Monday, September 19, 2016

A Message of Things to Come (Habakkuk 2:12-14)

The chief end of man, says the often quoted Westminster Catechism, is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. This is the highest purpose to which we can aspire; it is the answer to the immortal question, “What is the meaning of life?” Each of us has been given life by our Creator as a gift, and we are to use that gift in the exercise of bringing glory to God and enjoying Him in the intimacy of a personal relationship. It sounds quite simple doesn’t it? But in the world of real human experience, we find that nearly everything is at odds with this purpose. The world is so infected with sin that it lures and beckons us to defy this purpose. We ourselves, in our sinful nature – our flesh – are also corrupted by sin, so that our desires run counter to the glory of God and the enjoyment of Him. And of course, we have a great spiritual enemy, the devil, who is constantly at work seeking to persuade and tempt us to abandon the course of glorifying and enjoying God. We are fallen people in a fallen world. And that makes this seemingly simple purpose of life much more difficult to attain in real experience. In Jesus Christ, we are called to be in the world but not of the world. We are here, in this fallen world, as agents of reconciliation and transformation to bring glory to God through our lives and our work for Him in the midst of this world’s corruption. But we are to be on guard, lest we ourselves become corrupted by the ways of this fallen world. In this world, we are surrounded by people and things. God’s word is clear that we are to love people and use things to bring Him glory. But the world and the devil are always appealing to the sinfulness of our flesh to turn that upside down – to love things and use people to acquire them, that we might glorify ourselves instead of our Maker.  

The Neo-Babylonian Empire that had burst onto the scene of world history during Habakkuk’s time is an example of this. Nabopolasser was perhaps initially motivated by noble ambitions to shake off the oppression of the Assyrian Empire. He united the Chaldean people and formed a strong military to secure independence. Soon enough, however, those ambitions became corrupted. He and his son Nebuchadnezzar began to advance against other nations, conquering, looting, torturing, and enslaving them simply because they could. No one in the world could stop them. In the meticulous providence of God, the uprising of the Babylonian Empire came at a time when God could use them to bring about the well-deserved judgment upon His own people. With the Northern Kingdom of Israel having already fallen to the Assyrians a century before, the Southern Kingdom of Judah had followed in their destructive ways. Injustice, idolatry and immorality were rampant among a people who had been established to bring glory to the God who had called them out for Himself, redeemed them from bondage and established them for Himself in a land that He gave them. In a short time, they would be steam-rolled by the Babylonians. But Babylon would not escape the judgment of God themselves. Though God used them, He did not endorse their methods or their motives. Babylon was building an empire of self-aggrandizement, and they were breaking the backs of innocent people to do so. They would answer for it eventually in the perfect timing of God.

Our text today is the third of five proclamations of judgment issued against Babylon. The Lord said that the day was coming in which all the plundered nations who had fallen prey to Babylon would rise up and sing taunt-songs against them. Each one begins with a word of “Woe.” We’ve discussed two of them in previous weeks. This is the third. In these taunt-songs, Babylon is mocked by the words of its victims, who give voice to the condemnation of God Himself.

With the passage of two and a half millennia, the world has changed a great deal. But in the words of the 19th Century French satirist Alphonse Karr, “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” Oppressive geopolitical regimes still assert themselves by force on the world stage, exploiting weaker nations and minority peoples for their own advancement. Corrupt justice systems allow the strong to victimize the weak, often meaning that the wicked triumph over the good. Crooked leaders build massive corporations by taking advantage of the most vulnerable. And unscrupulous individuals acquire for themselves great wealth and luxury by trampling others underfoot. In our own nation, we regularly find ourselves in the voting booth trying to decide between what we consider “the lesser of two evils,” knowing that whichever candidate wins will mean bad news for a sizeable number of our fellow citizens. The causes of righteousness and justice are being trampled underfoot within the halls of so-called justice. Those who would speak for God are bullied into silence with threats and intimidation. And the freedoms on which our lives have been built to this point are evaporating before our eyes. Like Habakkuk, we cry out, “How long?” And it seems that there is no word from God.

Ah, but there is a word from God. As we examine His word, we find that today is not the only day we have and this world is not the only world there is. There is a better day and a better world promised to those who hold fast to God by faith in Jesus Christ. And for those who do not, a more dreadful world and more dreadful day is promised. God told Habakkuk that the vision He was giving him was “yet for the appointed time,” and that he must “wait for it; for it will certainly come” (2:3). And though that day did not come in its fullness in Habakkuk’s lifetime, and it has yet to come in fullness to this point in time, it will certainly come, according to the Lord’s own word. And so the righteous continue to live by faith, trusting that none of God’s words fall to the ground unfulfilled.

So here in this passage, we have not one, but three words from God that we must cling to as we await the fulfillment of God’s promises. These are words of things to come.

I. A word of condemnation: Woe to the bloody builders! (v12)

There are a lot of so-called experts out there who write a lot of stuff about ministry, preaching, church growth, and things like that. And over the last couple of decades, they have been advising that we need to get away from preaching about things like wrath, judgment, condemnation and hell. They say that those subjects are too offensive, and not what people want to hear. Maybe you feel that way yourself. But if so, I want to challenge you to examine that feeling for a moment. I want to suggest to you that subjects like these are not offensive or off-putting at all, but are in fact something that we desperately long to know are real and true.

Think of it this way. Let’s say that there has been a horrible act of terrorism committed that has affected many innocent people, and the perpetrator of that act is still on the loose. Do we not find ourselves glued to the television and the internet, anxiously awaiting news that the terrorist has been apprehended? And when they are brought to trial, do we not follow with great interest to see that justice has been served? The more hurt and brokenness we experience in this world, the more we long to know that God is going to do something to make the wrongs right. And the Bible has promised that He will. And when He does, it will involve those very subjects that so many claim that they do not want to hear about here and now: wrath, judgment, condemnation, and hell.

In the case of our text, this is God’s message to Babylon. It is a word of condemnation. “Woe to the bloody builders!” Verse 12 says, “Woe to him who builds a city with bloodshed and founds a town with violence.” In the imagery and writings of the ancient Babylonians that survives to this day, two things are evident about them. They loved to build things, and they were violently cruel toward the inhabitants of the lands that they conquered. The two were related, as conquered people were either killed or taken away into captivity, with many enslaved in forced labor for Babylon’s lavish construction projects. And all of the buildings, monuments, and cities across the Babylonian Empire were constructed for a twofold reason: (A) to honor the perverse idols of Babylonian religion, and (B) to memorialize the names of Nabopolassar and Nebuchadnezzar, the kings who had them built. It was an act of idol-worship and an act of self-worship, and it was all carried out by the backbreaking labor of enslaved peoples, financed by the treasures that had been pillaged from bloody battles in foreign lands.

While people around the world would marvel at Babylon’s impressive architectural and engineering feats, the Lord was not impressed. As Theo Laetsch put it so well, the Lord “saw only the blood of untold numbers of people who were slaughtered in ruthless warfare in order to obtain the means which made these buildings possible. He saw only the iniquity, the perversity, the crookedness of the builders.”[1] Because human beings are created in the image of God, He takes very seriously how people treat one another. And the blood that gives life to man is considered by God to be very sacred. God’s law was clear: “Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man his blood shall be shed, for in the image of God He made man” (Gen 9:6). From the first shedding of human blood recorded in the Bible, in Cain’s murder of his brother Abel, we learn that innocent blood has a voice that cries out to God for justice to be served. God said to Cain, “The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to Me from the ground” (Gen 4:10). In the wake of Babylon’s terroristic campaign, there was a mighty choir of voices crying out from the pools of shed blood for justice to be served upon Babylon. And God heard it. Thus He proclaims that there can be nothing for Babylon but “Woe.”

