Monday, July 04, 2016

The Pattern of Persistent Prayer (Habakkuk 1:2-4)

When I first became a follower of Jesus, one of the most difficult things I had to learn to do was to pray. It is not that I needed to learn how to pray, or that prayer required some specific skill that I did not have, but I simply needed to learn of the necessity of prayer in my life. I had become accustomed to dealing with my problems and my needs with my own resources, and what I had to learn was that God was available to me, and desired for me to bring my concerns to Him and to dialogue with Him in the intimate fellowship of prayer. And of course, as I began to develop a discipline of prayer in my life, I began to encounter some challenges. The most seemingly insurmountable one was this: that though I brought my concerns to a God whom I believed heard my prayers, and was all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-good, my prayers seemed to often go unanswered. The problem of unanswered prayer became a great hindrance to my spiritual growth until I eventually learned that there is really no such thing as an unanswered prayer. God answers every prayer that we pray, but His answer is not always, “YES!” Just as a good and loving parent knows that the best thing for a child is to sometimes say “no” to the things the child asks for, I had to learn that my Heavenly Father was showing His lovingkindness and goodness to me in saying “NO!” to some of the things for which I prayed. But I also learned that there are times when God’s answer to our prayers is neither “yes” nor “no,” but “NOT YET!” Far from being an outright denial, God’s answer is sometimes merely a delay for a variety of reasons. There are times when we are not yet ready to receive God’s answer and situations in which God’s timing requires a delay. And then there are times when His divine delay is because we have not yet persisted in prayer.

Jesus told the parable of the persistent widow in Luke 18:1-8, who came repeatedly to the unjust judge in her town, pleading for justice in her cause. Eventually, the unjust judge gave the widow what she asked for in order to get her off of his back. But the point of Jesus’ parable was not that we are able to wear God down to give in to us if we persist long enough. His point was that, if an unjust and unrighteous judge can eventually succumb to the persistent cries of a person in need, how much more willingly and eagerly will our Heavenly Father answer His own children when we cry out to Him. Luke tells us that Jesus told this parable “to show that at all times they ought to pray and not to lose heart.” In other words, an immediate “no,” or a prolonged delay in the answer to our prayers does not mean that we should cease praying about the matter, but that we should persist in prayer and not give up! Jesus concluded the parable by saying, “However, when the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on the earth?” Will He find that we have, by faith continued to persist in prayer for the concerns of our hearts, or will He find that we have given up on crying out to Him?

It is not that persistence in prayer makes God more willing to answer us, but it is often the case that persistence in prayer helps us grow in our understanding of who God is, how He is at work, and what it is that He desires to do in our situation. And persistence in prayer also helps us to clarify in our own hearts and minds what it is that we are really longing to see God do. Persistence in prayer is essential, and we learn that throughout the Bible.

The book of Habakkuk is really all about one man’s persistence in prayer. Unlike most of the other prophetic writings, Habakkuk is not filled with the prophet’s words from God to the people of his own or surrounding nations. Rather, Habbakuk is filled, for the most part, of the prophet’s words to God on behalf of his people. He has, if you will, invited us into his prayer closet, or perhaps left his prayer journal laying open for us to read. And as we observe Habakkuk in prayer, we find him wearing out his knees in persistent prayer to God. We learn from him a pattern for persistent prayer that will help us as we beckon God to come to our aid as well.

As we eavesdrop on the prayers of the prophet, we find first of all …

I. The circumstances that give rise to our prayers

There are times, I suppose, when we pray because we know we are supposed to pray. But then there are times when we are driven to prayer because of the desperation of our situation. This is where Habakkuk found himself long before he took up a pen to chronicle his prayer journey. The days in which he lived were the darkest days of Jewish history until that point. The righteous king Josiah, who had instituted a sweeping moral and spiritual reform and turned the nation of Judah back to the Word of God, had died tragically in the opening salvos of a battle with the Egyptians on the plain of Megiddo. His son Jehoahaz took the throne, but his reign was short lived. After only three months, the Egyptian Pharaoh Neco flexed his geopolitical muscle and deposed and deported Jehoahaz into exile. In his place, Neco installed another son of Josiah – Eliakim – as king of Judah. Eliakim was Neco’s puppet, and to prove it, Neco forced upon him a new name: Jehoiakim. If Jehoiakim had inherited any of Josiah’s spiritual or moral uprightness, he expediently suppressed it in the name of political power and personal profit. Corruption and injustice filled the land like a plague.

