The Perplexed Prophet — Habakkuk 1:1–11
A theologian once said, “You should preach with the Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other.”
What was meant by that is the Bible is the interpreter of human affairs, of human history, not the other way around. And this will be a key area in which this prophet will help us, even as he himself was helped.
The Bible is the key that unlocks the true meaning and understanding of all the world’s affairs. You’ve probably heard the idiom with the strange history, “The devil is in the details.” Well, Habakkuk will unveil the real picture for us — that God is in the details. This prophet is going to help us to be better able to think and pray and trust in our God, who is totally sovereign and wonderfully mysterious.
For starters, let’s ponder for a moment the state of twenty-first century affairs. As painful as it is, take a stroll with me through the modern-day worldwide landscape.
Out of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries came a number of disgusting heresies that have risen to prominence in our day: Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormonism, Christian Science, the prosperity gospel, Word of Faith movement, the Emergent Church, inclusivism, open theism, liberalism.
Those are just some of the religious ideologies that have wrecked the lives of countless people. What about political ideologies and philosophical ideologies such as communism, modernism into today’s postmodernism, white supremacy, feminism, and gender dysphoria? These ideologies have accounted for so much pain, death, and loss and continue to do so this very day. And God is seeing it all take place. He has allowed these ideas to rise in influence and power.
Then there is universal violence, such as terrorist attacks. Most recently a car bomb went off near the Syrian border in Tell Halaf, killing 17 and injuring 20 others. This is a suspected attack by the PKK, a Kurdish militant terrorist group. Or how about mass shootings? Within the past 100 days or so, we’ve had two occasions in my own state of Texas — Odessa with 7 dead, and El Paso with 22 dead. This trend seems to be increasing in frequency, with deranged gunmen shooting anyone and everyone because of race or religion or guilt by association. We cannot exclude abortion from this list. This year in America, well over 600,000 abortions will be performed. Worldwide, the World Health Organization estimates there are between 40 and 50 million children executed in the womb.
We could go on and on here. There’s bullying in schools, drunk driving fatalities, gang violence, wars and threats of war, dirty bombs, biological and chemical warfare, and domestic violence. In our own nation, there are nearly 20,000 homicides and 50,000 suicides each year.
And God is intimately aware of all these details, of every victim. More than that, He knows the evil motivations of every murderous, warmongering heart.
Rising World Powers
The geo-political stage is awash with anti-Christian nation-states seeking dominance. Russia, a once-crippled world power, increasingly exerts worldwide influence. China’s size and increasing strength is threatening Western powers on multiple fronts. In an age where knowledge and information are power, cyber warfare is at its height. Who will rise out of the Middle East? Can western influence stem the tide of oppressive and militant regimes? And with birthrates far exceeding our own in America, what will the picture of the world’s super powers look like in 25 or 50 or 75 years?
God raises up rulers and kingdoms as easily as He puts them down. He isn’t on vacation or taking a nap or oblivious to world events.
Growing False Religions
Finally, we have the growth of false religions. According to the Pew Research Foundation, if things continue on the current trajectory, by 2050 there will be as many Muslims on the planet as there are Christians.
And of course, we recognize that the category labeled Christianisn’t all that Christian. In a real sense, it seems that on the earth the true church of God, the real servants of King Jesus, are few. Not just a minority, but a minority among the minorities.
And God has authored this story. He is fully cognizant of the realities of the religious world. His finger is on the pulse of growing Islam, fertility rates, and even the economic conditions that stimulate such growth. God knows. God sees. He knows and sees all of it. All the time.
And yet, here we are. The big picture isn’t very encouraging. If the weight of it were to hit us at once, it would be debilitating and crushing. It would drive us to madness if we could somehow take it all in. But we can’t because our thinking is too small and our ability too weak.
And God knows this too. He knows the next catastrophic weather event that will devastate an economy and destroy certain cities. He knows underground world of human and sex trafficking. He is intimately acquainted with the big money people who exert influence in national governments and world affairs. Yes, God is watching. He is aware. His knowledge is perfect. He misses nothing.
