Monday, October 10, 2016

The Prayerful Song of a Trembling Believer (Habakkuk 3:1-2)

“What can miserable Christians sing?” That was the question that Carl Trueman posed a half-dozen years ago in an article that was later included in his book, The Wages of Spin. Trueman lamented the “diet of unremittingly jolly choruses and hymns” that are so prevalent in worship services today, because it “inevitably creates an unrealistic horizon of expectation which sees the normative Christian life as one long triumphalist street party — a theologically incorrect and a pastorally disastrous scenario in a world of broken individuals.” He says, “By excluding the cries of loneliness, dispossession, and desolation from its worship, the church has effectively silenced and excluded the voices of those who are themselves lonely, dispossessed, and desolate, both inside and outside the church … as if the idea of a broken-hearted, lonely, or despairing Christian was so absurd as to be comical.”[1] 

If that is what we think, then we haven’t read our Bibles very well. The Psalms, for example, give voice to the entire range of human emotion set to the musical strains of worshipful song. Elsewhere we find God’s faithful people pouring out hurting hearts and suffering souls to Him in song. Habakkuk is an example of just such a believer, and the third chapter of his book is an example of just such a song.

How did we get here? Let us remember that in Chapter 1, we found the prophet worrying and wondering. He was bewildered by the besetting sin of his own nation, and troubled even more by God’s seeming indifference and inactivity. He became even more troubled when God began to reveal what He was doing – raising up the godless Babylonians to bring judgment on Judah. This was, in Habakkuk’s mind, inconsistent with God’s own character.

Coming to Chapter 2, we find Habakkuk watching and waiting. As God unfolded the answer to Habakkuk’s many questions and concerns, the prophet silenced himself before the Lord. Five woes were pronounced upon the Babylonians, even as God’s people were reminded of three promises: the just will live by faith (v4); the knowledge of the glory of the Lord will cover the earth as waters cover the sea (v14); and the Lord reigns from His sovereign throne in His holy temple (v20).

Now we come to Chapter 3, and we find Habakkuk no longer worrying and wondering, no longer watching and waiting. Rather, he is now worshiping and witnessing. As Wiersbe puts it so well, “Habakkuk started in the valley, but he ended up on the mountaintop! He started with sighing and ended with singing. He started with perplexity, and he ended with praise.”[2]

How do we know that the prophet now sings? The notations within the third chapter make it plain. Like so many of the Psalms, the hymns of the Hebrew people, we have technical notations at the very beginning and the very end of the third chapter, along with a threefold repetition of the word, “Selah,” in verses 3, 9, and 13. This precise meaning of this term is unknown, but it seems to be a word that introduces a meditative pause, perhaps where instrumental music would play between the verses of a song. The statement in the final verse, “For the choir director, on my stringed instruments,” makes it clear that the poem is to be set to music and sung publicly. The mysterious phrase, “on Shigionoth” in verse 1 is also very difficult to explain with certainty. That is why the English versions tend to just transliterate the Hebrew word instead of translating it. Psalm 7 is said to be a “Shiggaion of David, which he sang to the Lord,” and the word shigionoth here in Habakkuk is likely a plural form of the same word. So it is obviously some sort of musical directive, referring perhaps to the instruments that would accompany the song, or the style in which it was to be played. It may also refer to the specific tune to which the song is set, similar to what we find in our own hymnals where the hymn title is found at the top of the page, and the name of the hymn tune is found at the bottom.

