Sunday, October 30, 2016

Joy in the Day of Distress (Habakkuk 3:16-19)


We come now to the end of the Book of Habakkuk. I am sure I am not the only one who has been surprised at how timely this book of the Bible has been over the last several months that we have been studying it. And today as we come to the finale of the book, it becomes most relevant to American Christians who find ourselves in the most turbulent cultural context in the last half century at least, and as we stand on the brink of perhaps the most critical presidential election in our lifetimes.

In order to set the stage for this text, let me recap as briefly as I can the entire book of Habakkuk thus far. The book begins with the prophet crying out to God about the immorality and injustice that is rampant in Judah. He asks God why He is not doing anything about it and how long it will endure. God’s answer is that He is doing something about it, although no one would believe it if they were told. He is raising up the Chaldeans – better known to us as the Babylonians – to invade Judah as a judgment from God Himself. God is disciplining His own people by using this pagan nation to come against them. Habakkuk then begins to argue with God this punishment is too severe, that it is out of character for God to do this, and inconsistent with His purposes. But Habakkuk also acknowledges that God may yet be able to show him how to see all this differently, so he says that he will go up to the watchtower and wait for God to respond and even rebuke him.

Throughout Chapter 2, God began to elaborate on His purposes. While Judah must face this judgment at the hands of the Babylonians, the Babylonians themselves would face a judgment of their own in due time. But God assured Habakkuk of three things: (1) the righteous would live by faith (2:4). That is, those who had faith in the promises of God would be justified, or made righteous before God, and by that same faith they would persevere through the hardships that were to come, even unto life everlasting. (2) The knowledge of the glory of the Lord would one day cover the earth as water covers the sea (2:14). That is, no matter how bad things get in this fallen world, there is a better day coming. Until that day, nothing in this world is as it should be. Sin has corrupted every person and indeed the entire planet. But one day, God’s glory will permeate the world under the rightful reign of King Jesus, and we must live with an eye toward that day. (3) The Lord is in His holy temple. Let all the earth be silent before Him (2:20). This means that no matter how badly things seem to be spiraling out of control, God is still in control of it all and is accomplishing His purposes in the world in spite of how things appear. Therefore, we do not need to argue with Him or protest against His ways, but rather humble ourselves in silent submission to Him and yield ourselves to His word.

With these things clarified now in his heart and mind, Habakkuk’s perspective is completely transformed. Chapter three consists of a psalm of praise, sung to the Lord as a hymn of celebration of all that God is, all that He has done, and all that He will do for His people who walk with Him by faith. He sings of how the Lord will come even as He has come to the aid of His people in the past. Those past events were foreshadowing the ultimate coming of the Lord, when He would come for the salvation of His people and the judgment of all nations. We have discussed in weeks past how Habakkuk could not distinguish between those aspects of the Lord’s coming which would take place in the first coming of Christ and those which will occur in His second coming. But we have a more complete revelation that enables us to see that distinction with great clarity.

Now we come to what amounts to the final stanza of Habakkuk’s hymn. He has heard what God has spoken, and he has come to accept that there is no changing the situation. Bad things are coming – a day of distress, he calls it. But in the midst of this, the prophet exclaims that he has joy. How does one have joy when facing the day of distress? There are three keys to this joy found here in the text. If we would have joy in the midst of what appears to be our own day of distress, we must take up these keys ourselves and unlock that joy in our own lives.

I. We must acknowledge our feelings (v16).

I am not sure where the lie came from, apart from hell itself, that says that Christians must be stoics who show no emotion, or can only show emotion when they are jolly and happy. For a people who claim to be followers of One who called Himself “the Truth,” we seem to be pretty comfortable being dishonest with ourselves and others about what is going on inside of us. Perhaps we feel like honesty about our feelings would betray a lack of faith, or would demonstrate that we do not have it all together. Well, the fact is that we do not have it all together, and that is why we need Jesus. If we had it all together, we’d be able to manage without Him. No one has it all together. Christians are just those who are brave enough to admit it. And as for a lack of faith, well, that would only be true if we put our faith in our feelings. But we do not. We put our faith in One who transcends our feelings, and who is able to secure us in spite of our feelings. So, there’s no reason why we cannot just acknowledge our feelings. That is what Habakkuk does here in verse 16.

He says, “I heard and my inward parts trembled, at the sound my lips quivered. Decay enters my bones, and in my place I tremble.” So, first we must get the idea of how thoroughly shaken he is. He is physically affected from head to foot and from inside out. It would not be a far stretch to say that he feels as though he is about to pass out. His knees knock, his bones feel like they are rubber, his internal organs are quaking, and his lips are choking back tears and cries of anguish. Now, what has him feeling this way? It is what he has heard.

Now, we would not be wrong to say that Habakkuk demonstrates here what he says in verse 2 of this chapter, “Lord, I have heard the report about You and I fear.” Indeed, as the Lord says in Isaiah 66:2, “to this one I will look, to him who is humble and contrite of spirit, and who trembles at My word.” Habakkuk is indeed trembling at the Word of the Lord, and so should we all. But more specifically, what has Habakkuk feeling the way he acknowledges here is not that the Lord has spoken, but what the Lord has spoken. Notice how he goes on and says that he is trembling in this way “because I must wait quietly for the day of distress, for the people to arise who will invade us.”

Habakkuk knows that at this point there is no escaping the calamity that is to come. God has decreed that it is to happen and there is no alternative. Up until this time, he could hope for a change in the direction of things, but now God has revealed to him that there will be no change. Babylon is coming. The invasion will happen. No one will be exempt from it. All he can do is wait for the day of distress to happen, and he is honest about how that makes him feel. He is shaking in his boots.

Friends, I suggest to you that this has layers of application for each and every one of us. On a personal level, it could apply to a situation in your family life, your work, your interpersonal relationships, or your health, to name a few areas. It may be that in one or more of those situations, you have been praying, hoping for a change to come, hoping that God would intervene and bring better news than what you feared or expected. And that news has not come. Perhaps instead, the worst news has been confirmed and is now inevitable. On a national level, I think we can see the relevance and application of it pretty easily. Because I will be away for a few days, the next time I see you all, we will have a new President-elect. I suspect only a minority of Americans can honestly say that any of the foreseeable options is what they would have wanted to see. Truth be told, I held off going to the polls for early voting as long as I could until I was certain that there would not be a last minute change in the ballot. But there seems no escaping it. Either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton will be the next President of the United States. And either result will mean that we are living in a different day and age. I would say for better or for worse, but I’m not yet convinced that there is a “better.” The best argument anyone has been able to set forth for either major candidate is that they are choosing “the lesser of two evils.” Friends, you understand that by definition a “lesser evil” is still evil?

Now, whether we are talking about a personal situation or a national one, there’s no use in telling someone who is trembling to the core to just stop it or knock it off. About the worst advice you can give to someone who is downcast is to say, “Come on now, just cheer up!” Don’t you think they would if they could? Aren’t you glad this isn’t how God deals with us? Instead, He says, “Cast all your cares upon Me, because I care for you” (1 Pet 5:7). He welcomes us to be honest with Him and to acknowledge our feelings. It isn’t like He doesn’t already know. So, if there is a situation in your life that has you trembling, tell Him about it as you call out to Him. Habakkuk did that, and it was a key to unlocking joy even on the day of distress.

II. We must envision our fears (v17).

Here we are in that season of the year that emphasizes frightening things – and this time, I’m talking about Halloween, not election day. Tomorrow evening, people will dress up like all sorts of scary creatures, and they will watch scary movies, and tell scary stories. They will go to “haunted houses,” and terrorize themselves with artificial fears. I’m not a big fan of that kind of thing. I get the creeps just walking through the Halloween section of the store. There’s enough stuff in the real world to be afraid of without having to manufacture fear. Most people are afraid of many things. Some people are afraid of everything. But no one is afraid of nothing.

One of the biggest fears people have is of the unknown – the uncertainty of not knowing what tomorrow may bring. Perhaps that is where many of us find ourselves here a week out from election day. But Habakkuk’s fear was not of the unknown. It was a fear of the known. He knew exactly what was about to happen and what it would mean for himself and his people. The Babylonians had already invaded almost every surrounding nation in the region, and the news had spread of what they would do when they overran a region. He knew that his country would fare no better.

In verse 17, he spells it out. He envisions a future in which the worst of his fears would be realized. The fig tree would no longer blossom; there would be no fruit on the vines; the olive trees would fail. There would be no grain growing in the fields. The cattle and the flocks would be killed or taken away. The items listed here that will be destroyed by the invading hordes are ranked in order of severity, from least to greatest. Figs were a delicacy, for sure, but life could go on without them. Grapes were used to make wine, but its absence would mean more of an inconvenience than a hardship. Olives were pressed for oil, and used for cooking and for light. Now things get difficult. Now life begins to be affected. But, there are alternatives, and folks could get by. But next comes the grain of the field. Wiping out the grain fields could mean starvation for many. The sheep and the cattle produce milk, meat, and wool for clothing. And now you have people who are hungry and naked, immersed in the darkness with nothing to eat and no way to cook it. They’ve lost it all. It is a terrifying thing to envision.

