Commentary on Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4
Sermon-writing fingers might get itchy at Habakkuk 2:4—”Look at the proud! Their spirit is not right in them, but the righteous live by their faith.”
Extracting this verse from its surroundings, however, and lifting it onto a preaching pedestal would be a mistake. Habakkuk invites us to dwell on what righteous faith actually looks like: a person speaking in anger at their God.
Habakkuk contains no direct address to the listener.1 Every other biblical prophetic book speaks, at some point, directly to a human audience. Not so for Habakkuk. The entire book records a conversation between a prophet and God. We as the listeners simply lurk in the comments, and the comments section in this book is fire, to borrow some modern terminology. The prophet is angry at God, and they are not afraid to let God know.2
The meat and heat of Habakkuk’s anger at God start in Habakkuk 1:2-4. Habakkuk begins the oracle (against God!) with a phrase that signals a particular type of speaking: ‘ad-’anah, or, “how long!” This phrase signals to the listeners that Habakkuk is using the lament genre. (For example, “Once upon a time” signals the fairy tale genre. This phrase marks what follows as a fanciful tale, often geared toward children. Listeners expect the story to have a moral and a happy ending.) Listeners in Habakkuk’s time could expect within a lament some kind of testimony to pain that the speaker is experiencing, along with a request for God to do something about that pain. Habakkuk is not just asking a question of God; Habakkuk is saying, “I not only want to know how long, I want to signal to you, God, that I am wholly and heartily sick of what is happening, and I think it is beyond time that you do something about it.”
Laments are sometimes desperate. Laments are sometimes sorrowful. And laments, such as Habakkuk’s, are sometimes angry. Habakkuk blames God for the violence running rampant: verse 2 reads “O LORD, how long shall I cry for help, / and you will not listen? / Or cry to you “Violence!” / and you will not save?” (NRSV). The prophet cries; God ignores. Violence rages; no divine being engages. Verse 3b describes the dire nature of the situation: “Desolation and carnage are before me! Strife and struggles are surging!” (my translation). Habakkuk is choking on the violence all around him, dumbfounded by the fact that God seems inexplicably absent.
The prophet is so sick and tired of the bloodshed that, in verse 4, they make one of the most radical, transgressive statements in the Bible. Most English translations soften the blasphemous nature of this verse, translating the Hebrew into something like, “So the law becomes slack and justice never prevails” (NRSV). “Becomes slack” is a Hebrew word that can also be translated as “fails.” “Law” here is not the Hebrew word for statutes and ordinances; it is a word that is heavy with connotation and fraught with meaning: Torah. Torah, the boundaries of a loving covenant. Torah, the most holy and gracious gift of God. Torah, the means by which God can be in relationship with God’s people. Some use the word Teaching (capital-T) instead of law. “Teaching” is a close synonym to “Word.” So hear the text again: “Your Word, God, has failed.” Now we Christians start to feel the gut-punch of what Habakkuk is actually saying: violence is rampant, and you, God, have failed.
Habakkuk is so overwhelmed with violence that he lashes out—at God. This prophet has the audacity to say that which we might only admit in our deepest of hearts: sometimes, with the violence of the world raging around us, it feels like God has failed. And Habakkuk not only says this audacious thought; he says it out loud to God!
The most remarkable part of the book of Habakkuk is that God talks back. In Habakkuk 2:1, Habakkuk stations himself at a watchpost, a rampart, claiming that he will not back down until he hears God’s response to his anger. One might picture the prophet with his chest heaving, hands on hips, legs akimbo, just daring God to make a divine response.
Verse 2 reads, “Then the LORD answered me and said: / ‘Write the vision; / make it plain on tablets, / so that a runner may read it.’” God does not rebuke Habakkuk! God does not even chastise the prophet! There is a generosity to this divine response, a willingness to not only hear the shouts of this puny human but to include in a memorial that could be read and sent throughout the land.
The vision of the world to come that is being offered to God’s people in the rest of the book has somehow been wrestled out of God by Habakkuk’s angry accusations —and God honors those accusations in perpetuity! The fact that the Holy Scriptures preserve Habakkuk’s words testifies to the nature of our God: God not only entertains human laments but makes room for human anger—even anger at God. Speaking our anger at God is part of what it means to be righteous, the book of Habakkuk suggests. How might you invite your people to engage with their anger at God as an integral part of the righteous faith by which they live (Habakkuk 2:4)?
- Richard W. Nysse, “Background of Habakkuk,” enterthebible.org https://enterthebible.org/courses/habakkuk/lessons/background-of-habakkuk.
- Habakkuk resists attempts to locate the book historically. The book describes no datable events. It depicts a situation that could fit any number of time periods. Whenever this conversation took place, the heat of the prophet’s accusations against God that the made directly to God would surely have caused any bystanders to duck their heads and wish they were anywhere else but there.