So, we know it is a song, and I have called it a “prayerful song,” because verse 1 says that it is a prayer of Habakkuk the prophet. Only in verse 2 do we find words of petition in which the prophet is asking the Lord to do something, so we will limit our study today to the threefold request that is found in that portion of the song. But before we do that, we must give a moment of consideration to what prompts this prayerful song. Habakkuk says, “Lord, I have heard the report about You and I fear.” In verse 5 of Chapter 1, God began to give the report to Habakkuk of what He was doing in the world through the events of the prophet’s day. He explained that He was bringing the Chaldeans – the Babylonians – in to invade and conquer Judah as a means of judgment and discipline for the sins of the Jewish people: their idolatry, their immorality, and their injustice. But then in Chapter 2, He explained to Habakkuk that the righteous would be saved on the basis of their faith in God, and the Babylonians themselves would fall under the judgment of God for their excessive violence, arrogance, and destruction. Habakkuk says, “I have heard all of this.” For Habakkuk, it wasn’t a message about Judah, or a message about Babylon. It was a message about God! “I have heard the report about You,” he says. And we know he believed it because he says, “and I fear.”

The Hebrew word means “to stand in awe,” or “to tremble.” In Isaiah 66:2, the Lord said, “To this one I will look, to him who is humble and contrite of spirit, and who trembles at My word.” Habakkuk was doing just that. In verse 16 he says that his inward parts trembled, his lips quivered, his bones were like they were decaying, and his legs were trembling in the place where he stood. So from head to toe, and everywhere in between, Habakkuk was trembling in the awestruck fear of the Lord as he considered His word. And now that he had heard, and believed, the report of the Lord, he could speak once more. This time it was not to question, argue, or inquire of the Lord. This time it was to pray and to praise, and to lead God’s people in a prayerful song of worship and witness.

And so we have this prayerful song of a trembling believer. Verse two contains three specific requests made to the Lord which are as relevant to us today as they were to those of Habakkuk’s generation. Like Habakkuk, we are perplexed by the things we see happening within our own nation, and the events going on in the world around us. Like Habakkuk, we have asked the Lord the questions of “Why?” and “How long?” We have been puzzled over God’s purpose and plan in the midst of the degradation and chaos of our times. Unlike Habakkuk, we do not have a specific answer from the Lord about what exactly He is doing in our midst. Nevertheless, we can share Habakkuk’s confidence that God is at work, and that God is good. So whatever it is that He is doing will prove in the end to be for the good of His people and the glory of His own name. And therefore we can sing to Him this song of prayerful worship as well. With quivering lips and trembling spirits, standing before Him in awestruck fear, we bring to God the same requests that the prophet did so long ago. So what are these requests?

I. We pray for God’s will to be done.

When Jesus instructed His followers how to pray, He said, “Pray, then, in this way: ‘Our Father, who is in heaven, hallowed be Your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt 6:9-10). We often use that phrase when we pray, do we not? We say, “God, let Your will be done in this situation.” But often, when we say those words, they amount to something of a spiritual copout. It is a way of saying, “I don’t really know what to ask for,” or “I’m afraid to say what I really want here,” and so we resign ourselves to muttering almost reluctantly, “Thy will be done.” And yet, the Bible says that when we pray, we have the liberty to actually tell God what it is that we want. Philippians 4:6 says, “let your requests be made known to God.” Now, that doesn’t mean that God will always give us what we want, but He welcomes us to say it. But when we say, “Thy will be done,” what we are saying is not that we give up, or that we have no specific request to make. Rather, we are saying that we believe and accept that God is going to use whatever happens in our situation to further His will on earth. And that is how Habakkuk is praying here in verse 2.

He says, or sings rather, “O Lord, revive your work in the midst of the years.” The word “revive” has to do with keeping something going. “Don’t let it end. Don’t let it die.” That is what the prophet is asking the Lord to do. And what he wants the Lord to keep going is His “work.” What is that work? The Lord revealed it in Chapter 1. When Habakkuk complained that the Lord was doing nothing to deal with the iniquity of his own people and nation, the Lord said to him, “Look among the nations! Observe! Be astonished! Wonder! Because I am doing something in your days— you would not believe if you were told. For behold, I am raising up the Chaldeans …” (1:5-6a). Following that announcement, Habakkuk began to protest that God was not dealing rightly with His people. But now that God has announced the rest of the details, including what His faithful ones can expect and how the Babylonians will themselves be judged, Habakkuk is able to say, “Lord, do not stop what You are doing!” He has accepted the will of the Lord.