What troubled the prophet most was that all this was taking place among a people and a nation that was set apart for the Lord’s own purpose and called to be His own people. His outrage over the moral degradation that was unfolding before his eyes was surpassed only by the flagrant disregard for the glory of God that he was forced to behold. God had, quite literally, made that nation and carried it through history, delivering them from otherwise certain destruction time and time again. And this nation had turned its back on God, exchanged His glory for idols, and forsaken His word repeatedly. Jeremiah was a contemporary of Habakkuk, and the Lord spoke through him to the wicked king Jehoiakim, “your eyes and your heart are intent only upon your own dishonest gain, and on shedding innocent blood and on practicing oppression and extortion” (Jer 22:17). The wickedness flowed from the throne through all the governing officials, judges and even the prophets and priests whom Jeremiah accused of performing their wickedness even in the house of the Lord (23:11).

Habakkuk had gone time after time to the only place he could go with his concerns – he took it to the Lord in prayer. Six words in verse 3 describe the circumstances in which Habakkuk found himself: iniquity, wickedness, destruction, violence, strife and contention. These things did not take place in the back-alleys and dark corners of society. They were flaunted in public. Habakkuk says that he sees iniquity; he looks on wickedness; violence and destruction are before him. There is no shame or secrecy about it, and the parade of sin marches its way into the halls of justice in the land. The Hebrew word translated strife is a word that was used for lawsuits. Because of the systemic injustice, the wicked could plead their cause against the righteous in courts of law and come out on top. “Justice,” the prophet says in verse 4, “is never upheld,” and “comes out perverted.” The wicked had surrounded, or hemmed in, the righteous, because the righteous had become an oppressed minority.

All of these deplorable conditions are symptoms of an underlying cause stated in verse 4: “the law is ignored.” By “law,” the prophet refers to the entirety of the divinely inspired Word of God. That law, which Jehoiakim’s father Josiah had rescued from the rubbish pile in the temple, and which fueled the revival and reformation of the land under Josiah’s leadership, had been once more discarded. When Jeremiah wrote out a prophecy directly denouncing Jehoiakim and sent it to him by way of a messenger, the king cut it to pieces and threw it into a fire. Another prophet named Uriah was bold enough to preach directly to the king, and paid for it with his life (26:20-23). “Of all Judah’s evil kings, only of Jehoiakim is it said that he killed a prophet.”[1] His disregard for the Word of God had spread rapidly through the land and infected a multitude from the top down. The literal wording of verse 4 is that the Law had become cold, paralyzed, or numb. The idea is that just as frostbite renders an appendage numb and useless, so God’s Word had been put on ice, and lost its influence among those who were supposed to be God’s people.

These were the circumstances which gave rise to Habakkuk’s prayer. One writer has said that he was “a man with open eyes, and because he was a man with open eyes, he was a man with a burdened heart.”[2] As we rehearse the sorry circumstances in which this man of God found himself, if our eyes are open we cannot miss the parallels with our society today. Iniquity and wickedness, destruction and violence, strife (and the litigious manifestation of it) and contention are the headlines in our daily news. Immorality is on public display and celebrated openly. Corruption and injustice have become commonplace, and the righteous minority have seemingly no safe haven toward which to flee for their cause to be upheld. The underlying reason is also the same: the Word of God has become paralyzed because it has been frozen into numbness in our day.