Most of us have a hard time relating to this imagery because we have not lived in this sort of agrarian society. What would it look like for us to envision a terrifying future such as this? Wiersbe tries to help us see it as he paraphrases verse 17 for a modern society: “Although the stock market might collapse and no jobs are listed in the newspaper, although no food is on the shelves in the supermarket and everything is closed down because nobody has any money, although everything is falling apart ….”[1] That might come close to it. Or perhaps it could be couched in terms of what you think America will look like one day after the election. Or perhaps you could make it more personal than that. Whatever it is that you fear losing most – your health, your economic viability, your career, your family. Go ahead and envision what it might be to lose it all. You could. Habakkuk knew that he would. He is saying, “Lord, I can see the army approaching even now, and they are going to wipe everything out!” He is envisioning his fears. And this is a key to having joy on the day of distress.

Now, here is where you might be wondering, “How in the world is such a terrible idea a key to finding joy?” It seems counterintuitive, doesn’t it? That’s not how the advertisers sell us things, is it? They seem to appeal to that idea that says in our minds, “Think about having it all! Think for a moment what it would be like if you could have that thing you really want. And then you will know joy.” But that doesn’t produce joy. It kills it. It reminds you of what you lack. It works against contentment and stirs up envy, greed, and covetousness. And there is not an envious, covetous person anywhere in the world who knows what it means to have joy. Habakkuk has joy in the day of despair because he has been honest about his feelings, and he has envisioned his fears. And in so doing, he has come to the point of realizing that his joy is not found in his feelings, nor is it found in the things that he has which he stands to lose. And this brings us to the third key to unlocking joy in the day of distress.

III. Ensure that our joy is in God alone (vv18-19).

Sometimes the smallest words have the biggest meanings. In our text today, I suggest to you that the little word “yet” is the pendulum on which the entire passage swings. There is a day of distress coming, and all Habakkuk can do is tremble from head to toe as he awaits it. It will mean disaster, destruction, and death for many. It will mean that many, including perhaps himself, will be displaced from their homeland and taken as slaves to Babylon. YET. It is a tiny word. It means, “in spite of all this.” He is making a conscious decision here to not allow these things to divert the compass of his soul away from the true north point of joy.

He says, “yet I will exult.” We don’t talk much about exulting today. In other passages, this word is translated as “become jubilant.” English dictionaries translate exult as “to show or feel elation or jubilation.” To exult in something is to delight in it. So Habakkuk says that he will exult, and then that he will rejoice in spite of the day of distress that is coming. He is not rejoicing and exulting because of his feelings or because of his circumstances. It is in spite of them. But let us be very clear about this. Habakkuk is not saying, “I’m just going to ignore all this negativity and stick my head in the sand and be happy anyway even though everything is going down the tubes!” No. “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die,” is not a Christian worldview. It is utterly pagan. Nowhere in Scripture is the Christian ever expected to have that kind of mindset. But we are told that we can have joy in spite of our circumstances and our feelings. And how can we do that?

Here is where we have look at the locus of Habakkuk’s joy and exultation. He says, “I will exult in the Lord, I will rejoice in the God of my salvation. The Lord God is my strength.” You see, Habakkuk’s joy is not tethered to his feelings or his circumstances. The anchor of his joy has sunk immovably into the Person of God Himself. Feelings change; circumstances change; but God never changes. If our joy is firmly fixed on Him, then it cannot be shaken. No matter the outcome of the election, no matter what happens at work tomorrow, no matter what the bank statement says, no matter the report that the doctor gives you this week – joy that is anchored to God alone is an unshakable joy that safeguards the believer in spite of feelings and circumstances.

There are four things about God that are the basis for Habakkuk’s joy here, and they are the same for us. First, he rejoices in the God of His salvation. He knows, on the promises of God’s word, that there will be deliverance for those who trust in the Lord. “The righteous will live by his faith!” God has promised it. Habakkuk is doing it. And he will continue to do it. Even when this world has done its dead level worst to him, there will life everlasting for the one who trusts in the saving promises of God. We can rejoice in this matter even more, for we know the One who has come to accomplish this salvation for us: Jesus Christ. He is the God of our salvation. No matter what happens to us in this world, we know that we are loved by God, for He gave His only begotten Son to save us. We know that death is the worst thing that can happen to us here, but it is not the end, because death has been swallowed up by life in the death and resurrection of Jesus, and we share in His victory by faith. As the Psalmist says in Psalm 27, “The Lord is my light and my salvation; Whom shall I fear?”

Not only does Habakkuk rejoice that God is his salvation, but also because God is His strength. Habakkuk’s bones feel like they are melting like wax within him and his knees are knocking beneath his frame. He has no strength of his own in which to stand in the face of the day of distress that is coming. But he does not have to rely on His own strength, because the Lord is His strength and therefore he can rejoice. As Nehemiah said, “the joy of the Lord is your strength” (Neh 8:10). Paul said that the Lord had promised him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.” Therefore, Paul could boast in his weakness, saying “I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor 12:9-10). Whatever it is that you are facing, it cannot steal joy away from you if you fix your joy on Christ as your strength. The power of the One who overcame even death for you lives within you. You do not have to depend on your own resources to get you through. The Lord is your strength, and therefore you can rejoice even when feelings and circumstances tempt you to despair.

Thirdly, Habakkuk says that he can rejoice because the Lord is his security. He says, “He has made my feet like hinds’ feet, and makes me walk on my high places.” A hind is a female deer, and the prophet wants us to envision her taking surefooted and stable steps up a rocky mountainside to a high place of safety and security where no predator can do her any harm. And Habakkuk says that the Lord has given him that kind of security. He has given it to us as well. Though we live in this valley filled with many dangers, toils, and snares, and the journey leads us up many difficult hills and over much rocky terrain, the Lord is our security and therefore we can rejoice in Him. He did not promise us a smooth path or an easy road. In fact, the opposite is true. He promised us that in this world we will have tribulation (Jn 16:33). In Acts 14:22, we are promised, “Through many tribulations we must enter the Kingdom of God.” But the Lord has promised us hinds feet to walk on the high places. He is our security when all around us is crumbling and falling apart. We can rejoice that we have security like that.

Finally, Habakkuk can rejoice in the Lord because the Lord is his song. The last line of Habakkuk may seem rather insignificant. It says, “For the choir director, on my stringed instruments.” But that notation indicates that the prophet is singing these words! Not only is he singing these words, but he gives these words to the choir director so that others can join him in this joyful song. I’m not a big fan of country music, but if there was ever a perfect country song, it has to be Merle Haggard’s “Sing A Sad Song.” It says, “Sing me a song of sadness, and sing it as blue as I feel; If a tear should appear, it’s because she’s not here; sing a sad song, and sing it for me.” You would think Habakkuk could sing a song like that here, wouldn’t you? The invading army is on the march, all the crops are about to be wiped out, and they’re even going to kill the sheep and the cows! That’s got all the makings of a great country song. But Habakkuk does not sing a country song. He sings a hymn of joyful praise because the Lord is His song, and the Lord is worthy of worship regardless of how we feel or our present circumstances! So, with these closing words, Habakkuk is beckoning us to join the choir. He’s inviting us to take an honest look at our feelings, and to envision the horror of our deepest fears. But then he’s exhorting us to look beyond these things to the God who has saved us through the cross of Jesus Christ, the God who promises to be our strength when we are weak, the God who secures us as we walk this rocky uphill path of life in this fallen world, and he says, “Sing a song of joy to Him, because He is God, and He is good!”

John Calvin said,
Our joy shall not depend on outward prosperity; for though the Lord may afflict us in an extreme degree, there will yet be always some consolation to sustain our minds, that they may not succumb under evils so grievous; for we are fully persuaded, that our salvation is in God’s hand, and that He is its faithful guardian. We shall, therefore, rest quietly, though heaven and earth were rolled together, and all places were full of confusion; yea, though God fulminated from heaven, we shall yet be in a tranquil state of mind, looking for his gratuitous salvation.[2]

Because we are Christians, we can be honest about our feelings. Because we are Christians, we can envision the brutal realities of this fallen world and know that all that we hold dear in this life could be stripped from us in a moment. And YET, because we are Christians, we can rejoice and exult in God, our Savior, our Strength, our Security, and our Song. This is what makes us different from the world around us. And in the days to come, we will have a great opportunity to demonstrate that glorious difference as we hold fast to our joy, because our joy is in the Lord.






