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The third chapter of Habakkuk is the prophet’s prayer for national deliverance. Some scholars have questioned its authorship, partly because it differs from the previous two chapters, and partly because it is omitted in the Qumran Commentary that was discovered in 1947 near the Dead Sea. (The Habakkuk Commentary was one of the 7 original scrolls found in 1947.)
If the third chapter was not written by Habakkuk himself, then the text itself is incorrect in ascribing it to the prophet. The fact that the chapter is omitted by the Essenes in Qumran, however, does not prove that it was written later or by another author.
Likewise, the fact that this is a song—a different format from the first two chapters—has no bearing on its author. Isaiah 5:1-6 is the prophet’s Song of the Vineyard, which deviates from the normal flow of text and yet was written by Isaiah himself.
Habakkuk 3:1 begins,
1 A prayer of Habakkuk the prophet, according to Shigionoth.
The Hebrew word, shigionoth, is the plural form of shiggaion, “a crying aloud” (either on account of danger or a cry of joy). The word appears 21 times in the psalms, so it can be thought of as a song or hymn, because the psalms were the Israelites’ hymnbook. In other words, the “crying aloud” is usually to be interpreted as singing in a choir.
The root word sha’ag is translated “to roar” (KJV).
We read in 1 Chron. 25:5-7 that David organized a 288-member choir to sing in the temple. The choir director at the time was Heman (“faithful”), whose children and relatives were trained musicians. The original choir, of course, was long dead by the time of Habakkuk, but it is probable that the tradition of 288 members of the choir was maintained over the years.
The third chapter of Habakkuk, then, was a psalm or hymn that Habakkuk himself wrote. The subscription at the end of the chapter instructs the musicians to use stringed instruments:
“For the choir director, on my stringed instruments.”
Other than that, the prophet used the term Selah three times (Hab. 3:3, 9, 13), which indicates a pause or perhaps a change of tempo.
Habakkuk 3:2 (NASB) introduces the prophet’s song with a prayer:
2 Lord, I have heard the report about You and I fear; O Lord, revive Your work in the midst of the years, in the midst of the years make it known; in wrath, remember mercy.
An alternate rendering is suggested in The Wycliffe Bible Commentary (p. 879):
O Lord, I have heard Thy report,
I have feared, O Lord, Thy work;
In the midst of the years, make it live;
In the midst of the years, make it known;
In wrath, remember mercy.
This verse appears to be the full “prayer of Habakkuk.” The “work” of the Lord is to bring judgment upon the nation, and the prophet confesses that he had been afraid of this “work.”
The prophet wrote this with a double meaning. When he said, “in the midst of the years,” we were meant to also apply it to his own heart “in the midst” of his body. Hence, while praying that God would preserve life and grant them revelation knowledge “in the midst of the years” (the time of divine judgment), the prophet was also asking for the same life and revelation knowledge to be granted to his own innermost being.
By extension, he prayed also for all future generations who would live during this long time of judgment, that they too might live to know the same faith that the prophet had found. “The righteous will live by his faith” (Hab. 2:4). In other words, Habakkuk prayed that future generations would no longer fear but would believe the promises of God and understand His plan to fill the earth with “the knowledge of the glory of the Lord” (Hab. 2:14).
Having secured the place of faith, the prophet was able to rest in the promises of God, even in the face of judgment. The prophet has already received answers to his earlier inquiries, so instead of praying further, he rejoices in the promises that He has already obtained by faith. This is quite similar to all who rejoice and praise God ahead of time for His faithfulness in fulfilling His promises. Such believers know that God is able, and they rest in that knowledge.
The song, then, sees divine judgment from the secure vantage point of faith, not fear. The song seems distinct from the short prayer and yet it is the whole point of the introductory prayer. The song does not appeal to God to answer some petition but instead speaks of God’s nature, His work, His judgments, and His promises.
The prophet’s psalm begins in Hab. 3:3,
3 God comes from Teman, and the Holy One from Mount Paran. Selah.
Teman was a city of Edom, founded and populated by the descendants of Teman, son of Eliphaz, son of Esau-Edom (Gen. 36:11). One of Job’s dubious friends was “Eliphaz the Temanite” (Job 2:11), not the son of Esau but one who was named after him later.
The location of Teman is disputed among scholars. Some place it in northern Edom, some to the far south, and still others to the east side. Teman literally means “south,” so it seems to me it was near the tip of the Red Sea (Gulf of Aqaba) northeast of Ezion Geber.
Mount Paran was in “the wilderness of Paran,” which also included Kadesh-barnea, the place where Israel camped while the 12 spies were spying out the land of Canaan (Num. 13:26).
