Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD; I will take joy in the God of my salvation. GOD, the Lord, is my strength; he makes my feet like the deer’s; he makes me tread on my high places. To the choirmaster: with stringed instruments.~ Habakkuk 3:17–19
The book of Habakkuk is a book for our times—not just because the coronavirus has surfaced and spread but because Christians in every part of the world are surrounded by real evil and experience some degree of tribulation. The winds of the world blow against us. We are the fish always swimming upstream. We feel this sometimes rather acutely and sometimes overwhelmingly.
But whether we feel it or not, this is the reality for every Christian. And what this book has done is given us a glimpse into the heart of a real man and the ability to watch the progression that takes place within his soul. This journey has carried us from seeing Habakkuk in turmoil as the perplexed prophet all the way to this moment where we see the joyful prophet. But it wasn’t a short walk down “easy street” to get from point A to point B.
Habakkuk was God’s prophet, but he wasn’t some super saint. He wasn’t and we aren’t. We are weak people cleaving to the strong Sovereign. And if we’re being honest, sanctification often looks pretty messy. We aren’t traveling down some well-paved highway; instead, we’re all over the side streets full of potholes. And when the going gets tough, Christians aren’t always so tough in response. Often, the going gets tough, and our immediate response is fear or grumbling or questioning God’s wisdom or confusion.
So, this book is a true gift from God to us. Habakkuk was a real man writing for real people this timeless and real book. What do we do, then, amid sloppy sanctification and turbulent times? How do we walk with God when, due to pressures and anxieties and circumstances, we feel we can barely stand? This is where Habakkuk’s realization in these final verses of this book will prove so helpful to us. This chapter contains rich and majestic imagery that Habakkuk so poetically provides to us. That poetic and fearful language leaves Habakkuk saying what he says in verse 16:
I hear, and my body trembles; my lips quiver at the sound; rottenness enters into my bones; my legs tremble beneath me. Yet I will quietly wait for the day of trouble to come upon people who invade us.~ Habakkuk 3:16
“I hear”—What had Habakkuk heard? Habakkuk 3:2: “O Lord, I have heard the report of you, and your work, O Lord, do I fear.” Habakkuk is no longer deep in struggle, fearing the invading armies of Babylon. His fear has been redirected; it has regained its proper footing. A wrong kind of fear has been forsaken, replaced with the only right kind of fear. He has seen the Lord as He is—high and lifted up! He had forgotten, and we, too, forget, that the Fearsome One is the only one we should be fearing.
That weighty realization—Habakkuk’s greater sight of the Lord omnipotent—leaves him trembling. But this is the trembling of true faith. This is real trust in rough times. This is seeing God with us even when the fridge is empty. Or when the loved one breathes his last breath. Or when the city is on fire.
This, then, is the preface to our text. Devastating circumstances. The greatness of God. Real faith.
The text before us is Habakkuk’s realization in chapter 2, “The righteous shall live by his faith,” being lived out in real time. So much so, you can read it and think of it as Habakkuk’s statement of faith. While this great Old Testament book began on a low note, one of confusion and dismay, it ends on the note of triumph and jubilation. It almost reads like an ascent up a mountain, and here we have reached the peak and break out into celebratory song!
There is a story of a group of American preachers who traveled to London to hear some of the great preachers of their day. They went with a genuine desire to learn from their British brothers. One Sunday they went to hear a well-known London pastor who preached a rousing sermon. As the American preachers left the meeting that day, they were full of praise for what they’d heard: “What a great preacher! What a great sermon!” The next Sunday they decided to go sit under the preaching of Charles Spurgeon. They came out of that service in exultation as well. But this time they walked out proclaiming, “What a Savior! What a Savior!” Habakkuk closes out this short book saying much the same: What a Savior! What a Savior! It is both the conclusion and crescendo of the whole book. How thankful I am for these verses. They are like apples of gold in settings of silver.
Let’s now peer into the heart of this joyful prophet and learn from his example, processing what we’ve read into three parts: (1) joy’s realization, (2) joy’s response, and (3) joy’s reasoning.
I. Joy’s Realization
When Habakkuk looks down the road, what does he see barreling toward him? What does his future hold? He doesn’t have to guess about the future, does he? He is a prophet, and as a prophet he has received revelation about the events to come. The revelation was rather specific and graphic in nature. It will be the stuff of nightmares, the devastation and ravages of war.
Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls.~ Habakkuk 3:17
Israel was known for figs and olives, and they will be no more. There will be no fruit to harvest, no grapes to make wine. The food-producing fields, the produce that fills the dinner plates, will fail. The flocks and the herds, the meats and the milks, will also be devastated, slain, and stolen. In one fell swoop, the Babylonian army will deal a death blow to the Southern Kingdom, to Jerusalem. All its rich provision, all these signs of God’s blessing, will be blotted out by these harsh invaders. This is what a war-torn region looks like when the fighting is over and the city is ruined.
Habakkuk describes in a single verse the coming reality of horticultural, viticultural, and agricultural disaster. But he is merely highlighting the economic devastation to come—no, he is highlighting the fact that the stuff people need to live, the basic necessities, will be no more. That is how bad things are going to get. Babylon will come, and Jerusalem as they know it will be destroyed. Thousands will die by the sword, and thousands more will starve during the siege or be taken into captivity. Those who remain will attempt to scrape out their existence among the war-torn remains of this desolate city.
This is Habakkuk’s realization—a realization that leads to despair, right? I mean, what else could it possibly lead to? Well, there is something else, dear Christian!
II. Joy’s Response
Facing that kind of future, how does Habakkuk respond? Some would say, “How else could he possibly respond but with fear or despair or denial?” But what does Habakkuk have to say for himself? “Yet I will rejoice in the Lord!” (Habakkuk 3:18, emphasis mine). Has this guy gone mad? Has he lost his mind? No, he is thinking more clearly than he has ever thought before. Remember, Habakkuk has seen something of the glory of God. All that misplaced fear, all the perplexity, has been cleared up, and this is his honest and hope-filled response—joy. Habakkuk isn’t merely standing on the promises nor is he simply sober minded. He is singing!
When your life becomes the stuff of nightmares, when things that seemingly can’t get any worse, get worse, and when the sun is setting on your pain-filled life, what will you do then? Yes, Christians are to stand, but we can do more than stand. We can and should rejoice. Because we know God, we have every reason to rejoice. Our joy isn’t rooted in our circumstances; it is rooted in the eternal and unchangingly good God who loves us and keeps us.
I really do think—in my own life and the life of the modern-day Reformed movement—that this is one of the biggest disconnects between our theology and our experience. Reformed men and women simply are not known by their joy. In church services reverence is exalted, and rightly so, but never should it be so at the expense of rejoicing. Sadly, many of us behave more like Pharisees in our worship. Do you recall the scene of Jesus’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem for the last time?
As he was drawing near—already on the way down the Mount of Olives—the whole multitude of his disciples began to rejoice and praise God with a loud voice for all the mighty works that they had seen, saying, “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!” And some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples.” He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would cry out.”~ Luke 19:37–40
There it is. Haven’t we been like those Pharisees at times? Someone rejoices during our meeting, and we begin to question their sanity. Another weeps tears of joy, and we being to pray for their emotional wellbeing. What are we thinking? We have every reason to weep tears of joy if we’re in Christ. We have every encouragement to rejoice knowing how our story ends. Isn’t God a rejoicing God? Isn’t He singing loudly over us today? Aren’t the angels in heaven rejoicing right now and busying themselves in singing praises?
We can and should be rejoicing along with them, along with our God. The Gospel is good news. God could have called it serious news if He wanted, but He didn’t. Remember what the angel said to those shepherds: “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people” (Luke 2:10). Right here, right now, we have every reason to rejoice. Will you rejoice today? What we see in the text is that Habakkuk will rejoice in the face of the coming harsh reality. Not because of the harsh reality, but despite it. And this rejoicing is born out of real, living faith—faith in the God who will never let us down.
If it is Habakkuk’s faith in God that produces this rejoicing, we need to consider what this faith is and isn’t. First, what this faith is not. Is it blind ignorance? Clearly not. Habakkuk sees what is coming. He isn’t blind to it. He knows what Babylon will do, and he has God’s word on it. So, faith isn’t a lack of knowledge or blind ignorance.
Nor is faith merely courage. Though faith may make one courageous, that isn’t the essence of faith. It’s not a “pull-yourself-together” mentality. Faith doesn’t look inward to one’s own strength or ability at all. If you think that is what Habakkuk does here, you have missed the point entirely.
