We all suffer from this nagging problem of not wholeheartedly believing God is good. On Sunday, we can sense the presence and nearness of God, then wake up Monday wondering if He even loves us.
Many would say, “Well, certainly God is good! Of course! The Bible declares it!” And yet, those very individuals aren’t nearly as certain that God is good to them—personallygood to them. We often struggle to see God as rejoicing in us as His children and singing loudly over us. We are far more easily able to envision God as a grumpy critic who has immeasurably more important things to do than to deal with our mess. This is part of our fallen condition and something that saints throughout the history of God’s people have struggled with.
In our most honest moments, we sometimes feel that God is either ruling in heaven unconcerned or that He actually does withhold good things from us. And of course, when God’s providence is perplexing and the pressure is mounting all around us, this becomes an even greater temptation in the battle taking place in our minds. This is something of what our brother Habakkuk is wrestling with at the end of chapter 1 and first verse of chapter 2.
Take time now to read Habakkuk 1:1–2:1. You will see some clear continuity between my first article, “The Perplexed Prophet,” and this one, but Habakkuk is going to begin to turn the corner.
The oracle that Habakkuk the prophet saw.
O Lord, how long shall I cry for help,
and you will not hear?
Or cry to you “Violence!”
and you will not save?
Why do you make me see iniquity,
and why do you idly look at wrong?
Destruction and violence are before me;
strife and contention arise.
So the law is paralyzed,
and justice never goes forth.
For the wicked surround the righteous;
so justice goes forth perverted.
The Lord’s Answer
“Look among the nations, and see;
wonder and be astounded.
For I am doing a work in your days
that you would not believe if told.
For behold, I am raising up the Chaldeans,
that bitter and hasty nation,
who march through the breadth of the earth,
to seize dwellings not their own.
They are dreaded and fearsome;
their justice and dignity go forth from themselves.
Their horses are swifter than leopards,
more fierce than the evening wolves;
their horsemen press proudly on.
Their horsemen come from afar;
they fly like an eagle swift to devour.
They all come for violence,
all their faces forward.
They gather captives like sand.
At kings they scoff,
and at rulers they laugh.
They laugh at every fortress,
for they pile up earth and take it.
Then they sweep by like the wind and go on,
guilty men, whose own might is their god!”
Habakkuk’s Second Complaint
Are you not from everlasting,
O Lord my God, my Holy One?
We shall not die.
O Lord, you have ordained them as a judgment,
and you, O Rock, have established them for reproof.
You who are of purer eyes than to see evil
and cannot look at wrong,
why do you idly look at traitors
and remain silent when the wicked swallows up
the man more righteous than he?
You make mankind like the fish of the sea,
like crawling things that have no ruler.
He brings all of them up with a hook;
he drags them out with his net;
he gathers them in his dragnet;
so he rejoices and is glad.
Therefore he sacrifices to his net
and makes offerings to his dragnet;
for by them he lives in luxury,
and his food is rich.
Is he then to keep on emptying his net
and mercilessly killing nations forever?
I will take my stand at my watchpost
and station myself on the tower,
and look out to see what he will say to me,
and what I will answer concerning my complaint. (Habakkuk 1:1–2:1 ESV)
By way of reminder, we met Habakkuk last time (hopefully not for the very first time!) and learned what we could about him from the limited information the brief introduction provides. We also saw Round 1of the interaction between Habakkuk and Yahweh. Habakkuk, perplexed as he is and wrestling in prayer, is crying out to God, who, by all appearances, isn’t hearing or responding. There is abundant evil around every bend, and God seems to be silent.
“God, won’t you revive? Won’t you intervene? Why are you silent?”
And then God speaks to His prophet.
“I have heard you, Habakkuk. I am hearing you now. And I am working. Globally. Sovereignly. I am raising up the godless nation of Babylon. They will be the sword in my hand, the sword I am bringing against nations, including my own, Israel.”
This is a devastating response, a hard providence, and something very difficult to understand. And why? Because God is not like us. He sees everything. His purposes are so vast.
Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! “For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?”
– Romans 11:33–34
This is the God of the Bible. He is always doing unexpected things. We are like Him, but He is not like us.
