Monday, July 18, 2016

Faith in Troubled Times (Habakkuk 1:12-2:1)

Audio 


Religious institutions have abandoned the Scriptures and become corrupt. The government has become hostile to God and those who are put their faith in Him. Genuine believers are despised and outcast in a society where they were once the majority. Systemic injustice feeds the unchecked spread of violence and moral decay. Sexual sin is tolerated, even celebrated, publicly. The foundations of society are crumbling. In the East, a well-organized force of brutal terrorism arises to destroy by force whatever stands in its way of world domination.

This is not a summary of the stories from this morning’s newscasts, but instead it is a brief glimpse at the prevailing conditions of the tiny nation of Judah 2,600 years ago. In those deplorable conditions, there lives a prophet named Habakkuk. For some time, he has cried out to his fellow countrymen in the name of God, and they have turned a deaf ear to him. Together with an oppressed minority of the righteous in the land, they have turned their cries heavenward, asking God to do something about the situation. For a long time, there has been no answer. In despair, the prophet has asked God how long it will be until he hears them and answers. He has asked God that question that rolls off of our lips so easily in troubled times: “Why?” And God answered the prophet in a surprising way.

In verses 5-11, which we examined last week, we saw how God said that He was already at work in the situation. The way in which He was working, however, was surprising. The Lord said in verse 5, “I am doing something in your days – you would not believe if you were told.” But He told him anyway, saying that He was raising up the Chaldeans (better known to us as the Babylonians) to come in violently and take the people of Judah away into captivity. It must have sounded to Habakkuk like the cure was worse than the disease! He was burdened about what he saw in his own culture, but what the Lord showed him was about to happen burdened him all the more. This message from God in verses 5-11 is, in part, the burden which he speaks of in the very first verse.

Things were not going the way Habakkuk wished they would. And God’s answer seems only to make matters worse. Bad news was followed by worse news. But Habakkuk did not let these things push him away from his God; rather he pressed into God by faith to reaffirm his convictions, to voice his questions, and to wait for God’s answer.

I suppose it was about a year ago that I felt led to preach this book of Habakkuk after we finished the Gospel of John, and I remember thinking, “Well, Habakkuk is pretty relevant to our day and time.” I could have never imagined how much more relevant this book would become over the ensuing year. It is as if our times have caught up with our text to make this prophetic book read as if it were hot off the press. As I was writing these very words on Thursday, video and pictures scrolled across my computer monitor from the funerals of Philando Castile and the officers killed in Dallas, and news began to break of the horrific attack in Nice, France. And then there was Turkey, and then Baton Rouge. And of course, added to these are a multitude of other tragedies and turmoils that surround us on a daily basis. There will be new ones before this day is out.

I have mentioned before that Habakkuk has an infinite advantage over us in that the Lord has given him specific revelation about what is to come for his nation. We do not have that. We have no certain means of determining if an act that occurs today is divine judgment against sin, or if it is just another expression of that sin working its way out in the world. We do not know what will become of our nation, our denomination, our congregation, or our situation. Only God knows that, and He has not revealed it to us. So we can make neither declarations nor predictions. But, what we can be are students of the history of God’s dealings with men and nations, and from that we can find parallels and precedents that should both encourage and alarm us, equipping us to respond in mature faith to the troubled times in which we live.

Habakkuk, like many of his fellow prophets, was familiar with the ways of the Lord and the state of the world. He knew about the nations that surrounded his own and how they conducted themselves on the stage of global affairs. He knew about his own nation and leaders. But more importantly he knew God – who God was, what God said, and how God acted in the world. He was like those sons of Issachar, of whom it was said in 1 Chronicles 12:32 were, “men who understood the times, with knowledge of what Israel should do.” May God help each of us to be so described! May God help us to understand the times in which we live, and the ways in which He works, that we might advise one another, our own culture, and anyone who will give ear to our words, how we must live and what we must do in light of what is going on around us. Habakkuk helps us in this regard, for he shows us how to be people of faith in troubled times. There are three requirements, and we find them here in our text.

I. We must articulate the convictions on which our faith rests (1:12-13a).

Recently I watched a movie entitled “The Finest Hours” about an extremely dangerous and improbable rescue mission that the U. S. Coast Guard performed on an oil tanker that had been ripped in half by a storm off the coast of Boston in 1952. The heroism and bravery of a small crew on a small craft saved the lives of more than 30 men aboard that tanker, but the movie also shows the heroic efforts of the tanker’s senior surviving engineer to put the ship in a place where the crew could be rescued. As the ship was rapidly taking on water, Ray Sybert ordered the men to forcibly steer the rear half of the ship to run aground on a sandbar where they would stop drifting and could wait for their rescue.[1]

There are times in our lives and in the broader picture of national and global affairs when we feel as if the storms have broken loose everything that was fastened down. In those moments, we must find some solid rock upon which to run our faith aground in order to stabilize ourselves against the wind and the waves. And that shoal of security is in the unshakable convictions that we hold from God’s Word about the truth of His unchangeable nature. Martyn Lloyd-Jones said, “We must … remind ourselves of those things of which we are absolutely certain, things which are entirely beyond doubt. Write them down and say to yourself: ‘In this terrible and perplexing situation in which I find myself, here at least is solid ground.’”[2]

That is where Habakkuk turns in the midst of his troubles. The report that he has just received from the Lord about what is coming upon Judah has sent him reeling. But, Habakkuk anchors himself on his unshakable convictions about who the Lord is and what the Lord has said. Using four distinct titles for God, Habakkuk calls out to Him as Lord, God, Holy One, and Rock.

All of these titles are steeped in Hebrew biblical tradition. In verse 12, the word “Lord” may contain all capital letters in your English Bibles. Many versions employ this in order to indicate that the underlying Hebrew word is the divine name “YHWH.” This is the name by which God revealed Himself to Moses, when He said “I am that I am.” Habakkuk was not calling out to some unknown deity, but to the one true God who had revealed Himself and acted in history on behalf of His people, Israel. The name Elohim, translated as “God,” harkens back to the very first verse of the Bible where Elohim is said to have created the heavens and the earth. The very mention of this name evokes the idea of unlimited power and timelessness. Thus, Habakkuk can say of this God that He is “from everlasting.” He has no beginning or end. All of history, all of the present, all of the future, exists before Him instantaneously as one eternal “now.” He knows the end from the beginning. He preceded Israel’s history, and Babylon’s as well, and He will exist unchanged when all else passes away.

 Habakkuk calls Him “Holy One,” which speaks of God’s transcendence. He is not like us, but wholly other, and is of infinite purity and righteousness. Because He is the “Holy One,” Habakkuk says in verse 13, “Your eyes are too pure to approve evil, and you cannot look on wickedness.” Then, he calls Him, “Rock.” As the Rock, God is unchanging, strong, and steadfast. Nothing moves or shakes Him, therefore those who are being moved and shaken about can anchor themselves to Him for refuge.

Not only does Habakkuk rest in the knowledge of who this God is, but he rests secure in personal relationship with Him. Each of these divine names is preceded by either the vocative expression “O” or the personal possessive pronoun “my.” This God, Habakkuk can claim to be “my God.” The Holy One is “my Holy One.” The anchor of the prophet’s personal relationship with Him holds fast in the midst of the storm that surrounds him, and when he calls upon Him as his own God and Holy One, he can do so with the vocative utterance, “O Lord, O Rock,” knowing that God attends to his cries with care and concern and will answer his prayers.