Also, faith isn’t simply optimism. For starters, the coming reality for Jerusalem doesn’t allow for optimism. And we surely don’t see Habakkuk trying to encourage himself by saying, “Maybe it won’t be so bad after all.” No, faith is something more than “glass-half-full” sentiment.
Lastly, true faith isn’t escapism either. This isn’t Habakkuk hearing of the coming Babylonian invasion then burying his head in Jerusalem sand. This isn’t being surrounded by difficulties and overwhelmed by pressures then resorting to mindlessly browsing Facebook. No, genuine faith stares circumstances in the face and refuses to run or retreat or recant (think of our Christian history of singing martyrs being burned alive).
When hard things came to Habakkuk, see how he responded:
The fig tree won’t blossom.
The vines will be dried up and dead.
The olive tree will be barren.
The fields will yield no harvest.
The flocks will be cut down.
The herds will be stolen.
The city will burn.
The people will be slaughtered.
Though God does all this, yet I will trust Him! Come what may—come all that may—I will trust Yahweh! I will rejoice in my God!
This is what real faith does. This is how it responds to a horrid future.
III. Joy’s Reasoning
But the questions, then, are these: How can faith do that? How is such faith even possible? How do we get from point A to point B in our journey of faith?
You may be asking, “How can my faith mature like Habakkuk’s faith matured?” This is where we can glean so much from this short Old Testament book, one that has a lot to say about the journey of faith. For starters, we see in these three chapters that faith in God is not ignorant and uninformed. Rather, Habakkuk’s faith is rooted in God and God’s acts. Christianity is the religion of facts; it isn’t merely a religion of ideas and pithy sayings. God has spoken. God has acted. History tells the story of it all. We are not saved by religious ideas, we are saved by actual events, the great things God has done. We see this in the text: “I will take joy in the God of my salvation. God, the Lord, is my strength; he makes my feet like the deer’s; he makes me tread on my high places” (Habakkuk 3:18–19). Not only in verses 18 and 19 do we see this but the whole chapter, the whole book, speaks to this reality. Habakkuk has seen something of the glory of the Lord. He has seen God as supreme.
His splendor covered the heavens, and the earth was full of His praise. His brightness was like the light: rays flashed from His hand; and there he veiled His power.~ Habakkuk 3:3–4
He has seen God as sovereign.
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.~ Habakkuk 1:5–6
But the Lord is in His holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before Him.~ Habakkuk 2:20
He has seen God as salvation.
You went out for the salvation of your people, for the salvation of your anointed. You crushed the head of the house of the wicked.~ Habakkuk 3:13
I will take joy in the God of my salvation.~ Habakkuk 3:18
He has seen God as strength.
God, the Lord, is my strength; he makes my feet like the deer’s; he makes me tread on my high places.~ Habakkuk 3:19
Thus, the faith that rejoices is rooted in the revelation of God to the soul. It isn’t rooted in mystical mumbo jumbo but in the truth of God, the facts of God, we could say. It is rooted in what God has said and what God has done. It is whole-hearted trust in the One who again and again and again has proven Himself trustworthy.
And when we possess that kind of faith, that kind of deep-rooted trust in the God of our salvation, then we can face whatever future comes our way. More than just face it, we can rejoice in the fires of tribulation. Recall what Jesus Himself said to His disciples, some of his last words to them before He went to the cross: “These things I have spoken to you, that in Me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).
In Christ you will have peace, and you can be of good cheer. If we could only grasp this. Our rejoicing is rooted in God, not in anything else. When we look at the “anything elses” of this world, we have every reason to fear and panic and hide. But when we look at our good and glorious King, we have every reason to stand, every reason to rejoice. Paul captures this well in Romans 8:
Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? … No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.
Are you more than a conqueror or not? Will any weapon fashioned against you succeed? Doesn’t this give you at least a little wiggle room to rejoice?
If only you and I would take hold of the living reality that we are already in some sense seated in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus. If only we’d live knowing the end of our Christian journey from the beginning. And yet we do know our blissful end.
If only moment by moment we would desperately depend on the Spirit of the living God residing in us, then surely we’d rejoice more than we currently do. Unadulterated joy is the product of unyielding faith in an indescribable God. Or it could be said like this: Mature faith in a majestic God produces much joy. “Shout, and sing for joy, O inhabitant of Zion, for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel” (Isaiah 12:6). May God in His mercy make us a more joyful people.