Sunday, July 10, 2016

God Moves in a Mysterious Way (Habakkuk 1:5-11)

God moves in a mysterious way, His wonders to perform; He plants His footsteps in the sea, And rides upon the storm. … Judge not the Lord by feeble sense, But trust Him for His grace; Behind a frowning providence He hides a smiling face. His purposes will ripen fast, Unfolding every hour; The bud may have a bitter taste, But sweet will be the flower….

These words were composed in the mid-1700s by the renowned hymnwriter William Cowper (pronounced, Cooper). Cowper wrestled his entire life with suffering, hardship, and crippling depression. But, once he became a follower of Jesus, though he still struggled greatly, he never lost his confidence in the sovereignty and goodness of God. He was able, with great spiritual insight, to see that the Lord’s hand had been at work in his most difficult days. But God, he learned, moves in a mysterious way His wonders to perform.

Perhaps you have walked with the Lord long enough to learn this lesson as well. Sometimes things don’t turn out like we’d planned or hoped. Sometimes our prayers do not get answered in the way that we wanted. In some of these situations, the passage of time and personal growth in spiritual wisdom will convince us that it was the Lord who was at work in all these things, bringing about a result that was far better than what we had hoped. At other times, the temptation will be great to wonder if He really does hear us when we pray, if He really does work for good in our lives, if He really does care for us at all. Habakkuk the prophet was no stranger to these temptations and trials of mind and soul.

If Charles Dickens were to write of Habakkuk’s day and age, he may say, “It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times.” The spiritual revival that had occurred in the reign of Josiah had ended with his death. Under his son Jehoiakim, the nation once again was plunged into idolatry, immorality, and injustice. The righteous had become an oppressed minority in the land, justice was perverted, and the Law of God was silenced. Habakkuk saw these things unfolding, and he cried out to God: “How long? Why?” He was unable to reconcile the evil which surrounded him with what he had come to believe about the nature of God. Worse, in response to his cries, there was only silence from heaven.

Finally, as we come to verse 5, the silence of heaven is broken and God speaks. His answer is a message for the entire nation. God has not been blind and deaf, unconcerned and uninvolved after all. He perceives the peril of His people; He sympathizes with the suffering of the saints. He declares that He is at work in the midst of it, though He moves in a mysterious way. His answer here is both comforting and confounding.[1] It is a direct verbal announcement about what is soon to take place in the nation. Like Habakkuk, Christians in America today are perplexed about the moral degradation, social injustice, and the oppression of the righteous which we see taking place. But unlike Habakkuk, we do not have a word from God telling us specifically what it is that He is up to in the midst of all this. Nonetheless, as we see how the prophet answers Habakkuk, we can make application to our own times, and draw certain conclusions about how it is that God may be moving in a mysterious way in our day and time as well.[2] So, with that in mind, let us dive into our text and explore how God moves in a mysterious way.

I. God is always at work, even when we don’t notice (v5)

Those of us who drive regularly along Gate City Boulevard here have become accustomed to seeing the signs every day which caution us with the message, “Men at Work.” When we look at the world around us, with all of its violence, terrorism, injustice, and evil, we need to see the world marked similarly with signs cautioning us of “Men at Work.” Because human nature has been warped and corrupted by sin since the fall of Adam, the world has been filled with destruction. These are the signs of “Men at Work,” exercising our depravity in a wide variety of expressions. But over and above all these signs, we need to see an even larger and greater sign which says, “God at Work.”[3] The world often doesn’t notice it; it never gets reported in the news. Even we ourselves as believers in this God often fail to notice His hand in motion. Habakkuk failed to recognize it as well. In his prayer in verse 2, he essentially says, “I’ve been praying to you, God, and you aren’t doing anything!” But what he was about to learn, and what we must learn as well, is that God is always at work, even when we do not notice. Habakkuk cries out, “Lord, how long until you do something about this mess?” And God says here in response, “I am doing something in your days.” He is already at work, and had been long before it ever occurred to the prophet to cry out. 

