Commentary on Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4
If you are scanning ahead to select a focus text for your sermon this week, drop everything and pick up this oft overlooked poetry from Habakkuk (I mean, how many sermons have we heard on Zacchaeus already?).
From the start, Habakkuk’s pleas are relatable to us in our media saturated culture:
Why do you make me see wrongdoing
and look at trouble?
Destruction and violence are before me;
strife and contention arise.
So the law becomes slack
and justice never prevails.
The wicked surround the righteous—
therefore judgment comes forth perverted. (1:3-4)
I know I have cried to God in similar ways in the face of unending injustice. And what about you? What about your congregation?
The problem of evil
This book addresses the problem of evil in general, and is composed of liturgical pieces featuring what Walter Brueggemann describes as “cries of need that are ultimately resolved in a hymn of triumph.”1
Concrete pieces of the crisis are unclear, though Brueggemann argues that the conflict is not internal but rather an international affair, likely the rising Babylonian power.2 This lack of historical specificity leads to theological roominess for the preacher and her people to wander around in for the sake of their own particular sufferings and questions to God about international affairs that seem out of God’s control. Is it any wonder that this little book finds its way into references in the New Testament (Romans 1:17; Galatians 3:11 for example)? The lack of context and specificity about Habakkuk as a historical person does not distract from the theological gift of this text.
Habakkuk begins with complaints in the form of questions to Yahweh, our first portion of the pericope for today. These cries mirror other prophets (Jer 12:1-4) and the Book of Psalms. At the heart of the complaint is a cry familiar to those who work many years for justice: “how long?” The righteous prophet complains about Yahweh’s delay in exercising justice and so confronts the perceived injustice of God.3
What is edited out of the pericope is Yahweh’s first response to Habakkuk: escalation of violence in order to end injustice in Judean society. Habakkuk is not pleased, and rather than walking on eggshells with Yahweh, he tells Yahweh as much, that this solution is more unjust than the original problem (Habakkuk 1:11-17).4
Yahweh’s ways are not justified in this oracle from Habakkuk. This is not the, “I suppose righteous people deserve this in some way” of Joel and other prophets.
While there is no explanation for the devastation, nor timeline given to the prophet for restoration, there is a holy dialogue with Yahweh. Process, not produce. The dialogical act between a prophet and Yahweh in and of itself is hope-filled. When Habakkuk is not satisfied with Yahweh’s answer, he does not walk away from his Lord. He challenges Yahweh. And Yahweh keeps the relationship going by responding.
Habakkuk displays faith in a divine power that will hear and handle our cries without crushing us further. As with other lamentations in scripture, hope is not in an answer but in the act—one crying out to God implies that God exists and is able to end the suffering. The timing is out of our control. And Habakkuk is not punished for his earnest plea and challenge to Yahweh.
Liturgically speaking, embrace the drama of the text by casting characters to read as Habakkuk and Yahweh in the congregation. Insert pauses, for no one knows how long Habakkuk sat at his watch post anticipating an answer from Yahweh.
An invitation to lamentation
This text opens up a door for lament in your own community this Sunday, which for many will connect to All Saints/Souls Day. It is a chance to be honest in our cries of need, to name the ways in which evil allows the law of God to go slack. Be sure to define that law for yourself and your people, so that you balance lamentation with imagination—envisioning the world as it could be when God’s law is followed by all. We need both in order to keep our congregation from apathy and paralysis in the face of evil. “Write the vision,” when it comes to you prophets. Yahweh says, “make it plain…so that a runner may read it” (Habakkuk 2:2).
But do not rush in your sermon or service to the space of restoration. Habakkuk waits for Yahweh’s vision, and doesn’t rely upon himself for a lesser but easier to grasp picture.
Until we live in a world where elements cooperate in such a way that the law of Love is not defeated and the righteous are not conquered by evil—until the evil reap what they sow—we live by faith as we join Habakkuk on the rampart, watching and waiting for God to fulfill a promise (Habakkuk 3:17-18) and cast a vision (2:2-4; 3:16).
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 3:2).
- Walter Brueggemann. An Introduction to the Old Testament: The Canon and Christian Imagination (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003), 240.
- Brueggemann, 241.
- Philip Whitehead. “Habakkuk and the Problem of Suffering,” in Journal of Theological Interpretation 10.2 (2016), 268.
- J. J. M. Roberts. “Nahum, Habakkuk, and Zephaniah: A Commentary” in The Old Testament Library (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1991), 81.