Tuesday, August 23, 2016

The Pitfalls of Pride (Habakkuk 2:4-6a)


Habakkuk 2:4-6a
The Pitfalls of Pride

Is pride a virtue, or is it a vice? I suppose it depends on who you ask, or how the term is used. We use the term in a variety of ways. A person can say that he or she is proud of something that has been accomplished, or proud of something that another person has done, and mean nothing improper by it. But there is another sense in which this kind of pride can lead to boasting, or an over-inflated estimation of oneself, which is inappropriate. A relatively recent song by the folk-rock group The Avett Brothers uses an interesting contrast to distinguish between these two meanings. They sing, “I want to have pride like my mother had, and not like the kind in the Bible that turns you bad.”

Traditionally, Christians have viewed pride as a sin – in fact, as one of the so-called “seven deadly sins.” Indeed, it is very difficult to find a positive reference to pride in the Bible, though there are a scant handful of such uses. Most of those would refer to the excellence of God’s character. More often, in sixty-one passages of Scripture, pride is spoken of in its negative connotation.[1] Pride was the sin of Satan which caused his downfall. Pride is found at the root of almost every human sin, for pride insists that one should be able to do as one pleases, apart from any rules or consequences. Pride is often contrasted in Scripture with positive virtues like humility, obedience, and servanthood. In the Old Testament, pride is said to go before destruction (Prov 16:18). It does not seek God (Psa 10:4). It brings disgrace (Prov 11:2). It breeds quarrels (Prov 13:10). It deceives (Jer 49:16), brings one low (Prov 29:23); and ultimately humiliates (Isa 2:17). In the New Testament, Jesus speaks of pride as an evil thing that proceeds from within a man to defile him (Mk 7:22). Both James and Peter quote from Proverbs 3:34, saying that God opposes the proud (Jas 4:6; 1 Pet 5:5).[2]

Therefore the Bible is filled with stern warnings against pride and examples of the destructive nature of pride. We find one such warning and example here in our text. In verse 4, “the proud one” is contrasted with the righteous, who lives by his faith. The word translated as “proud” means “puffed up,” “bloated,” even “tumorous.” This person is swollen, infected if you will, with a spiritual cancer that results in the diagnosis here that “his soul is not right within him.” The phrase means “crooked” or “twisted.” The proud one has a crooked soul. In verse 5, a synonym is used. The “proud one” is called “the haughty man.” The only other occurrence of this Hebrew word translated “haughty” here is found in Proverbs 21:24 – “24  “‘Proud,’ ‘Haughty,’ ‘Scoffer,’ are his names, who acts with insolent pride.” Other Hebrew words are translated as “haughty” throughout the Old Testament, and in one case the word is found in a list of things that the Lord hates. Haughtiness has to with arrogance and disdain for others. A haughty person is one who looks down on others as being inferior to himself or herself.

Who is this proud and haughty one that the Lord addresses through Habakkuk here? Most specifically, these words are a denouncement of the prideful ruler of Babylon. Depending on the exact timeframe in which this book was written, it could be Nabopolasser, or it could be his more famous son, Nebuchadnezzar. Both are guilty of the same sins of pride and arrogance. More generally, the nation of Babylon as a whole is condemned in these words, for they are all guilty of carrying out the militant expansionism of their ruler’s voracious desires. But then universally, we can apply these words to all who are sinfully proud and haughty, who are puffed up with their own sense of self-importance, infected with the tumor of a crookedly arrogant soul. What we must make most certain of is that at the end of the day, these words do not apply to ourselves! If they do, and our condition goes unremedied by repentance and faith in the Lord Jesus, then we will have no better fate than those of whom these words were originally written. And so we must understand from the words of this text the pitfalls of pride, that we might avoid them, and that we might pray for and help others to do so as well.

I. The proud one is deluded in his discontentment (v5a).

Ancient historians note that drunkenness and addiction to alcohol were common among the Babylonians.[3] The destructiveness of alcohol is well noted throughout the Scriptures. Nowhere is it more vividly stated than in Proverbs 23:29-35. There we read:

29  Who has woe? Who has sorrow? Who has contentions? Who has complaining? Who has wounds without cause? Who has redness of eyes?
30  Those who linger long over wine, Those who go to taste mixed wine.
·         Notice, they have problems caused by their drunkenness, woe, sorrow, contention, complaining. They have wounds but don’t remember what caused them. Their eyes are red. Therefore, the Proverb says …
31  Do not look on the wine when it is red, When it sparkles in the cup, When it goes down smoothly;
32  At the last it bites like a serpent And stings like a viper.
·         So, it looks appealing, and it goes down easy, but it strikes like a poisonous snake. He goes on to describe what it does to a person …
33  Your eyes will see strange things And your mind will utter perverse things.
34  And you will be like one who lies down in the middle of the sea, Or like one who lies down on the top of a mast.
·         In other words, it is like the room is spinning or moving back and forth like you are in a rough sea in a boat.
35  "They struck me, but I did not become ill; They beat me, but I did not know it.
·         The drunken person was beaten up in a fight, but he didn’t feel any pain from it because he was numb from intoxication. And what does he say the next day?
 When shall I awake? I will seek another drink.

