Monday, June 27, 2016

The Prophetic Burden (Habakkuk 1:1)

Audio


What do you do with old newspapers? I read an article recently that said that you can stuff them into your wet shoes to soak up the moisture. And of course, they can be used to wrap breakable objects when packing them away, and they can be used to housebreak your pets or to line their cages. But the one thing hardly anyone does with an old newspaper is read it. The current woes of the printed news industry suggest that people hardly read “new” newspapers anymore, much less old ones. Our age has been called “the information age,” and thanks to the internet and smartphones, news is pushed to us in real time as events unfold. By the time the newspaper rolls off the press tomorrow morning, we’ve already heard it. Now, from time to time, I find myself perusing stacks of old books in an antique store and come across an old newspaper that is decades old. That is of more interest than a newspaper that is days old. A very old newspaper is something of a historical curiosity. It answers the question, “What happened on this day in history?”, and it tells of events of a bygone era. But beyond the historical trivia, what use do we have for old news? Not much. So, the question may be on the minds of some here today, as we embark on a protracted study of the book of Habakkuk, “Why should we care, in 21st Century America, about a writing that is some 2,700 years old?” Well, I’m glad you asked.

Suppose that we were to find ourselves in a culture that has discarded all standards of morality? Suppose that our day and age was characterized by wicked and corrupt rulers who perverted and distorted justice to suit their own agendas? Suppose that you and I lived in a day in which our concerns for the decay of our own country’s philosophical and moral foundations was surpassed only by the fear and outrage of a world filled with violent terror? I’m not saying that is the case, I’m just inviting you to imagine it, if you can, hard as it may be. I wonder, if that were the case, where could we turn for a word from God that would address such circumstances? You may be surprised to know that you find all of those matters under consideration here in the little book of Habakkuk. It is three chapters in length, just 56 verses, but its message is as relevant – no, it is more relevant than today’s newspaper.

Walter Kaiser has pointed out that “there are a number of reasons why Habakkuk, obscure and small as it may be, should be lifted up to the attention of the Church at this time. The reasons are: pastoral, theological, apologetical, and spiritual.” The pastoral reasons, Kaiser suggests, “take us in to … the prayer closet where we ask over and over again, ‘How long, O Lord? How long? Why? O Why?’” Surely all of us have had, or wanted to have, those times of tear-filled prayer before the throne of grace. Habakkuk has them here in this book, and he becomes an example to us in so doing. The theological reasons for continued study of this book are found in the central theme of the book, found in Habakkuk 2:4 – “The just (or, righteous) shall live by faith (or, will live by his faith).” Kaiser writes, “Habakkuk has much to teach us about the meaning of faith and righteousness, and about how, in the face of great difficulties, one can get on with the task of living now, enjoying the deep satisfaction of knowing who God is and that He is able to handle things, come what may!” Then, Kaiser points out that Habakkuk “wrestles with … the apologetical problem of squaring the goodness and justice of God with the presence of what seems like unbridled evil and wickedness among men and nations.” Surely this problem is as relevant in our own day as it has ever been, and the so-called “problem of evil” is the most frequently cited objection to faith in God heard from skeptics and cynics today. Finally, Kaiser points to the spiritual reason for the modern study of Habakkuk, noting that “it places God in the center of history and of personal consciousness.” When we know this, as Habakkuk teaches us, we are able to have “a worshipping heart that has found its rest in the living God,” and that knows “how to rejoice when the lid has blown off everything and nothing that we once counted on as a reference point remains fixed.” So, Habakkuk teaches us “how to live by faith in a God who is alive and active in the current affairs of life, distasteful and unappealing as those affairs seem at times.”[1]

If these things are true, and I suggest that they are, then we will be able to conclude, as another scholar has written, “There is no Old Testament book that is able to do more for the burdened souls of men or to raise them to higher levels of hope and confidence than the brief prophecy of Habakkuk. … Search the Bible through and you will find nothing so matchless in concentrated power as these three chapters of the Book of Habakkuk.”[2]

Habakkuk is located in our Bibles in that section that we call “The Minor Prophets.” We do not call them this because they are less important than the other writings, or the other prophetic books which we call “The Major Prophets.” They are called “Minor” for a very sophisticated reason: they are shorter than the Major ones, which are longer. Habakkuk is 3 chapters; Isaiah, for example, is 66 chapters. Like most of the other prophetic writings, Habakkuk begins with a “title verse,” which sets the stage for the contents of the book that follow. It is that verse to which I want to direct our attention this morning. Like the entire book itself, this verse may seem to offer nothing of importance to us at a superficial reading of it, but with deeper study, we find that even these brief words suggest something to us of great significance. Herein we find, not only important information to set Habakkuk into its historical and spiritual setting, but also an important message for ourselves as we find ourselves in a cultural situation not altogether different from that of the prophet.

I have entitled this message, “The Prophetic Burden.” That title may make little sense from the text as we have read it in the New American Standard Bible (my English translation of choice). Like the English Standard and Holman Christian Standard, the NASB speaks here of “the oracle that Habakkuk the prophet saw.” The New International Version interprets the Hebrew here, saying, “the prophecy that Habakkuk the prophet received.” Users of the King James Version, or the New King James, will notice however that the rendering there is, “The burden which Habakkuk the prophet did see.” Which is the correct translation? Well, in a sense they are all correct, but the older English versions do well to stick to a far more literal rendering with the word burden.
The word was originally used to describe the cargo that was loaded onto the backs of pack animals (Ex 35:6). When Moses complained to the Lord that the people had become a burden to him, this is the word he used (Num 11:11). The Psalmist uses this word to speak of his sin-guilt as a burden too heavy to bear (Psa 35:6). The prophet Hosea uses the same word to speak of the burden that people suffer under the oppression of conquering kings and leaders (Hos 8:10).[3] Because the prophets used this word so often to describe their message, in time it came to take on a technical meaning of a message of judgment that the prophet received from God and delivered on His behalf. But, it was not for no reason that the prophets used this particular word to describe their message. It is, quite literally, a burden to receive a message from the sovereign God of the universe and to have the unenviable task of delivering that message to a people who seldom wish to hear it. But that was the calling of the prophet, and as the ambassadors of Jesus Christ in the world today, it is the calling of every Christian. We have a burden to bear – a heavy one at that! It is a prophetic burden as we speak for God to a culture that seems to have gone haywire around us. So, as we look at the opening verse of Habakkuk, we find an ordinary man with an extraordinary calling, bearing a natural burden and a supernatural one – and this is something to which all who desire to live faithfully for Jesus today can relate!

