We left off in our last study at quite the cliffhanger. Habakkuk, our dear perplexed but expectant prophet, has continued to wrestle in prayer with God. He had uttered his second complaint, exhibiting true honesty in prayer, and now would wait on the Lord for His reply.
And so, we return to the waiting and expectant prophet who has borne his heart to his God. Here, we will see God’s lengthy reply. God doesn’t leave His prophet languishing. He comes to him, for He has heard Habakkuk’s cries.
All around the prophet is evil and grief and violence and madness. It is something the saints throughout humanity’s history have struggled through. We could speak of innumerable Christian men and women throughout church history, who like Habakkuk, wrestled and struggled and prayed and persevered.
John Calvin serves as a good example of one who learned submission through suffering, who over the course of long decades in Christ’s service was spending and being spent for God’s people amid loss and chaos. John Calvin suffered tremendous opposition during his early years in Geneva. The power people weren’t interested in reform and purity in the church. They wanted things to remain as they were if it in any way was going to step on their toes. At one point he is exiled for the space of three years before being invited back to the very place and people that exiled him.
Then he marries Idelette, a Christian widow. She gives birth to Jacque prematurely, and within two weeks, he dies. Three years later she gives birth to a daughter, who also dies. Two years later this was followed by another baby who died at birth. After only nine years of marriage, Idelette died. This was when he wrote his dear friend William Farrell saying, “May the Lord Jesus support me under this heavy affliction which would certainly have overcome me had not He who raises up the prostrate, strengthens the weak, and refreshes the weary, stretched forth His hand from heaven to me.”
But these weren’t all that afflicted Calvin. One writer has said that “Calvin was a martyr to all forms of ill health. He was a martyr to arthritis, migraine headaches, bleeding from the stomach, bowel disorders, inflamed kidneys, kidney stones, fever, muscle cramps, and gout.” And then, at age fifty-four, he died from tuberculosis. Yet, throughout all his many battles, John Calvin stressed the sovereignty of God and persevered, as only a believing Christian can, through the most severe trials. This is where texts like Habakkuk 2 provide so much help to us as God’s people.
I want to focus on four precious assurances from Habakkuk 2. The context picks up with the expectant prophet, who, having heard from God some very hard things, cries out once more to the Lord and awaits His reply.
But don’t forget the setting. Habakkuk is surrounded by an evil Israel and an evil world. And so much of this chapter is focused on the evils of Babylon and, in a real measure, the evils of unjust men throughout all time. In this text, we encounter a series of “woes.” Theologians refer to this chapter as a “taunt song.” God is mocking His enemies as He discloses to His prophet their final doom. Woe after woe is proclaimed toward unrighteous men who rebel against God and all that is good in the world.
The first woe involves greed. They heap up. They load themselves. They rack up debt in their lust for more. They plunder others to get gain. And then we see the great reversal that awaits them all: the plunderers will one day be plundered. The book of James warns, “Come now, you rich, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you. Your riches have rotted and your garments are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have corroded, and their corrosion will be evidence against you and will eat your flesh like fire” (James 5:1–3).
The second woe involves injustice. They go after evil gain. They devise shame. They habitually are found cutting off people. God will cut them off; it is just a matter of time. The wheels of justice may move slowly at times, but they are surely moving.
The third woe involves violence. The ungodly are those who build a house with blood. They increase their wealth on the backs of others.
The fourth woe involves perversions: drunkenness, orgies, gazing at nakedness, shame. It was Belshazzar, king of Babylon, who was sumptuously feasting and drinking with a thousand of his subjects and worshiping the many idols of Babylon when the handwriting appeared on the wall:
And this is the writing that was inscribed: Mene, Mene, Tekel, and Parsin. This is the interpretation of the matter: Mene, God has numbered the days of your kingdom and brought it to an end; Tekel, you have been weighed in the balances and found wanting; Tekel, you have been weighed in the balances and found wanting.
– Daniel 5:25–28
That very night, the Babylonian king was killed. Indeed, God will always do what He says He will do. He will wield an unholy instrument in judgment against His own people only to raise up another pagan nation to demolish the weapon He had previously used.