This word, “Woe,” is the promise of a curse and condemnation. And that is what is coming for Babylon. Moreover, it is coming for every nation, every enterprise, every tyrant, and every greedy individual who tramples innocent life underfoot, oppressing the weak and disregarding the image of God in man in order to secure wealth, power, fame, and luxury for themselves. This word of condemnation applies to all who pursue such things in such ways as the Babylonians did. Woe to the bloody builders!

Following this word of condemnation, we find …

II. A word of explanation: Fueling the fires of futility! (v13)

We began our service today with a reading of Psalm 2. The Psalmist asks, “Why are the nations in an uproar?” The New King James wording is perhaps more familiar: “Why do the nations rage?” Why are “the peoples devising a vain thing? The kings of the earth take their stand and the rulers take counsel together against the Lord and against His Anointed, saying, ‘Let us tear their fetters apart and cast away their cords from us!’” Does this not sound like the daily news? Nations in an uproar, raging against one another; kings and rulers taking bold stands to liberate themselves and their people from the restraints that God Himself has put in place on civil and moral issues. Our own nation is aptly described in these words. But notice the calm assurance by which the Psalmist says, “He who sits in the heavens laughs, the Lord scoffs at them.”

While godless people and godless regimes seem to prosper in the world in our day, as they seemed to in Habakkuk’s day, the righteous live by faith that none of this escapes the notice of a holy God who is enthroned above all of this mess and is doing something about it – even when what He is doing about it escapes our notice or our understanding. Remember that the Lord’s first words to Habakkuk in Chapter 1 were these: “I am doing something in your days – You would not believe if you were told” (1:5). And He still is. He is enthroned above all powers, all nations, all corporations and individuals, and when they posture themselves against Him in rebellion, He cannot but laugh at their feeble efforts.

The Psalmist says, “the peoples [are] devising a vain thing.” That word vain is the same word that is used in Habakkuk 2:13 – “the nations grow weary for nothing.” All of Babylon’s efforts to build for themselves an empire, great cities, impressive monuments, amounts ultimately to nothing. The same word is used in Psalm 127:1 – “Unless the Lord builds the house, they labor in vain who build it.” Anything built in this world apart from the Lord’s pleasure and purpose is but a passing vapor of vanity. The rhetorical question is asked in verse 13, “Is it not from the Lord of hosts that the peoples toil for fire?” In other words, all that the godless empire builders of this world are amassing for themselves in their unjust oppression, in their violence and bloodshed, is only fuel for the fire of judgment. It will all burn in the end. None of it will last.

How do we know this? Because the Lord has ordained it! “Is it not from the Lord?” It is indeed. God has hard wired this universe to bring glory to Himself. All that does not bring Him glory will go up in the fire of His judgment, and the smoke that rises will in itself bring Him glory. As Ron Blue writes, Babylon’s “carefully hewn stones would serve as the altar, and their ornately carved wood as the kindling for the giant sacrificial fire that would leave Babylon in ashes.”[2]

And so it is with all who, like Babylon, build for themselves personal, professional, or political empires with no regard for others or for the Lord who is their Creator and Judge, and the Defender of the vulnerable and oppressed. All that is done that does not ultimately serve His purposes proves to be only fuel for the fires of futility. It will not last. Within a century of Babylon’s meteoric rise, they were wiped off the stage of history. Others have come like them, and still others will yet, be they individuals, governments, or other structures and systems. The word of explanation that is given here is that all such efforts are condemned because they amount to nothing in the eyes of the Lord – nothing but fuel for the fire.

How tragic it would be to spend our lives and resources building for ourselves reputations, careers, lifestyles, or monuments that will be reduced to ashes that God might be glorified in the burning of them. He has providentially arranged it to be certain and inescapable.

Now finally we come to a third word here:

III. A word of expectation: A future filled with pervasive praise! (v14)

What is the world coming to? That is a question we want to ask every day as we see unsettling events unfold around us. We look at unfathomable court rulings, global terrorism, systemic injustice, political corruption, an absolute vacuum of moral leadership, and we want to throw up our hands in despair and say, “What is the world coming to?” Well, my friends, there is good news. The world is coming to the ultimate and eternal praise of Jesus Christ. This is the reason why the Christian can sleep at night. We know that there is a God enthroned above all of this, who laughs at the raging of the nations, who will set the torch to all that goes against His ultimate purposes and ignite it in a flame of judgment and then the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea. Presently, the earth may be filled with the crimes of men. Presently, it may be filled with bloodshed, violence, and corruption. But a day is coming – God has promised it – when the knowledge of His glory will be known by every person on the planet.

A hundred years before Habakkuk’s time, when the Assyrians were committing the same atrocities as the Babylonians, Isaiah the prophet said something similar. In Isaiah 11, against the dark backdrop of Assyrian oppression, God spoke through him declaring that a shoot would spring from the stem of Jesse – that is, a descendant of David the King was coming. And the Spirit of the Lord would rest upon Him, and He would judge the poor with righteousness, and decide with fairness for the afflicted of the earth. And a rod would come forth from His mouth with which He will strike the earth, and with the breath of His lips the wicked would be slain. In that day, God promised through Isaiah, “They will not hurt or destroy in all My holy mountain, for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. Then in that day the nations will resort to the root of Jesse, who will stand as a signal for the peoples; and His resting place will be glorious” (11:9-10).

God’s glory – the weighty magnificence of His character, the intrinsic honor that is uniquely His, the radiant splendor of His person – is going to be fully known. All that God has been doing in human history has been building toward this day. Everything He has done, everything that He is doing or will do, is to demonstrate His glory in the earth in the last day. Everything that has run counter to His glory will be consumed in the fire of judgment, and at last, all people will know His ultimate and everlasting glory!

The Hebrew word for “knowledge” means far more than the acquisition of information. It is an experiential relationship. In that day, every living thing on the planet will have a personal, experiential, and relational knowledge of God’s glory. God spoke through Jeremiah of that day, saying, “I will be their God, and they shall be My people. They will not teach again, each man his neighbor and each man his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they will all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them, … for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more” (Jer 31:33-34).

How long O Lord? How long until that glory breaks forth in the world? Look at the darkened skies and behold, the first shafts of light have broken in already. When Jesus Christ was born, angels attended His birth proclaiming, “Glory to God in the Highest!” (Lk 2:14). And when He returns, He says, “Then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory” (Lk 21:27). Revelation 11:15 tells us that in that day, “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ; and He will reign forever and ever.” And a voice will be heard, declaring “Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great!” (17:5). The Babylonian Empire that dominated the world in Habakkuk’s day is already long gone, but other Babylons will rise, and they too will fall. And the warning goes forth from heaven, “Come out of her, my people, so that you will not participate in her sins and receive of her plagues; for her sins have piled up as high as heaven, and God has remembered her iniquities. … For this reason in one day her plagues will come, … and she will be burned up with fire; for the Lord God who judges her is strong” (18:4-5, 8). And then we read that after these things, the voice of a great multitude in heaven begins to say,

Hallelujah! Salvation and glory and power belong to our God; because His judgments are true and righteous; … Give praise to our God, all you His bond-servants, you who fear Him, the small and the great … Hallelujah! For the Lord our God, the Almighty, reigns. … He has a name written, “King of Kings and Lord of Lords” (Rev 19:1-2, 5, 16).

How do we go on living by faith in a world gone haywire, in a world where violence, injustice, oppression, and corruption prevail? Because we know that these words have been unchangeably declared and decreed by the sovereign God of the universe. A word of condemnation against all the bloody builders who erect for themselves monuments of idolatry on the backs of their victims. A word of explanation that all of their efforts and accomplishments will only fuel the fires of their judgment. And this wonderful word of expectation that the whole world will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea!

What have you been building in your life? Have you loved people and used things to bring glory to God? Or have you used people to acquire things to bring glory to yourself? The Lord has promised that it will all burn. Turn to Him in repentance and faith in Jesus Christ to save you from that fire, and set you free to live in the knowledge of His everlasting glory. That day is coming. If you are a believer in Christ, God never promised you that this world and these days would always be good. But He did promise that a better day and a better world are coming. Live by faith, in the unshakable hope and expectation of that day when all wrongs will be made right, and the whole world will be filled with His glory.

