I will take my stand at my watchpost and station myself on the tower, and look out to see what he will say to me, and what I will answer concerning my complaint. 2 And the Lord answered me: “Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so he may run who reads it. 3 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. 4 Behold, his soul is puffed up; it is not upright within him, but the righteous shall live by his faith.”
This month has brought us a fresh reminder that we are living in trying times. Not long after the downing of a commercial plane from Egypt to Russia, we saw coordinated terror attacks on Paris, with another in Kenya. Then again, just two days ago, hostages in Mali. It has ignited new debates domestically about terrorism on American soil, and immigration from the Middle East, with the attacks from 2001 still emblazoned on our minds.
That’s just on the national level. But what makes most of our lives most trying are the personal and private pains we carry.
Many of us find ourselves asking, How long, O Lord? How long will terrorists paralyze New York and London and Paris and North Africa? How long will ISIS wage its warfare of hate? How long will your church be persecuted? How long till your people are vindicated? How long will I live with this personal pain? How long? is a biblical question God’s people have often asked in trying times.
Into our fears and confusion in such times, Habakkuk has an amazingly relevant word to speak: “The righteous shall live by his faith.” This little book of only three chapters contains this important statement quoted at key points in three of the most important books in the New Testament. If we can understand this verse in its context in Habakkuk, we will have a profound glimpse into the very heart of Christianity — which is clarified and shines its brightest in trying times.
A Feisty Prophet
Habakkuk prophesied 2600 years ago in the generation leading up to the three Babylonian invasions of Judah, the southern kingdom of God’s people. The northern kingdom (called Israel) had been conquered by Assyria in 722 B.C. Now, almost a century later, the Assyrian empire is waning, and Babylon is on the rise.
In 612, the Babylonians conquered Nineveh (as Nahum prophesied, as we saw last week), capital of the Assyrian empire, which had ruled over God’s people from a distance for a century. In 609, Judah’s young, promising king, named Josiah, was killed in battle against Egypt. Finally, in 605, the Babylonians finished their full conquest of the Assyrians, and that same year, marched to Jerusalem for the first of what would be three invasions of the holy city (first 605, then 597, and finally 586 B.C.), each time taking a wave of exiles.
But before these invasions come, God reveals ahead of time to the prophet Habakkuk what he is going to do — and the revelation comes not when Habakkuk is minding his own business, but when he is complaining to God about the wickedness he sees around him in his own nation. Like Job, Habakkuk questions God’s justice — and Habakkuk is feisty about it — and God makes it the occasion of revealing his plans to Habakkuk, as well as very graciously putting him in his place. The book consists of the dialogue between Habakkuk and God and, unlike the other prophets, never addresses the people.
As we’ll see, an amazing progression occurs in the three short chapters, and Habakkuk experiences significant reorientation. Let’s walk with Habakkuk on his pathway from fear to faith, from protest to praise, and see that * in the midst of rampant wickedness, chaos, and upheaval — in trying times — trusting the God of unshakable justice enables his people to live with patience and joy.*
1) The heart of the problem is the seeming injustice of God. (1:2–2:1)
The book begins with the prophet protesting that God seems to be standing idly by while his people plummet into widespread evil and injustice (1:2–4). Habakkuk places himself among righteous and asks, “How long shall I cry for help? (verse 2). “Why do you look idly at wrong? (verse 3). He gripes in verse 4, “justice never goes forth,” and “justice goes forth perverted.”
God responds in verses 5–11 that the wickedness of his own people is not going unnoticed, and to Habakkuk’s surprise, God is already attending to it — by raising up the wicked Babylonians, “that bitter and hasty nation” (verse 6), to punish his people. God is not only using the wicked Babylonians; he is raising them up for his purposes — to punish the wickedness of his people. (God is more just than Habakkuk thinks.)
In other words, Habakkuk, if you think you have a complaint now, wait until you hear this: Yes, I will bring justice — through the invasion of a foreign army. God doesn’t rush to defend himself and immediately relieve Habakkuk’s first complaint. He’s not afraid to have things get worse before they get better. You think that’s bad? Wait till you hear this!
Then, in verses 12–17, Habakkuk protests the justice of punishing a wicked people with a people even more wicked. Verse 13: “Why do you look idly at traitors and remain silent when the wicked swallows up the man more righteous than he?”
The prophet appears confident that he has God cornered and does not expect God will be able to answer him sufficiently on his complaint. This is where he gets feisty. He seems to genuinely think God’s position in indefensible and drops the mic at 2:1: “I will take my stand at my watchpost and station myself on the tower, and look out to see what he will say to me, and what I will answer concerning my complaint” (2:1). He presumes he’ll have a comeback after God’s answer.