I. The Ordinary Man with the Extraordinary Calling 

Human nature is fascinated with the spectacular. That is why so much of what passes for news today focuses on the daily gossip about so-called celebrities who have become famous for being famous. Why do we keep up with the Kardashians, or care who Taylor Swift’s latest love interest is? Our celebrity-infatuated culture has put the spotlight on seemingly extraordinary people who are just doing ordinary things. But every day around the world, there are far more extraordinary things being done by ordinary people you’ve never heard of. And this is the way God seems to do His work in the world. Silently and in the shadows outside of the flash of paparazzi cameras, the Kingdom of God is advancing through the enemy-occupied territory of this world by people who are no different from the least of us, but who are committed to serving the Almighty King of Kings faithfully with their lives.

The earliest Christians were ridiculed by the authorities of their day as being “unlearned and ignorant men” (Ac 4:13, KJV); but it was by these men that the world was turned upside down (17:6, KJV). Paul said to the Corinthians, “For consider your calling, brethren, that there were not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble; but God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong, and the base things of the world and the despised God has chosen, the things that are not, so that He may nullify the things that are, so that no man may boast before God” (1 Cor 1:26-29). Ordinary people – that is what we are. But in God’s hands, we are able to do extraordinary things for Him in the world.

Habakkuk was an ordinary fellow. Compare him to his fellow prophets of the Old Testament. About many of them, we are told where they are from, who their fathers were, and under what kings they served. Not Habakkuk. About him we are told two things: his name, and that he was a prophet. That is it.

There are instances in which we can find out a lot about biblical characters by looking at the meaning of their names. Daniel, for example, is a name that means “God is my judge,” and that name takes on special significance as we study the book that bears his name. Jeremiah is called “the weeping prophet” because of the dreary circumstances of his life and times, but his name means, “The Lord has uplifted.” But when we come to Habakkuk, we aren’t even sure what his name means! It may come from a Hebrew word that means “to embrace.” Among the scholars who interpret the name this way, there is a lack of agreement about its significance. Is Habakkuk the prophet who embraces God in the face of difficult days, or is he the one who is embraced by God in such days, or, as Luther suggests, is the one who embraces his people in these days? Of course, it is far from certain that this is even the right meaning for his name, as some suggest that it comes from an Akkadian word that simply refers to a vegetable or garden plant.

Unsatisfied with this scant information, ancient Jewish writers exercised great creativity to connect this obscure and ordinary prophet to other people and events of the Old Testament. Not only do their stories exceed the bounds of credibility, they are also contradictory to one another. The fact is Habakkuk is just an ordinary guy, no different from any of us. No amount of creative writing or historical revision can change that.

Although Habakkuk (the man) was very ordinary, his calling was extraordinary. Twice in the book he is called Habakkuk the prophet. That title means that he was chosen by God to be the voice of divine truth to his generation. He was God’s spokesman and ambassador. When it comes to understanding the men whom God raised up as His prophets in Israel, the Jewish scholar Abraham Heschel and his simply titled book, The Prophets (first published in 1962) has influenced Jewish and Christian thinking alike more than perhaps any other. Here are some salient descriptions of a prophet found in Heschel’s work:

  • The words of the prophet are stern, sour, stinging. But behind his austerity is love and compassion for mankind. … [E]very prediction of disaster is in itself an exhortation to repentance. … Almost every prophet brings consolation, promise, and the hope of reconciliation along with censure and castigation. He begins with a message of doom; he concludes with a message of hope.[4]
  • None of the prophets seems enamored with being a prophet nor proud of his attainment. … To be a prophet is both a distinction and an affliction. The mission he performs is distasteful to him and repugnant to others; no reward is promised him and no reward could temper its bitterness. The prophet bears scorn and reproach …. He is stigmatized as a madman by his contemporaries, and, by some modern scholars, as abnormal.[5]
  • The prophet is a lonely man. He alienates the wicked as well as the pious, the cynics as well as the believers, the priests and the princes, the judges and the false prophets. But to be a prophet means to challenge and to defy and to cast out fear. … The prophet’s duty is to speak to the people, “whether they hear or refuse to hear.” A grave responsibility rests upon the prophet.[6]
  • The prophet’s eye is directed to the contemporary scene; the society and its conduct are the main theme of his speeches. Yet his ear is inclined to God. He is a person struck by the glory and presence of God, overpowered by the hand of God. Yet his true greatness is his ability to hold God and man in a single thought.[7]
  • The words the prophet utters are not offered as souvenirs. His speech to the people is not a reminiscence, a report, hearsay. The prophet not only conveys; he reveals. He almost does unto others what God does unto him. In speaking, the prophet reveals God. … [I]n his words, the invisible God becomes audible. … Divine power bursts in the words. The authority of the prophet is in the Presence his words reveal. … The prophet is a witness and his words a testimony—to His power and judgment, to His justice and mercy.[8]

