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Habakkuk was a prophet whose prophecy is dated traditionally about 625 B.C. If that is correct, he was a witness to Josiah’s Great Passover (623 B.C.) that was held on the 16th Jubilee from Israel’s Jordan crossing. That story is told in 2 Chron. 35.
He was also a contemporary of Jeremiah, although Jeremiah would have been somewhat younger than Habakkuk. No doubt they knew each other. Jeremiah was a priest and moved in priestly circles.
Little is known about Habakkuk, except what he says about himself. Later Jewish traditions were too fanciful to take seriously, and it is clear that even they did not know much about this obscure prophet.
We must focus on his message. The prophet is best known for his statement in Hab. 2:4, “the righteous will live by his faith.” The apostle Paul quotes this three times in his epistles (if we accept his authorship of the book of Hebrews). Paul quotes the prophet in Rom. 1:17, Gal. 3:11, and Heb. 10:38 to support his theology of faith as the basis of justification. Hence, faith is well established in the Old Testament as well as in the New.
Faith, of course, is often viewed as a New Testament concept. The truth is that Hebrews 11 gives a long list of men and women of faith that lived in Old Testament times. Heb. 11:39 says that all these people gained approval from God through their faith, even though they did not actually receive their reward during their lifetimes.
Though faith was widely known prior to the cross, it was not widely understood in a practical way. This is because Old Covenant faith depends upon the will and works of men (Exodus 19:8), whereas New Covenant faith depends upon the will and works of God (John 1:13). The first has faith in man; the second has faith in God.
Men in those days thought of faith as a confidence that if they prayed for help, God would assist them in fulfilling their Old Covenant vow. New Covenant faith, however, has confidence that God is able to fulfill His promises (Rom. 4:21) with no help from the flesh.
Habakkuk wrestled with this concept of faith, and his conclusion that the righteous live (or obtain immortality) by their faith was at the core of Paul’s teaching. Habakkuk’s name is said to mean “The Embracer” in the sense of wrestling with God. The Wycliffe Bible Commentary says,
“His name seems to derive from a Hebrew root meaning ‘to embrace.’ Jerome (fifth century A.D.) stated that the prophet was called ‘The Embracer,’ because he wrestled with God.” (p. 871)
This suggests that Habakkuk was, in large part, the prophetic counterpart to Jacob, who wrestled with the angel in order to come to the revelation of faith that warranted his name to be changed to Israel (Gen. 32:28). As with so many others, then, he was named prophetically to connect us to Jacob and his struggle to move from Old Covenant faith to New Covenant faith.
During his early life, Jacob’s faith lacked confidence that God was able to keep His promise without some help from the flesh. Hence, he had lied to obtain the birthright, thinking God needed help to keep His word, even though God had promised it to him before he was born.
But after he had wrestled with the angel, he was given the name Israel, “God rules,” (i.e., “God is sovereign”). He thereafter bore testimony of the sovereignty of God—that God is able to perform all that He has promised (Rom. 4:21).
Yet most people have not understood the underlying meaning and purpose of Jacob’s wrestling match. Hence, they have missed the lesson that was set forth in the story and have been unable to attain the same level of faith that Jacob-Israel finally attained. Most people remained at the lower level of faith seen while Jacob was still Jacob.
This was the condition of Judaism in the time of Christ. Paul was steeped in Old Covenant thinking when he was apprehended by Jesus on the Damascus Road. This revelation and conversion put him on a new path where he had to wrestle with some very important fundamentals of faith. When he left Damascus, he spent time in Arabia (Gal. 1:17)—no doubt at “Mount Sinai in Arabia” (Gal. 4:25)—where he wrestled with these issues in the very cave where Moses received the law and where Elijah had hidden from Jezebel (1 Kings 19:8, 9).