In one sense, it is remarkable that God does not destroy Habakkuk. What grace that he is willing to suffer a fool. He did with Job. He does with Habakkuk. He does with us. But that doesn’t mean that God doesn’t bring a rebuke. The rest of chapter 2 is God setting Habakkuk straight — and then chapter 3, at long last, is Habakkuk’s answer back to God, which proves to be vastly different than Habakkuk was expecting it to be.
2) The heart of God’s answer is living by faith in trying times. (2:2–20)
Verses 2–4, then, are the beginning of God’s second response:
“Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so he may run who reads it. 3 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. 4 Behold, his soul is puffed up; it is not upright within him, but the righteous shall live by his faith.”
If Habakkuk thought Babylon would get off the hook in invading and decimating Judah, God makes it clear that his justice will most certainly come. Write it down. This will happen. It’s just a matter of time. Wait for it. You can stake your life on it. The day of reckoning will come for Babylon in all its pride and violence. The prideful (“puffed up”) will be destroyed. But “the righteous” — whether the remnant in Judah, or Habakkuk himself — will live. God will see to it that the wickedness of the wicked will catch up with them, but the righteous will survive.
How it is, then, that one can be numbered among the righteous? The answer, which makes this passage so powerful, and so significantly quoted in the New Testament, is faith. It is not the deeds of the righteous that save them. It is their faith in God in the midst of these trying times. It is not their looking to themselves (deeds), but to God (faith).
And it’s not that those who are already righteous then have faith, but that those who have faith are those who are righteous. We learn in Romans 4:5 more about this dynamic: “To the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness.” It’s not that Habakkuk and the righteous remnant of God’s people deserve his salvation in any way, shape, or form. Rather, they are ungodly in themselves. They are unrighteous on their own. But by faith, they are righteous — somehow considered righteous by God — and will be saved.
This is a powerful promise for us today in our trying times. As we ponder the prospect of terror and the hatred of ISIS, and the personal burden we carry, we can preach to our souls, “The righteous by faith shall live.” When trials come, there is a great divide: those who are puffed up and raise their fist at God, and then those who fall to their knees in humility and trust and walk by faith when it’s more than they can understand.
The Five Taunt Songs
But faith needs an object. The righteous shall live by faith in what? That’s where the rest of chapter 2 comes in. Verses 5–20 reveal to Habakkuk the justice that God will indeed bring upon the wicked Babylonians, and all who are puffed up and without faith. God is doubly righteous. He will answer Habakkuk’s first complaint with the Babylonians as his instrument of justice, and he will answer the second complaint with his fivefold justice against the wicked. God gives five woes or “taunt songs” in two sets (verse 6–14 and 15–20), each ending with a declaration of God’s glory (verses 14 and 20).
- verses 6–8: woe to plunderer; you will be plundered (the victimizer will become victim)
- verses 9–11: woe to dishonest (cheater, thief); you will be shamed
- verses 12–14: woe to the unrighteous builder; you will be undone
- [verse 14: the spectacular promise: God’s glory, which once dwelled in a desert tent, then the temple in Jerusalem, will one day fill the whole earth! Speak this promise into the face of your fears: The whole earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD]
- verses 15–17: woe to the shameless; you will be shamed (perverse?)
- verses 18–19: woe to the makers of (speechless) idols; you will be silenced
- [verse 20: the makers of idols will be speechless when they come before the living God in all his majesty]
The overwhelming point is that God most certainly will bring justice. Five times, he will certainly bring justice. He may be slow as some count slowness — because of our impatience. But make no mistake, he will not sweep human wickedness and rebellion under the rug. Every unrighteous deed will have its repayment. Every plunderer, victimizer, cheater, thief, shamer, and maker of idols will eventually have his own deeds return upon his head. (And it did happen for Babylon, which fell just one lifetime later in 539 B.C.)
Back to the prophet himself. At this point, not only are the makers of idols now silenced, but also Habakkuk. At the end chapter 2, God’s revelation is done. And there’s a break before the next chapter. It hangs in the air. Chapter 2 is the silencing of Habakkuk with the double, then fivefold justice of God. Chapter 3, then, once Habakkuk finally regains his voice, will be his long-anticipated response.
