A family outing goes horribly wrong when a bomb goes off nearby leaving the son dead, the mother with a brain injury, the daughter with a missing limb, and the father to cope with this devastation to his family. A woman who has faithfully paid her health insurance premiums for years is faced with a serious illness, but the insurance company refuses to pay her medical costs due to a purported preexisting condition claimed to have been discovered in a brief notation by a doctor on her medical records years ago. A young college student, peacefully sleeping just moments ago, finds himself in the midst of a home invasion robbery during which he is shot and killed by the robber who was recently released from prison due to overcrowding. Why, God? How can you sit by and let these things happen? It isn’t right . . . it isn’t fair . . . it isn’t just.
Random violence that claims only innocent victims. Indifferent bureaucracies lacking in compassion. An ineffective justice system that fails to protect its citizens. None of these situations are new. They have been occurring for millennia. Neither are the resulting questions prompted by these scenarios new. In our helplessness and anger, we rage against God because somewhere deep inside we know he is the only one who can do something about our situation and sometimes our disappointment and hurt that he hasn’t is overwhelming.
Over twenty-five hundred years ago, a prophet named Habakkuk struggled with these same issues. Though no specific date or historical setting is given for the writing of Habakkuk, it is generally assumed to have been written somewhere between 609 and 605 BC. Neither is there any specific background or biographical information given about Habakkuk in the book that bears his name. However, a close examination of the book reveals information about both the situation facing Habakkuk and the way in which he dealt with that situation.
Habakkuk had expectations of God, of the way God ought to act, and of the way God ought to run the world. He found himself in a situation in which destruction, violence, and injustice were pervasive in his country of Judah (1:2-4). He wondered why God sat idly by, allowing the perversion of justice and failing to respond to Habakkuk’s cry for help. Habakkuk was a man who deeply felt the pain and frustration of this state of affairs in Judah. Yet he did not hold in this frustration, or merely voice it to friends or countrymen who were as baffled as he was about the situation. Rather he honestly and candidly brought his confusion to God, the one with whom he was frustrated and the only one who had answers.
God does not chastise Habakkuk for his honesty and forthrightness; rather, he honors it by giving Habakkuk an equally honest and forthright answer. Astonishingly, God is going to use the dreaded and fearsome nation of Babylon (Chaldea) to punish Judah. The proud and haughty Babylonians—these “guilty men whose own might is their god”—will sweep across the land of Judah with violence and ferocity devouring and destroying (1:5-11, ESV).
Well, this certainly was not the reply Habakkuk had expected or hoped for. In fact, it just brought further confusion and more questions. How can a holy and righteous God allow the desperately wicked Babylonians to swallow up the Judeans, who are at least more righteous than the Babylonians? The more wicked seem to be experiencing the greater prosperity. It cannot possibly be right to allow the merciless Babylonians to go on killing nations forever (1:12-25). Sometimes when God provides answers, in our limited capacity as humans, we end up completely baffled and bewildered. Instead of a clearer vision of what God is doing, the fog seems to have thickened.
Habakkuk’s next course of action is one worthy of emulation. Habakkuk declares, “I will take my stand at my watchpost and station myself on the tower, and look out to see what he will say to me, and what I will answer concerning my complaint” (2:1). He is going to take a stand in a posture of waiting and watching until God speaks to him. Instead of waiting with patience and determination to hear from God, we often tend to go about spewing answers of our own creation. Or if we do not hear from God within the time we have allotted him to provide an answer, we decide that he is not going to answer or even that he has no answer. Habakkuk, however, resolutely stations himself to wait for God’s response. He watches intently for God’s answer to his complaint, and he will only voice an answer when he receives one from God.
And that answer does come. The text does not reveal how long Habakkuk had to wait, but eventually Habakkuk is able to say, “And the Lord answered me” (2:2). God even acknowledges that sometimes his answers seem slow in coming. Yet, in its appointed time, the answer will come and it will not lie: “It will surely come; it will not delay” (2:3). God assures Habakkuk that eventually the plunderers will be plundered, and Babylon will pay a heavy price for the blood they have spilled and the violence they have perpetrated. When this occurs it will not be happenstance; it will be the Lord of hosts meting out justice to those who have trampled on his laws and his people and who have relied on lifeless gods made by human hands. Thus “the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord” (2:14).
If Habakkuk had not inquired of God with respect to the inequities and injustices he saw around him and then waited for a response from God to his anguished inquiries, he would never have heard an answer from God. Yet even God’s response may not have been completely satisfying. Our limited human understanding does not always allow us to recognize or appreciate the hand of God at work. And we certainly are not qualified to evaluate the rightness of the ways of God.
For this reason, God prefaces his second response to Habakkuk by stating that “the righteous shall live by his faith” (2:4). And God concludes his second response by saying, “The Lord is in his holy temple, let all the earth keep silence before him” (2:20). We must recognize who we are dealing with. Ultimately, because we know him as the omnipotent, sovereign, holy, righteous God of the universe and trust him as such, we must place our faith and hope in him, looking silently and reverently to him to act in the appropriate way and at the appropriate time.
This was Habakkuk’s conclusion, expressed in the prayer recorded in Habakkuk 3. In this prayer Habakkuk describes the splendor and power of God from times past, rays flashing from his hand and the earth shaking and trembling before him as he executes justice on the earth, motivated by his righteous anger. Such past acts of God give hope for his justice prevailing in the future. Yet when it happens, it will be an awesome and awful sight, one that causes even the righteous to tremble: “my body trembles; my lips quiver at the sound; rottenness enters into my bones; my legs tremble beneath me” (3:16). Though we long for justice, sometimes we don’t realize what that entails: that unless God in his wrath remembers mercy (3:2), the consequences will be cataclysmic.
Yet while the wicked ultimately will be trampled and crushed, the righteous will be strengthened and saved. Despite appearances to the contrary, we must be confident in God alone. He has acted faithfully in the past. And he alone continues to be our salvation, our strength, and our joy. He alone can provide a sense of safety and security in tight and frightening places: “He makes my feet like the deer’s; he makes me tread on my high places” (3:20). As we focus on who God is and how his righteousness has prevailed in the past, we can have faith and rejoice in him today, in spite of and in the midst of the difficult and heart-wrenching circumstances in which we find ourselves and our world.