And so here, our dear brother, Habakkuk, receives God’s reply, and he is a man shaken. And we feel that at times too, don’t we? Terminal illness confronts a dearly beloved brother or sister in Christ, and we think to ourselves, “Why, God? Why not let them live another ten or twenty years?” Wouldn’t a Robert Murray M’Cheyne or a David Brainerd or a William Borden be a blessing to your church had they lived into their sixties or seventies or eighties? Or you have dear saints whose child grew into adulthood only to pursue sin and evil. What grief to Mom and Dad! How many tears can one cry? Or we have, in so many instances it seems, the church languishing, overcome by the world’s influence, seemingly dying on the vine.
“Why, Lord? How could you let this happen? Won’t you save, heal, deliver, revive?”
“Father, are you hearing us? Will you just let this continue?”
So we, as twenty-first-century Christians, know something of what Habakkuk felt in his day, something of what Noah felt in his day, and Daniel in his day. And here we come to Habakkuk 1:12–2:1. Habakkuk, upon hearing God’s answer, wrestles on in prayer. He utters his second complaint, and yet, by the end of this prayer and complaint, he begins to turn the corner. The perplexed prophet will transition into the expectant prophet.
Consider the following seven verses in three parts: reverence in prayer, honesty in prayer, and expectancy in prayer. Look where Habakkuk’s prayer begins.
Reverence in Prayer
Are you not from everlasting,
O Lordmy God, my Holy One?
We shall not die.
O Lord, you have ordained them as a judgment,
and you, O Rock, have established them for reproof.
– Habakkuk 1:12
Here we encounter what I think is one of the most helpful lessons in praying as a Christian. Jesus taught it in the Lord’s Prayer more than six hundred years after Habakkuk’s day, the apostles practiced it, and ever since, Christians throughout the earth have been as well. In prayer, begin with what you know. Acknowledge God in His greatness. Go back to the fundamental things that simply won’t ever change—and even more so when you are like Habakkuk, perplexed and overwhelmed.
This is what this perplexed prophet does upon hearing this devastating reply from God. He worships. He adores. And that is the basis of his plea. Look at all he says about the Lord in so few words:
- God is eternal:“Are you not from everlasting?”
Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever you had formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God.
– Psalm 90:2
Think now of the context from which these words have poured out of Habakkuk’s heart. He has just heard of the coming of ruthless Babylon. He knows of their merciless practices. He is well aware of their wickedness, sensuality, and idolatry. He has heard the stories of their conquering and taking their captives to exile, lined up one after another and driven along, each tied to the other with cords connected to hooks, hooks which pierce each captive’s nose.
And Habakkuk knows they do all of this in the name of their many gods. Babylon was a polytheistic nation—a god here and a god there. And suddenly, it strikes Habakkuk: “My God is eternal. He is from everlasting to everlasting. He was here from all eternity. Babylon will rise and fall. But God never did rise and never can fall.”
- God is holy: “O Lord my God, my holy One.”
So often in Scripture, we see phrases like “bless His holy name” or God saying, “I will make my holy name known.” It seems holyis the most used adjective in the Bible when describing God’s name or His nature. He is holy, entirely otherly, the unique God, the supreme God.
- God is personal: “My God, my holy One.”
How lovely is that? Yes, Habakkuk knows his God. This is the language of an intimate relationship. Habakkuk isn’t so much struggling to know God but struggling to know what God is doing in light of who God is. He struggles to understand this extremely hard providence. But he knows, adores, and reveres his God.
- God is faithful:“We shall not die.”
There is, in these words, a hint of covenant. Suddenly, Habakkuk moves from the singular to the plural with his use of we. Who is this we? It is God’s people, the faithful. To use an Old Testament term, I think Habakkuk has the remnant in view. He has recognized something important here: Babylon will come, it will do what Babylon does, it will be ruthless and ugly, and the Southern kingdom will be left in ruins. And yet, God is faithful to His people, the apple of His eye. He will not leave us nor forsake us. Even in exile He will be with us. We may be crushed, but we will not despair. In this moment, Habakkuk remembers God’s covenant promises, and He knows God cannot lie. He knows God is faithful.
