Monday, September 26, 2016

Crime and Punishment (Habakkuk 2:15-17)

Senseless acts of violence, terrorism, and murder. Drug and alcohol abuse. Sexual abuse. Environmental disasters. Systemic injustice in which some are punished beyond the extent of their crimes, and others get off unpunished. Such things plague our society today. Almost every headline during this past news-filled week has related to one or the other of these issues. And yet, we constantly hear that the Bible is an antiquated book that has no relevance to our contemporary world. In just the three verses we have read, we see all of those matters addressed clearly. Habakkuk lived 2,600 years ago, and yet in his day, society was plagued by the same concerns that affect us today. This very week, in our own state, we have seen images in the news that reflect back decades to a day and time that we all hoped we had moved beyond. But these societal concerns that we have listed, and more that could be added to the list, are not the root of the problem. They are symptoms of an underlying cause: human sinfulness. Because the human heart and mind are warped by sin, we see the same manifestations of it over and over again throughout history. We cannot evolve beyond it; we cannot educate ourselves out of it.

Habakkuk’s day and age was much like our own, in that the primary concerns of the righteous Israelites involved moral degradation in their homeland and global unrest sparked by militant terror on the part of the Babylonians who branched out from modern-day Iraq to conquer by force and destruction. Many wondered why God did not stop them. But God had declared that He was in fact using them to accomplish His purpose. The Jewish people had violated God’s covenant with them and earned for themselves divine chastening and judgment. Babylon was the tool that God would use to deliver it. But the Babylonians were not exempt from God’s moral standards. They did not see themselves as divine agents of the one true God. Instead, they saw themselves as emissaries of their pagan deities, establishing a name for themselves in the world in the name of their gods. And so, in the exercise of their terror, they exceeded what was fitting. The punishment they inflicted on nations exceed the crimes for which God was bringing about judgment. And now the crimes of the Babylonians had to be punished in turn.

The passage before us is part and parcel of a larger section dealing with the impending doom of Babylon. Though they had conquered many lands and enslaved many peoples, the day was soon to come in which all the survivors of those peoples would see Babylon fall and would taunt and mock them in their demise. Five pronouncements of “Woe,” or “taunt-songs” are given from verses 6 through 20. Having considered three of them in weeks past, we come to the fourth today. In this one, we are dealing with the issue of crime and punishment – namely, the crimes committed by the Babylonians, and the punishment that would come upon them. But this is not merely a lesson in ancient Mesopotamian history. As we have said, the issues plaguing the world in that day were no different than the ones that occupy the news hour today. The crimes committed by the Babylonians in our text are parallel to many things we see going on around us. Therefore, the punishment that is meted out in God’s justice here in our text must be relevant for us as well.

I. The crimes of sinful men are many. (vv15, 17)

Every generation has had a person or entity that it has considered to be the epitome of evil in the world. Most recently, perhaps we might say that it was Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda; ISIS; or Boko Haram. A generation ago, it would have been Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Third Reich. In Habakkuk’s day, there would have been few if any who would contest that the moniker could be fittingly applied to Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonian Empire. The accounts of the Bible, secular historians, and even the inscriptions of the Babylonians themselves all accord with one another on the atrocities committed in the expansion of Nebuchadnezzar’s empire. Prior to his enthronement, he was the leader of his father Nabopolassar’s army. By the time Habakkuk’s book was written, his name was synonymous with terror and violence in the world.

Verse 15 begins to list the charges against him and his regime. First we see the defiling of the human body by drunkenness and debauchery. “Woe to you who make your neighbors drink, who mix in your venom even to make them drunk.” The propensity for abuse of alcohol among the Babylonians is well documented. But, notice a familiar theme here – they were not content to intoxicate themselves; they forced their drink on others in order to intoxicate them as well. The old saying is that misery loves company, and nowhere is this ever more evident than in the misery of sinful behavior. As Robertson writes, “Part of the depravity inherent in sin is its insistence on involving others in its debauchery. The Babylonian king is not satisfied with making himself drunk; he can rest contentedly only when he has forced his degradation on others. He delights with a twisted glee to see others indulging in the same sins.”[1]

The Babylonians’ goal in intoxicating others was “so as to look on their nakedness.” It is a bit of a euphemistic expression for sexual assault, rape. What the Babylonians, and presumably their esteemed king had done to others was no different than what we have heard in the news recently concerning the Stanford incident of Brock Turner and the helpless woman he raped behind a dumpster. And that is but one incident. Ask any college student and they will tell you that it happens to someone they know on a fairly regular basis. Drunkenness and sexual sin, sexual perversion, and sexual violence and victimization often go together. That is not new. The only thing new about it is that we have become numb to the horror and shame of it all. Some have said that we live in a rape culture. That is perhaps accurate. I would say that it is also an intoxicated culture. Drugs and alcohol are as much a part of every day life for so many as are the various sexual perversions that are so prevalent. We have been, as a society, pornogrophied and our culture is too inebriated to notice or to care. It will be said by some that we should not talk about such subjects in church. Friends, the Bible is not silent about it. Sexual deviance is talked about every day in the news, it is talked about every day in the governing assemblies of our nation, and it is paraded before our eyes and ears in movies, television, video games, music and literature. We cannot be silent about it. A hypersexualized society that has intoxicated itself into thinking that these kinds of things are normal, acceptable, or permissible must fall under the hammer of God’s judgment.

As if these repulsive acts were not enough, the list of the crimes does not end there. There is also the destruction of the natural world. Verse 17 speaks of what else drunken Babylon did to exploit all nature and humanity. We read of “violence done to Lebanon,” and “the devastation of its beasts,” and the “bloodshed and violence done to the land, to the town and all its inhabitants.” Not only do drunkenness and sexual deviance go hand in hand, but violence usually comes along with it too. And in Babylon’s case, the violence is widespread and all-encompassing.

