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Habakkuk (1): Introduction

J Riddle, Cheshunt

We call Habakkuk and his colleagues "The Minor Prophets", but this is neither accurate nor complimentary! On the contrary, they were "Major Men of God"! Their books are only "minor" in terms of size when compared with those of Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel. These comparatively small books have been beautifully described as "the twelve-jewelled crown of the Old Testament". Taken together, they have been called "The Book of the Twelve".

Jeremiah tells us that the true prophet "stood in the counsel of the Lord, and hath perceived and heard his word" (Jer 23.18). He also tells us, on eleven occasions, that God rose up early to speak to Israel through the prophets - see, for example, 7.25. Habakkuk was one of them, and it might be helpful to see his position in relation to the other "writing prophets". So:

The Position

Habakkuk belonged to the seventh century, i.e. 700-601 BC. It would be interesting to commence at the Exodus from Egypt, and construct a complete table of the prophets sent by God. It would begin with Moses (Deut 18.15; 34.10) and Aaron (Ex 7.1), and include a great number of men (and some women), some named and some unnamed. The "writing prophets" alone cover five centuries, viz:

Fifth/sixth century prophets: Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi, Ezekiel, Daniel.

Seventh century prophets: Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Obadiah, Jeremiah.

Eighth century prophets: Hosea, Amos, Micah, Isaiah.

Ninth century prophets: Jonah, and possibly Joel.

Since Obadiah evidently prophesied after the fall of Jerusalem (see vv.10-14), he probably should be transferred to the beginning of the sixth century. In any case, the above table is rather "rough and ready" in the extreme, but it could easily be "fine-tuned" to produce a more accurate picture. The ninth century (900-801 BC) brings us to the era of Elijah and Elisha, which reminds us that there were a vast number of "non-writing prophets". These could be incorporated in a more comprehensive table. For example, the tenth century introduces us to the unnamed prophet who cried against Jeroboam’s altar, and the "old prophet in Bethel" (1 Kings 13.11).

This proves that God was not exaggerating when He said, "Since the day that your fathers came forth out of the land of Egypt unto this day I have even sent unto you all my servants the prophets, daily rising up early and sending them" (Jer 7.25). He was never silent. Whilst the oft-quoted words in Acts 14.17 do not refer to the prophets, we can apply them in that way, and say that God "left not himself without witness" so far as the prophetic testimony was concerned. This should encourage us today: through His servants, and sometimes without them, there will be an on-going testimony to "all the counsel of God" (Acts 20.27), and even when Jerusalem becomes the darkest moral blot on earth, He will give power to His "two witnesses...these two prophets" (Rev 11.3-12).

Referring now to the seventh century prophets, we should notice the following in connection with Nahum, Habakkuk and Zephaniah:

Nahum. The prophet refers to the destruction of Thebes (called "No", Nahum 3.8; "No-Amon", AV margin) and coming destruction of Nineveh. These events took place in 663 BC and 612 BC respectively.

Habakkuk. He prophesied between the destruction of Nineveh and the invasion of Judaea by the Babylonians, i.e. between 612 BC and 605 BC. The violence and lawlessness of Judah prior to the Babylonian captivity points to the end of the southern kingdom. The prophecy probably belongs to the reign of Jehoiakim, Josiah’s second son.

Zephaniah. He preached "in the days of Josiah" (1.1), before the destruction of Nineveh (2.13) in 612 BC, and evidently before Josiah’s great reforms in 621 BC.

The Prophet

We know little about him, but he was evidently a man with a deep concern for God’s people. He was a man of prayer: he prayed consistently (1.2). He was a man of faith: he expected God to answer (2.1). He was a man with a concern for God’s glory: he recognised His greatness (2.12). He was a man of praise (ch.3).

His name means "embracing" or "enfolding." J B Hewitt writes: "The book is built up around the meaning of his name. He ’embraced’ his God in prayer, for he was perplexed (1.4; 1.12-15). He ’embraced’ God by faith, for he expected a solution to his problems (2.1-4,14,20). He ’embraced’ God with songs of victory as he anticipated the glorious triumph of God over all evil (3.1-19)". We can add that he certainly "embraced" a problem as well! His name could, however, mean "wrestling" as well as "embracing". Perhaps we could say that he "wrestled" in chapter 1, and "embraced" in chapter 3.

The Problem

Habakkuk had a familiar problem. Why does God tolerate evil? How can He be consistent with Himself, and yet permit evil whilst remaining silent? So in 1.2 he says, "O Lord, how long shall I cry, and thou wilt not hear! Even cry unto thee of violence, and thou wilt not save!" And at 1.13: "Wherefore lookest thou upon them that deal treacherously, and holdest thy tongue when the wicked devoureth the man that is more righteous then he?". Compare Psalm 73: "I was envious at the foolish, when I saw the prosperity of the wicked...Behold, these are the ungodly, who prosper in the world; they increase in riches...When I thought to know this, it was too painful for me; Until I went into the sanctuary of God" (vv.3,12,16-17).

The Pattern

Habakkuk is a unique book. It is essentially a dialogue between God and Habakkuk, and we are eavesdroppers! The nation is not directly addressed by the prophet. The book may be divided into five sections: Habakkuk speaks three times, and God speaks twice.

Habakkuk’s Problem (1.1-4)

Why are the wicked unjudged? It is the cry of a righteous man surrounded by wickedness. He had prayed for a long time, but the situation was worsening. God seemed inactive.

God’s Answer (1.5-11)

He is doing something about the situation: the Chaldeans were coming as His instrument of punishment.

Habakkuk’s Protest (1.12–2.1)

But the Chaldeans are more wicked than Judah! The prophet questions the moral correctness of God’s answer.

God’s Answer (2.2-20)

"Wait for it" (v.3). He will deal with the Chaldeans (vv.5-13). But beyond that, He has a grand objective: "the earth shall be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord" (v.14). In the meanwhile, "the just shall live by his faith" (v.4).

Habakkuk’s Prayer (3.1-19)

The prophecy terminates with sublime faith: "I will rejoice in the Lord, I will joy in the God of my salvation" (vv.17-18).

The nation is not directly addressed by the prophet, as usually happens. We could summarise the book as follows: Sighing (ch.1), "Why?"; Seeing (ch.2), "Wait!"; Singing (ch.3), Worship. Or, Habakkuk questioning Jehovah (ch.1); Habakkuk waiting on Jehovah (ch.2); Habakkuk rejoicing in Jehovah (ch.3).

The Purpose

The purpose of the book is to strengthen faith. It commences with bewilderment and uncertainty, and ends with the prophet treading his "high places" with sure feet. The book has a magnificent conclusion: "Although the fig tree shall not blossom, neither shall fruit be in the vines; the labour of the olive shall fail, and the fields shall yield no meat; the flock shall be cut off from the fold, and there shall be no herd in the stalls: Yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will joy in the God of my salvation" (3.17-18). Over the book we could write: "And this is the victory that overcometh the world, even our faith" (1 Jn 5.4).

The book is cited five times in the New Testament.

Chapter 1.5 is quoted in Acts 13.41.

Chapter 2.3 is quoted in Hebrews 10.37.

Chapter 2.4 is quoted in Romans 1.17, Galatians 3.11, and Hebrews 10.38.

To be continued.

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