With that understanding of the extraordinary calling of a prophet, we may wonder, “Who is qualified to undertake such a task?” Humanly speaking, the answer is, “No one!” But the prophets were not volunteers for their task. They did not apply or sign-up for the job. They were chosen and called by the grace of God for this extraordinary task when they were but ordinary people. And friends, I suggest to you that we, as followers of Jesus in our day, are not that much different from them. We are ordinary people, surely unqualified in terms of our human nature for such a task, but chosen and called by the grace of God to be His people, and to be His spokesmen and ambassadors to our generation. There are times that call for strong and stinging words of rebuke, but beneath those words is a love and compassion for fallen humanity and for the God who longs to reconcile lost sinners to Himself. At times we will be lonely and outcast, shunned for the upopularity and political-incorrectness of our message. But in word and in deed, we are called to make the invisible God audible and to make others aware of His presence and His power to save those who trust in Him. It is a great blessing to be chosen and called by God to this task, for it is all of His gracious doing that we have been so chosen and called. But is it a burden? Yes it is. It is a weighty and massive burden, at times seemingly unbearable. And to understand that, we turn our attention away from the ordinary man with the extraordinary task, to …

II. The Natural and Supernatural Burdens of the Prophet

In order for us to understand Habakkuk’s burden, and see just how much we should be able to relate to him, it is necessary to sketch a bit of the historical background of the book. None of these details are spelled out clearly in the book, but the details we do have enable us to place Habakkuk relatively confidently in space and time. His days were not altogether from our own – except maybe a little worse!  

Assuming that Habakkuk was a mature man when he wrote the words of this book, he would have grown up in the Southern Kingdom of Judah under the reign of King Josiah. Josiah’s story can be found in 2 Chronicles 34-35 and 2 Kings 22-24. Josiah was something of a rarity compared to other kings of Israel and Judah who came before and after him. We read that Josiah “did right in the sight of the Lord” (2 Chron 34:2), and that description doesn’t fit many who held the throne of the Northern or Southern Kingdoms after Solomon. He came to the throne at age 8 in 639 BC, and by age 16 he began a sweeping moral and religious reform that sparked a revival in Judah. He purged the nation of idolatry and set about to restore the Jerusalem temple that had fallen into ruin. As these repairs were underway, the priests found something that had been lost for a long time – the Bible, the Book of the Law of the Lord. On behalf of the entire nation, the king repented of the sinful disregard that the nation had had toward God and His Word, and he began reading the Bible to all the people of the land. He swore allegiance to God on behalf of the nation, and led the nation in righteousness for three decades. It was a golden era of Jewish history into which Habakkuk had been born and raised.

In 609 BC, tragedy struck the nation. Pharaoh Neco of Egypt marched his armies through Judah en route to Assyria. Assyria’s domination of the region was weakening, and Neco sought to exploit their weakness and gain a stronghold for Egypt. Intent on stopping Neco, Josiah led his army out at Megiddo and was killed in the battle. The nation fell into disillusionment and despair. The Chronicler says that the “singers speak about Josiah in their lamentations to this day” (2 Chron 35:25). His son Jehoahaz became king for only three months before he was deposed and deported by the Egyptian Pharaoh. In his place, Pharaoh Neco installed Josiah’s other son Eliakim as a puppet king in Judah, and changed his name to Jehoiakim. Of Jehoiakim’s reign, the Bible says, “he reigned eleven years in Jerusalem; and he did evil in the sight of the Lord his God” (2 Chron 36:5). All of the religious and moral reforms of his father Josiah were undone, and the nation followed their evil king into systemic wickedness.

It was during this time that Habakkuk’s prophetic book was written. His sensitive spirit was vexed at what he beheld around him in his beloved nation. He will say in verse 2 that he cried out repeatedly to the Lord for help, and God did not answer. He describes his society as one filled with violence, iniquity, wickedness, destruction, strife, and contention. He speaks of the Law of God being ignored and justice being perverted, with the wicked triumphing over the righteous (1:2-4). It was only natural for him to be burdened about what he saw in his homeland. Anyone of us would be, and as we think of our own society today, many of us are burdened in a way not unlike Habakkuk.

But I would point out to you that when Habakkuk speaks of his burden in the opening verse of this book, he is not speaking of the natural burden that resulted from what he saw around him with the eyes of his flesh. There was a greater burden than this. With the eye of faith, in conversation and communion with God, Habakkuk was shown that things were going to get worse before they got better. God was about to raise up a violent and dreadful people – the Chaldeans, better known to us as the Babylonians – to be His agents of divine judgment against the surviving half of the divided kingdom of Israel. The Northern Kingdom of Israel had already been laid waste by the Assyrians a century earlier. Now, the Southern Kingdom of Judah would experience the same fate at the hands of the Babylonians. But it was not as though God were absent, ignorant, or powerless to help them. The fact of the matter was that God was the One who was bringing this state of affairs to pass! And Habakkuk was made aware by divine revelation of the unchanging promise and purpose of God, and he was commissioned to make these things known to his fellow countrymen. This was an even greater, supernatural burden that the prophet had to bear.

Friends, by now the parallels between Habakkuk’s day and our own ought to be obvious. If God was not beholden to protect the very nation that He had chosen to be called His own people from disaster when they turned their backs on Him in wickedness, injustice, corruption and idolatry, then we must not be deceived to think that God has promised to always spare America from the rod of His judgment. The Bible says to us with all severity, “Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, this he will also reap” (Gal 6:7). And what is true for men individually is all the more true for nations that rise and fall by the providence of His sovereign governance of global history. America is neither promised nor guaranteed a future part on the stage of this world. If you know this and believe it, it is a burden to our hearts and minds. But the greater burden is this – we cannot be silent about it. We cannot merely withdraw ourselves into this holy huddle on one day every week and talk about how the world is going to hell around us without going out from this place to herald the bad news of God’s certain judgment and the good news of the salvation that He has offered us in Jesus Christ! As Spurgeon said, “If sinners be damned, at least let them leap to hell over our dead bodies. And if they perish, let them perish with our arms wrapped about their knees, imploring them to stay. If hell must be filled, let be filled in the teeth of our exertions, and let not one go unwarned and unprayed for.”

