Good Christian theology is based on excellent and faithful exegesis. As a pastor-theologian my vocation is deeply bound up with the exegeting, interpreting and applying of Holy Scripture. My own inclination in thinking, writing, etc., is to look at the big picture of Scripture and think about how it all relates to God and his works. However, the source of theology is the divine revelation of Scripture, so to do theology well I must be a good exegete.
Being a good exegete requires that I am sensitive to two realities: the literal meaning of the text, what we will call the horizontal meaning. And what the text communicates about who God is, what he is like, and what he calls humans to do, what I will call the vertical meaning of the text (for more on this consider reading Participatory Exegesis by Matthew Levering). In this series, I will offer some theological readings of specific books of Scripture in a running commentary with an eye on the axis of the horizontal and vertical dimensions of good exegesis. To begin this series I turn to a minor prophet, Habakkuk, to discover what the book is about and how it speaks about God, Christ, and humanity.
Instead of offering a detailed introduction to the book of Habakkuk, I suggest you watch this video, made by the brilliant people over at The Bible Project.
It is important to note the time of the prophecies of Habakkuk: Around 626-586 B.C. Israel was divided into two Kingdoms, the Northern and Southern Kingdoms. In 722 BC the Northern Kingdom was conquered by Assyria. Between 626 and 586 BC The southern Kingdom was slowly conquered and brought into exile. The final destruction of Judah and the Temple came in 586 B.C.
The structure of the book, as we saw in the video, is made up of three basic sections: section 1: A dialogue between Habakkuk and YHWH (1:1-2:1); section 2: YHWH’s 2nd response and judgment on the Chaldeans (2:2-22); and section 3: A Psalm of God’s deliverance (3:1-19).
In this first post, I discuss Habakkuk’s first complaint.
Habakkuk 1:1-4: Habakkuk’s first complaint:
1 The oracle that Habakkuk the prophet saw.
2 O Lord, how long shall I cry for help,
and you will not hear?
Or cry to you “Violence!”
and you will not save?
3 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.
4 So the law is paralyzed,
and justice never goes forth.
For the wicked surround the righteous;
so justice goes forth perverted.
We know nothing about the prophet Habakkuk, expect that he is a prophet. One who the Holy Spirit has called, set apart, and ordered to hear and proclaim the Word of God. This is no lite calling, we need only look at other prophetic callings to see that (Isaiah 6, Ezekiel 1-2). As a prophet, not only does Habakkuk speak the Word of God to the people, but he speaks to God for his people; for the righteous (see 1.4;13; 2:4). As a prophet of God, he mediates between God and humanity. As a prophet, he puts to voice the complaint of the righteous and confesses the sins of those who have rebelled against God. As a prophet, he speaks of God’s judgment and deliverance. Habakkuk speaks only what he sees. Everything in the book of Habakkuk is something that the prophet “saw” (v 1). This presents to the reader the fact that Habakkuk did not simply make this stuff up, his complaints, the vision of woes, and the deliverance of God are all things he perceives and proclaims from God.
Habakkuk’s ministry as a prophet signifies several things about God and the economy of Salvation. First, the Lord God reveals God to humanity. We cannot gain access to who God is and what he does expect through God’s revealing of God. Second, The office of prophet as one who reveals and mediates points us to Jesus Christ. He is the true prophet who is the very Word of God and the true human who reveals God to humanity and reconciles humanity to God through his infinite life in his death and resurrection. Thirdly, Habakkuk’s receptivity as a prophet, being one who sees, reminds us of the way that Jesus Christ, in the form of a servant (Phil 2:6-9), did only that which he saw the Father was doing (see John 5:18-20). As the Son of God Jesus is equal to the Father, even as he is eternally from the Father, yet, in the form of a servant, he receives and does the will of the Father (which is the will of the triune God). Finally, Habakkuk’s role as a prophet, as one who receives and speaks what he hears, points to the Christian’s vocation as one who witnesses to who God is and what God does. Christians are called to be witnesses who hear and receive and speak only what they receive and hear from the Triune God.
