logo Practical Dreamers

Habakkuk ?

Colin Gibson


(offered at a Mornington and Glenaven
service,   October 2003)

One of the most wonderful things about human beings is that we can communicate with each other better than any other creature on earth.   The modern miracle is that we can do this instantly,  wherever we are in the world.   I can pick up a phone and talk to my daughter in far away Ireland just as if she was living next door.

But perhaps a greater miracle is that we can go on communicating with each other long after any individual human life has ended.   In the twenty-first century after Christ I can access the thoughts and words of another human being who lived six centuries before Christ.   In the instance I’m thinking of,  I can read a message from a man who lived 2,600 years ago.   His name was Habakkuk,  and although I know almost nothing about him as a person I can pick up a bible and allow him to talk to me just as if he was my next-door neighbour.

There’s not all that much to listen to.   Compared with a gospel writer like Luke or the even more talkative Saint Paul,  Habakkuk has left only a tiny collection of words and thoughts,  but they exist:  an eloquent communication from the distant past of our race,  made precious if only because they are so ancient,  and link me to another human being who once stood on a watchtower 26 centuries ago,  and saw on the horizon what I hope never to see — the terrifying dust cloud of an invading army.

Of course I bring to the text named after Habakkuk all the expectations of a modern reader trained by books as we know them,  and I might be fooled into thinking that what I am reading is a book in the modern sense,  since it’s divided into chapters and even given headings  (by much later bible editors).   But it’s really a collection of oracles and utterances,  spoken at different times and on separate occasions.   And those utterances were set down,  not on paper but on clay tablets.   In a precious glimpse into an ancient world,  the Lord tells the prophet,  ‘Write down clearly on clay tablets what I reveal to you,  so that it can be read at a glance’.   What a practical communicator the Lord was!   ‘Get the message down,  and get it across fast!’

Sometimes Habakkuk’s prophesies begin with the ancient formula used by all the prophets:  ‘This is the message that the Lord has revealed’;  sometimes they are daringly levelled at God as wake-up calls:  ‘O Lord,  how long must I call for help before you listen?’

But the final part of the book is written in the form of a psalm praising the awesome power of God.   The text has come down to us still carrying instructions to the temple singers and musicians on how to perform it.   Possibly it wasn’t written by Habakkuk at all:  one reason for thinking so is that when archaeologists found the famous Dead Sea scrolls,  they came across a commentary only dealing with the first two chapters of this three chapter  ‘book’.   Perhaps the Dead Sea community didn’t think the last part of the book was by the same author,  or felt that it didn’t have any special value for them.

Well, does this small collection of ancient sayings have any value for us? Or should Habakkuk go into the dustbin of history?

Will you help me with a little experiment?   Please open your bibles at page 909  [Good News Bible]. There we are:  The Book of Habakkuk.   Turn over two pages and see how short it is.   Habakkuk barely makes it to page 912.   About three full pages of text and you’ve read all of him.   Now that’s a relief!  Some of these biblical writers go on for ever.

Now,  imagine — and this is a big ‘imagine’ — imagine you are an Iraqi man or woman living just a few months ago,  under the tyranny and corruption of Sadam Hussein’s rule.   What do you think and say under your breath.   Now read aloud with me,  verses 2-4 of the first chapter of Habakkuk.

O Lord,  how long must I call for help before you listen,  before you save us from violence?   Why do you make me see so much trouble?   How can you endure to look on such wrongdoing?   Destruction and violence are all round me,  and there is fighting and quarrelling everywhere.   The law is weak and useless,  and justice is never done.   Evil men get the better of the righteous,  and so justice is perverted.

That sounds pretty right,  doesn’t it,  now that we know what was going on in that ravaged nation before the Americans and the British unleashed their invasion of Iraq.

Now let’s guess what an ordinary Iraqi Muslim had in mind as the tanks and war planes and heavily armed troops of the Western ‘Christian’ Coalition smashed into the cities of Iraq with irresistible force.   Read aloud with me,  verses 5-11 of the same first chapter of Habakkuk.   Give or take 2,000 years of improving our capacity for waging war,  does that sound about right,  too?