You may remember those old jelly commercials that said, “With a name like Smuckers, it has to be good.” Well, I don’t know how true that is for jelly, but we know for certain than when a work is being done by God, it has to be good! Habakkuk has come to accept this, and to welcome it. “God, keep doing what You are doing, because if You are the one doing it, then I am all for it!” That is what he was saying, and that is what we must say too. Friends, I am as perplexed and concerned for our nation in these days as anyone is. I do not have any special insights into what the ultimate divine plan is for America. We seem to be in a moral death spiral, watching our freedoms evaporate, and having no real assurance that the impending election will change things one way or another for good. I have no reason to think that things will get better before they get worse. But I know this: God is always at work. I know that Jesus said He would never abandon His people. I know that He has been faithful to uphold His promise to build His church in the midst of the most unimaginable oppression and persecution throughout history. And I know that the Bible assures us that there is no authority on earth except for that which God establishes and allows (Rom 13:1). So, even though I do not know what it is that God is doing, I know that if He is doing it, it will prove to be good in His time, and He will do it well. So, like Habakkuk, we too can pray, “O Lord, keep your work going in the midst of these years! We accept that your will is going to be done!”

II. We pray for God’s word to be known.

In his private dialog with God, Habakkuk has been made privy to information that his fellow countrymen do not have. Now, sometimes we like having secret information – it can be somewhat empowering to be able to say, “I know something you don’t know!” But what Habakkuk has been told by the Lord does not need to remain a secret!

Throughout the nation, there are others like Habakkuk who remain faithful to the Lord. They are perplexed and burdened about the condition of their nation. They are fearful about the rumors they hear that the Babylonians are coming. The news that Habakkuk has received from the Lord has transformed his perspective, and he knows that it will do the same for others who trust in the Lord as well.

But there are also many in Judah who have rebelled against the Lord. Their rebellion has been the catalyst for this impending judgment. While the wheels that have been set in motion by God’s providence will not be halted, for individuals who hear and heed the message that God has delivered to the prophet, there is still hope. As long as there is life, there is the hope for repentance and a returning to the Lord. So, this message will be a much needed warning to those in Judah who have turned away from the Lord. If only they knew what Habakkuk knows, then perhaps they would turn from their sins and be saved!

So Habakkuk prays, even in song, “In the midst of the years, make it known.” In other words, “God, do not let this message come to me alone – let everyone know it and understand it! Let the righteous be encouraged by it and let the wicked be warned by it.” The eyes of the people must be opened to the realities of what God is doing. And so the prophet prays, because that is something only God can do.

It reminds me of that scene in 2 Kings 6 when Elisha was under siege by the forces of the king of Aram. When Elisha’s servant saw all the horses and chariots that surrounded them, he was terrified. But Elisha said, “Do not fear, for those who are with us are more than those who are with them.” The servant must have been puzzled. He had seen the horses and the chariot of the enemy. And he knew how to count. “Hmm. Two of us, a whole bunch of them. I beg to differ,” he probably thought. But Elisha began to pray, “O Lord, I pray, open his eyes that he may see.” And the Lord opened the servants eyes, and he was able to see a host of spiritual forces encamped around them. We are so often like that servant – blind and oblivious to what God is doing around us. The only resolution is for the Lord to open our eyes! And that is what Habakkuk was praying for the Lord to do to his countrymen. “Make the message known to them, Lord, so that they will see what it is that You are doing in the midst of all this mess!”

