Monday, July 25, 2016

God is ... (Habakkuk 1:12-13a)

“When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” That’s the old saying. But where do the tough go when the going gets tough? If we take Scripture seriously, as well we should, then we know that we go to the Lord in prayer when the going gets tough. The Bible does not sugar coat life in this fallen world. The people of faith whose lives are described in these pages were real people who lived real lives in the real world. They endured hardships and difficulties as great as, or greater than, any that we have experienced. Though their circumstances and specific struggles varied, one thing they have in common is that each one found prayer to be a refuge in the storm.

The prophet Habakkuk is but one of many examples to whom we could point. His nation was filled with violence, corruption, and injustice. The righteous were oppressed by the wicked, and immorality was rampant. Habakkuk had prayed for a long time, with no answer, but then God spoke. His answer was not what Habakkuk wanted to hear. Things were about to get worse, as God had revealed to Habakkuk that He was raising up the Chaldeans (the Babylonians) to come in as agents of divine judgment in the land. The going had gotten tough and was about to get tougher. But these things did not drive Habakkuk away from the Lord. He returned repeatedly to the Lord in prayer in the face of these troubles.

Why did he do that? What is it about the Lord that keeps us coming back to Him in prayer when the going gets tough? We come to Him time and time again because of who we know Him to be. Because of who He is, we can entrust to Him the concerns and burdens of our hearts and souls. So, who is He? As we examine this portion of Habakkuk’s prayer, we find a vivid description of who God is and what He is like.

Habakkuk addresses his prayer to God in a specific and personal way. He is not crying out to some indistinct deity with agnostic desperation. He calls upon the Lord by name. In verse 12, he addresses Him as “Lord,” and when English versions use all capital letters for “Lord,” it is an indication that the Hebrew word underlying this translation is the divine name YHWH. This is the name by which the Lord revealed Himself to Moses at the burning bush, saying, “I Am that I Am.” The name is related to the Hebrew verb “to be,” and speaks of God’s self-existence. He was not created by anyone or anything else, nor is He dependent upon anyone or anything else. The very mention of His name tells us that He alone is the only God who is. Habakkuk called Him by that name which testifies to His existence and His attributes.

The attributes of God are not like pearls on a string, which may be removed from one another and examined in isolation. Rather, they are like facets of a diamond, which can only be appreciated fully when seen in relationship to the other attributes. God’s attributes are revealed to us in Scripture, and seldom do we find a single attribute stated in isolation. They cannot be separated. As Tozer noted, “almost every heresy … has arisen from believing about God things that are not true, or from overemphasizing certain true things so as to obscure other things equally true. … We can hold a correct view of truth only by daring to believe everything that God has said about Himself.”[1] In Habakkuk’s prayer, he shows us that he dares to do just such a thing. He believes what God has said about Himself – all of it! And, as he calls out to Him in prayer, he reminds us of who this God is and what He is like. He is YHWH, the eternal, omnipotent, holy, faithful, sovereign, and steadfast One. And that is good news for us when the going gets tough, because we can get going to Him in prayer.

I. YHWH is the eternal God.

Whenever we sing John Newton’s hymn “Amazing Grace,” we sing a stanza that is not original to the song. It says, “When we’ve been there ten thousand years, bright shining as the sun, we’ve no less days to sing God’s praise than when we’d first begun.” We don’t know who wrote those words, or when they first began to be sung with the hymn. [2] But these words express how we typically think of the concept of “eternity.” Yet, this is really not what we mean when we speak of God’s eternal nature. It does not mean that He has existed for an infinite succession of days past, and will for an infinite succession of days future.

We have to measure life in days and weeks, months and years, and in terms of past, present, and future, because it is all we know from our experience. But, there is no such passage of time with God. God created time, but He is neither contained within it nor confined by it. Before He created time, He existed in a dimension where there is no time or passage of time. That dimension is eternity. The events we perceive as past, present, and future, are all present before Him in one eternal “now.” Thus, Jesus can say, “Before Abraham was, I am” (Jn 8:58). God can say of Himself, “I am God, and there is no one like Me, declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times things which have not been done” (Isa 46:10). Peter says of Him, “with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years like one day” (2 Pe 3:8).

If you and I watch a Christmas parade from the curb, we would see the participants go by one at a time: marching band, then the civic club float, then the military unit, and then Santa Claus at the very end. This is very much how we perceive the passage of time: one thing happening, followed by another. But, if we could watch from a hot-air balloon, we would see the beginning and the end of it, and everything in between, in one glance. In a very limited analogy, we can say this is how God exists. He is above and beyond time. He is eternal. He had no beginning, He will have no end. So, we can come to Him and cry out to Him, knowing that the end is already well known to Him and well established in His divine plan. We might fret about the present, but God does not. He knows how we got here, and He knows how it will all end. So Habakkuk cries out in the midst of his crises, and we should too, “Are you not from everlasting, O Lord?”

