As God works His works of judgment and mercy, as God shakes the nations, and as God intervenes in history with divine visitations of judgment upon the wicked and blessing upon the righteous, the people of God may experience some difficulties and trials.
Recent cultural, social and political events in America have been disturbing for those who look to the Bible to discern what is true, good and beautiful. Yet such events should not surprise us. We are after all in a spiritual war with principalities and powers in high places, and the world system that surrounds us promotes radically different values from our own. Because there is nothing new under the sun, the ancient prophecies of Habakkuk are still relevant today. They can give us perspective and guidance as we live through these trying times.
The prophet Habakkuk lived in the southern kingdom of Judah. He was disturbed by the wickedness which had come to prevail in that society. Not that long before, King Josiah had been a godly king who had tried to administer justice in the land in accordance with God’s law. Yet good King Josiah had been tragically killed in a battle with Pharaoh Neco of Egypt in the plains of Megiddo. King Josiah’s son Jehoiakim had eventually become king after him but had not followed in the righteous ways of his father. The prophet Habakkuk cried out to God about the wickedness in the land and asked, How long? How long would it be before God intervened and did something? How long would God tolerate the wickedness of Judah? Judah had become characterized by violence and injustice, and God seemed to be doing nothing about it.
Sometimes we wonder something similar about our own society. We see more and more people openly parading their sinful lifestyles, more and more people boasting about their rebellion against God’s revealed will. We wonder how much longer will God tolerate this. We wonder if our nation is heading toward a day of reckoning. We pray instead for a coming spiritual awakening and a moral transformation as has happened in the past. We comfort ourselves with the thought that it is often darkest right before the dawn. Yet even if our nation is chastened in coming days, that is not the end of all hope. That is one of the lessons from the prophecy of Habakkuk.
Beginning in verse five of chapter one, God responded to the prophet’s concern about Judah’s sins by telling him God’s surprising plan. God was even then raising up the Babylonians, who were also known as the Chaldeans, to judge Judah. God said to Habakkuk, “I will work a work in your days, which you would not believe, though it were told you.” God is never indifferent to the sins of His people, and the prophet would see within his lifetime God’s judgment upon Judah. God’s statement that He would use the Babylonians to judge Judah was a surprise to the prophet Habakkuk. The Assyrians had long ruled the world and had been the chief oppressors in that area for about a century. The Babylonians were not then a concern as a military threat. Yet even as God predicted, the Babylonians would rise as the new world power with astonishing speed. These new world rulers were an arrogant and violent people. They would quickly conquer the world with terrible ruthlessness. They were fierce and without conscience, and they worshipped their own strength and power.
I don’t pretend to know what our own future is. The Babylonians are not again rising up in our day, but God has raised up modern agents of judgment with some similar characteristic in our nation today. We now have in our society some arrogant and violent people who worship power and who want to drastically transform our society after their own image. There are also now foreign powers with these same characteristics and aspirations. This threat has accelerated to a surprising degree in a short time, again similar to the rapid rise of the Babylonian threat in Habakkuk’s day. Yet we don’t know if these domestic revolutionaries and foreign powers will prevail over our society as the Babylonians did over ancient Judah. Only time will tell.
When God told Habakkuk about the coming judgment of Judah, the prophet responded with a combination of confidence and confusion. First, the statement of confidence: “Are You not from everlasting, O LORD my God, my Holy One? We shall not die.” (Habakkuk 1:12a).
The Babylonians worshipped raw power, but the Lord God of Israel is Jehovah God, the Holy One who is from everlasting, the one who is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow, the one upon whom we can safely depend. God had entered into covenant with Israel and had promised to use the seed of Abraham to bless the world. Therefore, the prophet stated with confidence, “We shall not die.” He was not saying that he and others would somehow escape the very experience of physical death. No, as regards to physical death, it is given unto man once to die. What the prophet meant was that He was confident that God would not allow the covenant people to perish as a people. God would chasten Judah, but God would not obliterate His covenant people from history as God had done to Sodom and Gomorrah. The prophet was confident that whatever happened, God would preserve a righteous remnant with which to keep His covenant and to work out His plan for history.
