Return to Study Guide for Habakkuk -by Don Kugelberg
Introduction to Habakkuk
As a monk, Martin Luther was introspective and continually plagued by what he knew of his own depravity and sinfulness. Finally, in 1509, Martin decided to make a pilgrimage to Rome in hope of finding the elusive peace for which he longed. He set out on foot and crossed the Alps. On his descent, he almost died of a high fever before making his way to a monastery at the foot of the mountains. There the Brothers nursed him back to health. While there, a wise monk, noticing Luther’s internal struggles approached him and said, “You need to read the Book of Habakkuk.” Martin did just that. He found in Habakkuk a kindred spirit. Habakkuk means “wrestler” and so he was, just like Martin Luther.
One verse captured Martin’s imagination: Habakkuk 2:4. “The just shall live by faith.” He couldn’t get it out of his mind. After recovering, he continued his journey to Rome. He arrived at the Church of St. John’s Lateran, a typical cathedral of that day. It however, had a unique set of stairs. They were believed to have been the same ones Jesus Christ climbed to stand before Pontius Pilate after He was scourged. Purportedly miraculously transported from Jerusalem, the stairs were adorned with glass mosaics marking the drops of blood which had supposedly fallen from the back of Jesus. Penitents who made the pilgrimage to St. John’s would climb these stairs on their knees and beat themselves with whips as they stopped to kiss each of the mosaics. Pilgrims mounted the outer stairs painfully on their knees, a step at a time, saying prayers as they went. The pope had promised an indulgence to all who would undergo this rite.
As Martin repeated his prayers on the Lateran staircase, Habakkuk 2:4 suddenly came into his mind: “the just shall live by faith.” He ceased his prayers, returned to the University of Wittenberg, and went on to explore the revolutionary idea of “justification by faith.” And with great deliberation, on October 31, 1517, Martin nailed his famous 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany, and started the movement known today as the Reformation – the single most important event in modern history.
One small verse in Habakkuk changed the course of history. Among the most fascinating portions of the Bible are the lesser known “Minor” prophets. (The scholastic term “minor” derives from their small size, not their significance!) In fact, the mere presence of the verse, “the just shall live by faith” makes Habakkuk one of the towering books of the Old Testament. This statement has been identified over and over again as one of the most significant thoughts in the Bible.
Rabbis identified 613 commandments given to Moses on Sinai. David reduced them to 11 in Psalm 15, Isaiah to six, Micah to three, and Habakkuk to one: The just shall live by faith.”
Jesus did not mention Habakkuk in summing up the gospel but Paul certainly did. One could make a strong case that it was the keystone of his theology. We see this thought again, echoed by the writer of the book of Hebrews.
For, yet a little while, and the coming one will come and will not delay; but my righteous one shall live by faith, and if he shrinks back, my soul has no pleasure in him.
So who was this Habakkuk who had such a large impact on our theology as believers? One would think that such a towering giant would have an impressive biography laid out in the Scriptures. God’s economy is different, however. The only thing we know directly about Habakkuk is that he was a prophet, (it is adjective he uses to describe himself “Habakkuk, the prophet”.
I don’t know about you, but when I think of an Old Testament prophet, a picture pops into my mind of someone like Elijah, the voice of God standing against a corrupt King Ahab, challenging Jezebel’s priests and calling down the very fire of God on that mountain top; or perhaps Nathan, courageously challenging David to get his life right. Prophets were the movers and shakers in Israel, the moral compass provided by God to direct His people in the way they should live. Many times they were out of the mainstream and stood as a counterpoint to the religious establishment.
We have to adjust our thinking, however, when it comes to Habakkuk. He does not address the King or even the people directly; his recorded words are spoken to God alone and the three chapters in the book which bears his name record a conversation between the Most High God and Habakkuk.
He does not even appear to be an outsider.
Habakkuk 3:19 ends with: “To the choirmaster: with stringed instruments.”
