In 1940, a church newspaper in Basel Switzerland published a column under the title: “Word on the (Current) Situation” that included an excerpt from the book Habakkuk. The military censors banned the newspaper because they viewed this text as a critique of the Nazi regime of the time.
Habakkuk also served as an important source of resistance’s history. Allan Boesak in the tumultuous 1980s in South Africa preached a sermon against apartheid in which he drew upon on Habakkuk 2, imploring God: “Lord, how long must we wait before you help?”
John Calvin wrote the following commentary on Habakkuk 2:6: “Tyrants and their cruelty cannot endure without great weariness and sorrow … Hence almost the whole world sounds forth these words, How long, How long? When anyone disturbs the whole world by his ambition and avarice, or everywhere commits plunders, or oppresses miserable nations, when he distresses the innocent, all cry out, How long? And this cry, proceeding as it does from the feeling of nature and the dictate of justice, is at length heard by the Lord … This confusion of order and justice is not to be endured.”
The little Old Testament book of Habakkuk has been deemed in the past to be a dangerous book. Funny, isn’t it. That such an insignificant writing can get it so very right. Maybe that’s the case because it begins and ends as a prayer but not a thanksgiving prayer. Baffled by the contradictions between his beliefs about God and his experience he pray the prayer of an inquisitor, a prosecutor daring to ask God why things were as they were. Perplexed by God’s silence the prophet questions whether God answers prayer. Then he questions whether God can actually control human evil.
The book Habakkuk comes out of an exceedingly traumatic time in Israel’s history. Not long before the prophet enters the stage the mighty Assyrian army destroyed one city after the other, brutally killing people. And we know that not long after Habakkuk was written, the Babylonians under king Nebuchadnezzar would three times besiege and attack Jerusalem, taking its leaders and skilled citizens who survived the atrocities into exile, and in 587 BCE, destroyed the city and decimated the temple. For those living in the time of Habakkuk, indeed, violence was all around.
There was no question about it. God’s chosen people were evil. They had broken covenant, ignore the statutes and injustice was the standard. And, as a result, they were being severely punished by a people even more evil then themselves. How could God employ an evil nation to punish a less evil nation? Where’s the justice in that? The answer Habakkuk got wasn’t all that satisfying – the eviler nation would be punished after it had fulfilled its purpose. And where’s the justice in that? But isn’t that just like the ethical questions we raise today? Neither the prophet nor God offers any simple answers to these apparent contradictions. What he does offers is some advice on how to hang on through tough trials.
God doesn’t work through magic whether for good or ill – God works through people. Flawed people maybe but people. God still claims sovereignty over people and nations. Maintaining a steadfast faith in the God who acts will carry us through the darkness of not understanding to clarity. And, what makes this possible is our belief that God is a moral God and things move toward human deliverance the consequences of which is the worship of God.
In Habakkuk1:1-4 we see how the prophet looked around and is overwhelmed by all the violence. In v 3, he asks God why God is tolerating all these evil deeds, and why he has to see all the injustice, the oppression, the strife and terror around him. And in v 4, the prophet laments that the wicked are overpowering the righteous, and that justice is perverted or literally raped.
Within in this context of violence, we hear Habakkuk’s lament: “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen?” In the midst of this nightmare, the only thing the prophet can do is to help his people voice their pain, to cry over the anguish they are experiencing. Echoing the Psalms of lament as well as the book of Lamentations, we hear how the prophet cries out to God: “Lord, how long? Lord, help me … ”
Habakkuk’s lament join laments from all around the world in which people have found the words to name the situations of violence and injustice in their lives as the only way to resist whatever is threatening their well-being and happiness.
It is important to note that the violence and terror would continue for a long time. The good news in the prophetic voice is that violence and injustice do not have the last word.
The prophet’s words are as contemporary as this week’s news. O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? Or cry to you “Violence!” and you will not save? 3Why do you make me see wrong-doing and look at trouble? Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise. 4So the law becomes slack and justice never prevails. The wicked surround the righteous— therefore judgment comes forth perverted.