II. YHWH is the omnipotent God.

The third commandment says, “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain” (Ex 20:7). It has to do with referring to God in a meaningless and empty way. So, if one were to exclaim, “Oh my God!,” would that be a violation of this commandment? In many cases, yes. It is a meaningless exclamation, where any or every word might as well be used. But, there are times in this fallen world when the expression “Oh my God!” is not a meaningless exclamation but a desperate plea for the help of Almighty God. When we watch events unfold such as we have seen in our nation and our world over the last few weeks and months, it is entirely appropriate for the people of God to cry out in brokenness, “Oh my God!”

Habakkuk does that here in verse 12. “Are you not from everlasting, O Lord, my God.” He is not taking the Lord’s name in vain; He is calling on that name in a cry for divine deliverance and help! And the word translated “God” in our text is the Hebrew word Elohim. It is the third word of the Hebrew Bible, occurring in Genesis 1:1. In the beginning, Elohim created the heavens and the earth. The case could be made that all we need to understand about the Trinity is bound up within that name, but time does not permit us to do so today. Instead, we must focus on how Habakkuk casts himself upon God as the all-powerful One, the One who created and sustains this world and for whom nothing is impossible.

When things were dark and difficult in his day, Habakkuk could turn to the God who created this world and all that is within and around it by merely speaking a word of His power. When we say that God is omnipotent, we mean that God has the power to do all that He wills to do, and more. Tozer says, “All His acts are done without effort. He expends no energy that needs to be replenished.”[3] Genesis 18:14 asks, “Is anything too difficult for the Lord?” Jeremiah said, “Ah Lord God! Behold, You have made the heavens and the earth by Your great power and by Your outstretched arm! Nothing is too difficult for You” (Jer 32:17). The angel said to Mary, “Nothing will be impossible with God” (Lk 1:37), and Jesus said, “with God all things are possible” (Mt 19:26). So, when we are perplexed, we can turn to this omnipotent God with the confidence that there is nothing that He cannot do.

III. YHWH is the holy God.

To say that God is holy is to say that He is entirely different from anything and everything else. There is nothing like Him. We cannot merely think of something good, and then multiply it exponentially and say that is what God is like. He is infinitely beyond even the best that we can imagine. He is separate and distinct from all that He has made, and is “exalted above them in infinite majesty.”[4] Angels surround Him in heaven, crying out “Holy, Holy, Holy” (Isa 6:3; Rev 4:8). If there is one attribute of God that is central and supreme, it is His holiness. Every other attribute of God is saturated with holiness.

Holiness also encompasses God’s perfect moral character. A moment ago, I said there is nothing God cannot do. I need to clarify that, because the Bible actually says there are several things that are impossible for Him to do. He cannot lie (Num 23:19; Heb 6:18) or change His mind (1 Sam 15:29); He cannot deny Himself (2 Tim 2:13); He cannot sin or be tempted to sin (Jas 1:13); and He cannot change (Jas 1:17). He cannot be anything other than perfectly pure and righteous at all times.

Habakkuk calls out to God as the Holy One, and says, “Your eyes are too pure to approve evil, and You cannot look on wickedness with favor.” Knowing that God is holy emboldens us as we come to Him in prayer, because we know that He do all things well. He will act rightly on behalf of His own. He will oppose sin and uphold righteousness in His own way and in His own time. He cannot let evil win the day, and will execute perfect judgment and justice. In times when evil and terror seem to be running rampant, like they were in Habakkuk’s day, like they are in our day, it helps us to know that we can cry out to a holy God who can not only do anything, but will do everything in perfect righteousness.

IV. YHWH is the faithful God.

Because Habakkuk knows that God is omnipotent and holy, he knows that God cannot lie, change His mind, or go back on His word. He will keep every promise He has ever made. That is why Habakkuk can say in verse 12, “We will not die.” All outward signs indicate that the nation of Judah is on the brink of destruction and annihilation. They are inwardly self-destructing, and on the verge of being overrun by the Babylonians and carried away in captivity. Things do not look good from Habakkuk’s vantage point. But he knows that God has made certain and specific promises to Israel that He will keep because He is faithful.

We have this same assurance as we approach the Lord in prayer in difficult days. Are there promises that He has made to us in His word? Surely there are! He has promised to never leave us nor forsake us. He has promised us a way of escape in temptation and the indwelling strength to withstand it. He has promised to work in and through us to will and to do His good purpose. He has promised that He will complete the work He has begun in us, until we are glorified in His presence. Jesus has promised that He will not lose a single one that the Father has given to Him, and He will raise us up on the last day. He has promised heavenly glories beyond the ability of human language to express. He has not promised that our lives in this world will be easy, but He has promised that our lives will not come to an end in this world, for a better one awaits us. So we cast ourselves upon Him and recite before Him in prayer every single one of His promises in the faith that He will certainly deliver on each and every one of them. People will lie to us, and will break their promises to us. They will betray us and disappoint us. But God will never do this because He is faithful to His word. We can say with Habakkuk, “We will not die!” We have been promised a life that continues on eternally through faith in Jesus!

