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Introduction to the Book of Habakkuk

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General Info

Habakkuk is one of the toughest bible book names to pronounce.  The two most common pronunciations are “huh-BAK-uhk”, with emphasis on the middle syllable, and “HAB-buh-kuhk”.  There are disagreements amongst scholars regarding the meaning of this unusual name.  Another unusual aspect of the book is that most prophets relay messages from God to the people, but in Habakkuk’s case, the prophet indirectly addresses the people of Judah by recording a dialogue between God and himself, followed by a closing prayer.  In some respects, the questions and conversations between Habakkuk and God remind us somewhat of the transactions between God and Job in the Wisdom book by that name.

In the Protestant Canon, Habakkuk is grouped with the other eleven books in the section called the “Minor Prophets”.  The book, like each of the other eleven books are named for its author and main character.  In the Hebrew Bible Canon, the twelve books of the minor prophets (along with Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel) are grouped into a section called the Nevi’im Aharonim, or the “Latter Prophets”.

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Brief Survey

The book begins with Habakkuk’s first of two questions to God, namely why doesn’t he do something about the wickedness in Judah (1:2–4).  Judah had turned their back on the One True God, and had become an evil and violent society in which morals were virtually disappearing.  God replies that he is going to punish the Judeans by sending the Babylonians to conquer them (1:5–11).  This leads to the second and more perplexing question, “why would a righteous God use people who were more violent and wicked than the Jews to punish the Jews without compromising his righteousness (1:12–17)?  God replies that Babylon would not escape His wrath, but would sequentially be judged and punished for their own wickedness, thus upholding his righteousness (2:1–20).

In the third and final chapter, the prophet Habakkuk offers a prayer of praise to God (3:1-16), followed by a closing hymn of rejoicing in the Lord.  While Habakkuk did not have a complete understanding of the Lord’s ways (neither do we today), he, like Job, completely trusted and relied on His judgment.

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Key Verses

How long, O LORD, must I call for help, but you do not listen?  Or cry out to you, "Violence!" but you do not save?  Why do you make me look at injustice?  Why do you tolerate wrong?  Destruction and violence are before me; there is strife, and conflict abounds.  Therefore the law is paralyzed, and justice never prevails.  The wicked hem in the righteous, so that justice is perverted.  [God’s answer:]  “Look at the nations and watch-- and be utterly amazed.  For I am going to do something in your days that you would not believe, even if you were told.” (1:2-5)

O LORD, are you not from everlasting?  My God, my Holy One, we will not die.  O LORD, you have appointed them to execute judgment; O Rock, you have ordained them to punish.  Your eyes are too pure to look on evil; you cannot tolerate wrong.  Why then do you tolerate the treacherous?  Why are you silent while the wicked swallow up those more righteous than themselves? (1:12-13)

Then the LORD replied: “Write down the revelation and make it plain on tablets so that a herald may run with it.  For the revelation awaits an appointed time; it speaks of the end and will not prove false.  Though it linger, wait for it; it will certainly come and will not delay.  See, he is puffed up; his desires are not upright-- but the righteous will live by his faith.” (2:2-4)

“Woe to him who builds a city with bloodshed and establishes a town by crime!  Has not the LORD Almighty determined that the people’s labor is only fuel for the fire, that the nations exhaust themselves for nothing?  For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD, as the waters cover the sea.” (2:12-14)

“Of what value is an idol, since a man has carved it?  Or an image that teaches lies?  For he who makes it trusts in his own creation; he makes idols that cannot speak.  Woe to him who says to wood, ‘Come to life’!  Or to lifeless stone, ‘Wake up!’  Can it give guidance?  It is covered with gold and silver; there is no breath in it.  But the LORD is in his holy temple; let all the earth be silent before him.” (2:18-20)

A prayer of Habakkuk the prophet.  “LORD, I have heard of your fame; I stand in awe of your deeds, O LORD.  Renew them in our day, in our time make them known; in wrath remember mercy.  God came from Teman, the Holy One from Mount Paran.  His glory covered the heavens and his praise filled the earth.” (3:1-3)

“Sun and moon stood still in the heavens at the glint of your flying arrows, at the lightning of your flashing spear. In wrath you strode through the earth and in anger you threshed the nations.  You came out to deliver your people, to save your anointed one. You crushed the leader of the land of wickedness, you stripped him from head to foot.” (3:11-13)

“Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD, I will be joyful in God my Savior.  The Sovereign LORD is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer, he enables me to go on the heights.” (3:17-19)

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Author and Date

The author of the book is identified in the first verse as Habakkuk.  Little is known of his personal life other than being identified as a prophet of God to the southern nation of Judah.  The second century AD apocryphal book Bel and the Dragon identifies Habakkuk as “the son of Jeshua of the tribe of Levi”, however this book is not considered to be inspired.  It later was included in chapter 14 of the also apocryphal and non-canonical extension to the Book of Daniel.  The book tells a fictional tale of the prophet Daniel who refuses to worship the god Bel and kills the dragon.  By this false account, this leads to Daniel being thrown into the lion’s den, but allowed to leave after being unharmed after seven days.  Yet, if Habakkuk was a Levite, this might explain the inclusion of certain musical notations in the book, since the Levites also served as music leaders in the Temple.  The musical term “Selah” appears 74 times in the Scriptures.  All but three appearances are in the Book of Psalms, while the remainders are found in the third chapter of Habakkuk.