If God is always at work, why do we so seldom perceive it? There are two reasons given here in our text. First, we see that His work is often beyond our sphere of concern. Notice the first words of verse 5: Look among the nations! Habakkuk’s focus had become too narrow. He was only seeing the events immediately surrounding him. God was saying, “There is a great big world out there beyond your own borders and circles of concern, and I am doing something in the midst of it. If you don’t detect it, you need to broaden your focus and look!”

In the ancient world it was commonly believed that each nation or people had their own unique deities. YHWH was the God of the Jews, Marduk was the god of the Babylonians, and so on. We may scoff at such an obviously naïve belief, but we are prone to fall into it as well. Is it not often assumed that the Christian God is particularly concerned about America, while leaving the Middle East to be governed by Allah, and the Indian subcontinent to be ruled by Krishna? This is also how the Jews were prone to view the world around them. They felt that God was almost exclusively concerned and involved with the affairs of their own nation. But God was instructing the nation through the prophet Habakkuk to look beyond their own borders and see that this God of the Bible is the only God there is, and He is a global God who is not confined geographically or ethnically to one place or people.

God was awakening Habakkuk to the reality that he needed only to look to the ends of the earth and he would see that God is at work in ways that transcend his focus. I suggest that we need to understand this as well. God is moving in a mysterious way all across our globe, even here at home and in each of our lives. But if we do not detect it, perhaps we need to broaden our focus from our immediate circumstances, and look to far horizons to see how it is that His hand is at work in our world accomplishing His good purposes.

Even still, His work may yet go undetected by us, because His work is often beyond our ability to comprehend. God says to the prophet, “Look to the nations! Observe! Be astonished! Wonder! Because I am doing something in your days – you would not believe if you were told” (v5). Suppose that God had told you a year ago, five years ago, maybe ten, all that would transpire in your life, or in our nation and the world during the intervening time. Could you have believed it, or would it have blown your mind? God says through the prophet Isaiah, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways and My thoughts than your thoughts” (Isa 55:8-9). We believe the Scripture well enough which says that God is able to do far more abundantly beyond all that we ask or think” (Eph 3:20), but too often we limit Him to only doing what we ask or think, and that is putting God into too small of a box.

John Piper has well said, “God is always doing 10,000 things in your life, and you may be aware of three of them.”[4] He moves in a mysterious way, and watching Him work in our lives, in our nation, and in our world is a bit like watching an artist working on a masterpiece. At times the image is blurry, the shapes are indistinct, the colors appear smeared and smudged. But the Artist has His plan and purpose, a grand design, which He is able to complete to perfection. The skill of the Artist cannot be judged by the faulty eye of the beholder while the work is yet unfinished. But if we know the Artist to be a Master at His craft, then we know that the end result will be good, and pleasing, and perfect (Rom 12:2). He is always at work, even when we do not notice, because He is at work beyond our personal spheres of concern and beyond our ability to grasp.

He moves in a mysterious way, and the second way we see that on display here in our text is …

II. God uses surprising means for the accomplishing of His work (vv6-8)

I’m not much of a handy man, so I find that sometimes I do not always have the right tool for the job. I have improvised dozens of ways to use a hammer that are far beyond its intended purpose. My late stepfather was a carpenter, and no matter how obscure the task, he had a specific tool for it. He had tools I had never seen or heard of, but which were perfectly suited for the task at hand. And in a much greater way, when God has a job to do, He has tools at His disposal that are perfectly suited for the task. Sometimes He uses tools that we would not think of or even know of! I think often of how God spoke through a donkey to deliver his message to Balaam. A donkey? Who would have thought of doing that? But because God did that to a great degree of effectiveness, almost every Sunday morning I find myself praying these words: “God you have spoken through a donkey before, so what I am asking you to do today is not entirely unprecedented.”

