Habakkuk 1:1 - 2:5 (message focus)
I selected Habakkuk for this season – the approach of the tenth anniversary of the September 11 attack – because Habakkuk is dealing personally and theologically with a situation with some parallels to that of our nation. I say “some parallels” because every event and situation are unique. The theological questions he faces have something in common with the conversations about judgment, justice, revenge, the end of all things, the clash of cultures, grace, faith, and God that were and are part of our response to 9-11 and the continued war on terror. It even includes reference to an international debt crisis and employment and wage issues. To me, the most remarkable thing about biblical prophecy is not prediction of the future coming of Christ (which is admittedly amazing) but the ability to speak timeless truth. Today I am not going to draw all the parallels. I encourage you to take some time to read the three chapters of this book this week. Today, we’ll focus on Habakkuk’s dilemma, his crisis of faith in his own time.
We know nothing about Habakkuk the man. He is referred to in one other book, not in the Scripture, but that tells us nothing about him personally (New Oxford Annotated Bible introduction; Abraham J. Heschel). All we have is this book, and the book gives us nothing to locate it in history except the reference to the rise of the Chaldeans – in Babylon, modern Iraq – a reference that places Habakkuk in the southern kingdom of Judah. It opens with a dialogue, a conversation, between Habakkuk and the LORD, first the prophet speaking and then God responding – which we read this morning. It continues with five “woe’s”, traditional oracles of judgment. And, it concludes with a prayer in song form, clearly meant for use in worship. That final prayer-song will be our focus next week.
The dialogue reflects on the justice of God in an unjust world. It addresses the question, What if God uses evil people to mete out justice? Isn’t that inherently unjust? And that was one of the main reasons I connected with Habakkuk as I reflect back ten years to the events of the 9-11 attacks. I remember Christian religious leaders in our nation declaring that those attacks were the judgment of God upon our nation. Then, and now, I found the remarks, personally, offensive. And the fact that Osama bin Laden likewise viewed the attacks as the judgment of God? Well, that gives cause for pause. At this point, of course, the parallels break down. Habakkuk’s ministry took place 2600 years ago and the historical situation was quite different. Though the questions, the theological questions, the faith issues, have some overlap. We’ll focus on Habakkuk and his faith.
READ Habakkuk 1:1 - 2:5 with two voices.
How long? Habakkuk is shocked by the violence and injustice of his time. “How long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? Or cry to you, “Violence!” and you will not save?” (1.2). “The law becomes slack and justice never prevails. The wicked surround the righteous – therefore judgment comes forth perverted” (1.4).
We read this in the paper almost every day. A pastor is convicted for “sexting” a teenage girl in the congregation. Another politician is caught with his pants down. A police officer gets hooked on coke. Party leaders are accused of systematically using public funds for political campaigns. A couple judges are accused of closing down the county youth detention center, funneling kids to private centers, and taking $2.6 million in kickbacks. Young people – children, really – are shot and are shooting others. “Road rage” and “going postal” enter our vocabulary. An armed man attacks children and a teacher at an Amish school.
“Judgment comes forth perverted.” And these things are all the more difficult when it is our cultural leaders, those who are supposed to represent our integrity, virtue, and values, who are so publically perverted.
But if Habakkuk is shocked by the violence and injustice in his own land, he is about to be stunned by God’s retort. “Look at the nations, and see! Be astonished! Be astounded!” (1.5). The Chaldeans? The instrument of God’s justice in the world? But even the LORD declares, “Their justice and dignity proceed from themselves” (1.7) and “Their own might is their god!” (1.11). We know of people like this, people who think they are exempt from the rules, people who really believe that they are exceptional because they are powerful. And an entire nation of prideful, powerful people who take pleasure in causing pain and suffering are to be God’s instrument of justice? Astonished, astounded? Indeed.
Why? Habakkuk responds with our question: “Why are you silent when the wicked swallow those more righteous than they?” (1.13). It is the age-old question based on the idea that all things must be accounted for in life, that we should and do get what we deserve, that our relative righteousness is our merit . . . a view of life and justice that is as entirely ignorant of the ways of God’s grace as it is of the mysteries of God’s justice. Here is a clue to the mysteries of Habakkuk, and to the mysteries of our big questions of global politics and local economics: Grace and Justice cannot be separated.