But now friends, finally, let us go from preaching to meddling. It is a very sloppy handling of the Bible to take the events of Israel’s history and apply them haphazardly to this relatively infant nation of America. If we are to find a more fitting analogy to Israel and Judah of the Old Testament, it is the Church of Jesus Christ in the New Testament. The reality of our current society is that it will never rise higher than the people of God who dwell within it. If our churches – no, let me make it more personal than that – if our church – this one, this body of believers – is not committed to living faithfully under the Lordship of Jesus Christ in obedience to His Word, we cannot expect our pagan neighbors to do better. Where the church is filled with strife and discord, corruption and perversion, idolatry and worldliness, it becomes toxic to the culture that surrounds it. We cannot beg and plead God for revival in our nation until we have worn out our knees in prayer for Him to send it to His church! And there is nothing that He would rather do, and no prayer that He would more gladly answer! So our prayer is not for Him to do something, but that we, by His grace, would turn to Him in repentance and recommitment, to seek His face and live faithfully under His Lordship in obedience to His Word! Let revival begin here and now, and Lord, let it begin with me! That must be the prayer of every Christian! And then, revived by the Spirit of God, let us go forth bearing this prophetic burden to declare to the world around us that there is a righteous judge who will call all men to account at the end of life and the end of time, and apart from His mercy there is none who can abide His wrath! But thanks be to God! There is the offer of salvation and rescue through the grace of God in the Lord Jesus Christ. For us, for our sins, He died as a sacrificial substitute, so that the judgment that our sins have deserved was poured out on Him as He shed His blood on the cross. Do not ask God to give you what you deserve, for you cannot bear it! But God has given Christ what you deserve, so that you might inherit by grace what Christ deserves – full acceptance and fellowship with God now and for all eternity – if you will turn from sin and trust in His name to be saved!






[1] Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., Micah-Malachi (Mastering the Old Testament, vol. 21; Dallas: Word, 1992), 141-142.
[2] Raymond Calkins, The Modern Message of the Minor Prophets (New York: Harper, 1947), 92-93. Also cited by Kaiser, 142-143.
[3] Ronald F. Youngblood, “aC9m1” in New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis (Willem A. VanGemeren, gen.ed.; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997), 1112-1113.
[4] Abraham Heschel, The Prophets (New York: HarperCollins, 1962), 1.12.
[5] Ibid., 1.17-18.
[6] Ibid., 1.18-19.
[7] Ibid., 1.21.
[8] Ibid., 1.22. 

Friday, June 17, 2016

Why I Turned Down a Request for a Media Interview on SBC Issues

Hello folks! I am back home from a very eventful and overwhelmingly important Southern Baptist Convention, the 19th consecutive one I have attended. It's been good to be back in Greensboro, and to reconnect with my family and church family today.

This year's convention touched on a number of "hot button" cultural issues. "Touched on" is probably a little weak. Let's say, "throat punched." From racial division to religious freedom for all people, to the present state of American politics, sexual ethics, abortion, and some controversial issues that are internal to the SBC, there was never a dull moment in St. Louis once the proceedings got under way.

Today I was contacted by a reporter (who shall remain nameless) from a local media outlet (which shall likewise remain nameless) with this message: "I'm doing a story today on the Southern Baptist Convention's resolution to no longer use the Confederate Flag. I saw your church was a member of the North Carolina Baptists. Would you be willing to talk to me today about the decision? Thanks so much."

Let me count the ways in which I was bothered by this message. For a journalist from a secular media outlet to say, "I'm doing a story TODAY on the SBC ..." would be equivalent to me taking a speaking engagement at the annual meeting of some organization that is devoted to quantum physics. It is not that I do not think I could come up with anything of value to say to them, but I do not think I could do the subject justice in a few hours or even a few days of preparation.

Second, there is a false assumption here in the reporter's statement that the resolution was "to no longer use the Confederate Flag." This assumes that Southern Baptist Churches have been in the practice of using the Confederate Flag, which is not true. Now, there are 40,000+ autonomous Southern Baptist Churches in America, and some of them may use this flag (though I hope they do not), but it is an assumption rooted in the word "Southern," a word that many in our convention have sought to drop from our name repeatedly in the past. Our statement which we passed this year does not call on Southern Baptist Churches to no longer use this flag, but goes beyond that to call on ALL PEOPLE, especially Christians, to stop using the Confederate flag. I am confident that there is a great variety of opinions on this subject, but the fact is that even if one desires to display this flag in a way that has no racial motivation behind it at all, the message that this flag sends to many who see it is one that is racially charged. The Christian message, the Gospel of Jesus Christ, is an offensive message. It says that all who do not personally trust in Jesus Christ for salvation will die in their sins and perish in hell. If we are going to send out a message that offends people, it needs to be the bloody cross of Jesus, and not a symbol that is presently associated with racial hatred.

Third, I am not interested in talking to this, or any reporter, about anything that took place at the Convention this year for one simple reason: I've done it before. In the dozens of times that I have been interviewed by various media outlets, there is only one occasion in which I felt that my words were accurately represented in the final product. I have had my words twisted, I've had my words "paraphrased" inaccurately, and I've had my words taken out of context and reduced to a handful of words or a couple of seconds that actually express the opposite of the point I am trying to make. Anyone who knows me, and who knows the church I serve, knows how we feel about racial reconciliation. Immanuel Baptist Church has been strong on the message of racial reconciliation for 50 years in Greensboro. We do not need to risk that stance being convoluted by sloppy journalism in order to make it known. If you want to know how we feel about those of every ethnicity, just drop in on Sunday at 11:00. We are one of the most ethnically diverse congregations that I know of, and that was one of the primary reasons I immediately fell in love with Immanuel.