In Judah, as the seventh century B.C. was drawing to an end, God had a job to do among the people He had chosen as His own. Because they had turned their backs on Him repeatedly and resorted to idols and immorality, because they had violated His covenant with them and hardened their hearts to His word, there was no further recourse but to bring judgment upon them. And God had a tool for the task. He says in verse 6, “Behold, I am raising up the Chaldeans.” This is the work that God was doing in Habakkuk’s day which would be inconceivable to any and all who heard of it. Twenty years earlier, and Habakkuk might have said, “Who are they?” By this time, his response must have been, “Oh no! Not them!”

In 626 BC, Nabopolassar united the loosely organized villages of the Chaldeans into a significant power with an army of sufficient strength to successfully revolt against the Assyrians, who had subjugated them for a long time. The Neo-Babylonian Empire was born, and its military, under the leadership of the crown prince Nebuchadnezzar, became an unstoppable menace in the Middle East. They were on the verge of conquering Egypt and every other land in the region. Judah watched those nations fall left and right to the unstoppable Babylonians. They fell like dominos, and Judah was the next one in line.

They are described in verse 6 as fierce and impetuous people who march throughout the earth to seize dwelling places which were not theirs. No one knew which direction they might turn next. Verse 7 says that they were dreaded and feared because there was no earthly authority or power which could hold them accountable. “Their justice and authority originate with themselves,” the Lord says. They will not answer to any king or council. “Let the U.N. send their investigators in,” they may have said in our day, “we have a noose to fit their necks as well!” They will do as they please, and that meant bad news for other nations. Their military power was like nothing the world had ever seen. They advanced on horseback, chewing up great distances with relative ease and able to move swiftly and nimbly against their targets. The Lord applies metaphors to them from familiar and ferocious animals – they are swifter than leopards, being able to outrun and outmaneuver any other force. They are keener than wolves in the evening. Wolves hunt in the evening, and so the image is that of a bloodthirsty savage with an unquenchable appetite. They fly like an eagle swooping down to devour.

Where is God in all this? Well, He is the One who is orchestrating and choreographing it all. Though to all who observe, it appears that Babylon does as it pleases according to its own desires, God’s message here is (in the words of Calvin) that it is “not by their own instinct, but by the hidden impulse of God” that this and every other nation rises and falls. Calvin says, “God … can employ the vices of men in executing his judgments.”[5] Is it fair of Him to do so? Anytime that fallen men begin to question the fairness of a holy God, we have started off on the wrong foot. But, to satisfy the question, we must remember that God had warned His people of the potential for this calamity in His Law. Through Moses, the Lord had promised that if His people turned away from Him, He would “bring a nation against [them] from afar, from the end of the earth, as the eagle swoops down (Dt 28:49). After enduring their disobedience with great patience over centuries, the fullness of time for judgment had finally come, and God would act swiftly to deliver on His promise. Just as He had used Israel to overtake the Promised Land when the sin of its inhabitants required the intervention of His wrath (Gen 15:12-16), so now they would be on the receiving end of such judgment at the hand of the Babylonians. “Babylon was the axe in the hand of the Most High to cut down the tree of Judah at the height of its pride and idolatry.”[6]

God moves in a mysterious way, and He is able to use surprising means when He does. If He could use a force of terror like the pagan Babylonians to do His bidding in Judah’s darkest days, then imagine what He could do, and whom He could use to do it, in our own day. Having blessed America with freedom, wealth, and comfort in ways that were never deserved, if America turns a deaf ear to God’s word and a cold shoulder to His face, we must not think that we will have it any better than His own chosen nation did in ancient times. And more fittingly, when His church which is called by His name begins to forsake His word, and bless what God has called sin, and turn a blind eye to injustice and immorality, can we dare to think that God will not mark the church in our day with that infamous name of the Old Testament, “Ichabod,” which means, “the glory has departed”? Might He even use militant terror of depraved people, a vocal movement of people demanding the right for their sin to be paraded publicly, unjust rulings of the high courts, and unilateral decrees from the leaders of our nation to do so? We cannot say that He wouldn’t. He uses surprising means to accomplish His work as He moves in a mysterious way.