Does that sound like the news out of Missouri?
In Habakkuk 2:1-4, we are told that the prophet is standing on the watch tower, waiting for the Lord to answer. 2I will stand at my watch post, 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. 2Then the Lord answered me and said: Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so that a runner may read it. 3For there is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and does not lie. If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay. 4Look at the proud! Their spirit is not right in them, but the righteous live by their faith.
And then comes God’s answer. However, God’s answer is not what we would ever want to hear. It says, “Wait. Be patient. Deliverance is coming but you will have to wait.” This divine response challenges all the easy answers or quick fixes that we can concoct. In Israel’s history, the prophet’s message would be followed by many more years of violence and injustice. Things would get much worse before they were to become better. However, amidst the most dire of circumstances, we see how the prophet clings to God’s faithfulness and love.
“Moreover” God says, “wealth is treacherous; the arrogant do not endure. They open their throats wide as Sheol; like Death they never have enough. They gather all nations for themselves, and collect all peoples as their own. 6Shall not everyone taunt such people and, with mocking riddles, say about them, “Alas for you who heap up what is not your own!” How long will you load yourselves with goods taken in pledge? 7Will not your own creditors suddenly rise, and those who make you tremble wake up? Then you will be booty for them. 8Because you have plundered many nations, all that survive of the peoples shall plunder you— because of human bloodshed, and violence to the earth, to cities and all who live in them. 9“Alas for you who get evil gain for your houses, setting your nest on high to be safe from the reach of harm!” 10You have devised shame for your house by cutting off many peoples; you have forfeited your life. 11The very stones will cry out from the wall, and the plaster will respond from the woodwork. 12“Alas for you who build a town by bloodshed, and found a city on iniquity!” 13Is it not from the Lord of hosts that peoples labor only to feed the flames, and nations weary themselves for nothing? 14But the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.
Is that not a broad side aimed at corporate America? But listen – it gets even more contemporary and sounds like the Cosby scandal to me. 15“Alas for you who make your neighbors drink, pouring out your wrath until they are drunk, in order to gaze on their nakedness!” 16You will be sated with contempt instead of glory. Drink, you yourself, and stagger! The cup in the Lord’s right hand will come around to you, and shame will come upon your glory!
In Habakkuk 3:1, we read the prayer of the prophet that is to be sung on the melody of a lament:
3A prayer of the prophet Habakkuk according to Shigionoth. 2O Lord, I have heard of your renown, and I stand in awe, O Lord, of your work. In our own time revive it; in our own time make it known; in wrath may you remember mercy.
17Though the fig tree does not blossom, and no fruit is on the vines; though the produce of the olive fails and the fields yield no food; though the flock is cut off from the fold and there is no herd in the stalls, 18yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will exult in the God of my salvation. 19God, the Lord, is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer, and makes me tread upon the heights.
Habakkuk reminds us centuries later how important it is to continue trusting in a God that will bring deliverance. This unflinching belief in God’s ability to bring an end to violence is precisely the reason why the book Habakkuk was banned in Nazi Germany — the idea that God will end unjust power considered too dangerous to be tolerated.
God hears the cries of those who are suffering under the yoke of unjust systems and will bring an end to their violence. Good news for those who are being oppressed. Not so much for those who are abusing their power.
However, the examples from Apartheid South Africa or the Nazi regime show us that situations of violence can last many years and even decades. Also in our personal lives, we may find ourselves in a situation of pain and suffering without end. Even the beautiful confession of faith with which Habakkuk ends acknowledges that the situation of violence and suffering is long not over. The fig tree does not blossom. There are no fruit on the vines. There are no livestock in the stalls. And yet the wonderful thing about Habakkuk’s confession is that we, along with the prophet we can still say, I believe in a God that gives me strength. Amidst the violence. Amidst the depravity. And this conviction is what causes us to not only go on, but to tread upon the heights like a deer.