Over the next month we are going to be exploring the book of Habakkuk. Habakkuk is one of the minor prophets, the twelve as they are known in the Hebrew cannon. If you remember from our study earlier this year of the book of Haggai, that does not mean it is any less important than other books but rather it is simply short, not one of the long books like Isaiah or Jeremiah.
Habakkuk is important because it wrestles with faith in the face of injustice. It is a book written in the seventh century BC for a very specific context, however it echoes the cry of humanity and God’s people in every age and all ages. “how long?”, How Long will I cry out for help and you do not listen?” How long must the innocent suffer from injustice and wrongdoing, how long must we be faced with violence and destruction, how long this strife and conflict… How long will law and justice be paralysed, and unable to respond. How Long God! Where are you amidst all this on a local and international level. How Long, How Long, How long… have you ever found yourself saying that “how Long”? Then Habakkuk is for you…
I’ve called the series ‘As the waters cover the seas” because at the very centre of the book in chapter 2 verse 14 amidst the ebb and flow, churn and blur, of human history we have a statement of God’s sovereignty and his unstoppable purpose and plan, ‘For the whole earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of God, as the waters cover the seas”. We look at what is going on around us and it can be like a storm at sea, with large waves crashing wind howling, the sting of salt spray, and we feel like we are in a small boat being rocked and tossed around and around, drenched, helpless and fearful. The storm is threatening to overwhelm and sink us. People do die in storms. But part of God’s answer to Habakkuk is that while this is on the surface of history, while it is what we see, we feel and we experience, we also need to remember the unchanged current in the depth of the ocean, God’s purpose, God’s plans for the world to know the weighty reality of God is being worked out. God is sovereign…That flow in history is unchanged and unchallenged by the storms above…
For Habakkuk as he looks at his time and place that would mean that unjust Judah, would be disciplined by the Babylonian empire, it meant the destruction of Jerusalem and the exile, and the purified remnant returning to rebuild. But that deep ocean current goes on to the coming of Jesus, his life, the cross and the empty tomb, God’s kingdom being established, and breaking into the realms of humanity and amidst the storms of today, you and I being ambassadors of that kingdom amidst the disorientating wild wind and waves, looking forward to its consummation in Christ’s return. Habakkuk finishes with a psalm of praise to God and an amazing confession of trust in God and invites us to trust God and be strengthened by that trust amidst the storms of life. The “How long” of faith turns into the “Hold on”of faith… I will hold on to God.
This morning I just want to do an introduction, to Habakkuk: focus on the first verse and Habakkuk the man and Habakkuk the book. I know that sounds a bit dry and academic, but I think that there is a lot in those things that will speak to us today and enrich what the book of Habakkuk can say to us as we explore it.
Let’s look at Habakkuk the man,
Habakkuk is amongst the most anonymous of biblical writers. He is only mentioned twice, both in the book that is named after him. In the first verse, which we had read out today and then at the beginning of chapter three where his name is mentioned as being the writer of the psalm that concludes this book. For most biblical characters we are at least given where they come from or who their tribe and parents are but we are not even told that.
Even Habakkuk’s name seems to be rather obscure, some suggest it is a part of a plant, while others see it coming from the word ‘to embrace…’. embrace speaks of Habakkuk’s faith in this book. He is willing to embrace the questions, to wrestle with God. The book reads like a Q&A session between Habakkuk and God, where Habakkuk is willing to ask the tough questions. But also that God embraces Habakkuk as well and answers, even if they are not what Habakkuk wants to hear.
The name also has the sense of being an embrace or a hug for warmth when there is no shelter. A huddle together for warmth. The book of Habakkuk, reflects that amidst the difficulties Habakkuk can only turn to God and God embraces him and the book finishes with Habakkuk in chapter 3:17-18 saying that even if he is stripped of all the comforts and shelter of land and food and blessing, still he will rejoice in the Lord. That is where he and ultimately we, find that embrace and shelter. Even if the storm strips everything else away our hope and our source of Joy is the LORD.
What we do know about Habakkuk is that he is called the prophet and that he was also a musician. This has led to people seeing him as a professional prophet at the temple in Jerusalem. In 1 Chronicles 25 David sets aside a group of people to be temple musicians and prophets, under David’s supervision. We see that many of the Psalms not attributed to David are written by these people, Heman who you may remember from a couple of week ago who wrotePsalm 88 is named. While Habakkuk is not named he stands in that tradition.
