“Habakkuk was not a self-centered person concerned only with the comfort and safety of himself and his family. As a true patriot, he was deeply distressed by the moral and spiritual conditions about him. He loved his nation, and knew it was moving ever closer to the precipice of destruction by continuing to break the laws of God. Therefore two anguished questions burst forth from his lips: How long? and Why?” —Richard W. De Haan
Habakkuk 2:4 has the distinction of being quoted three times in the NT. In Acts 13:40-41 the Apostle Paul ended his sermon in the synagogue at Antioch, Pisidia, by quoting Habakkuk 1:5, another illustration of how an apparently obscure and short OT book can have rich doctrinal content. Also, compare Habakkuk 3:17-18 with Philippians 4:4, 10–19. Both the prophet and the apostle could rejoice in their God no matter what the outward circumstances of life might be.
As to style, the Hebrew Christian scholar Charles Feinberg writes: “All concede to Habakkuk a very high place among the Hebrew prophets. The poetry of chapter 3 has been rightly praised on every hand as the most magnificent Hebrew poetry. The language of the book is very beautiful.”
We know virtually nothing about this prophet. The name Habakkuk may mean embrace or wrestle. Since he is one of only a handful to call himself a prophet, some scholars believe that he not only had the gift of prophecy, but the office as well. (Daniel, for example, was a statesman by calling, but a prophet by gift.)
Because Habakkuk mentions no kings, his little prophecy is hard to date. Conservative scholars generally place the prophet during the reigns of either Manasseh, Josiah, or Jehoiakim, all kings of the seventh century b.c. The last named king’s reign is perhaps the best choice, with a date near the Battle of Carchemish (605 b.c.), at which Babylon was victorious.
The religious revival under King Josiah did not last long. Public morals, once more influenced by the licentious Baal and Ashtaroth cults, were very low. Injustice was widespread. These were the deplorable conditions with which Habakkuk had to deal. This prophet spoke to Judah prior to the Babylonian captivity (586 b.c.). Since his name may mean “wrestler,” it is fitting that he wrestled with Jehovah over the sin and punishment of the people of Judah.
THE PROPHET IS PERPLEXED THAT GOD DOES NOT PUNISH THE INIQUITY OF JUDAH (1:1–4)
The burden which the prophet Habakkuk saw is probably a title for the whole book. In verses 2–4, he complained to the Lord about the terrible violence, iniquity, robbery, strife, and injustice in Judah. He asked the Lord how long it would be allowed to go unpunished. Because of this and similar questionings of God, Habakkuk has sometimes been called “the doubting Thomas of the OT.”
The first eleven verses of the prophecy are a dialogue between Habakkuk and the Lord.
THE LORD REPLIES THAT HE WILL USE THE BABYLONIANS TO PUNISH JUDAH (1:5–11)
God’s answer is given in verses 5–11. He would raise up the Chaldean army to punish Judah. The enemy would be hasty, bitter, avaricious, violent, dreadful, and proud. The Babylonians were noted for their cavalry, swift in conquest and fiercer than evening wolves. They scoffed at captive kings and princes, and their might was their god. The success of the Chaldean will be multiplied; he will carry all before him, as the wind sweeps over vast stretches of land. In doing so, the Chaldean conqueror heaps up guilt before God because of his ungodly ambitions and his subjugation of many helpless peoples.
HABAKKUK NOW QUESTIONS GOD’S CHOICE OF A MORE WICKED NATION TO PUNISH JUDAH (1:12–17)
When Habakkuk heard this, he was troubled, and his agitation brought forth the second dialogue (1:12–2:20). How could God punish Judah by a nation that was worse than they were? He argues with God based on his knowledge that God is of purer eyes than to behold evil, and cannot look on wickedness. And the Babylonians were undoubtedly wicked! However, Judah’s wickedness was greater, since the Jews were sinning against much greater light. How could God look upon the wickedness of the Babylonians as they took men captive by the netful, even by the hook and the net? They sacrificed to their idols and grew fat. Would there be no end to their slaughter of the nations?
GOD’S ANSWER IS THAT THE JUST PEOPLE OF JUDAH WILL SURVIVE, BUT THE UNJUST CHALDEANS WILL BE DESTROYED (Chap. 2)
A. Habakkuk Awaits God’s Answer (2:1)
Habakkuk retired to his watchtower to see how the Lord would answer him. He wanted to get alone in order to gain God’s perspective. This is a most important principle for believers today as well. Whether we call it our “quiet time,” “devotions,” or by some other term, daily communion with God is crucial for every Christian.
B. Instructions to Record the Answer and Await Its Fulfillment (2:2-3)
The Lord commanded the prophet: “Write the vision” (His answer to Habakkuk’s question) so that the one who read it might run with the news (of the downfall of Babylon and the restoration of Judah).