But this begs the questions, doesn’t it?
- If God is so aware, how can He be silent?
- Why has God permitted such conditions, locally or globally?
- Why does God seem not to care by allowing these dangers to exist?
- Why can the atheist continue to blaspheme and remain alive?
- Why does God allow so many wrong things to be done, even in His name?
- If God’s people pray, and in some situations (like abortion for example) work to undo the depravity, why isn’t God shutting stuff down?
These are big questions, aren’t they?
They are questions that have left many perplexed over the course of human history. And these are the questions a book like Habakkuk will help us answer.
You mean, this little minor prophet book, these three chapters, will help with these big issues? Yes, that is exactly what I mean and exactly what God intends!
So, with this being said, and the stage being set, let’s take a look at this precious book God has given us.
I want to break the remainder of this article into three parts: (1) A mysterious man, (2) the mysterious God, and (3) His mysterious providence.
A Mysterious Man
Who is Habakkuk, and what do we know about him? Obviously, it would be nice if we had his family history and education. It would be even better if we knew the ways in which God had used this particular prophet, such as his conquests and his experiences. Some of us would be very curious to know more about Harriet, his wife, and Holly and Hudson, his children. (I’m joking, in case you wondered why Habakkuk would name his son after the nineteenth-century missionary!)
Well, we don’t know any of these details. We really don’t know anything about this guy beyond his name. What can we infer, then, in terms of his authorship? We can conclude a couple of things.
By all appearances, the timing is clearly connected to the rise of the Babylonian empire, which places the writing of this book at some point between 610 and 600 BC. It was during this time period that the good Israelite king, Josiah, was killed in battle. Josiah had gone up to battle Neco II, king of Egypt, basically entering a skirmish not his own.
According to2 Chronicles 35:21, Neco sends this warning to Josiah: “What have we to do with each other, king of Judah? I am not coming against you this day, but against the house with which I am at war. And God has commanded me to hurry. Cease opposing God, who is with me, lest he destroy you.”
For reasons unknown, Josiah joins the fray and is shot with an arrow in the thick of the battle. It would prove to be a fatal wound, and Josiah is brought back to Jerusalem, where he dies and is buried. Upon his death, Jehoahaz begins to reign, and things go downhill from there.
That is the historic setting of this little book written sometime between 610 and 600 BC. What else can we know about the authorship?
Habakkuk is a prophet, after all. He has the name tag: “The oracle that Habakkuk the prophetsaw” (Habakkuk 1:1, emphasis added). He is writing this book by God’s command as God’s servant. As a prophet, we understand something of his character and motivations. And yet he is living in a land filled with idolatry, evil, and depravity. In this setting, surrounded by wickedness, the prophet receives this oracle. He saw it, the text tells us.
An interesting fact about the word translated oracle. Literally, it means “burden,” and the KJV and NKJV render it that way. I like that rendering myself. It gives us more of the sense of the prophecy, or oracle, given this man by God. It was no light thing. It was weighty. And the prophet saw it and had to carry it.
I think this burden is in some way shared by all God’s people. As Christians, we are those who are sorrowful and yet always rejoicing. Though we are children of light (Ephesians 5), we are walking through darkness.
And here is this godly prophet, deeply concerned and grieved by the things taking place in his own backyard. In the midst of that, what do we see him doing?
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.– Habakkuk 1:2–4
He is crying out to the Lord, pleading for God’s help and intervention. This is good and right, isn’t it? But we see the state of this man with greater clarity by what he prays. He is a perplexed prophet. He is confused and questioning.
This prophet’s name is Habakkuk, and the origin and meaning of it is debated. The best theories, I think, come down to two. Habakkukmeans “embrace.” It is the idea of a wrestler in a match, embracing his opponent, the one with whom he contends. Thus, it gives the picture of God’s prophet wrestling with difficult questions and, ultimately, wrestling with God in prayer about his perplexities.
Habakkuk also means “the one who folds or wrings his hands.” Certainly this interpretation fits the picture of this prophet as well. We meet Habakkuk wringing his hands as he strolls through the streets of Jerusalem seeing all the wickedness about him. And then, of course, we see him folding his hands as he prays to God about these concerns, these needs.