The role of the Prophets was to bring God’s covenant word to the people of God in music and song and poetry and prayer. The role of the prophet was to wrestle and understand what God’s covenant relationship with his people then meant for God’s people now. Others have called it taking the timeless word of God and making it timely. One example from Habakkuk itself is the most often quoted lines from the book in chapter 2:4 ‘the righteous will live by faith’, This is Habakkuk’s word to God’s people how they should live in response to what is going to happen. In the new testament this is picked up in Romans, Galatians and Hebrews. The way to have new life is through faith in Jesus Christ. In the face of the oppressive religiosity of the medieval church in Europe it is the rallying cry of the reformation” the righteous shall live by faith, liberty and freedom and new life comes through putting our hope and our trust in Jesus Christ. In the uncertainty of our world today that hope and trust and faith in Christ is what allows us to know God’s presence and live out the kingdom of God even in the storms.
One of the reflections of Habakkuk the man is that even in his obscurity in history, a person of faith willing to face the storms and the big questions trusting God, can make a difference and bring hope through God’s word. It’s true for you and I as well with a faith that is willing to embrace the big question and be embraced by God even when the answers are not what we are expecting.
Habakkuk also challenges us about the place of artists, poets and musicians in our midst. This past week the world learned that Eugene Peterson, famous for producing the message version of the bible, a translation into colloquial English, had died, aged 85. It lead me to re watch a video of Peterson and the lead singer of U2 Bono, talking about their mutual love for the psalms, and Both Bono and Peterson talked of the honesty of the psalms to express human experience and anguish and praise. They spoke of the place of the artist today in the church and world to be honest and bring out the reality of both the world around us and of the hope we have in Christ. That is the prophetic nature of art and music.
Very quickly I want to look at Habakkuk the book. In Hebrew it was part of the twelve because they would have all fitted on one scroll.
The book is called an ‘oracle’ the whole book is to be viewed as a vision. I called it a Q&A session before and it kind of feels like a TV current affairs show a serious interview like BBC hardtalk or sixty minutes or 20/20. To give you an outline of the book In verse 2-4 we have the prophet as the presenter asking the hard-burning question about the injustices in Judean society, God the interviewee responds in verse 5-11 is to point to the Babylonians, then Habakkuk asks his question again “how long” and God responds with a series of woes for the proud nations an affirmation of God’s sovereignty and a call for the righteous to live by faith. Then Habakkuk turns to us the viewer and summarises his response to the interview which is a psalm of praise and trust and hope in the LORD.
The word oracle can also be translated Burden and the book of Habakkuk can be seen to be Habakkuk’s burden. It is the burden of an honest faith to see injustice and wrong and violence and to question and look for genuine answers. It is the burden of our faith that when we are confronted by the quandary of what to do when our ‘hope and history don’t rhyme’ not to abandon that hope, not to abandon that faith and search for another answer but to hold on to what we know of God. That is what Habakkuk does his questions are based on what he knows of God’s goodness and righteousness and faithfulness. In the process of his questioning we can see Habakkuk’s faith and trust deepen. In response to God’s answer look at the Babylonians, Habakkuk is prepared to wait even longer for God’s response and to understand God’s purposes. His question comes out of his relationship with God “how Long O God”, I know you are kind and just, not a rage against God or shaking his fist at God, ‘How long will God let this go on”.
But it is also the burden of Habakkuk to speak the truth, that injustice and violence will lead to judgment. For Judea their rejection of the covenant and its call to do justice and pursue peace, will lead to God keeping his covenant promise to lead them out of the land. He’s going to use the Babylonians to do it. It is not a popular message, Habakkuk’s contemporary Jeremiah has his scroll burned and is imprisoned for insisting on the same message. In an event that echoes the headlines of our time with the killing of the journalist Kamal Khashoggi for his outspoken opposition to the Saudi regime, in Jeremiah 26 King Hezekiah has Uriah the prophet chased down and killed for saying the same message. Its pure speculation but maybe that is a bit behind why Habakkuk is so anonymous.
Habakkuk’s burden is also to say that the way through that judgement and turmoil to finally know God’s salvation and restoration is to live by faith. In Romans 3 Paul is straight up in saying the wages of sin are death, but, so we have the good news that in faith in Christ there is a way to live and change.
I love the photo I took at the front of the church. It is dark with just the light from the spire shining on the front in it the thing that stands out and is illuminated is the cross. It is God’s answer to the darkness. Habakkuk says to us that Christianity is not about escapism, its not the exit sign from the confusing complex and often difficult, dark and dangerous maze of human history. It is not a hunker in the bunker mentality when we see the storms of injustice and violence. Rather it is a way to face that and navigate those things. It is a light that will not go out. The burden like Habakkuk is to be willing to see what is going on around us and bring the big questions to God to seek an answer, and as we work through the storm to continue to live by faith, continuing to live out that faith prophetically in how we treat others and in what we speak and say, in challenging systemic issues . Like Habakkuk that burden of faith leads us to a deeper trust and faith.