Monday, October 24, 2016

The Lord is On The March (Habakkuk 3:8-15)

“They say Aslan is on the move – perhaps already landed.” The line is from C. S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and it concerns the main character from the entire Chronicles of Narnia series: Aslan, the great and powerful lion! This line, spoken by Mr. Beaver, is the first time his name is mentioned, and it is said that he is on the move. Lewis writes, “And now a very curious thing happened. None of the children knew who Aslan was any more than you do; but the moment the Beaver had spoken these words everyone felt quite different. Perhaps it has sometimes happened to you in a dream that someone says something which you don't understand but in the dream it feels as if it had some enormous meaning - either a terrifying one which turns the whole dream into a nightmare or else a lovely meaning too lovely to put into words, which makes the dream so beautiful that you remember it all your life and are always wishing you could get into that dream again. It was like that now. At the name of Aslan each one of the children felt something jump in its inside.” When the children later ask Mr. Beaver who Aslan is, they are told, “Why, don’t you know? He’s the King. He’s the Lord of the whole wood.” And then the children are told an old rhyme about Aslan, the Lion-King: “Wrong will be right, when Aslan comes in sight  / At the sound of his roar, sorrows will be no more / When he bares his teeth, winter meets its death / And when he shakes his mane, we shall have spring again.” Mr. Beaver says, “You'll understand when you see him.” Upon discovering that this Aslan is a lion and not a man, the children inquire as to whether or not it will be safe to encounter him. They are told, “if there's anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they're either braver than most or else just silly. … Who said anything about safe? 'Course he isn't safe. But he's good. He's the King, I tell you.”[1]

In the Narnia stories, Aslan of course represents Christ – at least in a very elementary way. Lewis would not want us pressing the point too deeply, but it is there. But I want to go back to two things that he wrote in the section I just shared from: first, the statement that Aslan is on the move; second, the effect that this statement had on those who heard it. “Each of the children felt something jump in its inside.” There was that numinous sense that these words bore “enormous meaning,” and uncertainty as to whether it was terrifying or lovely.

I suggest that this is how we are supposed to be struck by the words in verse 12 of our text: “You marched through the earth.” The eternal God of the universe, the Holy and everlasting One, the One who is described in verses 3 and 4 as covering the heavens with His splendor and filling the earth with His praise, whose radiance is like the sunlight with rays flashing from His hand – this One is depicted here as being on the march. He is marching through the earth. In the previous section, Habakkuk saw Him coming, and in verse 6, he said that the Lord stood and surveyed the earth, measuring it up, as it were, for judgment. Now in verse 8 He begins to march forward.

The setting is in the future – a day and time of which Jesus Himself said that no one can know. The English verb tenses are set in the past, but that’s not how the Hebrew is written. Hebrew verbs do not have a past, present, and future tense per se. Those features have to be determined by context. But these Hebrew verbs are, for the most part, in what is called the perfect tense. When the prophets use this tense, it is often like this, where future actions are depicted as being so certain that they can be spoken of in the past or present. And that is how Habakkuk is depicting the Lord’s march through the earth at the end of all things.

Habakkuk is speaking to a nation under siege. The Babylonian army has been raised up by God Himself to be agents of discipline and judgment against Judah for her sins. Habakkuk and other righteous people in the land were doubly burdened about the situation. But God has spoken to them to reveal that He is going to deal with Judah, and then He will deal with Babylon so that all wrongs will be set right. Though Babylon is marching, God Himself is on the march and no one can thwart His effort to accomplish His purposes. This is relevant to us today as well. We are on the brink of the most divisive presidential election our nation has ever had – one in which each candidate’s strongest qualification is that he or she is not the other. Injustice and immorality are as rampant in our day as in Habakkuk’s, as is the threat of organized terrorism. With so much uncertainty, God speaks a word that is most certain – He is on the march, and no one can stop Him.

So, as we look into this text, let us do so with an eye on how it is that God is on the march.

I. The Lord is on the march with unsettling character.

There is, in this entire passage that we have read today, an impressive list of words piled up for emphasis that describe the character with which the Lord is coming when He sets out to march. These are not words that we like to associate with God in our day and time. They are words like rage, anger, wrath, and indignation. You wouldn’t want to hear someone describing you with those words, would you? I suppose not. So how are we supposed to feel when we hear God described with these words?

Many people object wholeheartedly to this depiction of God and call it an outdated notion. They say that the God of the Old Testament is a God of wrath, but the God of the New Testament is a God of love. If this is how someone feels about God, it only proves that they haven’t read the Old or New Testaments very well. For one thing, there is no differentiation between the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament. There is one God, and He does not change. And there is as much about His love in the Old Testament as there is in the New, and as much about His wrath in the New Testament as there is in the Old. It is the love that the God of the Old Testament has for humanity that compels Him to become one of us in the incarnation of Jesus Christ; and it is the wrath of the God of the New Testament that Jesus will execute when He judges the living and the dead. Moreover, it is the wrath of God that Jesus Himself absorbs for us in His death on the cross that is the ultimate manifestation of the love of God. Romans 5:8 says that God demonstrated His love for us in this: that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.

Habakkuk is given a prophetic glimpse through the corridors of time and sees God on the march. But He is not marching like a conducter of a marching band with a smile on His face and a bounce in His step while the band plays “76 Trombones.” No, He is marching like a warrior. He marches with rage, with anger, wrath, and indignation. You may say, “I do not like to think of God that way.” You do not have to like it; and not liking it will not change it one bit. But the day will come when every eye will see this very thing: the Lord is on the march with unsettling character.

II. The Lord is on the march with indirect consequences.

Everything that exists in the universe exists because God created it. Plants and animals, rocks and rivers, continents and clouds, angels and men all exist because God made them. And of all that God made, only angels and men ever dared to disobey and rebel against Him. But the consequences of man’s sin were far-reaching and brought corruption on the entirety of creation. In Genesis 3:17, after Adam and Eve had fallen into sin, God said to Adam, “Cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you will eat of it all the days of your life. Both thorns and thistles it shall grow for you.” The ground did not sin against God, but Adam’s sin affected the ground, and the ground was cursed as part of Adam’s penalty.

We see it again in the flood in the days of Noah. In addition to the human loss of life, we must remember that there were innumerable animals who died in that flood, and great destruction came upon all creation. Why? It was because of man’s sin. Genesis 6:12 says, “God looked on the earth, and behold, it was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted their way upon the earth.” On and on we could go, to the Exodus when the Nile was turned to blood as God brought judgment upon the Egyptians.

Habakkuk has seen what is to come in the future. It has reminded him of the past. He is thinking back on how God’s judgments in time past affected the entire created order, and he knows that those events were only a foreshadowing of a greater judgment that is to come. He speaks of rivers and seas being affected by the Lord’s wrath. The earth is split with rivers, mountains quake, and a downpour of water comes, along with the deep lifting its hands – depicting something like a tsumani of sorts. The sun and the moon will stand in their place and not move, as they did in the days of Joshua, until they disappear permanently, being overshadowed by the glory of the Lord.

The book of Revelation speaks of all these things happening at the end of all things. Revelation 16 tells of seven angels who go forth with bowls filled with the wrath of God. One poured his bowl into the sea and the sea became like blood. Another poured his bowl into the rivers and springs, and they became blood as well. Another poured out his bowl upon the sun, and the heat became so intense that people were scorched with fierce heat. Another poured his bowl on the Euphrates River, and it dried up. And when the final angel poured out the final bowl of wrath, the Bible says that there were “flashes of lightning and sounds and peals of thunder; and there was a great earthquake, such as there had not been since man came to be upon the earth.” Mountains crumbled and islands disappeared.

It will be a time of great natural devastation when the Lord goes on the march. At the present time, all nature is suffering, languishing under the curse that Adam’s sin brought upon it. Paul says in Romans 8, “For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now.” Creation is longing for the curse to be lifted. Nature itself is groaning in anticipation of all the wrongs committed upon the earth to be made right. A day is coming when this corrupted creation will pass away in exchange for a new heaven and a new earth that is neither corrupted nor corruptible. Peter puts it this way:

But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, in which the heavens will pass away with a roar and the elements will be destroyed with intense heat, and the earth and its works will be burned up. Since all these things are to be destroyed in this way, what sort of people ought you to be in holy conduct and godliness, looking for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be destroyed by burning, and the elements will melt with intense heat! But according to His promise we are looking for new heavens and a new earth, in which righteousness dwells. 2 Peter 3:10-13 (NASB)

When the Lord goes on the march, all creation will experience the consequences of His judgment, because all creation bears the consequences of our sin. So it is an indirect consequence. Rivers and mountains, sun, moon, ocean – none of these have done anything to incur the wrath of God. But they are affected when that wrath is poured out indirectly. Thus Habakkuk asks the rhetorical question in verse 8, “Did the Lord rage against the rivers, or was Your anger against the rivers, or was Your wrath against the sea…?” Certainly not. So, what precipitated this rage, this anger, indignation and wrath, that has set the Lord to marching?

III The Lord is on the march in victorious conquest.