The fifth woe involves idolatry.
What profit is an idol when its maker has shaped it, a metal image, a teacher of lies? For its maker trusts in his own creation when he makes speechless idols! Woe to him who says to a wooden thing, Awake; to a silent stone, Arise! Can this teach? Behold, it is overlaid with gold and silver, and there is no breath at all in it.
– Habakkuk 2:18–19
All these woes. So much evil. Judgment on the move. These are the various elements of God’s reply to His prophet. It is amid these things that God will begin to both remind and assure His prophet of certain unchanging, foundational things. Much like God upheld John Calvin in difficult days, He upholds His prophet here. He upholds Asaph, who authored Psalm 73. Yes, He keeps His people.
So let’s now turn our attention to these four pillars of assurance: the concrete word, the comforting word, the conquering word, and the conclusive word. It is as though the Lord, during His reply involving judgment and woe, graciously drops these words of consolation in there for His servant. As you read through this great chapter, these statements jump off the page.
The Concrete Word
And the Lordanswered me: “Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so he may run who reads it. For still the vision awaits its appointed time; it hastens to the end—it will not lie. If it seems slow, wait for it; it will surely come; it will not delay.
– Habakkuk 2:2–3
The first assurance God gives to His prophet involves the unchanging strength of His word. It reminds me of what Balaam had once spoken to Balak in an oracle from the Lord: “God is not man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should change his mind. Has he said, and will he not do it? Or has he spoken, and will he not fulfill it?” (Numbers 23:19). We are talking about God’s sure and certain and steady and unbreakable word.
The Clarity of Scripture
In these two verses, we see the clarity of Scripture. God tells Habakkuk that “this message needs not only to be remembered but written down. It needs to be preserved, recorded exactly as it was delivered to you. Write legibly. In big bold letters. Use the Sharpie. I want this to be so clearly engraved on tablets that even the hasty reader can see it and capture its message.”
And this is the way it is with God’s revelation to us. The Bible is the clearly spoken and preserved word of God. This book doesn’t require one to have a high education or access to some secret knowledge to understand it. It is revelation, not secrets. It has been disclosed.
The Capacity of Scripture
The vision God gave to Habakkuk involved the framework of the future destruction of this unjust and rebellious nation: “For still the vision awaits its appointed time; it hastens to the end.” It was going to happen, and it was simply a matter of time now. Babylon’s future judgment, the undoing of a kingdom, was “set in stone,” literally. What God had spoken that day to Habakkuk surely would come to pass.
And this shows us both the power of the Word and how it shapes human reality. It is the outcome that God desires, the story that He writes, that will indeed come to pass. He is the author and the finisher, the alpha and omega.
We read in chapter 2 the content of future days, the reality that will one day come to pass. And the word of God is all that is needed to accomplish this. In the beginning God spoke and said, “Let there be light.” And there was light. It’s that simple for our sovereign, creator God.
The Certainty of Scripture
This is such lovely language: “[The vision] will not lie. If it seems slow, wait for it; it will surely come; it will not delay.” It is as though God is saying to Habakkuk and to us today, “Dear children, take me at my word. What I have said once is bound to come to pass. I am God. I cannot lie. My word has never failed, nor will it ever fail. Trust me when I speak. Be assured. Be strengthened. Believe.”
Habakkuk has heard Babylon is coming and will destroy the Southern kingdom. Judah will be utterly ruined, and its people either exiled or slaughtered. He had asked God the question of desperation: “Is he then to keep on emptying his net and mercilessly killing nations forever?”
And God now speaks: “No, dear one, Babylon will not continue this kind of conquering forever. Judgment comes to them as well. Wait for it. It is only a matter of time.”
And this was the assurance Habakkuk needed in his day. It was Asaph’s experience in Psalm 73, wasn’t it? “But when I thought how to understand this, it seemed to me a wearisome task, until I went into the sanctuary of God; then I discerned their end” (Psalm 73:16–17). He discerned their end, and Habakkuk did as well.
We need this understanding in our day too. We have God’s Word, and it is an unchanging, unflinching, and unbreakable word—it is a concrete word. That is the first grand assurance we encounter in this chapter.