Finally, if I am going to be known beyond the four walls of my church for anything I have said, I want it to be what I have to say about the Gospel of Jesus Christ, not how I feel about a flag, a political or cultural issue, or anything else. That said, I am more than happy to go on record here and anywhere else to say that I enthusiastically voted for this resolution, and was even more enthusiastic about my support of it once the language was strengthened by an amendment from the floor. I would encourage you to visit this article at Baptist Press http://www.bpnews.net/47041/sbc-repudiates-display-of-confederate-flag for more information about the proceedings regarding the Confederate flag resolution. I would also suggest the following articles:
http://sbcannualmeeting.net/sbc16/newsroom/newspage.asp?ID=111
http://sbcannualmeeting.net/sbc16/newsroom/newspage.asp?ID=128

If you would like to view the report of the resolutions committee, containing the discussion of this resolution, visit http://live.sbc.net/ondemand.html and select Tuesday Afternoon, then item 13 of 14 which contains the entire Committee on Resolutions report.

In closing, here is my response to the journalist who asked if I would like to be interviewed for the report:

"Probably not. There are a million ways for the media to get this story wrong and only one way to get it right, and having been misquoted and reduced to out-of-context sound bites often in the past, I do not wish to have that experience again. I would say that the best thing to do would be to visit www.sbcannualmeeting.net and watch the video from Tuesday afternoon's session, particularly the Committee on Resolutions report. I can tell you that I was present, I support the amended resolution wholeheartedly, and Immanuel Baptist Church has been working for racial reconciliation in our city for 50 years. So we are very pleased with the resolution and its outcome. I would be more than happy to help you research facts on the nature of SBC resolutions, and to answer questions you may have about how these things work in every day life, but I prefer to not be quoted or to speak personally. People who know me and my church know exactly where we stand on this issue because we have a proven track record and a diverse congregation that is evidence of it."

Thursday, June 09, 2016

Habakkuk: A Background Study

As we prepare to embark on a verse-by-verse study of Habakkuk here at Immanuel Baptist Church (Greensboro, NC; www.ibcgso.org), I have composed a brief study of the relevant background material that provides a framework of understanding the message of this often-overlooked prophet. A more concise summary of this information is posted elsewhere on this blog as "Habakkuk at a Glance".

A Background Study on Habakkuk

Author

The prophet Habakkuk is traditionally credited with the authorship of this somewhat autobiographical book. The meaning of his name is less than certain, with some scholars pointing to a Hebrew root that means “embrace,” or “cling,” and others pointing to an Akkadian word that refers to a plant or vegetable. If the Hebrew origin is correct, it could be significant to the message of the book, as Habakkuk is either the prophet who clings to God in spite of the difficulties he sees surrounding him, or is the one who is embraced by the Lord in those circumstances.

Habakkuk is identified as “the prophet” in 1:1 and 3:1, indicating that he served the nation in the official capacity as a prophet. Only three times in the prophetic writings is the author identified as “the prophet” in the opening verses (Habakkuk, Haggai, Zechariah). Thus, Habakkuk is the only prophet who predates the Babylonian captivity so designated.[1] Some have speculated that he may have been a priest or other temple officer, given the musical instruction found at the end of his Psalm in 3:19, however this is entirely speculative.

Aside from the information gleaned within the pages of this short book, nothing is known about the prophet. There is no mention internally of Habakkuk’s lineage or hometown. There have been efforts made to identify him or provide additional biographical details, however these are matters of conjecture at best and patently fictitious at worst. Therefore, those details are entirely unhelpful for our purposes and will not be discussed. The meaning and message of the book is not affected in any way by the inclusion or omission of that data.

What can be known from a study of the book is that Habakkuk was a devout servant of YHWH, who possessed both a deep sense of moral sensitivity as well as a profound confidence in his relationship with God. If the historical reconstruction sketched below is accurate, then we may also conclude that Habakkuk was the final prophet to address Judah before the Babylonian invasion and exile.

Historical Setting

Two details from Habakkuk 1 help us to place the writing within a narrow window of history. Judah is internally corrupted by violence and injustice (1:2-4), and judgment is coming through the agency of the invading Chaldeans (Babylonians; 1:5-11). The internal national condition could correspond to several points in the history of Judah, beginning with the reign of Judah’s most wicked king, Manasseh (697-642 B.C.). If that is accurate, then the “thing” that God is doing that seems unfathomable to the prophet is raising up a nation that is yet unknown on the global scene to be His agent of justice against the sin of Judah. It seems, however, that the evil deeds of the Babylonians are already well known by the time of the dialog in 1:5-11. Therefore, a later setting seems more probable.

The Babylonians became a major player on the world stage in the latter half of the seventh century B.C. as the Chaldeans successfully revolted from the control of the Assyrian Empire. Nabopolassar was installed upon the throne of this rising Babylonian empire around 625 B.C., and he led the conquest of the chief Assyrian city of Nineveh in 612. A setting of this time period would correspond with the sudden notoriety of the Babylonian threat, however the internal conditions in Judah would not correspond with those that Habakkuk decries in 1:2-4. This was late in the reign of Josiah, the Judean king who instituted sweeping moral and religious reforms to lead the nation away from the sins of Manasseh. He reigned from 640 until 609, when he died in battle with the Egyptians at Megiddo. The Egyptians seemed to be en route to aid Assyria (or else to capitalize on their power vacuum following the destruction of Nineveh) when Josiah led troops out to stop them in order to forestall an Assyrian revival of power or a strengthening of Egyptian power which would almost certainly bring Judea under the power of a foreign nation. The reign of Josiah was a golden era (perhaps the final one) of Judah’s history, and the internal state of affairs was markedly different from those of which we read in the early verses of Habakkuk.

