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 closing out the book of Habakkuk. Habakkuk 3 is traditionally read in synagogue services on the second day of Shavuot, or Feast of Weeks. Shavuot, which falls this year in June, is the Jewish holiday to celebrate the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai (Ex. 19). On the Christian calendar, Shavuot links to Pentecost.
Why read Habakkuk in remembrance of the Sinai theophany? Well, Habakkuk, in its own way, is a historic recount of the signs and wonders that accompanied the rescue of the Hebrews “in the days of her youth” (Hos. 2:15). In the prophet’s prayer of praise, he describes Yahweh as a cloud-riding divine warrior king. He alludes repeatedly to the events of the Exodus, wilderness wanderings, and Sinai. Habakkuk is looking forward to a future day when God will intervene in a dramatic way again, saving the people of Judah from exile and oppression. This portion of Habakkuk was composed for public reading and communal worship. I believe its incorporation into Shavuot liturgy is a fulfillment of the prophet’s intent.
Habakkuk 3 is a very different genre than the book’s first two chapters. For this reason, some biblical scholars speculate that chapter 3 was a later editorial addition to Habakkuk. In 1947, a first-century BCE commentary on Habakkuk, Pesher Habakkuk, was identified among the original seven Dead Sea Scrolls. The Essenes only included the first two chapters of the book in their sectarian interpretation. There was empty space left on the parchment so it was a purposeful omission and not an issue of scroll damage. From there, the late-date theory for Habakkuk 3 gained traction. Possibly, the Essenes only cared to apply their sectarian interpretations to the first two historic chapters, and not the hymn portion.
Archaeologists have since found other scroll fragments of Habakkuk 3 in caves nearby Qumran that date to this same early period. Although those fragments were written in Greek, they match the Masoretic text that has been passed down to our Bibles today.
Also, the prophet’s own hand answers the question of how chapter three connects to the first portion of the book. Habakkuk goes out of his way to attribute both parts of the book to himself by writing two separate superscriptions. The first chapter begins, “the oracle that the prophet Habakkuk saw” (1:1). The introduction of the third chapter says, “a prayer of the prophet Habakkuk” (3:1). The rare inclusion of two attributions in on short manuscript, to me, clearly communicates the author’s intent. He is showing us that he designed the first and last parts of the book to be both distinct and continuous. Although different in genres, they are continuous in theme.
Habakkuk lived during the interluding years between God’s great saving acts in the long story of the Jewish people. He knows from the divine revelation given to him in chapter two that, in the end, God will destroy the Babylonians and rescue Judah. But now, God demands that the prophet and all the earth wait in silence. That is the command given at the end of the second chapter.
As he considers the coming hardships, Habakkuk recounts the many miracles God performed on behalf of His people in delivering them out of Egypt and bringing them to the covenanted land. Reciting God’s history of provision is part of the prophetic process of offering thanksgiving and ultimately landing in a place of reassurance. The prophet prays, “O Lord, I have heard of your renown and I stand in awe, O Lord, of your work” (3:1). The phrase “I have heard” occurs twice in the chapter (3:2,16). In both cases, “hearing” accompanies the Hebrew root for trembling. The stories of God’s deeds have been told and retold for generations among the people of Israel, and yet Habakkuk still “stands in awe.”
Habakkuk envisions the day when God will once again be on the march. He is given a vision, a theophany like what we read in Nahum 1. However, Habakkuk intentionally includes in his theophany an abundance of geographical and historical details that allude to Israel’s past. God, in blinding radiance, marches up from Teman and Mount Paran. Teman is in the direction of Sinai. You might remember from Amos and Obadiah that Teman is an Edomite city (Amos 1:12; Obad. 9). In Deuteronomy 33, as Moses pronounced blessings over the twelve tribes, he described God as shining forth from Mount Paran (33:2). Both in Deuteronomy and in Habakkuk, God advances from the direction of Sinai, through the land of the Edomites in the east, and to Mount Paran in the wilderness. In the Song of Deborah, the prophetess also sings of Yahweh marching to Israel’s rescue through Edom (Judg. 5:4).
In effect, this is the same route the Israelites followed from Egypt to Canaan over the course of four decades. Habakkuk’s panoramic view of the Hebrew’s early history poetically connects God’s intervention in the past with his coming salvation plan by painting a vision of God taking the same “ancient pathways” (3:6).
God’s sovereignty over nature is celebrated in the stories of the Exodus, and Habakkuk intends to show how the natural world continues to submit to Yahweh’s authority. He writes, “He stopped and shook the earth; he looked and made the nations tremble. The eternal mountains were shattered” (3:6). The shaking of the earth and mountains points to the events at Sinai. God’s “wrath against the rivers” and “rage against the sea” (3:8) calls back to the miraculous parting of the Red Sea.
Habakkuk describes God appearing with an entourage of pestilence and plague personified (3:5). This is likely a callback to God’s chosen method of judgement in Egypt through the ten plagues. Habakkuk says, “the sun raised high its hands; the moon stood still in its exalted place” (3:11). The image of the moon and the sun waiting in suspension at Yahweh’s command connect to the conquest when God held the sun and moon in place so Joshua could defeat the Amorites (Josh. 10:12-14). Habakkuk is calling on God to deliver the righteous from Babylon just as He did from Egypt.