Notice how this conviction about God’s nature informs Habakkuk’s convictions about God’s ways. There is much that he does not understand, much that is uncertain, but based on all that he knows about God’s nature, Habakkuk is able to say with confidence, “We will not die.” He is not arguing with God here. God never said they would all die. He said that the Chaldeans were coming for violence and would collect captives. But Habakkuk knows that God has spoken concerning the future of His people Israel with unchangeable promise because this is a God who cannot lie, who does not change, and will not go back on His word. In Genesis 17, God promised to Abraham and his descendants had been brought into an everlasting covenant. He renewed that covenant with Isaac and Jacob, and to Jacob He said, “I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land” (Gen 26:15). Those promises were renewed through Moses and crystallized with David, from whom the Lord said a descendant would come who would have an everlasting kingdom forever established by God Himself (2 Sam 7:12-19). Habakkuk is merely taking God at His Word. He is saying, in essence, “Whatever the Babylonians might do to us, they cannot and will not exterminate us, because You, O Lord, have given us promises that You will never break! This will not be our end. As a nation, we will not die, even though we will be carried away. You will preserve a remnant for Yourself because You are the Holy One, my Lord, the one true God, who is an unchanging and steadfast Rock!”

So, that means that whatever it is that this God has allowed or orchestrated to occur will serve ultimately to further His purpose. Habakkuk therefore can conclude, based on his convictions about who God is and what God has said, that the invasion of the Babylonians will ultimately prove to be for the nation’s good and God’s glory. “You, O Lord, have appointed them to judge; and You, O Rock, have established them to correct.” By this foreign power, God was disciplining His people just as He had long before promised to do when they turned away from Him (Dt 28:25-50). He was correcting them from their errors of idolatry, injustice and immorality and exercising judgment on the very evils about which Habakkuk had been crying out for a long time (vv2-4).

In troubled times, such as those in which we now live, we must follow the example of Habakkuk and articulate the convictions on which our faith rests. We must remind ourselves and declare to God and those around us that we know Him to be faithful, all-powerful, sovereign and steadfast, eternal and unchanging, completely pure and infinitely holy, and relentless in the promotion of His own glory and the holiness of His people. Therefore, none of His promises will fail, and all that transpires in our lives falls within the arena of His providential care for us, ultimately serving His good purposes. Times will be difficult, even and perhaps especially for the children of God in this fallen world. But we will not die! God has made unbreakable promises to His own, individually and collectively. Jesus has said that He is building His church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it, and that whoever believes in Him will live even if we die. Calvin said, “Except then we be fully persuaded, that God by His secret providence regulates all these confusions, Satan will a hundred times a day, yea every moment, shake that confidence which ought to repose in God.”[3] As Lloyd-Jones said, “It is a great thing to reassure your soul with those things that are beyond dispute.”[4]

So, in troubled times, people of faith articulate the convictions on which our faith rests. That’s the first thing. But now secondly, we see …

II. We must acknowledge the assumptions by which our faith is rocked (1:13b-17).

Having stated the things which he is confident concerning God, Habakkuk proceeds to launch a new series of four questions. These are questions which he finds impossible to square with his conviction about who God is and what He has spoken. We understand how that feels, don’t we. We know all these things to be true, but those truths seem only to exacerbate our confusion and disillusionment. So we have deep questions that we long to ask God, just as Habakkuk did. And friends, I want you to know that God welcomes those questions. He is not intimidated by our hardest questions. He already knows what they are, so He invites you to lay them out before Him. But, as we do that, we may find that there are mistaken assumptions beneath our questions, and those mistaken assumptions are what is rocking our faith in troubled times.

Habakkuk’s first question is “Why do You look with favor on those who deal treacherously?” It is rooted in his confident assertion stated in verse 12 that the eyes of the Lord are too pure to approve evil and that He cannot look on wickedness with favor. So, why is He doing it now with the Babylonians? Verses 15 and 16 depict in vivid detail the horrors of Babylon’s terrorism. In verse 14, he likens Israel to the fish of the sea, but then likens Babylon to ruthless fishermen. They “bring all of them up with a hook, drag them away with their net, and gather them together in their fishing net.” Archaeology has shown us that these are not mere metaphors. Quite literally, the Babylonians were known to drag their captives off by hooks through their lips. One famous inscription depicts the gods of Babylon’s pantheon carrying captives in a net.[5] Habakkuk wonders aloud before the Lord how He could possibly approve of such malicious cruelty. But it is a mistaken assumption that the Lord approves of such or looks upon it with favor. The Lord has already declared in verse 11 that He will hold them guilty for their atrocities. Just because He has a plan to use them in His purposes of chastening Israel does not mean that He blindly approves of all that they do. Their day of reckoning will come, but first, God has a use for them. He uses us too, but that doesn’t mean that He approves of everything we do. He is sovereign and can use whatever tool He chooses to accomplish His work.

In the second question, Habakkuk asks, “Why are You silent when the wicked swallow up those more righteous then they?” There are two mistaken assumptions here. The first one is obvious. “Why are You silent?” Had God not just spoken? There are seven verses immediately preceding this passage in which God outlines all that He is doing clearly. Habakkuk has just expressed his confidence in what God has spoken! But how quickly we forget that God has spoken and what He has said when we are faced with troubled times. As the hymnwriter says, “What more can He say than to you He has said?”

The second mistaken assumption in that second question concerns the nature of Habakkuk’s own people, indeed human nature in general. He says that “the wicked swallow up those more righteous than they.” Previously, Habakkuk had cried out against the wickedness of his own people, indicting them for violence, iniquity, destruction, strife, contention, injustice and a disregard for the Word of God. He knew that his people were not righteous. But he appeals to a sliding scale here, insisting that they are more righteous than the Babylonians. The problem with that appeal is that such a sliding scale as this does not exist in the halls of God’s justice. It is a quick and easy thing to instinctively claim the moral high ground when we are pushed into a corner, but doing so betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the human condition. Consider the indictment of the entire human race found in the language of the Psalms that Paul weaves together in Romans 3:10-12 –

There is none righteous, not even one; there is none who understands, there is none who seeks for God; all have turned aside, together they have become useless; there is none who does good, there is not even one.

Like it or not, “all sin is the same before God. We may speak of certain people being more wicked or more unrighteous than others; but God declares that ‘there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God’ (Rom. 3:22-23).”[6] If God were to use a righteous people to execute His purposes in the world, it would have had to have been His chosen nation. But when that nation becomes unrighteous in itself, “upon whom may God rely to execute judgment justly?”[7] The standard of righteousness is God’s own righteousness, who said, “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy” (Lev 19:2). We all fall short of it, so there is no ground to gain by appealing to some bell curve that does not exist. When you think that you hold a superior position morally to anyone else, you have fallen into a mistaken assumption that will rock your faith when times become troubled.

In Habakkuk’s third question, he asks, “Why have You made men like the fish of the sea, like creeping things without a ruler over them?” And then he proceeds to describe the cruelties of the Babylonian fishing fleet with their hooks and nets. Again here we find two mistaken assumptions underlying this question. The first one is that this is all God’s fault. “Why have You made men to be like this?” Oh no, this is not how God made men. This is how sin has made men. This is how sinful men have made themselves. God is orchestrating these events, but Judah is reaping what she has sown in her own rebellion against God. Like Adam, who said when he sinned that it was the fault of “the woman You gave me,” we are quick to lay the blame for our misfortunes at God’s feet, when often we are being forced to lie upon a bed of our own making.