The nations have raged against one another and against the Lord. The Psalmist explains in Psalm 2, “Why are the nations in an uproar and 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!” Even Judah itself had tried to overthrow God’s governance, engaging in idolatry and immorality, with injustice corrupting the land from the top down. Judgment had come upon them in the form of the Babylonian invasion. Babylon was raised up by divine ordination, but had arrogantly exceeded the boundaries of what God would permit. Verse 14 says, “They stormed in to scatter us; their exultation was like those devour the oppressed in secret.” They were vicious and cruel in their campaign of terror, and they were proud of it.

Whether it is a quest for power and domination, an abandonment of moral foundations, oppression of God’s truth and God’s people, or the exploitation of the vulnerable for the sake of greed and pride, no human society has ever been innocent and unworthy of judgment – including the present American society. Moreover, every individual – regardless of his or her nationality, ethnicity, or genealogy – is subject to this same judgment. There is a day of reckoning in which God will be the only One with whom we have to do, and He will call us to account for our lives. 

Habakkuk does not envision this scene taking place in a stale and sterile courtroom, with God as an old man in a black robe and powdered white wig behind a desk. He sees this scene taking place on a battlefield. He sees the Lord coming on the march dressed as a warrior for battle. He rides on a horse and chariot (v8). He has made His bow bare (v9). That is to say, He has taken it out of its sheath and now holds it ready to fire. He has arrows (v11) which emit light, and a spear that gleams (v11). And He carries a rod of chastisement, which verse 9 says was “sworn.” The language hearkens back to Deuteronomy 32, in which the Lord says,

See now that I, I am He, and there is no god besides Me; It is I who put to death and give life. I have wounded and it is I who heal, and there is no one who can deliver from My hand. Indeed, I lift up My hand to heaven, and say, as I live forever, if I sharpen My flashing sword, and My hand takes hold on justice, I will render vengeance on My adversaries, and I will repay those who hate Me. I will make My arrows drunk with blood, and My sword will devour flesh, with the blood of the slain and the captives, from the long-haired leaders of the enemy. Rejoice, O nations, with His people; for He will avenge the blood of His servants, and will render vengeance on His adversaries, and will atone for His land and His people (Deut 32:39-43).

God had made an oath. He swore by uplifted hand that He would render vengeance on His adversaries and vindicate His people. So the judgment that is coming must come, otherwise God is a liar. And that is something that God cannot be. Because He is holy and just, He must exercise holy justice, and that means that He will come on the march to conquer all those who persist in their rebellion against Him. By choice or by force, the promise is certain in Philippians 2:10-11 that every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.  As Robertson writes, “The nations have attempted to overthrow the yoke of the Lord’s reign. But all their efforts are in vain. For when the Lord acts, it immediately becomes apparent that the earth can hardly bear His presence, trembling under the weight of his footsteps.”[2] He is on the march, and He will conquer. That is certain.
Now finally, we will see here in our text that …

IV. The Lord is on the march for a special cause.

It was not that He was angry with the rivers and the seas that He came. It was not the He was bored and just needed something to do. He is not a capricious deity like the gods of the pagans who just operates on whims and flights of fancy at will. No, God acts with calculated precision for the fulfillment of His sovereign purposes. And the purpose for which He has set out on this march through the earth is the salvation of His people.

Verse 13 says: “You went forth for the salvation of Your people, for the salvation of Your anointed.” Throughout the Scriptures, God anoints things for Himself. He called for the anointing of altars, and priests, and kings. Israel itself could be called God’s anointed nation. And how we understand this verse all hinges on what we do with two Hebrew letters that precede the Hebrew word Meshiach. It is the basis of our word, “Messiah.” Immediately preceding this word in the Hebrew text is the two-letter particle eth. In Hebrew, it often occurs as an untranslated marker which points out the direct object in the sentence. This is the way many have understood it here, rendering the text similar to what we have in many of our English versions, that God has gone forth for the salvation of His people, for the salvation of His anointed. And His anointed is there understood to mean either the anointed nation of Israel, or the Messiah, or perhaps even a proto-messianic figure who foreshadows the Messiah.

Ah, but there is a different way of understanding that little Hebrew particle eth. Very simply, the word could be translated as “with.” Looking at the larger grammatical structure of the context, it seems that this translation is not merely justified, it is almost demanded.[3] This changes our understanding of the verse dramatically. For now, we have God coming for the salvation of His people, and He is coming with His Anointed One, the Messiah Jesus.

Verse 8 may even give us a glimpse of this coming salvation that will be accomplished by Jesus. God is depicted as riding “chariots of salvation.” The Hebrew word translated “salvation” there is Yeshua, the Hebrew name of Jesus. You remember that when the birth of Jesus was announced to Joseph in Matthew 1, the angel said to him, “you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.” That is what the name means. It means that there is salvation with the Lord. You will remember that in John 3:17-18, Jesus said, “For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him. He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.” You see, the judgment is going to happen. All have sinned, and all will stand to give account before God, and all will be found guilty. Unless there is salvation offered. And that is what Jesus came to do. Habakkuk envisions Him coming on a chariot of salvation. And He comes, at the bidding of His Father, to bring salvation for His people.

Verse 13 goes on to explain how this salvation will be accomplished. “You struck the head of the house of evil to lay him open from thigh to neck.” It is a gory image, for sure, but one which depicts the fulfillment of the most ancient messianic prophecy we have. In Genesis 3:15, immediately following the sin of Adam and Eve, God said to the serpent, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; He shall bruise you on the head, and you shall bruise Him on the heel.” This is known as the proto-evangelium, the first gospel, because it foretells of One who is coming, who will be born to a woman, who, by His own suffering (the bruising of the heel), will destroy the works of Satan forever (the bruising of the head). Habakkuk sees it. He sees the Messiah coming to save His people by crushing the head of the house of evil – Satan Himself. He is laid open from thigh to neck, utterly defeated and destroyed.

And Habakkuk says in verse 14, “You pierced with is own spears the head of his throngs.” In other words, “You used his own weapons against him.” We have seen it happen over and over again through history. Haman built a gallows on which to hang the righteous Mordecai, only to hang from it himself (Est 7:10). Babylon’s arrogance would precipitate its downfall a generation after Habakkuk. But in the ultimate way, we see this playing out on a skull-shaped hill called Calvary. There Satan brought together the forces of Jewish and Gentile evil to conspire against the Son of God, the Anointed One. God had come to live among us in the flesh, and sinful mankind murdered Him. He was nailed to the most heinous torture device ever conceived – the Roman Cross, and He bled and died, having a spear thrust through His side to demonstrate that there was no life left in Him. And it appeared as though Satan had won a great victory that day as the lifeless Messiah was taken down from the cross and buried in a tomb. But God had come with His Anointed One for the salvation of His people, and He would pierce the head of the house of evil with his own spears! The blood that was shed on that cross paid the ransom for all those who had been held captive in sin by Satan, and by the resurrection from the dead, Jesus rendered Him powerless and defeated.

Habakkuk was given a faint glimpse of how all of this would play out. Though he could hear the footsteps of the Babylonians at the gates, marching in to overtake his homeland, he had a promise from heaven assuring him that God Himself was on the march. He was coming as a warrior intent on conquest. He would bring judgment on the unrighteous, and provide salvation for His people. In the short run, and in a limited sense, Habakkuk understood this to mean that the period of Babylonian conquest would be limited, and that his people would one day return to their homeland. But in an ultimate and unlimited sense, he also knew that these events that would play out over the next century were merely a foreshadowing of greater things to come. God will come with His anointed One, the Messiah Jesus, to bring salvation for His people by defeating Satan at the cross and the resurrection. The judgment that is to come is well deserved by all men because of our sin. But God has come to us in a chariot of salvation to rescue us if we will but turn to Him in saving faith and trust. He is Jesus, and He has crushed the head of the enemy forever. Wrong will be right when He comes in sight. At the sound of His roar, sorrow will be no more. God is on the march.

[1] C. S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (New York: HarperCollins, 1994), 67-68.
[2] O. Palmer Robertson, The Books of Nahum, Habakkuk, and Zephaniah (New International Commentary on the Old Testament; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990), 236.
[3] For example, Robertson (237) says, “Although the term could be taken as the sign of the direct object, this interruption does not explain why it is introduced in the second line and does not appear in the first.” 

Monday, October 17, 2016

God Comes! (Habakkuk 3:3-7)

Come with me to the city of Kathmandu, Nepal. As we stand there in the midst of this bustling urban center, we gaze off to the North and we see the majestic peaks of the Himalayas. They are at once inviting and foreboding. They appear to be just beyond the outskirts of the city, so let’s set off and go to them. We drive for hours – and hours – and hours, and they are still far off in the distance. We come to a town alongside a river and stare upward to realize that we have come near to the base of the first of those peaks. And the second peak we now realize is another whole day’s drive away. When we were in the city, the mountains looked so close to where we were, and even closer to one another. But as we covered the distance between, we realized just how far off they were, and how far apart from one another they are.