The violence done to Lebanon speaks of an environmental disaster. Lebanon was known for its magnificent cedars. The cedars of Lebanon were as proverbial as the sequoias of California. For thousands of years before Habakkuk’s time, Lebanon’s cedars were utilized in the building of temples and ships around the world. Just before the rise of Babylon, Sennacherib of Assyria boasted, “I came up to the heights of the mountains, to the remotest parts of Lebanon; and I cut down its tall cedars and its choice cypresses” (Isa 37:24). Nebuchadnezzar followed suit and stripped the forests of Lebanon to provide lumber for his lavish building projects across his empire. If you recall in verse 11, it was said that the rafters from the framework of Babylon’s buildings would cry out against them. Those rafters were made from Lebanon cedar.

In the malicious deforestation of Lebanon, the Babylonians also brought calamity upon the wildlife native to the area. Some of the animals lost their natural habitat, many more undoubtedly were killed. Now, in our day, there is this notion in the minds of some people that if you speak about issues of conservation of the environment and of animal life, then you must be some kind of tree-hugging liberal. It is like, if you are a person of conservative social and moral values, then you must be okay with throwing Styrofoam cups out of your car window on the interstate and you must be opposed to recycling soda cans. No friends, these issues should concern those of us who take our Bibles seriously. God commanded humanity to exercise dominion, not domination, over all that He created. As one scholar has put it, “It is one thing to rule over creation, respecting it as God’s creation entrusted to one for the moment …; it is quite another thing to exploit it unmercifully as though it belonged to one absolutely, as though one were not accountable for it to its creator.”[2] Yes, this world is passing away and will be recreated by God when the new heaven and new earth are established at the end of all things, just as our bodies will be resurrected to immortality. But, until then, we must take care of our bodies and our world as stewards of the God we serve who made us and the world in which we live.

Finally, the charge is issued against Babylon for its devaluing of human life. “Bloodshed and violence” have been done to the land, the town, and all its inhabitants. Ruthlessly, mercilessly, the Babylonians tortured and slaughtered multitudes in carrying out its imperialism. Every victim was made in the image of God, and He never turns a blind eye toward the taking of innocent lives. Violence has become a form of entertainment in our culture, resulting in a devaluing of human life from the womb to the tomb. Generations of people have been desensitized to bloodshed and violence, resulting in the kinds of things like we see taking place in Charlotte this week, and around the country and the world in these days. But there is a God who takes notice of all this. Every senseless death is the end of a life that was created to display His image on the earth. And He will issue the final verdict of perfect justice in His appointed time.

That leads us from the discussion of the crimes in our text to the discussion of the punishment.

II. The punishment of a holy God is justified. (v16)

 Injustice is what underlies much of the unrest that surrounds us today. Punishments do not fit the crimes committed often. Imperfect cops make imperfect decisions. Imperfect observers jump to imperfect conclusions. Imperfect judges and juries make imperfect judgments. Sometimes the innocent are condemned (or worse), and the guilty go free. Though we do not turn a blind eye to injustice, and we do not hold our tongues about them, we also must view them through the lens of eternity. And in that perspective, we see that injustice, as horrible as it is, is only temporary. As Christopher Darden, one of the prosecutors in the O. J. Simpson murder trial, said, “I wanted to tell him that there was another court that would hear his case one day, with a judge who would try racist cops and murderers. A court where everyone will have to account for his actions alone, without lawyers or jurors …. A court where there will be no need for DNA, [or] gloves, … and the only witnesses will be the eyewitnesses….”[3] The God of perfect justice will undo all injustice and see to it that every person’s punishment fits his or her crimes when the final court comes to session. And verse 16 describes what that will look like for Babylon.

All that was done during the tyrannical reign of Babylon’s rulers was done to exalt themselves and bring honor to themselves. But the Lord says that a day is coming when they would be filled with disgrace rather than honor. The world will see all that was done in the building of their empire, and there will be no room for honor when it is all revealed. It will only be disgrace and shame. Babylon will receive in itself what it has inflicted upon others. Verse 16 issues a sarcastic command, “Now you yourself drink and expose your own nakedness.” I studied the Hebrew language for over two years in seminary, and I can tell you that the original language here is very graphic and indelicate. As most of you know, the Hebrew people practiced circumcision as an outward sign of their membership within the covenant community of God’s people. The idea expressed here in the original language is that Babylon will be left exposed in a drunken stupor and all the world will see that it stands outside of God’s covenant of redemption.

The Lord used them to administer His cup of judgment on Judah for its sins, but that did not bind Babylon into a relationship of faith and righteousness before God. And therefore, now the cup comes around full circle to be drank to the dregs by the ruthless Babylonians. “The cup in the Lord’s right hand will come around to you.” And when it does, and Babylon’s nakedness is exposed, their only covering will be “utter disgrace.” Again, our English translators are protecting our sensitivities somewhat here. The King James comes the closest to the original with the phrase “shameful spewing.” In a context of drunkenness, it is not difficult to see that the reference is to vomit. As Theo Laetsch put it, “Dead drunk, the proud Chaldean shall lie naked on the floor in his own vomit, an object of horror and ridicule for all the world.”[4] Verse 14 promised us that in the final day, the earth will be filled with the glory of the Lord as water covers the sea. As for the glory of Babylon and all who are like her, it will be covered in the utter disgrace of shameful spewing.