The second mistaken assumption is that God has made men like those with no ruler over them. The idea is that the people have no leader, no protector, no one to guide them and deliver them from their trouble. Habakkuk said this to God – and with a straight face! The fact is that the nation of Judah, just as the entire human race, has turned away from the One ruler who could lead, protect, guide and deliver us from our troubles. In ancient Israel, there was no king but God alone. But the nation said, “We want a king like all the other nations have,” and that is exactly what they got. Calamity ensued because, in the words of the Lord, “they have rejected Me from being king over them” (1 Sam 8:4-7). Today we find ourselves on the brink of despair as we consider the pathetic options set before us for this coming presidential election. We may cry out to God and say, “Why have You made us like a people with no ruler?” And should the Lord not say to us, “Why have you not looked to Me to be that leader?”

The final question of the prophet occurs in verse 17: “Will they therefore empty their net and continually slay nations without sparing?” Furthering the fishing analogy, the picture is of those who come to shore, dump their catch out of their nets, and go right back out to fill them again. Will Babylon do this with their captives forever? Will there be no end to the malicious inhumanity of their terrorism? There is, yet again, an underlying mistaken assumption. That assumption is one that we often make in troubled times – that things will never change, there will be no end to the troubles, and that ultimately there is no hope for a better day to come. This is the condition of the soul that we call despair. When the weight of this fallen world presses in upon us, we are prone to forget that there is a weight of glory beyond all comparison that is to come (2 Cor 4:17). Like Habakkuk, at times our perspective becomes too confined to our immediate circumstances and we lose sight of the promises and providences of our God. The Christian may become many discouraged, disillusioned, and even depressed in this world filled with sin and suffering. But the one thing that we must never allow to happen in our hearts is to fall into despair because when all else is shaken loose from the moorings, we have an unshakable hope. Though all is not right in the world, though terrible things may happen to us without explanation or reason, there is coming a day when all wrongs will be made right, a day of reckoning when the guilty will be called to account in the perfect judgment of God, and justice will be served in a way that the corrupted systems of this world could never render it. To abandon hope in troubled times is to allow our faith to be rocked by a mistaken assumption.

So, if you feel your faith beginning to falter and questions beginning to arise in your heart and mind, voice them to God. Lay your soul bare before Him, and in so doing, examine your questions and concerns honestly to see if there are any mistaken assumptions underlying your questions. It may well be that your faith is being rocked, not by what God has revealed, but by what you have mistakenly assumed to be true, which He has never declared or promised. That’s the second requirement for people of faith in troubled times. We articulate the convictions on which our faith rests and we acknowledge the assumptions by which our faith is rocked. There is one more found here in the first verse of Chapter 2.

III. We must anticipate the answers by which our faith is restored (2:1).

With all that is going on in the world and in our nation, we are hearing a lot of people saying that it is time for us all to “speak up.” There is surely a time to speak up, but just as surely there is a time to shut up, and wisdom is knowing the difference between the two. D. A. Carson has said, “Sometimes the most godly thing a mouth may do is keep silent.”[8] And, having expressed his unshakable convictions and aired his perplexing questions, Habakkuk has arrived at that moment where talking ceases and listening begins. He says in 2:1, “I will stand on my guard post and station myself on the rampart; And I will keep watch to see what He will speak to me, and how I may reply when I am reproved.”

Genuine faith knows that God will have the final word, and it waits in expectation for that word to come. Habakkuk has bared his soul before the Lord, and now he waits. Notice his humility as he says that he not only expects a word from the Lord, but even a reproof from Him. He knows that his thinking on some of these matters has gone awry. He doesn’t plead with God to come around to his way of thinking, but rather expects that the Lord will correct his misunderstandings and mistaken assumptions and bring him around at last to His way of thinking! We see the Psalmist go through this very thing in Psalm 73. This is the fundamental difference between the cynic and the faithful believer. The cynic refuses to believe under any circumstance, while the believer refuses to deny under any circumstance. Where faith is perplexed, the cynic leans on his own understanding and concludes that the Lord cannot answer. The believer, on the other hand, plants himself firmly and refuses to move until the Lord’s answer comes.

As the text unfolds, we will discover how the Lord responds and reproves His prophet. But as history has unfolded, the Lord has shown us an even clearer answer to the concerns of Habakkuk’s heart – concerns that are shared by all people of faith who find themselves in troubled times. What Habakkuk wants is for the Lord to come down from heaven and deal with the wicked in hand-to-hand combat. What the Lord did was something that would not have been believed even if it had been told. He came down from heaven and put Himself face-to-face with the wicked, and they murdered Him on the cross of Calvary. On that day, for the only time in history, the question could be genuinely asked, “Why are You silent when the wicked swallow up Him who is more righteous than they?” Habakkuk’s cry of “my God, why?” is drowned out by the louder cry of the Lord Jesus on the cross, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” It was in that moment of His death that that the fullness of mankind’s wickedness, violence, injustice and immorality met with the fullness of perfect justice and wrath. As our substitutionary sacrifice, Jesus received in Himself what we deserve for our sins and our treason against the rightful reign of God. And because He did, and subsequently arose victoriously over sin and death, those who have faith in Him can say with a more solid conviction, “We will not die!” Jesus has promised life everlasting to those who trust in Him, and removes their wickedness and grants to them His own righteousness in exchange. Covered in that righteousness, we await the appointed day which is fixed on the timetable of God and known only to Him, when He will return as Judge and King to vindicate the cause of His saints and pass verdict on all unrighteousness and injustice. Until that day comes, we cry out to Him, “How long, O Lord!” as we see the terror and trouble of our times. And we wait on the watchtower in faith for Him to declare that the day has come.




[1] This detail may have been embellished for the film, as historical reports do not mention it.
[2] D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, From Fear to Faith (Nottingham: Inter-Varsity, 1953), 25.
[3] John Calvin, Commentaries on the Twelve Minor Prophets: Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1950), 42.
[4] Lloyd-Jones, 25.
[5] O. Palmer Robertson, The Books of Nahum, Habakkuk, and Zephaniah (New International Commentary on the Old Testament; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990), 162-163.
[6] David Prior, The Message of Joel, Micah, & Habakkuk (Bible Speaks Today; Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1998), 223.
[7] James Bruckner, The NIV Application Commentary: Jonah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004), 217.
[8] http://www.challies.com/a-la-carte/a-la-carte-june-7. Accessed July 14, 2016. 

Sunday, July 10, 2016

God Moves in a Mysterious Way (Habakkuk 1:5-11)



God moves in a mysterious way, His wonders to perform; He plants His footsteps in the sea, And rides upon the storm. … Judge not the Lord by feeble sense, But trust Him for His grace; Behind a frowning providence He hides a smiling face. His purposes will ripen fast, Unfolding every hour; The bud may have a bitter taste, But sweet will be the flower….

These words were composed in the mid-1700s by the renowned hymnwriter William Cowper (pronounced, Cooper). Cowper wrestled his entire life with suffering, hardship, and crippling depression. But, once he became a follower of Jesus, though he still struggled greatly, he never lost his confidence in the sovereignty and goodness of God. He was able, with great spiritual insight, to see that the Lord’s hand had been at work in his most difficult days. But God, he learned, moves in a mysterious way His wonders to perform.

Perhaps you have walked with the Lord long enough to learn this lesson as well. Sometimes things don’t turn out like we’d planned or hoped. Sometimes our prayers do not get answered in the way that we wanted. In some of these situations, the passage of time and personal growth in spiritual wisdom will convince us that it was the Lord who was at work in all these things, bringing about a result that was far better than what we had hoped. At other times, the temptation will be great to wonder if He really does hear us when we pray, if He really does work for good in our lives, if He really does care for us at all. Habakkuk the prophet was no stranger to these temptations and trials of mind and soul.