Habakkuk stations himself as a watchman, “to see what he [the LORD] will say to me, and what I will answer concerning my complaint” (2.1). Note: the Hebrew text reads “what I will answer” while other ancient texts read “what he (the LORD) will answer”. The Hebrew reading fits best with the dialogical pattern of the text.
The LORD gives Habakkuk a vision, but Habakkuk does not give us the details. “It speaks of the end”, it is worth waiting for. The righteous are vindicated, the proud get their just desserts. Otherwise, just when we’d like to know the details of the program, Habakkuk is silent.
The church sign, from the era of a walking community, not visible at the speed of a car – or even a runner.
“Write the vision . . . so that a runner may read it” (2.2). BIG print is required. This is a road sign for God’s people in a hostile, violent, and unjust world. What’s on it? Not the details of the vision, but – like any bill board – the broad strokes: “The righteous [the just] live by their faith. . . . The arrogant do not endure” (2.4-5).
“The righteous live by their faith”? What does Habakkuk mean by that statement? We are much more familiar with the New Testament quoting this text and placing it in the context of personal salvation. Its location in the context of global justice – its original location! – throws us off. One dimension seems readily apparent: The righteous live by faith in God’s justice, even when there is so much evidence to the contrary, so much violence and perverted judgement in the world. We trust in God’s justice and wait for it, even if we have to wait to the end of days.
Another dimension – and the one that the New Testament was importing – is that we do NOT live by our own righteousness. That, of course, is what Habakkuk assumed would be just: “The wicked surround the righteous” (1.4). “Why are you silent when the wicked swallow those more righteous than they?” (1.13). To live by faith means that we trust not only in God to bring judgment, but in God to bring grace, because we cannot depend on being more righteous than our neighbor or our enemies.
This remains a very difficult thing today. I speak with many people who are disillusioned with the injustice and violence in the world and the moral inequity of good people who are struggling when the arrogant are apparently blessed. Despite our desire, you cannot have it both ways. If we want to trust in our own righteousness, in being “more righteous” than others, then we have to accept injustice in the world. If, however, we do not accept injustice, then we need to recognize our own contamination with injustice and live by faith in God and God’s grace.
This dialogue, this conversation, between Habakkuk and the LORD teaches us several things.
- First, when we consider justice, we must allow for some matters to be settled at the end of days. “If it seems to tarry, wait for it” (2.3). This waiting is an expression of trust, of faith.
- Second, God accepts what Habakkuk assumes, that justice (and judgment) is a manifestation of God. “The LORD has made himself known, he has executed judgment” (Psalm 9.16).
- Third, when we envy the wicked, whether that is the envy of desire or of revenge, we must, as today’s psalm says “not fret” because it “leads only to evil” (Psalm 37.1-11). “The arrogant do not endure” (Habakkuk 2.5).
- Fourth, we must live by faith, not by our own righteousness. Living by our own righteousness is the quickest route to pride, and “the arrogant do not endure”. We put our faith in the righteousness of God, the judgment and mercy, the grace and justice, poured out in and upon Jesus Christ on our behalf.
The waiting in the text (“if it seems to tarry, wait for it”) is not passive or idle. It is LIVING, making choices, doing what is just and right, not giving in to the pervasive violence and selfishness that surrounds us. It is living, conscious that, in the end, God will overcome; justice will win out; the world will be transformed, made new, made right. It is living by faith, putting our trust in this God of justice, and joining God in victory, even now.
Habakkuk stations himself as a watchman, “to see what he [the LORD] will say to me, and what I will answer concerning my complaint” (2.1). We looked at what the LORD said, the message of the vision. But we do not hear – at least in this portion of the text – Habakkuk’s response. God’s message begs one of the prophet, and from us. Will we live by faith?
Heschel, Abraham J. 1962. The Prophets: An Introduction, volume 1. New York: Harper & Row.