Now we see some Hebrew parallelism employed. Habakkuk has more to adore.
- God is sovereign: “O Lord, you have ordained them. . . . You have established them.”
This one is big. The sovereignty of God is a major recurring theme in this short book. Habakkuk realizes that God has done all of this. He, not Babylon, is writing Babylon’s story. Just as God established them for His purpose, He will take them out when the time comes to do so. Indeed, God ordains all things that come to pass.
- God is judge: “You have ordained them as a judgment.”
I hope you can see that even in a few short words, just a little bit of really good theology, Habakkuk begins to see a little bit more clearly. And he recognizes that Babylon, who will be used as an instrument of God’s judgment against His people Israel, will also one day be judged themselves. God is and always will be the judge of all the earth, who will do what is right.
- God is mighty: “And you, O Rock.”
The Rock, his work is perfect, for all his ways are justice. A God of faithfulness and without iniquity, just and upright is he.
– Deuteronomy 32:4
The imagery of the rockin regard to God is used again and again in Scripture. It speaks primarily to two things. Most often, it emphasizes God’s strength, but it also emphasizes His unchanging nature: “For I the Lorddo not change” (Malachi 3:6). Here, in verse 12, it seems to emphasize His mighty power in both ordaining and reproving a nation. The KJV translates it, “O mighty God.” He is the Almighty, and His people do well to remember that.
So, in just a breath or two, Habakkuk recollects some massive and fundamental characteristics of his God. God is eternal and holy and personal and faithful and sovereign. God is the Judge, and He is the Almighty.
Was this merely a formality, though? Or was it something more? It is undeniably something more, and we must take hold of this ourselves. When we encounter a difficult providence, the very first step in prayer is to go back to the basics. And what is more basic than revering God as He has revealed Himself to be?
Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised, and his greatness is unsearchable.
– Psalm 145:3
It is here that our prayers become properly oriented. It is here that our thoughts are recalibrated. Here that our emotions are subdued. And it’s here that our thoughts are subjected to His thoughts.
We must learn this, saints. There is a grand reason the Lord’s Prayer begins with “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.” Start here in prayer when in distress. Let the reality of who God is penetrate your thick skull once more, and let it calm your turbulent heart. This is true reverence in prayer.
Honesty in Prayer
Now, turn your attention to verses 13–17:
You who are of purer eyes than to see evil and cannot look at wrong, why do you idly look at traitors and remain silent when the wicked swallows up the man more righteous than he? You make mankind like the fish of the sea, like crawling things that have no ruler. He brings all of them up with a hook; he drags them out with his net; he gathers them in his dragnet; so he rejoices and is glad. Therefore he sacrifices to his net and makes offerings to his dragnet; for by them he lives in luxury, and his food is rich. Is he then to keep on emptying his net and mercilessly killing nations forever?
– Habakkuk 1:13-17
Habakkuk shifts to his second complaint—and with real boldness. In many Christian circles, prayer like this would cause people to gasp: “You go too far, brother. Calm down. You can’t talk to God like that!” Well, this may not be the everyday kind of praying God’s people know, but it is true prayer. We see it at different points in the Psalms. I think we even get a glimpse into this with Jesus praying in Gethsemane. Honest prayer is best, even if it gets a little messy. Don’t just jump to the conclusion that all such prayer is irreverent. Here, Habakkuk prays these things following some of the most remarkable, God-exalting language we could read. He is reverent, but he must be honest.
“God, I just don’t get it. Your raising up of an idolatrous nation, a people who worship their own strength, to crush your own people, how can this be?”
If, as Thomas Watson says, “Image lovers are God haters,” then Babylon is full of God haters.
“O Lord, how can you use God haters in coming against your own people? You are so pure, how can you tolerate, even ordain, this kind of evil? How can you wield this kind of sword?”
He is wrestling, and he doesn’t hold back. He is pressing God’s own revealed character on God.
“I know you’re holy and pure and righteous altogether. I know you’re right about Israel needing to be purified and disciplined. But Babylon? Exile? Destruction?”