There is good news for human beings who have been oppressed and afflicted by injustice, who have been exploited, taken advantage of, and wrongfully victimized. Perfect justice is coming and all those who have transgressed God’s standard of righteousness will be made to drink from the cup that He holds in His right hand. Of course, there is bad news in this as well, for all of us – every single one of us – has transgressed that standard in our sins against one another and against a holy God. But the best news of all is that there is One who has come into the world to drink the cup of judgment for us. On the night before He died on the cross, Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane saying, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; yet not as I will, but as You will. … My Father, if this cannot pass away unless I drink it, Your will be done” (Mt 26:39, 42). That cup contained the sins of the whole world and God’s righteous judgment against them. The only way to rescue sinners from the wrath and condemnation that was due to them was for Him to drink the cup in our place, and He drank it to the dregs. He shed His blood for the blood that we have shed in our rebellion against God. He bore the penalty as our substitute. And because He drank that cup for us, He offers us a different cup instead. He offers us the cup containing His own blood by which He has invited us into a new covenant relationship with God, saying, “Drink from it, all of you, for this is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Mt 26:27-28). Jesus takes the punishment for our crimes – our violence and hatred, our lust and abuse, our arrogance and greed, of which we are all guilty – so that we may be pardoned before the judgment bar of God.

So two cups are presented before us: the cup of judgment and the cup of salvation. Jesus offers to drink the cup of judgment for you so that you can drink from the cup of salvation. The Psalmist said, “What shall I render to the Lord for all His benefits toward me? I shall lift up the cup of salvation and call upon the name of the Lord” (Psalm 116:12-13). And the Bible promises us that whoever calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved (Joel 2:32; Rom 10:13). Which cup will you choose?

[1] O. Palmer Robertson, The Books of Nahum, Habakkuk, and Zephaniah (New International Commentary on the Old Testament; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990), 201.
[2] J. J. M. Roberts, Nahum, Habakkuk, and Zephaniah (Old Testament Library; Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1991), 125.
[3] Christopher Darden, In Contempt (New York: Harper, 1997), 3.
[4] Cited in Richard D. Patterson, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah (Wycliffe Exegetical Commentary; Chicago: Moody, 1991), 204. 

Monday, September 19, 2016

A Message of Things to Come (Habakkuk 2:12-14)

The chief end of man, says the often quoted Westminster Catechism, is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. This is the highest purpose to which we can aspire; it is the answer to the immortal question, “What is the meaning of life?” Each of us has been given life by our Creator as a gift, and we are to use that gift in the exercise of bringing glory to God and enjoying Him in the intimacy of a personal relationship. It sounds quite simple doesn’t it? But in the world of real human experience, we find that nearly everything is at odds with this purpose. The world is so infected with sin that it lures and beckons us to defy this purpose. We ourselves, in our sinful nature – our flesh – are also corrupted by sin, so that our desires run counter to the glory of God and the enjoyment of Him. And of course, we have a great spiritual enemy, the devil, who is constantly at work seeking to persuade and tempt us to abandon the course of glorifying and enjoying God. We are fallen people in a fallen world. And that makes this seemingly simple purpose of life much more difficult to attain in real experience. In Jesus Christ, we are called to be in the world but not of the world. We are here, in this fallen world, as agents of reconciliation and transformation to bring glory to God through our lives and our work for Him in the midst of this world’s corruption. But we are to be on guard, lest we ourselves become corrupted by the ways of this fallen world. In this world, we are surrounded by people and things. God’s word is clear that we are to love people and use things to bring Him glory. But the world and the devil are always appealing to the sinfulness of our flesh to turn that upside down – to love things and use people to acquire them, that we might glorify ourselves instead of our Maker.  

The Neo-Babylonian Empire that had burst onto the scene of world history during Habakkuk’s time is an example of this. Nabopolasser was perhaps initially motivated by noble ambitions to shake off the oppression of the Assyrian Empire. He united the Chaldean people and formed a strong military to secure independence. Soon enough, however, those ambitions became corrupted. He and his son Nebuchadnezzar began to advance against other nations, conquering, looting, torturing, and enslaving them simply because they could. No one in the world could stop them. In the meticulous providence of God, the uprising of the Babylonian Empire came at a time when God could use them to bring about the well-deserved judgment upon His own people. With the Northern Kingdom of Israel having already fallen to the Assyrians a century before, the Southern Kingdom of Judah had followed in their destructive ways. Injustice, idolatry and immorality were rampant among a people who had been established to bring glory to the God who had called them out for Himself, redeemed them from bondage and established them for Himself in a land that He gave them. In a short time, they would be steam-rolled by the Babylonians. But Babylon would not escape the judgment of God themselves. Though God used them, He did not endorse their methods or their motives. Babylon was building an empire of self-aggrandizement, and they were breaking the backs of innocent people to do so. They would answer for it eventually in the perfect timing of God.

Our text today is the third of five proclamations of judgment issued against Babylon. The Lord said that the day was coming in which all the plundered nations who had fallen prey to Babylon would rise up and sing taunt-songs against them. Each one begins with a word of “Woe.” We’ve discussed two of them in previous weeks. This is the third. In these taunt-songs, Babylon is mocked by the words of its victims, who give voice to the condemnation of God Himself.