We really don’t know anything about his education. He didn’t study at Oxford—that I know! But we can see from his writing style that he is educated. His use of Hebrew is rather elegant and poetic:
“their horses are swifter than leopards”
“they gather captives like sand”
“you make mankind like the fish of the sea”
“woe to him who builds a town with blood, and founds a city on iniquity”
These are powerful images, like a picture he is painting with his words. His speech isn’t coarse but beautiful and full of feeling.
Lastly, consider the essence of his praying:
How long, Lord?
Don’t you see this evil?
Evil seemingly prevails, why are you idle?
This is a desperate plea amid suffocating circumstances. He looked to his right, there’s evil. To his left, depravity. Before him, wickedness. Behind him, darkness. Even the national leadership was undermining God’s law, the very law they were to uphold and promote. And everywhere there was violence, destruction, strife, and contention.
So much of these evils that, by all appearances, God’s law is chained or paralyzed. All sources of intervening good seem to be held at bay and helpless. The prophet is perplexed. So the prophet prays, he pleads. Surely we can relate to this, right? Having current events in view, it is easy to feel overwhelmed by the pressing darkness on every side.
Or there are those loved ones of ours — we’ve prayed day after day after day — and they are still dead in their sins, uncaring and unconverted. And nothing is happening. Why are you silent, God? Do you hear me?
This describes the prophet, a man of mystery. What we don’t know of him or his story, we will one day get to know once we meet him in heaven.
The Mysterious God
God is mysterious. He simply doesn’t fit into the prophet’s mold, does He? If we’re honest, God doesn’t fit our molds either.We all tend to write God’s script for Him. We think one-dimensionally, and if we see the “right” path forward, then that must be God’s path. Yeah, we should really know better, but often in practice, we don’t.
Scripture teaches us that God sometimes answers our prayers by allowing things to go from bad to worse, and all of that at times long before they get any better.As Martyn Lloyd-Jones said, “When God answers prayer, what He says is even more mysterious than His apparent failure to hear our prayers.” This is why we must remain humble and slow to make judgments as to what God is working in our circumstances. It is a foundational principle in the life of faith to always be prepared for the unexpected when we are dealing with God.
This is well illustrated by an account from the life of John Newton. You are probably familiar with a poem he wrote, which has become a song. Most recently, Sovereign Grace Music has put these marvelous words to music. The hymn is now titled “I Asked the Lord That I Might Grow.”
John Newton wrote those lines describing his own personal experience. He felt as though he wanted to go deeper in his spiritual life, his walk with God, and he began to pray for this. He prayed earnestly. He expected a windfall of blessing, a rending of the heavens in his life, but that wasn’t the case. God had different plans. Instead, Newton experienced one of the lowest points of his spiritual life. He was tempted and tried beyond his comprehension. He knew days of spiritual darkness, even feeling at the lowest point that God had abandoned him to Satan’s grasp. And yet, in the end, John Newton came to realize that this was God’s mysterious and perfect answer to his prayers. God had allowed him to go down into the depths to teach him to entirely depend upon Him.
Once Newton had sufficiently learned what God wanted to teach him, God delivered him from the whole trial.
God is so entirely mysterious in His designs at times that He will utilize the most surprising instruments. Here in Habakkuk’s day, God used the Babylonians, of all people. Babylon, a pagan nation rooted in centuries of insignificance, will be raised up by God to go forth and conquer. God will even go so far as to use Babylon, not just as a weapon against other pagan nations deserving judgment and wrath, but He will use them against His own covenant people, who have broken covenant with God and invited the curses of Deuteronomy 28 to come upon them:
The Lordwill cause you to be defeated before your enemies. You shall go out one way against them and flee seven ways before them. And you shall be a horror to all the kingdoms of the earth.
And this isn’t the only time in history God has done this, nor will it be the last. In Isaiah 10, we see essentially the same scenario teased out, but this time with the Assyrians. The nations can be God’s instrument of judgment should He so desire it — Babylon, God’s axe; Assyria, God’s sword; Egypt, God’s bow and arrow.
