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.

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