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. 

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