It is biblical theology like this that gives us some idea of massive world events, like the most recent wars of the twentieth century. God has purposes in these great events. He is working. The One who knows the end from the beginning, the very author of the story of human history, is bringing all His holy purposes to pass. Mysterious? Yes, indeed! Exceedingly so to mortal minds like ours.
But in the end, when the tapestry is complete, when we have entered into glory, and God takes us from the darkened room in which we can only see the backside of the tapestry — which looks like a total mess — and places us in the full light of His glory, and we see the front side of the tapestry for the first time, then the mystery will vanish. It will become clear. And we will break into praise. Glory to God in the highest! With Nebuchadnezzar we will say,
“His rule is everlasting, and his kingdom is eternal. All the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, and he does according to his will among the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth; and none can stay his hand or say to him, ‘What have you done?’”
The God of mystery, saints. How glorious! How wonderful!
His Mysterious Providence
“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.”
– Habakkuk 1:5
“Listen, Habakkuk, listen to me now. I have heard you. I am working. Look and see.”
Habakkuk thought God was inactive, uncaring, or on vacation. But that is not the case and will never be the case. God’s providence is often misunderstood.
God’s People Often Misunderstand
God’s silence, and even His reply, is baffling to the prophet. Habakkuk knows God as holy. “How, God, can you in your holiness, allow this mess to continue? Will you not save?”(v. 2) He couldn’t trace God’s hand and was even struggling to trace God’s heart.
And haven’t we all been there a time or two — or two hundred? Haven’t we read the lines of God’s providence and felt like things were moving in this direction, only to see that God, all along, was doing something entirely different? Yes, even God’s own people, the nearest and dearest to His heart, can easily misunderstand the providence of God. We are often not the best interpreters of our own circumstances. We are often like Habakkuk, perplexed, confused, and shaken.
He then hears of the rise of Babylon and the fierceness of their armies. God discloses to His prophet the war path this pagan nation will go on. They will be ruthless and merciless to their foes. They will conquer one nation after another. They will do all that proudly, even viewing their greatness as the reason for their success. And the prophet is utterly perplexed. He doesn’t yet understand.
Religious People Misunderstand
Indeed, in Habakkuk’s case the people of Israel, the covenant people of God, also misunderstand. Here is this prophet of God who has a message for the people who have fallen into darkness and sin:
Repent. Turn from your wickedness. Live. Won’t you live?
And they want nothing to do with this guy.
Well, okay, but remember the curses of Deuteronomy 28. God is the judge of all the earth, and He will do what is right.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah. Heard it all before. And God hasn’t judged us. We are His people, after all.”
This attitude we see in Israel in Habakkuk’s day is as old as the flood. Those people shut their ears to the cries of Noah, just as Israel shut their ears to the cries of this prophet. Religious, though they are, they didn’t understand what God was working. They didn’t believe the threatenings of judgment, the coming conquest of Babylon in fury.
The World Misunderstands
God’s ways are quite surprising to the world. In the case of our text, it was the Babylonians who totally missed it. They were clueless to the fact that they were being used by God as an instrument of judgment. They imputed all their success to themselves and their false gods. They boasted in their power and might. But God would one day show them that their boasting was total folly. Ultimately, God had raised them so He could tear them down.
In our day, this is no less real. The enemies of Christ’s church see us languishing, barely having any impact in the earth. They likewise impute their success and “victories” to their own strength and might. But God will not be mocked. Whatever man sows, he will also reap. There is a payday someday.
And yet the world will continue to misinterpret and misconstrue the events of human history. God will continue to confound the wise, as He always does. Great powers have been raised up and will continue to be raised up as long as God has plans and purposes to fulfill in them and by them. They are His tools. He is their maker. He can do with His tools what He wills. He is the God “who works all things according to the counsel of his will” (Ephesians 1:11).
The world doesn’t get that. But we need to get it. God help us as we study through this book to grow in our own understanding. God help us to become more stable and more trusting and more prayerful.