8 So he [Elijah] arose and ate and drank and went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb, the mountain of God. 9 Then he came there to a cave and lodged there…
Paul knew about this cave, and he went there to hear the revelation of God for himself. He needed a fresh revelation of the law and the covenants, and his writings reflect the truth that he had received directly from God. His prior understanding of Moses and Elijah had proved to be insufficient, so he needed to go back, as it were, to the beginning. So he wrote in Gal. 1:11, 12,
11 For I would have you know, brethren, that the gospel which was preached by me is not according to man. 12 For I neither received it from man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.
Paul, then, seems to provide us with the third witness after wrestling with these great covenant truths. Jacob and Paul stand as spiritual supports on either side of Habakkuk, one before and the other after.
Habakkuk lived in the evil times preceding the Babylonian captivity, for God told him, “Behold, I am raising up the Chaldeans” (Hab. 1:6). The Chaldeans were the ruling class of Babylon, which would soon overthrow Jerusalem.
After the godly king Josiah was killed while fighting the Egyptians (2 Chron. 35:23, 24), the kings of Judah were ungodly, setting the stage for the Babylonian captivity.
The prophet saw the evil in Jerusalem’s government and knew that divine judgment was soon to follow. He knew the promise of God, but he also saw that promise slipping away before his eyes. A new round of judgment was coming, and he probably had no idea how long that judgment would last.
His dilemma was the age-old question of the existence of evil in the world. Why does a good and sovereign God allow evil to exist? Secondarily, why does evil seem to thwart the promises of God? Why do evil men seem to prevail when God could easily strike them down and remove all obstacles to His promises?
We read in Hab. 1:1-4,
1 The oracle which Habakkuk the prophet saw. 2 “How long, O Lord, will I call for help, and You will not hear? I cry out to You, ‘Violence!’ Yet You do not save.”
The prophet had cried out to God, “Look at all the violence!” Yet God seemed to be unmoved, in spite of His promises to save and deliver His people. It appeared that God was either helpless against evil or unwilling to save His people. The carnal mind would probably wonder if the God of Israel was really the true God, the Most High, the most powerful Creator—or if one should look for another god among the nations.
“How long, O Lord,” must I pray and call upon Your name before You fulfill Your promises? How many people have felt the same way? How many have felt abandoned by God while evil and injustice prevails?
3 Why do You make me see iniquity and cause me to look on wickedness? Yes, destruction and violence are before me; strife exists and contention arises. 4 Therefore the law is ignored and justice is never upheld, for the wicked surround the righteous; therefore justice comes out perverted.”
Conditions in Judah and Jerusalem were far from what God intended for them. “The law is ignored, and justice is never upheld,” he complained. Judah was in a state of lawlessness, which is described in the New Testament by the Greek word anomia, “lawlessness” (Matt. 7:23; Rom. 6:19).
Paul adds that to ignore the law is the natural desire and tendency of the carnal mind (Rom. 7: 25). By contrast, the new creation man concurs with the law of God “joyfully” (Rom. 7:22). Lawlessness was so common as to be nearly universal in the days of Habakkuk and Jeremiah. Both prophets witnessed such conditions. Habakkuk saw it on the streets; Jeremiah saw it in the temple (Jer. 7:9-11).
Centuries later, John had a vision of the souls under the altar, those who had been executed unjustly for bearing witness of Christ. These too lamented to God, saying in Rev. 6:10,
10 … “How long, O Lord, holy and true, will You refrain from judging and avenging our blood on those who dwell on the earth?”
It is almost as if these souls under the altar were echoing the complaint of Habakkuk (1:2), “How long, O Lord, will I call for help, and You will not hear?”
The simple answer is that the religious leaders in Jerusalem had killed the prophets, claiming that their prophecies were false. When their word came true later, the same religious authorities set up monuments to honor them (Matt. 23:29-31). Yet each generation of religious leaders continued to persecute their prophets.
God then judged Jerusalem by putting them under unrighteous and unjust rulers of Babylon. Habakkuk saw this judgment approaching. He saw the promise of God slipping away. In anguish, he asked, “Lord, how long? How long will your promise be delayed?”
