Q: Can you identify with Habakkuk’s frustration when he asks why God is slow to act and mete out justice? What does it really mean to “live by faith?” How would you justify God’s actions?
The book of Habakkuk deals with the disappointment of Judeans and Israelites, dispersed in exile, that the fall of Nineveh had not brought immediate relief and restoration for Judah and Israel. Instead, the extended period of almost three decades was a time of greater repression and final disaster. Another half-century under Babylon would follow before Persia would succeed Babylon and bring new hope for Israel and Jerusalem. Habakkuk deals with the frustrations of that period.
The book immediately opens with a direct and impassioned question aimed directly at God: “How long, O LORD, will I call for help, And You will not hear?” (Hab. 1: 2 NASB) This cry is found in Scripture from Exodus 10: 3 to many expressions in the Psalms. (Dockery, p. 488) This has been a constant question for believers and even non-believers as well throughout the centuries both in terms of theodicy and personal reflection as well. The prophet complains to God about the rampant injustice in Judean society in his time. The form of the complaint is that of the “individual lament,” familiar with the Psalms, but the prophet may well be speaking less as an individual than in an intercessory role on behalf of the society which he belongs. (Gelston, p. 710) His protests echo the vexing theological issue involving why God allows evil and doesn’t intervene to rescue the victim from the oppressor. Similar questions have been raised throughout history. In the modern age, questions like these have risen during and after the Holocaust and even now, such as the recent events of genocide happening in Darfur, Sudan. It seems to be more of a cry for justice more than anything else. In an individual level, it is quite certain that every Christian has, at least once in their lifetime, questioned God’s goodness during times of pain, suffering, and trials. During such moments where one might go through “dark nights of the soul,” God may seem to be distant, absent, or indifferent.
During these confrontations with God, Habakkuk reminds God of the promised curses should Israel renege on her duties (Deut. 28: 15 – 68), curses which seem a long time coming. (Baker, p. 841) God replies that he has indeed heard his people’s cries and called them to recognize his hand at work in the situation by telling them that he will raise up the Babylonians to overthrown their Assyrian oppressors. Habakkuk has a problem with God’s intended solution: to him, the Babylonians are an arrogant, violent people who seek their own honor and follow their own law. In the second chapter, Habakkuk waits actively for God’s answer. (Perhaps this is what we as believers should do when we have issues or questions with God- with active and expectant patience that God will respond, like a guard standing at his watchpost. (Hab 2: 1)) God does respond, and His message isn’t just for the prophet’s own comfort, but also for the benefit for all those who will ultimately suffer under the Babylonians. God gives the assurance that he will move in his own appointed time. All history is in God’s hands, moving inexorably towards the climactic day of the Lord. God’s promises will most certainly come (2 Pet. 3: 3 – 9) at his own time. (Baker, p. 843)
In the second chapter, the prophet draws a contrast between the just and the wicked (v. 4 – 5). He describes the Babylonians as being arrogant and puffed up with pride. In contrast to the perverse pride of the Babylonians are the righteous, the ones who are upright. Their deeds conform to God’s will. The Hebrew for the word “righteous” includes the status of being justified or vindicated before God himself. The righteous in Judah will not only act uprightly, their righteousness will be acknowledged by God. And the life of the righteous will be directed by faith, a stark contrast to the greed controlling the wicked. The word for “faith” has a range of meanings, from trusting believe in other persons (Exodus 19: 9), or God and his promises (Gen 15: 6), to a trust which motivates one to obedience, being trustworthy or faithful in conduct, or showing perseverance in times of testing. Faithfulness will bring life to the righteous. This not only entails physical survival, but also special blessing, as stated in Deut. 30: 19, where the life promised to Israel is associated with the land. Israel’s life and land will endure, while those of her enemies will perish. God’s people are urged to endure (or “live by faith), being watchful and faithful that God himself will be faithful to bring his message of deliverance and hope to fruition. (Ibid, p. 844) Therefore, in context, the phrase “the righteous will live by his faith” in Hab. 2: 4, refers to their own steadfastness and consistency, perhaps with overtones of their confidence in God’s ultimate purpose despite his apparent nonintervention at the time. The “righteous” must patiently endure their oppression, fortified by their loyalty to, and confidence in, God. This is the secret for their “life.” (Gelston, pp. 711 – 712)
Delays in God’s responses or actions naturally engender doubts about God and his character, especially in the face of evil and injustice. God doesn’t shy away from our questions, no matter how direct or borderline “blasphemous” they might come to be. When things go wrong or don’t go our way, instead of responding with an attitude of anger and rebellion, we should approach these situations with an attitude of humility and the stark realization that in an ultimate sense we shouldn’t try to shape our own destinies. In other words, we are not in control. This might seem worrisome and almost nihilistic to some, yet for the believer, our faith depends on whom we direct it on. Our faith is dependent upon a firm conviction on God’s character and that He will be faithful not only to his own plans, but also prove to be trustworthy and wise for our own benefit. There will be many more questions than answers in our lifetimes, but somehow, in some often strange and wonderful way, they strengthen our relationship with God. I believe the Holocaust survivor and psychoanalyst Victor Frankl put things in their proper perspective in regards to how we interact with life with our questions when he said: “It is life [or God] who asks questions of man… It is not up to man to question; rather, he should recognize that [it is] he [who] is [being] questioned, questioned by life; he has to respond by being responsible; and he can answer to life only by answering for his life.”
- David W. Baker, “Habakkuk” in New Bible Commentary: 21st Century Edition
- Anthony Gelston, “Habakkuk” in Eerdmans Commentary on the Bible
- David S. Dockery, Holman Bible Handbook