This is how the prophets of the Bible saw the future. The events revealed to them by the Lord appeared to be great mountain peaks standing side by side in the distance. But what they often could not see were the great valleys that stood between them. For example, in Luke 4 when Jesus came to the synagogue in Nazareth, He read from the scroll of Isaiah, Chapter 61. The words He read were as follows: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, because He anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor. He has sent Me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free those who are oppressed, to proclaim the favorable year of the Lord.” Then Luke says that Jesus “closed the book, gave it back to the attendant and sat down; … And He began to say to them, ‘Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing’” (Lk 4:18-21). But did you realize that Jesus did not read the entire passage? In fact, He stopped in the middle of a sentence. The entirety of that final line of Isaiah 61:2 says, “To proclaim the favorable year of the Lord and the day of vengeance of our God.” Jesus left that last part out. Why? Because the first part of the passage was being fulfilled in their midst in His coming into the world. The second part of the passage is not yet fulfilled, but will be when He returns.

Isaiah did not see that between these two mountain peaks of the season of the Lord’s favor and the day of His vengeance, there was a great valley of time. We see it now because we live in that valley. The prophets saw, for the most part, only that the Lord was coming. The exact circumstances were often hidden from view. Thus Peter says in 1 Peter 1:10-11, “As to this salvation, the prophets who prophesied of the grace that would come to you made careful searches and inquiries, seeking to know what person or time (the words here might be better translated, “what times or circumstances”) the Spirit of Christ within them was indicating as He predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories to follow.” The prophets had much revealed to them from the Lord, but there was also a lot that was not revealed to them. We who live in the valley of the present understand that the coming of Christ into the world is a two-fold event. He came first for salvation, and He will come again for judgment at the end of all things.

This understanding of how the prophets viewed the future is essential for us to understand what the prophet Habakkuk is saying – or better, singing – here in this text. You may recall that last week we observed how the third chapter is composed as a psalm or hymn of praise. In the first two verses, we observed the three-fold prayer of the prophet, as he asked God to perform the work He had revealed, to make His word and His will known to the people, and that in the midst of His wrath, He would remember mercy. In the verses before us today, Habakkuk sings from a posture of faith of his own confidence that the Lord will hear and answer that prayer. He is confident that the Lord will complete the work He has begun – the work of using the Babylonians to bring judgment upon Judah for its sins. He is confident that God will make the truth known to His people, and He is confident that in the midst of exercising His wrath, God will not fail to also deal with His people in mercy. He envisions a coming day in which the Lord Himself will come for salvation and for judgment.

How can anyone comprehend or explain things that are yet to happen in the future? The only familiar territory we know is that of the past and the present. And so Habakkuk takes up this song to give God praise for what He will do in the future by reflecting on what God has done in the past. He weaves together strands of Israel’s history, including events from the Exodus from Egypt and the period of the Judges to draw analogies of how God will accomplish His work of salvation and judgment in the future. And the answer that Habakkuk sees is that God will do this when He comes. God Himself will invade time and space. He is described as the Holy One (v3) and the Everlasting One (v6). The word “God” in verse 3 is not the typical Hebrew word that we find used for God in the Old Testament Scriptures. It is the name “Eloah,” an rare and archaic name for God that is used 41 times in the book of Job, and only 16 times elsewhere in the Old Testament. It is a word for “God” that transcends Jewish religion and speaks universally of the all-supreme deity. But in verse 8, Habakkuk makes it clear that this God – the eternal and holy One; the only One who is – is none other than YHWH, the God who has revealed Himself to the people of His own choosing, and through them to the world. And this God is coming!

Habakkuk sees two great mountain peaks on the horizon. God is coming for salvation and God is coming for judgment. Though there is a great valley of time between those prophetic pinnacles, there is no doubt about the veracity of what the prophet beheld. And as he gives praise to this God who comes, we can join our voices in with his and sing this song with him. We are looking at just two stanzas of the song today, found in verses 3-7. In the first of them we find that …

I. God comes for salvation with hidden power (vv3-4).

If it often seems like there is a war going on in the universe between good and evil, well, that’s because there is. It began long ago when Satan rebelled against God and was cast down with the angels who followed him in rebellion. And the war moved into a new theater of operations when the serpent tempted Adam and Eve to rebel as well. C. S. Lewis says, “this universe is at war. But … it is a civil war, a rebellion, and … we are living in a part of the universe occupied by the rebel. Enemy-occupied territory – that is what this world is. Christianity is the story of how the rightful king has landed, you might say landed in disguise, and is calling us all to take part in a great campaign of sabotage. … God has landed on this enemy-occupied world in human form.”[1]

Habakkuk saw the coming of the Lord in the same way. In verses 3 and 4, he speaks of God coming. He comes with a radiance like the sunlight and with rays of light flashing from His hand. But, He comes with the hiding of His power. God “dwells in unapproachable light” (1 Tim 6:16), but the wonder of His grace is that, while we cannot approach Him, He approaches us. He always has. When Adam sinned, it was not he that returned seeking God, but God who came seeking him. Prior to the Exodus, it was God who came to His people to deliver them. It was God who came down to Mount Sinai to reveal His Law to Israel. And whenever God draws near to man, there is the hiding of His power. If it were not so, humanity would not be able to survive the encounter with unmitigated glory. God Himself said to Moses, “You cannot see My face, for no man can see Me and live!” (Exo 33:20). So, there was always a hiding of His power whenever God showed up on the scene.

Habakkuk reminds us of that scene at Mount Sinai and the wilderness wanderings of Israel during the Exodus here in verse 3. “God comes from Teman, and the Holy One from Mount Paran,” he says. Mount Paran is another name for Mount Sinai, and Teman is a site in Edom or Seir through which God led the Israelites en route to the Promised Land. It is a close paraphrase to a prayerful song of Moses found in Deuteronomy 33. “The Lord came from Sinai, and dawned on them from Seir; He shone forth from Mount Paran, and He came from the midst of ten thousand holy ones; at His right hand there was flashing lightning for them” (33:2). But Habakkuk was not merely reminding his fellow countrymen of their past history. He was proclaiming their future hope as well. For just as God came with the hiding of His power in the days of Moses to save His people from bondage, so God would come again with hidden power for the salvation of all nations.

Of course, this happened at the incarnation of Jesus Christ. The eternal and holy God, whose splendor covers the heavens, and whose praise fills the earth, hid His infinite power behind a veil of human flesh as He became a man to live among us. John describes it in Chapter 1 of his Gospel: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. … And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth. … No one has seen God at any time; the only begotten God who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained Him” (Jn 1:1, 14, 18).

When He came into the world, His splendor covered the heavens. Shepherds were out watching their flocks, minding their own business (quite literally), when suddenly the skies erupted with the presence of many angelic messengers, shining forth the splendor of the Lord, and proclaiming, “Glory to God in the highest” (Lk 2:8-14). And the earth was filled with His praise. Far away in the East, magi had been watching the stars and they saw one that seemed unusual. It set them on a long and arduous journey from their homeland to find the one whose birth was heralded by this star. They said, “We saw His star in the east and have come to worship Him” (Matt 2:2).

God had come. But not all were happy about it. Herod immediately ordered the massacre of all the young males under the age of two in Bethlehem and the surrounding vicinity. Joseph was warned in a dream to escape and preserve the life of Jesus, and so they fled to Egypt. Matthew says that this took place to fulfill the prophecy, “Out of Egypt I called My Son” (Matt 2:15). And so again, God came from Teman, the Holy One from Mount Paran, back to Israel, to Galilee and a city called Nazareth where He commenced to live a somewhat ordinary life as one of us. There was the hiding of His power from His return to Israel until the age of 12, when He astounded the scholars at the temple with His wisdom. But then things went on somewhat normally again until around the age of 30 when He began His public ministry.

Even then, apart from periodic miracles that demonstrated His divine power breaking forth, there was a hiding of that power. People found it hard to believe that such an ordinary person as Jesus of Nazareth could be God in the flesh, the long-awaited Messiah. They said, “Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary, and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon? Are not His sisters here with us?” (Mk 6:3). And so they did not believe in Him. Isaiah prophesied that the Messiah would have no stately form or majesty that we should look upon Him, nor appearance that we should be attracted to Him (Isa 53:2). There was the hiding of His power.

But one day, Jesus went up on a mountain with three of His closest followers: Peter, James and John. And the Bible says that “He was transfigured before them; and His face shone like the sun and His garments became as white as light” (Mt 17:2). They saw there the One whose “radiance is like the sunlight” with “rays flashing from His hand.” In Him they saw the one that Hebrews 1:3 says “is the radiance of (God’s) glory and the exact representation of His nature.” But others did not see this usually. As Paul says in Philippians 2, “Christ Jesus, who although He exited in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped (or clung to), but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Php 2:5-8).

This was the means by which God had come for salvation into the world. He came with hidden power to live a life of sinless perfection, and to die in our place receiving in His own person the full outpouring of the judgment that our sins deserve. As we sing this prayerful song with the prophet, we do so giving praise to the God who came for salvation with hidden power. We see Him as One who “was made for a little while lower than the angels … so that by the grace of God He might taste death for everyone” (Heb 2:9).