Walt Chantry lists some of the besetting sins of our own day: “abortions, violent euthanasia, battering of wives and children, shootings in schools by fellow students … sexual predators, bombings, riots … road rage … drug trafficking.” Sadly that list is far from exhaustive. And then Chantry draws the comparison: “In [Habakkuk’s] nation, as in ours, the legal system worked in behalf of the wicked rather than the righteous. With us, governmental laws and the judges who interpret them defend the rights of pornographers and rebuke any who would deny them freedom to promote their vices. The system protects sexual perverts at great cost to public health. Courts threaten parents who correct and discipline their children. State education inculcates unbelief and skepticism and silences biblical opinions.”[3]

The foundations have been destroyed, and we ask like the psalmist did, “If the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do?” Habakkuk shows us what we can do. We can turn to the Almighty God and pour out our hearts to Him in prayer!

From the circumstances which give rise to our prayers, we turn secondly to …

II. The words that give voice to our prayers

Time and time again, Habakkuk had come before the Lord to pray about the condition of his nation. How do we know that? Why else would he say, “How long, O Lord, will I call for help…?” He has been calling and calling … and calling! And now, as though exasperated and in despair, he says at last, “How long am I going to have to keep praying about these same things until You do something?” Those little words, “How long,” indicate to us that Habakkuk is composing something that the ancient Hebrews called a lament. In a lament, the speaker voices agony over a situation, coupled with a spoken or implied plea for help. The Psalms are full of lament – about one third of them contain this kind of language -- and one entire book of the Bible is even called Lamentations. Job is filled with the language of lament, and even Jesus speaks with words of lamentation. Therefore, if we allow the language of the Bible to inform our prayers (as we should), we will find that there are times when a cry of lamentation is entirely appropriate. The prayer of lament is “God’s gift to the believer” which provides “a pathway of honest faith and faithful conversation with Him in horrible times.” Lament gives us a language for “being honest with God about our situations.”[4]

There are some who believe that Habakkuk was wrong to come before God with a question like this one, and who believe that it is likewise wrong for us to do so. One writer says that Habakkuk “was quite presumptuous to demand an answer from God. I would not suggest that the average person attempt such a complaint. … The Lord could have taken his breath away without a moment’s notice. God could have stopped the beat of his heart in an instant.”[5] In my opinion, that is an awfully small view of God. If God is who He says He is, then He is big enough for us to bring Him our most perplexing questions, and He is neither threatened nor offended when we do, for He already knows the content of our hearts and minds. We might as well voice it. Habakkuk does, and so must we.

Notice the words that the prophet uses in his cry of lament. “How long … I call … I cry out (the Hebrew word means literally something like scream) … Why?” These are the words that give voice to his prayer. But his is not an irrational diatribe against the God of heaven. No, in fact, the prophet is bringing God’s own truth about His own nature back to Him. Habakkuk has learned from God’s Word what evil is, and he sees it on display around him. He calls it what it is. He has learned who God is – that He is holy, righteous, and just – and he proclaims that he has not forgotten this about the Lord. He has learned from the Scriptures that God is the Judge who is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in lovingkindness, but who will by no means leave the guilty unpunished. Habakkuk’s prayer is merely a recital of these biblical truths before the throne of grace. He is on fire with zeal for the glory of the Lord, and he hates what God hates, and calls sin what God calls sin, and calls upon the Lord to do what He has promised to do and to act according to His very own nature.

The words that gave voice to Habakkuk’s prayer were words of grief and lamentation as he witnessed the name of the Lord being sullied and trampled underfoot by the Lord’s own people. He was angry as he prayed, but not angry at God. He was angry at sin, and perplexed as to why God would allow it to go unchecked. Have we reached this point? Have we bombarded the courts of heaven with repeated prayer about the defaming of God’s name and glory in our culture? Have we cried out with incessant requests for God to vindicate His name and His truth in our midst? Have we implored the King of heaven to rescue the righteous from the peril of an unjust and crooked society? Have we found on our lips words like, “How long?” and “Why?” for reasons beyond our personal discomforts and inconveniences?

