Habakkuk: Renewing Trust in God
Our last prophet was Nahum. We fixed the date of his prophecy between the years 664 and 607 B.C. And Zephaniah, whose prophecy follows that of Habakkuk, appeared "in the days of Josiah the son of Amon king of Judah." (Zeph. 1:1) His reign lasted from 640 to 609 B.C. Therefore, we should expect to place the undated prophecy of Habakkuk somewhere between 664 and 609 B.C., as contemporaneous with Nahum and Zephaniah. And this is probably the time to which he belongs. The Chaldeans, who form the leading subject of the prophecy, were then gaining power in the East, and gradually preparing to overcome the Assyrians and the Egyptians. This they accomplished in 607 at the fall of Nineveh, and in 605 B.C. at the great Battle of Carchemish. Their methods of warfare were swift and cruel. The prophet describes vividly how they will attack Judah, and take the people captive. But this is not the chief burden of his prophecy. It is the great question—why does the Lord permit the righteous to suffer? "Wherefore lookest Thou upon them that deal treacherously, and art dumb when the wicked swallows him that is more righteous than he?" (Hab. 1:13) The prophet beholds in vision the approaching judgment of Judah, and the terrible sufferings which his countrymen will endure at the hand of the enemy. What a dreadful oppressor! He is swift in his movements, violent in his actions (Hab. 1:8-9), building up towns with blood, and establishing cities by iniquity. (Hab. 2:12) What mercy can the captive Jew expect? But why should the Lord allow such grievous oppression? That is the great question proposed. And the answer comes from the Lord. The pride of the Chaldean is the precursor of his fall - he shall perish - "but the just shall live by his faithfulness." (Hab. 2:4) They who, despite all adversity, trust in the Lord, shall be saved. (Hab. 3:17-18)
It is difficult to treat of the letter without touching the spirit. For this shines through the letter almost throughout the whole prophecy. The problem of permitted wrong is here voiced with the urgency of a soul in great distress, and the difficulty is satisfactorily solved. "O Lord, how long shall I cry, and Thou wilt not hear! even cry out into the violence, and Thou wilt not save! (Hab. 1:2) Injustice prevails everywhere. (Verses 3, 4) The Lord then answers that He is about to "work a work in your days, which ye will not believe, though it be told you." He will raise up the Chaldeans to sweep through the land and take possession of dwelling places that are not theirs. Great will be the oppression and violence which will accompany them. (Verses 5-11) This increases the prophet's difficulty. How can the Lord, who is of purer eves than to behold evil, permit the righteous to suffer at the hands of the wicked? Yea, why should the evil annihilate the Lord’s people? (Verses 12-17) True to his office, the prophet mounts the watchtower and waits his answer from the Lord. (Hab. 2:1; cf. Isa. 21:6-10) The answer comes. It is to be written on tables so plainly that even someone who runs may read. (Verse 2) It may be doubted, yet it is true. (Verse 3) The proud shall fall; the righteous shall live by faithfulness. (Verse 4) Verses 5 to 20 expand this answer. The terrible ruin wrought by pride (verse 5) is expressed in "a taunting proverb" against the Chaldean. This proverb consists of a series of five "woes." These are directed against the rapacious violence of the Chaldean (verses 6-8), his covetousness (verses 9-11), the cruel way in which he establishes his kingdom (verses 12, 13), the barbarous pleasure he takes in intoxicating his neighbor (verses 15-17), and his gross idolatry (verses 18, 19). These shall compass his own overthrow; "but Jehovah is in His holy temple: let all the earth keep silence before Him" (verse 20); where the Lord is worshiped, there dwells His love with its power to impart peace upon earth to people of good will.
The third chapter contains "a prayer of Habakkuk." It is "a lyric ode, which, for sublimity of poetic conception and splendor of diction, ranks with the finest (Exod. 15; Judges 5) which Hebrew poetry has produced." (Driver) The prophet heard the report (Hab. 2:4), and feared its fulfillment, but implores the Lord to "revive His work in the midst of the years:...in wrath remember mercy." (Hab. 3:2) Then he pictures the coming of the Lord and its effect. (Verses 3-7) The purpose of His coming is depicted in verses 8-15. "Was the Lord displeased against the rivers?" Did He come to destroy falsities that spring from evil? Yea, He came to judge them, and to bring salvation to His anointed. (Verse 13) The trial of effecting the separation of evil from the good is great. (Verse 16) Yet, though it create despair, trust in the Lord will bring relief from the oppressor, and fill the heart with heavenly joy. (Verses 17-19)
This is the clear lesson which the prophet teaches. A more interior knowledge of correspondences does not alter it, but only intensifies it, adds power to it. It does this by defining more clearly the particular foe of our own household who is meant by the Chaldean, and the manner in which this foe oppresses us. "By the Chaldeans are signified those who are in a holy external, but are interiorly in falsity. They, like Babel, are those who vastate the church." (A. 3901) They signify "those who are in falsities, but in externals appear to be in truths; thus they signify the profanation of truth; but Babel signifies the profanation of good." (A. 6534) The spirit which uses truths for self-exaltation is a profane spirit. It is that of the Chaldean. It is in evidence whenever we boast about our knowledge of the doctrines. It is manifest when we use our knowledge simply in the attempt to keep others right. The spirit of fault-finding is prevalent in church life even as in social life. Too often pride in our own knowledge of truth harshly places the stamp of falsity upon the views of those who differ in opinion from us. We have the Divine Word and the writings of the church at our back, and all that differs therefrom is false. We should like to dictate to the world what it should believe. That is the extreme to which this selfish spirit of pride drives us, blinding us to the fact that absolute truth exists in the Lord alone - with all people, truth is relative. As regards those who are in falsity, we need to exercise the greatest sympathy and patience, for the perception of the truth best suited to each, depends upon the heart primarily, and not upon the head. "Whoever wills to do the will of the Father, shall know of the doctrine." "No man can come unto Me, except the Father draw him."
This spirit of pride, which profanes the truths we know, is sure to affect us in one form or other. Consciousness of it with a desire to be rid of it brings oppression and temptation. It adds to the afflictions of the heart - is indeed one of the greatest trials. It produces distrust in the Lord and causes the faithful soul to cry out in distress. But the Word of the Lord strengthens the conviction that it must perish in the end, and leave the soul in peace. The word Habakkuk means "embrace." The trial is a sore one, but we are in the loving embrace of the Lord: "underneath are the everlasting arms." (Deut. 33:27)