There is also another consideration, one which receives much more stress in the New Testament. The ultimate form of death is not physical death; it is spiritual death and eternal death. Spiritual death refers to separation from God, and eternal death refers to this separation lasting forever with no hope of deliverance. In terms of these ultimate expressions of death, the Christian never dies. As Jesus said to Martha when her brother Lazarus died, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live. “And whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die” (John 11:25-26).
The people of God will never perish from history, and the individual of faith will not perish spiritually but has everlasting life. That was the confidence behind the prophet’s statement, “We shall not die.”
But then the prophet expressed His confusion. Why is God going to allow such a treacherous people to judge Judah? Yes, Judah has behaved wickedly, but Judah is righteous compared to the Babylonians. Why is God, whose eyes are too pure to behold evil, going to allow these godless hordes to conquer Judah? The prophet says that the Babylonians conquer nations like pagan fishermen gather fish with their nets and then worship their nets as their gods. Why is God going to use these people who are more wicked than Judah to punish Judah? That is the prophet’s question.
In response to the prophet’s question, God gives a longer view of His plan. We find this in chapter two. Yes, in the short term, God is using the more wicked Babylonians to punish the less wicked Judeans. Yet that is only the beginning of God’s plan. God refers to His long-term plan in verse three of chapter two when God says, “Though it tarries, wait for it; because it will surely come, it will not tarry.” God would soon judge Judah through the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians in 586 B.C., but almost fifty years after that, God would also fulfill His pronouncement of judgment against the Babylonians. In 538 B.C., Babylon would be conquered by the Meido-Persians. God works out His plans in His own good time, but His plans are certain.
God’s plan was to judge the Babylonian nation with judgments commensurate with their sins. In chapter two, God pronounces a series of five woes upon the Babylonians, woes that describe both the sins of the Babylonians and the befitting judgments that will come upon them. We know from history that the Babylonian kingdom was eventually destroyed, never to arise again. In contrast, the kingdom of God will never fall and is going to prevail in history. God assured the prophet in about the future of God’s kingdom: “For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD, as the waters cover the sea” (Habakkuk 2:14).
In explaining His long-term plans, God makes that very significant statement, “The just shall live by faith. “Behold the proud, his soul is not upright in him; but the just shall live by his faith” (Habakkuk 2:4).
God here contrasts the proud wicked who trust in themselves with the righteous who trust in God. We can interpret this statement broadly in terms of the destinies of peoples and cultures. The morally crooked Babylonians will perish in the ash heap of history, but a righteous remnant within Israel, a remnant of those who truly look to God in faith, will live and be saved in the sense of persevering in history as a people. God was going to use the Babylonians not to destroy the people of God but to chasten them and to purge them. Indeed, God would use the Babylonian exile to purge the sin of idolatry from Israel. Israel as the people of God, what we call spiritual Israel, survived to return to the land and to rebuild Jerusalem. Spiritual Israel continues today in its new covenant form as the Christian church.
Of course, we can also apply this principle that the just shall live by faith individually. This is what the Apostle Paul does in the New Testament. The person who believes in Christ has everlasting life and will never perish. The person who believes in Jesus has spiritual life in Jesus, spiritual life which he cannot and will not ever lose, not even when he dies physically. The person who believes in Jesus lives according to the Spirit and sets his mind on the things of the Spirit and is thus personally righteous.
We also can apply this principle not only to personal righteousness but also to our legal righteousness before God in salvation. This again is what Paul does in the New Testament. This was not something totally new with Paul. The basic concept of a righteous legal standing before God that is through faith is found in the spiritual experience of Abraham: “And [Abram] believed in the LORD, and [the LORD] accounted it to [Abram] for righteousness” (Genesis 15:6).