If Charles Dickens were to write of Habakkuk’s day and age, he may say, “It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times.” The spiritual revival that had occurred in the reign of Josiah had ended with his death. Under his son Jehoiakim, the nation once again was plunged into idolatry, immorality, and injustice. The righteous had become an oppressed minority in the land, justice was perverted, and the Law of God was silenced. Habakkuk saw these things unfolding, and he cried out to God: “How long? Why?” He was unable to reconcile the evil which surrounded him with what he had come to believe about the nature of God. Worse, in response to his cries, there was only silence from heaven.

Finally, as we come to verse 5, the silence of heaven is broken and God speaks. His answer is a message for the entire nation. God has not been blind and deaf, unconcerned and uninvolved after all. He perceives the peril of His people; He sympathizes with the suffering of the saints. He declares that He is at work in the midst of it, though He moves in a mysterious way. His answer here is both comforting and confounding.[1] It is a direct verbal announcement about what is soon to take place in the nation. Like Habakkuk, Christians in America today are perplexed about the moral degradation, social injustice, and the oppression of the righteous which we see taking place. But unlike Habakkuk, we do not have a word from God telling us specifically what it is that He is up to in the midst of all this. Nonetheless, as we see how the prophet answers Habakkuk, we can make application to our own times, and draw certain conclusions about how it is that God may be moving in a mysterious way in our day and time as well.[2] So, with that in mind, let us dive into our text and explore how God moves in a mysterious way.

I. God is always at work, even when we don’t notice (v5)

Those of us who drive regularly along Gate City Boulevard here have become accustomed to seeing the signs every day which caution us with the message, “Men at Work.” When we look at the world around us, with all of its violence, terrorism, injustice, and evil, we need to see the world marked similarly with signs cautioning us of “Men at Work.” Because human nature has been warped and corrupted by sin since the fall of Adam, the world has been filled with destruction. These are the signs of “Men at Work,” exercising our depravity in a wide variety of expressions. But over and above all these signs, we need to see an even larger and greater sign which says, “God at Work.”[3] The world often doesn’t notice it; it never gets reported in the news. Even we ourselves as believers in this God often fail to notice His hand in motion. Habakkuk failed to recognize it as well. In his prayer in verse 2, he essentially says, “I’ve been praying to you, God, and you aren’t doing anything!” But what he was about to learn, and what we must learn as well, is that God is always at work, even when we do not notice. Habakkuk cries out, “Lord, how long until you do something about this mess?” And God says here in response, “I am doing something in your days.” He is already at work, and had been long before it ever occurred to the prophet to cry out. 

If God is always at work, why do we so seldom perceive it? There are two reasons given here in our text. First, we see that His work is often beyond our sphere of concern. Notice the first words of verse 5: Look among the nations! Habakkuk’s focus had become too narrow. He was only seeing the events immediately surrounding him. God was saying, “There is a great big world out there beyond your own borders and circles of concern, and I am doing something in the midst of it. If you don’t detect it, you need to broaden your focus and look!”

In the ancient world it was commonly believed that each nation or people had their own unique deities. YHWH was the God of the Jews, Marduk was the god of the Babylonians, and so on. We may scoff at such an obviously naïve belief, but we are prone to fall into it as well. Is it not often assumed that the Christian God is particularly concerned about America, while leaving the Middle East to be governed by Allah, and the Indian subcontinent to be ruled by Krishna? This is also how the Jews were prone to view the world around them. They felt that God was almost exclusively concerned and involved with the affairs of their own nation. But God was instructing the nation through the prophet Habakkuk to look beyond their own borders and see that this God of the Bible is the only God there is, and He is a global God who is not confined geographically or ethnically to one place or people.

God was awakening Habakkuk to the reality that he needed only to look to the ends of the earth and he would see that God is at work in ways that transcend his focus. I suggest that we need to understand this as well. God is moving in a mysterious way all across our globe, even here at home and in each of our lives. But if we do not detect it, perhaps we need to broaden our focus from our immediate circumstances, and look to far horizons to see how it is that His hand is at work in our world accomplishing His good purposes.

Even still, His work may yet go undetected by us, because His work is often beyond our ability to comprehend. God says to the prophet, “Look to the nations! Observe! Be astonished! Wonder! Because I am doing something in your days – you would not believe if you were told” (v5). Suppose that God had told you a year ago, five years ago, maybe ten, all that would transpire in your life, or in our nation and the world during the intervening time. Could you have believed it, or would it have blown your mind? God says through the prophet Isaiah, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways and My thoughts than your thoughts” (Isa 55:8-9). We believe the Scripture well enough which says that God is able to do far more abundantly beyond all that we ask or think” (Eph 3:20), but too often we limit Him to only doing what we ask or think, and that is putting God into too small of a box.

John Piper has well said, “God is always doing 10,000 things in your life, and you may be aware of three of them.”[4] He moves in a mysterious way, and watching Him work in our lives, in our nation, and in our world is a bit like watching an artist working on a masterpiece. At times the image is blurry, the shapes are indistinct, the colors appear smeared and smudged. But the Artist has His plan and purpose, a grand design, which He is able to complete to perfection. The skill of the Artist cannot be judged by the faulty eye of the beholder while the work is yet unfinished. But if we know the Artist to be a Master at His craft, then we know that the end result will be good, and pleasing, and perfect (Rom 12:2). He is always at work, even when we do not notice, because He is at work beyond our personal spheres of concern and beyond our ability to grasp.

He moves in a mysterious way, and the second way we see that on display here in our text is …

II. God uses surprising means for the accomplishing of His work (vv6-8)

I’m not much of a handy man, so I find that sometimes I do not always have the right tool for the job. I have improvised dozens of ways to use a hammer that are far beyond its intended purpose. My late stepfather was a carpenter, and no matter how obscure the task, he had a specific tool for it. He had tools I had never seen or heard of, but which were perfectly suited for the task at hand. And in a much greater way, when God has a job to do, He has tools at His disposal that are perfectly suited for the task. Sometimes He uses tools that we would not think of or even know of! I think often of how God spoke through a donkey to deliver his message to Balaam. A donkey? Who would have thought of doing that? But because God did that to a great degree of effectiveness, almost every Sunday morning I find myself praying these words: “God you have spoken through a donkey before, so what I am asking you to do today is not entirely unprecedented.”

In Judah, as the seventh century B.C. was drawing to an end, God had a job to do among the people He had chosen as His own. Because they had turned their backs on Him repeatedly and resorted to idols and immorality, because they had violated His covenant with them and hardened their hearts to His word, there was no further recourse but to bring judgment upon them. And God had a tool for the task. He says in verse 6, “Behold, I am raising up the Chaldeans.” This is the work that God was doing in Habakkuk’s day which would be inconceivable to any and all who heard of it. Twenty years earlier, and Habakkuk might have said, “Who are they?” By this time, his response must have been, “Oh no! Not them!”

In 626 BC, Nabopolassar united the loosely organized villages of the Chaldeans into a significant power with an army of sufficient strength to successfully revolt against the Assyrians, who had subjugated them for a long time. The Neo-Babylonian Empire was born, and its military, under the leadership of the crown prince Nebuchadnezzar, became an unstoppable menace in the Middle East. They were on the verge of conquering Egypt and every other land in the region. Judah watched those nations fall left and right to the unstoppable Babylonians. They fell like dominos, and Judah was the next one in line.

They are described in verse 6 as fierce and impetuous people who march throughout the earth to seize dwelling places which were not theirs. No one knew which direction they might turn next. Verse 7 says that they were dreaded and feared because there was no earthly authority or power which could hold them accountable. “Their justice and authority originate with themselves,” the Lord says. They will not answer to any king or council. “Let the U.N. send their investigators in,” they may have said in our day, “we have a noose to fit their necks as well!” They will do as they please, and that meant bad news for other nations. Their military power was like nothing the world had ever seen. They advanced on horseback, chewing up great distances with relative ease and able to move swiftly and nimbly against their targets. The Lord applies metaphors to them from familiar and ferocious animals – they are swifter than leopards, being able to outrun and outmaneuver any other force. They are keener than wolves in the evening. Wolves hunt in the evening, and so the image is that of a bloodthirsty savage with an unquenchable appetite. They fly like an eagle swooping down to devour.