With the passage of two and a half millennia, the world has changed a great deal. But in the words of the 19th Century French satirist Alphonse Karr, “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” Oppressive geopolitical regimes still assert themselves by force on the world stage, exploiting weaker nations and minority peoples for their own advancement. Corrupt justice systems allow the strong to victimize the weak, often meaning that the wicked triumph over the good. Crooked leaders build massive corporations by taking advantage of the most vulnerable. And unscrupulous individuals acquire for themselves great wealth and luxury by trampling others underfoot. In our own nation, we regularly find ourselves in the voting booth trying to decide between what we consider “the lesser of two evils,” knowing that whichever candidate wins will mean bad news for a sizeable number of our fellow citizens. The causes of righteousness and justice are being trampled underfoot within the halls of so-called justice. Those who would speak for God are bullied into silence with threats and intimidation. And the freedoms on which our lives have been built to this point are evaporating before our eyes. Like Habakkuk, we cry out, “How long?” And it seems that there is no word from God.

Ah, but there is a word from God. As we examine His word, we find that today is not the only day we have and this world is not the only world there is. There is a better day and a better world promised to those who hold fast to God by faith in Jesus Christ. And for those who do not, a more dreadful world and more dreadful day is promised. God told Habakkuk that the vision He was giving him was “yet for the appointed time,” and that he must “wait for it; for it will certainly come” (2:3). And though that day did not come in its fullness in Habakkuk’s lifetime, and it has yet to come in fullness to this point in time, it will certainly come, according to the Lord’s own word. And so the righteous continue to live by faith, trusting that none of God’s words fall to the ground unfulfilled.

So here in this passage, we have not one, but three words from God that we must cling to as we await the fulfillment of God’s promises. These are words of things to come.

I. A word of condemnation: Woe to the bloody builders! (v12)

There are a lot of so-called experts out there who write a lot of stuff about ministry, preaching, church growth, and things like that. And over the last couple of decades, they have been advising that we need to get away from preaching about things like wrath, judgment, condemnation and hell. They say that those subjects are too offensive, and not what people want to hear. Maybe you feel that way yourself. But if so, I want to challenge you to examine that feeling for a moment. I want to suggest to you that subjects like these are not offensive or off-putting at all, but are in fact something that we desperately long to know are real and true.

Think of it this way. Let’s say that there has been a horrible act of terrorism committed that has affected many innocent people, and the perpetrator of that act is still on the loose. Do we not find ourselves glued to the television and the internet, anxiously awaiting news that the terrorist has been apprehended? And when they are brought to trial, do we not follow with great interest to see that justice has been served? The more hurt and brokenness we experience in this world, the more we long to know that God is going to do something to make the wrongs right. And the Bible has promised that He will. And when He does, it will involve those very subjects that so many claim that they do not want to hear about here and now: wrath, judgment, condemnation, and hell.

In the case of our text, this is God’s message to Babylon. It is a word of condemnation. “Woe to the bloody builders!” Verse 12 says, “Woe to him who builds a city with bloodshed and founds a town with violence.” In the imagery and writings of the ancient Babylonians that survives to this day, two things are evident about them. They loved to build things, and they were violently cruel toward the inhabitants of the lands that they conquered. The two were related, as conquered people were either killed or taken away into captivity, with many enslaved in forced labor for Babylon’s lavish construction projects. And all of the buildings, monuments, and cities across the Babylonian Empire were constructed for a twofold reason: (A) to honor the perverse idols of Babylonian religion, and (B) to memorialize the names of Nabopolassar and Nebuchadnezzar, the kings who had them built. It was an act of idol-worship and an act of self-worship, and it was all carried out by the backbreaking labor of enslaved peoples, financed by the treasures that had been pillaged from bloody battles in foreign lands.

While people around the world would marvel at Babylon’s impressive architectural and engineering feats, the Lord was not impressed. As Theo Laetsch put it so well, the Lord “saw only the blood of untold numbers of people who were slaughtered in ruthless warfare in order to obtain the means which made these buildings possible. He saw only the iniquity, the perversity, the crookedness of the builders.”[1] Because human beings are created in the image of God, He takes very seriously how people treat one another. And the blood that gives life to man is considered by God to be very sacred. God’s law was clear: “Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man his blood shall be shed, for in the image of God He made man” (Gen 9:6). From the first shedding of human blood recorded in the Bible, in Cain’s murder of his brother Abel, we learn that innocent blood has a voice that cries out to God for justice to be served. God said to Cain, “The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to Me from the ground” (Gen 4:10). In the wake of Babylon’s terroristic campaign, there was a mighty choir of voices crying out from the pools of shed blood for justice to be served upon Babylon. And God heard it. Thus He proclaims that there can be nothing for Babylon but “Woe.”

This word, “Woe,” is the promise of a curse and condemnation. And that is what is coming for Babylon. Moreover, it is coming for every nation, every enterprise, every tyrant, and every greedy individual who tramples innocent life underfoot, oppressing the weak and disregarding the image of God in man in order to secure wealth, power, fame, and luxury for themselves. This word of condemnation applies to all who pursue such things in such ways as the Babylonians did. Woe to the bloody builders!

Following this word of condemnation, we find …

II. A word of explanation: Fueling the fires of futility! (v13)

We began our service today with a reading of Psalm 2. The Psalmist asks, “Why are the nations in an uproar?” The New King James wording is perhaps more familiar: “Why do the nations rage?” Why are “the peoples devising a vain thing? The kings of the earth take their stand and the rulers take counsel together against the Lord and against His Anointed, saying, ‘Let us tear their fetters apart and cast away their cords from us!’” Does this not sound like the daily news? Nations in an uproar, raging against one another; kings and rulers taking bold stands to liberate themselves and their people from the restraints that God Himself has put in place on civil and moral issues. Our own nation is aptly described in these words. But notice the calm assurance by which the Psalmist says, “He who sits in the heavens laughs, the Lord scoffs at them.”