This leads us, then, to the next aspect of His mysterious working, which naturally flows out of this one …

III. God is working for more than our comforts and pleasures (vv9-10)

This was not the answer that Habakkuk was looking for as he prayed. He wanted the Lord to restore the nation to “the good ol’ days,” like they had known in the days of Josiah. But the Lord promises here that the Babylonians are not coming on a mission of mercy. In verse 9, God says, “All of them come for violence.” That was the very thing that Habakkuk was crying out against among His own people in verse 2. Now they will receive what they have doled out in like measure.

The Lord compares the people of Judah to sand in verse 9. That is what He promised Abraham that his descendants would be like: as innumerable as the sand on the seashore (Gen 22:17). But sand is not only hard to count, it is easy to move. As the Israelites are compared to sand, Babylon is compared to a sweeping wind in verse 11, which will gather up the nation and scatter it abroad. But does not Jerusalem have a king and a protective wall around it? No matter, for Babylon laughs at these things. The king was a joke to them, and the walls could be surmounted easily with their proven tactic of building siege ramps to overtake the cities of their conquest.

Now, beneath such a dark and gloomy cloud of providence, some would conclude that God must not exist, if He were to allow such things to happen. But what if God was the cause of these things? What kind of God would that be? That is the question that now must weigh on the heart of Habakkuk and all the righteous in Judah. It is not a foreign thought to our experience. C. S. Lewis acknowledged as he wrestled with grief following the death of his wife, “Not that I am (I think) in much danger of ceasing to believe in God. The real danger is of coming to believe such dreadful things about Him. The conclusion I dread is not 'So there's no God after all,' but 'So this is what God's really like. Deceive yourself no longer.’”[7] 

The reason we wrestle with that notion is that we are prone to think that God is supremely interested in our own comforts and pleasures. At the end of the day, what we most desire is not a sovereign Lord who rules and reigns over universes and galaxies, but a divine butler who will bring us what we want whenever we ring the bell. The prosperity gospel offers that to you, but it is a lie from the pits of hell. The Bible offers us a God who is supremely committed to His own glory, to the ultimate and eternal good of His people, and to perfecting them in holiness through the grace of repentance and sanctification. And He will do whatever it takes to accomplish that. Does that mean that every tragedy that befalls us was designed for this purpose? No, there is such a thing as gratuitous evil in the world – evil that serves no ultimate purpose but to demonstrate the depravity of mankind and the brokenness of this fallen world. In moments like that, when the brokenness of this world presses in upon us, all we can do is long for heaven where all wrongs will be made right, and rest in the comfort that God provides us by His Spirit, His Word, and His people here and now. But let us not be deceived. There is divine discipline when God’s people turn their backs on Him, and He will never relent calling us to repentance, furthering us in sanctification, and perfecting us in holiness, no matter what it takes. Surely the process will not ultimately be completed until we are glorified in heaven, but our perseverance in the process is the proof of the genuineness of our faith. And so, when God’s people go astray, we can expect chastening, just as every earthly parent knows is necessary for their children.

And not only this, but when nations of people mount up to declare a rebellion against God, they must know full well that it is a fool’s errand! He may let it begin, and even proceed for a season. Remember how the people of Babel built their tower in order to climb to heaven on their own merits and make a great and arrogant name for themselves. God let them start, and God let them continue for a while. They built that tower as high as they could, and then the Bible says that God “came down” to see it (Gen 11:5). He allowed their futility to proceed for so long, and then came judgment. So it was with His own nation who had forsaken Him time and again. So it will be for all others who set their faces like flint in rebellion against Him. Chantry says, “When we pray about the slippery slope of modern western irreverence toward God and immorality toward fellow-citizens, we advise God to handle our case with gentle kindness. We hope for a ‘soft landing,’ for a ‘happy ending.’ This is not always preferable to our God.”[8]

When tragedy strikes, when the wicked surround the righteous in oppression and injustice, when things are not going as we think they should, we must remember that God is always at work to accomplish His purposes. It’s just that His purpose is not always our pleasure and comfort. It is always His glory, His holiness, and our ultimate good of reflecting that holiness in our own lives. Some say that God is more concerned with our holiness than our happiness. I would say that God is ultimately concerned that we find our happiness in His holiness. That is the end toward which He is always working in our lives.