Where is God in all this? Well, He is the One who is orchestrating and choreographing it all. Though to all who observe, it appears that Babylon does as it pleases according to its own desires, God’s message here is (in the words of Calvin) that it is “not by their own instinct, but by the hidden impulse of God” that this and every other nation rises and falls. Calvin says, “God … can employ the vices of men in executing his judgments.”[5] Is it fair of Him to do so? Anytime that fallen men begin to question the fairness of a holy God, we have started off on the wrong foot. But, to satisfy the question, we must remember that God had warned His people of the potential for this calamity in His Law. Through Moses, the Lord had promised that if His people turned away from Him, He would “bring a nation against [them] from afar, from the end of the earth, as the eagle swoops down (Dt 28:49). After enduring their disobedience with great patience over centuries, the fullness of time for judgment had finally come, and God would act swiftly to deliver on His promise. Just as He had used Israel to overtake the Promised Land when the sin of its inhabitants required the intervention of His wrath (Gen 15:12-16), so now they would be on the receiving end of such judgment at the hand of the Babylonians. “Babylon was the axe in the hand of the Most High to cut down the tree of Judah at the height of its pride and idolatry.”[6]

God moves in a mysterious way, and He is able to use surprising means when He does. If He could use a force of terror like the pagan Babylonians to do His bidding in Judah’s darkest days, then imagine what He could do, and whom He could use to do it, in our own day. Having blessed America with freedom, wealth, and comfort in ways that were never deserved, if America turns a deaf ear to God’s word and a cold shoulder to His face, we must not think that we will have it any better than His own chosen nation did in ancient times. And more fittingly, when His church which is called by His name begins to forsake His word, and bless what God has called sin, and turn a blind eye to injustice and immorality, can we dare to think that God will not mark the church in our day with that infamous name of the Old Testament, “Ichabod,” which means, “the glory has departed”? Might He even use militant terror of depraved people, a vocal movement of people demanding the right for their sin to be paraded publicly, unjust rulings of the high courts, and unilateral decrees from the leaders of our nation to do so? We cannot say that He wouldn’t. He uses surprising means to accomplish His work as He moves in a mysterious way.

This leads us, then, to the next aspect of His mysterious working, which naturally flows out of this one …

III. God is working for more than our comforts and pleasures (vv9-10)

This was not the answer that Habakkuk was looking for as he prayed. He wanted the Lord to restore the nation to “the good ol’ days,” like they had known in the days of Josiah. But the Lord promises here that the Babylonians are not coming on a mission of mercy. In verse 9, God says, “All of them come for violence.” That was the very thing that Habakkuk was crying out against among His own people in verse 2. Now they will receive what they have doled out in like measure.

The Lord compares the people of Judah to sand in verse 9. That is what He promised Abraham that his descendants would be like: as innumerable as the sand on the seashore (Gen 22:17). But sand is not only hard to count, it is easy to move. As the Israelites are compared to sand, Babylon is compared to a sweeping wind in verse 11, which will gather up the nation and scatter it abroad. But does not Jerusalem have a king and a protective wall around it? No matter, for Babylon laughs at these things. The king was a joke to them, and the walls could be surmounted easily with their proven tactic of building siege ramps to overtake the cities of their conquest.

Now, beneath such a dark and gloomy cloud of providence, some would conclude that God must not exist, if He were to allow such things to happen. But what if God was the cause of these things? What kind of God would that be? That is the question that now must weigh on the heart of Habakkuk and all the righteous in Judah. It is not a foreign thought to our experience. C. S. Lewis acknowledged as he wrestled with grief following the death of his wife, “Not that I am (I think) in much danger of ceasing to believe in God. The real danger is of coming to believe such dreadful things about Him. The conclusion I dread is not 'So there's no God after all,' but 'So this is what God's really like. Deceive yourself no longer.’”[7] 

The reason we wrestle with that notion is that we are prone to think that God is supremely interested in our own comforts and pleasures. At the end of the day, what we most desire is not a sovereign Lord who rules and reigns over universes and galaxies, but a divine butler who will bring us what we want whenever we ring the bell. The prosperity gospel offers that to you, but it is a lie from the pits of hell. The Bible offers us a God who is supremely committed to His own glory, to the ultimate and eternal good of His people, and to perfecting them in holiness through the grace of repentance and sanctification. And He will do whatever it takes to accomplish that. Does that mean that every tragedy that befalls us was designed for this purpose? No, there is such a thing as gratuitous evil in the world – evil that serves no ultimate purpose but to demonstrate the depravity of mankind and the brokenness of this fallen world. In moments like that, when the brokenness of this world presses in upon us, all we can do is long for heaven where all wrongs will be made right, and rest in the comfort that God provides us by His Spirit, His Word, and His people here and now. But let us not be deceived. There is divine discipline when God’s people turn their backs on Him, and He will never relent calling us to repentance, furthering us in sanctification, and perfecting us in holiness, no matter what it takes. Surely the process will not ultimately be completed until we are glorified in heaven, but our perseverance in the process is the proof of the genuineness of our faith. And so, when God’s people go astray, we can expect chastening, just as every earthly parent knows is necessary for their children.

And not only this, but when nations of people mount up to declare a rebellion against God, they must know full well that it is a fool’s errand! He may let it begin, and even proceed for a season. Remember how the people of Babel built their tower in order to climb to heaven on their own merits and make a great and arrogant name for themselves. God let them start, and God let them continue for a while. They built that tower as high as they could, and then the Bible says that God “came down” to see it (Gen 11:5). He allowed their futility to proceed for so long, and then came judgment. So it was with His own nation who had forsaken Him time and again. So it will be for all others who set their faces like flint in rebellion against Him. Chantry says, “When we pray about the slippery slope of modern western irreverence toward God and immorality toward fellow-citizens, we advise God to handle our case with gentle kindness. We hope for a ‘soft landing,’ for a ‘happy ending.’ This is not always preferable to our God.”[8]

When tragedy strikes, when the wicked surround the righteous in oppression and injustice, when things are not going as we think they should, we must remember that God is always at work to accomplish His purposes. It’s just that His purpose is not always our pleasure and comfort. It is always His glory, His holiness, and our ultimate good of reflecting that holiness in our own lives. Some say that God is more concerned with our holiness than our happiness. I would say that God is ultimately concerned that we find our happiness in His holiness. That is the end toward which He is always working in our lives.

IV. God’s work is not finished until all wrongs are made right and justice is established (v11)

How many Sundays have we heard Brother James welcome us and encourage us by saying, “Remember, our work is not finished until God says it is finished”? It is true, you know. And neither is His work finished until He says it is finished. He promises here that He is going to raise up Babylon to bring destruction and judgment upon Judah. But Judah has other promises in God’s word that Babylon does not have. Through Jeremiah, the Lord promised this nation a future and a hope (Jer 29:11). Through Ezekiel, He promised to raise them up to life again from the valley of dry bones (Ezk 37). They would be scattered, but they would be regathered. Babylon has no such promise in its future. Of them, God says in verse 11, “They will be held guilty, whose strength is their god.” Though for the immediate future it will seem as if Babylon has a blank check from God to do whatever they please in the world, there is coming a day of reckoning for them when they will themselves stand in judgment for all that they have done in their arrogance. God raised them up, God used them for His purposes, but God would bring them down for their sin (and in a relatively short time). His use of them does not imply a divine endorsement on all their methods and tactics.

