Can a prophet profit from challenging God?
Less is known about the prophet Habakkuk than almost any other prophet in the Jewish Scriptures (Old Testament). We are given no information about his father, tribe or hometown, details found in many of the other prophet’s books. His name may not be Hebrew, but from an Akkadian word for a plant or fruit tree, indicating that he may have been from the ancient Middle-Eastern kingdom of Akkad.
Most, if not all people of faith, encounter times and seasons in their spitual lives when they doubt or question God. Few though are like Job, who was able to openly share and debate the painful issues. So it is very rare for someone to actually confront and challenge God about the apparent anomalies and contradictions of God’s actions. But this is what Habakkuk did!
One of the roles of a prophet was to serve as an intermediary between God and God’s people, especially highlighting when and how they may have strayed from God’s covenant. Habakkuk takes it upon himself to work in the opposite direction, calling God to account when God’s actions didn’t appear to correspond to those demanded by the covenant. This makes Habakkuk unique amongst the prophets and prophetic writings.
Dates, discrepancies and disagreements
The time period of Habakkuk has long been a matter of debate. From chapter 1 verse 6 it appears that an invasion by the Babylonians (sometimes referred to as Chaldeans) was imminent. This invasion could have occurred any time prior to 587 BC when Jerusalem was finally destroyed by the Babylonian Empire. The prophecies in the book were therefore likely given earlier, perhaps during the reign of king Jehoiakim (609-598 BC), during which time the Babylonian threat was increasingly felt. That would make Habakkuk a contemporary of the prophets Nahum, Zephaniah and Jeremiah. Interestingly Habakkuk’s prophecies also anticipate the subsequent defeat of the Babylonians which took place in 539 BC.
Small book packing a big punch!
The structure of the book is straightforward, with two questions (or complaints) put to God by Habakkuk, each of which is followed by God’s response. The first complaint concerns God’s apparent toleration of sin, especially injustice (chapter 1 verses 2-4) and is followed by the assurance that it will be dealt with by God, through using the Babylonians to destroy Jerusalem (chapter 1 verses 5-11).
This raises a yet greater moral problem for Habakkuk. How could God use as instruments of justice such a cruel and brutal people, indeed far more brutal than those who are being punished (chapter 1 verses 12-17). Habakkuk then waits for God’s response (chapter 2 verse 1), which comes when God promises judgement also on the Babylonians (chapter 2 verses 2-20).
Habakkuk responds to this assurance of God’s justice and love with what I refer to as a prayer-psalm of worship, recalling how God met Israel at Sinai (chapter 3 verses 3-7) and acting as a warrior on Israel’s behalf (chapter 3 verses 8-15). The short book ends with a deeply moving expression of the prophet’s encounter with, and trust in God (chapter 3 verses 16-19a).
Habakkuk.co.uk – Major messages for us from this minor prophet
1. Sometimes it’s easy to think we understand God’s ways completely, but that is never the case. God is not a doctrine to master, but a mystery to be mastered by! God’s ways aren’t like ours (Isaiah chapter 55 verses 8-9) and often in the seeming complexities, contradictions and confusion over God’s ways, we are called to wait until God’s will becomes clear (chapter 2 verses 2-3). That patient waiting is a counter-cultural, prophet act for us. living in an ‘instant culture’ which demands everything yesterday.
2. God’s people are never immune from the trials and problems of real life. Often God takes us through, not round trials, and uses them to help us grow into the people we are becoming. When we face difficulties, whatever they are, it is good to call to mind the past occasions when we’ve experienced God’s blessings, which is a wonderful way of developing a perspective of faith (chapter 3 verse 2).
3. Shaped by a consumerist culture it can be very easy for modern western Christians to believe in God when life is going well and we feel blessed, but to turn from God when life becomes hard. Habakkuk offers us a window onto a different kind of relationship, when we learn to worship God regardless of the outward circumstances (chapter 3 verses 17-19), not as a way of escapism from reality, but of taking that reality to the God who is with us within it.
4. It really is OK to take our most difficult and demanding questions to God. That is never frowned upon in the Bible, but is seen as an appropriate thing for God’s people to do; God wants us to do that and God can handle our frustrations and anger! For other examples see: Job chapter 3; Psalm 13 and Philippians chapter 4 verse 6.