As Wiersbe says so well, “First the man takes the drink; then the drink takes the drink; then the drink takes the man.”[4] As Proverbs 20:1 says, “Wine is a mocker, strong drink a brawler, and whoever is intoxicated by it is not wise.” Thus the writer of the Proverbs will say later, in Proverbs 31:4-5, “It is not for kings to drink wine, or for rulers to desire strong drink, for they will drink and forget what is decreed, and pervert the rights of all the afflicted.” People with great responsibility cannot afford to have their senses and faculties dulled with alcohol or drugs. It is destructive to all who fall prey to it, but when a person of power and responsibility is carried away with it, it affects many others as well. And yet, the rulers of Babylon were known to be heavy drinkers.

The Lord says to Habakkuk, “wine betrays the haughty man.” The idea here is one of deception. Wine has deceived this individual of his own sense of self-importance and fueled his pride and vainglory. Therefore, “he does not stay at home,” the Lord says. He is deluded by his wine into a state of perpetual discontentment. He is never at rest. This Hebrew expression for “staying at home” is related to the idea that is expressed in Psalm 23 in those familiar words, “He maketh me to lie down in green pastures.” The drunken, proud man knows nothing of that comfort and security. He is always on the go, moving from one thing to the next.

Of course, alcohol is not the only thing that has this effect on a person. A person can become deluded and discontented by any number of things. Success can be as intoxicating as a drug. One can be inflated by his or her own sense of ego. But often the two go hand-in-hand. Whether intoxication fuels the pride, or pride fuels the intoxication, or pride itself is the intoxication, there is a delusion at work that leads to discontentment. In the end, the drunken pride that drove Babylon to conquer many lands and peoples would result in the nation’s downfall.

In Daniel 5, we read about the feast of the Nebuchadnezzar’s son and successor as king, Belshazzar. They were drinking it up, even giving orders to bring the vessels that Nebuchadnezzar had pillaged from the Jerusalem temple so they could drink from them. And as they did, they “praised the gods of gold and silver, of bronze, iron, wood and stone.” Suddenly there appeared “the fingers of a man’s hand” writing upon the wall the words, “Mene Mene Tekel Upharsin.” Neither Belshazzar nor any of his men knew what to make of it, so they brought in Daniel to interpret it for him. The message, Daniel said, was this: “God has numbered your kingdom and put an end to it … you have been weighed on the scales and found deficient … your kingdom has been divided and given over to the Medes and the Persians.” And the Bible says “that same night, Belshazzar the Chaldean king was slain. So Darius the Mede received the kingdom.” The kingdom that his grandfather, the ambitious Nabopolassar, had established, and his father, the arrogant Nebuchadnezzar, had expanded, was lost by the intoxicated Belshazzar.

Be well warned, the proud are deluded in their discontentment. Now secondly, we find another pitfall of pride here …

II. The proud one is dissatisfied in his desires (v5b).

In the history of the world, there has perhaps never been a mightier conqueror than Alexander the Great. There is hardly a society of the world today that does not bear the lasting imprint of the Greek culture as a result of Alexander’s imperialism. The story is told that Alexander wept when he discovered that there were no more lands to conquer. In a writing from Plutarch, the first-century Greek historian, it is said of Alexander that he heard someone say that there were an infinite number of worlds. This brought Alexander to tears, and when his friends asked why, he said, “Is it not worthy of tears, that, when the number of worlds is infinite, we have not yet become lords of a single one?”[5]

That kind of insatiable, voracious lust for power and prestige is what the Lord is denouncing in the proud Babylonians here. He says that Babylon “enlarges his appetite like Sheol, and he is like death, never satisfied.” The word Sheol is used often in the Old Testament, and just as often misunderstood it seems. A survey of the major English translations reveals just how wide the variation of interpretations is. The NIV renders the word “grave,” while the KJV has “death,” and the NKJV has “hell.” The Greek and Latin translations of the Old Testament use words that are best understood as “the underworld.” At the very least, we know that the word is used to describe the place of the dead. The point here in our text is that Sheol and death are insatiable. You’d think we’ve been to enough funerals, wouldn’t you? And yet there will be more. Death is never satisfied. The grave is never full. They are always eager for more. And the Lord says that the proud are this way. They are like Sheol and like death – never satisfied, always hungry for more.

