Posted by: L. E. Barnes | March 30, 2010

Habakkuk’s Complaint

In a scene in the movie The Apostle, the main character, a preacher, vents his frustrations at God over the hardships he’s going through. He paces around the room, gesticulating forcefully, and yells, “I love you, Lord, I love you, but I’m mad at you. I am mad at you!” That’s pretty gutsy for a mere mortal to talk to the Almighty that way. But in fact, such audacity is not unusual in the Judeo-Christian tradition. In the Bible itself we read of devout people daring to question or express frustrations at God. The biblical prophets in particular will vent their spleen, letting God know they‘re not happy about the way He‘s running things. The book of Habakkuk provides a perfect case study of this.

We know virtually nothing about the prophet Habakkuk. The three-chapter book that bears his name is the eighth in the writings known as the Minor Prophets. Unlike some of the other prophetic books in the Bible, this one contains no biographical information about its author. Nor do we know the date of the book’s composition, though estimates range from the late seventh century to the early sixth century BC. We do know that Habakkuk was a Hebrew from the kingdom of Judah, living at a time when spiritual, social, and political decadence ran rampant among his people. He tackles head on a subject that probably all believers in God wrestle with at some point: Sometimes God’s ways just don’t make sense to us.

Habakkuk sees corruption and immorality around him. What especially troubles him, however, is that evildoers prosper while the just suffer oppression. So he decides to let God know how he feels about the situation, and he doesn‘t mince words: “How long, O Lord? I cry for help but you do not listen! I cry out to you, ‘Violence!’ but you do not intervene. Why do you let me see ruin; why must I look at misery?” (Hab. 1:2-3a)

Granted, the Hebrews had repeatedly strayed religiously and morally throughout their history. The Bible recounts their pattern of being blessed by God, turning from Him and being punished, then repenting and for a time experiencing God’s favor, only to backslide again. Judah’s sister kingdom, Israel, had flouted God’s commandments so much that He eventually let them be wiped off the map in 722 BC by the Assyrian Empire. Alas, Judah didn’t take this to heart and change its ways. Habakkuk, aware of God’s dealing with His wayward people in former times, wants to know why God seems to be ignoring Judah’s apostasy. Why aren’t the evildoers being punished?

And God replies. Habakkuk need not worry; God will punish Judah for its sins. He lets the prophet in on His plans for accomplishing this. Just as apostate Israel was overrun by a foreign power, so will apostate Judah. The Babylonian empire, under Nebuchadnezzar, would exact God’s judgment. And indeed, this prophecy came true in 587 BC.

So Habakkuk has his answer. However, this answer raises another question. Yes, God will not permit the religious apostasy and social injustice to continue. Nonetheless, Habakkuk finds God’s decision to use the Babylonians as His instrument of punishment downright disturbing. Why? Because as bad as the people of Judah have become, the Babylonians are worse. Their cruelty and idolatry outstrip Judah’s. Habakkuk complains:

“Too pure are you to look upon evil, and the sight of misery you cannot endure. Why, then, do you gaze on the faithless in silence while the wicked man devours one more just than himself?…Shall he, then, keep on brandishing his sword to slay peoples without mercy?” (1:13)

Again, the prophet asks God to explain Himself, and again, God deigns to give an answer. He lets Habakkuk know that the Babylonians are in fact sowing the seeds of their own ultimate downfall. As we say, “What goes around, comes around.” The Babylonians’ evil ways will eventually fall back upon them. They too will eventually receive their own comeuppance. God assures Habakkuk that His justice will triumph, but it will happen according to God’s timetable, not ours. He explains, “For the vision still has its time, presses on to fulfillment, and will not disappoint; if it delays, wait for it, it will surely come, it will not come late.” Thus, Habakkuk learns what poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow would so beautifully express more than 2000 years later:

Though the mills of God grind slowly,

Yet they grind exceedingly small;

Though with patience he stands waiting,

With exactness grinds he all.

The duty of believers is to remain faithful even in the midst of tribulation and doubt, for, as God promises, “the just man, because of his faith, shall live” (Hab. 2:4b).

In the first two chapter of this short book, Habakkuk presents his questions to God and receives answers. The third chapter consists of a beautiful psalm acknowledging God’s greatness and pledging trust in God regardless of outward circumstances. Its concluding verses proclaim what should be a believer’s attitude in the face of hardships:

“For though the fig tree blossom not nor fruit be on the vines, though the yield of the olive fail and the terraces produce no nourishment, though the flocks disappear from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, yet will I rejoice in the Lord and exult in my saving God” (3:17-19).

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