[1] Warren W. Wiersbe, From Worry to Worship (Lincoln, Neb.: Back to the Bible, 1983), 117.
[2] John Calvin, Commentaries on the Twelve Minor Prophets, Vol. IV., Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1950), 174.

Joy in the Day of Distress (Habakkuk 3:16-19)


We come now to the end of the Book of Habakkuk. I am sure I am not the only one who has been surprised at how timely this book of the Bible has been over the last several months that we have been studying it. And today as we come to the finale of the book, it becomes most relevant to American Christians who find ourselves in the most turbulent cultural context in the last half century at least, and as we stand on the brink of perhaps the most critical presidential election in our lifetimes.

In order to set the stage for this text, let me recap as briefly as I can the entire book of Habakkuk thus far. The book begins with the prophet crying out to God about the immorality and injustice that is rampant in Judah. He asks God why He is not doing anything about it and how long it will endure. God’s answer is that He is doing something about it, although no one would believe it if they were told. He is raising up the Chaldeans – better known to us as the Babylonians – to invade Judah as a judgment from God Himself. God is disciplining His own people by using this pagan nation to come against them. Habakkuk then begins to argue with God this punishment is too severe, that it is out of character for God to do this, and inconsistent with His purposes. But Habakkuk also acknowledges that God may yet be able to show him how to see all this differently, so he says that he will go up to the watchtower and wait for God to respond and even rebuke him.

Throughout Chapter 2, God began to elaborate on His purposes. While Judah must face this judgment at the hands of the Babylonians, the Babylonians themselves would face a judgment of their own in due time. But God assured Habakkuk of three things: (1) the righteous would live by faith (2:4). That is, those who had faith in the promises of God would be justified, or made righteous before God, and by that same faith they would persevere through the hardships that were to come, even unto life everlasting. (2) The knowledge of the glory of the Lord would one day cover the earth as water covers the sea (2:14). That is, no matter how bad things get in this fallen world, there is a better day coming. Until that day, nothing in this world is as it should be. Sin has corrupted every person and indeed the entire planet. But one day, God’s glory will permeate the world under the rightful reign of King Jesus, and we must live with an eye toward that day. (3) The Lord is in His holy temple. Let all the earth be silent before Him (2:20). This means that no matter how badly things seem to be spiraling out of control, God is still in control of it all and is accomplishing His purposes in the world in spite of how things appear. Therefore, we do not need to argue with Him or protest against His ways, but rather humble ourselves in silent submission to Him and yield ourselves to His word.

With these things clarified now in his heart and mind, Habakkuk’s perspective is completely transformed. Chapter three consists of a psalm of praise, sung to the Lord as a hymn of celebration of all that God is, all that He has done, and all that He will do for His people who walk with Him by faith. He sings of how the Lord will come even as He has come to the aid of His people in the past. Those past events were foreshadowing the ultimate coming of the Lord, when He would come for the salvation of His people and the judgment of all nations. We have discussed in weeks past how Habakkuk could not distinguish between those aspects of the Lord’s coming which would take place in the first coming of Christ and those which will occur in His second coming. But we have a more complete revelation that enables us to see that distinction with great clarity.

Now we come to what amounts to the final stanza of Habakkuk’s hymn. He has heard what God has spoken, and he has come to accept that there is no changing the situation. Bad things are coming – a day of distress, he calls it. But in the midst of this, the prophet exclaims that he has joy. How does one have joy when facing the day of distress? There are three keys to this joy found here in the text. If we would have joy in the midst of what appears to be our own day of distress, we must take up these keys ourselves and unlock that joy in our own lives.

I. We must acknowledge our feelings (v16).

I am not sure where the lie came from, apart from hell itself, that says that Christians must be stoics who show no emotion, or can only show emotion when they are jolly and happy. For a people who claim to be followers of One who called Himself “the Truth,” we seem to be pretty comfortable being dishonest with ourselves and others about what is going on inside of us. Perhaps we feel like honesty about our feelings would betray a lack of faith, or would demonstrate that we do not have it all together. Well, the fact is that we do not have it all together, and that is why we need Jesus. If we had it all together, we’d be able to manage without Him. No one has it all together. Christians are just those who are brave enough to admit it. And as for a lack of faith, well, that would only be true if we put our faith in our feelings. But we do not. We put our faith in One who transcends our feelings, and who is able to secure us in spite of our feelings. So, there’s no reason why we cannot just acknowledge our feelings. That is what Habakkuk does here in verse 16.

He says, “I heard and my inward parts trembled, at the sound my lips quivered. Decay enters my bones, and in my place I tremble.” So, first we must get the idea of how thoroughly shaken he is. He is physically affected from head to foot and from inside out. It would not be a far stretch to say that he feels as though he is about to pass out. His knees knock, his bones feel like they are rubber, his internal organs are quaking, and his lips are choking back tears and cries of anguish. Now, what has him feeling this way? It is what he has heard.

Now, we would not be wrong to say that Habakkuk demonstrates here what he says in verse 2 of this chapter, “Lord, I have heard the report about You and I fear.” Indeed, as the Lord says in Isaiah 66:2, “to this one I will look, to him who is humble and contrite of spirit, and who trembles at My word.” Habakkuk is indeed trembling at the Word of the Lord, and so should we all. But more specifically, what has Habakkuk feeling the way he acknowledges here is not that the Lord has spoken, but what the Lord has spoken. Notice how he goes on and says that he is trembling in this way “because I must wait quietly for the day of distress, for the people to arise who will invade us.”

Habakkuk knows that at this point there is no escaping the calamity that is to come. God has decreed that it is to happen and there is no alternative. Up until this time, he could hope for a change in the direction of things, but now God has revealed to him that there will be no change. Babylon is coming. The invasion will happen. No one will be exempt from it. All he can do is wait for the day of distress to happen, and he is honest about how that makes him feel. He is shaking in his boots.

Friends, I suggest to you that this has layers of application for each and every one of us. On a personal level, it could apply to a situation in your family life, your work, your interpersonal relationships, or your health, to name a few areas. It may be that in one or more of those situations, you have been praying, hoping for a change to come, hoping that God would intervene and bring better news than what you feared or expected. And that news has not come. Perhaps instead, the worst news has been confirmed and is now inevitable. On a national level, I think we can see the relevance and application of it pretty easily. Because I will be away for a few days, the next time I see you all, we will have a new President-elect. I suspect only a minority of Americans can honestly say that any of the foreseeable options is what they would have wanted to see. Truth be told, I held off going to the polls for early voting as long as I could until I was certain that there would not be a last minute change in the ballot. But there seems no escaping it. Either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton will be the next President of the United States. And either result will mean that we are living in a different day and age. I would say for better or for worse, but I’m not yet convinced that there is a “better.” The best argument anyone has been able to set forth for either major candidate is that they are choosing “the lesser of two evils.” Friends, you understand that by definition a “lesser evil” is still evil?

Now, whether we are talking about a personal situation or a national one, there’s no use in telling someone who is trembling to the core to just stop it or knock it off. About the worst advice you can give to someone who is downcast is to say, “Come on now, just cheer up!” Don’t you think they would if they could? Aren’t you glad this isn’t how God deals with us? Instead, He says, “Cast all your cares upon Me, because I care for you” (1 Pet 5:7). He welcomes us to be honest with Him and to acknowledge our feelings. It isn’t like He doesn’t already know. So, if there is a situation in your life that has you trembling, tell Him about it as you call out to Him. Habakkuk did that, and it was a key to unlocking joy even on the day of distress.

II. We must envision our fears (v17).

Here we are in that season of the year that emphasizes frightening things – and this time, I’m talking about Halloween, not election day. Tomorrow evening, people will dress up like all sorts of scary creatures, and they will watch scary movies, and tell scary stories. They will go to “haunted houses,” and terrorize themselves with artificial fears. I’m not a big fan of that kind of thing. I get the creeps just walking through the Halloween section of the store. There’s enough stuff in the real world to be afraid of without having to manufacture fear. Most people are afraid of many things. Some people are afraid of everything. But no one is afraid of nothing.

One of the biggest fears people have is of the unknown – the uncertainty of not knowing what tomorrow may bring. Perhaps that is where many of us find ourselves here a week out from election day. But Habakkuk’s fear was not of the unknown. It was a fear of the known. He knew exactly what was about to happen and what it would mean for himself and his people. The Babylonians had already invaded almost every surrounding nation in the region, and the news had spread of what they would do when they overran a region. He knew that his country would fare no better.