Habakkuk was given a glimpse of this, looking down through the annals of time and seeing it as a mountain peak in the far distance. God was coming for salvation with hidden power. But there in the distance, Habakkuk saw another mountain peak which indicated that God was coming also for judgment. And so in his song, he proclaims that …

II. God comes for judgment with startling authority (vv5-7).

I’m currently reading a book by Dr. Russell Moore, the head of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, entitled Onward: Engaging the Culture Without Losing the Gospel. I wish I could make this book required reading for every evangelical in the weeks leading up to the election in a few weeks. In that book, he describes a conversation he had with an atheist lesbian activist. She told him that he was the first person she had ever met who actually believed that marriage was only for one man and one woman, and that sexual relations should be reserved for marriage. She said, concerning his biblical views of marriage and sexual ethics, “Do you see how strange what you’re saying sounds to us, to those of us out here in normal America?” Think about that for a moment. “Normal America.” Normal America is no longer the place where the Bible informs our thinking about issues like these. Normal America is where those ideas sound very strange. Moore says that he sort of got lost in that moment, but was snapped back into the moment as she reiterated her question: “Seriously, do you know how strange that sounds?” He said, “Yes, I do. It sounds strange to me too. But what you should know is, we believe even stranger things than that. We actually believe that a previously dead man is going to show up in the sky, on a horse.”[2]

This is how the second coming of Christ is described in the book of Revelation. John says, “I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse, and He who sat on it is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness He judges and wages war” (Rev 19:11). Throughout that book, we read of the pestilences and plagues that will occur and the cosmic and geological upheavals that will take place when He comes. Habakkuk could see them as well, looking down through the pipeline of revelation that God had given to him.

In verses 5-7, he describes how plague and pestilence accompany the coming of the Lord. The Egyptians had experienced the same things when God came to deliver His people from bondage there under Moses. His coming for the salvation of the Jews was at one and the same time a coming in judgment for the Egyptians. But those plagues and pestilences were just a shadow of things to come. When Christ comes for the final judgment, the world will experience those things in unprecedented ways leading up to His return. Throughout the Bible, we see the Lord using these and other forces of nature as weapons against His enemies.[3] Pestilence will go before Him like a forerunner, and plague will mark the path. The Hebrew wording that is translated “plague comes after Him” in verse 5 gives a picture of “sparks springing up as the Lord’s feet strike the earth.”[4]

And then in verse 6 the movement comes to a halt. The God who comes stands still and surveys the earth. If you can imagine a landowner standing on a high place overlooking all that he owns, that is the imagery here in verse 6. The Psalmist said, “The earth is the Lord’s, and all it contains, the world, and those who dwell in it.” The rightful Owner and Master stands looking over all that belongs to Him by divine right and He surveys it, measuring it out, as it were, for the judgment that He has come to deliver. Beneath the fierceness of that penetrating gaze, nations are startled – they tremble in fear before Him. Even the inanimate mountains that tower over the earth crumble before Him.

Verse 7 depicts this startling of the nations by again pointing back to Old Testament history – this time to the period of the Judges. Habakkuk says, “I saw the tents of Cushan under distress.” The reference is to the nation of Cushan-Rishathaim. Judges 3 tells the story. Because of the sin of the Israelites, the Lord handed them over to Cushan for a period of eight years. But when the people returned to the Lord in repentance, the Bible says that the Lord “raised up a deliverer for the sons of Israel to deliver them, Othniel the son of Kenaz.” Othniel led an army out to fight against Cushan and prevailed. God came for the salvation of His people and for the judgment of their oppressors.

Then Habakkuk says that “the tents of the land of Midian were trembling.” Again, the reference is to Judges – this time Chapters 6 and 7. Again, Israel fell into sin, and the Lord gave them over to the Midians for a period of seven years. And again, the Israelites cried out to God. And again, the Lord raised up a deliverer. His name was Gideon. Gideon happened to overhear a Midianite man telling another about a dream. He said, “Behold, I had a dream; a loaf of barley bread was tumbling into the camp of Midian, and it came to the tent and struck it so that it fell, and turned it upside down so that the tent lay flat” (7:13). Gideon knew that this was evidence that the Lord that was going to use him to deliver His people and bring judgment on the Midianites.

God had proven Himself time and time again. When His people disobeyed, judgment came at the hands of other nations. It was happening in Habakkuk’s day. The Babylonians were God’s agent of judgment this time. But Habakkuk was given a glimpse of a day that was coming when the righteous would be saved and the wicked would be judged. In 70 years, the Medo-Persian empire would overtake Babylon, and the Israelites would be released from their captivity and returned to their homeland. But further on in a future that Habakkuk could see, God Himself would come for the ultimate and eternal salvation of His own, and for the ultimate and eternal judgment of those who rebel against Him. When He comes for salvation, He comes with hidden power, dwelling among us as God in the flesh, and laying down His life to save us. When He comes for judgment, it will be with startling authority.  

We speak of Him coming again, and the world laughs. “You mean gentle Jesus, meek and mild? He’s already come and we nailed Him to a cross.” But the Bread of Life is going to tumble into the tent camps of the nation and strike them so that they fall flat in judgment before Him, just as in the Midianite’s dream. The nations and the earth itself will tremble before Him. But for those who trust in Him, we have the promise of Habakkuk 2:4 that the righteous will live by faith. When everything that can be is shaken, we stand fast because we are receiving a kingdom which cannot be shaken (Heb 12:28). Like Habakkuk, we who have participated by faith in His coming for salvation can look toward His return for judgment with hope, with a song of praise, and with confident faith. And if we do not have that confident faith when we consider His coming, then there is time here and now to turn to the Lord in repentance and faith. Cast yourself upon the grace that manifested when He came with hidden power to save you by His cross, where He took your judgment upon Himself, and be spared from the judgment that will be meted out when He comes with startling authority.

Again, C. S. Lewis returns to the metaphor of the rightful King returning in disguise to the enemy-occupied territory, and he says,

Why is God landing in this enemy-occupied world in disguise and starting a sort of secret society to undermine the devil? Why is He not landing in force, invading it? Is it that He is not strong enough? Well, Christians think He is going to land in force; we do not know when. But we can guess why He is delaying. He wants to give us the chance of joining His side freely. … God will invade. … When that happens, it is the end of the world. … God is going to invade, all right: but what is the good of saying you are on His side then, when you see the whole natural universe melting away like a dream, and something else – something it never entered your head to conceive – comes crashing in; something so beautiful to some of us and so terrible to others that none of us will have any choice left? For this time it will be God without disguise; something so overwhelming that it will strike either irresistible love or irresistible horror into every creature. It will be too late then to choose your side. … That will not be the time for choosing: it will be the time when we discover which side we really have chosen, whether we realized it or not. Now, today, this moment, is our chance to choose the right side. God is holding back to give us that chance. It will not last forever. We must take it or leave it.[5]

God comes. He has come in hidden power to save you. And He is coming with startling authority again to bring judgment to those who have refused His saving mercy. God comes! In the sky. On a horse.

[1] C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), 45-46, 53.
[2] Russell Moore, Onward: Engaging the Culture Without Losing the Gospel (Nashville: B&H, 2015), 10.
[3] Kenneth Barker and Waylon Bailey, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah (New American Commentary, vol. 20; Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1998), 363.
[4] O. Palmer Robertson, The Books of Nahum, Habakkuk, and Zephaniah (New International Commentary on the Old Testament; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990), 226.
[5] Lewis, 64-65. 

Monday, October 10, 2016

The Prayerful Song of a Trembling Believer (Habakkuk 3:1-2)

“What can miserable Christians sing?” That was the question that Carl Trueman posed a half-dozen years ago in an article that was later included in his book, The Wages of Spin. Trueman lamented the “diet of unremittingly jolly choruses and hymns” that are so prevalent in worship services today, because it “inevitably creates an unrealistic horizon of expectation which sees the normative Christian life as one long triumphalist street party — a theologically incorrect and a pastorally disastrous scenario in a world of broken individuals.” He says, “By excluding the cries of loneliness, dispossession, and desolation from its worship, the church has effectively silenced and excluded the voices of those who are themselves lonely, dispossessed, and desolate, both inside and outside the church … as if the idea of a broken-hearted, lonely, or despairing Christian was so absurd as to be comical.”[1] 

If that is what we think, then we haven’t read our Bibles very well. The Psalms, for example, give voice to the entire range of human emotion set to the musical strains of worshipful song. Elsewhere we find God’s faithful people pouring out hurting hearts and suffering souls to Him in song. Habakkuk is an example of just such a believer, and the third chapter of his book is an example of just such a song.

How did we get here? Let us remember that in Chapter 1, we found the prophet worrying and wondering. He was bewildered by the besetting sin of his own nation, and troubled even more by God’s seeming indifference and inactivity. He became even more troubled when God began to reveal what He was doing – raising up the godless Babylonians to bring judgment on Judah. This was, in Habakkuk’s mind, inconsistent with God’s own character.