V. YHWH is the sovereign God.

The American government, thankfully, was established with a system of checks and balances to prevent any one branch from having unlimited authority. The president can only do so much without the approval of congress. The congress can only pass such laws as the courts deem constitutional, and so on. There is no individual or body within our government that is sovereign. But God is sovereign. That means that He is not subject to anyone or anything else. He can do whatsoever He wills to do, and does not require permission or approval to do it. He doesn’t answer to anyone but Himself. He cannot be hindered, compelled or stopped from doing what He pleases “always, everywhere, forever.”[5]

This is why Habakkuk can say, upon hearing that God is raising up the Babylonians to come against Judah, “You, O Lord, have appointed them to judge; and You, O Rock, have established them to correct.” God does not need the prophet’s permission to use any nation or individual of His own choosing to accomplish His purposes. Nothing happens in the world without His knowledge, apart from His divine decree, and outside of His purposes. This does not mean that God is responsible for evil or unjust suffering in the world. There are things that He allows, or that He does not prevent, of which He does not approve, but all of them fall within His ability to use them for His good purposes. Some terrible thing may come upon you in life (and will if you live long enough), but this does not mean that God did it to you, or that God needed it to happen to accomplish His purposes. Because of sin’s corruption in the human race and in this world, evil and suffering can and often do happen for no reason whatsoever. But they do not take God by surprise, they occur within the realm of His permissive will, and they can be used by God for good, even if they did not occur for that reason. He answers to no one, but everyone and everything ultimately answers to Him.

I do not know if I could ever get a decent night’s sleep if I were not completely convinced of the sovereignty of God. When things are at their worst, what a comfort it is to us to cry out to a God who knows what has happened, who can do something about it, do something with it, and do something for us in the midst of it. That is what Habakkuk is doing here in his prayer, and it is what we must do as well. Call out to this sovereign God.

VI. YHWH is the steadfast God.

Habakkuk calls upon God as a “Rock.” The image is one of stability, strength, and steadfastness. Everything in this world is shifting and changing, even ourselves. The only thing that seems to never change in life is that change is always happening. Heraclitus, the ancient Greek philosopher, famously said that no man can ever step into the same river twice, because the man has changed, and the river has changed. Everything is always changing around us and within us. The world seems to change daily. Our nation has changed dramatically within our lifetimes. We are always changing, getting better or worse, growing and declining in various ways at all times. It is as if we are sinking in quicksand, desperately seeking some immovable object upon which we can rest our weight for leverage. And the unchangeable, immovable One is God Himself, the Rock.

Habakkuk looks out upon a changing nation and a changing world, and he reposes Himself in the Rock that never changes. God says in Malachi 3:16, “I, the Lord, do not change.” With Him, James says, “there is no variation or shifting shadow” (1:17). He is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Heb 13:8). And so we can call out to Him in prayer in difficult days and find in Him sure footing on which to stand when all around us and within us is shifting and sinking. He is a Rock!

But the best news of all is this …

VII. YHWH is my God!

It would be tempting to read Habakkuk’s words here as a dry, academic theology lesson. That would miss the point greatly! He is not merely telling us what God is like; he is calling out to this God in the confidence that he will be heard and answered because of the personal relationship that he has with God. He calls Him “my God, my Holy One” in verse 12. In a special sense, Habakkuk can say that this God belongs to him, because in an even greater sense, he belongs to this God. And friends, the most important attribute of God for you to cling to in your time of desperate need is this – all that He is in His divine nature, is yours if you belong to Him by faith. And He has done all that is necessary to make that relationship possible.

This eternal God has stepped into time. The omnipotent God has done for us what we could not do for ourselves. The holy God has dealt with sin fully and finally while demonstrating his perfect love and mercy to us, offering to us His own holiness in exchange for our sins. The faithful God has upheld every promise of His word. The sovereign God has called us out of sin and death into a personal relationship with Him. The Rock has become the stone that the builders rejected, and the chief cornerstone of the true temple of God that He is building for Himself. Of course, He has done all of this in Jesus Christ. The God whom we have described in these magnificent terms has become one of us. He became a man in the person of Jesus Christ, and lived the life of perfect holiness that He has required of us all. He lived that life for us, and then He died for us the death that we all deserve because of our sins. In His death, our sins receive the full measure of divine judgment as Christ bears them in our place. By His resurrection, He ever lives to save those who will call upon Him by faith and trust Him as Lord and Savior. If you never have, you can do so today! And if you have, then you can say that this majestic and awesome God is yours by faith, and you are His. You can call out to Him as a child calling out to a loving Father, because that is what He has promised to be to you, and to treat you as His own sons and daughters. Whatever comes our way in life, those who belong to God in this way are never alone, never forsaken, and never without hope. We have a God upon whom we can call. His name is YHWH. He is eternal. He is omnipotent. He is holy. He is faithful. He is sovereign. He is steadfast. He is Jesus, and He is mine.

[1] A. W. Tozer, Knowledge of the Holy (New York: HarperCollins, 1961), 79-80.
[2] We first find this stanza attached to “Amazing Grace” in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1852. See Steve Turner, Amazing Grace: The Story of America’s Most Beloved Song (New York: HarperCollins, 2002), 142.
[3] Tozer, 67.
[4] Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1949), 73.
[5] Tozer, 109. 

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