In Deut. 33, Moses gave an introduction to his blessing upon the 12 tribes in verse 2,
2 … The Lord came from Sinai, and dawned on them from Seir; He shone forth from Mount Paran, and He came from the midst of ten thousand holy ones…
This is a bit confusing, since it seems to say that the Lord came from three different places.
Seir, or Mount Seir, was the original place where Esau-Edom settled among the families of Seir the Horite (Gen. 36:20; 14:6). Esau’s move to Seir is also recorded in Jasher 30:27. The Bible does not tell us how this became the inheritance of Edom, but Jasher tells us that after the death of Esau himself, the Edomites took the land after a war with the Horites (Jasher 47:36).
Seir, then, became synonymous with Edom, as seen clearly in Ezekiel 35:15.
The glory of God descended upon Mount Sinai (Exodus 19:20), and later, when the Ark was built, His glory hovered over the tabernacle. When the camp of Israel moved, the pillar of fire and cloud lifted up and led the Israelites to new camps along their journey.
When the time approached for them to enter the Promised Land, the pillar of fire led Israel “from Sinai” to Mount Paran, and “from Paran” to Seir, and then “from Seir” to the land of Moab, from which place they crossed the Jordan into Canaan.
Hence, the wording suggests the movement of the Ark from place to place.
From the introduction of Habakkuk’s psalm, it appears to be a prophetic double witness to Moses’ introductory blessing in Deut. 33:2. The two passages have a common theme of God coming in glory to establish Himself in His people and to lead them to His Kingdom.
Yet to get to the Kingdom, they had to pass through various places, where they encountered opposition and hindrances. In Habakkuk’s psalm, the main hindrance was then Chaldea (Hab. 1:6). God had raised them up for a season to judge Judah to prepare them for a future Kingdom
Hab. 3:2, 3 continues,
2 … His splendor covers the heavens, and the earth is full of His praise. 3 His radiance is like the sunlight; He has rays [qeren, “horns”] flashing from His hand.
This reminds us of Christ’s transfiguration in Matt. 17:2,
2 And He was transfigured before them; and His face shone like the sun, and His garments became as white as light.
Hence, the prophet was seeing Jesus Christ in His glory. By extension, this also interprets Deut. 33:2, which reads in the NASB, “At His right hand there was flashing lightning for them.” The NASB translators took some liberties by picturing the scene in terms of lightning. The Hebrew phrase is actually esh dath, “fiery law” (KJV), and yet they omit the law altogether and put “lightning” in its place.
In my view, the KJV presents a more accurate picture. No doubt when the NASB came to Hab. 1:3, they felt the need to be consistent and render qerem as “rays flashing.” It literally reads, “horns projecting out of His hand.” A horn was a Hebrew metaphor denoting strength or power. That is also why they constructed crowns with multiple horns.
I do not think that either Moses or Habakkuk intended to use the “lightning” metaphor. Moses was referring to the fire on the Mount from which the voice of God spoke the words of the law. The all-consuming fire was the essence of God’s nature (Deut. 4:24), because it burns the flesh nature (“chaff”) with the baptism of fire (Matt. 3:11, 12).
Moses adds in Deut. 33:3, “Indeed, He loves the people’ all Your holy ones are in Your hand.” So first Moses tells us that His fiery law is in His right hand, and then he says that the holy ones (or saints) are in His right hand. This speaks of the righteous ones in whose hearts the law has been written. They have become the words of God, even as Christ is the Word of God. Like Jesus, the saints speak only what they hear their Father say.
Habakkuk recalls the same picture that Moses paints for us, except that he converts the fiery law to “horns” that are in His hands. In both cases, this refers to the saints who are in God’s hand. In other words, God puts His word/law into their hearts and then uses them as His hands to accomplish His will in the earth.
Though the saints are yet unperfected, God is able to use them, because righteousness has been imputed to them by faith. But eventually, when they have fulfilled the purpose for their creation, they will be complete manifestations of His glory and the fiery law of His word.
The Hebrew word for “man” is ish or eesh, which is derived from esh, “fire.” When a man is the embodiment of God’s fire/glory/law, he is fulfilling the purpose of His creation. This was pictured when Moses went up the mount into the fire/glory of God to receive the fiery law.
The Hebrew word for woman is ishah, “what comes from fire.” Hence, the woman was taken out of the man, and emerges from this same fire to accomplish her purpose for creation. This was pictured when Moses came forth from the fire and descended to the plain carrying the law tablets. The same fire rests in both man and woman.
This fiery law in Christ’s hands is thus a picture of the transfigured saints, whom God has given the authority to rule after the beast nations have completed their time in which to judge the people. Dan. 7:21, 22 speaks of the day when the little horn’s rule comes to an end and the saints of the Most High are given dominion in the earth.