Coming to Chapter 2, we find Habakkuk watching and waiting. As God unfolded the answer to Habakkuk’s many questions and concerns, the prophet silenced himself before the Lord. Five woes were pronounced upon the Babylonians, even as God’s people were reminded of three promises: the just will live by faith (v4); the knowledge of the glory of the Lord will cover the earth as waters cover the sea (v14); and the Lord reigns from His sovereign throne in His holy temple (v20).

Now we come to Chapter 3, and we find Habakkuk no longer worrying and wondering, no longer watching and waiting. Rather, he is now worshiping and witnessing. As Wiersbe puts it so well, “Habakkuk started in the valley, but he ended up on the mountaintop! He started with sighing and ended with singing. He started with perplexity, and he ended with praise.”[2]

How do we know that the prophet now sings? The notations within the third chapter make it plain. Like so many of the Psalms, the hymns of the Hebrew people, we have technical notations at the very beginning and the very end of the third chapter, along with a threefold repetition of the word, “Selah,” in verses 3, 9, and 13. This precise meaning of this term is unknown, but it seems to be a word that introduces a meditative pause, perhaps where instrumental music would play between the verses of a song. The statement in the final verse, “For the choir director, on my stringed instruments,” makes it clear that the poem is to be set to music and sung publicly. The mysterious phrase, “on Shigionoth” in verse 1 is also very difficult to explain with certainty. That is why the English versions tend to just transliterate the Hebrew word instead of translating it. Psalm 7 is said to be a “Shiggaion of David, which he sang to the Lord,” and the word shigionoth here in Habakkuk is likely a plural form of the same word. So it is obviously some sort of musical directive, referring perhaps to the instruments that would accompany the song, or the style in which it was to be played. It may also refer to the specific tune to which the song is set, similar to what we find in our own hymnals where the hymn title is found at the top of the page, and the name of the hymn tune is found at the bottom.

So, we know it is a song, and I have called it a “prayerful song,” because verse 1 says that it is a prayer of Habakkuk the prophet. Only in verse 2 do we find words of petition in which the prophet is asking the Lord to do something, so we will limit our study today to the threefold request that is found in that portion of the song. But before we do that, we must give a moment of consideration to what prompts this prayerful song. Habakkuk says, “Lord, I have heard the report about You and I fear.” In verse 5 of Chapter 1, God began to give the report to Habakkuk of what He was doing in the world through the events of the prophet’s day. He explained that He was bringing the Chaldeans – the Babylonians – in to invade and conquer Judah as a means of judgment and discipline for the sins of the Jewish people: their idolatry, their immorality, and their injustice. But then in Chapter 2, He explained to Habakkuk that the righteous would be saved on the basis of their faith in God, and the Babylonians themselves would fall under the judgment of God for their excessive violence, arrogance, and destruction. Habakkuk says, “I have heard all of this.” For Habakkuk, it wasn’t a message about Judah, or a message about Babylon. It was a message about God! “I have heard the report about You,” he says. And we know he believed it because he says, “and I fear.”

The Hebrew word means “to stand in awe,” or “to tremble.” In Isaiah 66:2, the Lord said, “To this one I will look, to him who is humble and contrite of spirit, and who trembles at My word.” Habakkuk was doing just that. In verse 16 he says that his inward parts trembled, his lips quivered, his bones were like they were decaying, and his legs were trembling in the place where he stood. So from head to toe, and everywhere in between, Habakkuk was trembling in the awestruck fear of the Lord as he considered His word. And now that he had heard, and believed, the report of the Lord, he could speak once more. This time it was not to question, argue, or inquire of the Lord. This time it was to pray and to praise, and to lead God’s people in a prayerful song of worship and witness.

And so we have this prayerful song of a trembling believer. Verse two contains three specific requests made to the Lord which are as relevant to us today as they were to those of Habakkuk’s generation. Like Habakkuk, we are perplexed by the things we see happening within our own nation, and the events going on in the world around us. Like Habakkuk, we have asked the Lord the questions of “Why?” and “How long?” We have been puzzled over God’s purpose and plan in the midst of the degradation and chaos of our times. Unlike Habakkuk, we do not have a specific answer from the Lord about what exactly He is doing in our midst. Nevertheless, we can share Habakkuk’s confidence that God is at work, and that God is good. So whatever it is that He is doing will prove in the end to be for the good of His people and the glory of His own name. And therefore we can sing to Him this song of prayerful worship as well. With quivering lips and trembling spirits, standing before Him in awestruck fear, we bring to God the same requests that the prophet did so long ago. So what are these requests?

I. We pray for God’s will to be done.

When Jesus instructed His followers how to pray, He said, “Pray, then, in this way: ‘Our Father, who is in heaven, hallowed be Your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt 6:9-10). We often use that phrase when we pray, do we not? We say, “God, let Your will be done in this situation.” But often, when we say those words, they amount to something of a spiritual copout. It is a way of saying, “I don’t really know what to ask for,” or “I’m afraid to say what I really want here,” and so we resign ourselves to muttering almost reluctantly, “Thy will be done.” And yet, the Bible says that when we pray, we have the liberty to actually tell God what it is that we want. Philippians 4:6 says, “let your requests be made known to God.” Now, that doesn’t mean that God will always give us what we want, but He welcomes us to say it. But when we say, “Thy will be done,” what we are saying is not that we give up, or that we have no specific request to make. Rather, we are saying that we believe and accept that God is going to use whatever happens in our situation to further His will on earth. And that is how Habakkuk is praying here in verse 2.

He says, or sings rather, “O Lord, revive your work in the midst of the years.” The word “revive” has to do with keeping something going. “Don’t let it end. Don’t let it die.” That is what the prophet is asking the Lord to do. And what he wants the Lord to keep going is His “work.” What is that work? The Lord revealed it in Chapter 1. When Habakkuk complained that the Lord was doing nothing to deal with the iniquity of his own people and nation, the Lord said to him, “Look among the nations! Observe! Be astonished! Wonder! Because I am doing something in your days— you would not believe if you were told. For behold, I am raising up the Chaldeans …” (1:5-6a). Following that announcement, Habakkuk began to protest that God was not dealing rightly with His people. But now that God has announced the rest of the details, including what His faithful ones can expect and how the Babylonians will themselves be judged, Habakkuk is able to say, “Lord, do not stop what You are doing!” He has accepted the will of the Lord.

You may remember those old jelly commercials that said, “With a name like Smuckers, it has to be good.” Well, I don’t know how true that is for jelly, but we know for certain than when a work is being done by God, it has to be good! Habakkuk has come to accept this, and to welcome it. “God, keep doing what You are doing, because if You are the one doing it, then I am all for it!” That is what he was saying, and that is what we must say too. Friends, I am as perplexed and concerned for our nation in these days as anyone is. I do not have any special insights into what the ultimate divine plan is for America. We seem to be in a moral death spiral, watching our freedoms evaporate, and having no real assurance that the impending election will change things one way or another for good. I have no reason to think that things will get better before they get worse. But I know this: God is always at work. I know that Jesus said He would never abandon His people. I know that He has been faithful to uphold His promise to build His church in the midst of the most unimaginable oppression and persecution throughout history. And I know that the Bible assures us that there is no authority on earth except for that which God establishes and allows (Rom 13:1). So, even though I do not know what it is that God is doing, I know that if He is doing it, it will prove to be good in His time, and He will do it well. So, like Habakkuk, we too can pray, “O Lord, keep your work going in the midst of these years! We accept that your will is going to be done!”

II. We pray for God’s word to be known.

In his private dialog with God, Habakkuk has been made privy to information that his fellow countrymen do not have. Now, sometimes we like having secret information – it can be somewhat empowering to be able to say, “I know something you don’t know!” But what Habakkuk has been told by the Lord does not need to remain a secret!

Throughout the nation, there are others like Habakkuk who remain faithful to the Lord. They are perplexed and burdened about the condition of their nation. They are fearful about the rumors they hear that the Babylonians are coming. The news that Habakkuk has received from the Lord has transformed his perspective, and he knows that it will do the same for others who trust in the Lord as well.

But there are also many in Judah who have rebelled against the Lord. Their rebellion has been the catalyst for this impending judgment. While the wheels that have been set in motion by God’s providence will not be halted, for individuals who hear and heed the message that God has delivered to the prophet, there is still hope. As long as there is life, there is the hope for repentance and a returning to the Lord. So, this message will be a much needed warning to those in Judah who have turned away from the Lord. If only they knew what Habakkuk knows, then perhaps they would turn from their sins and be saved!

So Habakkuk prays, even in song, “In the midst of the years, make it known.” In other words, “God, do not let this message come to me alone – let everyone know it and understand it! Let the righteous be encouraged by it and let the wicked be warned by it.” The eyes of the people must be opened to the realities of what God is doing. And so the prophet prays, because that is something only God can do.