The New Testament enables us to better understand this saving transaction. When a person looks to God for salvation, God reckons that person’s guilt to Jesus, and Jesus pays for that person’s sins through His suffering upon the cross. Then God takes the righteous legal record of the life Jesus lived, a life of perfect obedience, and God reckons that perfect legal record to the person of faith. Through his faith relationship with Jesus, he has obtained a legal standing of righteousness before God that is perfect and complete.
So a person who looks to God in faith for salvation becomes a righteous person in the sense that he has a perfect legal standing before God from the very moment that he enters into a saving union with Jesus. But God doesn’t stop there. To review what I have already said, when a person enters into a saving union with Jesus through faith, Jesus gives him not only a new legal record but also a new heart that leads to a new life. Jesus frees him from the claims of Satan and from the domination of sinful desires. Thus, the legally righteous person progressively becomes the personally righteous person over time. That is why in our text, the righteous or the just are contrasted with the proud Babylonians whose souls are not upright. The righteous are righteous not only legally but also personally.
We will conclude by looking at the prophet Habakkuk’s response to God’s long-term plan. We find this in Habakkuk chapter three. There the prophet begins with a prayer. He prays for God to revive the work of His kingdom and to make that work known in history for His own glory. He prays for God to remember mercy for Judah in His long term plans even as God plans judgment upon Judah in the short term.
Then in verses three through fifteen, the prophet writes a poetic account of the mighty ways in which God has worked in past history. I can’t go through all the details, but we find here a poetic declaration of God’s glory as revealed through God’s acting in history as Israel’s Redeemer and Deliverer. The prophet’s prayer is that God will revive this work and again work in history to deliver Judah in the coming time of mercy. This prayer will be answered when God returns a remnant from the Babylonian captivity to Judah to rebuild Jerusalem.
The prophet had his back and forth exchange with God about Judah. He began lamenting that God was not doing something about the sin in Judah. He ended this exchange a transformed person, much like Job was transformed and humbled by his encounter with God in the latter chapters of the book of Job. Habakkuk was even affected physically for a time. See chapter three, verse sixteen. The prophet’s body shook, his voice quivered, his bones seemed unable to support his body, and he was unsteady on his feet. This encounter with God humbled him and filled him with a healthy fear of the Lord. He was probably also disturbed by his new knowledge that the Babylonians were coming against Judah as agents of God’s judgment. Yet now the prophet was willing to rest, to wait quietly for God to do God’s work in God’s time. The prophet also came to understand that God would use the Babylonians as an instrument of chastening for the spiritual good of Judah. And then at the appropriate time, God would destroy the Babylonians in judgment upon the wicked.
It is in that context which the prophet said:
Though the fig tree may not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines; though the labor of the olive may fail, and the fields yield no food; though the flock may be cut off from the fold, and there be no herd in the stalls—Yet I will rejoice in the LORD, I will joy in the God of my salvation. The LORD God is my strength; he will make my feet like deer’s feet, and He will make me walk on my high [places] (Habakkuk 3:17-19).
As God works His works of judgment and mercy, as God shakes the nations, and as God intervenes in history with divine visitations of judgment upon the wicked and blessing upon the righteous, the people of God may experience some difficulties and trials. Yet in the midst of it all, regardless of what happens, let us continue to rejoice in our relationship with God. And in the midst of it all, regardless of what happens, let us always remember that there is only one kingdom that will not fall in history, and that is the Kingdom of God under the rule of the resurrected Jesus. The gates of hell will never prevail against Jesus’ church and kingdom.
Before we close, let me point out a significant difference between us today and Habakkuk. God told Habakkuk that His plan was to use the Babylonians to judge Judah. God has not told us what His plan is for our society and nation over the next months and years. We should continue to pray for spiritual renewal in our nation and continue to do what we can to preserve our freedoms.
Dr. Grover Gunn is a Minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and is pastor of MacDonald PCA in Collins, MS.