Then the Lord said to his people,  "Keep watching the nations round you,  and you will be astonished at what you see.   I am going to do something that you will not believe when you hear about it.   I am bringing the Babylonians to power,  those fierce,  restless people.   They are marching out across the world to conquer other lands.   They spread fear and terror,  and in their pride they are a law to themselves.   Their horses are faster than leopards,  fiercer than hungry wolves.   Their horsemen come riding from distant lands;  their horses paw the ground.   They come swooping down like eagles attacking their prey.   Their armies advance in violent conquest,  and everyone is terrified as they approach.   Their captives are as numerous as grfains of sand.   They treat kings with contempt and laugh at high officials.   Mo fortress can stop them  –  they pile up earth against it and capture it.   Then they sweep on like the wind and are gone,  these men whose power is their god."

And the force that smashed its way into ancient Israel,  destroying its violent and corrupt social order in the process,  like the force that stormed into Iraq  (so we were told)  to liberate the nation from its evil leadership,  raises the same question in our minds as it did in the mind of Habakkuk the prophet.   Now read with me,  verses 12-17 of the same first chapter.

Lord,  from the very beginning you are God.   You are my God,  holy and eternal,  Lord,  my God and protector,  you have chosen the Babylonians and made them strong so that they can punish us.   But how can you stand these treacherous,  evil men?   Your eyes are too holy to look at evil,  and you cannot stand the sight of people doing wrong.   So why are you silent while they destroy people who are more righteous than they are?   How can you treat people like fish or like a swarm of insects that have no ruler to direct them?   The Babylonians catch people with hooks,  as though they were fish.   They drag them off in nets and shout for joy over their catch!   They even worship their nets and offer sacrifices to them,  because their nets provide them with the best of everything.   Are they going to use their swords for ever andkeep on destroying nations without mercy?

Habakkuk,  like most of the Hebrew prophets,  was profoundly aware of what was wrong with his own society — the abuse of power,  the insatiable greed for money  ‘Greedy people are proud and restless;  like death itself,  they are never satisfied’,  he says),  the blinkered self-interest  (‘You have made your family rich with what you took by violence,  and have tried to make your own home safe from harm and danger’),  the reckless exploitation of the environment  (‘You have cut down the forests of Lebanon,  now you will be cut down;  you have killed its animals,  now animals will terrify you’),  their trust in the gods of commercial success  (‘What is the use of an idol? …   It tells you nothing but lies.   It may be covered with silver and gold,  but there is no life in it’).  Could that also be a list of social abuses in twenty-first century New Zealand?

The ancient prophet holds fast to the idea that God is active in history,  using human agents to carry out his purpose  (yes,  his purpose:  it’s all man talk in The Book of Habakkuk,  as you might expect in an absolutely patriarchal society).   So God must be using the appallingly successful Babylonians to clean up Hebrew society.  But can God really be working through such dreadful people?   ‘Your eyes are too holy to look at evil,  and you cannot stand the sight of people doing wrong.   So why are you silent while they destroy people who are more righteous than they?   How can you treat people like a leaderless school of fish,  or a swarm of insects?’   It’s a question about God’s involvement in the world that has been asked again and again down through the blood-stained centuries of the human story.  Habakkuk’s answer to his own question is not a theological discussion but a simple,  direct faith statement which,  as his deepest conviction,  he puts into the mouth of God.   Let’s read it together.   Chapter 2: 2-4.  

The Lord gave me this answer:  "Write down clearly on clay tablets what I reveal to you,  so that it can be read at a glance.   Put it in writing,  because it is not yet time for it to come true.   But the time is coming quickly,  and what I show you will come true.   It may seem slow in coming,  but wait for it;   it will certainly take place,  and it will not be delayed.   And this is the message:  'Those who are evil will not survive, but those who are righteous will live because they are faithful to God.' "

He puts that even more eloquently in his final message to the world — his world and our world.  ‘Even though the fig-trees have no fruit,  and no grapes grow on the vine.   Even though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no corn.   Even though the sheep all die,   and the cattle-stalls are empty,  I will still be joyful and glad,  because the Lord God is my saviour.’

Here we are meeting the human spirit at its deepest level.   When there is nothing to hope for,  when we face absolute and total disaster,  when there is nothing we can do to save ourselves,  hold only to this:  evil will ultimately fail;  those who lead good lives will live,  because they have faith in their God.