Since the day that Cain killed Abel (Gen. 4:8), the righteous have been persecuted and often killed by those who are unrighteous. This is the pattern in Scripture and throughout history. This is the great injustice in Hab. 1:4 and in Rev. 6:10.
David had the same complaint in Psalm 44:22,
22 But for Your sake we are killed all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered. 23 Arouse Yourself, why do You sleep, O Lord? Awake, do not reject us forever. 24 Why do You hide Your face and forget our affliction and our oppression?
Paul quotes this in Rom. 8:36, adding,
37 But in all these things we overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us.
When John describes these slaughtered lambs as being souls under the altar (Rev. 6:9), he paints a picture of sacrificial lambs, whose blood was to be poured out under the altar of sacrifice. The soul is in the blood (Lev. 17:11), and the blood/soul of a sacrificial lamb is not to be used as food but to make atonement for our souls.
Hence, the priests were accustomed to pouring the blood/soul of the sacrifices on the ground under the altar. The martyrs are thus treated as sacrificial lambs whose souls are said to be under the altar. There they appeal to God as they await justice and vindication, for the unjust judges had condemned them as sinners and blasphemers.
Habakkuk’s dilemma, then, was not particularly unique to him. It was a problem from the beginning of time. The answer to his question, “How long?” is really bound up in the timing of the great White Throne judgment. This is made clear by the extended question posed by the souls under the altar: “How long, O Lord, holy and true, will You refrain from judging and avenging our blood?” While there are many levels of judgment throughout history, the ultimate judgment where all will be made right is at the great White Throne (Rev. 20:11; Dan. 7:9).
Even the souls under the altar, though vindicated by the robes of righteousness, were told to wait and “rest for a little while longer until the number of their brethren who were to be killed, even as they had been, would be completed also” (Rev. 6:11).
God responded to the prophet’s questions in Hab. 1:5,
5 “Look among the nations! Observe! Be astonished! Wonder! Because I am doing something in your days—you would not believe if you were told.”
The main reason people do not believe is because they do not understand, nor can they comprehend the panorama of God’s plan for the earth. Their perspective is too narrow, their vision is too myopic, their knowledge of history is insufficient, and their understanding of the law and divine justice lacks revelation.
Before Jesus went to the cross, He told His disciples in John 16:12,
12 I have many more things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.
Only after they understood the purpose of Christ’s death on the cross would they be prepared to learn more. There are many questions about the future or about truth that men want to know, but if they were to hear such things, they would not believe such things until their hearts and minds were prepared to receive such revelation.
Paul himself knew this principle, saying in 1 Cor. 3:2, 3,
2 I gave you milk to drink, not solid food, for you were not yet able to receive it. Indeed, even now you are not yet able, 3 for you are still fleshly…
God gives us revelation progressively as we are able to accept it. Every revelation has its time, both generally and personally. If God gives us revelation before its time, it often causes us to stumble. We all want to know more, but God wants us to build on proper foundations of truth, so that our edifice of truth fits tightly together.
The Chaldeans were an ancient people that were skilled in the wisdom and knowledge of the day. They were coming to power in Babylon during the days of Habakkuk and would soon revolt against their Assyrian masters. Hab. 1:6 says that God’s answer was to raise up the Chaldeans to bring judgment upon Judah and the nations.
6 “For behold, I am raising up the Chaldeans, that fierce and impetuous people who march through-out the earth to seize dwelling places which are not theirs. 7 They are dreaded and feared; their justice and authority originate with themselves.
This may have been a surprise to the prophet, who might have assumed that Assyria was the real threat. In fact, any nation under the domination of Assyria might have cheered for the Chaldeans of Babylon, hoping to be set free. But carnal men such as the Chaldeans do not overthrow their masters just to set others free. Their desire is to replace their masters and accumulate captives for themselves.
God says, “I am raising up the Chaldeans,” which means that God gave them authority over Judah for purposes of judgment. Nonetheless, verse 7 says, “their justice and authority originate with themselves.”