The Comforting Word
Behold, his soul is puffed up; it is not upright within him, but the righteous shall live by his faith. Moreover, wine is a traitor, an arrogant man who is never at rest. His greed is as wide as Sheol; like death he has never enough. He gathers for himself all nations and collects as his own all peoples.
– Habakkuk 2:4-5 (emphasis mine)
This encouragement is so emblematic of the chapter as a whole. You have this golden nugget dropped in amid a seeming pervasive darkness. Eight little words in English, nine in Hebrew. They are glorious words. The significance of this portion of the Bible is hard to measure or weigh.
You probably know some of the history of Martin Luther and how these words so impacted him. We can realistically say that these eight little words are chiefly responsible for sparking the Reformation. Think of that!
Martin Luther, a serious student of Scripture in his day, felt deeply the chasm that existed between God and sinful man. He clearly recognized God’s just standards encapsulated in the law and that he, as a man, fell far short of them. Determined to know salvation, in fear of damnation and on the heels of a radical near-death experience with lightning, Luther enters the Augustinian monastery in Erfurt, Germany. This is where his serious study of Scripture began.
It was during this period of his life that he was first acquainted with Habakkuk 2:4, “The righteous shall live by his faith.” He didn’t yet understand its meaning, but he saw something of its significance. He saw that contained somewhere in this truth were answers for him, that there was another way to please God beyond what Rome taught him. As much as he pursued fasting, self-injury, prayer, acts of service, and charity, he knew that his soul was yet in jeopardy.
And then, in God’s providence, he goes on pilgrimage to Rome. During his long journey there, he falls deathly ill. While being cared for by a group of monks, Luther, in his pain and anguish, reflects on how horrible it would be to die. Eternity scares him. He is overcome by fear and darkness and dejection. He envisioned himself standing before the burning hot wrath of God as the sinner he was. And yet, while he lay there recovering, he found himself repeating with increasing understanding these words: “The righteous will live by his faith. The righteous will live by his faith.”
Luther recovered and finally made it to Rome for the pilgrimage. And he comes to St. John’s Lateran and those stairs. The stairs are in four sections, the ordinary outer two sections that one can walk up, and then the special inner two sections that are never walked on. Those two sections of steps are said to have been miraculously transported from Jerusalem to Rome, the very steps Jesus would have ascended to enter Pilate’s judgment hall.
And so here, the idolatrous “pilgrim” ascends the steps on his knees in constant “prayer,” kissing certain spots along the way. And it is this view that so gripped Luther. What happened to him here was recorded by his son, Dr. Paul Luther, in a manuscript that has been preserved for us today: “As he repeated his prayers on the Lateran staircase, the words of the prophet Habakkuk came suddenly to his mind ‘the just shall live by his faith’. Thereupon he ceased his prayers, returned to Wittenberg, and took this as the chief foundation of all his doctrine.” This event precipitated Martin Luther’s tower experience with Romans 1:17, and the rest is history.
Luther himself said of these words from Habakkuk 2:4, “Before those words broke upon my mind I hated God and was angry with Him because, not content with frightening us sinners by the law and by the miseries of life, He still further increased our torture by the Gospel. But when, by the Spirit of God, I understood those words — ‘The just shall live by faith! The just shall live by faith!’ — then I felt born again like a new man; I entered through the open doors into the very Paradise of God.”
Talk about a true appreciation for the words before us today!
And Luther wasn’t the first. So many saints throughout church history have found these words deeply significant and deeply encouraging. The apostle Paul is one of them. He cites this text on two occasions (Romans 1 and Galatians 3). The author of Hebrews cites it in chapter 10 as well.
Consider the comforting influence of these words to our brother Habakkuk. He felt alone, surrounded by those hostile to God, and now judgment is coming in the form of an evil Babylonian army. Proud men, arrogant men, greedy men, wicked men are everywhere—utter rebellion against God. “Habakkuk, the righteous live by their faith. You will persevere as one of God’s servants simply by taking God at His clear and certain word. Let the ‘not upright’ ones do and say what they will. Discern their end. But you, upright one, righteous in my sight, trust me, walk with me, hold fast to my word.”