You see, he even uses the very strong language of “swallows up” in verse 13. That’s the same language used when Aaron’s staff-turned-snake swallowed up the magician’s staffs-turned-snakes. It is the language of utter annihilation and consumption. It’s scary stuff—he recognizes Babylon will come and consume the nation of Israel. They will chew them up and spit out the bones.
And then, he utilizes the fish and fishing imagery. We would say something like, “Israel is a sitting duck.” Habakkuk views them as fish waiting to be caught up in Babylon’s nets. Yes, he includes the hooks, alluding to the Babylonian practice I’ve already mentioned.
“God, you know how cruel they are in conquering. You’ve seen how they treat their captives. You know all the horrors of it.”
And in conquering, Babylon just gets more riches and wealth. They are ruthless, fat, and happy.
“God, will you allow this to continue? Will you let them go on forever? When are you going to pull the plug on this evil?”
And again, these are the questions we’ve asked. Maybe the questions we are asking right now amid a hard providence.
So, be honest when you pray. I submit that neat and tidy prayers are often prayers that aren’t prayers at all. If you can’t be yourself before God, where can you be yourself? Can’t God handle your complaints, as confused as they are? Can’t He then teach and comfort and calm?
Expectant in Prayer
Now the prophet begins to turn the corner.
I will take my stand at my watchpost and station myself on the tower, and look out to see what he will say to me, and what I will answer concerning my complaint.
– Habakkuk 2:1
Here is a little more Hebrew parallelism for us, a linguistic tool to allow the writer to emphasize certain statements. Parallelism happens when a statement is restated using slightly different words, intended to draw the reader’s attention to the significant point. And here in the opening verse of chapter 2, this is what Habakkuk does. He has prayed and wrestled once more. Now he waits. This is the posture of both submission and expectation. The perplexedprophet is now waiting on the Lord as an expectantprophet.
What a lovely picture of true prayer. Difficult things come, things that are beyond hard. We cry out to the Lord in our pain, our suffering, and our anguish. We don’t see the end of it. We can’t understand God’s purpose in it. And we pray. And we pray some more. We lay it all at His feet. And then what do we do? We must wait. We must, with expectancy, wait upon the Lord to speak, to guide, to help.
So often we fail in this. We cry to the Lord and say we are going to leave it at His feet. But as soon as we are done praying, we pick that thing up and try to make something happen. No, this is not the way. Our arms are short, yet God’s arm is not. Our resources are bankrupt, but God’s resources are infinite.
Oh, how you and I need to learn to wait upon the Lord! Recognize this need in yourself, and by God’s grace grow. We want to be those who are entirely yielded to God’s will, even if it be painful for us. And at the same time, we want to be expectant—to know, to really know, that God has heard us and will reply.
This is what the godly throughout the ages have clung to in their darkest hours. During the final two decades of the seventeenth century in Scotland, the covenanters were being hunted down by the king’s soldiers and slaughtered. Those two decades are known as the “killing times.”
One example of such cruelty and suffering comes from the life of Alan Cameron, the father of Richard Cameron (a.k.a. The Lion of the Covenant), a very influential leader among the covenanters. For his covenanting views, Alan Cameron was arrested and imprisoned. One day, the guards threw a sack into his cell, a sack that held a severed head and hands. The guards taunted him, “Do you know them? Do you know them?” Cameron bent down and kissed the head and said, “I know them. I know them. They are my son’s, my own dead son’s. It is the Lord. Good is the will of the Lord, who cannot wrong me or mine, but has made goodness and mercy to follow us all our days.”
Now that is some grace-empowered submission.
Do you long for that in your life? Come what may, God is with me. He is for me. What can separate me?
And yet, our wrestlings with God, submissive as we should be, ought to be filled with expectation as well. Expectancy. Constancy. Fervency. We ought to be, as has been said, “battering the gates of heaven with the storms of prayer.” We must be diligent. We must be resolved. We must be ready for God’s reply.
So, dear church, will you labor on in prayer? Will you ask the Lord to continue to grow you in these ways? Origen, the early church father, said that this life was “one unceasing supplication.” Let’s be the praying people we ought to be. Praying because we know God is hearing. Praying because the Spirit helps us in our weakness. Praying because, after waiting, we know God will answer us.