Discovering Habakkuk

Background Information

Like other minor prophets, this book was written by a man whose name is also the title of the book. We know little about him other than that he was “Habakkuk the prophet” (Hab 1:1, 3:1). To call himself “the prophet” may indicate that he had been formally trained in a prophetic school (see 1 Sam 19:20; 2 Kgs 4:38).

The apocryphal book, Bel and the Dragon, claims that Habakkuk was the “son of Jesus of the tribe of Levi,” which would mean that Habakkuk had been born into a priestly line. This book tells the tale of an angel carrying Habakkuk by the hair from Judah to Babylon to drop food for Daniel into the lion’s den. Some manuscripts even claim that Habakkuk authored this apocryphal book. Such claims and stories about Habakkuk are fascinating but likely of no value.

This book was most likely written sometime between 609-605 BC. Here’s how we arrive at this dating:

  • The Chaldeans (mentioned in 1:6) had already become a fearsome force, cementing this status with their overthrow of Nineveh in 612 BC, bringing the Assyrian Empire to an official close. This suggests a date of writing sometime after this event.
  • The Chaldeans (Babylonians) would soon attack Judah (1:5), making their first such attack in 605 BC. So, this places the book sometime between 612 and 605 BC.
  • Jehoiakim reigned as king of Judah from 609-605 BC, a reign characterized by the kind of gross injustice and violence Habakkuk decried (1:3-4).

By piecing this information together, then, we arrive at a date sometime during the reign of Jehoiakim and the first assault on Judah by the Babylonians.

Purpose for the Book

As mentioned previously, Habakkuk wrote during a time of agonizing injustice in Judah. The northern kingdom of Israel had already been invaded by Assyria, but the southern kingdom of Judah remained. Judah’s window of freedom, though, was waning as its kings and people proved to be equally disobedient to God as the northern kings and kingdom had been. So, Habakkuk initial wrote to express his frustration to God over this plight.

The way that God answered Habakkuk’s prayer, though, was surprising: he would judge this wickedness in Judah by invasion from a foreign nation. This divine approach surprised Habakkuk because, as he saw it, the foreign nation – Babylon – was more wicked than Judah. How could this course of action be right?

The rest of this book, then, encourages readers to trust God, even when his plans and ways don’t make sense to our way of seeing things. As such, it offers vital lessons of faith, teaching us how to move from fear to faith through prayer.

Outline and Content

It is easy to map out the content of this book, as it consists of two stages. The first is a “back and forth” conversation or dialogue between Habakkuk and God. The second stage, then, is a monologue of Habakkuk speaking to God.

  • Habakkuk expresses his questions of faith to God. (1:1-2:20)
  • He expresses frustration over unrighteousness at home. (1:1-4)
  • God informs him of the coming Chaldean invasion. (1:5-11)
  • He expresses confusion over the invasion of unrighteous foreigners. (1:12-2:1)
  • God encourages faith in divine justice. (2:2-20)
  • Habakkuk expresses his confidence of faith to God. (3:1-19)
  • He prays for renewal. (3:1-2)
  • He reviews God’s past deliverances. (3:3-15)
  • He affirms the confidence of his faith. (3:16-19)

Through this series of conversations, first two-way and then one-way, Habakkuk seeks to understand what to make of God’s manner of judging the wickedness of his people. How can sending a pagan and even more wicked nation to invade his people be right?

Throughout this book, Habakkuk presents an exalted and holy view of God (1:12-13, 2:20, 4:3-4). But this correct view is challenged when he learns that God will judge Judah by means of an unholy nation, Babylon. Through this struggle, he learns to trust in God’s holy and just nature even when his ways do not seem holy and just from our vantage point. In this way, he learns to “live by faith” (2:4), even when what we see and experience may seem contradictory at the moment (3:17-19).

In 2:4, we learn that to “live by faith” means making reliance upon God your governing life principle. This contrasts with those who are proud (i.e., lifted up, puffed up, arrogant, haughty, etc.), like the pagan Babylonians and also ungodly compatriots like Jehoiakim. So, when a just person suffers due to the injustice of his own people or the injustice of strangers, that person simply trusts in God, a trust which refrains from “figuring everything out” and which trusts God despite adverse visible circumstances (3:17-19). In the end, the people whom God justifies (or calls right and righteous in his sight) are those who trust in him by faith and not in themselves.

The phrase “the just shall live by his faith” becomes a key theme in the New Testament (NT), quoted twice by Paul (Rom 1:17; Gal 3:11) and once by the writer of Hebrews (10:38):

  • According to Paul, this principle is the foundation for the gospel. Not only does God judge the all people for their sin, whether Jew or Gentile, he also saves all people from their sin, whether Jew or Gentile – if only a person will trust in him by faith (Rom 1:17).
  • According to Paul elsewhere, this principle ensures that no one may arrogantly expect or insist to be called right or righteous by God through their compliance to the Mosaic Law, for this would require perfect compliance, something no one is able to achieve; therefore, our only hope for justice is to trust in God by faith (Gal 3:11).
  • According to the writer of Hebrews, anyone who claims to trust in God by faith but who eventually shrinks back or withdraws from doing so, that person elicits displeasure from God and may prove to be one who has never truly trusted in God at all (Heb 10:36).

So, from Habakkuk we learn this vital truth that faith in God – no matter who you are and no matter what circumstances you find yourself to be in – this is the singular basis for a sure and confident relationship with God. Such faith does not guarantee a pleasant, problem-free life today, but it does guarantee God’s pleasure and it does guarantee your eternal deliverance and justice in the future.

