Commentary on Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4
Habakkuk protests to God unlike protagonists of Greek classical literature who accept the deity’s design without questioning (for example, Oedipus Rex).
The prophet cannot and will not seek to comprehend the world apart from God. The prophet’s expostulation and demand may remind us of the 1986 Nobel Peace Prize laureate Elie Wiesel, who famously said, “The Jew may love God, or he [or she] may fight with God, but [she or] he may not ignore God.”1 Habakkuk too is going to argue with God, for the resolution of his question must come from God.
In Habakkuk 1:1-2, the irritated prophet poses a series of questions marked with interrogative particles like “how long” or “why.” He is not seeking information. A lament is under construction that contains a petition for God’s intervention. The cry of “how long” implies that it has been awhile since he started his complaint in vain, and the lack of response from God gives birth to the specter of divine apathy. The latter half of verse 1 inserts a graphic scene in which the prophet cries out, “Violence,” an expression that would ordinarily compel a prompt action (like “Fire!” in the English language), but God does not come to the rescue. On the contrary, God forces the prophet to witness conflict and contention. The prophet finds the destructive devastation an immediate menace (located “before him” verse 3), but God does not seem to take a note of it.
In the prophet’s estimation, divine inaction has serious consequences (Habakkuk 1:4). The Torah (commonly translated as “the law”; properly the entire design of divine governance of the world) has become so dissipated (“slack”) that God’s justice does not even manage to go forth to be and do where it is supposed to be and do (verse 4a). The situation permits the evil (“the wicked”) to immobilize the righteous (verse 4b). The Hebrew of the two halves of verse 4 features a pun, creating a cynical scene in which “justice” (mishpat) that cannot get out is juxtaposed with a crooked “judgment” (mishpat) that is let out. The disregard for God’s Torah engenders a corrupt society.
After a round of conversation with God in Habakkuk 1:5-17 (left out in the lection), the prophet intensifies the level of his expostulation (2:1-4). In the verses that are omitted, God offers a provisional answer and promises to deal with the trouble by dispatching an agent of punishment (1:5-11). However, the prophet finds God’s reply less than satisfactory, for the presumed instrument of punishment is no better than the problematic elements it is summoned to punish (verses 12-17).
The prophet declares that he will be on watch at a look-out station, communicating that he is determined to persist until God gives him an audience (Habakkuk 2:1). His vow to wait underscores that the answer he seeks cannot be produced through human acts of deliberation or meditation. It has to come from the Lord. Whenever God may speak, the prophet will be there to receive the word. The prophet’s positioning also signals his confidence. He is sure that God’s rejoinder will come definitely in due course (see “the appointed time” verse 3a).
Yahweh’s answer did come (verse 2a). God instructs the prophet to record the vision in a plain manner. The purpose clause for intelligibility (“so that a runner may read it” verse 2b) anticipates the Talmudic teaching of “Torah speaks in the language of the ordinary men [and women]” (b. Berakhot 31b), while the motif of running signifies urgency. In addition, the instrument of tablets ensures durability of the writing for future reference.
The content of the vision has to do with the end (verse 3a). The envisioned eschatology is not going to put off the end into a far distant figure, although it may not be in the immediate future (verse 3b). It will require a waiting period, but the oracle also points out that the delay will be palpable more in the perception than in reality. The uncertainty of “when” will soon be eclipsed by the certainty “that” the vision (or what it reveals) will come.
The precarious situation will trigger two kinds of responses (verse 4). The proud, depicted literally as being “puffed up” in Hebrew, display lack of an upright (literally “straight”) spirit that God desires (verse 4a). By contrast, the righteous will respond to the crisis by living by faith (verse 4b). According to the Talmud, Habakkuk 2:4b captures a one-verse summary of the entire Torah (b. Makkot 23b-24a).
The notion of faith-living in verse 4b has been variously construed through the centuries. In the New Testament, Paul appropriated it as a depiction of the saving power of gospel (Romans 1:16-17; see also Galatians 3:11 and Hebrews 10:38). During the 20th century Holocaust, many Jewish people confronted the brutal situation with faith by singing Ani ma’amin (“I believe”) based on Habakkuk 2:4b and inspired by the teaching of Moses Maimonides. The song avows faith even if the coming of the Messiah is delayed. The song, often performed in the commemoration of the Holocaust, resonates with the dictum by Reinhold Niebuhr, who states, “Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith.”2
In this lectionary selection, Habakkuk would counsel that troubles do not constitute a ground of despair, for in the end God’s design will be made manifest. The first part of the lection (Habakkuk 1:1-4) advises the people of God to be faithfully bold in wrestling with God in the face of historical situations that do not jibe with the Torah. That passionate prophetic protest finds its companion in the second portion (2:1-4) that keep alive and burning the faith in God’s ultimate triumph no matter what odds may be stacked against the pursuit of God’s justice.
Joseph Telushkin, Jewish Literacy (New York: W. Morrow, 1991), 35.
Reinhold Niebuhr, The Irony of American History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1952), 63.