[1] Theodore Laetsch, quoted in Richard D. Patterson, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah (Wycliffe Exegetical Commentary; Chicago: Moody, 1991), 194.
[2] J. Ronald Blue, “Habakkuk,” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary (ed. John Walvoord and Roy Zuck; Wheaton, Ill.: Victor, 1995), 1515. 

Tuesday, September 06, 2016

If These Walls Could Talk ... (Habakkuk 2:9-11)


If these walls could talk … what would they say? We often think of that hypothetical question when we visit historic places. If the walls of Independence Hall in Philadelphia, for example could talk, they would tell us about the founding of our nation – how the Declaration of Independence was debated and approved; how the Constitution came into being within that building. What if the walls of this church building could talk? Would they speak of great Sunday services when the gospel went forth boldly and souls were saved and lives were changed? Would they speak of the beautiful weddings, somber funerals, and exciting baptisms that have been conducted here in this room? What about the walls of your office, or the walls of your home? What would they say? In many cases, we are glad to know that walls cannot talk!

Here in our text today, however, we read of certain walls that do talk, and what it is that they say. The walls belong to the proud Babylonians and their king Nebuchadnezzar. He was a great builder. He built a massive empire! He built a magnificent capital! He built a majestic palace for himself and his family! But one day, the walls of all the he had built would speak out.

The passage is part of a larger section of Habakkuk concerning the judgment that was coming upon Babylon. Having been used by God as an agent of judgment on the nation of Judah, Babylon itself would be held accountable before God for its own transgressions in the militant expansion of its empire. The nations that Babylon had pillaged and plundered would see the empire fall, and when that day would come, they would take up songs of mockery against their oppressors. There are five of these taunt-songs recorded here in Chapter 2, each one beginning with the word “Woe!” We looked at the first one last week, and this is the second.

In the final verse of this passage, the walls of Nebuchadnezzar’s palace, and those of his entire empire, are given voice, and the stones of the wall cry out, while the rafters of the framework answer back in chorus. And what those walls say is as relevant to us today as it was 2,600 years ago when these words were first written. So what do those walls say when they talk? Let’s look at our text and find out.

I. If these walls could talk, they would tell of the resources by which they were built (v9a).

Fabric, as many of you know, is usually sold by the yard. Every now and then, we go down to the fabric store near our house and buy some for a craft project we are working on, and we take the big bundle of fabric over to the counter and say, “I need two yards of this.” And we watch them measure out the fabric and cut it, and then they attach a sticker to it with the measurement and the cost. Thankfully, the folks at our local fabric shop are generous with their cuts, and they usually cut a few extra inches longer than we ask. But, if the shop was unscrupulous in their practices, they might cut a few inches short or take the fabric into the back where we could not see them cut it. Perhaps they might cut a yard and a half and charge us for two. That happened a lot in the ancient world, and when it did, the Hebrew word that is used here in the first line of verse 9 applied. Literally translated, it is “Woe to him who cuts off an evil cut,” meaning that the fabric seller has taken more than his share and cheated the customer. And so this phrase was often used more generally for anyone who made a profit by taking unfair advantage of others.

When it comes to the Babylonian empire, the pronouncement of woe that is sounded against them is due to the “evil gain” by which they built their house – their dynasty and empire. That’s what the first woe, in verses 6-8, was all about. The Babylonians had taken what was not rightfully theirs by force and extortion, pillaging, plundering, and looting every nation it wanted, because no power in the world was strong enough to stop them. They built an empire nearly unrivaled in history, but it was all built on evil gain. In Daniel 4, we read about how Nebuchadnezzar walked along the roof of his royal palace, surveying his imperial capital. He saw the famed Hanging Gardens, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, and the magnificent Ishtar Gate, which is preserved today in the Berlin museum. And he said, “Is this not Babylon the great, which I myself have built as a royal residence by the might of my power and for the glory of my majesty?” (Dan 4:30). Well, in point of fact, it was not, for he had built it all with stolen goods and treasures from other nations, and on the backs of a labor force dragged into captivity with violent and cruel torture.

If the walls could talk, they would tell of the resources by which they were built. Cedar timbers would tell of how they were stripped from the great forests of Lebanon. Stones would tell of how they were pulled from the walls of great buildings across the Middle East and transplanted to Babylon. Beams would speak of the blood and sweat of those who were forced to put them into position, and the body count which increased with Babylon’s campaign of terror in the world.

And these words serve as a warning to all who would build for themselves homes, careers, lifestyles, and personal empires by evil gain. Impressive as it all may be to the eye, every bit of it which was acquired by evil gain, by illicit and unrightful means, will sing in a chorus of condemnation against the builder in due time. The psalmist said, “Unless the Lord builds the house, they labor in vain who build it” (Psa 127:1). Though people may admire all of one’s accomplishments and monuments, if the walls could talk, what would they say? Would they say that it had all been built through a life of faithfulness, contentment, and generosity? Or would they say that the house was built upon evil gain? If the walls of our lives could talk they would tell of the resources by which they were built.

II. If these walls could talk, they would tell of the reason for which they were built (v9b).

Like so many modern users of social media, many kings of the ancient world never accomplished anything without sensing the need to inform the world about it. Nebuchadnezzar was one of them. In the written material that survives which is attributed to him, there is not a shred of humility to be found. It is all a tribute to his own greatness. He said,
At the thresholds of the city gates I stationed strong wild-bulls of bronze, and serpents standing erect. I dug its moat and reached the bottom of the water. I built its bank … I had the bulwark at the bank of the mighty wall built … like a mountain, so that it could not be moved. In order … that the destroyer might not approach Babylon, I threw around the city on the outer wall of Babylon a strong wall … and surrounded it with a mighty stream of many waters like the fullness of the sea, and then I threw a swamp around this. … I made its name great.[1]

Speaking of the palace of his father, Nabopolasser, which he enlarged for his own estate and referred to as “The Marvel of Mankind,” he said, “I built a structure … and I built very high in its tower a large chamber … for my royal dwelling place…. I firmly laid its foundation in the bowels of the earth, and I raised high its turrets like a mountain. … I beautified the dwelling of my lordship.” Surrounding the palace were walls, 136 feet thick, every brick of which was inscribed with Nebuchadnezzar’s name.[2] According to one of his inscriptions, Nebuchadnezzar said that his purpose in all this construction was “to make an everlasting name for his reign,” and he prayed that his god Marduk would grant “life for many generations, an abundant posterity, a secure throne, and a long reign.”[3]

This is what the Sovereign Lord says: “Woe to him who gets evil gain for his house to put his nest on high, to be delivered from the hand of calamity!” Three reasons for Nebuchadnezzar’s unparalleled building spree are couched in those words, each of which is also reflected in Nebuchadnezzar’s own inscriptions. The first is found in the word “nest.” In building for himself and his nation a “nest,” we see that one of his reasons for building was personal pleasure. Surrounding himself with every comfort and luxury known to man, surely he would have a place where he could live a life of pleasure and leisure. There was nothing left to work for, because he had it all right there in his palatial nest. Jesus spoke of this very mindset in His parable of the greedy landowner, who built for himself bigger barns to store all of his grain and goods, and then said to his soul, “Soul, you have many goods laid up for many years to come; take your ease, eat, drink, and be merry” (Lk 12:19).

Nebuchadnezzar not only built for personal pleasure, but also for prominent position. He built his nest, and put it “on high.” His palace was visible to all in the capital city, reminding everyone how important and powerful he was. The infamous builders who built the tower of Babel there in that very spot generations before him in Genesis 11 had said, “Come, let us build for ourselves a city, and a tower whose top will reach into heaven, and let us make for ourselves a name” (Gen 11:4). Nebuchadnezzar’s lofty perch was built with a similar goal. The whole world would marvel and cower in fear at one who inhabited such a lofty position of prominence.