3) The heart of our experience will be patience and joy. (3:1–19, especially verses 16–19)
Habakkuk started by questioning God’s justice. Now he is blown away at the invincible, unstoppable, unassailable justice of God, and so chapter 3 is a prayer, in faith, asking God to remember mercy, and save his people as he punishes their enemies. Habakkuk is now convinced that God will repay Babylon; now he has faith; now he prays for deliverance for God’s people. And in doing so, he turns to what God has accomplished in the past on behalf of his people when he has rescued them in Moses’ day, and Joshua, and the judges, and David’s:
O Lord, I have heard the report of you, and your work, O Lord, do I fear. In the midst of the years revive it; in the midst of the years make it known; in wrath remember mercy.
In verses 3–15, his praise takes the form of celebrating the justice and power of God as a divine warrior who goes out on behalf of his people. He rules over nature. God marches toward the enemy of his people like an unstoppable army approaches battle (verse 6). He has his horses and chariot of salvation (verse 8). He is the divine warrior, with bow and arrows and spear (verses 9, 11). He threshes the nations (verse 12) meaning he will separate the righteous from the unrighteous. And he is the same God in Habakkuk’s day that he was in Moses’s — and the same in our day.
Then in this grand, intimidating, harrowing vision of God as the divine warrior, there’s the turn of mercy for his people in verse 13:
You went out for the salvation of your people, for the salvation of your anointed. You crushed the head of the house of the wicked, laying him bare from thigh to neck.
God revealed his doubly strong, fivefold justice in chapter 2, and now , acknowledging that, and renewed in his faith, Habakkuk is pleading for mercy, for salvation (verses 13 and 18).
The vision of God as the divine warrior, fighting for his people, against their enemies culminates in verse 15 (“You trampled the sea with your horses, the surging of mighty waters”); Habakkuk then finishes with one of the most beautiful and powerful affirmations of faith in all the Bible (along with perhaps Job 19:25 and Romans 8:31–39 and 2 Timothy 1:12) in verses 16–19.
First, verse 16. Remember God said in 2:3, “If it seems slow, wait for it; it will surely come; it will not delay.” Now Habakkuk says,
I hear, and my body trembles; my lips quiver at the sound; rottenness enters into my bones; my legs tremble beneath me. Yet I will quietly wait for the day of trouble to come upon people who invade us.
Before, he was fearful and his faith was thin. He was impatient. Now he is confident and walking by faith — faith that God will administer his perfect justice in his perfect timing. He is patient.
The heart of what God commended in chapter two was verse 4: “Behold, his soul is puffed up; it is not upright within him, but the righteous shall live by his faith.” The charge to Habakkuk was live by faith. Even and especially when trying times come. When all around your soul is giving way, and your natural patience is fried, this is the moment for true faith. This is the time for leaning hard on God, for trusting his perfect timing and his perfect justice.
Then, in verses 17–18, we have this amazing expression of his faith — the faith commended in 2:4 and now lived out in 3:17–18.
Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, 18 yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will take joy in the God of my salvation.
Habakkuk now joyfully submits to the sovereign hand and plan of God. One commentator (O. Palmer Robertson) calls these last three verses (3:17–19) “the most beautiful spirit of submission found anywhere in Scripture.” He embraces the coming exile and its utter destruction and famine. Because his trust is renewed in God, he can face the worst temporal pains and losses, knowing that God will rescue him eternally in the end.
He began disoriented and devastated, fearful and faithless. And he took it to God, and God in his mercy showed himself to Habakkuk. Now Habakkuk walks in faith and patience, and perhaps most amazingly: joy. “yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will take joy in the God of my salvation.”
And joy leads to song. The book’s final line reads, “To the choirmaster: with stringed instruments.” Habakkuk has ended in song! He has caught a glimpse of the glory of God, and despite the certain suffering that looms on the horizon, he knows that this God will be enough for him.
Habakkuk learns, like Job, that “no matter how difficult conditions might become, he must continue to believe, continue to trust the promises of God, and have confidence that the Lord of all the earth would do right” (Longman/Dillard, 468). Habakkuk learns to sing praise, not just in good times, but in great calamity. And he writes a song for corporate worship.
For God’s people — for those who are righteous by faith — hardship is not the end of the story. It never ends in pain for the people of God. It never ends in darkness. It never ends in trouble. Devastation never has the last word.
Our story doesn’t end with Good Friday. There is always Easter Sunday. The grave is not the end. Sunday is coming.
Six hundred years before Christ, God gave Habakkuk a glimpse into the truth he would make so plain on a bloody cross and with an empty tomb: when times are darkest, God is ready to shine his brightest. So, in the most trying times, trusting God enables us to live with patience and joy.
On this side of the cross, how much more than Habakkuk can we say in our most trying of times, — without minimizing the agony or repressing the pain — “Yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will take joy in the God of my salvation.”