This seems to imply that the little horn is to be replaced by a big horn, a greater power that will ultimately put all things under the feet of Christ. Perhaps that is why the prophet Habakkuk uses the term qerem, “horn” to describe those saints who are in Christ’s hand (Hab. 3:4).
Hab. 3:4 (KJV) reads,
4 And His brightness was as the light; He had horns coming out of His hand; and there was the hiding of His power.
In other words, “coming out of His hand” were “horns” or saints in whom was hidden the power of God. Jesus Himself, being the Head, was transfigured on the mount, exposing the glory of God that had been hidden within His flesh. Again, when He died on the cross, “the veil, that is His flesh” (Heb. 10:20) was torn, revealing His glory.
The saints, too, have this “light” and glory within their hearts. It is hidden by their flesh, which is also a veil. Paul wrote in 2 Cor. 4:6, 7,
6 For God, who said, “Light shall shine out of darkness,” is the One who has shone in our hearts to give the Light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ. 7 But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, so that the surpassing greatness of the power will be of God and not from ourselves.
This “treasure” is the light of truth—“the light of the knowledge of the glory of God,” seen in the face of Christ. This revelation knowledge is that which was spoken by the prophet in Hab. 2:14,
14 For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.
Because Paul quotes this verse directly in 2 Cor. 4:6, we can assert that the revelation of universal reconciliation is the light of God’s glory and plan, which “has shone in our hearts.” By understanding the overall purpose of God for His creation as a whole, we are able to qualify as His ambassadors to share the word of reconciliation with all who either oppose His plan or deny that He is able to do it.
Keep in mind that Habakkuk was quoting and expanding on the promise of God in Num. 14:21,
21 but indeed, as I live, all the earth will be filled with the glory of God.
This was God’s response to Moses’ contention that if God would destroy the faithless Israelites and start over using Moses as the father of the Kingdom, then neighboring nations would say,
16 Because the Lord could not bring this people into the land which He promised them by oath, therefore He slaughtered them in the wilderness.
In other words, this was based on God’s promise, and whoever makes a promise is the one obligated to keep it. If God could not bring the Israelites into the Promised Land on account of their stubbornness, then He should have made that promise conditional upon their obedience. But as we know, He did not. It was a New Covenant promise (“oath”), and so if God failed to do it, then He would not be God.
Believing the promise of God is what makes us New Covenant believers with Abraham himself (Rom. 4:21, 22). This faith brings the light of God into our hearts, and it is the revelation of “the knowledge of the glory of God” (2 Cor. 4:6). Those who treasure this knowledge in their knower possess the hidden glory of God.
“There is the hiding of His power” (Hab. 3:4, NASB).
Hab. 3:5, 6 says,
5 Before Him goes pestilence, and plague comes after Him. 6 He stood and surveyed the earth; He looked and startled the nations. Yes, the perpetual mountains were shattered, the ancient hills collapsed. His ways are everlasting.
Here the prophet moves from the glory at Sinai to the manner in which God delivered Israel from Egypt. He reminds us of the 10 plagues in verse 5, all of which are depicted more fully in Exodus 7-12.
In verse 6 the prophet says that God “surveyed the earth.” The Hebrew word is madad, “to measure.” By implication, it means “to subdue, encircle, comprehend, or take authority over.”
He inspected it (ra’a) and then “startled the nations.” The word translated “startled” is nathar, “to loose, let loose, move, undo, shake, terrify.” In other words, after God’s inspection and assessment, He destabilized the nations—Egypt in particular, but the collapse of Egypt also caused the Canaanites to tremble.
The “perpetual” (ad) mountains are ancient civilizations which no one believed could ever be shaken in this way. Yet Egypt was “shattered” (poots,” dashed to pieces”) by the 10 plagues and by the Red Sea disaster.
The “ancient hills collapsed,” says the prophet. Just as mountains are nations, so also hills are smaller nations. Biblical history does not reveal how the shattering of Egypt affected the nearby smaller nations. The term “ancient” is from the Hebrew word olam, “to be hidden, obscure.” In this case, it refers to the smaller nations that were relatively obscure.
The word translated “collapsed” is sahah, “to bow, sink, crouch.” If one can imagine a mountain sinking during an earthquake, that is comparable to the nations bowing.
The verse ends with “His ways are everlasting” (olam). The prophet was not intending to convey the idea that God’s ways are unending, but rather than His ways are unknown or obscure. I suggest that we could paraphrase this verse:
6 He stood up to measure and survey the earth, taking authority over it (for judgment); He looked over the situation, understood the situation, and shattered the nations. Yes, the long-established mountains (nations) were broken apart and dispersed, the ancient hills (smaller nations) collapsed and bowed down to God. His ways of accomplishing His plan and purposes are difficult to comprehend.
The prophet’s song was designed to remind the people of the works of God in Israel’s history, so that they would have hope for the future.