In verse 17, he spells it out. He envisions a future in which the worst of his fears would be realized. The fig tree would no longer blossom; there would be no fruit on the vines; the olive trees would fail. There would be no grain growing in the fields. The cattle and the flocks would be killed or taken away. The items listed here that will be destroyed by the invading hordes are ranked in order of severity, from least to greatest. Figs were a delicacy, for sure, but life could go on without them. Grapes were used to make wine, but its absence would mean more of an inconvenience than a hardship. Olives were pressed for oil, and used for cooking and for light. Now things get difficult. Now life begins to be affected. But, there are alternatives, and folks could get by. But next comes the grain of the field. Wiping out the grain fields could mean starvation for many. The sheep and the cattle produce milk, meat, and wool for clothing. And now you have people who are hungry and naked, immersed in the darkness with nothing to eat and no way to cook it. They’ve lost it all. It is a terrifying thing to envision.

Most of us have a hard time relating to this imagery because we have not lived in this sort of agrarian society. What would it look like for us to envision a terrifying future such as this? Wiersbe tries to help us see it as he paraphrases verse 17 for a modern society: “Although the stock market might collapse and no jobs are listed in the newspaper, although no food is on the shelves in the supermarket and everything is closed down because nobody has any money, although everything is falling apart ….”[1] That might come close to it. Or perhaps it could be couched in terms of what you think America will look like one day after the election. Or perhaps you could make it more personal than that. Whatever it is that you fear losing most – your health, your economic viability, your career, your family. Go ahead and envision what it might be to lose it all. You could. Habakkuk knew that he would. He is saying, “Lord, I can see the army approaching even now, and they are going to wipe everything out!” He is envisioning his fears. And this is a key to having joy on the day of distress.

Now, here is where you might be wondering, “How in the world is such a terrible idea a key to finding joy?” It seems counterintuitive, doesn’t it? That’s not how the advertisers sell us things, is it? They seem to appeal to that idea that says in our minds, “Think about having it all! Think for a moment what it would be like if you could have that thing you really want. And then you will know joy.” But that doesn’t produce joy. It kills it. It reminds you of what you lack. It works against contentment and stirs up envy, greed, and covetousness. And there is not an envious, covetous person anywhere in the world who knows what it means to have joy. Habakkuk has joy in the day of despair because he has been honest about his feelings, and he has envisioned his fears. And in so doing, he has come to the point of realizing that his joy is not found in his feelings, nor is it found in the things that he has which he stands to lose. And this brings us to the third key to unlocking joy in the day of distress.

III. Ensure that our joy is in God alone (vv18-19).

Sometimes the smallest words have the biggest meanings. In our text today, I suggest to you that the little word “yet” is the pendulum on which the entire passage swings. There is a day of distress coming, and all Habakkuk can do is tremble from head to toe as he awaits it. It will mean disaster, destruction, and death for many. It will mean that many, including perhaps himself, will be displaced from their homeland and taken as slaves to Babylon. YET. It is a tiny word. It means, “in spite of all this.” He is making a conscious decision here to not allow these things to divert the compass of his soul away from the true north point of joy.

He says, “yet I will exult.” We don’t talk much about exulting today. In other passages, this word is translated as “become jubilant.” English dictionaries translate exult as “to show or feel elation or jubilation.” To exult in something is to delight in it. So Habakkuk says that he will exult, and then that he will rejoice in spite of the day of distress that is coming. He is not rejoicing and exulting because of his feelings or because of his circumstances. It is in spite of them. But let us be very clear about this. Habakkuk is not saying, “I’m just going to ignore all this negativity and stick my head in the sand and be happy anyway even though everything is going down the tubes!” No. “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die,” is not a Christian worldview. It is utterly pagan. Nowhere in Scripture is the Christian ever expected to have that kind of mindset. But we are told that we can have joy in spite of our circumstances and our feelings. And how can we do that?

Here is where we have look at the locus of Habakkuk’s joy and exultation. He says, “I will exult in the Lord, I will rejoice in the God of my salvation. The Lord God is my strength.” You see, Habakkuk’s joy is not tethered to his feelings or his circumstances. The anchor of his joy has sunk immovably into the Person of God Himself. Feelings change; circumstances change; but God never changes. If our joy is firmly fixed on Him, then it cannot be shaken. No matter the outcome of the election, no matter what happens at work tomorrow, no matter what the bank statement says, no matter the report that the doctor gives you this week – joy that is anchored to God alone is an unshakable joy that safeguards the believer in spite of feelings and circumstances.

There are four things about God that are the basis for Habakkuk’s joy here, and they are the same for us. First, he rejoices in the God of His salvation. He knows, on the promises of God’s word, that there will be deliverance for those who trust in the Lord. “The righteous will live by his faith!” God has promised it. Habakkuk is doing it. And he will continue to do it. Even when this world has done its dead level worst to him, there will life everlasting for the one who trusts in the saving promises of God. We can rejoice in this matter even more, for we know the One who has come to accomplish this salvation for us: Jesus Christ. He is the God of our salvation. No matter what happens to us in this world, we know that we are loved by God, for He gave His only begotten Son to save us. We know that death is the worst thing that can happen to us here, but it is not the end, because death has been swallowed up by life in the death and resurrection of Jesus, and we share in His victory by faith. As the Psalmist says in Psalm 27, “The Lord is my light and my salvation; Whom shall I fear?”

Not only does Habakkuk rejoice that God is his salvation, but also because God is His strength. Habakkuk’s bones feel like they are melting like wax within him and his knees are knocking beneath his frame. He has no strength of his own in which to stand in the face of the day of distress that is coming. But he does not have to rely on His own strength, because the Lord is His strength and therefore he can rejoice. As Nehemiah said, “the joy of the Lord is your strength” (Neh 8:10). Paul said that the Lord had promised him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.” Therefore, Paul could boast in his weakness, saying “I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor 12:9-10). Whatever it is that you are facing, it cannot steal joy away from you if you fix your joy on Christ as your strength. The power of the One who overcame even death for you lives within you. You do not have to depend on your own resources to get you through. The Lord is your strength, and therefore you can rejoice even when feelings and circumstances tempt you to despair.

Thirdly, Habakkuk says that he can rejoice because the Lord is his security. He says, “He has made my feet like hinds’ feet, and makes me walk on my high places.” A hind is a female deer, and the prophet wants us to envision her taking surefooted and stable steps up a rocky mountainside to a high place of safety and security where no predator can do her any harm. And Habakkuk says that the Lord has given him that kind of security. He has given it to us as well. Though we live in this valley filled with many dangers, toils, and snares, and the journey leads us up many difficult hills and over much rocky terrain, the Lord is our security and therefore we can rejoice in Him. He did not promise us a smooth path or an easy road. In fact, the opposite is true. He promised us that in this world we will have tribulation (Jn 16:33). In Acts 14:22, we are promised, “Through many tribulations we must enter the Kingdom of God.” But the Lord has promised us hinds feet to walk on the high places. He is our security when all around us is crumbling and falling apart. We can rejoice that we have security like that.

Finally, Habakkuk can rejoice in the Lord because the Lord is his song. The last line of Habakkuk may seem rather insignificant. It says, “For the choir director, on my stringed instruments.” But that notation indicates that the prophet is singing these words! Not only is he singing these words, but he gives these words to the choir director so that others can join him in this joyful song. I’m not a big fan of country music, but if there was ever a perfect country song, it has to be Merle Haggard’s “Sing A Sad Song.” It says, “Sing me a song of sadness, and sing it as blue as I feel; If a tear should appear, it’s because she’s not here; sing a sad song, and sing it for me.” You would think Habakkuk could sing a song like that here, wouldn’t you? The invading army is on the march, all the crops are about to be wiped out, and they’re even going to kill the sheep and the cows! That’s got all the makings of a great country song. But Habakkuk does not sing a country song. He sings a hymn of joyful praise because the Lord is His song, and the Lord is worthy of worship regardless of how we feel or our present circumstances! So, with these closing words, Habakkuk is beckoning us to join the choir. He’s inviting us to take an honest look at our feelings, and to envision the horror of our deepest fears. But then he’s exhorting us to look beyond these things to the God who has saved us through the cross of Jesus Christ, the God who promises to be our strength when we are weak, the God who secures us as we walk this rocky uphill path of life in this fallen world, and he says, “Sing a song of joy to Him, because He is God, and He is good!”

John Calvin said,
Our joy shall not depend on outward prosperity; for though the Lord may afflict us in an extreme degree, there will yet be always some consolation to sustain our minds, that they may not succumb under evils so grievous; for we are fully persuaded, that our salvation is in God’s hand, and that He is its faithful guardian. We shall, therefore, rest quietly, though heaven and earth were rolled together, and all places were full of confusion; yea, though God fulminated from heaven, we shall yet be in a tranquil state of mind, looking for his gratuitous salvation.[2]

Because we are Christians, we can be honest about our feelings. Because we are Christians, we can envision the brutal realities of this fallen world and know that all that we hold dear in this life could be stripped from us in a moment. And YET, because we are Christians, we can rejoice and exult in God, our Savior, our Strength, our Security, and our Song. This is what makes us different from the world around us. And in the days to come, we will have a great opportunity to demonstrate that glorious difference as we hold fast to our joy, because our joy is in the Lord.






