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.” 

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