But notice also that he built for permanent protection. His aim was “to be delivered from the hand of calamity.” In Chapter 1, Babylon was likened to a mighty bird which swooped down to devour its prey. And as the eagle builds his nest high on the peaks of a rocky crag where no predator can destroy it and devour its young, so Nebuchadnezzar sought to create for himself an impregnable fortress immune from enemy attacks. Having pillaged the whole world, or all that he knew of it at that time, he surely had to have a realistic fear of retaliation at any given moment. Remember, it is only paranoia if everyone really isn’t out to get you. In Nebuchadnezzar’s case, it is likely that everyone really was out to get him! To protect himself and his posterity permanently, he built this grand eagle’s nest high out of reach of his enemies.

Insulated from danger, surrounded with comfort, positioned in a place of prominence – who would not want to inhabit a nest like this? But when one resorts to evil gain to achieve it, there is this word of warning and woe. If the walls of those great palaces could talk they would say that it has all been for naught. No matter how secure, how well appointed, and how prominent one’s ill-gotten nest may be, there is an inescapable enemy who will be able to reach it and pull it down. The Lord says through the prophet Obadiah, concerning another kingdom that was built in the same way, “Though you build high like the eagle, though you set your nest among the stars, from there I will bring you down” (Obad 4). Romans 8:31 says that if God is for us, then who can be against us? But surely the converse is equally true – if God be against us, then who can be for us? What could we build to protect ourselves from the judgment that will befall us if we have secured and surrounded ourselves with a nest built from evil gain? As Jesus said, “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world, and forfeit his soul?” (Mk 8:36).

But, we might ask, does God not want us to have comfort and ease? Does He not wish for us to be protected from harm? Does He not want us to have honor and achievement? We must say clearly that in most cases there is nothing inherently wrong with these things. In fact, when these things can be achieved by means that honor the Lord, then they can be enjoyed freely as blessings from His hand. But, in a world filled with sin and its destructive effects, true comfort, true safety, and real honor is a rare experience. The righteous, however, are content to live by faith and know that all this and more will be ours according to the Lord’s own promise in our eternal dwelling place of heaven. We need not scheme and scrounge to possess those things here and now by illicit measures, for they will be ours freely forever in the Lord’s good timing. Wait for the Lord, humble yourselves, and be content with the provision of His grace. When you build your life in that way, if the walls could talk they would testify to God’s glory and grace rather than to the shame of a life wasted in sin.

And this brings us to the final word that the walls of Babylon would speak, if they could talk.

III. If these walls could talk, they would tell of the ruin by which they will be torn down (vv10-11).

A few years ago, we decided to give the office here a fresh coat of paint and some new d├ęcor. We settled on a palette of browns to complement some of the features that we could not change, and decided that some sepia toned photographs of the church might look nice hanging on the walls. I took my camera and went around and took some pictures of various things around the property, and we had them processed and framed. I thought they looked pretty good. I was proud of my work. A few days later, someone came in and asked, “Who took the pictures?” I could feel the pride welling up inside of me, and I said, “I did!” And this person said, “Well, in the future if you need any pictures taken, there are people in the church who know what they are doing.” I’ve put that behind me now, and I only think about every time I walk into the office. My boasting of my photographic skills has become a source of embarrassment and humiliation. But, this is a matter of relatively small consequence in the grand scheme of things.

On a much greater scale, the things in which we glory in can become our shame and ruin if we pursue them contrary to the will of God. The mighty king Nebuchadnezzar gloried in all the he had built and all the expanse of his empire. But when the walls of his kingdom began to talk, they testified to the ruin and collapse of it all that was imminent. Glorious feats of engineering and architecture that are written of still today; monuments of grandeur that are imitated around the world in the present – in the estimation of God, they are but shameful things because they were built by illicit gain and the blood of innocent people.

When the walls begin to talk, they will declare it in chorus: “You have devised a shameful thing for your house by cutting off many peoples; so you are sinning against yourself.” They have sinned against the Lord, glorying in themselves and their own achievements rather than giving glory to God. So, all of the achievements and accomplishments – they are but a shameful thing that has been devised. They have sinned against humanity, building their empire by cutting off – that is, degrading and destroying – many peoples. And they have sinned against their own souls. All that had been attained amounted to nothing but spiritual suicide. Every stone in the wall and timber in the framework is indicting the Babylonians of their threefold guilt.  

If there were such a thing as a haunted house, surely this one with the talking walls would be as horrifying as they come. The sleeping king is awakened by the screams of those he oppressed from within the walls. Every creak in the floor is a cry of revenge from the victims of his torture. The sounds will “haunt him at night and hound him by day.”[4] In time, the very walls of Nebuchadnezzar’s royal palace would speak. During the reign of his son Belshazzar, on the evening of a drunken feast, a disembodied hand appeared on those very walls and condemned the Babylonian Empire for good with the message, “You have been weighed in the balance and found wanting.” That very night, the kingdom was overthrown by the Medes and the Persians. As one writer put it so well: “A house built of tortured bodies and stark skeletons is not too habitable. In the fray to erect a monument, they constructed their own shameful mausoleum.”[5] Another put it even more vividly: “In the creaking of the beams connecting the timber … and in the grating of the cracking stone walls … one can hear an awesome dirge, the stones intoning the chant, the beams responding in antiphonal death song, until they also crash down into a heap of ruins and ashes. … And so it goes, the glory of this world.[6]

And so it goes for all who build for themselves empires of self-sufficiency and self-aggrandizement on the currency of ill-gotten gain. Build what you will, but the walls will one day talk, and when they do, what will they tell? Will they tell of lives live in humble, faithful, contentment and hope in the Lord? Or would they tell of a wasted life pursuing self-centered pleasure, the ruthless pursuit of prominence, and the harm done to others in the process? If that is the case, then while there is still opportunity, you can turn to the Lord Jesus Christ in repentance and faith and be saved. He died for you, taking the full measure of judgment for which the walls of your life are crying out, and He rose again to make you part of the house He is building by His grace and for His glory. This life is not all there is. There is another one coming, and only the treasures that are laid up for that life will endure beyond this world. All else will fall in ruins.  

One of England’s most famous athletes in the late nineteenth century was the famed cricketer C. T. Studd. He had it all! But he gave it all away, funding Christian ministries around the world with his sizeable inheritance. He helped establish the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, furthered the work of George Muller’s orphanages in England, and fueled the fledgling ministry of William Booth known as the Salvation Army. At the age of 25, he left for China to be a missionary, later serving in India, and eventually pioneering the cause of Christ into central Africa. At the age of 70, he died in Africa. And if the walls of C. T. Studd’s life could talk, what would they say? They would likely echo the words of his famous poem: “Only one life, twill soon be past, only what’s done for Christ will last.”

What would the walls of your life say if they could talk?

[1] Cited in Richard Patterson, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah (Wycliffe Exegetical Commentary; Chicago: Moody, 1991), 191.
[2] Ibid., 191, 193.
[3] O. Palmer Robertson, The Books of Nahum, Habakkuk, and Zephaniah (New International Commentary on the Old Testament; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990), 193.
[4] David Prior, The Message of Joel, Micah & Habakkuk (The Bible Speaks Today; Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1998), 250.
[5] J. Ronald Blue, “Habakkuk,” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary (ed. John Walvoord and Roy Zuck; Wheaton, Ill.: Victor, 1985), 1514.
[6] Theo Laetsch, cited in Patterson, 192. The italics represent my own rendering of Laetsch’s Latin, “Sic transit gloria mundi.” 