[1] Warren W. Wiersbe, From Worry to Worship (Lincoln, Neb.: Back to the Bible, 1983), 117.
[2] John Calvin, Commentaries on the Twelve Minor Prophets, Vol. IV., Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1950), 174.

Monday, October 24, 2016

The Lord is On The March (Habakkuk 3:8-15)


“They say Aslan is on the move – perhaps already landed.” The line is from C. S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and it concerns the main character from the entire Chronicles of Narnia series: Aslan, the great and powerful lion! This line, spoken by Mr. Beaver, is the first time his name is mentioned, and it is said that he is on the move. Lewis writes, “And now a very curious thing happened. None of the children knew who Aslan was any more than you do; but the moment the Beaver had spoken these words everyone felt quite different. Perhaps it has sometimes happened to you in a dream that someone says something which you don't understand but in the dream it feels as if it had some enormous meaning - either a terrifying one which turns the whole dream into a nightmare or else a lovely meaning too lovely to put into words, which makes the dream so beautiful that you remember it all your life and are always wishing you could get into that dream again. It was like that now. At the name of Aslan each one of the children felt something jump in its inside.” When the children later ask Mr. Beaver who Aslan is, they are told, “Why, don’t you know? He’s the King. He’s the Lord of the whole wood.” And then the children are told an old rhyme about Aslan, the Lion-King: “Wrong will be right, when Aslan comes in sight  / At the sound of his roar, sorrows will be no more / When he bares his teeth, winter meets its death / And when he shakes his mane, we shall have spring again.” Mr. Beaver says, “You'll understand when you see him.” Upon discovering that this Aslan is a lion and not a man, the children inquire as to whether or not it will be safe to encounter him. They are told, “if there's anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they're either braver than most or else just silly. … Who said anything about safe? 'Course he isn't safe. But he's good. He's the King, I tell you.”[1]

In the Narnia stories, Aslan of course represents Christ – at least in a very elementary way. Lewis would not want us pressing the point too deeply, but it is there. But I want to go back to two things that he wrote in the section I just shared from: first, the statement that Aslan is on the move; second, the effect that this statement had on those who heard it. “Each of the children felt something jump in its inside.” There was that numinous sense that these words bore “enormous meaning,” and uncertainty as to whether it was terrifying or lovely.

I suggest that this is how we are supposed to be struck by the words in verse 12 of our text: “You marched through the earth.” The eternal God of the universe, the Holy and everlasting One, the One who is described in verses 3 and 4 as covering the heavens with His splendor and filling the earth with His praise, whose radiance is like the sunlight with rays flashing from His hand – this One is depicted here as being on the march. He is marching through the earth. In the previous section, Habakkuk saw Him coming, and in verse 6, he said that the Lord stood and surveyed the earth, measuring it up, as it were, for judgment. Now in verse 8 He begins to march forward.

The setting is in the future – a day and time of which Jesus Himself said that no one can know. The English verb tenses are set in the past, but that’s not how the Hebrew is written. Hebrew verbs do not have a past, present, and future tense per se. Those features have to be determined by context. But these Hebrew verbs are, for the most part, in what is called the perfect tense. When the prophets use this tense, it is often like this, where future actions are depicted as being so certain that they can be spoken of in the past or present. And that is how Habakkuk is depicting the Lord’s march through the earth at the end of all things.

Habakkuk is speaking to a nation under siege. The Babylonian army has been raised up by God Himself to be agents of discipline and judgment against Judah for her sins. Habakkuk and other righteous people in the land were doubly burdened about the situation. But God has spoken to them to reveal that He is going to deal with Judah, and then He will deal with Babylon so that all wrongs will be set right. Though Babylon is marching, God Himself is on the march and no one can thwart His effort to accomplish His purposes. This is relevant to us today as well. We are on the brink of the most divisive presidential election our nation has ever had – one in which each candidate’s strongest qualification is that he or she is not the other. Injustice and immorality are as rampant in our day as in Habakkuk’s, as is the threat of organized terrorism. With so much uncertainty, God speaks a word that is most certain – He is on the march, and no one can stop Him.

So, as we look into this text, let us do so with an eye on how it is that God is on the march.

I. The Lord is on the march with unsettling character.

There is, in this entire passage that we have read today, an impressive list of words piled up for emphasis that describe the character with which the Lord is coming when He sets out to march. These are not words that we like to associate with God in our day and time. They are words like rage, anger, wrath, and indignation. You wouldn’t want to hear someone describing you with those words, would you? I suppose not. So how are we supposed to feel when we hear God described with these words?

Many people object wholeheartedly to this depiction of God and call it an outdated notion. They say that the God of the Old Testament is a God of wrath, but the God of the New Testament is a God of love. If this is how someone feels about God, it only proves that they haven’t read the Old or New Testaments very well. For one thing, there is no differentiation between the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament. There is one God, and He does not change. And there is as much about His love in the Old Testament as there is in the New, and as much about His wrath in the New Testament as there is in the Old. It is the love that the God of the Old Testament has for humanity that compels Him to become one of us in the incarnation of Jesus Christ; and it is the wrath of the God of the New Testament that Jesus will execute when He judges the living and the dead. Moreover, it is the wrath of God that Jesus Himself absorbs for us in His death on the cross that is the ultimate manifestation of the love of God. Romans 5:8 says that God demonstrated His love for us in this: that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.

Habakkuk is given a prophetic glimpse through the corridors of time and sees God on the march. But He is not marching like a conducter of a marching band with a smile on His face and a bounce in His step while the band plays “76 Trombones.” No, He is marching like a warrior. He marches with rage, with anger, wrath, and indignation. You may say, “I do not like to think of God that way.” You do not have to like it; and not liking it will not change it one bit. But the day will come when every eye will see this very thing: the Lord is on the march with unsettling character.

II. The Lord is on the march with indirect consequences.

Everything that exists in the universe exists because God created it. Plants and animals, rocks and rivers, continents and clouds, angels and men all exist because God made them. And of all that God made, only angels and men ever dared to disobey and rebel against Him. But the consequences of man’s sin were far-reaching and brought corruption on the entirety of creation. In Genesis 3:17, after Adam and Eve had fallen into sin, God said to Adam, “Cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you will eat of it all the days of your life. Both thorns and thistles it shall grow for you.” The ground did not sin against God, but Adam’s sin affected the ground, and the ground was cursed as part of Adam’s penalty.

We see it again in the flood in the days of Noah. In addition to the human loss of life, we must remember that there were innumerable animals who died in that flood, and great destruction came upon all creation. Why? It was because of man’s sin. Genesis 6:12 says, “God looked on the earth, and behold, it was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted their way upon the earth.” On and on we could go, to the Exodus when the Nile was turned to blood as God brought judgment upon the Egyptians.

Habakkuk has seen what is to come in the future. It has reminded him of the past. He is thinking back on how God’s judgments in time past affected the entire created order, and he knows that those events were only a foreshadowing of a greater judgment that is to come. He speaks of rivers and seas being affected by the Lord’s wrath. The earth is split with rivers, mountains quake, and a downpour of water comes, along with the deep lifting its hands – depicting something like a tsumani of sorts. The sun and the moon will stand in their place and not move, as they did in the days of Joshua, until they disappear permanently, being overshadowed by the glory of the Lord.

The book of Revelation speaks of all these things happening at the end of all things. Revelation 16 tells of seven angels who go forth with bowls filled with the wrath of God. One poured his bowl into the sea and the sea became like blood. Another poured his bowl into the rivers and springs, and they became blood as well. Another poured out his bowl upon the sun, and the heat became so intense that people were scorched with fierce heat. Another poured his bowl on the Euphrates River, and it dried up. And when the final angel poured out the final bowl of wrath, the Bible says that there were “flashes of lightning and sounds and peals of thunder; and there was a great earthquake, such as there had not been since man came to be upon the earth.” Mountains crumbled and islands disappeared.

It will be a time of great natural devastation when the Lord goes on the march. At the present time, all nature is suffering, languishing under the curse that Adam’s sin brought upon it. Paul says in Romans 8, “For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now.” Creation is longing for the curse to be lifted. Nature itself is groaning in anticipation of all the wrongs committed upon the earth to be made right. A day is coming when this corrupted creation will pass away in exchange for a new heaven and a new earth that is neither corrupted nor corruptible. Peter puts it this way:

But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, in which the heavens will pass away with a roar and the elements will be destroyed with intense heat, and the earth and its works will be burned up. Since all these things are to be destroyed in this way, what sort of people ought you to be in holy conduct and godliness, looking for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be destroyed by burning, and the elements will melt with intense heat! But according to His promise we are looking for new heavens and a new earth, in which righteousness dwells. 2 Peter 3:10-13 (NASB)

When the Lord goes on the march, all creation will experience the consequences of His judgment, because all creation bears the consequences of our sin. So it is an indirect consequence. Rivers and mountains, sun, moon, ocean – none of these have done anything to incur the wrath of God. But they are affected when that wrath is poured out indirectly. Thus Habakkuk asks the rhetorical question in verse 8, “Did the Lord rage against the rivers, or was Your anger against the rivers, or was Your wrath against the sea…?” Certainly not. So, what precipitated this rage, this anger, indignation and wrath, that has set the Lord to marching?