Blending prophetic vision with historic callbacks is Habakkuk’s way of petitioning God to “revive” His miraculous works in the days of old with the prophet’s “own time” (3:2). The prophet is looking for the kind of saving works Habakkuk has long heard about but has yet to witness for the nation. There is a noticeable difference between the doubting prophet that opened the book and the assured prophet who is closing the book.
There are likely a few reasons for his restored confidence. First, in chapter two, Habakkuk determined to wait on God. He perceived injustice around him and was disturbed by God’s lack of action. But he waited on God for an answer and God rewarded his patience with the revelation that God raise up the Chaldeans to punish the wicked of Judah and eventually rescue His anointed (3:13). The revelation was perhaps not the answer Habakkuk had hoped for but it offered Habakkuk the bigger plan and served as a reminder that the God of Judah was not bound by earthly timelines.
Second, Habakkuk reached a place of contentment because he did the work of remembrance. In Judaism, remembrance is an act of obedience. Remember Habakkuk is the prophet who wrestled with God, not literally like Jacob, but philosophically. He had questions about God’s methods for delivering justice. What better way to deal with the wrestling than to recount the many acts of God’s goodness? This last chapter is Habakkuk’s equivalent of a gratitude journal, his tracing of the outline of God’s hand in the life of the community.
In 3:8-15, God is angry. He has committed himself to battle. The target of Yahweh’s anger is the “head of the wicked house” (3:13), but scholars debate whether the prophet has Babylon or Judah in focus when he envisions a coming “day of calamity” (3:16). But there are no battle scenes in this section, like in Nahum. Habakkuk keeps his language mythological and cosmic. As God advances, all of nature experiences the ripple effects of divine involvement. The nations tremble with merely His glance (3:6).
Habakkuk 3 is a psalm of praise that would fit as comfortably following Psalms 7 in the Bible as it does in the prophets. While the beginning part of the book is an intimate dialogue between the prophet and God, the book ends with this public profession through song. Habakkuk seems familiar with Temple liturgy (2:14, 20) but his inclusion of a musical composition in his prophetic book has led some scholars to theorize that Habakkuk was part of the tribe of Levi who served in the Temple as musicians.
Like a psalm, musical instructions accompany the text so the prayer can be set to music and even sung at the Temple with a “stringed instrument,” most likely a harp. The very first musical directive is “On shigionoth” (3:1). This is a technical word only used twice in the Bible, once in Psalms 7 and here in Habakkuk 3. Since the meaning of the term has been lost as the word fell out of use, most Bible translations choose to transliterate the Hebrew word, rather than translate it.
Selah is a musical directive that occurs seventy times in the Psalms and three times in Habakkuk (3:3,9,13). Even if Hebrew scholars are uncertain of its exact translation, the word is common enough that we have enough context clues to assume Selah means to pause and reflect while reciting a liturgy.
The vision of Yahweh as heavenly warrior leaves Habakkuk with quivering lips, a pounding heart, and rotting bones (3:16). The prophet describes his revelation experience as both physical and spiritual. Is he in a state of fear because the full impact of the revelation is unsettling? Or is he in a state of rapture because he just encountered the Almighty? From the text, it might be either or both.
Once again, this unique book gives us the chance to understand the life of the prophet: his questions, struggles, fears, and actual physical suffering. In most of the other prophetic books, the prophet speaks to the people on behalf of Yahweh. In Habakkuk, the script is flipped and we have a prophet speaking to Yahweh on behalf of the people.
By the books end, the doubts and questions of Habakkuk rescind, and his confidence in his creator is restored. He no longer speculates about the timeline for God’s full plan of restoration, or the methods for his chastisement. He finds hope in knowing that whatever follows, God will be present and His presence is enough. Despite the visons of coming destruction as His wrath pours out on the streams and rivers, God cannot be known through human affairs, even if His hand is forced in judgement. God is best known through His justice and mercy.
The liturgy ends with what feels like an invitation to join the prophet in praise. The hymn is such a beautiful composition, I will quote it in full here. But it is meant also for your private reflection.
“Though the fig tree does not blossom, and no fruit is on the vines; though the produce of the olive fails, and the fields yield no food; though the flock is cut off from the fold, and there is no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will exult in the God of my salvation. God, the Lord, is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer and makes me tread upon the heights” (3:16-17).
In good times, worshipers in Judah were commanded to visit the Temple and present God with a portion of their first fruits, some piece of their harvest as a means of sacrifice. Like most of the Jewish holidays, Shavuot’s origins connect to the harvest cycles in the land of Israel. Shavuot was the holiday associated with the wheat harvest. However, in Habakkuk’s day, there was no harvest for offerings at any of the festivals. The book does not say whether the food shortage is from drought or the effects of war. Jeremiah, a contemporary of Habakkuk, described a the coming destruction of Judah’s trees, vines, herds, and flocks at the hand of the Babylonians.
Whatever the reason for the lack of harvest, the prophet sees himself approaching God’s temple with empty hands. Yet, he offers thanks to God anyway. He is not praising God for what he has provided, but rather praising Him for being the ultimate provider. This prayer is about who God is, and not what He gives.
In Thomas McComiskey’s commentary on Habakkuk, he writes, “The old, easy, assurances that peace, health, long life and prosperity were tokens of divine approval have collapsed in the face of experience, but Habakkuk, in hardship and privation comes to know God more fully and to rejoin in him for his own sake and not for the benefits he bestows” (pg. 835).
When the rabbis incorporated Habakkuk’s hymn into Shavuot liturgy, they knew what they were doing.
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