Scripture Passage and Lesson Focus: Habakkuk 2:1-5, 3:17-19
In an era of instant world-wide communication and news coverage via the Internet, anyone who is paying attention can easily come to the same conclusion that the prophet Habakkuk came to sometime in the late seventh or early 6th century BCE. He complains angrily to God in the first chapter of his prophecy, “Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise.” It seems like nearly everywhere we look in the world today there is violence, war, and oppression.
Habakkuk, writing shortly before the fall of Judah, complains to God about the violence and the impending catastrophe he sees coming his way. Why does God allow this to happen?
Habakkuk 2:1-5 — A quickly grasped vision
Habakkuk expects God to answer his complaint. So he assumes a typical prophetic role and becomes a sentinel at a watch post on the walls of Jerusalem. He scans the horizon to see what God is going to do and prepares to sound an alarm. That is a primary role of a prophet. The prophets Isaiah (21:8) and Ezekiel (33:7) also functioned as sentinels.
And God does respond. He tells Habakkuk that God has a vision of what will happen at the appointed time. It is a vision that does not lie. It is a vision of the end, but the end of what? The end of Judah’s futile struggle to survive as an independent nation? The end of unrighteousness and oppression in Judah? The end of foreign aggression from the Babylonians? The end of time?
Even if the vision does not come to pass immediately, God tells Habakkuk, wait patiently for it to happen. God will surely accomplish what God has in mind.
God instructs Habakkuk to write down a description of the vision he is about to receive. He should use large clear letters capable of being read “on the run,” as Eugene Peterson translates this phrase in “The Message.” The vision is to be written down to encourage a frightened people. It will also serve as a testimony to future generations.
God tells Habakkuk that there is a vision of the future that will become clear at the right time, God’s appointed time. However, not everyone is interested in the vision. Those who are proud or rich and arrogant have no use for what God envisions, “but the righteous live by their faith.” Habakkuk is saying that what keeps faithful people alive in the midst of chaos is their trust that God will fulfill the vision. It is God’s vision that will ultimately prevail and not the military or political plans of hostile powers like the Babylonians.
Centuries later this ambiguous phrase, “the righteous live by their faith,” became a central theological principle of the Protestant reformation led by Martin Luther and John Calvin and their followers. They taught that a right relationship with God is based on God-given faith and not on any human action.
Habakkuk 3:17-19 — Rejoice in the Lord
When even the most fundamental natural events fail to happen – fruit trees do not produce fruit, olive trees do not produce olives for making oil, the fields lie barren and all livestock has died – such catastrophic events could be enough to cause people to question the goodness of God and perhaps even fall into despair. Even then, Habakkuk says, he will rejoice in God.
For Habakkuk and ultimately for everyone, faith in God regardless of the external circumstances is the bedrock issue. No matter how desperate and threatening circumstances seem to be, faith in God and God’s vision for all of creation is the root cause of our rejoicing. When we put our trust in God as the source of our salvation, all other so-called saviors fade out of the picture. Salvation in this context refers to our complete well-being in this world and the next. It is life in God’s shalom, God’s covenantal peace and wholeness.
In the end, Habakkuk responds to his own as well as our complaint to God. All the violence and oppression we see in this world does not shake our confidence in God in whom we rejoice.
- Can you name any contemporary prophets like Habakkuk who function as prophetic sentinels announcing what God is doing in the world?
- Does your congregation carry out a prophetic ministry? What alarms are being sounded in your church?
- What are some of the key features of God’s vision according to Habakkuk’s prophecy? (see Habakkuk 1:6; 1:12; 2:7-8; 2:14; 2:20)
JAMES A. BRASHLER is professor emeritus of Bible at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia.