In his initial dialogue with God, Habakkuk expressed his concerns to God. The prophet was disturbed by the violence and injustice in Judean society. His agony was intensified by what he perceived to be God’s approval of the wickedness of the people, “Why do you tolerate wrong?” (Habakkuk 1:3 NIV).
Habakkuk had prayed but there was no answer. The prophet was troubled by God’s silence. Habakkuk’s agony became more intense because the people were ignoring the Torah and because Habakkuk believed that God was not fulfilling the promise he had made to the ancestors.
Habakkuk’s mental suffering became the real burden the prophet carried in his soul. His words were not mere prophecies. His words were a true burden of emotional hardship. This burden the prophet carried in his soul made him question the justice of God. The burden Habakkuk had to endure was the result of the actions of the people of Judah, and from Habakkuk’s perspective, also from the actions of God.
The Work of the Babylonians
After Yahweh responded to Habakkuk’s first question, Yahweh told Habakkuk that the Chaldeans were being used as his agents to judge the wickedness of the people.
But Habakkuk was not happy with the way God was using the Babylonians. They were violent and brutal in their treatment of conquered people. The prophet knew of the atrocities practiced by the Babylonians. It was the oppressive ways of the Babylonians which prompted Habakkuk to come before God with his concerns.
Habakkuk said, “O LORD my God, my Holy One, you who are eternal — surely you do not plan to wipe us out? O LORD, our Rock, you have sent these Babylonians to correct us, to punish us for our many sins” (Habakkuk 1:12 NLT).
Habakkuk addressed Yahweh by acknowledging the nature and character of God. God was the holy and eternal God, the Rock in whom Israel could always depend. Habakkuk also acknowledged that Yahweh was sending the Babylonians to judge the people of Judah for their wickedness, “you have sent these Babylonians to correct us, to punish us for our many sins” (Habakkuk 1:12 NLT).
Habakkuk’s problem was that Yahweh was using the Babylonians to punish Judah. Habakkuk believed that God’s action was contrary to God’s nature as a righteous God. He said, “Your eyes are too pure to behold evil, and you cannot look on wrongdoing; why do you look on the treacherous, and are silent when the wicked swallow those more righteous than they?” (Habakkuk 1:13).
As a righteous God, God cannot stand the sight of evil, he does not tolerate wrongdoing and yet, he was using a wicked and violent people to punish Judah, a people more righteous than the Babylonians. Habakkuk could not accept God’s silence when the Babylonians treated people like fish and insects. To the Babylonians, the people of Judah are no better than animals (Habakkuk 1:14).
Habakkuk’s question has profound implications about the nature of God. The prophet is questioning the character of God as a righteous God. As Nogalski writes, “If YHWH cannot abide evil, why does YHWH allow the wicked to oppress the righteous? The implications of this question are not benign. They represent a challenge to YHWH to act on behalf of the righteous” (Nogalski 2011: 664).
The prophet was challenging God’s wisdom and his method of punishment because Habakkuk did not understand what God was doing nor did he agree with the punishment. To Habakkuk, the punishment of Judah for the evil and violence of the people was extreme.
How could God use the evil Babylonians to punish the evil deeds of the people of Judah? According to Habakkuk, God’s action seemed to be an unjust treatment; the punishment did not fit the crime. In his agony and personal struggle, the work of Yahweh was too hard for Habakkuk to understand. God’s treatment of the people of Judah remained a mystery to Habakkuk.
Habakkuk Waits On God
Unable to understand what God was doing, Habakkuk decided to go to a solitary place, to pray, and wait for God’s response to his complaint: “I will stand at my watchpost, and station myself on the rampart; I will keep watch to see what he will say to me, and what he will answer concerning my complaint” (Habakkuk 2:1).
When God called Ezekiel, God told him that he would be a watchman, “Son of man, I have made you a watchman for the house of Israel” (Ezekiel 3:17 NIV). The role of the watchman was to be stationed on the watchpost and warn the city of approaching danger. In the case of Habakkuk, he was in the watchtower waiting for a revelation from God, expecting a response to his views about what God was doing.
Habakkuk said, “I will keep watch to see what he will say to me.” The expression, “what he will say to me” in Hebrew is “what he will say in me.” God’s response to the prophet’s words would come as a response that would be communicated to the prophet’s heart, to his soul.
Habakkuk knew that God would answer his complaint. The prophet was not just waiting for an answer; he was waiting for a rebuke. The NRSV translates 2:1 as follows: “ I will wait to see what the LORD says and how he will answer my complaint.” However, the Hebrew word translated as “complaint” means “reprimand,” “rebuke.” The KJV translates verse 1 as follows: “I will watch to see what he will say unto me, and what I shall answer when I am reproved” (Habakkuk 2:1 KJV).
Habakkuk had confronted Yahweh, challenging his silence and his inaction in the face of evil and violence. He also told God of his dissatisfaction with the way God was using the Babylonians to address the evil and the violence in Judah.
Habakkuk had asked several questions and now he was waiting for an answer, waiting for an explanation of why Yahweh was using the Babylonians to punish Judah. Habakkuk knew that he had challenged God and he also knew that God would reprove him, “I will look to see what God will say and what I will answer when I am reproved” According to Nogalski, “the prophet expects to be reprimanded for speaking harshly to YHWH but does not intend to back down” (Nogalski 2011: 667 ).
God’s Response to Habakkuk
God revealed himself to Habakkuk and he gave the prophet a message of hope. The message came to Habakkuk in a vision, a message that Habakkuk was required to write down: “Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so that a runner may read it” (Habakkuk 2:2).
The message Habakkuk received was an answer to his question and it was also a message intended for the people of Judah. The message Habakkuk received was to be written plainly on tablets so that a messenger could read the message and carry the message he had received to the people of Judah.
Yahweh told Habakkuk that what he was doing would happen in the near future: “This vision is for a future time. It describes the end, and it will be fulfilled. If it seems slow in coming, wait patiently, for it will surely take place. It will not be delayed” (Habakkuk 2:3 NLT).
The full answer Habakkuk was waiting for would take some time to be fully answered. God was working through historical events and when God acted, the answer to Habakkuk’s question would become apparent. Until then, the solution to Habakkuk’s concern was to be found in God himself.
God reassured Habakkuk of the truthfulness of the vision, “will not prove false.” However, the vision would not happen immediately, “It may take a while.” Habakkuk had to be patient and wait for its fulfillment, but the vision would certainly be fulfilled: “wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay.”
The indirect answer to Habakkuk’s question comes in verse 4. This text is the key to understanding the concerns of Habakkuk and the solution to his question. Although Habakkuk 2:4 is difficult to translate and the English versions differ on how they translate this text, the final message of the text is clear.
Yahweh is saying to Habakkuk: “Behold, anyone whose heart is not upright will succumb, but the upright will live through faithfulness” (Habakkuk 2:4 NJB).
The truth being communicated to Habakkuk is directly related to the struggle of his soul. The situation in Judah was not what Yahweh expected from his people. They had violated the demands of the covenant. There was violence, injustice, and oppression throughout the nation. God was going to judge the nation and the way God was bringing divine justice would not please most people.
Those who are unbelievers, those whose heart is not upright will be dismayed at what God is doing and will eventually fall. They will lose their faith, blame God, criticize God, and even say that what God was doing is unfair, “The way of the Lord is unfair” (Ezekiel 18:25).
In the midst of the mysteries of life, when one does not know what is happening, or when one does not know or does not understand what God is doing, one must remain faithful to God because it is through faithfulness that one finds life, “the upright will live through faithfulness.”
The way God was dealing with the evil and violence in Judean society was not pleasing to Habakkuk and may not be pleasing to many people today. At times, it is hard to understand and even accept what is happening in the world. God may have a purpose in what happens in history, but a purpose that is hidden from humans.
God is at work, but humans cannot see the invisible hand of God in human affairs. Yahweh said, “in your days I am doing a work in which you will have no belief, even if news of it is given to you” (Habakkuk 1:5). Most of us do not understand what is going on in our world today. God is at work even when we do not understand what he is doing, “my ways are far beyond anything you could imagine” (Isaiah 55:8 NLT).
In the midst of mystery, in the many mysteries of life, those whose faith is weak or nonexistent will blame God for everything that is happening in the world and they will fall. They fall because they do not have enough faith to believe that what God is doing is good and right.
Those who know that the God of the Bible is a good and righteous God will confess that they do not understand everything that is happening, but they are willing to continue believing and trusting in God, “the upright will live through faithfulness.”
Studies on the Book of Habakkuk
Habakkuk’s Second Dialogue with God, Habakkuk 1:12–2:4
The Five Woes of Habakkuk, Habakkuk 2:5–20 (forthcoming)
The Prayer of Habakkuk, Habakkuk 3:1–19 (forthcoming)
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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Nogalski, James D. The Book of the Twelve: Micah–Malachi. Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary. Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2011.