III The Lord is on the march in victorious conquest.

The nations have raged against one another and against the Lord. The Psalmist explains in Psalm 2, “Why are the nations in an uproar and 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!” Even Judah itself had tried to overthrow God’s governance, engaging in idolatry and immorality, with injustice corrupting the land from the top down. Judgment had come upon them in the form of the Babylonian invasion. Babylon was raised up by divine ordination, but had arrogantly exceeded the boundaries of what God would permit. Verse 14 says, “They stormed in to scatter us; their exultation was like those devour the oppressed in secret.” They were vicious and cruel in their campaign of terror, and they were proud of it.

Whether it is a quest for power and domination, an abandonment of moral foundations, oppression of God’s truth and God’s people, or the exploitation of the vulnerable for the sake of greed and pride, no human society has ever been innocent and unworthy of judgment – including the present American society. Moreover, every individual – regardless of his or her nationality, ethnicity, or genealogy – is subject to this same judgment. There is a day of reckoning in which God will be the only One with whom we have to do, and He will call us to account for our lives. 

Habakkuk does not envision this scene taking place in a stale and sterile courtroom, with God as an old man in a black robe and powdered white wig behind a desk. He sees this scene taking place on a battlefield. He sees the Lord coming on the march dressed as a warrior for battle. He rides on a horse and chariot (v8). He has made His bow bare (v9). That is to say, He has taken it out of its sheath and now holds it ready to fire. He has arrows (v11) which emit light, and a spear that gleams (v11). And He carries a rod of chastisement, which verse 9 says was “sworn.” The language hearkens back to Deuteronomy 32, in which the Lord says,

See now that I, I am He, and there is no god besides Me; It is I who put to death and give life. I have wounded and it is I who heal, and there is no one who can deliver from My hand. Indeed, I lift up My hand to heaven, and say, as I live forever, if I sharpen My flashing sword, and My hand takes hold on justice, I will render vengeance on My adversaries, and I will repay those who hate Me. I will make My arrows drunk with blood, and My sword will devour flesh, with the blood of the slain and the captives, from the long-haired leaders of the enemy. Rejoice, O nations, with His people; for He will avenge the blood of His servants, and will render vengeance on His adversaries, and will atone for His land and His people (Deut 32:39-43).

God had made an oath. He swore by uplifted hand that He would render vengeance on His adversaries and vindicate His people. So the judgment that is coming must come, otherwise God is a liar. And that is something that God cannot be. Because He is holy and just, He must exercise holy justice, and that means that He will come on the march to conquer all those who persist in their rebellion against Him. By choice or by force, the promise is certain in Philippians 2:10-11 that every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.  As Robertson writes, “The nations have attempted to overthrow the yoke of the Lord’s reign. But all their efforts are in vain. For when the Lord acts, it immediately becomes apparent that the earth can hardly bear His presence, trembling under the weight of his footsteps.”[2] He is on the march, and He will conquer. That is certain.
  
Now finally, we will see here in our text that …

IV. The Lord is on the march for a special cause.

It was not that He was angry with the rivers and the seas that He came. It was not the He was bored and just needed something to do. He is not a capricious deity like the gods of the pagans who just operates on whims and flights of fancy at will. No, God acts with calculated precision for the fulfillment of His sovereign purposes. And the purpose for which He has set out on this march through the earth is the salvation of His people.

Verse 13 says: “You went forth for the salvation of Your people, for the salvation of Your anointed.” Throughout the Scriptures, God anoints things for Himself. He called for the anointing of altars, and priests, and kings. Israel itself could be called God’s anointed nation. And how we understand this verse all hinges on what we do with two Hebrew letters that precede the Hebrew word Meshiach. It is the basis of our word, “Messiah.” Immediately preceding this word in the Hebrew text is the two-letter particle eth. In Hebrew, it often occurs as an untranslated marker which points out the direct object in the sentence. This is the way many have understood it here, rendering the text similar to what we have in many of our English versions, that God has gone forth for the salvation of His people, for the salvation of His anointed. And His anointed is there understood to mean either the anointed nation of Israel, or the Messiah, or perhaps even a proto-messianic figure who foreshadows the Messiah.

Ah, but there is a different way of understanding that little Hebrew particle eth. Very simply, the word could be translated as “with.” Looking at the larger grammatical structure of the context, it seems that this translation is not merely justified, it is almost demanded.[3] This changes our understanding of the verse dramatically. For now, we have God coming for the salvation of His people, and He is coming with His Anointed One, the Messiah Jesus.

Verse 8 may even give us a glimpse of this coming salvation that will be accomplished by Jesus. God is depicted as riding “chariots of salvation.” The Hebrew word translated “salvation” there is Yeshua, the Hebrew name of Jesus. You remember that when the birth of Jesus was announced to Joseph in Matthew 1, the angel said to him, “you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.” That is what the name means. It means that there is salvation with the Lord. You will remember that in John 3:17-18, Jesus said, “For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him. He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.” You see, the judgment is going to happen. All have sinned, and all will stand to give account before God, and all will be found guilty. Unless there is salvation offered. And that is what Jesus came to do. Habakkuk envisions Him coming on a chariot of salvation. And He comes, at the bidding of His Father, to bring salvation for His people.

Verse 13 goes on to explain how this salvation will be accomplished. “You struck the head of the house of evil to lay him open from thigh to neck.” It is a gory image, for sure, but one which depicts the fulfillment of the most ancient messianic prophecy we have. In Genesis 3:15, immediately following the sin of Adam and Eve, God said to the serpent, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; He shall bruise you on the head, and you shall bruise Him on the heel.” This is known as the proto-evangelium, the first gospel, because it foretells of One who is coming, who will be born to a woman, who, by His own suffering (the bruising of the heel), will destroy the works of Satan forever (the bruising of the head). Habakkuk sees it. He sees the Messiah coming to save His people by crushing the head of the house of evil – Satan Himself. He is laid open from thigh to neck, utterly defeated and destroyed.

And Habakkuk says in verse 14, “You pierced with is own spears the head of his throngs.” In other words, “You used his own weapons against him.” We have seen it happen over and over again through history. Haman built a gallows on which to hang the righteous Mordecai, only to hang from it himself (Est 7:10). Babylon’s arrogance would precipitate its downfall a generation after Habakkuk. But in the ultimate way, we see this playing out on a skull-shaped hill called Calvary. There Satan brought together the forces of Jewish and Gentile evil to conspire against the Son of God, the Anointed One. God had come to live among us in the flesh, and sinful mankind murdered Him. He was nailed to the most heinous torture device ever conceived – the Roman Cross, and He bled and died, having a spear thrust through His side to demonstrate that there was no life left in Him. And it appeared as though Satan had won a great victory that day as the lifeless Messiah was taken down from the cross and buried in a tomb. But God had come with His Anointed One for the salvation of His people, and He would pierce the head of the house of evil with his own spears! The blood that was shed on that cross paid the ransom for all those who had been held captive in sin by Satan, and by the resurrection from the dead, Jesus rendered Him powerless and defeated.

Habakkuk was given a faint glimpse of how all of this would play out. Though he could hear the footsteps of the Babylonians at the gates, marching in to overtake his homeland, he had a promise from heaven assuring him that God Himself was on the march. He was coming as a warrior intent on conquest. He would bring judgment on the unrighteous, and provide salvation for His people. In the short run, and in a limited sense, Habakkuk understood this to mean that the period of Babylonian conquest would be limited, and that his people would one day return to their homeland. But in an ultimate and unlimited sense, he also knew that these events that would play out over the next century were merely a foreshadowing of greater things to come. God will come with His anointed One, the Messiah Jesus, to bring salvation for His people by defeating Satan at the cross and the resurrection. The judgment that is to come is well deserved by all men because of our sin. But God has come to us in a chariot of salvation to rescue us if we will but turn to Him in saving faith and trust. He is Jesus, and He has crushed the head of the enemy forever. Wrong will be right when He comes in sight. At the sound of His roar, sorrow will be no more. God is on the march.





