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 décor. 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.” 

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