It reminds me of that scene in 2 Kings 6 when Elisha was under siege by the forces of the king of Aram. When Elisha’s servant saw all the horses and chariots that surrounded them, he was terrified. But Elisha said, “Do not fear, for those who are with us are more than those who are with them.” The servant must have been puzzled. He had seen the horses and the chariot of the enemy. And he knew how to count. “Hmm. Two of us, a whole bunch of them. I beg to differ,” he probably thought. But Elisha began to pray, “O Lord, I pray, open his eyes that he may see.” And the Lord opened the servants eyes, and he was able to see a host of spiritual forces encamped around them. We are so often like that servant – blind and oblivious to what God is doing around us. The only resolution is for the Lord to open our eyes! And that is what Habakkuk was praying for the Lord to do to his countrymen. “Make the message known to them, Lord, so that they will see what it is that You are doing in the midst of all this mess!”

This is how we must pray in our day as well. There are Christians who are perplexed and in despair about the political climate of our nation, who speak and act as though God were at risk of being dethroned in the upcoming election! O God, make Your word known to them! Encourage them by the promises of Your word! And then there are those who believe that they can sin with abandon and never have to give account to God for their actions. Sixty million unborn children have been murdered in the womb in America since Roe v. Wade, and people fight for the right to make this a legitimate option of birth control. Our nation has embraced every form of sexual deviance to the extent that we actually have serious political discussions going on about who is male and who is female, and which bathrooms people should use! Every young African-American male and every police officer steps out of their front door every morning unsure if they will return home that evening as violence rages in our cities. Drug and alcohol abuse are destroying lives and families. And people have done exactly what the Apostle Paul says in Romans 1:18 – they have suppressed the plain truth of God in their unrighteousness. It is more convenient for them to deny God’s existence than it is to consider that they will one day stand before Him in judgment. It is time for the people of God to pray! And how do we pray? Do we pray for God to consume them with fire from heaven? No, for if we prayed thusly, we ourselves would not be exempt from the judgment! Rather we pray as Habakkuk did, and as Elisha did – “Lord, open their eyes! Make Your truth known to them! Make them understand in the way that only You can!”

But how will God do that? Will He write a message in the clouds? Will He preempt prime time television for a special satellite feed from heaven? No! He has a better plan than that. He has entrusted the saving message of Jesus Christ to His church and commissioned us to go and tell this good news to everyone on earth. God’s “Plan A” for making the message known is for you and me to go and tell them. And He has no “Plan B.” So, as we pray for God to make the truth known to them, we are also committing ourselves to the mission. Here is the reality: you and I have more opportunity to impact the United States of America today than Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton have. And we have that opportunity, not on the second Tuesday of November, but every day. What is this opportunity? It is the opportunity to share the good news of Jesus with others. God has promised that His Spirit will move through the proclamation of that message to save souls, to transform lives, and to strengthen His people. God never promised to save America, or any other geopolitical entity on earth. He did promise to save individuals – Americans and those of every other ethnicity and nationality on earth – as they hear and respond to the good news of Jesus. So if you want to see our nation changed, it will happen as individual lives are changed. And individual lives are changed one by one as the gospel goes forth through the people of God. “In the midst of the years, O Lord, make it known!” This is our prayer – our prayerful song, if you will – that we ask for and accept God’s will to be done, and that we ask Him to make His word known, using us as His ambassadors to proclaim the message.

Now we come to the final petition in this prayerful song of the trembling believer …

III. We pray for God’s mercy to be shown.

The most foundational of all of God’s attributes is also likely His least understood attribute. It is His holiness. All of God’s attributes are grounded in His holiness. And because God is holy, He has to deal with sin in a holy and righteous judgment. If He didn’t, He would not be righteous and He would not be holy. Habakkuk knew this well enough – the Scriptures made it clear, and it was reinforced through his own experience with the Lord. David Prior says, “with God there is holy, righteous anger.”[3] We usually think of anger as a bad thing, and it certainly can be. But anger is not always sinful. The Bible actually tells us to “be angry, and yet do not sin” (Eph 4:26). There is a righteous indignation, a holy anger, that is the only appropriate response that a holy God can have toward sin. So Prior writes, “However long he bides his time, however quiet and distant he appears to have become, however much violence and greed he seems to bypass or overlook, there is woe and wrath for the unrighteous.”[4]

But Habakkuk also knows that, even though God is a God of righteous wrath, He is also a God who is rich in mercy. So even though the wrath that is coming for Judah is well-deserved because of the sin of the nation, Habakkuk prays that God will let that wrath be well-seasoned with His mercy. Justice involves getting what one deserves, and that is the wrath that is coming for Judah. Mercy, on the other hand, involves the withholding or lessening of what one deserves. That is what Habakkuk prays for, and he knows that God is able and willing to show that mercy. Over and over again in Scripture, God is described as the One who is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in lovingkindness and truth, who forgives iniquity, transgression, and sin, but who will neither let the guilty go unpunished (Ex 34:7; cf. 2 Chron 30:9; Psa 103:8; 111:4; 116:5; Joel 2:13; Jonah 4:2). So, even though the sins of the people are real and severe, so is the compassionate mercy and grace of God who is able and willing to forgive, to withhold or temper judgment, when there is a turning toward Him in repentance and faith.

Habakkuk’s prayer is that, as divine wrath comes upon the nation of Judah, God’s faithful remnant of believing people will be spared the worst of it, and that some of those who have rebelled against the Lord might return to Him and find saving mercy for themselves. Friends, this is our prayer as well. We do not know when or how judgment may fall upon our own nation, not to mention other nations where evil is rampant. But we know, based on God’s past dealings with the nations of the world, including the elect nation of Israel, that we cannot hope to escape it. History is replete with the rise and fall of nations  orchestrated by God’s providence. In fact, the description of wrath that is revealed in Romans 1 would indicate that it has already begun. There we find that God’s wrath is being revealed in the giving over of people to all manner of immorality and depravity. So it may well be that we should not speak of the judgment that is coming, but rather of the one that is ongoing in our day and time. It is certainly deserved. So, how should we pray? We should pray like Habakkuk did. “In wrath, remember mercy.” Lord, preserve Your church in the midst of these societal upheavals; and Lord, rescue the perishing by your saving mercy! For no matter what degree of judgment we have, or will experience, here and now, it pales in comparison to the ultimate and eternal judgment that is to come.

The Lord promised to Habakkuk in verse 4 of Chapter 2, “the righteous will live by faith.” Those who have been saved by faith in God’s promises will persevere and be preserved in that faith as well. Because of the saving work of Jesus Christ, we who trust in Him have been spared from the worst of what is to come. In wrath, God has remembered mercy. He put the wrath on Jesus as our substitute in judgment, and He puts the mercy upon us – taking away from us the judgment we deserve because Christ has taken it on our behalf; and granting to us a salvation we do not deserve by His grace.

In Noah’s day, the conditions of the world were described in this way: “Now the earth was corrupt in the sight of God, and the earth was filled with violence. God looked on the earth, and behold, it was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted their way upon the earth” (Gen 6:11-12). And we know what God did. In Abraham’s day, the twin cities of Sodom and Gomorrah were characterized by unchecked sexual deviance and violence. And we know what God did. In Isaiah’s day, the Northern Kingdom of Israel had turned away from the Lord and embraced idolatry and immorality; and the Lord brought in the Assyrians to execute His judgment upon them. And in Habakkuk’s day, because of the immorality, injustice, and idolatry of the Southern Kingdom of Judah, the Babylonians were chosen by God to bring judgment upon them. Friends, if God was willing to deal in this way with a nation that He had specially chosen and called to be His own people in the earth, can we really expect that America, Western Europe, or any other civilization to be treated any differently by Him when we repeatedly commit and give approval to the same sins?

As Walt Chantry writes, “Here is a prayer to keep in the pocket of your memory for those dark hours of judgment. Acquaint yourself with mercy in Christ, and be certain that you enter the upheavals of war, conquest, and oppression as a person of steadfast faith. Men and women of faith shine as jewels of mercy amidst the deepest gloom of sin and unbelief.”[5] So, let us be found in these days with a prayer on our lips and a song in our hearts, for we have heard the Lord’s report, and we tremble in awestruck belief. We pray for His will to be done; for His word to be known; and for His mercy to be shown.

[1] Carl R. Trueman, “What Can Miserable Christians Sing?” in The Wages of Spin: Critical Writings on Historical and Contemporary Evangelicalism (Christian Focus: 2004) 158-160.
[2] Warren W. Wiersbe, From Worry to Worship (Lincoln, Neb.: Back to the Bible, 1983), 96. The alliterative series, worrying and wondering, watching and waiting, worshiping and witnessing, also from the same source, pp. 95-96.
[3] David Prior, The Message of Joel, Micah & Habakkuk (The Bible Speaks Today; Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1998), 264.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Walter Chantry, Habakkuk: A Wrestler With God (CarlislePenn.: Banner of Truth, 2008), 73.

Monday, October 03, 2016

What Profit is the Idol? (Habakkuk 2:18-20)


The first and second of the Ten Commandments are pretty straightforward. The Lord God says, “You shall have no other gods before Me. You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or the water under the earth. You shall not worship them or serve them” (Ex 20:3-4). It is easy to think that idolatry is an issue that humanity has outgrown. Many of us do not regularly encounter temples or shrines where devotees make sacrifices and offerings as acts of worship before a statue. We might be tempted to think that higher education, sociological changes, and even perhaps intellectual evolution have rendered idolatry obsolete. If we have the privilege to travel the world or get to know people who come from other parts of the world, however, we will quickly realize that idolatry in its most overt forms is still prevalent today. Moreover, there are subtler forms of idolatry that are even more ubiquitous, perhaps even taking place unwittingly in our lives. That is how subtle idolatry is.