[1] C. S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (New York: HarperCollins, 1994), 67-68.
[2] O. Palmer Robertson, The Books of Nahum, Habakkuk, and Zephaniah (New International Commentary on the Old Testament; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990), 236.
[3] For example, Robertson (237) says, “Although the term could be taken as the sign of the direct object, this interruption does not explain why it is introduced in the second line and does not appear in the first.” 

Monday, October 17, 2016

God Comes! (Habakkuk 3:3-7)



Come with me to the city of Kathmandu, Nepal. As we stand there in the midst of this bustling urban center, we gaze off to the North and we see the majestic peaks of the Himalayas. They are at once inviting and foreboding. They appear to be just beyond the outskirts of the city, so let’s set off and go to them. We drive for hours – and hours – and hours, and they are still far off in the distance. We come to a town alongside a river and stare upward to realize that we have come near to the base of the first of those peaks. And the second peak we now realize is another whole day’s drive away. When we were in the city, the mountains looked so close to where we were, and even closer to one another. But as we covered the distance between, we realized just how far off they were, and how far apart from one another they are.

This is how the prophets of the Bible saw the future. The events revealed to them by the Lord appeared to be great mountain peaks standing side by side in the distance. But what they often could not see were the great valleys that stood between them. For example, in Luke 4 when Jesus came to the synagogue in Nazareth, He read from the scroll of Isaiah, Chapter 61. The words He read were as follows: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, because He anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor. He has sent Me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free those who are oppressed, to proclaim the favorable year of the Lord.” Then Luke says that Jesus “closed the book, gave it back to the attendant and sat down; … And He began to say to them, ‘Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing’” (Lk 4:18-21). But did you realize that Jesus did not read the entire passage? In fact, He stopped in the middle of a sentence. The entirety of that final line of Isaiah 61:2 says, “To proclaim the favorable year of the Lord and the day of vengeance of our God.” Jesus left that last part out. Why? Because the first part of the passage was being fulfilled in their midst in His coming into the world. The second part of the passage is not yet fulfilled, but will be when He returns.

Isaiah did not see that between these two mountain peaks of the season of the Lord’s favor and the day of His vengeance, there was a great valley of time. We see it now because we live in that valley. The prophets saw, for the most part, only that the Lord was coming. The exact circumstances were often hidden from view. Thus Peter says in 1 Peter 1:10-11, “As to this salvation, the prophets who prophesied of the grace that would come to you made careful searches and inquiries, seeking to know what person or time (the words here might be better translated, “what times or circumstances”) the Spirit of Christ within them was indicating as He predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories to follow.” The prophets had much revealed to them from the Lord, but there was also a lot that was not revealed to them. We who live in the valley of the present understand that the coming of Christ into the world is a two-fold event. He came first for salvation, and He will come again for judgment at the end of all things.

This understanding of how the prophets viewed the future is essential for us to understand what the prophet Habakkuk is saying – or better, singing – here in this text. You may recall that last week we observed how the third chapter is composed as a psalm or hymn of praise. In the first two verses, we observed the three-fold prayer of the prophet, as he asked God to perform the work He had revealed, to make His word and His will known to the people, and that in the midst of His wrath, He would remember mercy. In the verses before us today, Habakkuk sings from a posture of faith of his own confidence that the Lord will hear and answer that prayer. He is confident that the Lord will complete the work He has begun – the work of using the Babylonians to bring judgment upon Judah for its sins. He is confident that God will make the truth known to His people, and He is confident that in the midst of exercising His wrath, God will not fail to also deal with His people in mercy. He envisions a coming day in which the Lord Himself will come for salvation and for judgment.

How can anyone comprehend or explain things that are yet to happen in the future? The only familiar territory we know is that of the past and the present. And so Habakkuk takes up this song to give God praise for what He will do in the future by reflecting on what God has done in the past. He weaves together strands of Israel’s history, including events from the Exodus from Egypt and the period of the Judges to draw analogies of how God will accomplish His work of salvation and judgment in the future. And the answer that Habakkuk sees is that God will do this when He comes. God Himself will invade time and space. He is described as the Holy One (v3) and the Everlasting One (v6). The word “God” in verse 3 is not the typical Hebrew word that we find used for God in the Old Testament Scriptures. It is the name “Eloah,” an rare and archaic name for God that is used 41 times in the book of Job, and only 16 times elsewhere in the Old Testament. It is a word for “God” that transcends Jewish religion and speaks universally of the all-supreme deity. But in verse 8, Habakkuk makes it clear that this God – the eternal and holy One; the only One who is – is none other than YHWH, the God who has revealed Himself to the people of His own choosing, and through them to the world. And this God is coming!

Habakkuk sees two great mountain peaks on the horizon. God is coming for salvation and God is coming for judgment. Though there is a great valley of time between those prophetic pinnacles, there is no doubt about the veracity of what the prophet beheld. And as he gives praise to this God who comes, we can join our voices in with his and sing this song with him. We are looking at just two stanzas of the song today, found in verses 3-7. In the first of them we find that …

I. God comes for salvation with hidden power (vv3-4).

If it often seems like there is a war going on in the universe between good and evil, well, that’s because there is. It began long ago when Satan rebelled against God and was cast down with the angels who followed him in rebellion. And the war moved into a new theater of operations when the serpent tempted Adam and Eve to rebel as well. C. S. Lewis says, “this universe is at war. But … it is a civil war, a rebellion, and … we are living in a part of the universe occupied by the rebel. Enemy-occupied territory – that is what this world is. Christianity is the story of how the rightful king has landed, you might say landed in disguise, and is calling us all to take part in a great campaign of sabotage. … God has landed on this enemy-occupied world in human form.”[1]

Habakkuk saw the coming of the Lord in the same way. In verses 3 and 4, he speaks of God coming. He comes with a radiance like the sunlight and with rays of light flashing from His hand. But, He comes with the hiding of His power. God “dwells in unapproachable light” (1 Tim 6:16), but the wonder of His grace is that, while we cannot approach Him, He approaches us. He always has. When Adam sinned, it was not he that returned seeking God, but God who came seeking him. Prior to the Exodus, it was God who came to His people to deliver them. It was God who came down to Mount Sinai to reveal His Law to Israel. And whenever God draws near to man, there is the hiding of His power. If it were not so, humanity would not be able to survive the encounter with unmitigated glory. God Himself said to Moses, “You cannot see My face, for no man can see Me and live!” (Exo 33:20). So, there was always a hiding of His power whenever God showed up on the scene.

Habakkuk reminds us of that scene at Mount Sinai and the wilderness wanderings of Israel during the Exodus here in verse 3. “God comes from Teman, and the Holy One from Mount Paran,” he says. Mount Paran is another name for Mount Sinai, and Teman is a site in Edom or Seir through which God led the Israelites en route to the Promised Land. It is a close paraphrase to a prayerful song of Moses found in Deuteronomy 33. “The Lord came from Sinai, and dawned on them from Seir; He shone forth from Mount Paran, and He came from the midst of ten thousand holy ones; at His right hand there was flashing lightning for them” (33:2). But Habakkuk was not merely reminding his fellow countrymen of their past history. He was proclaiming their future hope as well. For just as God came with the hiding of His power in the days of Moses to save His people from bondage, so God would come again with hidden power for the salvation of all nations.

Of course, this happened at the incarnation of Jesus Christ. The eternal and holy God, whose splendor covers the heavens, and whose praise fills the earth, hid His infinite power behind a veil of human flesh as He became a man to live among us. John describes it in Chapter 1 of his Gospel: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. … And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth. … No one has seen God at any time; the only begotten God who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained Him” (Jn 1:1, 14, 18).

When He came into the world, His splendor covered the heavens. Shepherds were out watching their flocks, minding their own business (quite literally), when suddenly the skies erupted with the presence of many angelic messengers, shining forth the splendor of the Lord, and proclaiming, “Glory to God in the highest” (Lk 2:8-14). And the earth was filled with His praise. Far away in the East, magi had been watching the stars and they saw one that seemed unusual. It set them on a long and arduous journey from their homeland to find the one whose birth was heralded by this star. They said, “We saw His star in the east and have come to worship Him” (Matt 2:2).

God had come. But not all were happy about it. Herod immediately ordered the massacre of all the young males under the age of two in Bethlehem and the surrounding vicinity. Joseph was warned in a dream to escape and preserve the life of Jesus, and so they fled to Egypt. Matthew says that this took place to fulfill the prophecy, “Out of Egypt I called My Son” (Matt 2:15). And so again, God came from Teman, the Holy One from Mount Paran, back to Israel, to Galilee and a city called Nazareth where He commenced to live a somewhat ordinary life as one of us. There was the hiding of His power from His return to Israel until the age of 12, when He astounded the scholars at the temple with His wisdom. But then things went on somewhat normally again until around the age of 30 when He began His public ministry.