Literally, in the Hebrew it says “To the chief singer accompanied by my stringed instruments” making, perhaps, the whole passage a psalm. The psalms were the literature of worship used in the temple service in Jerusalem. By using the term “my stringed instruments” Habakkuk clues us in that he was not a prophet in the traditional sense. Most likely he was a priest serving in the temple as one of its worship leaders (to use modern vernacular).
2 Peter 1:21
For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.
He was a prophet in the sense that, by the inspiration of God, he received a message for the edification of the people who came to the temple to worship.
If we had the ability to analyze the text in its original language we would discern that, in form, the book reinforces this idea since it close parallels the construction found in other wisdom psalms.
What of the times in which Habakkuk lived?
For behold, I am raising up the Chaldeans, that bitter and hasty nation, who march through the breadth of the earth, to seize dwellings not their own.
Although the Chaldeans occupied parts of Babylonia for a long period of time, paralleling this with the known history of Israel would logically date the book around 600 B.C.
After the death of Solomon, the nation of Israel split in two portions. The Northern Kingdom, referred to as Israel and led by Jeroboam fell almost immediately into idolatry and was conquered by Assyria 125 years earlier and was eventually assimilated.
The Southern Kingdom, consisting of the tribes of Benjamin and Judah, was known as Judah. This little kingdom, at the time of Habakkuk’s writing was dying. It was barely hanging on to its existence, paying heavy tribute to Assyria. Around this time, the Chaldeans rose in power and with the help of the Medes defeated the Assyrians.
Judah far to the West, on the fringes of the Assyrian empire, enjoyed a few years of relative freedom while the Assyrians and Chaldeans duked it out and even spent a few years without paying any tribute. The began, once again, to fancy themselves an independent entity under their new King Josiah.
Egypt soon moved into the vacuum left by the Assyrians and took control of Judah briefly until the great Nebuchadnessar came to power in Babylonia and turned his attention to Israel. His first bid for power carried off the a handful of nobles and princes to Babylon, Daniel was in that group. A few years later, Nebuchadnessar returned and besieged Jerusalem carrying off 10,000 into captivity. Ezekiel was in that group. He returned a decade later and this time he destroyed the city and the temple.
It was sometime during this period but before the final sack of Jerusalem that Habakkuk wrote. This makes Habakkuk a contemporary of Jeremiah. Jeremiah was the “professional” prophet in Judah at that time warning of Judah’s impending doom. As God used Assyria to judge Israel, he would now use the Babylonians to judge Judah.
Habakkuk asks the question which must have been on Judah’s mind – “How can God use a wicked nation such as Babylon for His divine purpose of judging Judah?” The book opens with the impassioned cry of one who sees suffering and injustice all around him and who cannot reconcile this with what he knows of the love and power of his God. He asks the question “Why”? Why has Judah gone apostate? Why is Babylon about to carry us away? What will become of those who have remained faithful? Will they be forgotten? The questions are not unusual, we hear them everyday. “Where is God in all this mess?” What is unusual in this case is that God answers Habakkuk directly!
His answers are timeless and have direct relevance to our lives and our situations today. I was reading last night and was struck by the following verse:
Romans 3:18 – “There is no fear of God before their eyes.”
That certainly describes our world. Our politicians daily call good evil and evil good. We flaunt our sin, refusing to blush before a Holy God, and making fun of those who do. We have truly become our own gods. How do we as believers live in this situation?
The prophet Isaiah after seeing the Lord lifted up cried:
And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!”
My prayer is that the Lord will use this study in writings of Habakkuk as a burning coal to be applied to our lips to purify us and ready us to live as Paul described us in the book of Philippians:
…blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, holding fast to the word of life,
Lights here is “luminaries” (sun, moon, stars) not this little light of mine. We are to blaze as the noonday sun. The darker the surroundings the more brightly we should shine. The Greek in the passage allows for both holding forth and holding fast to the Word of God.
What a picture, as we live as lights in this dark society we earn the right to hold out God’s truth to our generation even as we hold on to that same truth for the stability we need to survive.
Return to Study Guide for Habakkuk -by Don Kugelberg