In our text today, the sin of idolatry is the primary focus. The context of this portion of Habakkuk has been dealing with the impending judgment on Babylon. Four pronouncements of “Woe” have been issued to this point for a variety of transgressions. And now we come to the final one, but it is actually a root cause of the others. Why has Babylon pillaged, plundered, enslaved, and killed so many people? They are idolaters. As Roberston writes, “Because their religious orientation was wrong, their moral standards had to be perverted.”[1] David Prior says similarly, “What we worship affects our choices and our lifestyles. The Babylonians had chosen idolatry, and their social and national life bore the inevitable trademarks of their consequent lifestyle.”[2] Therefore the judgment announced in this passage is well-deserved for the Babylonians.

However, Habakkuk’s words are not merely for the Babylonians. They were also for his fellow-countrymen. Had Judah itself not fallen into rampant idolatry and the sins that flowed out of it, they would not be facing the Babylonian invasion. God had raised up the Babylonians to bring judgment on Judah for its sins. The condemnation against idolatry here in this passage is intended to rebuke the Jewish idolater who erroneously believes that he will escape judgment because of his ethnic heritage as a citizen of God’s chosen nation. But even among the righteous in Judah, there would be a great temptation, upon seeing the Babylonians swiftly conquer their homeland, to conclude that the idols of other nations were mightier than the God of Israel. The words delivered through the prophet here were a stern warning to never turn aside from the worship of the one true God to idols.

The message is also for us still today, for idolatry can creep into our lives in little known or least expected ways. Few, if any, of us would carve statues to worship or go to shrines or temples to make sacrificial offerings. And yet idols can be found elsewhere in our lives from time to time, and we need to be able to identify them so that we can be on guard against them and turn away from them in devotion to the only God who really is.

Before we deal with how to identify the idols in our lives, let us dive into our text and discover the answer to the question that the prophet rhetorically poses in verse 18: “What profit is the idol” The short answer is, “The idol is of absolutely no profit!” So there you go. We can just have the benediction and be on our way. This could be the shortest sermon I’ve ever preached. No, rather, we must look at what our text says about why the idol is of no profit. And there are three reasons set forth.

I. The idol is a powerless god created in the image of the one who crafts it. (v18)

The Bible tells us that mankind was created in the image of God. Scholars have debated for centuries what, exactly, this all entails. The full and detailed meaning of “the image of God” in which we were created will likely never be understood until we get to heaven, but at a minimum, we can understand that there are ways in which human beings have been made to be like the God who made us. Most commonly, it is said that this includes having a mind, a will, and emotions. It certainly goes beyond this to include the ability to communicate, the ability to create, and the capacity for relationships – including a relationship with Him. The image of God also seems to encompass being God’s representatives in exercising authority in the created world.

Because of our sinfulness, inherent within us since the fall of Adam, the image of God in man is distorted, but it is not destroyed. It is still present, but corrupted. Our mind, will and emotions are disordered and run contrary to the will of God. We communicate, but often what and how we communicate is not honoring to God. We create things to serve our own misguided desires. We abuse authority in self-serving rather than God-serving ways. And our relationships become theaters of our depravity. This includes our relationship with God. Rather than worshiping and serving God the creator, we have an innate tendency to worship and serve the creation. Paul says it this way in Romans 1, “Professing to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures. … They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever” (Rom 1:22, 25). We see it in nearly every culture of the world. Temples are filled with statues and images of deities who look like men and animals and are said to possess the power to affect daily life and experience. Rocks and trees are set apart as sacred and viewed as possessing supernatural powers.

Habakkuk says that all this religious zeal that takes place around the altars and shrines of idols is completely without profit. It is a powerless thing that has been crafted by the artistry of men. The word translated idol in verse 18 refers to something carved from wood, and the word for image that follows it refers to something made from molten metal. The idea is that a carver has taken a piece of wood, made it into an image, covered it with gold or silver, and then set it up as the god he will worship. How quickly he has forgotten or ignored the fact that it is “his own handiwork.”

Isaiah describes the folly of it. He says that a man plants a tree and watches it grow, and then he cuts it down. “Half of it he burns in the fire; over this half he eats meat as he roasts a roast and is satisfied. He also warms himself and says, ‘Aha! I am warm, I have seen the fire.’ But the rest of it he makes into a god, his graven image. He falls down before it and worships; he also prays to it and says, ‘Deliver me, for you are my god’” (44:16-17). He says that those who do this “do not know, nor do they understand,” they do not remember, so as to realize, “I have burned half of it in the fire … Then I make the rest of it into an abomination, I fall down before a block of wood!” (44:19).

The idolater does not ask, “What does God want for me, or require of me?” Rather the idolater asks, “What do I want, and what would I require of a god?” And then he makes that thing, and sets it up to serve his wants and needs. If he wants money or possessions, he makes an idol of prosperity. Then he goes and does what he wants to attain that prosperity, and says, “Well, my god did not tell me not to do this, or stop me from doing it.” Right! Because this god is powerless. He was made in the image of its maker. But we were made in the image of our Maker, and our lives were meant to be lived to serve and worship Him. The idol is of no profit or value because it is a powerless god which is nothing more than the handiwork of sinful human beings trying to make a god in their own image and imagination.

Now, secondly, we see that …
II. The idol is a speechless god deceiving the one who calls upon it. (vv18-19)

There are some people who are so prone to dishonesty that it is sometimes said of them, “You can tell they are lying because their lips are moving.” It would be a terrible thing to have that kind of reputation. Well, the idol’s lips never move, and yet it always lies. Notice that verse 18 says that the idol is a teacher of falsehood, and then says idols are “speechless.” That phrase “speechless idols” at the end of the verse could be just as well rendered, “dumb dumbies,” in the sense that dumb means unable to speak. But though they are silent and speechless, they are persuasive communicators. What they communicate, however, are falsehoods that deceive those who call upon them.

Positioned on an altar or in a place of prominence, the idol claims to be something it is not. It claims to be a deity and that it is worthy of worship and service. How can that be, when it is merely the handiwork of a craftsman? Not only does it claim to be something that it is not, but it also promises what it cannot deliver. The idolator is deceived into thinking that the idol is able to meet his or needs, to work and move powerfully on his or her behalf, to impart wisdom into his or her life. It cannot! It is merely an inaminate object! It can do none of the above. It claims to be something it is not, it promises what it cannot deliver, and also it cannot respond to the prayers it receives. One says to it, “Awake!” and another, “Arise!”, yet another, “This is our teacher!” But the idol cannot awaken, arise, or teach. It sits there like a bump on a log, because it is nothing more than a bump on a log.

Some years ago, I toured a Hindu temple in which the devout old priest walked us around showing us the gods which are worshiped there. He even called them idols. One, he said, was Vishnu – the four armed human figure holding various items in each of his four hands. Another he said was Shiva – another human figure who wears a cobra like a necklace. And then his voice began to shake as we came to the statue of Ganesha – the elephant-headed god. He said, “This is the god that I am most devoted to.” He described how he began his day. He would enter the temple and ring the bell to awaken Ganesha from his sleep, and then he would come and remove the idol from its bed and remove its pajamas. He would then bathe Ganesha in milk, because, in his words, “Ganesha likes the milk.” Then he would dress Ganesha in his clean clothes for the day, place him on the altar, and set before him his breakfast of fruit slices. And then he would prostrate himself before the idol and pray. Hearing the emotion in his voice, it suddenly dawned on me that this man was not mindlessly engaging in the rituals of an inherited tradition. He sincerely believed that this statue was his god, and he treated him as such. That idol has never, can never, and will never say a word, but it has deceived this man into thinking that it is something that it is not. And there are untold multitudes in the world today who are just as deceived. This includes those who are deceived by the more subtle, yet equally dangerous forms of idolatry.

We come then to the final reason why the idol is of no profit …
III. The idol is a lifeless god which condemns the one who trusts in it. (v19)

By nature, we are trusting people. We want to trust, and choose where to place our trust based on various reasons. We come into the world trusting our parents. We tend to trust others whom we know well. We trust ourselves and our own abilities make important decisions and handle responsibilities that come our way. We even trust in inanimate objects. For example, when we apply pressure to the horizontal pedal on the left in the floorboard of our cars, we trust that the brakes will engage and bring the car to a stop. But trust can be broken, leaving us hurting and confused. We want to trust our government officials, but broken campaign promises and hollow rhetoric leave us puzzled about whether we can or should. We want to trust the authorities of justice, but injustice abounds and leaves us feeling as though we cannot. We want to trust those we love, but past heartbreaks tell us that we need to be careful.

