Welcome to Bible Fiber where we are encountering the textures and shades of the prophetic tapestry in a year-long study of the twelve minor prophets, one prophet each month. I am Shelley Neese, president of The Jerusalem Connection, a Christian organization devoted to sharing the story of the people of Israel, both ancient and modern.
This week we are studying the first chapter of Habakkuk. More than any of the other prophetic books, Habakkuk provides a glimpse into the nature of the relationship between Yahweh and his messengers. Habakkuk is not delivering an oracle to the people. His book is not a recording of a sermon with “Thus saith” or “Woe to you.” His book is a prayer dialogue that was once personal and became public. What we find in his back and forth with God is a bold honesty on the part of the prophet and a gentle sincerity emanating from Yahweh.
Habakkuk does not provide much in the way of a biographical sketch in his superscription, not his town of origin, his father’s name, or the name of any reigning kings during his ministry. Even his name is of questionable etymology. Habak either stems from the Hebrew word for “embrace” or an Akkadian root for garden flower.
The book begins “the oracle that the prophet Habakkuk saw” (1:1). Blink and you will miss an important detail. Habakkuk’s name includes the title “prophet.” He is the only preexilic prophet to have his name associated with the title. And there are only two postexilic books in the Bible that use the title prophet in their superscription: Haggai (1:1) and Zechariah (1:1). Biblical scholars theorize that the inclusion of the prophetic title in Habakkuk indicates that he was a professional prophet at the Jerusalem Temple. Habakkuk is familiar with temple liturgy, as will become apparent in the last section. His inclusion among the elites of Jerusalem stands in contrast to a messenger like Amos who was a shepherd turned prophet operating on the margins.
Despite the short superscription, there are historical hints later in the text that help date the prophet’s ministry. In chapter one, Yahweh announces the rise of the Babylonians and describes their rapid advance across the Ancient Near East. Scholars deduce from this clue that the prophet’s ministry had to date before the Babylonians took on an international superpower status. Habakkuk also has to date before the three successive Babylonian invasions of Jerusalem (605, 597, and 586 BCE). Otherwise, Yahweh’s announcement is more a flash of the obvious than a divine revelation
The book opens with Habakkuk lamenting the poor spiritual health of Judah. It is unlikely the prophet would have complained about Judah’s disobedience to the law if he were writing during the reign of the righteous King Josiah (630-609 BCE). Josiah implemented many religious reforms, including the purging of the Assyrian cult from the land. Josiah also encouraged a return to the covenantal obligations in the Torah, but Habakkuk describes the law in his day as being paralyzed. Habakkuk was most likely a witness to the reversal of Josiah’s reforms during the reign of King Jehoiakim (608-598 BCE). Although Jehoiakim was the son of Josiah, he disregarded the Torah laws and allowed for the return of idol worship.
Placing Habakkuk in the late seventh century BCE also means the book nicely picks up where Nahum left off chronologically. As Nahum predicted, the Assyrian empire fell to the Babylonians with the destruction of Nineveh in 612 BCE. From there, the Babylonians conquered almost all of Assyria’s former vassals at a dizzying speed. By 605 BCE, the Babylonians managed to beat back even the Egyptian army at Carchemish.
Habakkuk’s first chapter is a three-part dialogue. First, Habakkuk voices his complaint to God. God answers. Unsatisfied with the answer, Habakkuk laments a second time. God answers again. Habakkuk’s book ends with the prophet satisfied, even if his questions go partially unanswered.
Habakkuk opens with a lament: “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen?” (1:2). Apparently, the prophet had been waiting for an answer from God for some length of time already. The book seems to be picking up at the middle point of a discussion with God. Habakkuk’s readers can only imply what the first part of the discussion might have sounded like.
The “How long” lament is unusual language for the prophets, but it fits well within the tradition of the Psalms of lament. David, in Psalms 13, cries out, “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?” (13:1). Psalms 3 and 22 contain laments with the same pleading tone for Yahweh to break His silence. In both Habakkuk and the Psalms, the intercessor pleads with Yahweh, not only to step in and save them personally but also to defend His Holy name.
Habakkuk goes on to describe the pervasive lack of obedience to the covenant laws. According to the analysis of both Habakkuk and the prophet Jeremiah, contemporaries of each other, violence and injustice were widespread in the seventh century BCE. The Torah had no claim on the spiritual life of Judah.
Habakkuk uses six different synonyms in verses 1:2-4 to emphasize the darkness and depravity surrounding him. Interestingly, Habakkuk does not specifically accuse any leadership group. He only generalizes that “justice never comes forth.” However, the book of Jeremiah gives historical color to Habakkuk’s poetic outline. Jeremiah blamed the monarchy, courts, and the Temple priests for the immorality that, according to Jeremiah reached Sodom and Gomorrah proportions (Jer. 23-26).
In this first chapter, Habakkuk is perplexed. Why is Yahweh tolerating the situation? He asks God, “Why do you make me see wrongdoing and look at trouble?” (1:3). Afterall, a century before, when the Kingdom of Israel was guilty of violating the covenant, God allowed Assyria to wipe them out. Why was Judah getting away with the same violations that led to Israel’s destruction and exile?
In the second section of the first chapter, starting with verse 1:5, Yahweh gives his first answer. There is no notification in the chapter that the speaker has changed and there is no introduction to the voice of Yahweh. Instead, the reader is meant to detect the switch in perspective. Yahweh is now speaking authoritatively in first-person. In response to Habakkuk’s question about Judah’s disobedience, God promises Habakkuk that he will no longer permit Judah’s rebellion. Judgement is coming. Habakkuk had lamented that his eyes had seen nothing but wrongdoing all around him. Yahweh responds by using the same two verbs as the prophet but repurposing them: “Look at the nations and see!” (1:5).
When Paul preached to the synagogue at Antioch, he used Habakkuk’s same wakeup call language in a very different context as a warning against ignoring the power of the gospel message (Acts 13:41).
God revealed to Habakkuk that Judah’s judgement was coming by way of the Babylonian army. Yahweh took credit for their coming success, saying “For I am rousing the Chaldeans, that fierce and impetuous nation” (1:6). Chaldean is synonymous with Babylonian. The dynasty ruling from Babylon was Chaldean in origin so Chaldean is a tribal name for Babylonian. It seems that Yahweh is not taking credit for the lengthy list of Babylonian military victories, He is only responsible for their coming invasion into Jerusalem.
Yahweh describes the Babylonian army as swift destroyers of nations. Comparing them to a circling vulture, the Babylonians have an insatiable appetite for war (1:8). Nahum described the Babylonians in the same vivid terms as Habakkuk and Jeremiah, but in his case they were the instrument of judgement against Assyria. Nahum apparently had no problem with the merciless methods of the Babylonians, because it was all directed at the equally dread-inspiring Assyrians.
As the Babylonians overtake kingdoms, they install puppet leaders who have no real authority outside of Babylon’s will (1:10). However, Babylon’s most offensive crime, in the eyes of Yahweh, is how they credit their victories to their own power. Habakkuk writes, “Their own might is their god!” (1:11). Surely, God did not expect the Babylonians to be mindful of His own hand in their victory over Judah. In the mind of an Ancient Near Eastern person, gods were associated with cities and the conquering of cities was the humiliation of their god. Still, Yahweh, the self-revealing God, holds their prideful lack of recognition against them.
In Habakkuk’s response to Yahweh, the prophet does not question Yahweh’s sovereignty or his power. He believes his creator god is most certainly behind the coming Babylonian advance. He begins his next prayer with a praise, reinforcing his full confidence in Yahweh.
What Habakkuk finds problematic are God’s methods. He appeals to God based off His character. Afterall, the Babylonians are violent pagans. Why would a holy God, “too pure to behold evil,” associate with the wrongdoings of wicked people?
Using a fishing metaphor, Habakkuk describes the Babylonian army as fisherman and all of humanity as a teeming mass of fish with no leader. The Babylonians fill their nets, without pity for their prey and with no justification for their slaughter (1:17). In the Ancient Near East, the image of conquered peoples captured in nets was a common motif, and this comes through in the prophets. Amos predicted the Assyrians would take away the Israelites on fishhooks (4:2). In Jeremiah’s Day of the Lord, God summons the fisherman to cast their nets (16:16). Habakkuk seems most bothered not by the rise and fall of nations, but he has tired of the constant violence that begets more violence. For Habakkuk, God’s participation in the endless cycle is a problem that he has yet to reconcile.
On the one hand, the prophet is seeking answers for his own personal faith about the trustworthiness of his God who he intimately calls “my God” and “my Holy One” (1:13). However, as a prophet, he is also speaking on behalf of all the righteous remaining in Judah who are asking the same question of Yahweh. Are not the wicked of Judah still better than the average Babylonians? Why would God punish one disobedient people by using a much more wicked people? Habakkuk probes, “Why do you look on the treacherous, and are silent when the wicked swallow those more righteous than they?” (1:13).
Isn’t God, who Habakkuk knows to be both just and merciful, being inconsistent? The prophet challenges God in a way that goes further than the other prophets. Hosea, Amos, and Micah all serve as God’s mouthpiece, accusing the people of Israel and Judah of breaking their covenant promises. Habakkuk earnestly wants to know how God can justify His raising up Babylon with His own covenant obligations at least to the righteous of Judah.
The prophet like Job
Habakkuk’s message is like Job (6:28-30). Both men are firm in their belief in God’s sovereignty over all, but they grapple with theological questions. Both men defend God’s righteousness despite the existence of evil all around them. Really, to my mind, Habakkuk and Job were systematic theologians of their own day, before seminaries had even coined the title.
Habakkuk is not being disrespectful in his questioning of God’s methods. He is earnestly seeking divine revelation. And to be honest, after immersing myself in the minor prophets for the last eight months and reading about the rise and fall of all kinds of bad actors, I have questions too and I am thankful for a prophet who gave voice to them.
God did not answer Habakkuk with a rebuke for having challenged his ways, but instead God answered Habakkuk with gentleness and revelation wrapped in mystery, as we will see in chapter three.
As believers in the same God that dialogued with Habakkuk, we also can prayerfully approach the throne room when our own understanding of Yahweh’s righteousness does not square with the perpetuation of violence we are witnessing in our own world right now. Christians often misunderstand the God of the Hebrew Scriptures as a distant deity, and they believe that only with the coming of Jesus did God transform into a close presence. Hopefully, in your reading of Habakkuk, you see the long story of God extending himself to humanity, not just to nations, but to individuals.
For next week, please read the second chapter of Habakkuk, and we will learn more about our prophet’s resolve to get an acceptable answer.
Thank you for listening and please continue to participate in this Bible Reading Challenge. For all of the Biblical references each week, please see the show transcript on our blog or by signing up for our emails at www.thejerusalemconnection.us/
I don’t say all the references in the podcast but they are all in the transcript.
Send me a message. I will respond. Bible Fiber is available on YouTube or wherever you listen to your podcasts.