Whatever his tribe and profession, Habakkuk appears to to possess a high degree of literary knowledge and command of the Hebrew language.  He also demonstrates an intense concern over the sinful, immoral and social disintegration occurring among the people, and grieved over the failure over God’s chosen people to live up to His standards.

See the “Historical Background and Timeline” chapter below for information on the writing date of the book.

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Historical Background and Timeline

See Historical Background of the Minor Prophets, Chronology of the Minor Prophets and Chronology of the Monarchy Timeline for additional info.

Habakkuk contains no specific statements dating his ministry to a particular reigning king, however we can determine an approximate date based on its prediction of the Babylonian invasion of Judah (1:6).  The Lord speaks of its inevitability, “Write the vision; make if plain on tablets so he may run who reads it” (2:3), but doesn’t tell us how far off it is, “For still the vision awaits its appointed time; it hastens to the end—it will not lie.  If it seems slow, wait for it; it will surely come; it will not delay.

During the time that Habakkuk was writing, the Babylonians may not yet have been an immediate threat to Judah, however he appears to be very quite aware of their potential threat.  Thus,  Habakkuk’s visions probably begins near or after the end of Josiah’s reign (640–609 BC).  Prior to Josiah, the extremely wicked king Manasseh had radically led the people away from God.  Although Manasseh repented at the end, God threaten to remove Judah (2Kgs 26-27).  Manasseh was succeeded by his wicked son Amon, who reinstituted Baal worship, child sacrifice to the false god Molech, and neglected the temple.  Although Judah experienced a significant but brief time of revival under Josiah, who restored the temple and reinstituted the Passover celebration, the nation quickly returned to its previous evil ways after his death.  The political environment was no less unstable than the religious during this time.  Although Assyria had ruled Judah with a heavy hand of oppression for more than a century, they were beginning to weaken and were conquered and replaced by Babylon in 612 BC as the new world power.  Although Habakkuk’s writings end before Babylon's invasions of Judah in 605, 597, and 586, he probably lived to see the Babylonian invasions of Judah in 605, 597, and 586.

686-642 BC Manasseh King of Judah
640-609 BC Josiah King of Judah enacts Reforms after finding the Book of the Law in the Temple; Died fighting the Egyptians at the battle of Haran in 609
635-622 BC Zephaniah Prophet of Judah
627-580 BC Jeremiah Prophet of Judah
~620-604 BC Habakkuk Prophet of Judah
612 BC The Babylonians (Chaldeans) Conquer and Destroy Nineveh (Assyrians)
605 BC Babylon Invades Judah, Exiles Daniel and many other Jews
~605-535 BC Daniel Prophet to Exiled Judah

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Themes, Purpose and Theology

Habakkuk’s purpose in writing the book was to provide a historical, theological and spiritual aspect of the eventual consequences of the people’s continual disobedience and rejection of God.  He also indicates that the Sovereign Creator of the universe can use any means to punish the rebellious, including other wicked peoples.

Thus, it is no surprise that the Sovereignty of God is one of main theological themes.  In addition, God’s holiness and justice is clearly on display in that He can’t even look on corruption (1:12-13). 
We next find God’s demand that we must live by faith (2:4).  No matter how much injustice and evil we face, God is still at work, so the righteous must continue to live by faith and await our deliverance by God in His strength and perfect timing (3:13, 19).  Thus, the theme of salvation is also heavily in view throughout the final chapter.  It is even linked with the work of the coming Messiah, the Anointed One (3:13).

Habakkuk is often referred to as a “forefather of the Reformation”, particularly for the phrase in chapter 2, verse 4 that reads, “the righteous shall live by faith”.  In the New Testament, the Apostle Paul quotes this phrase in Romans 1:17 (and elsewhere - also the writer of Hebrews).  This key theological concept, as quoted and re-affirmed by Paul, had a profound influence on both Martin Luther and John Calvin, and became a primary rallying cry of the sixteen century Reformation.  This cry continues to this present day as we rely on the initial fulfillment of God’s promises at the First Coming of Christ while awaiting the final fulfillment at His Return. 

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Interpretation Hints and Challenges

Before we get to the obvious difficulties presented by Habakkuk’s two question to God, we’ll tackle the claim made by some critics that Habakkuk 3:3 contradicts the doctrine of God’s omnipresence (the doctrine declares that God is present everywhere (Ps 139:7-10).  The first part of the verse (3:3) reads “God came from Teman, and the Holy One from Mount Paran”, so some critics ask, “How can God be everywhere if He came (originated) from Teman?”  This  claim can be easily refuted by appealing to the context and literary genre used by the author, and by a little geographical knowledge.

