Habakkuk 1:1-4: The Doubting Prophet
People go through their lives not thinking about God, but as soon as something goes wrong then suddenly the questions fly and someone has to be blamed and God whose existence was being ignored is suddenly questioned. This instinct to doubt God when things go wrong is what the book of Habakkuk is all about. The main difference being that Habakkuk is not an unbeliever but a believer questioning God, and his questions and accusations are more informed, more like our own. This is a book that deals with some of our biggest and most important questions, where is God when things go wrong, why does God allow suffering, why is God not acting to stop wickedness and suffering. I have titled this series on Habakkuk The Doubting Prophet because Habakkuk begins with doubts and questions but ends with faith and worship. Let me quickly outline the book, then for this first message we will lay out in detail the historical setting in which the book is set, and examine in 1:1-4 Habakkuk’s complaint. Now let me warn you upfront, I am not going to resolve all the tension in the text in this sermon. I want you to sit for a while with his questions, with his doubts, I want you to go home this week and read this book and see if you can see how Habakkuk moves from doubt to faith.
V1, ‘The oracle that Habakkuk the prophet saw.’ Habakkuk is a contemporary of Jeremiah who prophesied during a period of spiritual decline in Judah shortly before the Babylonian exile. He is a Jew in Judah who would have lived through the death of Josiah and the swift decline as his sons took the throne. We don’t know anything about him, some have suggested that his name could mean embrace or wrestle and find it fitting that he wrestles with God in prayer. The Apocrypha has him feeding Daniel when he is in exile, but there is no historical proof for this. Some suspect he may have been attached to the temple because of his reference at the end of his prophecy to the choirmaster, but this is just guess work. More important than the man is his message.
Here is a quick overview of the book. It begins in 1:1-4 with Habakkuk questioning God, the questions, ‘How long?’ and ‘Why’? lay out his anguish over the sin in God’s people and the suffering it is bringing. In other words, he is mourning the moral and spiritual decline of his own people and insinuates that God is sitting uncaring and unmoving in the sidelines. This brings about a crisis of faith as he tries to reconcile what he believes with what he sees. The basic form of Habakkuk is a dialogue between Habakkuk and God and in 1:5-11, God answers Habakkuk, but it is not the answer he is looking for, God tells him that he is going to use the Babylonians to punish His sinful people. They are referenced as the Chaldeans in v6. A special characteristic not apparent in the English translation is the fact that God addresses Habakkuk in the plural not the singular. This is important because it highlights that Habakkuk is not speaking only for himself but he is a representative of a group who have similar questions. In fact we will see that he is a representative of the righteous remnant in Judah at this time and his conclusions of faith will be the very thing that the righteous remnant will need as they go as innocent sufferers through the coming ordeal. God using the Babylonians raises more questions in Habakkuk’s mind about God’s consistency, isn’t God holy? How can a Holy God use the sinful Babylonians against a less sinful people? Habakkuk puts these questions forward as his second complaint in 1:12-2:1. God makes His second response to Habakkuk calling on the righteous to live by faith, in 2:4, the famous verse quoted three times with three slightly different emphases in each. And then God reveals how all the evil will be punished. Verses 6-20 lay out God’s justice in 5 woe pronouncements, and for the righteous remnant anchors of truth for our faith to cling to. These are found in v14 and v20. The book ends with Habakkuk having taken God’s word to heart and he produces a psalm of praise in chapter 3 which ends with that famous statement of faith despite the coming storm.
This is a wonderful book as it begins with doubt and ends with faith, it begins with questioning God and ends with praising God, it begins with balking at unjust suffering and ends with an ability to endure unjust suffering, it begins with confusion and insecurity and it ends with clarity and confidence in the future.
Let us lay out in greater detail now the historical background to this book. What we want to establish are the historical events that lead to this point, as well as the theological perspective we need in order to understand what God is doing at this time.