I wonder, if we were to come before the Lord with words such as these, what His response might be? If we were to ask, “How long, O Lord, must we pray for you to respond to the evils of our age?” might the Lord say to us, “How often have you prayed for that?” Chantry writes,

Is it not a modern complaint of God’s people today that our western culture is descending to ever-lower moral and religious disgrace? This is something we grumble about to one another. Are you expressing your heartache over these matters to God? … So many prayer meetings are filled with petitions about sickness and asking for God’s blessing on our future plans. Should we not cry to God against the evil of the times and persist in it?[6]

Are we perplexed by the condition of our society? Are we at a loss for what to do about it? Let us not merely grumble amongst ourselves, but let us pray! And how shall we pray? Persistently! We must pray until we have earned the right to say to God, “How long, O Lord, will we call for help?” I suggest that we have not yet persisted in prayer to that degree. When we have, we will perhaps find ourselves facing the third piece of this pattern of persistent prayer.

III. The problem that gives challenge to our prayers

The conditions surrounding Habakkuk were only a part of the problem he faced in prayer. In comparison, they were a relatively small part of the problem. The bigger problem he faced was God’s seeming disinterest, unresponsiveness, and inaction on the concerns for which the prophet prayed. His cry in verse 2 is that the Lord has not heard his persistent plea, and the Lord has not responded to his cries. I imagine that most of us have prayed at length for something, and been tempted to conclude that God is either not listening, not interested, or not willing to do anything about it.

It is a great challenge to us in our prayers. After so long without an answer, we may become persuaded that prayer is nothing more than a colossal waste of time. Why bother, if no answer is to come? In 2008, the Los Angeles Times published a list of 10 magazine covers that shook the world. One of them was the April 8, 1966 issue of Time – the first cover that the magazine ever published without a picture. Instead, on its jet-black cover where the large red words, “Is God Dead?” What gave rise to the question? It was because people had concluded that if God was real and active in the world, things would not be as they are. But, Habakkuk was not convinced that God was dead, but he was beginning to wonder if God was deaf. Maybe you can relate to his crisis of faith.

As C. S. Lewis languished in grief following the death of his wife, he wrote in his private journal (which was later published as A Grief Observed), “Meanwhile, where is God? … When you are … so happy that you have no sense of needing Him … if you … turn to Him with gratitude and praise, you will be … welcomed with open arms. But go to Him when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that, silence.”[7] That is how Habakkuk felt and how we feel at times.

Habakkuk asked God two questions in verses 2 and 3: “How long?” and “Why?” The first deals with God’s timing, the second with His purpose. Will God ever answer, and if so, when? And does God have a reason for not answering when I cry out to Him? The two questions are related. His timing is rooted in His purpose. We have a privilege that Habakkuk did not have. We have “the prophetic word made more sure” (2 Pe 1:19) in the completed revelation of the New Testament. Here we find the promise that “the Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance” (2 Pe 3:9). We also find that the first wave of God’s judgment on a people is to leave them to themselves and the consequences of their own actions. In Romans 1, Paul speaks of those who have suppressed the truth in unrighteousness, saying that God has given them over in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, so that their bodies would be dishonored among them. He has given them over to degrading passions, that through their indecent acts, they may receive in their own persons the due penalty of their error. And He has given them over to a depraved mind, to do those things which are not proper (Rom 1:18-32). What appears to us as a silence from heaven may actually be the initial unleashing of His judgment to let men destroy themselves in their sin, in order that man may come to the end of himself and turn to God for mercy in repentance and faith.

So He has a purpose, and His purpose sets His timetable for acting. How long will things go on this way? Why does God act as though He has all eternity to accomplish His purpose and complete His plans? Because He actually does![8] Peter reminds us that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years like one day (2 Pe 3:8). In light of eternity, it will not be long. But until the final day of judgment comes, there is the offer of redemption for all who will turn from their sins on the basis of what Christ has done.