C. The Just Shall Live by Faith, and the Unjust Chaldeans Will Die (2:4)
Because the soul of the king of Babylon was lifted up with pride, he would die, but the godly remnant of Israel would live by faith. Verse 4c is quoted three times in the NT. The three parts of the verse—the just—shall live—by faith, go well with the emphases of the three contexts where they appear: Romans 1:17 emphasizes “the just”; Gal. 3:11 emphasizes “faith”; Heb. 10:38 emphasizes “shall live.” The literal rendering in Habakkuk’s context, is “By his faith the just shall live.”
D. Catalog of the Chaldean’s Sins (2:5–19)
1. Endless Appetite for Conquest (2:2–8)
Wine drinking was a national sin of Babylon, and, no doubt, of Nebuchadnezzar. Keil writes that this addiction “is attested by ancient writers, and it is well known from Dan. v. that Babylon was conquered while Belshazzar and the great men of his kingdom were feasting at a riotous banquet.” In addition, the latter had an insatiable thirst for conquest.
Verse 6 begins a taunt song, containing five woes against Babylon. The first woe is against lust for empire, or aggression. The many nations which Nebuchadnezzar had conquered would taunt him for his ill-gotten gain, and would oppress and plunder Babylon as he had done to them.
2. Greed and Pride (2:9–11)
A second woe is pronounced on Nebuchadnezzar for his covetousness and pride. He tried to make his dynasty safe from the reach of disaster, but his dishonest gain and cruelty would cry out against him.
3. Enrichment through Bloodshed (2:12–14)
The third woe against the king was for his lust for magnificence and his blood-shedding tactics. The cities of Babylon, built by slave labor, would merely end up feeding the insatiable fire, and the earth would acknowledge Jehovah as the true God.
But a day is coming when the one true God will be globally acknowledged. This glorious time is predicted in a deservedly famous poetic comparison: “For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea” (2:14).
4. Corruption of Neighbors (2:15–17)
The fourth woe is against Nebuchadnezzar for taking a savage delight in corrupting other nations, for shamelessness, and for his destruction of Jerusalem and Judah. In short, Nebuchadnezzar was guilty of promoting two main ingredients of modern television, movies, and “literature”—shameless sexual lifestyles (including forms of perversion) and inordinate violence.
5. Idolatry (2:18-19)
The fifth and final woe condemns the king for the idolatry of Babylon in vividly sarcastic lines. What good is a gold or silver-plated idol when there is no breath in it at all?
E. Silence Enjoined Before the Storm of God’s Judgment (2:20)
A beautiful musical setting of this verse is used in some churches to subdue the congregation to quiet contemplation of the sermon. Unfortunately, while the words fit, the context of the text is that the Lord is about to demonstrate His power in judgment. For that reason all the earth should keep silence before Him.
HABAKKUK PRAYS AND TRUSTS (Chap. 3)
He Appeals to God to Act for His People (3:1-2)
Habakkuk now prays to the Lord. He had heard of the Lord’s dealings in the past with the enemies of His people; now he asks Him to revive His work by punishing His foes and saving His people.
He Reviews God’s Care for Israel from Egypt to Canaan (3:3–15)
In a splendid vision of God’s sovereignty, Habakkuk pictures God marching forth against His foes, crushing them by His power and triumphing gloriously. He makes frequent allusions to the Lord’s past punishment of Israel’s enemies, the judgment of Egypt at the time of the Exodus, the countries that opposed Israel on the way to the promised land, and the nations that had to be driven out of Canaan by Joshua.
In the first section of the prayer God’s glory and brightness are seen in both the heavens and the earth.
The geographical details—Teman, Mount Paran, Cushan, and Midian, all speak of enemies of Israel. For example, Teman, a large city in Edom, stands for all of Idumea, and Cushan is probably the same as “Cush,” or Ethiopia.
In verses 8-11, God’s power is stressed, especially as manifested over the rivers, the seas, and the mountains. Verse 11 refers to the famous event at Gibeon during which the Lord worked a mighty miracle in the sky to help Joshua win the battle (Josh. 10:12).
In verses 12–15, God is seen marching through the land for Israel and trampling their enemies in anger. The reference in v. 15 is to the crossing of the Red Sea (Ex. 14) when there was a heap of great waters on either side of the people of God as they marched through as if on dry land. Habakkuk envisions God as moving through the sea with His horses.
He Waits for the Enemy to Be Punished (3:16)
When the prophet heard of the judgment of the Babylonian invaders, he trembled and determined to wait quietly for the event to come to pass.
No Matter What Happens, He Will Trust in God, His Strength (3:17–19)
In the meantime, whatever trials the Prophet Habakkuk and his people might be called upon to endure as a result of the Babylonian invasion—Though the fig tree may not blossom, and the fields yield no food; and there be no herd in the stalls—he would rejoice in the Lord and joy in the God of his salvation.
The literal is “I will jump for joy in the Lord; I will spin around for delight in God.” Here is the hope and joy of faith!—joy at its best with circumstances at their worst!