The Babylonians, no matter how many lands they conquered, always wanted more. Their swiftness and effectiveness in conquest made them suitable for the Lord’s use to bring judgment upon Judah. The sin of God’s own people had made them ripe for judgment, and in keeping with His unbreakable promise, He would bring in a foreign power to trample them underfoot. The Babylonians were His chosen instrument. This puzzled Habakkuk, because he wondered why God would use a nation that was even more corrupt than Judah to judge Judah. But here God is telling the prophet that Babylon will not be exempt from judgment themselves. They will answer for their own sins in God’s perfect time, because they are dissatisfied in their desire to always possess more and more.

In our lives, this very same sin manifests itself sometimes as greed, sometimes as gluttony, sometimes as covetousness or consumerism. But underlying all these manifestations is pride. Pride says, “You never have enough.” Advertisers market their products to this consuming desire. You need this thing, and then life will be complete. But it isn’t. So then you need this other thing. And on and on it goes forever. Pride says, “You deserve more, so go and get it, no matter what it takes.” For the Babylonians, it was nations, people, and plunder. Verse 5 says, “He also gathers to himself all nations and collects to himself all peoples.” But it isn’t enough. So they go after more. For you and me, it might be money, possessions, titles, or something else. Satisfaction is promised but never delivered. As the Rolling Stones said, “I can’t get no satisfaction, but I tried, and I tried, and I tried, and I tried.” The reason why that song still gets airtime a half-century after it was first recorded is because it resonates with human nature and experience. Our pride is always saying, “You need more,” but more never satisfies.

There is a spiritual reason for this. Whatever else the image of God in which human beings were created entails, it certainly includes a longing to have a personal relationship with God. Whether a person recognizes it or not, this longing exists at the core of every person’s being. We try to silence it and explain it away. We try to fill the void with any number of pursuits and possessions. We try to satisfy it with any number of experiences and exploits. But satisfaction always remains just beyond our grasp. The fact is that God loves us too much to let us find satisfaction with anything or anyone else other than Himself. He has put within us a spiritual homing device that is always beeping and blinking to drive us home to Him. As Augustine said so well, “Thou hast made us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee.” The proud never recognize this, or at least never admit it. To admit it is to confess there is a need that cannot be met by one’s own efforts and accomplishments. But pride is there whispering to us, “You can be satisfied. Just get more.” But experience tells us something different, does it not?

The proud are dissatisfied in their desires, because they are always looking for satisfaction everywhere except the one place that it can truly be found: in God and in Him alone.

This brings us then to the third and final pitfall of pride here in this text …

III. The proud one is derided is his destruction (v6a).

In Chapter 1, the prophet likened humanity to the fish of the sea, and the Babylonian Empire to a great fisherman. “The Chaldeans pull them all up with a hook, catch them in their dragnet, and gather them in their fishing net.” Ancient artwork depicts that these are not merely metaphors. The Babylonians actually put hooks into the lips and noses of their victims to drag them into captivity, and carried some away in nets. But, let’s stick to the metaphor for a moment. Picture, if you will, a fisherman, carrying nets full of fish and a stringer loaded with more. Now, imagine for a moment that something terrible happens to the fisherman – maybe he is struck by lightning and killed. And what if, there in that moment, all the fish that he had gathered in his nets and impaled on his string began to laugh at him and make fun of him? Well, this is exactly what the Lord says is going to take place when His judgment finally comes upon Babylon.

The proud and haughty Babylonians had gathered up nations and peoples in their conquests. But a day of destruction was coming for Babylon, and it was coming rather soon. The nation had burst onto the scene rather suddenly a decade or two before Habakkuk’s book was written. Within less than a century, it would be decimated. And when that day would finally come, the Lord says, “Will not all these” – that is, these nations and peoples that Babylon has captured – “Will  not all these take up a taunt-song against him, even mockery and insinuations against him …?”

Three distinct Hebrew words are used here, translated as “taunt-song,” “mockery,” and “insinuations.” As one commentator notes, “All three indicate that the Chaldean’s … victims will one day cast the Chaldean’s once-proud boasts and claims back in their teeth with cleverly devised words intended to mock them.”[6] In short, the Babylonians will become a laughing-stock among the very peoples whom they had conquered only a brief time before.

