06 Aug Habakkuk: How Long, O Lord, How Long?
Majoring on the Minors
Habakkuk: How Long, O Lord, How Long?
Habakkuk 1:1-4 and 3:17-19
August 4, 2019
M. Michelle Fincher
Calvary Presbyterian Church
How long, O Lord, how long? How long will cancer ravage the bodies of people we love? How long will this sense of despair hang over me? How long will gun violence continue to take innocent lives? How long will prejudice spawn divisions among peoples and nations? How long will this grief last? How long will my parent suffer with Alzheimer’s? How long will evil seem to have the upper hand? How long until my son beats his addiction, or my daughter finds a job? How long, O Lord, how long?
If you’ve ever wondered “how long,” you are in good company today. Let me introduce you to Habakkuk.
Habakkuk is unique among the Minor Prophets. While the other eleven speak God’s word to the people, Habakkuk speaks our word to God. He gives voice to what we’re thinking and feeling, and he doesn’t hold back when it comes to verbalizing his disappointment, confusion, and fear. You might wonder, can we really talk to God like this? And the answer is a resounding “yes.”
Habakkuk is concerned and mortified by the wickedness he sees around him in his own nation, and he goes to God to complain. There’s nothing shy about his first complaint, either: “God, how long do I have to cry out for help before you listen? How many times do I have to yell, ‘Help! Murder! Police!’ before you come to the rescue? Why do you force me to look at evil and stare trouble in the face day after day?” That’s how Presbyterian pastor Eugene Petersen translates Habakkuk’s opening protest before the Lord in The Message.
You could say the prophet is following in the footsteps of Job, questioning God’s justice when it seems to Habakkuk that God is standing idly by while his people plummet into widespread evil and injustice. Habakkuk places himself among the righteous and continues to gripe that “justice never goes forth,” and “justice goes forth perverted” (1:4).
God responds that the wickedness of Israel is not going unnoticed, and in fact, God is already attending to it by raising up the Babylonians who God will use to defeat Israel and carry her off to exile. Now, you need to understand that the Babylonians are the Al-Qaeda or the ISIS of their day. They are world-class terrorists. This is the last thing Habakkuk expects to hear. This is God’s plan to deal with Israel’s corruption and injustice? Have her invaded by a foreign army? How is that a solution?
Habakkuk thinks he’s got God cornered now. The prophet’s second complaint is to protest the so-called “justice” of punishing a wicked people by the hands of a people even more wicked. You hear it in 1:13: “Why do you look idly at traitors and remain silent when the wicked swallows up the man more righteous that he?”
Habakkuk is so sure that God doesn’t have a leg to stand on, that God’s position is indefensible, that the prophet gets a little uppity. “I will take my stand at my watch post and station myself on the tower and look to see what [God] will say to me, and what [God] will answer concerning my complaint” (2:1).
With an attitude like that, it’s pretty remarkable that God lets Habakkuk have his say, takes Habakkuk’s concerns seriously and deals patiently and graciously with the prophet. Habakkuk is, after all, challenging the very integrity of the holy, omnipotent, eternally just and good God. It is one thing to lay out our concerns to God as we confess that God’s wisdom and ways are higher than ours; it is a different thing altogether to accuse God of malfeasance. God does answer the prophet, and perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that God’s answer contains a rebuke that sets Habakkuk straight about who is God and who is not.
“Write out the vision; make it plain on tablets, so that a runner may read it. For 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.” Your answer, Habakkuk, is that God is dealing with wickedness and injustice in God’s way and in God’s time. If it seems slow in coming, wait for it. It is on the way. And then God delivers the punch line: in the meantime, Habakkuk, “the just will live by faith.”
If Habakkuk thought Babylon would get off the hook for invading and decimating Judah, God makes it clear that Babylon will also be held to account for her deeds. Write it down, Habakkuk. You can count on it. It will happen. The wicked and the proud will be destroyed while “the righteous”—both the remnant that is left in Israel and Habakkuk himself—will live.
And how can we ensure to be numbered among the righteous? The answer is faith. It is faith in God in the midst of trying times, looking to God rather than to our own deeds or understanding or wisdom. It is absolutely critical that we get the order of this faith-righteous relationship. It is not those who are already righteous who will have faith, but those who have faith who are already counted as righteous.
“The righteous shall live by faith.” The Apostle Paul picks up this theme in Romans when he says, “To the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness” (4:5). It is this same truth that turned Martin Luther’s life upside down and eventually led to the Protestant Reformation. And it is a truth that speaks powerfully to our lives, as well. When the trials come, when the only cry on our lips is, “how long, O Lord, how long,” there is a great divide: there are those who are proud, who shake their fist at God and blame God for all that is wrong. And then there are those who walk by faith, trusting in God where they cannot see and when life is more than they can understand.
God spends the rest of chapter 2 continuing to answer Habakkuk’s complaint with a series of five “woe oracles”:
- Woe to the plunderer; you will be plundered (that is, the perpetrator will become the victim)
- Woe to those who are dishonest (cheater, thief); you will be exposed
- Woe to the unrighteous builder; you will be undone while “the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord”
- Woe to the perverse; you will be shamed
- Woe to the makers of idols; you will be silenced
The overwhelming point of the “woe oracles” is that God will most certainly bring justice. The Lord may be slow as some count slowness, but that is because of our impatience and our short-sightedness, our inability to see the big picture. But make no mistake. God will not sweep human wickedness and rebellion under the rug. Every unrighteous deed is known, and you will reap what you sow. And that is exactly what happens to Babylon, which will fall less than a century after Habakkuk speaks.
At this point, not only are the makers of idols silenced, but also our prophet. By the end of chapter 2, God’s revelation is completed with the words, “the Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him!” And here in the silence, there is a pause, a sense of something hanging in the air as Habakkuk ponders the five-fold justice of God. Once the prophet finally regains his voice in chapter 3, we will hear his long-anticipated response.
Habakkuk started by questioning God’s justice. Now he is blown away at the invincible, unstoppable, unassailable justice of God. He has taken God’s counsel to heart and is willing to wait for God’s answer to unfold. His complaints are now replaced by prayer, spoken in faith, asking God to remember mercy and save his people as God deals with their enemies.
The last three verses of Habakkuk’s prayer are some of the most beautiful lines in all of scripture.
“Though 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,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will exult in the God of my salvation.
God the Lord is my strength.”Habakkuk 3:17-19a
Habakkuk will no longer judge God’s goodness based on the vexing circumstances of his life. He will no longer believe that his own knowledge is sufficient to know how and when justice should be meted out. Habakkuk now chooses to do the hard, hard work of waiting, and while he waits, he will trust in God’s mercy and wisdom, God’s love and justice.
When we choose, like Habakkuk, to trust in God, it changes us and our perspective of the issues that we face. Perhaps our prayer of faith might be something like this:
Though I may get passed over for a promotion or work for a bozo of a boss;
Though I might not get into the college of my dreams or receive the recognition I think I’m due;
Though the losses and griefs are piling up and I’m weary to the bone;
Though my circumstances don’t look promising and the breaks aren’t falling my way;
Though I ask God, “Why?” and cry out, “How long, O Lord, how long?”,
Yet I will find joy in the Lord and trust God’s good purposes for my life.
May it ever be so. Amen and amen.