This is an apparent contradiction. Did their authority (seh’ayth, “elevation, exaltation”) come from God or did it “originate with themselves?” Scripture is not contradictory, but there are times when there seem to be contradictions.
In this case God did indeed raise up the Chaldeans, and in that sense, they were authorized to bring judgment upon Judah. However, in their own pride, they believed that their power and authority was self-derived. Paul might have interpreted this to mean that the Chaldeans were soulish, that they were motivated by the carnal mind (soul), rather than by the spiritual man (i.e., the human spirit indwelt by the Holy Spirit).
For this reason, they administered their own form of justice upon Judah. They did not follow God’s justice, which is set forth in His law. When men gain power, they soon begin to think of themselves as unaccountable to God. They think they may do as they please, treating men as slaves that have no rights under God.
Their pride makes them believe that their authority will last forever. Hence, when they ignore God’s limits on judgment, they fail to release their captives at the year of Jubilee. God then judges them for ignoring the limits of the Court order.
We read in Hab. 1:8-11,
8 Their horses are swifter than leopards and keener than wolves in the evening. Their horsemen come galloping, their horsemen come from afar; they fly like an eagle swooping down to devour. 9 All of them come for violence. Their horde of faces moves forward. They collect captives like sand. 10 They mock at kings and rulers are a laughing matter to them. They laugh at every fortress and heap up rubble to capture it. 11 Then they will sweep through like the wind and pass on. But they will be held guilty, they whose strength is their god.”
This description of the Chaldeans shows clearly that they were not a godly people. Their sense of right and wrong was not influenced by God’s law but by carnal self-interest that is permitted by false gods and their unjust laws. Hence, in the end, “they will be held guilty.”
The prophet had to wrestle with God’s justice. How could a just God raise up unjust executioners of divine justice? Would that not simply perpetuate the problem? Does one sin deserve another?
The answer, at least in part, is found in the principle of equal justice in the law of God. Equality of justice itself is a sound principle. The judgment must always be directly proportional to the crime that is committed. This is conveyed in all of the statutes (case law) as well as in Exodus 21:23-25, which gives us the broad principle:
23 But if there is any further injury, then you shall appoint as a penalty life for life, 24 eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, 25 burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.
In other words, if disputing parties cannot agree on an out-of-court settlement, with a payment that satisfies the injured party, then a judge would have to impose the equal justice of “eye for eye,” etc. In most cases, of course, the disputing parties would probably settle out of court. An “eye for eye” should be viewed not as a duty that must be imposed but as a last resort.
Judah’s lawlessness had turned their courts from a system of justice into a system of injustice. This national sin brought about a dispute between God and Judah. God was the injured party. He sent prophets to settle the case out of court, but Judah refused to settle out of court.
Hence, God imposed the equal justice clause in the law. Even as Judah had perpetrated injustice upon the poor of the land, so also did God raise up violent Chaldeans to bring the same injustice upon the nation. Judah’s court had done violence to God’s prophets, so God’s court brought violence to the nation itself.
God raised up the Chaldeans to show them how it feels to be the victims of injustice and violence. This justice of last resort was terrible but equal in the sight of God. But understanding this situation was difficult for the prophet and nearly impossible for the general population that remained ignorant of the mind of God after casting aside His law in favor of men’s traditions.
Little has changed since those days. Few understand the justice of God, and even fewer understand His mercy. Most people despise the law as a whole or criticize the law of God when they misunderstand it. Even most Christians think the prison system is righteous and that warehousing men is divine justice, when in fact they should be working to repay their victims double according to Exodus 22:3, 4.
God Himself takes a dim view of such lawless religion. Eventually, if we today cannot repent and settle the case out of court, God could again impose the equal justice clause upon the nation and the church. Let us pray that we repent of our lawless opinions and practices. Pray for an outpouring of the Spirit that will open our eyes to what we have done. Pray for an out-of-court settlement.