How do we find strength, even rejoice, when everything seems to be going wrong and our world is falling apart? How do we cope when our culture is increasingly ignoring God, as if he doesn’t exist?
Habakkuk lived in a society that was increasingly turning away from God, becoming corrupt. Then God revealed to him that as a result it was about to fall apart, with him in it! At first Habakkuk increasingly questioned God and despaired, but then God helped him to face the grim reality, fired up with spiritual energy and joy. We can learn from Habakkuk’s journey of faith.
Habakkuk’s record of his journey starts with a despairing question to God about the state of his society, ‘how long will I cry, and you will not hear?… the wicked surround the righteous; therefore justice comes out perverted’(Habakkuk 1:2-4). God warns him that His answer will seem crazy to Habakkuk, ‘“I am working a work in your days, which you will not believe”’(Habakkuk 1:5), then He spells it out, ‘“behold, I raise up the Chaldeans, that bitter and hasty nation, that march through the width of the earth, to possess dwelling places that are not theirs”’(Habakkuk 1:6): i.e. Israel will be overrun by the much worse pagan Babylonian empire. So Habakkuk questions and despairs even more, ‘why do you tolerate those who deal treacherously, and keep silent when the wicked swallows up the man who is more righteous than he… ?’(Habakkuk 1:13-14).
Habakkuk then retreats to a special place to seek answers, ‘I will stand at my watch, and set myself on the ramparts, and will look out to see what He will say to me’(Habakkuk 2:1).
The answer Habakkuk receives is partly that God’s plan will eventually pan out to a Godly logical conclusion. Justice will be done. The Godless will be judged and His faithful ones saved. In his special place Habakkuk comes to appreciate this, together with God’s often unfathomable wisdom, majestic power, startling reality yet ultimately reassuring presence. He receives three key pieces of advice from God. They are truths for us all. Firstly, recognize who God is and stand in awe: ‘“Yahweh is in His holy temple. Let all the earth be silent before Him!”’(Habakkuk 2:20); secondly, know history’s final heavenly chapter, ‘“the earth will be filled with the knowledge of Yahweh’s glory, as the waters cover the sea”’(Habakkuk 2:14); thirdly, trust and follow God and you will make it through, ‘“the righteous will live by his faith”’(Habakkuk 2:4).
So Habakkuk comes to understand that (a) life might seem to fall apart and make no sense (b) this does not mean that God is absent, unconcerned, impotent or plain wrong, just unfathomable in some respects (c) we should stand in awe of God, amazed by His otherness, majesty, wisdom and power (d) walking by faith, with God, leads to a glorious future.
The apostle Paul knew what it was to suffer in a broken, corrupt world, ‘perplexed, yet not to despair’(2 Corinthians 4:8) – he understood Habakkuk. He understood more fully than him, in the light of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection what, ‘“the righteous will live by his faith”’(Habakkuk 2:4) means. He quotes this verse in both Romans 1:17 and Galatians 3:11. In Galatians he makes the connection with Abraham, who believed, trusted and followed, yet as the writer to the Hebrews points out, ‘By faith, Abraham, when he was called… went out, not knowing where he went’(Hebrews 11:8), perplexed!
This chapter in Hebrews follows a quotation of Habakkuk 2:4. It’s a long list of those blessed with ‘righteousness which is according to faith’(Hebrews 11:7). They were often ‘destitute, afflicted, ill-treated’(Hebrews 11:37), not fully understanding their tortuous course, but always looking forward to ‘a better country, that is, a heavenly one’(Hebrews 11:16).
Glimpsing these truths, in his special place, is what enabled Habakkuk to conclude with these joyful verses, to be sung accompanied by ‘stringed instruments’(Habakkuk 3:19). They show how Habakkuk turned from questioning despair to spiritually bounding like a deer on metaphorical mountains, rejoicing in the God of his salvation. When disheartened we can ‘come close to God’(Psalm 73:28) and prayerfully receive these truths from Yahweh, our strength and joy.