This seems to make it almost certain that Habakkuk’s ministry that is recorded in the book that bears his name took place during the reign of Josiah’s son, Jehoiakim. Following the death of Josiah, his son Jehoahaz inherited the throne. His reign was characterized by evil, and lasted but three short months, at which time Pharaoh Neco of Egypt invaded Judah, deposing Jehoahaz and taking him into exile in Egypt. Neco installed the brother of Jehoahaz, Eliakim, as a puppet-king over Judah, changing his name to Jehoiakim (2 Kings 23:31-37). Like his brother before him, Jehoiakim was also evil. In order to pay the hefty tribute assessed upon him by Neco, he extorted silver and gold from the citizens of Judah and turned a blind eye to social injustice, allowing it to become systemic in the nation. In 605, Bablyon’s newly-installed king Nebuchadnezzar (son of Nabopolassar) met with the armies of Egypt at Carchemish and soundly defeated them. With the Babylonian threat imminent, Jehoiakim switched his alliance from Neco to Nebuchadnezzar (2 Kings 24:1), before a final attempted rebellion which failed. Judah’s fate was sealed (at least for the foreseeable future) and the Babylonians would swiftly overrun them and begin the deportation to exile. The Babylonian invasion would begin in 598 and be completed with Jerusalem destroyed in 586.

The historical situation of Jehoiakim’s reign seems to be the most harmonious with all of the information found within the book of Habakkuk. The internal corruption is undoubtedly consistent, and the imminent threat of the infamous Babylonians is undeniable. On this view, the incredible “thing” that God is doing (1:5) is using a pagan, foreign power, notorious for wickedness of its own, to bring destruction on the people of the covenant, God’s own chosen nation Israel (or all that was left of it at this point, the Southern Kingdom of Judah, given that the Northern Kingdom of Israel had fallen to Assyria a century earlier). Thus, we are on safe ground to date the events of Habakkuk in the window of time between the death of Josiah in 609 and the defeat of the Egyptians at the battle of Carchemish in 605 B. C.

Audience

Prophets are typically considered to be spokesmen for God to a nation of people. Some prophecy to Judah, some to her northern sister Israel, and some to foreign nations. Habakkuk, though undoubtedly living and in the Southern Kingdom of Judah (if not more precisely in the city of Jerusalem), is not like the rest of the prophets in this regard. In the early part of the book, he is not so much a spokesman for God to the people, but rather a spokesman to God on behalf of the people – at least on behalf of the righteous remnant of Judah. In that sense, it may be said that Habakkuk’s message is not a pronouncement to Judah from God, but a prayer to God on behalf of Judah. It is not until we come to his psalm of praise in Chapter 3 that the righteous remnant of Judah becomes the audience of his message, and even there, his message is not “Thus saith the Lord” (an expression that is entirely absent in this book). It is a declaration of the prophet’s own conclusions that have been born through the travail of his own soul in the encounter he has had with his God in the secret place of prayer.

Habakkuk in the New Testament

Three times in the psalm of Habakkuk (Chapter 3), the word “salvation” occurs (twice in v13; once in v18). He says that God “went forth for the salvation” of His people, “for the salvation” of His anointed[2], and he calls Him “the God of my salvation.” The root of this word is the same as that from which the name Yeshua (Jesus) is derived. In Matthew 1:21, the angel of the Lord said to Joseph, concerning the Son whom Mary would bear, “you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.” All Old Testament references to the salvation of the Lord point forward to Jesus Christ, in whom that salvation would be ultimately and eternally accomplished. When He comes into the world, a new era begins – the inauguration of God’s Kindgom, in which “the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea” (Hab 2:14).

As John Sailhamer observes,
the ‘work’ God speaks of here (in Hab 1:5) is not defined. In the immediate context it consists of God’s sending a great and fearful nation against Habakkuk’s own countrymen (1:6-11) as a work of judgment (1:12b). Later biblical writers identified this ‘work’ with the coming of the Messiah and his sacrificial death on the cross (Ac 13:41). Since the author himself links the work of God in 1:5 with the Messianic work of God in salvation (3:2), the New Testament interpretation of this passage appears to be right on the money. … The revelation that Habakkuk received from God ‘awaits an appointed time … and will not prove false” (2:3). … God has established a time when He will come in great glory and bring salvation to the faithful (3:3-15).[3]

One of Habakkuk’s key verses is 2:4, in which we read, “… but the righteous will live by his faith.” All that precedes this verse leads toward it, and all that follows flows from it. This phrase is quoted three times in the New Testament, each time with varying emphasis. In Romans 1:17, the emphasis seems to fall on the word righteous. In Galatians 3:11, the emphasis seems to be on the word faith. In Hebrews 10:38, the emphasis is apparently on the word live.[4] These varying emphases do not suggest a contradiction in the interpretation of the New Testament writers. Rather, the ideas run together as accurate interpretations and applications of Habakkuk’s words.

In Romans 1:17, Paul asserts that the Gospel of Jesus Christ reveals the righteousness of God “from faith to faith,” pointing to this statement from Habakkuk 2:4 for support. Thereafter, Paul sets for the case that all of humanity is condemned before God because of unrighteousness (sin). How then is the Gospel of Jesus Christ “good news” at all? It is because in the Gospel “now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested” (Rom 3:21). This “righteousness of God” is imputed “through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe” (3:22). God demonstrates Himself, in the Gospel, to be “just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (3:26). He is just (or righteous) in that He pours out His well-deserved wrath in full upon the sin of humanity; but He is the justifier (the One who makes, or declares, another to be righteous) in that He imputes His very own righteousness, which was manifested in the person of Jesus Christ, to those who come to Him by faith in Jesus, the Messiah. So then, boasting is excluded (3:27) because the circumcised (Jews) and uncircumcised (Gentiles) are both alike justified (or made righteous before God) by faith (3:30). In Romans 4, Paul anchors his conviction of justification by faith on God’s dealings with Abraham, prior to the giving of the Law, by pointing to Genesis 15:6 in which the Scripture says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness” (4:4). It is this righteousness upon which Paul himself has set all of his hopes in life and death, declaring in Philippians 3:9 that he desires to be “found in Him (Christ), not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith.” It is obvious that Philippians 3:9 is informed by, without actually citing, Habakkuk 2:4.