This is how we must pray in our day as well. There are Christians who are perplexed and in despair about the political climate of our nation, who speak and act as though God were at risk of being dethroned in the upcoming election! O God, make Your word known to them! Encourage them by the promises of Your word! And then there are those who believe that they can sin with abandon and never have to give account to God for their actions. Sixty million unborn children have been murdered in the womb in America since Roe v. Wade, and people fight for the right to make this a legitimate option of birth control. Our nation has embraced every form of sexual deviance to the extent that we actually have serious political discussions going on about who is male and who is female, and which bathrooms people should use! Every young African-American male and every police officer steps out of their front door every morning unsure if they will return home that evening as violence rages in our cities. Drug and alcohol abuse are destroying lives and families. And people have done exactly what the Apostle Paul says in Romans 1:18 – they have suppressed the plain truth of God in their unrighteousness. It is more convenient for them to deny God’s existence than it is to consider that they will one day stand before Him in judgment. It is time for the people of God to pray! And how do we pray? Do we pray for God to consume them with fire from heaven? No, for if we prayed thusly, we ourselves would not be exempt from the judgment! Rather we pray as Habakkuk did, and as Elisha did – “Lord, open their eyes! Make Your truth known to them! Make them understand in the way that only You can!”

But how will God do that? Will He write a message in the clouds? Will He preempt prime time television for a special satellite feed from heaven? No! He has a better plan than that. He has entrusted the saving message of Jesus Christ to His church and commissioned us to go and tell this good news to everyone on earth. God’s “Plan A” for making the message known is for you and me to go and tell them. And He has no “Plan B.” So, as we pray for God to make the truth known to them, we are also committing ourselves to the mission. Here is the reality: you and I have more opportunity to impact the United States of America today than Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton have. And we have that opportunity, not on the second Tuesday of November, but every day. What is this opportunity? It is the opportunity to share the good news of Jesus with others. God has promised that His Spirit will move through the proclamation of that message to save souls, to transform lives, and to strengthen His people. God never promised to save America, or any other geopolitical entity on earth. He did promise to save individuals – Americans and those of every other ethnicity and nationality on earth – as they hear and respond to the good news of Jesus. So if you want to see our nation changed, it will happen as individual lives are changed. And individual lives are changed one by one as the gospel goes forth through the people of God. “In the midst of the years, O Lord, make it known!” This is our prayer – our prayerful song, if you will – that we ask for and accept God’s will to be done, and that we ask Him to make His word known, using us as His ambassadors to proclaim the message.

Now we come to the final petition in this prayerful song of the trembling believer …

III. We pray for God’s mercy to be shown.

The most foundational of all of God’s attributes is also likely His least understood attribute. It is His holiness. All of God’s attributes are grounded in His holiness. And because God is holy, He has to deal with sin in a holy and righteous judgment. If He didn’t, He would not be righteous and He would not be holy. Habakkuk knew this well enough – the Scriptures made it clear, and it was reinforced through his own experience with the Lord. David Prior says, “with God there is holy, righteous anger.”[3] We usually think of anger as a bad thing, and it certainly can be. But anger is not always sinful. The Bible actually tells us to “be angry, and yet do not sin” (Eph 4:26). There is a righteous indignation, a holy anger, that is the only appropriate response that a holy God can have toward sin. So Prior writes, “However long he bides his time, however quiet and distant he appears to have become, however much violence and greed he seems to bypass or overlook, there is woe and wrath for the unrighteous.”[4]

But Habakkuk also knows that, even though God is a God of righteous wrath, He is also a God who is rich in mercy. So even though the wrath that is coming for Judah is well-deserved because of the sin of the nation, Habakkuk prays that God will let that wrath be well-seasoned with His mercy. Justice involves getting what one deserves, and that is the wrath that is coming for Judah. Mercy, on the other hand, involves the withholding or lessening of what one deserves. That is what Habakkuk prays for, and he knows that God is able and willing to show that mercy. Over and over again in Scripture, God is described as the One who is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in lovingkindness and truth, who forgives iniquity, transgression, and sin, but who will neither let the guilty go unpunished (Ex 34:7; cf. 2 Chron 30:9; Psa 103:8; 111:4; 116:5; Joel 2:13; Jonah 4:2). So, even though the sins of the people are real and severe, so is the compassionate mercy and grace of God who is able and willing to forgive, to withhold or temper judgment, when there is a turning toward Him in repentance and faith.