There is, of course, a deeper level of trust reserved for life’s ultimate hopes and ambitions, and for eternal peace and rest. Whom, or what, do we trust to deliver upon those things? Do we trust ourselves to create our own destinies? Do we trust others to create opportunities for us or deliver us from trouble? When it comes to this deeper level of trust, the Bible is clear that God, and God alone, is worthy of our trust when it comes to the most important matters of life. The Psalmist said, “Trust in Him at all times, O people; Pour out your heart before Him; God is a refuge for us” (62:8). Again, “You who fear the Lord, trust in the Lord; He is their help and their shield” (115:11). Isaiah says, “Trust in the Lord forever, for in God the Lord, we have an everlasting Rock” (26:4). Blessing is promised to the one who so trusts the Lord: “Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord and whose trust is the Lord” (Jer 17:7). But when we cease or fail to trust in the Lord in this way, we do not suddenly find ourselves trusting no one or nothing. Instead, we begin to trust other things, maybe anything, perhaps everything, but always the wrong thing.

The Bible speaks of those who trust in riches (Prov 11:28); powerful people (Psa 146:3; Jer 17:5); human strength and power (Psa 20:7); beauty (Ezk 16:15); their own hearts and minds (Prov 28:26; 3:5); and even in evil (Isa 30:12).[3] And then there are those who trust in objects of their own making to do for them what only God can do. And anytime we trust in anyone or anything to do for us what God alone can do, we have entered into idolatry. As one scholar writes, “Idolatry is essentially the worship of that which we make, rather than of our Maker. And that which we make may be found in our possessions, a home, a career, an ambition, a family, or a multitude of other people or things. We ‘worship’ them when they become the focal point of our lives, that for which we live. And as the goal and centre of human existence, they are as foolish as any wooden idol or metal image.”[4]

This is why verse 19 says that the idol has “no breath at all inside of it.” The Hebrew word for “breath” here is the word ruach. It is an interesting word that can be translated as breath, life, or spirit. Often, it means all three, as it does here. Though the idol has been skillfully crafted, and overlaid with gold and silver, it has no spirit within it. It cannot breathe. It possesses no life. It is a dead thing. No matter what one trusts ultimately for life, death, and eternity, if it is not the Lord and Him alone, it is a dead thing. It has no life in itself and cannot impart life. The only thing it is able to do is condemn the one who trusts in it.

We begin to see now the danger of trusting in idols. Idolatry renders unto something or someone which is not God that level of devotion, of worship, of service of which God alone is worthy, even as it ascribes unto the idol the ability to do what God alone can do. It is an affront of the greatest severity to God, because it says to Him essentially, “You are not worthy of my worship, my devotion, and my service, because You cannot or will not do for me what I wish; therefore I will devote myself to the service and adoration of this other thing.” Is it any wonder then that the pronouncement of “Woe!” is given?

This word “woe” is at one and the same time a word of lament and a word of condemnation. It is a word of lament because it expresses pity upon the one cries out in vain for something other than God to do for it what only God can do. It is also a word of lament and pity because of the judgment that is coming for that one. “Woe” is a word of warning saying that one is falling under the judgment and condemnation of God. Because of the grievous rebellion and spiritual anarchy of idolatry, no one who trusts in idols can expect to find salvation and acceptance before the God who commands us to trust in Him alone. As the original NIV translates Jonah 2:8, “Those who cling to worthless idols forfeit the grace that could be theirs.” The lifeless idol has condemned the one who trusted in it.
Now that we understand the severity of idolatry, and the reasons why the idol is of no profit, we need to go on a search and destroy mission to identify and uproot the idols in our lives. The overt forms of idolatry are obvious. We know that graven images, be they statues, pictures, “good luck charms,” magical objects, etc. are not to be trusted, worshiped, or served. And few of us here today would knowingly do so. But we are all prone to fall prey to life’s more subtle forms of idolatry. To discover, there are texts and there are tests.

The texts are found in the New Testament. For example in 1 Corinthians, the Apostle Paul speaks of human beings in whom the Corinthian Christians have placed far too much trust. The Corinthians are saying to one another, “I am of Paul,” and “I of Apollos,” and “I of Cephas,” and “I of Christ” (1:12). Paul says, “Has Christ been divided? Paul was not crucified for you, was he? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?” (1:13). Friends, whether it is a favorite pastor or preacher (as was the case with the Corinthians), or a loved one such as a parent, grandparent, spouse, child, or dear friend, we must see to it that our devotion and affection to that one does not rival the affection and devotion of which only God-in-Christ is worthy. I cannot save you, but I can point you to the Savior who can. It is Christ and Him alone. Your parents or grandparents may have been great Christians, and by their faith in Christ, they will be saved. But by their faith in Christ, you cannot be saved. You must have your own!

Another text is Philippians 3:19, where Paul denounces those “whose god is their appetite.” I prefer the King James here, which says that their god “is their belly.” I always like to bring this one up as we get closer to lunchtime to make the people who are squirming with anticipation of getting out of church quickly feel awkward. I say that tongue in cheek, but it does illustrate Paul’s point. He is not talking about eating exclusively, but the sensate desires of our lives. He is speaking of the one whose life has become consumed with satisfying those desires of his natural flesh, be they food or drink, companionship, pleasure, possessions, etc. If one would disobey the word and will of God to satisfy a desire in one’s life, then that desire has become an idol. A related text is Colossians 3:5, in which Paul says that greed (or covetousness) “amounts to idolatry.” The thing which I want so badly that I would turn away from God in order to possess it is my idol. If I attain it, it will not satisfy me ultimately because it cannot. That desire is in my life to train me that true satisfaction cannot be found in earthly things, but in relationship with God alone.

So there are these texts which help us identify our idols, and then there is a series of practical tests.

(1) The Test of Devotion – What is it that you love more than anything else in life?
(2) The Test of Dependence – In whom, or in what, do you ultimately trust? That is, what or whom do you trust to carry you through life and death, to deliver you from trouble both now and in eternity? To whom or to what do you turn when trouble arises?
(3) The Test of Delight – What gives you the most pleasure and satisfaction?
(4) The Test of Decision – When there is an important decision to make, what or who guides you?
(5) The Test of Desire – What is it that you long for more than anything, the thing of which you would say, “If I only had that, my life would be complete”?
(6) The Test of Disaster – What are you most afraid of losing in your life? What is it which, if destroyed, would make you feel that life was no longer worth living?
(7) The Test of Destiny – Supposing that you had the assurance of life everlasting in heaven, what is it that you most look forward to once you are there? In other words, “If I cannot have ____________ in heaven, then I do not want to go.”[5]

Friends, if the answer to any of those questions is something other than God, then you have discovered your idol. God alone must be the object of our highest devotion, the ground of our foundational trust, and the source of our utmost satisfaction. He alone is a sure and certain guide through life’s difficulties and decisions. He alone can make our lives complete in a personal relationship with Him. He alone must be what we long for most of all in heaven. If heaven meant having anything and everything else besides Him, then it would not be heaven at all. To have heaven is to have Him, and to have Him is to know that we have heaven as well. And the best news is that if we have Him, we can never lose Him, nor will He lose us. If we have God and lose all else, then we have not lost anything. If we have everything and do not have God, then we will lose all either in life or death. 

In contrast to the idol which cannot speak, which cannot breathe or impart life, which only deceives and condemns the one who trusts in it, we have a God who is alive, who does speak, who is able to teach us truth, and who can save those who call upon Him. Thus the prophet says in verse 20, “But the Lord is in His holy temple. Let all the earth be silent before Him.” Wiersbe says, “Instead of talking to a silent idol, we have a speaking God who tells us to be silent.”[6] Habakkuk understood that he was included in the summons to silence. All his speculations, all his questions and complaints, and even his repeated prayers to God about the troubles of his day must cease as he bows before the throne of heaven, from which God speaks with a voice that drowns out all others. Unlike the idols who have no life, breath, or spirit within them, God imparts to us His word, breathed out into the inspired pages of Scripture telling us to turn away from our idols and entrust ourselves to Him, to worship Him, and to serve Him. And this divine and eternal Word of God became one of us to die for our rebellious idolatry and receive in Himself all of the woes that are due to us in the condemnation of righteous judgment. In contrast to the idol who has no life, Jesus lived our life for us and laid His life down to save us. And where the idol is powerless to save anyone, Jesus is mighty to save everyone who turns away from vain idols and casts themselves upon His mercy. If you will silence yourself before Him, you can hear Him saying, “A righteous God and a Savior; there is none except Me. Turn to Me and be saved, all the ends of the earth; for I am God, and there is no other” (Isa 45:22).

[1] O. Palmer Robertson, The Books of Nahum, Habakkuk, and Zephaniah (New International Commentary on the Old Testament; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990), 207.
[2] David Prior, The Message of Joel, Micah & Habakkuk (The Bible Speaks Today; Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1998), 257.
[3] Waylon Bailey, “Habakkuk,” in Kenneth L. Barker and Waylon Bailey, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah (New American Commentary, vol. 20; Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1998), 347.
[4] Peter C. Craigie, cited in Prior, 259.
[5] This list is adapted from Warren Wiersbe, From Worry to Worship (Lincoln, Neb.: Back to the Bible, 1983), 92-93.
[6] Wiersbe, 93.