A Danish philosopher named Soren Kierkegaard believed we should define life backward while living it forward. That sounds like something a philosopher would say, but it leaves me wondering how. Perhaps if life was like the game show Jeopardy, it might be a lot easier to live. In Jeopardy, the host gives the answer; in response, the contestants must state the question. Unfortunately, life is not like Jeopardy. Instead, we search for answers to our burning questions about life, much like an Old Testament Minor Prophet named Habakkuk.
Habakkuk is a prophet of a different kind. He spoke to God for the people instead of preaching to the people for God. Also, Habakkuk dared to question God about the many injustices of life. Essentially, he put God on trial. Like a prosecuting attorney, the ancient prophet cross-examined the God of Israel, searching for answers to the questions that caused God’s people to doubt their faith. He examined the violence, evil, and injustice in the world and simply asked, “Why, God?” For that reason, I call him “the question mark prophet.”
We know little about Habakkuk personally. Mystery shrouds his life and ministry. We know that he was an official member of the religious community. The musical notes found in chapter three suggest that he might have also been a worship leader. We know from 1:1 that many questions burden Habakkuk’s heart. “The oracle which Habakkuk the prophet saw” could also be translated “the burden which Habakkuk the prophet saw.” One Bible commentary describes Habakkuk this way:
Habakkuk was a person of great faith and great courage who dared to take the theological teaching of his day and test it against the experiences of his own personal life and of the nation. … He refused to have simply a faith of the fathers that he received without reflection. … He stands in a long line of godly people who dared to question God.”[i]
Are you standing in that same line? Are you burdened by questions that cause your faith to falter? If you are, Habakkuk will encourage you to cling firmly to God and embrace Him by faith, even when life does not make sense. Habakkuk’s strange Hebrew name, derived from the verb habaq, means “one who embraces.” At the end of the book, the prophet embraces his refreshed faith in God, even though God answered his questions in an unexpected and mysterious manner.
Questioning the Almighty
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. 1:2-4
In his first complaint, Habakkuk asks God three basic questions, which I summarize as follows:
- Why is God silent?
- Why does God tolerate evil?
- Why does God allow injustice?
These are bold questions from an honest heart. Habakkuk looked around his world and saw nothing but violence and injustice, and then he took his complaint to God. The word translated “violence” in 1:2 is the Hebrew word hamas. Today, it is the name chosen by a brutal Middle East terrorist organization.[ii] The word hamas occurs six times in the short book of Habakkuk. God responded to Habakkuk’s questions with a surprising answer.
“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. For behold, I am raising up the Chaldeans, that bitter and hasty nation, who march through the breadth of the earth, to seize dwellings not their own.” 1:5-6
The Babylonians are coming! The Babylonians are coming![iii] Nothing could have shocked Habakkuk’s soul more than this news. The Lord goes on to describe how “dreaded and fearsome” the Babylonians are and how “they all come for violence.” He compares the Babylonian machinery to three incredible creatures from nature. They were as fast as leopards, as fearless as wolves, and as fierce as eagles swooping down on their prey (1:7-11). This raised more questions in Habakkuk’s heart.
Are you not from everlasting, O Lord my God, my Holy One? We shall not die. O Lord, you have ordained them as a judgment, and you, O Rock, have established them for reproof. You who are of purer eyes than to see evil and cannot look at wrong, why do you idly look at traitors and remain silent when the wicked swallows up the man more righteous than he? 1:12-13
This time Habakkuk appeals to the Lord’s holy character. He believes the Lord’s eyes are too pure to look upon evil. Therefore, how could God use a wicked nation like the Babylonians for His righteous purposes? Why does God look the other way when evil things happen to good people? Why will God not use His power to stop all the violence? The prophet has a difficult time reconciling what he knows to be true about God with what the Almighty is about to do. Furthermore, how is he going to explain this to God’s people?
Like a scene from “Deadliest Catch” on The Discovery Channel, Habakkuk goes on to describe how the Israelites are defenseless fish caught on a hook or trapped in a net by their more powerful and predatory enemies, the Chaldeans (1:14-17). This does not seem fair to the prophet. Chapter 1 ends with Habakkuk’s second complaint and no answer from God.
The Righteous Shall Live by Faith
Chapter 2 begins with Habakkuk assuming his position as a watchman on the wall. He watches and waits for God to answer his complaint (2:1). Watchmen held a serious responsibility in ancient cities. Perched high and stationed in a place where they could see far distances, they warned the people of approaching danger. If the watchman failed in his duty, harm could come to the inhabitants of the city, and the watchman would be blamed.
God answered Habakkuk’s second complaint with a vision of tomorrow.