Monday, August 29, 2016

The Dangers of Dishonest Gain (Habakkuk 2:6b-8)

If you walk into a major bookstore, like Barnes and Noble, you will find the books conveniently arranged by category. If you are looking for a book on business management, there’s a section for that. If you are looking for a book on financial planning, there’s a section for that. If you want a book on foreign policy, they have a section for that too. But what if you want a book that covers all those subjects? Well, you have to go to an entirely different section of the store and find one book that deals with all those topics. It’s called the Bible. Now, I don’t mean to suggest that the Bible was written to be a textbook on those subjects. The Bible is the Word of God, written by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit to reveal the nature and will of God to humanity. But God’s nature and will come to bear on how we handle money, how we handle our business affairs, and how leaders should lead. And when it comes to what the Bible says about these matters, there are promises, examples, and warnings.

We have been studying the little book of Habakkuk for a couple of months now. It is a little book, but it has a lot to say. I think many of you have discovered how surprisingly relevant to our day and time this 2,600 year old writing is through our study. I remind you yet again that Habakkuk was burdened about the immorality, idolatry, and injustice that was rampant in Judah. These were God’s chosen people, but the nation was filled with corruption. He cried out to God about it, and God’s answer was surprising and even more troubling. God declared that He was raising up the Babylonians (called here the Chaldeans) to be His agents of judgment upon Judah. God would discipline His people by bringing a foreign nation in to overtake them, just as He had repeatedly promised them that He would do. It burdened Habakkuk to consider that God would use violent pagans to do His work, and that the chosen people would suffer at their hands. The righteous would suffer alongside the wicked as this judgment came upon the whole nation. Habakkuk cried out in 1:13, “Why do You look with favor on those who deal treacherously? Why are you silent when the wicked swallow up those more righteous than they?” Whereas the book began with the prophet asking “how long” God would allow corruption to run rampant in Judah, it soon turned to Habakkuk asking God “how long” He would allow the Babylonians to dominate the world.

The section of the book that we are entering into today contains the answer to that question. God’s message to the prophet is that a day of reckoning is coming for Babylon as well, and it was coming soon. Though they shot to prominence rather suddenly, their position as a global power would be short lived – less than a century. And here in verses 6-20 of Habakkuk 2, their downfall is vividly described in five statements of “Woe.” Earlier in verse 6, the Lord said that the nations which Babylon had subjected in its wave of terror and cruelty would eventually take up a taunt-song against them, even mockery and insinuations about them. And these five woes are those taunt-songs by which the nations who fell victim to Babylon’s tyranny would ridicule them in their demise. The words are an altogether certain promise of God’s judgment, but sung in such a way by the nations as to make sport of Babylon, adding to their shame. The word “Woe” translates a Hebrew exclamation that some have translated as “Ha!,” “Ahah!”, or even “Ah!” So, woe is most definitely pronounced upon the Babylonians, but almost with tongue in cheek, as the nations laugh at the downfall of their oppressors.

The first of these “Woe” statements concerns God’s judgment upon Babylon for its dishonest gain. Babylon amassed matchless wealth and land through their militant expansionism, but here we find the dangers of such dishonest gain spelled out. And the warning is not for ancient Babylon alone. In a society in which one’s worth is measured in dollars and cents, and in which the allure of leisure causes people to abandon the course of hard work and wise stewardship, there is no shortage of those who lust after dishonest gain. God forbid that any of us would be guilty of such transgressions! When the temptation arises, we must heed Scripture’s warnings of the dangers of dishonest gain! And when we fall prey to the schemes of others who seek dishonest gain, we must rest ourselves in the promises of God’s Word about what the future holds for those who abuse others for personal profit. With that in mind, let us look at these few verses to discover the dangers of dishonest gain.

I. Dishonest gain has diverse expressions. (v6b)

G. Campbell Morgan said, “Goodness is always simple. It is evil which is complex. … A straight stick is a straight stick; but a crooked stick may be crooked in a hundred different ways.”[1] Back in verse 4, the Lord said concerning the proud Babylonians that “his soul is not right within him.” It could also be translated, “his soul is not straight (that is, it is crooked) within him.” Now, as Morgan said, people can be crooked in many different ways, and Babylon was crooked in many ways. One of the manifestations of their crookedness was their dishonest gain. But even here, one can amass dishonest gain in a multitude of ways. And Babylon did.

Verse 6 says that he “increases what is not his.” Quite simply, we are talking about theft, robbery, or perhaps unlawful seizure of property and possessions. The Babylonians wrongly took things that did not belong to them, simply because they could. They were strong and powerful and no one could stop them. Thus, the NIV renders this phrase, “piles up stolen goods.” In their invasion of Jerusalem, which would happen soon after Habakkuk’s book was written, they plundered even the temple and seized all the valuables within it before setting it on fire. And this is what they did in every territory they entered. They looted the property and belongings of the land and its citizens.

We are also told here that Babylon “makes himself rich with loans.” This statement and the one following are notoriously difficult to translate and interpret, but the general idea seems clear enough. The KJV renders the expression here quite literally, saying that Babylon “ladeth himself with thick clay.” It was a common practice in antiquity that when someone borrowed money or property from another, a clay tablet served as a “receipt” of the transaction.[2] Babylon was loaded down with these clay tablets, having “loaned” people the right to retain their belongings or their property, with a back-breaking interest charge attached. The property or belongings served as a security, so that if the “loan” defaulted, Babylon would seize it. But the terms were so restrictive, that seldom could one ever satisfy them. Thus Babylon’s wealth increased with the money that was given in an attempt to repay the loan, plus the seizure of the security and the enslavement of the “borrower” to boot. So, here the NIV has “makes himself wealthy by extortion,” which is obtaining wealth or possessions through coercion. 

Theft and extortion are common enough even in our own day. But just as these were not the only means by which the Babylonians acquired dishonest gain, so today dishonest gain has a multitude of diverse expressions. Ruthless corporate greed, predatory lending, fraud and embezzlement, dishonest get-rich-quick schemes, state-sponsored gambling which plunders the poor with false hopes, unjust litigation: these just scratch the surface of the many expressions of dishonest gain that fill our society. And this is why the Bible speaks so often about its dangers. The leaders of Christ’s church are required to be not greedy of filthy lucre.[3] That does not mean that money is bad, but that it must not be acquired in dishonest ways. For it is not money itself, but the love of money, that the Bible says is a root of all sorts of evil, and some by longing for it have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs (1 Tim 6:10). The evils that are produced by the love of money are evident in the diverse expressions of dishonest gain. But also, we see it in the destructive effects of dishonest gain.

II. Dishonest gain has destructive effects (v8b).

Almost 20 years ago, I was on a Kenya Airways plane en route to Kenya for my first international mission trip. The in-flight entertainment was a movie entitled The Ghost and the Darkness. It is a somewhat fictionalized retelling of the true story of the Tsavo Man-Eaters – two lions who devoured dozens of people in a nine month span of 1898 … IN KENYA – the place I was about to land! Not the best choice for in-flight entertainment  perhaps! There are several theories about why these two particular lions destroyed so many lives. One of the most plausible is that a disease had killed off much of the lion’s normal prey, leaving them to find whatever food they could to survive. I could not get those lions off my mind for the entire time I was in-country. One of the first people I met was a guy named Simba (which means “lion”) who only had one arm because the other one had been chewed off by a lion in his childhood! I asked my guide one day, “What shall we do if we encounter a lion?” He said, “Well, you must not panic, and you must not run.” I said, “I tell you what, you stand there, and I will run, and if he’s hungry, he will eat you first!” Thankfully, we did not encounter any lions in the wild so we did not have to test his advice.

I tell that story to illustrate how destructive a lion can be when it is trying to satisfy its hunger. And the official symbol of the Babylonian king was a lion. One hundred and twenty of them are emblazoned on the famous Ishtar gate which was built under the rule of Nebuchadnezzar – the king who was in power at this time in Babylonian history. And the lion was hungry – hungry for more land, more people, more wealth, more control in the world. And because of his lust for dishonest gain, he knew no bounds when it came to achieving it.

