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. 

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