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. 

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