To what lengths did he go? Verse 8 explains it: human bloodshed, violence done to the land, to the town, and all its inhabitants. The entire created order fell prey to Babylon’s terror. Notice the concentric circles of damage done. They destroyed the land, sweeping across farms and forests alike. Then they destroyed the towns, toppling great buildings and staking claim of homes and public buildings. Then they destroyed the inhabitants, enslaving some and killing others in cold blood.

This is the thing with dishonest gain. There is always a cost that someone has to pay. A thriving industry may be built on the backs of unfairly paid workers, or unpaid victims of labor trafficking. A company may do irreparable harm to the environment in order to avoid the expense of more safety measures. A CEO may lay off those who live paycheck to paycheck in order to have more funds available for company executives who already live in luxury. The bank’s lending practices might make the investors happy at the earnings call, but the borrower loses his home because his mortgage is upside down. The corrupt politician, who is already taking money from an interest group, votes himself a pay raise, while voting against funding for those defending the nation, or the nation’s most vulnerable populations. Or, a man is shot in an alley for the money in his wallet.

There’s always a victim when one pursues dishonest gain, and a price that someone has to pay – usually the one who can least afford it. No one stops to think about that, or if they do, they steel their conscience against the pricks of it so that they grow numb to the destructive effects of their dishonest gain. Habakkuk’s words remain a stern warning to those who pursue dishonest gain, calling them to repentance and restitution. But these words also serve to remind those who have fallen victim to the ruthless pursuit of dishonest gain. A day will come, in God’s perfect timing, when those wrongs (and all others) will be made right in His perfect justice. And that brings us to the final danger of dishonest gain.

III. Dishonest gain has a devastating end (vv7-8a).

“I introduce to you Naboth.” Those are the opening words of one of the most famous sermons of the 20th Century. Dr. R. G. Lee, who was pastor of the famous Bellevue Baptist Church in Memphis from 1927 until 1960, preached this sermon over 1200 times. In it, he recounts the biblical story from 1 Kings 21 of Naboth, the godly man who owned a vineyard which was desired by King Ahab. Dr. Lee introduces Ahab as “the vile human toad who squatted upon the throne of his nation – the worst of Israel’s kings.”  Ahab and his even more wicked wife Jezebel conspired to kill the godly man Naboth in order to take possession of his prized vineyard. As Ahab strolled around in his ill-gotten vineyard, he was confronted by the prophet Elijah who had a message for him from the Lord. “Thus says the Lord, ‘In the place where the dogs licked up the blood of Naboth the dogs will lick up your blood. … Behold, I will bring evil upon you, and will utterly sweep you away. … The dogs will eat Jezebel.’” Dr. Lee’s sermon is called “Payday Someday,” for he says as he draws near the end of it, “‘Payday – Someday’ is written in the constitution of God’s universe. The retributive providence of God is a reality as certainly as the laws of gravitation are a reality. … To the individual who goes not the direction God points, a terrible payday comes.”[4]

And that is the very same message that the Lord has for Babylon. There is a payday coming, when they will answer for what they have done under God’s just judgment. As Babylon pillages and plunders the nations, their victims cry out, “For how long,” in verse 6. In verse 7, the answer comes. Their end will come suddenly, and notice how surprising and devastating that end will be.

“Will not your creditors rise up suddenly, and those who collect from you awaken?” But wait – who are these creditors? I thought the Babylonians were the creditors who enriched themselves on the debts of others? So did Babylon. But in the economy of God, everything that Babylon had taken by dishonest gain was actually just borrowed, and now the payday was coming soon in which they would have to repay it all with interest! Just as the Babylonians had plundered other nations, they would become plunder for them in their downfall. Like gangs of vigilantes on the streets in a time of lawlessness, the nations will swoop in on Babylon and loot and pillage just as Babylon had done to them.

Verse 8 says, “Because you have looted many nations, all the remainder of the peoples will loot you.” The surviving remnant of those conquered nations would be able to overtake Babylon and bring about its devastation. Again, this is somewhat surprising. If the entire nation could not withstand the Babylonians, how would a small percentage of survivors manage to overpower them? Humanly speaking, it would be impossible, but God has decreed it and nothing is impossible for Him. Just as He raised up the Chaldeans to bring judgment upon Judah, He would raise up another people to be His agent of justice among the Chaldeans. Two of the nations that Babylon had conquered were the Medes and the Persians. Their surviving remnants would band together under the leadership of Darius the Mede and conquer Babylon swiftly less than a hundred years after these words were spoken.

The example of Babylon serves as a strong warning for all who pursue dishonest gain in our own day. There is a payday someday, coming just as surely as can be. All that has been taken illicitly will be required at the hand of the one who took it. In God’s great reversal at the last day, if not before, the debtors will become the creditors, and the looted will become the looters. It is but one more case of the inviolable biblical principle established by God that we will reap what we sow.

And for those who have been oppressed, taken advantage of, and wronged by the greed and avarice of others, there is the call to wait in faith and hope for that day when God will right the wrongs. While earth has its systems of justice, they are all imperfect. Perfect justice is coming, and will be rendered by God Himself. God has promised that He will “repay with affliction those who afflict you” (2 Thes 1:6). When? In His perfect time, but when that day comes, it will come suddenly. Until that time, let us rest in the contentment that God is faithful and will provide for our needs, care for us throughout life, and avenge our cause in the end. Rather than seeking dishonest gain, let us seek the greater gain of godliness, when it is accompanied by contentment, as the Bible says, “for we have brought nothing into the world, so we cannot take anything out of it either. If we have food and covering, with these we shall be content” (1 Tim 6:5-6). Jesus said, “Do not worry then, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear for clothing?’” … For your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (Matt 6:31-33). Let us be sure that we have Christ, for He is enough, and all is ours in Him. “He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him over for us all, how will He not also with Him freely give us all things?” (Rom 8:32).

[1] G. Campbell Morgan, A Bible Survey: Genesis – Revelation (Chattanooga: AMG, 1993), 331.
[2] Warren W. Wiersbe, From Worry to Worship (Lincoln, Neb.: Back to the Bible, 1983), 62.
[3] 1 Tim 3:3, 8; Titus 1:7, 11; 1 Pet 5:2.
[4] R. G. Lee, “Payday Someday.”

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

The Pitfalls of Pride (Habakkuk 2:4-6a)


Habakkuk 2:4-6a
The Pitfalls of Pride

Is pride a virtue, or is it a vice? I suppose it depends on who you ask, or how the term is used. We use the term in a variety of ways. A person can say that he or she is proud of something that has been accomplished, or proud of something that another person has done, and mean nothing improper by it. But there is another sense in which this kind of pride can lead to boasting, or an over-inflated estimation of oneself, which is inappropriate. A relatively recent song by the folk-rock group The Avett Brothers uses an interesting contrast to distinguish between these two meanings. They sing, “I want to have pride like my mother had, and not like the kind in the Bible that turns you bad.”

Traditionally, Christians have viewed pride as a sin – in fact, as one of the so-called “seven deadly sins.” Indeed, it is very difficult to find a positive reference to pride in the Bible, though there are a scant handful of such uses. Most of those would refer to the excellence of God’s character. More often, in sixty-one passages of Scripture, pride is spoken of in its negative connotation.[1] Pride was the sin of Satan which caused his downfall. Pride is found at the root of almost every human sin, for pride insists that one should be able to do as one pleases, apart from any rules or consequences. Pride is often contrasted in Scripture with positive virtues like humility, obedience, and servanthood. In the Old Testament, pride is said to go before destruction (Prov 16:18). It does not seek God (Psa 10:4). It brings disgrace (Prov 11:2). It breeds quarrels (Prov 13:10). It deceives (Jer 49:16), brings one low (Prov 29:23); and ultimately humiliates (Isa 2:17). In the New Testament, Jesus speaks of pride as an evil thing that proceeds from within a man to defile him (Mk 7:22). Both James and Peter quote from Proverbs 3:34, saying that God opposes the proud (Jas 4:6; 1 Pet 5:5).[2]

Therefore the Bible is filled with stern warnings against pride and examples of the destructive nature of pride. We find one such warning and example here in our text. In verse 4, “the proud one” is contrasted with the righteous, who lives by his faith. The word translated as “proud” means “puffed up,” “bloated,” even “tumorous.” This person is swollen, infected if you will, with a spiritual cancer that results in the diagnosis here that “his soul is not right within him.” The phrase means “crooked” or “twisted.” The proud one has a crooked soul. In verse 5, a synonym is used. The “proud one” is called “the haughty man.” The only other occurrence of this Hebrew word translated “haughty” here is found in Proverbs 21:24 – “24  “‘Proud,’ ‘Haughty,’ ‘Scoffer,’ are his names, who acts with insolent pride.” Other Hebrew words are translated as “haughty” throughout the Old Testament, and in one case the word is found in a list of things that the Lord hates. Haughtiness has to with arrogance and disdain for others. A haughty person is one who looks down on others as being inferior to himself or herself.

