Habakkuk: A Prophet for Our Time
The book of Habakkuk is short. Just three little chapters, that’s all. It has no big words. Not hard to read in that sense, but there is so much here that I have to break this sermon into at least two parts. This week and next week are Habakkuk, and maybe even the week after that.
Scholars generally think he lived in Jerusalem sometime between 610 and 587 BCE. The consensus is that his name means “embracer” or “to embrace” or “one who struggles to enfold.” He is a prophet who embraces his people and all their pain, their struggles and their fears. He gives meaning to the word solidarity. As the book opens, he is the voice of a people who have no voice. They are drowning in an ocean of violence. The Babylonian Empire is on the rise and they are mercilessly dismantling the old Assyrian Empire. Think of the worst scenes you have seen from the war in the Ukraine or elsewhere and you have an idea of what Habakkuk sees as the sun rises on a new day. It is a scene of violence and death as far as the eye can see.
In 587, just a few years after Habakkuk was written, the Babylonians, who are also called Chaledions, will conquer Jerusalem and completely destroy it; burn it to the ground. They will reduce the Temple and the whole city to a pile of ashes. Habakkuk can see what’s coming. So, he calls on the Lord for help.
Chapter One, verse 2: “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not hear? Or cry to you, ‘Violence!” and you will not save? How long shall I wait?
Then in verse 3, “Why do you make me see wrongs and look upon trouble? Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise.” In the polite version of verse 4, Habakkuk says, “The law is slacked and justice never goes forth, The wicked surround the righteous, so justice is perverted.” In the raw translation Habakkuk says, “Justice is raped and no one is held accountable. There is no justice.” Members of the Supreme Court have lost their moral compass and people in high places are all for sale. In our own time, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel says that we will perish not for want for information, but for want of appreciation. William Sloan Coffin says that we have the ability to destroy civilization and make the earth uninhabitable, but not the authority. The madness of war has eclipsed all sense of normality and morality.
In the 1960’s, during the Vietnam War, Barry McQuire had a popular anti-war song called “Eve of Destruction.” One line of that song says, “the whole crazy world is just to frustrat’n. And you don’t believe we’re on the eve of destruction.”
Habakkuk did believe it. He saw what was happening. And he cried out, “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not hear my voice? Or cry violence and you will not save? “Why do you make me see wrongs and look upon trouble? Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise” (1:3). The earth groans. The stones cry out.
Open your Bible to Psalm 13, and read the first 4 verses: “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all the day? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?” How long. Consider and answer me, O Lord my God; lighten my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death; lest my enemies say, ‘I have prevailed over him; Lest my enemies rejoice because I am shaken.”
It is really almost too much torment to bear. There is no relief in sight, absolutely none. The mad momentum of war cannot be stopped. Speaking to our time, Coffin writes, “the irrational love of loveless power has gripped our hearts and minds.” It is lunacy to talk of victory. With no place left to turn, Habakkuk calls on God, “How long, O Lord, how long?”
In verse 5, God answers and the news is not good. God tells Habakkuk, “Look among the nations, and see; wonder and be astounded. For I am doing a work in your days that you would not believe if told.” “I am rousing the Chaldeans (Babylonians) that bitter and hasty nation, who march through the breadth of the earth and take nations to seize habitations not their own. Dread and terrible are they; their justice and dignity proceed from themselves. Their horses are swifter than leopards, more fierce than the evening wolves. . . Their horsemen come from afar; they fly like an eagle swift to devour. They all come for violence; terror of them goes before them. They gather captives like sand.”
They gather up captives like sand. It is beyond our comprehension. We hear the words but cannot comprehend what our ears are telling us. God is choosing the Babylonians, and sending them to utterly destroy Jerusalem and take the people into captivity where later they will write a Psalm (Psalm 137): “By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion. On the willow there we hung our harps. For there our captors demanded of us songs, and our tormentors, mirth, saying, ‘Sing us one the songs of Zion!’ How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?”
The Chaldeons, who scoff at kings and make sport of rulers, and laugh at every fortress, and who sweep by like the wind, God is telling Habakkuk that God has loosed this hell on earth. This is God’s will.
Habakkuk refuses to back down. He refuses to become a cynic or nihilator a fatalist. In Chapter 2:1, he goes up on the ramparts, he climbs up on the city wall, he takes his place in the watchtower, and he declares before God and everyone else, “I will take my station. I will see what God will say to me.”
Before I end the first installment of this series, I need to make a couple things clear. First, God raises up the Chaldians, but God does not excuse Chaldeon cruelty. There is nothing in the text that blesses barbarism or war. The text is very clear. Speaking of the Chaldians, God declares that “their might is their god.” The Babylonian military-industrial-political-homeland security-empire-complex is their pride and joy, and it will be their downfall. Emphatically the text does not condone war or militarism. What the text is saying is that war and all the evils that it visits upon us and all humanity is not accidental. Wars do not “just happen.”
There are two ways to deal with the issue of evil in history. One is to blame God. It is God’s will that the Babylonians should wipe out Jerusalem and slaughter some of the people and take others captive. This is a fatalist view of history. What can we do? Nations have always been at war with each other. It’s too bad, it’s unfortunate, we wish it were otherwise, but that’s just the way it is. Love is just the driver of the hearse rushing from one tragedy to another. There are whole schools of theology and political theory built around the idea that people and nations are locked in a never-ending struggle for power and security and we have to accept that. This is not what Habakkuk is saying.
He is saying that our actions have consequences and we have responsibilities. Heschel says some people are guilty but everyone is responsible. This is what Habakkuk is telling us. He shoulders responsibility for his people, because of his unfailing love for his people and an unshakable belief in God. This is why he takes his place on the watchtower. He climbs up on the ramparts and waits for God. O Lord, how long will you not hear me? How long? These are not the questions of a fatalist.
It is worth remembering that in 1940, the Nazi’s banned the book of Habakkuk because they knew it was a dangerous book. Later the apartheid government of South Africa did the same. They too banned Habakkuk, because they knew it was a dangerous book. People in our time who want to ban books might soon look to Habakkuk and other prophets and try to ban them.
This is a dangerous little book. It is only three short chapters. But in these chapters Habakkuk is telling us that Injustice does not “just happen.” War does not “just happen.” It is intentional. It happens because people who have political, and economic, and military power want it to happen, or they are willing to let it happen. President Kennedy was right when he said, “If we do not want war to put an end to us, we need to put an end to war.” Habakkuk stood on the ramparts, he stood in the watchtower, because of his love for God and his love for his people. He stood there because there was no other place for him to stand. He stood there because he could not be a silent witness to the cruelty he was witnessing. He is remembered by history as a witness to resistance to authoritarian governments, and as witness to a world beyond war. Next week we will learn more about what he has to teach us about these truths.