:17-19
Habakkuk has in the past been deemed a dangerous book.
Ulrike Bail writes that in 1940, a church newspaper in Basel Switzerland published a column under the title: “Word on the (Current) Situation” that included an excerpt from the book Habakkuk. The military censors banned the newspaper because they viewed this text as a critique of the Nazi regime of the time.
The book Habakkuk reflects an exceedingly traumatic time in Israel’s history. Not long before, the mighty Assyrian army destroyed one city after the other, brutally killing people. And we know that not long after Habakkuk was written, the Babylonians under king Nebuchadnezzar would three times attack Jerusalem, taking the leaders and skilled citizens into exile, and in 587 BCE, destroying the city and the temple. Indeed, violence is all around.
The lectionary text for today consists of three short pericopes from this fascinating book. In Habakkuk1:1-4 we see how the prophet looked around and is overwhelmed by all the violence he sees. In v 3, he asks why God is tolerating all these evil deeds, and why he has to see all the injustice, the oppression, the strife and terror around him. And in v 4, the prophet laments that the wicked are overpowering the righteous, and that justice is perverted or literally raped.
Within in this context of violence, we hear Habakkuk’s lament: “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen?” In the midst of this nightmare, the only thing the prophet can do is to help his people voice their pain, to cry over the anguish they are experiencing. Echoing the Psalms of lament as well as the book of Lamentations, we hear how the prophet cries out to God: “Lord, how long? Lord, help me … ”
Habakkuk’s lament join laments from all around the world in which people have found the words to name the situations of violence and injustice in their lives, so resisting whatever is threatening their well-being and happiness.1
It is significant to note that the violence and terror would continue for a long time, as evident in the ongoing description of violence that marks the rest of the book Habakkuk. But typical to the prophetic voice in the Old Testament, violence and injustice do not have the last word. In Habakkuk 2:1-4, we see how the prophet is standing on the watch tower, waiting for the Lord to answer — the reference to watchpost and rampart suggesting something of the context of war that is implied in this book.
And then God’s answer comes. However, God’s answer is not what one would have liked to hear. It says, “Wait. Be patient. Deliverance is coming but you will have to wait.” This divine response challenges all the easy answers or quick fixes that humans crave. In Israel’s history, the prophet’s message would be followed by many more years of violence and injustice. Things would get much worse before they were to become better. However, amidst the most dire of circumstances, we see how the prophet clings to God’s faithfulness and love.
We see this for instance in how the prophet continues to pray. In Habakkuk 3:1, we read the prayer of the prophet that is to be sung on the melody of a lament:
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 reminds believers centuries later how important it is to keep on believing in a God that will bring deliverance. This unflinching belief in God’s ability to make an end to violence is precisely the reason why the book Habakkuk was banned in Nazi Germany — the idea that God will end unjust power considered too dangerous to be tolerated.
The book Habakkuk also in South Africa’s history served as an important source of resistance against the apartheid regime of the time. So Allan Boesak in the tumultuous 1980s preached a sermon in London on Habakkuk 2, imploring God: “Lord, how long must we wait before you help?” He quotes Calvin2 who says the following on Habakkuk 2:6:
“Tyrants and their cruelty cannot endure without great weariness and sorrow … Hence almost the world sounds forth these words, How long, How long? When anyone disturbs the whole world by his ambition and avarice, or everywhere commits plunders, or oppresses miserable nations, when he distresses the innocent, all cry out, How long? And this cry, proceeding as it does from the feeling of nature and the dictate of justice, is at length heard by the Lord … This confusion of order and justice is not to be endured.”3
God hears the cries of those who are suffering under the yoke of unjust regimes and will bring an end to violence. Good news for those who are being oppressed. Not so good news for those who are abusing their power.
However, the examples from Apartheid South Africa or the Nazi regime show us, situations of violence can last many years and even decades. Also in our personal lives, we may find ourselves in a situation of pain and suffering without end. Even the beautiful confession of faith with which Habakkuk ends acknowledges that the situation of violence and suffering is long not over. The fig tree does not blossom. There are no fruit on the vines. There are no livestock in the stalls. And yet the wonderful thing about Habakkuk’s confession is that the believer can still say, I believe in a God that gives me strength. Amidst the violence. Amidst the depravity. And this conviction is what causes the believer to not only go on, but to tread upon the heights like a deer.
1 cf. e.g. a collection of these laments that have been gathered by Nancy Lee in her book Lyrics of Lament (Fortress Press, 2010). For a link to these laments see this website.
2 John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries on the Twelve Minor Prophets, Habakkuk 2: 6, volume 4, 93-94:
3 Quoted in Allan Boesak, The Tenderness of Conscience, 223.
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.
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