Habakkuk said, “I cry out to you … yet you do not save.” But we who live on this side of Calvary can say that God has acted to save us in Jesus Christ. In His coming into the world, by His life and death and resurrection, He has not rid the world of the corruption of human sin, but has made a way for those who trust in Him to be delivered ultimately and eternally from that corruption. He has defeated sin at its root, though the fruit of it still hangs in abundance on the vines that entangle this fallen world. When He returns in glory, He will trample the fruit in the winepress of His wrath and usher in an eternal kingdom in which there will be no more tears, no more death, no more mourning, or crying, or pain (Rev 21:4). Until that day, though it may seem at times that heaven is silent to our cries, we must persist in prayer. And this brings the pattern of persistent prayer full circle as we see finally …

IV. The faith that gives fuel to our prayers

There is a detestable heresy that fills the airwaves of so-called Christian radio and television and the pages of so-called Christian books that we call “the prosperity gospel.” The prosperity gospel says that if you have enough faith, you can expect that God will always give you health and wealth, and always give you exactly what you ask for when you ask for it. So, if you ask and do not receive, or if you suffer in any way, the preacher of that satanic lie can accuse you of lacking faith, and dare you to prove your faith by giving your money to him. That, my friends, is not a gospel (not good news), and it is not faith that they are preaching. It is psychological and emotional manipulation, and witchcraft under the veil of a Christian vocabulary.

Faith is found when we pray persistently to God from the depths of our suffering. Some have accused Habakkuk of a lack of faith because of the questions that he brings to God. They could not be more wrong. Habakkuk’s persistence in prayer is fueled by a great faith that has heard, believed, and become convinced of the Word that God has spoken about Himself and His purposes in the world. Habakkuk can pray over and over again about the conditions of his society because he believes that there is a God on the listening end of His prayers who will accomplish His purpose, who will vindicate His name, His truth, and His glory, and who will uphold the cause of His righteous saints. It may not look like that at the present time, but faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen (Heb 11:1).

It is a lack of faith which stands in the echo of an unanswered prayer and declares, “Well, that’s that, and I guess God is not there after all.” A lack of faith walks away from God when one’s own way is not received and speaks of God in the impersonal and abstract: “How could God do this and such? And if God were there, why would He not do things this way?” But faith continues to bring the questions to God on personal and concrete terms: “God, how long? God why?” As F. F. Bruce writes, “Many ask such questions among themselves; some, like Habakkuk, take the questions to God and challenge Him to answer them, for it is His reputation that is at stake. … When the man or woman of faith cries out like this, it is from a fundamental conviction that God is all-righteous and all-powerful.”[9]

How can we continue to pray when our prayers seemingly go unanswered? Our persistence is fueled by faith. By faith we believe that even if there is no answer now, there will be one day, in God’s perfect timing and according to His perfect purpose. Meanwhile, we cry out, “How long, O Lord? Why?” But it is because we believe that He is there, that He cares for us, and that He is able and willing to answer that we continue to cry out. What will become of our nation? How deep will the moral degradation in the world grow? How desperate will the days become? These things have been hidden from us beneath the shroud of God’s unrevealed providence.  Will there be revival or ruin? We must confess that we do not know. But if there will be a revival, it will be as God works through the persistent prayers of His people who never cease crying out to Him from the depths of our despair in this fallen world, beseeching Him to uphold His own honor and glory and to further the agenda of His Kingdom in the world. He is our only help, and He must be the rock on which all of our hopes are anchored. And so we cry our persistently in prayer to Him!

[1] Waylon Bailey, “Habakkuk,” in Kenneth L. Barker and Waylon Bailey, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah (New American Commentary, vol. 20; Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1998), 297.
[2] Warren W. Wiersbe, From Worry to Worship (Lincoln, Neb.: Back to the Bible, 1983), 15.
[3] Walter Chantry, Habakkuk: A Wrestler With God (Carlisle, Penn.: Banner of Truth, 2008), 6-7.
[4] James Bruckner, Jonah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah (NIV Application Commentary; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004), 215.
[5] J. R. Church, They Pierced the Veil (Oklahoma City: Prophecy Publications, 1993), 131.
[6] Chantry, 5.
[7] C. S. Lewis, A Grief Observed (New York: Seabury, 1961), 9.
[8] David Nettleton, Meet the Minor Prophets (Schaumburg, Ill.: Regular Baptist Press, 1985), 74.
[9] F. F. Bruce, “Habakkuk,” in Thomas E. McComiskey ed., The Minor Prophets: An Exegetical and Expository Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1993), 844-845. 

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