Are you surprised to know that this rock-bottom belief,  expressed in an obscure Hebrew prophet’s words on the eve of a ferocious Babylonian invasion,  is what has survived and become a beacon of hope for more than 2,000 years?   (It’s a good example of the way a Bible saying sometimes lights up for another generation in a way probably never intended by the original writer.)

Famously,  St Paul quotes Habakkuk in his letter to the Romans (1: 17):   ‘The gospel’,  says Paul,  ‘reveals how God puts people right with himself.   It is through faith,  from beginning to end.   As scripture says’ — now Paul is quoting our friend Habakkuk — ‘the person who is put right with God through faith shall live’.

And even more famously,  Martin Luther,  in 17th century Germany,  found in Paul’s quotation from Habakkuk the foundation for his own teaching that only faith — and not virtuous deeds,  no matter how many — could,  as he put it,  ‘justify’ the human soul before the face of God.   So Habakkuk’s words played a significant part in the thinking of the Christian Church’s first great theologian,  St Paul,  and later gave one of Europe’s most important Reformation thinkers strength and courage to fight abuses in the contemporary Church.   The doctrine of  ‘justification by faith’ remains down to our times central in the teaching of many Protestant churches,  including our own Methodist Church.

Well,  you may not care too much about doctrines,  but I hope you can respond,  as I do,  to Habakkuk’s simple insistence that evil will ultimately fail and that when there is nothing else to hang on to,  that is the time to commit one’s whole self to faith and trust in God … and God will see us through.   This can be a life-saving thought.

Well,  Habakkuk was a man of his own times,  and I can’t go along with all he says.  I wish he  (or whoever was the author)  hadn’t written that final visionary prayer,  in which he fondly imagines God as a sort of super-hero flashing lightning bolts,  preceded by disease and death,  trampling the nations in his furious rage to wipe out the followers of wickedness.   It’s God outdoing the Babylonians at their own war-games.   It is the kind of wildly imaginative thinking that led to John’s vision of the Last Judgement,  in the Book of Revelation,  and to that image  (beloved by fundamentalists)  of God as a terrifying Judge coming at the end of time.   To sort out the sinners from the saved.

But shall we ignore this little book,  this almost insignificant prophet?   Now that I’ve read him,  I don’t think so.   In a world quite as full of injustice,  oppression and violence as ever Habakkuk’s world was,  I need to believe that in the end evil will not prevail;  that faith in God is a lifeline for a fighting,  quarrelling,  drowning world.


The name Habakkuk means in Hebrew ‘embraced’,  possibly a name given to a beloved child .   Otherwise nothing is known about the writer,  except that most scholars believe that the sayings were written down sometime between the victory of the Babylonians over the Egyptian Pharoah Neco in 605BCE and their first attack on Jerusalem in 597 BCE.

The great Renaissance sculptor Donatello made a bronze statue of the prophet as an heroic old man.

In the old Jewish story of Bel and the Dragon,  an angel flew Habakkuk in to Daniel,  carrying food for the prisoner in the lions’ den.   This must be the earliest reference to an air-lift of supplies,  since the angel ferried Habakkuk by the hair of his head!

By far the best translation of Habakkuk’s sayings is the version in the Roman Catholic New Jerusalem Bible.   It perfectly captures the force and the poetry of the prophet’s sayings.

In literature as in life,  words breed words and thought breeds fresh thought.   Habakkuk meant by  ‘faith’  staying loyal to the Jewish God,  Yahweh,  and not changing over to ‘idols’,  like the gods of the victorious Babylonians.   St Paul,  who quotes Habakkuk,  used a Greek translation of the Old Testament which substitutes for Habakkuk’s word  ‘faithfulness’  a Greek word meaning  ‘faith’,  that is,  complete belief and trust in God.   That’s what St Paul means when he says we must receive God’s grace through an act of faith;  we can’t earn it by doing good deeds.

Habakkuk puts his own faith down in the simple declaration that evil will ultimately fail and upright people will live through their loyalty to God.   What is your basic faith-saying?


>>>   Home Page


>>>   Site Index