Monday, June 27, 2016

The Prophetic Burden (Habakkuk 1:1)


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

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

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

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

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

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

I. The Ordinary Man with the Extraordinary Calling 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

II. The Natural and Supernatural Burdens of the Prophet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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