The fact is that if God didn’t use imperfect sinners to do His work in the world, it wouldn’t get done. If God uses you or me in some way, it doesn’t mean that He is okay with our sins and failures. It means that He is gracious and sovereign, and can use us in spite of our failures, not because of them. He can use whatever and whomever He wishes to accomplish His purpose. But He reveals Himself as One who will by no means leave the guilty unpunished (Ex 34:7). His work is not finished until He says it is finished, until all wrongs have been made right, until justice has been established, and until the kingdom of this world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ, and He shall reign forever and ever (Rev 11:15).
   
Is the message that God gave to Habakkuk relevant to our nation and others in the world today? If the Lord did not spare His own chosen nation from judgment when they set themselves in defiance to His will, how will any other nation of the world fare any better? Is it relevant to the church? Surely it is! If God dealt with His people in divine fatherly discipline when they abandoned His word and His will, then churches today who do so can expect to fare no better. We do not have specific revelation foretelling us if, when, or how, God may deal with our nation or any other in ways like these, but what we do have tells us in no uncertain terms that we must “seek the Lord while He may be found; call upon Him while He is near” (Isa 55:6), for “now is the acceptable time, behold, now is the day of salvation” (2 Cor 6:2).

When the Apostle Paul was preaching in the city of Pisidian Antioch in Acts 13, he presented to them the Lord Jesus as the Savior they needed for their sins and he called them to repentance, saying, “Therefore take heed, so that the things spoken of in the prophets may not come upon you.” And then he quoted to them Habakkuk 1:5. The salvation that Jesus offers to us through His life, death, and resurrection, is the ultimate manifestation of God moving in a mysterious way. It is the wonder that God calls us to behold which we would not believe even if we had been told. But if we forsake this offer of salvation, then we can expect nothing less from Him than the full measure of the penalty of our sins. Jesus has offered to take that penalty for you in His death on the cross; to refuse it is to take it upon yourself. “How shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation?” (Heb 2:3).





[1] Waylon Bailey, “Habakkuk,” in Kenneth L. Barker and Waylon Bailey, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah (New American Commentary, vol. 20; Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1998), 300.
[2] Walter Chantry, Habakkuk: A Wrestler With God (CarlislePenn.: Banner of Truth, 2008), 12.
[3] Bailey, 300.
[4] http://www.desiringgod.org/articles/every-moment-in-2013-god-will-be-doing-10-000-things-in-your-life.
[5] John Calvin, Commentaries on the Twelve Minor Prophets: Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1950), 27-28.
[6] Chantry, 17-18.
[7] C. S. Lewis, A Grief Observed (New York: HarperOne, 1989), 19.
[8] Chantry, 14.

Monday, July 04, 2016

The Pattern of Persistent Prayer (Habakkuk 1:2-4)


When I first became a follower of Jesus, one of the most difficult things I had to learn to do was to pray. It is not that I needed to learn how to pray, or that prayer required some specific skill that I did not have, but I simply needed to learn of the necessity of prayer in my life. I had become accustomed to dealing with my problems and my needs with my own resources, and what I had to learn was that God was available to me, and desired for me to bring my concerns to Him and to dialogue with Him in the intimate fellowship of prayer. And of course, as I began to develop a discipline of prayer in my life, I began to encounter some challenges. The most seemingly insurmountable one was this: that though I brought my concerns to a God whom I believed heard my prayers, and was all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-good, my prayers seemed to often go unanswered. The problem of unanswered prayer became a great hindrance to my spiritual growth until I eventually learned that there is really no such thing as an unanswered prayer. God answers every prayer that we pray, but His answer is not always, “YES!” Just as a good and loving parent knows that the best thing for a child is to sometimes say “no” to the things the child asks for, I had to learn that my Heavenly Father was showing His lovingkindness and goodness to me in saying “NO!” to some of the things for which I prayed. But I also learned that there are times when God’s answer to our prayers is neither “yes” nor “no,” but “NOT YET!” Far from being an outright denial, God’s answer is sometimes merely a delay for a variety of reasons. There are times when we are not yet ready to receive God’s answer and situations in which God’s timing requires a delay. And then there are times when His divine delay is because we have not yet persisted in prayer.

Jesus told the parable of the persistent widow in Luke 18:1-8, who came repeatedly to the unjust judge in her town, pleading for justice in her cause. Eventually, the unjust judge gave the widow what she asked for in order to get her off of his back. But the point of Jesus’ parable was not that we are able to wear God down to give in to us if we persist long enough. His point was that, if an unjust and unrighteous judge can eventually succumb to the persistent cries of a person in need, how much more willingly and eagerly will our Heavenly Father answer His own children when we cry out to Him. Luke tells us that Jesus told this parable “to show that at all times they ought to pray and not to lose heart.” In other words, an immediate “no,” or a prolonged delay in the answer to our prayers does not mean that we should cease praying about the matter, but that we should persist in prayer and not give up! Jesus concluded the parable by saying, “However, when the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on the earth?” Will He find that we have, by faith continued to persist in prayer for the concerns of our hearts, or will He find that we have given up on crying out to Him?

It is not that persistence in prayer makes God more willing to answer us, but it is often the case that persistence in prayer helps us grow in our understanding of who God is, how He is at work, and what it is that He desires to do in our situation. And persistence in prayer also helps us to clarify in our own hearts and minds what it is that we are really longing to see God do. Persistence in prayer is essential, and we learn that throughout the Bible.

The book of Habakkuk is really all about one man’s persistence in prayer. Unlike most of the other prophetic writings, Habakkuk is not filled with the prophet’s words from God to the people of his own or surrounding nations. Rather, Habbakuk is filled, for the most part, of the prophet’s words to God on behalf of his people. He has, if you will, invited us into his prayer closet, or perhaps left his prayer journal laying open for us to read. And as we observe Habakkuk in prayer, we find him wearing out his knees in persistent prayer to God. We learn from him a pattern for persistent prayer that will help us as we beckon God to come to our aid as well.

As we eavesdrop on the prayers of the prophet, we find first of all …

I. The circumstances that give rise to our prayers

There are times, I suppose, when we pray because we know we are supposed to pray. But then there are times when we are driven to prayer because of the desperation of our situation. This is where Habakkuk found himself long before he took up a pen to chronicle his prayer journey. The days in which he lived were the darkest days of Jewish history until that point. The righteous king Josiah, who had instituted a sweeping moral and spiritual reform and turned the nation of Judah back to the Word of God, had died tragically in the opening salvos of a battle with the Egyptians on the plain of Megiddo. His son Jehoahaz took the throne, but his reign was short lived. After only three months, the Egyptian Pharaoh Neco flexed his geopolitical muscle and deposed and deported Jehoahaz into exile. In his place, Neco installed another son of Josiah – Eliakim – as king of Judah. Eliakim was Neco’s puppet, and to prove it, Neco forced upon him a new name: Jehoiakim. If Jehoiakim had inherited any of Josiah’s spiritual or moral uprightness, he expediently suppressed it in the name of political power and personal profit. Corruption and injustice filled the land like a plague.