While godless people and godless regimes seem to prosper in the world in our day, as they seemed to in Habakkuk’s day, the righteous live by faith that none of this escapes the notice of a holy God who is enthroned above all of this mess and is doing something about it – even when what He is doing about it escapes our notice or our understanding. Remember that the Lord’s first words to Habakkuk in Chapter 1 were these: “I am doing something in your days – You would not believe if you were told” (1:5). And He still is. He is enthroned above all powers, all nations, all corporations and individuals, and when they posture themselves against Him in rebellion, He cannot but laugh at their feeble efforts.

The Psalmist says, “the peoples [are] devising a vain thing.” That word vain is the same word that is used in Habakkuk 2:13 – “the nations grow weary for nothing.” All of Babylon’s efforts to build for themselves an empire, great cities, impressive monuments, amounts ultimately to nothing. The same word is used in Psalm 127:1 – “Unless the Lord builds the house, they labor in vain who build it.” Anything built in this world apart from the Lord’s pleasure and purpose is but a passing vapor of vanity. The rhetorical question is asked in verse 13, “Is it not from the Lord of hosts that the peoples toil for fire?” In other words, all that the godless empire builders of this world are amassing for themselves in their unjust oppression, in their violence and bloodshed, is only fuel for the fire of judgment. It will all burn in the end. None of it will last.

How do we know this? Because the Lord has ordained it! “Is it not from the Lord?” It is indeed. God has hard wired this universe to bring glory to Himself. All that does not bring Him glory will go up in the fire of His judgment, and the smoke that rises will in itself bring Him glory. As Ron Blue writes, Babylon’s “carefully hewn stones would serve as the altar, and their ornately carved wood as the kindling for the giant sacrificial fire that would leave Babylon in ashes.”[2]

And so it is with all who, like Babylon, build for themselves personal, professional, or political empires with no regard for others or for the Lord who is their Creator and Judge, and the Defender of the vulnerable and oppressed. All that is done that does not ultimately serve His purposes proves to be only fuel for the fires of futility. It will not last. Within a century of Babylon’s meteoric rise, they were wiped off the stage of history. Others have come like them, and still others will yet, be they individuals, governments, or other structures and systems. The word of explanation that is given here is that all such efforts are condemned because they amount to nothing in the eyes of the Lord – nothing but fuel for the fire.

How tragic it would be to spend our lives and resources building for ourselves reputations, careers, lifestyles, or monuments that will be reduced to ashes that God might be glorified in the burning of them. He has providentially arranged it to be certain and inescapable.

Now finally we come to a third word here:

III. A word of expectation: A future filled with pervasive praise! (v14)

What is the world coming to? That is a question we want to ask every day as we see unsettling events unfold around us. We look at unfathomable court rulings, global terrorism, systemic injustice, political corruption, an absolute vacuum of moral leadership, and we want to throw up our hands in despair and say, “What is the world coming to?” Well, my friends, there is good news. The world is coming to the ultimate and eternal praise of Jesus Christ. This is the reason why the Christian can sleep at night. We know that there is a God enthroned above all of this, who laughs at the raging of the nations, who will set the torch to all that goes against His ultimate purposes and ignite it in a flame of judgment and then the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea. Presently, the earth may be filled with the crimes of men. Presently, it may be filled with bloodshed, violence, and corruption. But a day is coming – God has promised it – when the knowledge of His glory will be known by every person on the planet.

A hundred years before Habakkuk’s time, when the Assyrians were committing the same atrocities as the Babylonians, Isaiah the prophet said something similar. In Isaiah 11, against the dark backdrop of Assyrian oppression, God spoke through him declaring that a shoot would spring from the stem of Jesse – that is, a descendant of David the King was coming. And the Spirit of the Lord would rest upon Him, and He would judge the poor with righteousness, and decide with fairness for the afflicted of the earth. And a rod would come forth from His mouth with which He will strike the earth, and with the breath of His lips the wicked would be slain. In that day, God promised through Isaiah, “They will not hurt or destroy in all My holy mountain, for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. Then in that day the nations will resort to the root of Jesse, who will stand as a signal for the peoples; and His resting place will be glorious” (11:9-10).

God’s glory – the weighty magnificence of His character, the intrinsic honor that is uniquely His, the radiant splendor of His person – is going to be fully known. All that God has been doing in human history has been building toward this day. Everything He has done, everything that He is doing or will do, is to demonstrate His glory in the earth in the last day. Everything that has run counter to His glory will be consumed in the fire of judgment, and at last, all people will know His ultimate and everlasting glory!

The Hebrew word for “knowledge” means far more than the acquisition of information. It is an experiential relationship. In that day, every living thing on the planet will have a personal, experiential, and relational knowledge of God’s glory. God spoke through Jeremiah of that day, saying, “I will be their God, and they shall be My people. They will not teach again, each man his neighbor and each man his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they will all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them, … for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more” (Jer 31:33-34).

How long O Lord? How long until that glory breaks forth in the world? Look at the darkened skies and behold, the first shafts of light have broken in already. When Jesus Christ was born, angels attended His birth proclaiming, “Glory to God in the Highest!” (Lk 2:14). And when He returns, He says, “Then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory” (Lk 21:27). Revelation 11:15 tells us that in that day, “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ; and He will reign forever and ever.” And a voice will be heard, declaring “Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great!” (17:5). The Babylonian Empire that dominated the world in Habakkuk’s day is already long gone, but other Babylons will rise, and they too will fall. And the warning goes forth from heaven, “Come out of her, my people, so that you will not participate in her sins and receive of her plagues; for her sins have piled up as high as heaven, and God has remembered her iniquities. … For this reason in one day her plagues will come, … and she will be burned up with fire; for the Lord God who judges her is strong” (18:4-5, 8). And then we read that after these things, the voice of a great multitude in heaven begins to say,

Hallelujah! Salvation and glory and power belong to our God; because His judgments are true and righteous; … Give praise to our God, all you His bond-servants, you who fear Him, the small and the great … Hallelujah! For the Lord our God, the Almighty, reigns. … He has a name written, “King of Kings and Lord of Lords” (Rev 19:1-2, 5, 16).