Who is this proud and haughty one that the Lord addresses through Habakkuk here? Most specifically, these words are a denouncement of the prideful ruler of Babylon. Depending on the exact timeframe in which this book was written, it could be Nabopolasser, or it could be his more famous son, Nebuchadnezzar. Both are guilty of the same sins of pride and arrogance. More generally, the nation of Babylon as a whole is condemned in these words, for they are all guilty of carrying out the militant expansionism of their ruler’s voracious desires. But then universally, we can apply these words to all who are sinfully proud and haughty, who are puffed up with their own sense of self-importance, infected with the tumor of a crookedly arrogant soul. What we must make most certain of is that at the end of the day, these words do not apply to ourselves! If they do, and our condition goes unremedied by repentance and faith in the Lord Jesus, then we will have no better fate than those of whom these words were originally written. And so we must understand from the words of this text the pitfalls of pride, that we might avoid them, and that we might pray for and help others to do so as well.

I. The proud one is deluded in his discontentment (v5a).

Ancient historians note that drunkenness and addiction to alcohol were common among the Babylonians.[3] The destructiveness of alcohol is well noted throughout the Scriptures. Nowhere is it more vividly stated than in Proverbs 23:29-35. There we read:

29  Who has woe? Who has sorrow? Who has contentions? Who has complaining? Who has wounds without cause? Who has redness of eyes?
30  Those who linger long over wine, Those who go to taste mixed wine.
·         Notice, they have problems caused by their drunkenness, woe, sorrow, contention, complaining. They have wounds but don’t remember what caused them. Their eyes are red. Therefore, the Proverb says …
31  Do not look on the wine when it is red, When it sparkles in the cup, When it goes down smoothly;
32  At the last it bites like a serpent And stings like a viper.
·         So, it looks appealing, and it goes down easy, but it strikes like a poisonous snake. He goes on to describe what it does to a person …
33  Your eyes will see strange things And your mind will utter perverse things.
34  And you will be like one who lies down in the middle of the sea, Or like one who lies down on the top of a mast.
·         In other words, it is like the room is spinning or moving back and forth like you are in a rough sea in a boat.
35  "They struck me, but I did not become ill; They beat me, but I did not know it.
·         The drunken person was beaten up in a fight, but he didn’t feel any pain from it because he was numb from intoxication. And what does he say the next day?
 When shall I awake? I will seek another drink.

As Wiersbe says so well, “First the man takes the drink; then the drink takes the drink; then the drink takes the man.”[4] As Proverbs 20:1 says, “Wine is a mocker, strong drink a brawler, and whoever is intoxicated by it is not wise.” Thus the writer of the Proverbs will say later, in Proverbs 31:4-5, “It is not for kings to drink wine, or for rulers to desire strong drink, for they will drink and forget what is decreed, and pervert the rights of all the afflicted.” People with great responsibility cannot afford to have their senses and faculties dulled with alcohol or drugs. It is destructive to all who fall prey to it, but when a person of power and responsibility is carried away with it, it affects many others as well. And yet, the rulers of Babylon were known to be heavy drinkers.

The Lord says to Habakkuk, “wine betrays the haughty man.” The idea here is one of deception. Wine has deceived this individual of his own sense of self-importance and fueled his pride and vainglory. Therefore, “he does not stay at home,” the Lord says. He is deluded by his wine into a state of perpetual discontentment. He is never at rest. This Hebrew expression for “staying at home” is related to the idea that is expressed in Psalm 23 in those familiar words, “He maketh me to lie down in green pastures.” The drunken, proud man knows nothing of that comfort and security. He is always on the go, moving from one thing to the next.

Of course, alcohol is not the only thing that has this effect on a person. A person can become deluded and discontented by any number of things. Success can be as intoxicating as a drug. One can be inflated by his or her own sense of ego. But often the two go hand-in-hand. Whether intoxication fuels the pride, or pride fuels the intoxication, or pride itself is the intoxication, there is a delusion at work that leads to discontentment. In the end, the drunken pride that drove Babylon to conquer many lands and peoples would result in the nation’s downfall.

In Daniel 5, we read about the feast of the Nebuchadnezzar’s son and successor as king, Belshazzar. They were drinking it up, even giving orders to bring the vessels that Nebuchadnezzar had pillaged from the Jerusalem temple so they could drink from them. And as they did, they “praised the gods of gold and silver, of bronze, iron, wood and stone.” Suddenly there appeared “the fingers of a man’s hand” writing upon the wall the words, “Mene Mene Tekel Upharsin.” Neither Belshazzar nor any of his men knew what to make of it, so they brought in Daniel to interpret it for him. The message, Daniel said, was this: “God has numbered your kingdom and put an end to it … you have been weighed on the scales and found deficient … your kingdom has been divided and given over to the Medes and the Persians.” And the Bible says “that same night, Belshazzar the Chaldean king was slain. So Darius the Mede received the kingdom.” The kingdom that his grandfather, the ambitious Nabopolassar, had established, and his father, the arrogant Nebuchadnezzar, had expanded, was lost by the intoxicated Belshazzar.

Be well warned, the proud are deluded in their discontentment. Now secondly, we find another pitfall of pride here …

II. The proud one is dissatisfied in his desires (v5b).

In the history of the world, there has perhaps never been a mightier conqueror than Alexander the Great. There is hardly a society of the world today that does not bear the lasting imprint of the Greek culture as a result of Alexander’s imperialism. The story is told that Alexander wept when he discovered that there were no more lands to conquer. In a writing from Plutarch, the first-century Greek historian, it is said of Alexander that he heard someone say that there were an infinite number of worlds. This brought Alexander to tears, and when his friends asked why, he said, “Is it not worthy of tears, that, when the number of worlds is infinite, we have not yet become lords of a single one?”[5]

That kind of insatiable, voracious lust for power and prestige is what the Lord is denouncing in the proud Babylonians here. He says that Babylon “enlarges his appetite like Sheol, and he is like death, never satisfied.” The word Sheol is used often in the Old Testament, and just as often misunderstood it seems. A survey of the major English translations reveals just how wide the variation of interpretations is. The NIV renders the word “grave,” while the KJV has “death,” and the NKJV has “hell.” The Greek and Latin translations of the Old Testament use words that are best understood as “the underworld.” At the very least, we know that the word is used to describe the place of the dead. The point here in our text is that Sheol and death are insatiable. You’d think we’ve been to enough funerals, wouldn’t you? And yet there will be more. Death is never satisfied. The grave is never full. They are always eager for more. And the Lord says that the proud are this way. They are like Sheol and like death – never satisfied, always hungry for more.

The Babylonians, no matter how many lands they conquered, always wanted more. Their swiftness and effectiveness in conquest made them suitable for the Lord’s use to bring judgment upon Judah. The sin of God’s own people had made them ripe for judgment, and in keeping with His unbreakable promise, He would bring in a foreign power to trample them underfoot. The Babylonians were His chosen instrument. This puzzled Habakkuk, because he wondered why God would use a nation that was even more corrupt than Judah to judge Judah. But here God is telling the prophet that Babylon will not be exempt from judgment themselves. They will answer for their own sins in God’s perfect time, because they are dissatisfied in their desire to always possess more and more.