You see, faith doesn’t involve instant relief from all life’s pressures and troubles. Rather, faith in God is what brings us through it. Habakkuk, John Calvin, Martin Luther, Elizabeth Prentiss, you, me—the righteous live by their faith.
And there does seem to be a hint of eschatological life embedded in this statement. We live and persevere by faith today. Certainly, this is the case. But more than that, we will live forever because of the gospel of our salvation, which is by grace and through faith. Lonely as these eight words sit in the text, lonely as Habakkuk was in Judah, lonely as we sometimes feel ourselves to be today, this is a timeless assurance God gives us in His Word.
Be comforted, brethren. We live, we persevere, we make it to the end—by faith!
The Conquering Word
The next gem that comes to us surfaces amid the woes. Verse 14: “For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lordas the waters cover the sea.” And here is the assurance in a nutshell: “Habakkuk — Church — you feel the pervasiveness of the evil all around you. It seems as if it knows little restraint. And you know the pervasiveness of the judgment that is coming upon all who rebel against me. I want you to know there is something more pervasive still. The earth will be filled with the knowledge of my glory as the waters cover the sea.”
Talk about pervasive! Like waters that cover the sea!
“Habakkuk, the end of the matter is the knowledge of my pervasive glory that will cover the earth.”
It isn’t simply that Babylon will be destroyed. It isn’t even God’s sure judgments coming upon the wicked. No, there is something more central to God’s grand story. He conquers. His glory will be displayed for all to see. As Philippians 2:9–11 tells us, “Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
This is the way God, in His infinite wisdom, has authored it. His word, at points in history, is nearly extinguished, His people nearly blotted out, His church almost silenced by the angry, opposing world. God’s servants suffer. They are killed. They are jailed. God’s name is blasphemed, dragged through the mud, and despised. Evil prevails. Wicked governments and institutions thrive. Ungodly men rest their head on a pillow at night thinking themselves safe and secure. But this is not the end of the story. God conquers all. His word is a conquering word. His glory will pervade and prevail.
This is a deep assurance and encouragement God gives to Habakkuk here in our text and to us today. We can be certain of this one great fact: God will ultimately triumph. Jesus shall reign.
Jesus shall reign where’er the sun,
Does his successive journeys run;
His kingdom stretch from shore to shore,
Till moons shall wax and wane no more.
– Isaac Watts, 1719
The notable atheists of recent history, men like Bertrand Russell and Richard Dawkins, write what they write, but God’s conquering word always has the last word. The nations will rage, and the people will plot in vain, but He who sits in the heavens laughs—He has set His King on His holy hill.
So do not be shaken by the mess that surrounds you. This tribulation you will only know for a short season. The end of the matter is altogether glorious. Wait for it with patience. Wait for it in faith.
The Conclusive Word
How does God wrap up his reply to Habakkuk? “But the Lordis in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him” (v. 20).
We need to remember that it is often the last thing that is spoken in a speech or the conclusion of an attorney’s closing argument that is to leave the deepest impression on the hearer. What, then, does God want Habakkuk to really remember? What does God want us to hold fast to in our day?
“I am reigning and triumphant and alive and well. My throne is untouched by my enemies and my power undiminished. Be still and know that I am God. Put your trust in nothing of man. Trust me. I am with you.”
So, let God’s words—not your words—be the chief influence in your mind and heart. The matter is settled, after all. It can’t be shaken, defeated, or amended in any way. Human history is fixed by the One seated on His throne, by the One ruling in His holy temple.
And so, amid the chaos, we must learn to quiet our hearts. The wicked want nothing to do with a quiet heart or “keeping silence,” but their day is coming. They will be silenced. They will bow the knee.
But for us, those who know God, those who with eyes of faith see Him there in His holy temple, we can keep silence right now, voluntarily and confidently and with full assurance. Because God has spoken.
Will you allow this portion of God’s Word to feed your soul and fuel your assurance? Will you take time in the days and weeks ahead to come to reflect on these mighty truths? At the end of this gracious reply, God is saying to Habakkuk and to you, “Be still and know that I am God.” What more do God’s believing children need to hear?