How do we go on living by faith in a world gone haywire, in a world where violence, injustice, oppression, and corruption prevail? Because we know that these words have been unchangeably declared and decreed by the sovereign God of the universe. A word of condemnation against all the bloody builders who erect for themselves monuments of idolatry on the backs of their victims. A word of explanation that all of their efforts and accomplishments will only fuel the fires of their judgment. And this wonderful word of expectation that the whole world will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea!

What have you been building in your life? Have you loved people and used things to bring glory to God? Or have you used people to acquire things to bring glory to yourself? The Lord has promised that it will all burn. Turn to Him in repentance and faith in Jesus Christ to save you from that fire, and set you free to live in the knowledge of His everlasting glory. That day is coming. If you are a believer in Christ, God never promised you that this world and these days would always be good. But He did promise that a better day and a better world are coming. Live by faith, in the unshakable hope and expectation of that day when all wrongs will be made right, and the whole world will be filled with His glory.

[1] Theodore Laetsch, quoted in Richard D. Patterson, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah (Wycliffe Exegetical Commentary; Chicago: Moody, 1991), 194.
[2] J. Ronald Blue, “Habakkuk,” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary (ed. John Walvoord and Roy Zuck; Wheaton, Ill.: Victor, 1995), 1515. 

Tuesday, September 06, 2016

If These Walls Could Talk ... (Habakkuk 2:9-11)


If these walls could talk … what would they say? We often think of that hypothetical question when we visit historic places. If the walls of Independence Hall in Philadelphia, for example could talk, they would tell us about the founding of our nation – how the Declaration of Independence was debated and approved; how the Constitution came into being within that building. What if the walls of this church building could talk? Would they speak of great Sunday services when the gospel went forth boldly and souls were saved and lives were changed? Would they speak of the beautiful weddings, somber funerals, and exciting baptisms that have been conducted here in this room? What about the walls of your office, or the walls of your home? What would they say? In many cases, we are glad to know that walls cannot talk!

Here in our text today, however, we read of certain walls that do talk, and what it is that they say. The walls belong to the proud Babylonians and their king Nebuchadnezzar. He was a great builder. He built a massive empire! He built a magnificent capital! He built a majestic palace for himself and his family! But one day, the walls of all the he had built would speak out.

The passage is part of a larger section of Habakkuk concerning the judgment that was coming upon Babylon. Having been used by God as an agent of judgment on the nation of Judah, Babylon itself would be held accountable before God for its own transgressions in the militant expansion of its empire. The nations that Babylon had pillaged and plundered would see the empire fall, and when that day would come, they would take up songs of mockery against their oppressors. There are five of these taunt-songs recorded here in Chapter 2, each one beginning with the word “Woe!” We looked at the first one last week, and this is the second.

In the final verse of this passage, the walls of Nebuchadnezzar’s palace, and those of his entire empire, are given voice, and the stones of the wall cry out, while the rafters of the framework answer back in chorus. And what those walls say is as relevant to us today as it was 2,600 years ago when these words were first written. So what do those walls say when they talk? Let’s look at our text and find out.

I. If these walls could talk, they would tell of the resources by which they were built (v9a).

Fabric, as many of you know, is usually sold by the yard. Every now and then, we go down to the fabric store near our house and buy some for a craft project we are working on, and we take the big bundle of fabric over to the counter and say, “I need two yards of this.” And we watch them measure out the fabric and cut it, and then they attach a sticker to it with the measurement and the cost. Thankfully, the folks at our local fabric shop are generous with their cuts, and they usually cut a few extra inches longer than we ask. But, if the shop was unscrupulous in their practices, they might cut a few inches short or take the fabric into the back where we could not see them cut it. Perhaps they might cut a yard and a half and charge us for two. That happened a lot in the ancient world, and when it did, the Hebrew word that is used here in the first line of verse 9 applied. Literally translated, it is “Woe to him who cuts off an evil cut,” meaning that the fabric seller has taken more than his share and cheated the customer. And so this phrase was often used more generally for anyone who made a profit by taking unfair advantage of others.

When it comes to the Babylonian empire, the pronouncement of woe that is sounded against them is due to the “evil gain” by which they built their house – their dynasty and empire. That’s what the first woe, in verses 6-8, was all about. The Babylonians had taken what was not rightfully theirs by force and extortion, pillaging, plundering, and looting every nation it wanted, because no power in the world was strong enough to stop them. They built an empire nearly unrivaled in history, but it was all built on evil gain. In Daniel 4, we read about how Nebuchadnezzar walked along the roof of his royal palace, surveying his imperial capital. He saw the famed Hanging Gardens, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, and the magnificent Ishtar Gate, which is preserved today in the Berlin museum. And he said, “Is this not Babylon the great, which I myself have built as a royal residence by the might of my power and for the glory of my majesty?” (Dan 4:30). Well, in point of fact, it was not, for he had built it all with stolen goods and treasures from other nations, and on the backs of a labor force dragged into captivity with violent and cruel torture.

If the walls could talk, they would tell of the resources by which they were built. Cedar timbers would tell of how they were stripped from the great forests of Lebanon. Stones would tell of how they were pulled from the walls of great buildings across the Middle East and transplanted to Babylon. Beams would speak of the blood and sweat of those who were forced to put them into position, and the body count which increased with Babylon’s campaign of terror in the world.