And the Lord answered me: “Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so he may run who reads it. For still the vision awaits its appointed time; it hastens to the end—it will not lie. If it seems slow, wait for it; it will surely come; it will not delay. Behold, his soul is puffed up; it is not upright within him, but the righteous shall live by his faith.” 2:2-4
God tells the prophet to record the vision so that others can run with it like a herald. Make it plain and wait for it to happen. What is the Lord’s vision that He wants Habakkuk to see, record, and relay to the people? The righteous shall live by his faith. The necessity of faith is a powerful and transformational theme in Habakkuk and throughout the Bible (Hebrews 11:6).
In other words, the Lord tells the prophet to walk by faith, not by sight, trusting God even when His plan does not make sense. Isaiah 55:8-9 comes to mind. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”
The phrase “the righteous shall live by his faith” appears first in 2:4 and then echoes three more times on the ultimate road trip through the Bible. In the New Testament, the apostle Paul emphasizes “the righteous” in Romans 1:16-17 and “shall live” in Galatians 3:11. Then, Hebrews 10:38 emphasizes “by faith.”
In church history, the same phrase also sparked the Protestant Reformation. In 1510, a Catholic priest named Martin Luther made the long journey from his home to Rome, where he visited the church of St. John Lateran. While there, he climbed the steps of the Scala Sancta (“Holy Stairs”) on his knees as an act of ritualistic penance.[iv] As Luther reached the top of the twenty-eight white marble steps, the phrase “the righteous shall live by faith” struck his heart like a thunderbolt. He walked down the steps, hastened to Wittenberg, and nailed his famous ninety-five thesis to the door of the church. Both Luther and the church he loved went through a substantial reformation.
Chapter 2 ends with five “woes” aimed against the Chaldeans (2:6-20). For example, “Woe to him who heaps up what is not his own … Because you have plundered many nations, all the remnant of the peoples shall plunder you.” The Lord plunders the plunderers! As an act of divine sovereignty, the God of Israel not only uses the Babylonians to discipline His chosen people, but He then holds the brutal nation accountable for their cruelty.[v
Hinds Feet for High Places
In chapter 3, Habakkuk’s faith turns a corner; he experiences a breakthrough. The dark clouds of doubt and despair begin lifting. He prays with a sense of expectation that God will do something incredible in his day, turning his prayer into a song.[vi].
A prayer of Habakkuk the prophet. On shigionoth. Lord, I have heard of your fame; I stand in awe of your deeds, Lord. Repeat them in our day, in our time make them known; in wrath remember mercy. 3:1-2 NIV
Habakkuk stands in awe of what the Lord is about to do with the Babylonians. However, he also remembers what the Lord has done in the past and asks Him to do it again. In that way, he reminds me of Chicago Cubs baseball fans before 2016, who remember when the Cubs won the World Series one hundred years ago and want them to repeat the glorious win.
Though Habakkuk has a better understanding of God’s ultimate plan, he appeals to God for a revival “in our time.” Then, the prophet glories in the Lord’s past triumphs on behalf of His chosen people, from the time of the Exodus forward (3:3-15). He remembers how the Lord delivered them from Egyptian slavery. Then, he recalls the miraculous Red Sea crossing, the time the sun stood still, so Joshua had more daylight to win the battle, and more. This trip down biblical memory lane also anticipates the Lord’s ultimate triumph over His enemies at the end of the age.
Finally, the book climaxes with the prophet’s faith soaring to new heights. Habakkuk’s heart trembles, and his lips quiver at the thought of the imminent Chaldean attack. However, he rests in the sovereign Lord, waiting for the day when He will judge the invading enemy. Then, he records some of the most triumphant words of faith you will read in the Bible.
Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Savior. The Sovereign Lord is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer, he enables me to tread on the heights. 3:17-19
Habakkuk faced troubled times, and so do we. The prophet learned that even though his experience did not live up to his expectation, he could still trust in the Lord and find joy.
Has life disappointed you? Have your expectations gone unmet? Do you have questions you cannot resolve? Are you trying to define life backward while living it forward? Rather than despairing, learn from the prophet who embraced God amid his troubles. Find your strength in the sovereign Lord, and He will make you like a fleet-footed deer, giving you hinds feet so you can climb to high places.
[i] The New American Commentary, p. 254, 277
[ii] If Habakkuk were living today, he might ask the Lord, “Why do you allow the Taliban, ISIS, Al Qaeda, Hezbollah, and Hamas to terrorize the world?”
[iii] The Babylonians were also known as the Chaldeans.
[iv] According to Roman Catholic tradition, the Scala Sancta were the steps that Jesus walked on the way to His trial before Pilate at the praetorium in Jerusalem. St. Helena moved the “Holy Stairs” to Rome in the fourth century.
[v] Long ago, the enemies of Israel included the Edomites, Assyrians, and Babylonians. God sent three prophets to pronounce the doom of these regimes. Obadiah prophesied the doom of Edomites, Nahum the Assyrians, and Habakkuk the Babylonians.
[vi] The word “shigionoth” (3:1) might be a musical notation, indicating that Habakkuk was possibly a worship leader..