From a stylistic standpoint, it is worth noting that this book employs a series of five “taunt” songs, each consisting of three verses (2:6b-20). Each set of verses features an insult, followed by a threat, followed by a criticism. Through these stinging woes, God verifies that he is indeed opposed to the wickedness of Babylon – he has not turned a blind eye to their arrogance and ungodliness, despite assigning to them the invasion of Judah.

Following this sequence of taunts, Habakkuk requests God’s soon renewal of his people, followed by a remembrance of God’s past deliverance of his people, written in an ancient epic style, with God as the hero. This remembrance exults in God’s deliverance of Israel from Egypt, providing for them in the wilderness, and settling them into the Promised Land (3:3-15). In addition to these dominant, stylistic features, Habakkuk also employs a variety of other literary devices, including but not limited to:

  • Proverb (1:9; 2:6)
  • Simile and metaphor (1:8, 9, 11, 14–17; 2:5, 7, 8, 15, 16; 3:4, 8–10, 11, 14, 19)
  • Allegory (2:15–16)
  • Hyperbole (1:6–11; 3:6, 11)
  • Personification (1:7–11; 2:5, 11; 3:1, 5, 7, 10)
  • Rhetorical question (1:12; 2:13, 18; 3:8)
  • Repetition (1:15b–17)
  • Synecdoche (3:7)

The book closes, then, in a unique fashion, by presenting a prayer to God in the form of a musical text. That Habakkuk intended for this third, final chapter to be repeated to music is clear from the multiple musical notations he provides.

  • On Shigionoth: As with Psa 7, this description (3:1) tells us something about the musical presentation of this passage (as our good friend, Rod Johnson, calls it, a “shindig”). Like “on the eighth” at the start of Psa 6, we can’t be sure what this word means. It appears only twice in the Bible, the second time being here in 3:1, in a plural form, the only musical notation in all the OT prophets. This musical term seems to be related to another word that means “to stagger, wander” or “to go astray and reel,” so perhaps it calls for being played or sung to an uneven, irregular beat, meter, or rhythm which would express a more animated, agitated tone. Though such a style would fit both Habakkuk’s (here) and David’s (Psa 7) situation well, we cannot be entirely certain.
  • Selah: This notation (3:3, 9, 13) appears frequently in the Psalms and is also unclear as to its meaning. It probably means something like “pause and think about that for a moment” and perhaps included a musical repetition or elevation to a higher key to aid in meditation and personal reflection upon what was just said.
  • To the Chief Musician: this instruction (3:19) tells us that Habakkuk intended for this book (esp. the final chapter, at least) to be included in regular Temple worship, for repetition in prayers and singing. The same inscription occurs in 55 OT Psalms.
  • With my stringed instruments: this musical instruction tells us that Habakkuk intended this book to be presented in worship using stringed instruments as accompaniment. Such instruments would have resembled things like guitars and harps today, though not identical. The curious addition of “my” into this instruction seems to indicate that Habakkuk originally intended to participate himself in the musical accompaniment, which does increase the likelihood that was indeed a member of the priestly class. At the very least, he was a trained instrumental musician.

Commentator J. Ronald Blue makes the following insightful observations about the progression of the book and of Habakkuk’s thoughts and feelings from start to finish:

Habakkuk’s book begins with an interrogation of God but ends as an intercession to God. Worry is transformed into worship. Fear turns to faith. Terror becomes trust. Hang-ups are resolved with hope. Anguish melts into adoration.

What begins with a question mark ends in an exclamation point. The answer to Habakkuk’s “Why?” is “Who!” His confusion, “Why all the conflict?” is resolved with his comprehension of who is in control: God!

To this I would add that what began for Habakkuk as a private and confused conversation with God was transformed into a public and confidence expression of praise to God. What began as a quiet, insecure discussion and question became a loud, musical declaration of praise.

Personal Takeaways

Though the possible personal applications of the message of this book are many, I will offer a few.

We should be willing to express our confusion and doubts to God. Honest confession of our concerns, doubts, and questions to God is an appropriate thing to do. In some cases, this is the only way to strengthen our confidence in God. But to grow in faith by this means, we must be prepared for God to confront and correct our wrong feelings and thoughts through his Word.

While an answer might not come immediately (2:1), or might itself cause consternation (1:12–17), God does not ban honest questioning. (David Baker, Habakkuk)

Faith does not refrain from asking questions or expressing confusion, but neither does it arrogantly argue with or against God. It speaks and then humbly, patiently waits to be corrected (Hab 2:1).

We should trust in what we know to be true about God, even when visible circumstances and real experiences seem to contradict our expectations.

Habakkuk learned and sought to teach us that “faith and fact are not always compatible in the world of sense and sight, but that is not the whole world. There is a world of justice that only God fully comprehends. His people must accept by faith what they cannot confirm in fact.” (Kenneth Barker, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah)

I would adjust what Barker says here, which is largely true, by saying that “fact” here only refers to what we are able to observe and understand today in our finite, limited capacity. Just because we cannot prove something to be true in an empirical, evidential way or in a perfectly satisfactory logical manner does not mean it is ultimately untrue.

How can God, for instance, allow an arrogant, wicked nation like Babylon invade his own covenant people? This may not seem just, but there is something we are unable to know or comprehend which does, in fact, make sense of this, something which God alone understands. Since God is holy, just, and sovereign, then – something we now to be true – then we can follow him by faith no matter what. We should know as well as possible what he has revealed to us about himself and his ways from Scripture and then trust him based upon that knowledge alone.

In conclusion, Habakkuk presents a picture of arrogant people being humbled, but in God’s timing and in God’s way, and a parallel picture of righteous people who trust expectantly and patiently in God, knowing that though we must endure evil in the world for now, God will work all things together for good and justice in the end (see Rom 8:28) Because of this, we can praise God enthusiastically in the face of evil and injustice.

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