And these words serve as a warning to all who would build for themselves homes, careers, lifestyles, and personal empires by evil gain. Impressive as it all may be to the eye, every bit of it which was acquired by evil gain, by illicit and unrightful means, will sing in a chorus of condemnation against the builder in due time. The psalmist said, “Unless the Lord builds the house, they labor in vain who build it” (Psa 127:1). Though people may admire all of one’s accomplishments and monuments, if the walls could talk, what would they say? Would they say that it had all been built through a life of faithfulness, contentment, and generosity? Or would they say that the house was built upon evil gain? If the walls of our lives could talk they would tell of the resources by which they were built.

II. If these walls could talk, they would tell of the reason for which they were built (v9b).

Like so many modern users of social media, many kings of the ancient world never accomplished anything without sensing the need to inform the world about it. Nebuchadnezzar was one of them. In the written material that survives which is attributed to him, there is not a shred of humility to be found. It is all a tribute to his own greatness. He said,
At the thresholds of the city gates I stationed strong wild-bulls of bronze, and serpents standing erect. I dug its moat and reached the bottom of the water. I built its bank … I had the bulwark at the bank of the mighty wall built … like a mountain, so that it could not be moved. In order … that the destroyer might not approach Babylon, I threw around the city on the outer wall of Babylon a strong wall … and surrounded it with a mighty stream of many waters like the fullness of the sea, and then I threw a swamp around this. … I made its name great.[1]

Speaking of the palace of his father, Nabopolasser, which he enlarged for his own estate and referred to as “The Marvel of Mankind,” he said, “I built a structure … and I built very high in its tower a large chamber … for my royal dwelling place…. I firmly laid its foundation in the bowels of the earth, and I raised high its turrets like a mountain. … I beautified the dwelling of my lordship.” Surrounding the palace were walls, 136 feet thick, every brick of which was inscribed with Nebuchadnezzar’s name.[2] According to one of his inscriptions, Nebuchadnezzar said that his purpose in all this construction was “to make an everlasting name for his reign,” and he prayed that his god Marduk would grant “life for many generations, an abundant posterity, a secure throne, and a long reign.”[3]

This is what the Sovereign Lord says: “Woe to him who gets evil gain for his house to put his nest on high, to be delivered from the hand of calamity!” Three reasons for Nebuchadnezzar’s unparalleled building spree are couched in those words, each of which is also reflected in Nebuchadnezzar’s own inscriptions. The first is found in the word “nest.” In building for himself and his nation a “nest,” we see that one of his reasons for building was personal pleasure. Surrounding himself with every comfort and luxury known to man, surely he would have a place where he could live a life of pleasure and leisure. There was nothing left to work for, because he had it all right there in his palatial nest. Jesus spoke of this very mindset in His parable of the greedy landowner, who built for himself bigger barns to store all of his grain and goods, and then said to his soul, “Soul, you have many goods laid up for many years to come; take your ease, eat, drink, and be merry” (Lk 12:19).

Nebuchadnezzar not only built for personal pleasure, but also for prominent position. He built his nest, and put it “on high.” His palace was visible to all in the capital city, reminding everyone how important and powerful he was. The infamous builders who built the tower of Babel there in that very spot generations before him in Genesis 11 had said, “Come, let us build for ourselves a city, and a tower whose top will reach into heaven, and let us make for ourselves a name” (Gen 11:4). Nebuchadnezzar’s lofty perch was built with a similar goal. The whole world would marvel and cower in fear at one who inhabited such a lofty position of prominence.

But notice also that he built for permanent protection. His aim was “to be delivered from the hand of calamity.” In Chapter 1, Babylon was likened to a mighty bird which swooped down to devour its prey. And as the eagle builds his nest high on the peaks of a rocky crag where no predator can destroy it and devour its young, so Nebuchadnezzar sought to create for himself an impregnable fortress immune from enemy attacks. Having pillaged the whole world, or all that he knew of it at that time, he surely had to have a realistic fear of retaliation at any given moment. Remember, it is only paranoia if everyone really isn’t out to get you. In Nebuchadnezzar’s case, it is likely that everyone really was out to get him! To protect himself and his posterity permanently, he built this grand eagle’s nest high out of reach of his enemies.

Insulated from danger, surrounded with comfort, positioned in a place of prominence – who would not want to inhabit a nest like this? But when one resorts to evil gain to achieve it, there is this word of warning and woe. If the walls of those great palaces could talk they would say that it has all been for naught. No matter how secure, how well appointed, and how prominent one’s ill-gotten nest may be, there is an inescapable enemy who will be able to reach it and pull it down. The Lord says through the prophet Obadiah, concerning another kingdom that was built in the same way, “Though you build high like the eagle, though you set your nest among the stars, from there I will bring you down” (Obad 4). Romans 8:31 says that if God is for us, then who can be against us? But surely the converse is equally true – if God be against us, then who can be for us? What could we build to protect ourselves from the judgment that will befall us if we have secured and surrounded ourselves with a nest built from evil gain? As Jesus said, “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world, and forfeit his soul?” (Mk 8:36).