IV. God’s work is not finished until all wrongs are made right and justice is established (v11)

How many Sundays have we heard Brother James welcome us and encourage us by saying, “Remember, our work is not finished until God says it is finished”? It is true, you know. And neither is His work finished until He says it is finished. He promises here that He is going to raise up Babylon to bring destruction and judgment upon Judah. But Judah has other promises in God’s word that Babylon does not have. Through Jeremiah, the Lord promised this nation a future and a hope (Jer 29:11). Through Ezekiel, He promised to raise them up to life again from the valley of dry bones (Ezk 37). They would be scattered, but they would be regathered. Babylon has no such promise in its future. Of them, God says in verse 11, “They will be held guilty, whose strength is their god.” Though for the immediate future it will seem as if Babylon has a blank check from God to do whatever they please in the world, there is coming a day of reckoning for them when they will themselves stand in judgment for all that they have done in their arrogance. God raised them up, God used them for His purposes, but God would bring them down for their sin (and in a relatively short time). His use of them does not imply a divine endorsement on all their methods and tactics.

The fact is that if God didn’t use imperfect sinners to do His work in the world, it wouldn’t get done. If God uses you or me in some way, it doesn’t mean that He is okay with our sins and failures. It means that He is gracious and sovereign, and can use us in spite of our failures, not because of them. He can use whatever and whomever He wishes to accomplish His purpose. But He reveals Himself as One who will by no means leave the guilty unpunished (Ex 34:7). His work is not finished until He says it is finished, until all wrongs have been made right, until justice has been established, and until the kingdom of this world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ, and He shall reign forever and ever (Rev 11:15).
Is the message that God gave to Habakkuk relevant to our nation and others in the world today? If the Lord did not spare His own chosen nation from judgment when they set themselves in defiance to His will, how will any other nation of the world fare any better? Is it relevant to the church? Surely it is! If God dealt with His people in divine fatherly discipline when they abandoned His word and His will, then churches today who do so can expect to fare no better. We do not have specific revelation foretelling us if, when, or how, God may deal with our nation or any other in ways like these, but what we do have tells us in no uncertain terms that we must “seek the Lord while He may be found; call upon Him while He is near” (Isa 55:6), for “now is the acceptable time, behold, now is the day of salvation” (2 Cor 6:2).

When the Apostle Paul was preaching in the city of Pisidian Antioch in Acts 13, he presented to them the Lord Jesus as the Savior they needed for their sins and he called them to repentance, saying, “Therefore take heed, so that the things spoken of in the prophets may not come upon you.” And then he quoted to them Habakkuk 1:5. The salvation that Jesus offers to us through His life, death, and resurrection, is the ultimate manifestation of God moving in a mysterious way. It is the wonder that God calls us to behold which we would not believe even if we had been told. But if we forsake this offer of salvation, then we can expect nothing less from Him than the full measure of the penalty of our sins. Jesus has offered to take that penalty for you in His death on the cross; to refuse it is to take it upon yourself. “How shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation?” (Heb 2:3).

[1] Waylon Bailey, “Habakkuk,” in Kenneth L. Barker and Waylon Bailey, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah (New American Commentary, vol. 20; Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1998), 300.
[2] Walter Chantry, Habakkuk: A Wrestler With God (CarlislePenn.: Banner of Truth, 2008), 12.
[3] Bailey, 300.
[5] John Calvin, Commentaries on the Twelve Minor Prophets: Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1950), 27-28.
[6] Chantry, 17-18.
[7] C. S. Lewis, A Grief Observed (New York: HarperOne, 1989), 19.
[8] Chantry, 14.

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