Even then, apart from periodic miracles that demonstrated His divine power breaking forth, there was a hiding of that power. People found it hard to believe that such an ordinary person as Jesus of Nazareth could be God in the flesh, the long-awaited Messiah. They said, “Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary, and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon? Are not His sisters here with us?” (Mk 6:3). And so they did not believe in Him. Isaiah prophesied that the Messiah would have no stately form or majesty that we should look upon Him, nor appearance that we should be attracted to Him (Isa 53:2). There was the hiding of His power.

But one day, Jesus went up on a mountain with three of His closest followers: Peter, James and John. And the Bible says that “He was transfigured before them; and His face shone like the sun and His garments became as white as light” (Mt 17:2). They saw there the One whose “radiance is like the sunlight” with “rays flashing from His hand.” In Him they saw the one that Hebrews 1:3 says “is the radiance of (God’s) glory and the exact representation of His nature.” But others did not see this usually. As Paul says in Philippians 2, “Christ Jesus, who although He exited in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped (or clung to), but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Php 2:5-8).

This was the means by which God had come for salvation into the world. He came with hidden power to live a life of sinless perfection, and to die in our place receiving in His own person the full outpouring of the judgment that our sins deserve. As we sing this prayerful song with the prophet, we do so giving praise to the God who came for salvation with hidden power. We see Him as One who “was made for a little while lower than the angels … so that by the grace of God He might taste death for everyone” (Heb 2:9).

Habakkuk was given a glimpse of this, looking down through the annals of time and seeing it as a mountain peak in the far distance. God was coming for salvation with hidden power. But there in the distance, Habakkuk saw another mountain peak which indicated that God was coming also for judgment. And so in his song, he proclaims that …

II. God comes for judgment with startling authority (vv5-7).

I’m currently reading a book by Dr. Russell Moore, the head of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, entitled Onward: Engaging the Culture Without Losing the Gospel. I wish I could make this book required reading for every evangelical in the weeks leading up to the election in a few weeks. In that book, he describes a conversation he had with an atheist lesbian activist. She told him that he was the first person she had ever met who actually believed that marriage was only for one man and one woman, and that sexual relations should be reserved for marriage. She said, concerning his biblical views of marriage and sexual ethics, “Do you see how strange what you’re saying sounds to us, to those of us out here in normal America?” Think about that for a moment. “Normal America.” Normal America is no longer the place where the Bible informs our thinking about issues like these. Normal America is where those ideas sound very strange. Moore says that he sort of got lost in that moment, but was snapped back into the moment as she reiterated her question: “Seriously, do you know how strange that sounds?” He said, “Yes, I do. It sounds strange to me too. But what you should know is, we believe even stranger things than that. We actually believe that a previously dead man is going to show up in the sky, on a horse.”[2]

This is how the second coming of Christ is described in the book of Revelation. John says, “I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse, and He who sat on it is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness He judges and wages war” (Rev 19:11). Throughout that book, we read of the pestilences and plagues that will occur and the cosmic and geological upheavals that will take place when He comes. Habakkuk could see them as well, looking down through the pipeline of revelation that God had given to him.

In verses 5-7, he describes how plague and pestilence accompany the coming of the Lord. The Egyptians had experienced the same things when God came to deliver His people from bondage there under Moses. His coming for the salvation of the Jews was at one and the same time a coming in judgment for the Egyptians. But those plagues and pestilences were just a shadow of things to come. When Christ comes for the final judgment, the world will experience those things in unprecedented ways leading up to His return. Throughout the Bible, we see the Lord using these and other forces of nature as weapons against His enemies.[3] Pestilence will go before Him like a forerunner, and plague will mark the path. The Hebrew wording that is translated “plague comes after Him” in verse 5 gives a picture of “sparks springing up as the Lord’s feet strike the earth.”[4]

And then in verse 6 the movement comes to a halt. The God who comes stands still and surveys the earth. If you can imagine a landowner standing on a high place overlooking all that he owns, that is the imagery here in verse 6. The Psalmist said, “The earth is the Lord’s, and all it contains, the world, and those who dwell in it.” The rightful Owner and Master stands looking over all that belongs to Him by divine right and He surveys it, measuring it out, as it were, for the judgment that He has come to deliver. Beneath the fierceness of that penetrating gaze, nations are startled – they tremble in fear before Him. Even the inanimate mountains that tower over the earth crumble before Him.

Verse 7 depicts this startling of the nations by again pointing back to Old Testament history – this time to the period of the Judges. Habakkuk says, “I saw the tents of Cushan under distress.” The reference is to the nation of Cushan-Rishathaim. Judges 3 tells the story. Because of the sin of the Israelites, the Lord handed them over to Cushan for a period of eight years. But when the people returned to the Lord in repentance, the Bible says that the Lord “raised up a deliverer for the sons of Israel to deliver them, Othniel the son of Kenaz.” Othniel led an army out to fight against Cushan and prevailed. God came for the salvation of His people and for the judgment of their oppressors.

Then Habakkuk says that “the tents of the land of Midian were trembling.” Again, the reference is to Judges – this time Chapters 6 and 7. Again, Israel fell into sin, and the Lord gave them over to the Midians for a period of seven years. And again, the Israelites cried out to God. And again, the Lord raised up a deliverer. His name was Gideon. Gideon happened to overhear a Midianite man telling another about a dream. He said, “Behold, I had a dream; a loaf of barley bread was tumbling into the camp of Midian, and it came to the tent and struck it so that it fell, and turned it upside down so that the tent lay flat” (7:13). Gideon knew that this was evidence that the Lord that was going to use him to deliver His people and bring judgment on the Midianites.

God had proven Himself time and time again. When His people disobeyed, judgment came at the hands of other nations. It was happening in Habakkuk’s day. The Babylonians were God’s agent of judgment this time. But Habakkuk was given a glimpse of a day that was coming when the righteous would be saved and the wicked would be judged. In 70 years, the Medo-Persian empire would overtake Babylon, and the Israelites would be released from their captivity and returned to their homeland. But further on in a future that Habakkuk could see, God Himself would come for the ultimate and eternal salvation of His own, and for the ultimate and eternal judgment of those who rebel against Him. When He comes for salvation, He comes with hidden power, dwelling among us as God in the flesh, and laying down His life to save us. When He comes for judgment, it will be with startling authority.  

We speak of Him coming again, and the world laughs. “You mean gentle Jesus, meek and mild? He’s already come and we nailed Him to a cross.” But the Bread of Life is going to tumble into the tent camps of the nation and strike them so that they fall flat in judgment before Him, just as in the Midianite’s dream. The nations and the earth itself will tremble before Him. But for those who trust in Him, we have the promise of Habakkuk 2:4 that the righteous will live by faith. When everything that can be is shaken, we stand fast because we are receiving a kingdom which cannot be shaken (Heb 12:28). Like Habakkuk, we who have participated by faith in His coming for salvation can look toward His return for judgment with hope, with a song of praise, and with confident faith. And if we do not have that confident faith when we consider His coming, then there is time here and now to turn to the Lord in repentance and faith. Cast yourself upon the grace that manifested when He came with hidden power to save you by His cross, where He took your judgment upon Himself, and be spared from the judgment that will be meted out when He comes with startling authority.

Again, C. S. Lewis returns to the metaphor of the rightful King returning in disguise to the enemy-occupied territory, and he says,

Why is God landing in this enemy-occupied world in disguise and starting a sort of secret society to undermine the devil? Why is He not landing in force, invading it? Is it that He is not strong enough? Well, Christians think He is going to land in force; we do not know when. But we can guess why He is delaying. He wants to give us the chance of joining His side freely. … God will invade. … When that happens, it is the end of the world. … God is going to invade, all right: but what is the good of saying you are on His side then, when you see the whole natural universe melting away like a dream, and something else – something it never entered your head to conceive – comes crashing in; something so beautiful to some of us and so terrible to others that none of us will have any choice left? For this time it will be God without disguise; something so overwhelming that it will strike either irresistible love or irresistible horror into every creature. It will be too late then to choose your side. … That will not be the time for choosing: it will be the time when we discover which side we really have chosen, whether we realized it or not. Now, today, this moment, is our chance to choose the right side. God is holding back to give us that chance. It will not last forever. We must take it or leave it.[5]

God comes. He has come in hidden power to save you. And He is coming with startling authority again to bring judgment to those who have refused His saving mercy. God comes! In the sky. On a horse.




[1] C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), 45-46, 53.
[2] Russell Moore, Onward: Engaging the Culture Without Losing the Gospel (Nashville: B&H, 2015), 10.
[3] Kenneth Barker and Waylon Bailey, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah (New American Commentary, vol. 20; Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1998), 363.
[4] O. Palmer Robertson, The Books of Nahum, Habakkuk, and Zephaniah (New International Commentary on the Old Testament; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990), 226.
[5] Lewis, 64-65.