But, we might ask, does God not want us to have comfort and ease? Does He not wish for us to be protected from harm? Does He not want us to have honor and achievement? We must say clearly that in most cases there is nothing inherently wrong with these things. In fact, when these things can be achieved by means that honor the Lord, then they can be enjoyed freely as blessings from His hand. But, in a world filled with sin and its destructive effects, true comfort, true safety, and real honor is a rare experience. The righteous, however, are content to live by faith and know that all this and more will be ours according to the Lord’s own promise in our eternal dwelling place of heaven. We need not scheme and scrounge to possess those things here and now by illicit measures, for they will be ours freely forever in the Lord’s good timing. Wait for the Lord, humble yourselves, and be content with the provision of His grace. When you build your life in that way, if the walls could talk they would testify to God’s glory and grace rather than to the shame of a life wasted in sin.

And this brings us to the final word that the walls of Babylon would speak, if they could talk.

III. If these walls could talk, they would tell of the ruin by which they will be torn down (vv10-11).

A few years ago, we decided to give the office here a fresh coat of paint and some new d├ęcor. We settled on a palette of browns to complement some of the features that we could not change, and decided that some sepia toned photographs of the church might look nice hanging on the walls. I took my camera and went around and took some pictures of various things around the property, and we had them processed and framed. I thought they looked pretty good. I was proud of my work. A few days later, someone came in and asked, “Who took the pictures?” I could feel the pride welling up inside of me, and I said, “I did!” And this person said, “Well, in the future if you need any pictures taken, there are people in the church who know what they are doing.” I’ve put that behind me now, and I only think about every time I walk into the office. My boasting of my photographic skills has become a source of embarrassment and humiliation. But, this is a matter of relatively small consequence in the grand scheme of things.

On a much greater scale, the things in which we glory in can become our shame and ruin if we pursue them contrary to the will of God. The mighty king Nebuchadnezzar gloried in all the he had built and all the expanse of his empire. But when the walls of his kingdom began to talk, they testified to the ruin and collapse of it all that was imminent. Glorious feats of engineering and architecture that are written of still today; monuments of grandeur that are imitated around the world in the present – in the estimation of God, they are but shameful things because they were built by illicit gain and the blood of innocent people.

When the walls begin to talk, they will declare it in chorus: “You have devised a shameful thing for your house by cutting off many peoples; so you are sinning against yourself.” They have sinned against the Lord, glorying in themselves and their own achievements rather than giving glory to God. So, all of the achievements and accomplishments – they are but a shameful thing that has been devised. They have sinned against humanity, building their empire by cutting off – that is, degrading and destroying – many peoples. And they have sinned against their own souls. All that had been attained amounted to nothing but spiritual suicide. Every stone in the wall and timber in the framework is indicting the Babylonians of their threefold guilt.  

If there were such a thing as a haunted house, surely this one with the talking walls would be as horrifying as they come. The sleeping king is awakened by the screams of those he oppressed from within the walls. Every creak in the floor is a cry of revenge from the victims of his torture. The sounds will “haunt him at night and hound him by day.”[4] In time, the very walls of Nebuchadnezzar’s royal palace would speak. During the reign of his son Belshazzar, on the evening of a drunken feast, a disembodied hand appeared on those very walls and condemned the Babylonian Empire for good with the message, “You have been weighed in the balance and found wanting.” That very night, the kingdom was overthrown by the Medes and the Persians. As one writer put it so well: “A house built of tortured bodies and stark skeletons is not too habitable. In the fray to erect a monument, they constructed their own shameful mausoleum.”[5] Another put it even more vividly: “In the creaking of the beams connecting the timber … and in the grating of the cracking stone walls … one can hear an awesome dirge, the stones intoning the chant, the beams responding in antiphonal death song, until they also crash down into a heap of ruins and ashes. … And so it goes, the glory of this world.[6]

And so it goes for all who build for themselves empires of self-sufficiency and self-aggrandizement on the currency of ill-gotten gain. Build what you will, but the walls will one day talk, and when they do, what will they tell? Will they tell of lives live in humble, faithful, contentment and hope in the Lord? Or would they tell of a wasted life pursuing self-centered pleasure, the ruthless pursuit of prominence, and the harm done to others in the process? If that is the case, then while there is still opportunity, you can turn to the Lord Jesus Christ in repentance and faith and be saved. He died for you, taking the full measure of judgment for which the walls of your life are crying out, and He rose again to make you part of the house He is building by His grace and for His glory. This life is not all there is. There is another one coming, and only the treasures that are laid up for that life will endure beyond this world. All else will fall in ruins.  

One of England’s most famous athletes in the late nineteenth century was the famed cricketer C. T. Studd. He had it all! But he gave it all away, funding Christian ministries around the world with his sizeable inheritance. He helped establish the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, furthered the work of George Muller’s orphanages in England, and fueled the fledgling ministry of William Booth known as the Salvation Army. At the age of 25, he left for China to be a missionary, later serving in India, and eventually pioneering the cause of Christ into central Africa. At the age of 70, he died in Africa. And if the walls of C. T. Studd’s life could talk, what would they say? They would likely echo the words of his famous poem: “Only one life, twill soon be past, only what’s done for Christ will last.”

What would the walls of your life say if they could talk?

[1] Cited in Richard Patterson, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah (Wycliffe Exegetical Commentary; Chicago: Moody, 1991), 191.
[2] Ibid., 191, 193.
[3] O. Palmer Robertson, The Books of Nahum, Habakkuk, and Zephaniah (New International Commentary on the Old Testament; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990), 193.
[4] David Prior, The Message of Joel, Micah & Habakkuk (The Bible Speaks Today; Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1998), 250.
[5] J. Ronald Blue, “Habakkuk,” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary (ed. John Walvoord and Roy Zuck; Wheaton, Ill.: Victor, 1985), 1514.
[6] Theo Laetsch, cited in Patterson, 192. The italics represent my own rendering of Laetsch’s Latin, “Sic transit gloria mundi.”