Monday, July 18, 2016

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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