A few years ago, I read an interview with Mel Brooks about the making of his 1967 movie, The Producers. If you are unfamiliar with it, the story is about a producer who decides that he can make more money off of a Broadway flop than he can with a hit, so he finds the worst script he can find, and hires the worst director and actors he can find. The script was a musical tribute to Adolf Hitler entitled, “Springtime for Hitler.” Brooks, who himself is Jewish, says that he received a lot of hate mail for the film from fellow-Jews who couldn’t understand how he could make a comedy about Hitler. Remember, this was just a little more than two decades after World War II ended! Brooks’ response to that was that by laughing at Hitler, you cut him down to size. He said, “by using the medium of comedy, we … rob Hitler of his posthumous power and myths.” At one point in the film, Brooks even voices Hitler in one of the showtunes, and played Hitler in a subsequent film. Asked about this, Brooks said, “It is an inverted seizure of power. For many years Hitler was the most powerful man in the world and almost destroyed us. To possess this power and turn it against him – it is simply alluring.”[7]

Almost certainly without intending to, Mel Brooks gives us the perfect illustration of what the Lord says He will do to the Babylonians. The people whom the Babylonians nearly destroyed end up lampooning them and making sport of them, deriding them in their destruction. Their sin was very public, humiliating multitudes on the global scene. And so, in God’s justice, their shame would be just as public, being humiliated by the very same multitudes and becoming a byword and a punch-line on the public scene.

The warning here applies to all who are proud. By their own efforts and power, they have climbed to the top of the tower. Soon enough they will find that the top of that tower is greased and sure footing cannot be found. As surely as they ascended, they will descend, and all those that have been trampled by them on the way up will laugh at them and deride them on the way back down. There is a general principle in Scripture that is as certain as any other: “Whoever exalts himself shall be humbled; and whoever humbles himself shall be exalted” (Matt 23:12). Even the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar, who was responsible for the conquest of Judah, would come to recognize that God is “able to humble those walk in pride” (Dan 4:37).

So, then, what is the conclusion? In light of these pitfalls of pride, what is the alternative? In verse 4, the alternative to this bloated sense of pride is the righteousness that God bestows to those who live by faith in Him. When we are humbled in the awareness of our sin to the extent that we have nowhere to look for help or hope but to the Lord alone, we come to Him spiritually naked and needy with the outstretched hands of a beggar asking Him to rescue us and deliver us from sin and its destructiveness. In Jesus Christ, the rightful Lord of Glory humbled Himself to bear the weight of our sin and the full measure of its penalty in the shameful death of the cross, that He might raise up those who are humble enough to cast themselves upon His mercy and grace by faith. It is by such faith that we are saved, and by such faith that we live, awaiting the Lord’s promises to come to pass.

As Lloyd-Jones says, “Read in your secular history books about the godless imperial nations that have risen, and how they seemed to have the whole world at their feet—Egypt, Babylon, Greece, Rome! … Nation after nation has risen only to fall. … They may have great temporary success, and we must be prepared for that; they may apparently bestride the universe, but as certainly as their star arose it will go down.”[8] And what is true for nations is true as well of individuals. Pride has its pitfalls, and they are inescapable. Therefore, we are admonished by the Word of God, “Humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you at the proper time” (1 Pet 5:6). The day will come when the righteous will be vindicated and the proud will be shamed and humiliated. In humility, faith, and patient endurance, we wait on the Lord in the sure and certain hope that all of God’s promises will come to pass exactly as He has given them, and exactly when He has intended for them. The proud will be laid low. And the righteous will live by his faith.

[1] Walter Dunnett, “Pride,” in Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology (ed. Walter A. Elwell; Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996), 630.
[2] Ibid., 630-631.
[3] A fact that is noted in many commentaries, including David Prior, The Message of Joel, Micah, and Habakkuk (The Bible Speaks Today; Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1998), 241.
[4] Warren W. Wiersbe, From Worry to Worship: Studies in Habakkuk (Lincoln, Neb.: Back to the Bible, 1983), 59.
[5] http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Plutarch/Moralia/De_tranquillitate_animi*.html
[6] Richard Patterson, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah (Wycliffe Exegetical Commentary; Chicago: Moody, 1991), 183.
[7] http://www.spiegel.de/international/spiegel/spiegel-interview-with-mel-brooks-with-comedy-we-can-rob-hitler-of-his-posthumous-power-a-406268.html.
[8] D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, From Fear to Faith (Nottingham: InterVarsity, 1953), 52-53. 

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