It was in his study of Romans 1:17, wherein Paul explicitly quotes Habakkuk 2:4, that Martin Luther said,
Night and day I pondered until I saw the connection between the justice of God and the statement that ‘just shall live by his faith.’ Then I grasped that the justice of God is that righteousness by which through grace and sheer mercy God justifies us through faith. Thereupon I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise. The whole of Scripture took on a new meaning, and whereas before the ‘justice of God’ had filled me with hate, now it became to me inexpressibly sweet in greater love. This passage of Paul became to me a gate to heaven.[5]

In Galatians 3:11, again pointing to the Old Testament example of Abraham in Genesis 15:6 (Gal 3:6), Paul appeals to Habakkuk 2:4 to demonstrate that faith in Christ not only makes one righteous before God, but faith alone makes one righteous before God. Works of the Law do not, and have never, had the ability to grant righteousness to one who did not have it inherently. Paul says, “as many as are of the works of the Law are under a curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who does not abide by all things written in the book of the Law, to perform them” (3:10). Since no human being is capable of abiding by and performing all things that are written in the Law because of the fallen nature of mankind, all are under this curse. Therefore, Paul says, “Now that no one is justified by the Law before God is evident.” The Law cannot save anyone; it can only show us our need to be saved. It shows us our lack of righteousness, and the need for some other, alien, righteousness to be imputed to us. Therefore, Paul goes on, “for the righteous man shall live by faith” (3:11). Thus faith is shown to be the basis of this righteousness, because “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree’—in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham (that blessing of imputed righteousness by faith which was to be announced through Abraham as a blessing to all nations, 3:6-9) might come to the Gentiles, so that we would receive the promise of the Spirit through faith” (3:13-14).

Whereas in Romans, Paul sets forth the case that righteousness is imputed by faith in Christ, and in Galatians that it is faith alone which secures this righteousness before God (apart from works of the Law), the writer of Hebrews takes the application of Habakkuk 2:4 to the next leg of the spiritual journey. Having been made righteous by faith (and faith alone) in Christ alone, “you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God you may receive what was promised” (Heb 10:35). This endurance is necessary because of “conflict of sufferings … reproaches and tribulations … seizure of property” (10:32-34). Endurance through these hardships demonstrates that “you have for yourselves a better possession and a lasting one” (10:34). This endurance must be enacted by the continual abiding in that same saving faith that initially united the believer to Christ. “For yet in a very little while, He who is coming 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. But we are not of those who shrink back to destruction, but of those who have faith to the preserving of the soul” (10:37-39).

Key Doctrines

Perhaps no one has stated the key theological lesson of Habakkuk more succinctly and accurately than Thomas McComiskey, when he says: “One of the most important theological concepts in the book is that of God’s sovereign activity in history. Hab affirms God’s control of all history and demonstrates that even the godless nations are subject to his control. Their rise and fall is determined not by the fortuitous course of events but by God.”[6]

Outline

The book may be succinctly summarized in three general headings, set forth by J. Sidlow Baxter, as follows:


I. Chapter 1 – A Burden: Faith grappling with a problem
II. Chapter 2 – A Vision: Faith grasping the solution
III. Chapter 3 – A Prayer: Faith glorying in assurance[7]

It would be difficult to improve upon the more thorough outline supplied by Ronald Blue:

I. A Dialogue with God: Habakkuk Previewed God’s Discipline of Judah (Ch 1)
A. Habakkuk’s distress (1:1-4)
1. Why is God indifferent to supplication? (1:1-2)
2. Why is God insensitive to sin and suffering? (1:3-4)
B. God’s disclosure (1:5-11)
1. God’s intention of discipline (1:5)
2. God’s instrument of discipline (1:6-11)
C. Habakkuk’s dilemma (1:12-17)
1. Why would God employ a people of iniquity? (1:12-13)
2. Why would God endorse a people of injustice? (1:14-15)
3. Why would God excuse a people of idolatry? (1:16-17)
II. A Dirge from God: Habakkuk Pronounced God’s Destruction of Babylon (Ch 2)
A. Habakkuk’s anticipation: “Watch” (2:1)
B. God’s admonition: “Write” (2:2-5)
1. God’s clear revelation (2:2)
2. God’s certain revelation (2:3)
3. God’s condemnatory revelation (2:4-5)
C. Habakkuk’s annotation: “Woe” (2:6-20)
1. Woe for intimidation (2:6-8)
2. Woe for intemperance (2:9-11)
3. Woe for iniquity (2:12-14)
4. Woe for indignity (2:15-17)
5. Woe for idolatry (2:18-20)
III. A Doxology to God: Habakkuk Praised God’s Design of Creation (Ch 3)
A. Habakkuk’s prayer for mercy (3:1-2)
B. God’s presence of majesty (3:3-15)
1. God’s arrival (3:3a)
2. God’s appearance (3:3b-7)
3. God’s actions (3:8-15)
C. Habakkuk’s peace in ministry (3:16-19)[8]