What troubled the prophet most was that all this was taking place among a people and a nation that was set apart for the Lord’s own purpose and called to be His own people. His outrage over the moral degradation that was unfolding before his eyes was surpassed only by the flagrant disregard for the glory of God that he was forced to behold. God had, quite literally, made that nation and carried it through history, delivering them from otherwise certain destruction time and time again. And this nation had turned its back on God, exchanged His glory for idols, and forsaken His word repeatedly. Jeremiah was a contemporary of Habakkuk, and the Lord spoke through him to the wicked king Jehoiakim, “your eyes and your heart are intent only upon your own dishonest gain, and on shedding innocent blood and on practicing oppression and extortion” (Jer 22:17). The wickedness flowed from the throne through all the governing officials, judges and even the prophets and priests whom Jeremiah accused of performing their wickedness even in the house of the Lord (23:11).

Habakkuk had gone time after time to the only place he could go with his concerns – he took it to the Lord in prayer. Six words in verse 3 describe the circumstances in which Habakkuk found himself: iniquity, wickedness, destruction, violence, strife and contention. These things did not take place in the back-alleys and dark corners of society. They were flaunted in public. Habakkuk says that he sees iniquity; he looks on wickedness; violence and destruction are before him. There is no shame or secrecy about it, and the parade of sin marches its way into the halls of justice in the land. The Hebrew word translated strife is a word that was used for lawsuits. Because of the systemic injustice, the wicked could plead their cause against the righteous in courts of law and come out on top. “Justice,” the prophet says in verse 4, “is never upheld,” and “comes out perverted.” The wicked had surrounded, or hemmed in, the righteous, because the righteous had become an oppressed minority.

All of these deplorable conditions are symptoms of an underlying cause stated in verse 4: “the law is ignored.” By “law,” the prophet refers to the entirety of the divinely inspired Word of God. That law, which Jehoiakim’s father Josiah had rescued from the rubbish pile in the temple, and which fueled the revival and reformation of the land under Josiah’s leadership, had been once more discarded. When Jeremiah wrote out a prophecy directly denouncing Jehoiakim and sent it to him by way of a messenger, the king cut it to pieces and threw it into a fire. Another prophet named Uriah was bold enough to preach directly to the king, and paid for it with his life (26:20-23). “Of all Judah’s evil kings, only of Jehoiakim is it said that he killed a prophet.”[1] His disregard for the Word of God had spread rapidly through the land and infected a multitude from the top down. The literal wording of verse 4 is that the Law had become cold, paralyzed, or numb. The idea is that just as frostbite renders an appendage numb and useless, so God’s Word had been put on ice, and lost its influence among those who were supposed to be God’s people.

These were the circumstances which gave rise to Habakkuk’s prayer. One writer has said that he was “a man with open eyes, and because he was a man with open eyes, he was a man with a burdened heart.”[2] As we rehearse the sorry circumstances in which this man of God found himself, if our eyes are open we cannot miss the parallels with our society today. Iniquity and wickedness, destruction and violence, strife (and the litigious manifestation of it) and contention are the headlines in our daily news. Immorality is on public display and celebrated openly. Corruption and injustice have become commonplace, and the righteous minority have seemingly no safe haven toward which to flee for their cause to be upheld. The underlying reason is also the same: the Word of God has become paralyzed because it has been frozen into numbness in our day.

Walt Chantry lists some of the besetting sins of our own day: “abortions, violent euthanasia, battering of wives and children, shootings in schools by fellow students … sexual predators, bombings, riots … road rage … drug trafficking.” Sadly that list is far from exhaustive. And then Chantry draws the comparison: “In [Habakkuk’s] nation, as in ours, the legal system worked in behalf of the wicked rather than the righteous. With us, governmental laws and the judges who interpret them defend the rights of pornographers and rebuke any who would deny them freedom to promote their vices. The system protects sexual perverts at great cost to public health. Courts threaten parents who correct and discipline their children. State education inculcates unbelief and skepticism and silences biblical opinions.”[3]

The foundations have been destroyed, and we ask like the psalmist did, “If the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do?” Habakkuk shows us what we can do. We can turn to the Almighty God and pour out our hearts to Him in prayer!

From the circumstances which give rise to our prayers, we turn secondly to …

II. The words that give voice to our prayers

Time and time again, Habakkuk had come before the Lord to pray about the condition of his nation. How do we know that? Why else would he say, “How long, O Lord, will I call for help…?” He has been calling and calling … and calling! And now, as though exasperated and in despair, he says at last, “How long am I going to have to keep praying about these same things until You do something?” Those little words, “How long,” indicate to us that Habakkuk is composing something that the ancient Hebrews called a lament. In a lament, the speaker voices agony over a situation, coupled with a spoken or implied plea for help. The Psalms are full of lament – about one third of them contain this kind of language -- and one entire book of the Bible is even called Lamentations. Job is filled with the language of lament, and even Jesus speaks with words of lamentation. Therefore, if we allow the language of the Bible to inform our prayers (as we should), we will find that there are times when a cry of lamentation is entirely appropriate. The prayer of lament is “God’s gift to the believer” which provides “a pathway of honest faith and faithful conversation with Him in horrible times.” Lament gives us a language for “being honest with God about our situations.”[4]

There are some who believe that Habakkuk was wrong to come before God with a question like this one, and who believe that it is likewise wrong for us to do so. One writer says that Habakkuk “was quite presumptuous to demand an answer from God. I would not suggest that the average person attempt such a complaint. … The Lord could have taken his breath away without a moment’s notice. God could have stopped the beat of his heart in an instant.”[5] In my opinion, that is an awfully small view of God. If God is who He says He is, then He is big enough for us to bring Him our most perplexing questions, and He is neither threatened nor offended when we do, for He already knows the content of our hearts and minds. We might as well voice it. Habakkuk does, and so must we.

Notice the words that the prophet uses in his cry of lament. “How long … I call … I cry out (the Hebrew word means literally something like scream) … Why?” These are the words that give voice to his prayer. But his is not an irrational diatribe against the God of heaven. No, in fact, the prophet is bringing God’s own truth about His own nature back to Him. Habakkuk has learned from God’s Word what evil is, and he sees it on display around him. He calls it what it is. He has learned who God is – that He is holy, righteous, and just – and he proclaims that he has not forgotten this about the Lord. He has learned from the Scriptures that God is the Judge who is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in lovingkindness, but who will by no means leave the guilty unpunished. Habakkuk’s prayer is merely a recital of these biblical truths before the throne of grace. He is on fire with zeal for the glory of the Lord, and he hates what God hates, and calls sin what God calls sin, and calls upon the Lord to do what He has promised to do and to act according to His very own nature.

The words that gave voice to Habakkuk’s prayer were words of grief and lamentation as he witnessed the name of the Lord being sullied and trampled underfoot by the Lord’s own people. He was angry as he prayed, but not angry at God. He was angry at sin, and perplexed as to why God would allow it to go unchecked. Have we reached this point? Have we bombarded the courts of heaven with repeated prayer about the defaming of God’s name and glory in our culture? Have we cried out with incessant requests for God to vindicate His name and His truth in our midst? Have we implored the King of heaven to rescue the righteous from the peril of an unjust and crooked society? Have we found on our lips words like, “How long?” and “Why?” for reasons beyond our personal discomforts and inconveniences?

I wonder, if we were to come before the Lord with words such as these, what His response might be? If we were to ask, “How long, O Lord, must we pray for you to respond to the evils of our age?” might the Lord say to us, “How often have you prayed for that?” Chantry writes,

Is it not a modern complaint of God’s people today that our western culture is descending to ever-lower moral and religious disgrace? This is something we grumble about to one another. Are you expressing your heartache over these matters to God? … So many prayer meetings are filled with petitions about sickness and asking for God’s blessing on our future plans. Should we not cry to God against the evil of the times and persist in it?[6]

Are we perplexed by the condition of our society? Are we at a loss for what to do about it? Let us not merely grumble amongst ourselves, but let us pray! And how shall we pray? Persistently! We must pray until we have earned the right to say to God, “How long, O Lord, will we call for help?” I suggest that we have not yet persisted in prayer to that degree. When we have, we will perhaps find ourselves facing the third piece of this pattern of persistent prayer.