First the genre used by Habakkuk in the third chapter is that of a praise hymn written in Hebrew poetry, and as such is allegorical.  In addition, Moses uses a similar phrase in his introduction to the blessing over the Hebrew tribes in blessing the Hebrew tribes in Deuteronomy 33:2, in saying “The LORD came from Sinai and dawned over them from Seir; he shone forth from Mount Paran”.  Habakkuk, like most, if not all of the Hebrew prophets, would have been very familiar with the writings of Moses, and thus may have borrowed the phrase from Moses.  Returning to Habakkuk, we find in the next verse (3:4) that Habakkuk appears to be comparing God with the sunrise.  If we look on a map of the region during this era, we find the City (or region) of Teman in the southern part of Edom settled by descendants of Esau and named after the grandson of Esau.  This area was located east of Judah.  Thus, since the sun rises from the east, to those living in Judah, the sun would appear to rise from the direction of Teman.  Going back to the remainder of verse 3, His splendor covered the heavens, and the earth was full of his praise, we also see an apparent rejection of the argument against God’s omnipresence.

Habakkuk’s Questions

We begin by making an observation regarding the questioning of God.  Although some may argue that we should never direct questions to God, the Bible doesn't record any instances in which God chastises anyone for asking honest and sincere questions.  God doesn't always provide sufficient answers to our satisfaction, such as with Habakkuk, Job and with David in the Psalms, and sometimes He basically asks us to trust Him and live by faith (2:4).

Habakkuk first questioned why God allowed such depravity and violence to continue without any justice or punishment for the wicked in the land.  To this question, God provides a clear answer.  He would send the Chaldeans (Babylonians) to invade Judah to capture and exile the people (1:5–11).  This happened only a few years later with the first of three invasions (605 BC) by Nebuchadnezzar in which many Judeans (including the prophet Daniel and his friends) were carried off to Babylon.

The answer to the first question however, led to a second and more difficult question, why could God use Babylon, a nation that was even more wicked than Judah to punish His people (1:12–2:1).  God did not directly answer this second question, at least not the “why” part.  Instead, He responded by pronouncing a series of “woes” on the Babylonians, to encourage Habakkuk to continue living a moral life and assure him that the sins of the Babylonians would not be overlooked or go unpunished (2:2–20).

Like Job and David, Habakkuk continued to trust in God’s justice despite the lack of a complete answer to his question, stating that he would “wait patiently for the day of calamity to come on the nation invading us” (3:16).  We certainly don’t know why God chose the Babylonians for this task, but we can point to God’s sovereignty over all nations.  We can also point out many times in history in which God also used the enemies of Israel and Judah to sustain His chosen people throughout history.  Before Israel was even a nation, God used Egypt to save Abraham (still called Abram at that time ~2100 BC) from a famine in Canaan (Gen 12:10-20).  God also protected Jacob (aka Israel) from a famine in Canaan by orchestrating events that led to his son Joseph becoming leader of all Egypt (Gn 39-48 ~1900 BC).  In the late 11th century BC, during the reign of Israel’s first King Saul, God protected His chosen king David among the Philistines, one of Israel’s worst enemies at the time (1Sam 27).

We previously noted that the prophet Daniel and his friends were taken to Babylon in the first of three exiles in 605 BC.  While in Babylon, the men remained faithful to God, and in turn, He blessed them and placed them with high rankings in the king's service (Dan 1).  Later, the Lord saved the friends preserved his friends in a fiery furnace in which we see a possible theophany with a pre-incarnate appearance of the Lord Jesus Christ walking in the furnace with them (Dan 3).  In Daniel 6, we witness God keeping Daniel safe in a den of lions.  The Jewish people did not have to wait very long to witness God fulfilling His promise to punish Babylon.  In 539 BC, God raised up Cyrus II (Cyrus the Great), who conquered Babylon and established the Persian Empire.  Interestingly, the Prophet Isaiah had predicted this approximately two centuries earlier (Is 44:21-45:13), even naming Cyrus as the Lord’s servant who would accomplish this and allow Jerusalem to be rebuilt (Ezra 1-3).

Moving forward to the birth of Jesus Himself (~4 BC), an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, instructing him take Jesus to Egypt because King Herod was attempting to locate and kill him.  After the death of Herod, an angel appeared on another dream instructing Joseph to take Jesus back to Israel (Mt 2:13-23).  Finally, we could mention the many prophecies regarding the reformation of the Nation of Israel.  We've seen a partial fulfillment with the reformation of modern Israel (May 14, 1948) and look forward to the heavenly New Jerusalem.

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The book of Amos can be sub-divided into two short sections, two questions / complaints of Habakkuk’s and God’s Response to each, and Habakkuk’s prayer and joy in the Lord.

1:1 - 1:4 Habakkuk’s First Complaint:  The Wicked appear to go Unpunished
1:5 - 1:11 God’s First Response:  The Lord to send the Babylonians as Punishment
1:12 - 1:17 Habakkuk’s Second Complaint:  Why send the Wicked Barbarians
2:1 - 2:20 God’s Second Response:  The Righteous shall Live by Faith; Woe to also come on Babylon
3:1 - 3:19 Habakkuk’s Prayer of Faith and Rejoicing in the Lord

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