[1] J. Ronald Blue, “Habakkuk,” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary: Old Testament (ed. John F. Walvoord and Roy B. Zuck; Wheaton, Ill.: Victor Books, 1985), 1506.
[2] God’s “anointed” refers to the one, or the group, chosen by God for a particular purpose. It was used at times to refer to the high priest or the Davidic king, and even in Isaiah 45:1 of the Persian king Cyrus. In this context, the “salvation of God’s anointed” would seem to refer to God’s “anointed people,” the righteous remnant of Judah. In the context of the whole of Scripture, however, the concept of God’s “Anointed One” takes on a special reference to the Messiah, Jesus Christ (Psa 28:8; Dan 9:25-26, where anointed one is sometimes rendered Messiah, a literal rendering; Ac 4:27; 10:38; Heb 1:9; et al.). Thus, it is sometimes suggested that Hab 3:13 be rendered “You went for the salvation of Your people, for the salvation with Your anointed,” implying the Anointed One as the agent of this salvation. While this is theologically correct, linguistically it may be asking more of the text than is warranted.
[3] John Sailhamer, The Books of the Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998), 53.
[4] W. Graham Scroggie, Know Your Bible (London: Pickering and Inglis, 1967), 196.
[5] Roland Bainton, Here I Stand (Nashville: Abingdon, 1955) 49-50.
[6] Thomas McComiskey, “Habakkuk, in Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible (vol. 2; ed. Walter A. Elwell; Grand Rapids: Baker, 1988), 908.
[7] J. Sidlow Baxter, Explore the Book (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1960), 212.
[8] Blue, 1507-1508. 

Habakkuk at a Glance

Following is a very brief overview of the relevant background material for a study of the book of Habakkuk. This is summarized from information presented in more detail in the fuller background study of Habakkuk posted elsewhere on this blog.

Habakkuk At a Glance

Author: Habakkuk the prophet (1:1; 3:1)

Date and Historical Setting: The book of Habakkuk can be dated between the years 609 and 605 B.C., following the death of King Josiah of Judah (the last of Judah’s godly kings), and the deposing of his son Jehoahaz by the Egyptians. The Egyptian Pharaoh Neco installed another son of Josiah, Eliakim (whose name was changed to Jehoiakim), as king in Judah. Jehoiakim was an evil king and under his reign, the moral and religious reforms of his father Josiah were all undone. Internally, Judah became filled with violence and systemic social injustice. These conditions were decried by the prophet in the opening verses of the prophecy. As a means of bringing judgment on the nation, God promises to raise up the Chaldeans (the Babylonians, under Nebuchadnezzar) to invade the nation and plunder it. This began to happen in 598 B.C., as the Israelites were carried away into the Babylonian Exile (or Captivity), with Jerusalem falling in 586 B.C.

Audience: Unlike other prophetic books, Habakkuk’s words are not directed to a nation or a king, but to God Himself. Chapters 1 and 2 form a dialogue between the prophet and God, with the prophet’s words being a desperate prayer for judgment and mercy. Chapter 3 is a psalm of praise to God composed by the prophet after he came to an understanding of God’s nature and His ways of dealing with Judah and the nations.

Habakkuk’s Influence on the New Testament: The salvation of the faithful remnant that is promised in Habakkuk points forward, ultimately to the coming of Christ into the world. Paul takes up the words of Habakkuk 1:5 in his sermon in the synagogue of Pisidian Antioch recorded in Acts 13 (see Acts 13:41). Habakkuk 2:4, the key verse of Habakkuk, was also understood by the Apostle Paul and the anonymous writer of Hebrews as a cornerstone text of justification by faith alone and the perseverance of that faith through life’s trials (see Romans 1:17; Galatians 3:11; Hebrews 10:38).

Key Doctrines:
Justification by faith (2:4); God’s sovereignty over nations and history.

Brief Outline:
I. Chapter 1 – A Burden: Faith grappling with a problem
II. Chapter 2 – A Vision: Faith grasping the solution
III. Chapter 3 – A Prayer: Faith glorying in assurance[1]

In-Depth Analysis:
I. A Dialogue with God: Habakkuk Previewed God’s Discipline of Judah (Ch 1)
A. Habakkuk’s distress (1:1-4)
1. Why is God indifferent to supplication? (1:1-2)
2. Why is God insensitive to sin and suffering? (1:3-4)
B. God’s disclosure (1:5-11)
1. God’s intention of discipline (1:5)
2. God’s instrument of discipline (1:6-11)
C. Habakkuk’s dilemma (1:12-17)
1. Why would God employ a people of iniquity? (1:12-13)
2. Why would God endorse a people of injustice? (1:14-15)
3. Why would God excuse a people of idolatry? (1:16-17)
II. A Dirge from God: Habakkuk Pronounced God’s Destruction of Babylon (Ch 2)
A. Habakkuk’s anticipation: “Watch” (2:1)
B. God’s admonition: “Write” (2:2-5)
1. God’s clear revelation (2:2)
2. God’s certain revelation (2:3)
3. God’s condemnatory revelation (2:4-5)
C. Habakkuk’s annotation: “Woe” (2:6-20)
1. Woe for intimidation (2:6-8)
2. Woe for intemperance (2:9-11)
3. Woe for iniquity (2:12-14)
4. Woe for indignity (2:15-17)
5. Woe for idolatry (2:18-20)
III. A Doxology to God: Habakkuk Praised God’s Design of Creation (Ch 3)
A. Habakkuk’s prayer for mercy (3:1-2)
B. God’s presence of majesty (3:3-15)
1. God’s arrival (3:3a)
2. God’s appearance (3:3b-7)
3. God’s actions (3:8-15)
C. Habakkuk’s peace in ministry (3:16-19)[2]




[1] J. Sidlow Baxter, Explore the Book (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1960), 212.
[2] J. Ronald Blue, “Habakkuk,” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary: Old Testament (ed. John F. Walvoord and Roy B. Zuck; Wheaton, Ill.: Victor Books, 1985), 1507-1508. 

Monday, June 06, 2016

A Vision for Global Missions (Romans 15:13-30)

Having ended our series on the Gospel According to John (after 4 1/2 years and 127 sermons!), I returned to a subject that is always close to my heart on Sunday, June 6, 2016: global missions to the unreached peoples of the world. The manuscript is unavailable, but the audio can be found here: http://www.sermonaudio.com/sermoninfo.asp?sermonID=66161542511 (and will be on our iTunes podcast feed).