In our lives, this very same sin manifests itself sometimes as greed, sometimes as gluttony, sometimes as covetousness or consumerism. But underlying all these manifestations is pride. Pride says, “You never have enough.” Advertisers market their products to this consuming desire. You need this thing, and then life will be complete. But it isn’t. So then you need this other thing. And on and on it goes forever. Pride says, “You deserve more, so go and get it, no matter what it takes.” For the Babylonians, it was nations, people, and plunder. Verse 5 says, “He also gathers to himself all nations and collects to himself all peoples.” But it isn’t enough. So they go after more. For you and me, it might be money, possessions, titles, or something else. Satisfaction is promised but never delivered. As the Rolling Stones said, “I can’t get no satisfaction, but I tried, and I tried, and I tried, and I tried.” The reason why that song still gets airtime a half-century after it was first recorded is because it resonates with human nature and experience. Our pride is always saying, “You need more,” but more never satisfies.

There is a spiritual reason for this. Whatever else the image of God in which human beings were created entails, it certainly includes a longing to have a personal relationship with God. Whether a person recognizes it or not, this longing exists at the core of every person’s being. We try to silence it and explain it away. We try to fill the void with any number of pursuits and possessions. We try to satisfy it with any number of experiences and exploits. But satisfaction always remains just beyond our grasp. The fact is that God loves us too much to let us find satisfaction with anything or anyone else other than Himself. He has put within us a spiritual homing device that is always beeping and blinking to drive us home to Him. As Augustine said so well, “Thou hast made us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee.” The proud never recognize this, or at least never admit it. To admit it is to confess there is a need that cannot be met by one’s own efforts and accomplishments. But pride is there whispering to us, “You can be satisfied. Just get more.” But experience tells us something different, does it not?

The proud are dissatisfied in their desires, because they are always looking for satisfaction everywhere except the one place that it can truly be found: in God and in Him alone.

This brings us then to the third and final pitfall of pride here in this text …

III. The proud one is derided is his destruction (v6a).

In Chapter 1, the prophet likened humanity to the fish of the sea, and the Babylonian Empire to a great fisherman. “The Chaldeans pull them all up with a hook, catch them in their dragnet, and gather them in their fishing net.” Ancient artwork depicts that these are not merely metaphors. The Babylonians actually put hooks into the lips and noses of their victims to drag them into captivity, and carried some away in nets. But, let’s stick to the metaphor for a moment. Picture, if you will, a fisherman, carrying nets full of fish and a stringer loaded with more. Now, imagine for a moment that something terrible happens to the fisherman – maybe he is struck by lightning and killed. And what if, there in that moment, all the fish that he had gathered in his nets and impaled on his string began to laugh at him and make fun of him? Well, this is exactly what the Lord says is going to take place when His judgment finally comes upon Babylon.

The proud and haughty Babylonians had gathered up nations and peoples in their conquests. But a day of destruction was coming for Babylon, and it was coming rather soon. The nation had burst onto the scene rather suddenly a decade or two before Habakkuk’s book was written. Within less than a century, it would be decimated. And when that day would finally come, the Lord says, “Will not all these” – that is, these nations and peoples that Babylon has captured – “Will  not all these take up a taunt-song against him, even mockery and insinuations against him …?”

Three distinct Hebrew words are used here, translated as “taunt-song,” “mockery,” and “insinuations.” As one commentator notes, “All three indicate that the Chaldean’s … victims will one day cast the Chaldean’s once-proud boasts and claims back in their teeth with cleverly devised words intended to mock them.”[6] In short, the Babylonians will become a laughing-stock among the very peoples whom they had conquered only a brief time before.

A few years ago, I read an interview with Mel Brooks about the making of his 1967 movie, The Producers. If you are unfamiliar with it, the story is about a producer who decides that he can make more money off of a Broadway flop than he can with a hit, so he finds the worst script he can find, and hires the worst director and actors he can find. The script was a musical tribute to Adolf Hitler entitled, “Springtime for Hitler.” Brooks, who himself is Jewish, says that he received a lot of hate mail for the film from fellow-Jews who couldn’t understand how he could make a comedy about Hitler. Remember, this was just a little more than two decades after World War II ended! Brooks’ response to that was that by laughing at Hitler, you cut him down to size. He said, “by using the medium of comedy, we … rob Hitler of his posthumous power and myths.” At one point in the film, Brooks even voices Hitler in one of the showtunes, and played Hitler in a subsequent film. Asked about this, Brooks said, “It is an inverted seizure of power. For many years Hitler was the most powerful man in the world and almost destroyed us. To possess this power and turn it against him – it is simply alluring.”[7]

Almost certainly without intending to, Mel Brooks gives us the perfect illustration of what the Lord says He will do to the Babylonians. The people whom the Babylonians nearly destroyed end up lampooning them and making sport of them, deriding them in their destruction. Their sin was very public, humiliating multitudes on the global scene. And so, in God’s justice, their shame would be just as public, being humiliated by the very same multitudes and becoming a byword and a punch-line on the public scene.

The warning here applies to all who are proud. By their own efforts and power, they have climbed to the top of the tower. Soon enough they will find that the top of that tower is greased and sure footing cannot be found. As surely as they ascended, they will descend, and all those that have been trampled by them on the way up will laugh at them and deride them on the way back down. There is a general principle in Scripture that is as certain as any other: “Whoever exalts himself shall be humbled; and whoever humbles himself shall be exalted” (Matt 23:12). Even the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar, who was responsible for the conquest of Judah, would come to recognize that God is “able to humble those walk in pride” (Dan 4:37).

So, then, what is the conclusion? In light of these pitfalls of pride, what is the alternative? In verse 4, the alternative to this bloated sense of pride is the righteousness that God bestows to those who live by faith in Him. When we are humbled in the awareness of our sin to the extent that we have nowhere to look for help or hope but to the Lord alone, we come to Him spiritually naked and needy with the outstretched hands of a beggar asking Him to rescue us and deliver us from sin and its destructiveness. In Jesus Christ, the rightful Lord of Glory humbled Himself to bear the weight of our sin and the full measure of its penalty in the shameful death of the cross, that He might raise up those who are humble enough to cast themselves upon His mercy and grace by faith. It is by such faith that we are saved, and by such faith that we live, awaiting the Lord’s promises to come to pass.

As Lloyd-Jones says, “Read in your secular history books about the godless imperial nations that have risen, and how they seemed to have the whole world at their feet—Egypt, Babylon, Greece, Rome! … Nation after nation has risen only to fall. … They may have great temporary success, and we must be prepared for that; they may apparently bestride the universe, but as certainly as their star arose it will go down.”[8] And what is true for nations is true as well of individuals. Pride has its pitfalls, and they are inescapable. Therefore, we are admonished by the Word of God, “Humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you at the proper time” (1 Pet 5:6). The day will come when the righteous will be vindicated and the proud will be shamed and humiliated. In humility, faith, and patient endurance, we wait on the Lord in the sure and certain hope that all of God’s promises will come to pass exactly as He has given them, and exactly when He has intended for them. The proud will be laid low. And the righteous will live by his faith.

[1] Walter Dunnett, “Pride,” in Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology (ed. Walter A. Elwell; Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996), 630.
[2] Ibid., 630-631.
[3] A fact that is noted in many commentaries, including David Prior, The Message of Joel, Micah, and Habakkuk (The Bible Speaks Today; Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1998), 241.
[4] Warren W. Wiersbe, From Worry to Worship: Studies in Habakkuk (Lincoln, Neb.: Back to the Bible, 1983), 59.
[6] Richard Patterson, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah (Wycliffe Exegetical Commentary; Chicago: Moody, 1991), 183.
[8] D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, From Fear to Faith (Nottingham: InterVarsity, 1953), 52-53.