Habakkuk’s complaint opens by calling on YHWH. In using the covenant name of God the whole of who the Lord is and what he has done for Israel is set before the reader. YHWH is the One who rescued Israel from slavery and death, brought them through the Red Sea, made a covenant with Israel. YHWH is the One God who has patiently guided Israel as a rebellious child for hundreds of years.
He is the God who Israel has cried to again and again with the same kind of cry that Habakkuk utters: “how long shall I cry for help and you will not hear?” In these verses, Habakkuk asks three questions as the prophet of God about the injustice and evil in the people of Judah (v 2-3). Judah has wrought violence and iniquity, and all God has done, according to Habakkuk is the look on idly. Judah is in a state of chaos; they are in a state of continual abnegation and perversion of justice, disobedience to the law, and the persecution of the righteous (v 4).
When we consider the canon of Scripture we can see that Judah is in a state of chaos and rebellion much like the time of the Judges. Yet, there remains a righteous contingent who are being oppressed by the wicked. It is on behalf of these righteous few that Habakkuk calls out to God. There is such an overwhelming force of evil that prevents the righteous from following the law (it “is paralyzed”) and doing justice (it is perverted and does not go forth). We will have more to say about the righteous in another blog post. We can gather from this verse that the righteous are those who are persecuted and seek God in the midst of abundant evil.
The mention of the righteous in the midst of evil brings to mind people like Noah, Abraham, Moses, and Joshua. People who God had chosen to show forth his goodness and glory in the midst of the chaos and rebellion of the World. These righteous people are made righteous by their faith in God. In submitting to God’s goodness and plan they join in his work of redemption and salvation.
Yet, the life of the righteous is not an easy one, because they seek the kingdom of God in the midst of the kingdom of the earth, in the midst of the world of chaos and evil. This chaos is found on two levels: The world and Habakkuk’s own people. Habakkuk’s cries out as one of the righteous men who deeply desires to see God bring his justice, goodness, and holiness to bear upon the evil in the world (see chapter 2). In these verses, Habakkuk also cries out on behalf of the righteous for God to deliver them from the evil surrounding them in Judah.
In these first few verses, we can see that God is patient with those who are sinful and unjust. He is not quick in his wrath towards injustice. He is patient and waits to the point where the righteous feel as if the injustice and evil have won and overwhelmed the day. God’s patience is not like our patience which quickly wanes thin; he knows his purposes and the end for which he intends his plans to go, the ultimate end and purpose being communion with God in Christ through the Holy Spirit.
These verses reveal that in this world the righteous suffer as they wait for God. This reminds me of Augustine’s concept of the City of Man and the City of God. Those who are of the City of God are on a long pilgrimage to the heavenly city where justice will reign, and the righteous will shine like the noon-day Sun. On this pilgrimage, the City of God and Man are mingled, and those in the City of God walk alongside the city of man. They suffer in the world, in the church, and in their own hearts.
God uses these trials, in the power of the Holy Spirit, to make us like his Son. The eternal Son of God, the truly righteous one, the true prophet and mediator between God and humanity Jesus Christ. In these verses in Habakkuk, we see Jesus Christ, in his life, death, and resurrection as the righteous one surrounded by the wicked. But he was not swallowed by it. Though justice was perverted in the death of Christ – he died as a guilty man though he was innocent – and the law used by the evil one to bring forth more injustice (see Rom. 7 and Galatians 3); God in Christ destroyed death, Sin and the Devil and brought true justice in his death and resurrection.
Those who are in Christ, though they are surrounded by the wicked and unjust, pray for God to bring about his justice just as he did in the unexpected and new-creation resurrection of Jesus Christ. We cry out to our Covenant Lord, Yahweh who, though patient, is not idle, and though quiet is always at work in bringing about his plan for the good of his people.
In our next post, we will see how God responds to Habakkuk’s complaint.
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