III. The problem that gives challenge to our prayers

The conditions surrounding Habakkuk were only a part of the problem he faced in prayer. In comparison, they were a relatively small part of the problem. The bigger problem he faced was God’s seeming disinterest, unresponsiveness, and inaction on the concerns for which the prophet prayed. His cry in verse 2 is that the Lord has not heard his persistent plea, and the Lord has not responded to his cries. I imagine that most of us have prayed at length for something, and been tempted to conclude that God is either not listening, not interested, or not willing to do anything about it.

It is a great challenge to us in our prayers. After so long without an answer, we may become persuaded that prayer is nothing more than a colossal waste of time. Why bother, if no answer is to come? In 2008, the Los Angeles Times published a list of 10 magazine covers that shook the world. One of them was the April 8, 1966 issue of Time – the first cover that the magazine ever published without a picture. Instead, on its jet-black cover where the large red words, “Is God Dead?” What gave rise to the question? It was because people had concluded that if God was real and active in the world, things would not be as they are. But, Habakkuk was not convinced that God was dead, but he was beginning to wonder if God was deaf. Maybe you can relate to his crisis of faith.

As C. S. Lewis languished in grief following the death of his wife, he wrote in his private journal (which was later published as A Grief Observed), “Meanwhile, where is God? … When you are … so happy that you have no sense of needing Him … if you … turn to Him with gratitude and praise, you will be … welcomed with open arms. But go to Him when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that, silence.”[7] That is how Habakkuk felt and how we feel at times.

Habakkuk asked God two questions in verses 2 and 3: “How long?” and “Why?” The first deals with God’s timing, the second with His purpose. Will God ever answer, and if so, when? And does God have a reason for not answering when I cry out to Him? The two questions are related. His timing is rooted in His purpose. We have a privilege that Habakkuk did not have. We have “the prophetic word made more sure” (2 Pe 1:19) in the completed revelation of the New Testament. Here we find the promise that “the Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance” (2 Pe 3:9). We also find that the first wave of God’s judgment on a people is to leave them to themselves and the consequences of their own actions. In Romans 1, Paul speaks of those who have suppressed the truth in unrighteousness, saying that God has given them over in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, so that their bodies would be dishonored among them. He has given them over to degrading passions, that through their indecent acts, they may receive in their own persons the due penalty of their error. And He has given them over to a depraved mind, to do those things which are not proper (Rom 1:18-32). What appears to us as a silence from heaven may actually be the initial unleashing of His judgment to let men destroy themselves in their sin, in order that man may come to the end of himself and turn to God for mercy in repentance and faith.

So He has a purpose, and His purpose sets His timetable for acting. How long will things go on this way? Why does God act as though He has all eternity to accomplish His purpose and complete His plans? Because He actually does![8] Peter reminds us that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years like one day (2 Pe 3:8). In light of eternity, it will not be long. But until the final day of judgment comes, there is the offer of redemption for all who will turn from their sins on the basis of what Christ has done.

Habakkuk said, “I cry out to you … yet you do not save.” But we who live on this side of Calvary can say that God has acted to save us in Jesus Christ. In His coming into the world, by His life and death and resurrection, He has not rid the world of the corruption of human sin, but has made a way for those who trust in Him to be delivered ultimately and eternally from that corruption. He has defeated sin at its root, though the fruit of it still hangs in abundance on the vines that entangle this fallen world. When He returns in glory, He will trample the fruit in the winepress of His wrath and usher in an eternal kingdom in which there will be no more tears, no more death, no more mourning, or crying, or pain (Rev 21:4). Until that day, though it may seem at times that heaven is silent to our cries, we must persist in prayer. And this brings the pattern of persistent prayer full circle as we see finally …

IV. The faith that gives fuel to our prayers

There is a detestable heresy that fills the airwaves of so-called Christian radio and television and the pages of so-called Christian books that we call “the prosperity gospel.” The prosperity gospel says that if you have enough faith, you can expect that God will always give you health and wealth, and always give you exactly what you ask for when you ask for it. So, if you ask and do not receive, or if you suffer in any way, the preacher of that satanic lie can accuse you of lacking faith, and dare you to prove your faith by giving your money to him. That, my friends, is not a gospel (not good news), and it is not faith that they are preaching. It is psychological and emotional manipulation, and witchcraft under the veil of a Christian vocabulary.

Faith is found when we pray persistently to God from the depths of our suffering. Some have accused Habakkuk of a lack of faith because of the questions that he brings to God. They could not be more wrong. Habakkuk’s persistence in prayer is fueled by a great faith that has heard, believed, and become convinced of the Word that God has spoken about Himself and His purposes in the world. Habakkuk can pray over and over again about the conditions of his society because he believes that there is a God on the listening end of His prayers who will accomplish His purpose, who will vindicate His name, His truth, and His glory, and who will uphold the cause of His righteous saints. It may not look like that at the present time, but faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen (Heb 11:1).

It is a lack of faith which stands in the echo of an unanswered prayer and declares, “Well, that’s that, and I guess God is not there after all.” A lack of faith walks away from God when one’s own way is not received and speaks of God in the impersonal and abstract: “How could God do this and such? And if God were there, why would He not do things this way?” But faith continues to bring the questions to God on personal and concrete terms: “God, how long? God why?” As F. F. Bruce writes, “Many ask such questions among themselves; some, like Habakkuk, take the questions to God and challenge Him to answer them, for it is His reputation that is at stake. … When the man or woman of faith cries out like this, it is from a fundamental conviction that God is all-righteous and all-powerful.”[9]

How can we continue to pray when our prayers seemingly go unanswered? Our persistence is fueled by faith. By faith we believe that even if there is no answer now, there will be one day, in God’s perfect timing and according to His perfect purpose. Meanwhile, we cry out, “How long, O Lord? Why?” But it is because we believe that He is there, that He cares for us, and that He is able and willing to answer that we continue to cry out. What will become of our nation? How deep will the moral degradation in the world grow? How desperate will the days become? These things have been hidden from us beneath the shroud of God’s unrevealed providence.  Will there be revival or ruin? We must confess that we do not know. But if there will be a revival, it will be as God works through the persistent prayers of His people who never cease crying out to Him from the depths of our despair in this fallen world, beseeching Him to uphold His own honor and glory and to further the agenda of His Kingdom in the world. He is our only help, and He must be the rock on which all of our hopes are anchored. And so we cry our persistently in prayer to Him!





[1] Waylon Bailey, “Habakkuk,” in Kenneth L. Barker and Waylon Bailey, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah (New American Commentary, vol. 20; Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1998), 297.
[2] Warren W. Wiersbe, From Worry to Worship (Lincoln, Neb.: Back to the Bible, 1983), 15.
[3] Walter Chantry, Habakkuk: A Wrestler With God (Carlisle, Penn.: Banner of Truth, 2008), 6-7.
[4] James Bruckner, Jonah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah (NIV Application Commentary; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004), 215.
[5] J. R. Church, They Pierced the Veil (Oklahoma City: Prophecy Publications, 1993), 131.
[6] Chantry, 5.
[7] C. S. Lewis, A Grief Observed (New York: Seabury, 1961), 9.
[8] David Nettleton, Meet the Minor Prophets (Schaumburg, Ill.: Regular Baptist Press, 1985), 74.
[9] F. F. Bruce, “Habakkuk,” in Thomas E. McComiskey ed., The Minor Prophets: An Exegetical and Expository Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1993), 844-845.