Habakkuk’s prayer is that, as divine wrath comes upon the nation of Judah, God’s faithful remnant of believing people will be spared the worst of it, and that some of those who have rebelled against the Lord might return to Him and find saving mercy for themselves. Friends, this is our prayer as well. We do not know when or how judgment may fall upon our own nation, not to mention other nations where evil is rampant. But we know, based on God’s past dealings with the nations of the world, including the elect nation of Israel, that we cannot hope to escape it. History is replete with the rise and fall of nations  orchestrated by God’s providence. In fact, the description of wrath that is revealed in Romans 1 would indicate that it has already begun. There we find that God’s wrath is being revealed in the giving over of people to all manner of immorality and depravity. So it may well be that we should not speak of the judgment that is coming, but rather of the one that is ongoing in our day and time. It is certainly deserved. So, how should we pray? We should pray like Habakkuk did. “In wrath, remember mercy.” Lord, preserve Your church in the midst of these societal upheavals; and Lord, rescue the perishing by your saving mercy! For no matter what degree of judgment we have, or will experience, here and now, it pales in comparison to the ultimate and eternal judgment that is to come.

The Lord promised to Habakkuk in verse 4 of Chapter 2, “the righteous will live by faith.” Those who have been saved by faith in God’s promises will persevere and be preserved in that faith as well. Because of the saving work of Jesus Christ, we who trust in Him have been spared from the worst of what is to come. In wrath, God has remembered mercy. He put the wrath on Jesus as our substitute in judgment, and He puts the mercy upon us – taking away from us the judgment we deserve because Christ has taken it on our behalf; and granting to us a salvation we do not deserve by His grace.

In Noah’s day, the conditions of the world were described in this way: “Now the earth was corrupt in the sight of God, and the earth was filled with violence. God looked on the earth, and behold, it was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted their way upon the earth” (Gen 6:11-12). And we know what God did. In Abraham’s day, the twin cities of Sodom and Gomorrah were characterized by unchecked sexual deviance and violence. And we know what God did. In Isaiah’s day, the Northern Kingdom of Israel had turned away from the Lord and embraced idolatry and immorality; and the Lord brought in the Assyrians to execute His judgment upon them. And in Habakkuk’s day, because of the immorality, injustice, and idolatry of the Southern Kingdom of Judah, the Babylonians were chosen by God to bring judgment upon them. Friends, if God was willing to deal in this way with a nation that He had specially chosen and called to be His own people in the earth, can we really expect that America, Western Europe, or any other civilization to be treated any differently by Him when we repeatedly commit and give approval to the same sins?

As Walt Chantry writes, “Here is a prayer to keep in the pocket of your memory for those dark hours of judgment. Acquaint yourself with mercy in Christ, and be certain that you enter the upheavals of war, conquest, and oppression as a person of steadfast faith. Men and women of faith shine as jewels of mercy amidst the deepest gloom of sin and unbelief.”[5] So, let us be found in these days with a prayer on our lips and a song in our hearts, for we have heard the Lord’s report, and we tremble in awestruck belief. We pray for His will to be done; for His word to be known; and for His mercy to be shown.

[1] Carl R. Trueman, “What Can Miserable Christians Sing?” in The Wages of Spin: Critical Writings on Historical and Contemporary Evangelicalism (Christian Focus: 2004) 158-160.
[2] Warren W. Wiersbe, From Worry to Worship (Lincoln, Neb.: Back to the Bible, 1983), 96. The alliterative series, worrying and wondering, watching and waiting, worshiping and witnessing, also from the same source, pp. 95-96.
[3] David Prior, The Message of Joel, Micah & Habakkuk (The Bible Speaks Today; Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1998), 264.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Walter Chantry, Habakkuk: A Wrestler With God (CarlislePenn.: Banner of Truth, 2008), 73.

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