Thursday, June 09, 2016

Habakkuk: A Background Study

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

A Background Study on Habakkuk


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

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

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

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

Historical Setting

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

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

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

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


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

Habakkuk in the New Testament

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

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

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

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

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

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

Whereas in Romans, Paul sets forth the case that righteousness is imputed by faith in Christ, and in Galatians that it is faith alone which secures this righteousness before God (apart from works of the Law), the writer of Hebrews takes the application of Habakkuk 2:4 to the next leg of the spiritual journey. Having been made righteous by faith (and faith alone) in Christ alone, “you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God you may receive what was promised” (Heb 10:35). This endurance is necessary because of “conflict of sufferings … reproaches and tribulations … seizure of property” (10:32-34). Endurance through these hardships demonstrates that “you have for yourselves a better possession and a lasting one” (10:34). This endurance must be enacted by the continual abiding in that same saving faith that initially united the believer to Christ. “For yet in a very little while, He who is coming will come, and will not delay. But my righteous one shall live by faith; and if he shrinks back, my soul has no pleasure in him. But we are not of those who shrink back to destruction, but of those who have faith to the preserving of the soul” (10:37-39).

Key Doctrines

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


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

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

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

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

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

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