Habakkuk: Introduction and Chapter 1
We know almost nothing of the prophet Habakkuk. From the text itself and from historical context, we can deduce he probably served as a Levite musician, writing his prophecy at the end of Josiah’s reign, or shortly thereafter. He seems aware of Babylon’s rise to defeat Assyria in 612 BC, but not the defeat of Egypt at Carchemish in 605. Josiah’s policy of support for Babylon would make their invasion shocking from Habakkuk’s perspective.
This tiny, yet richly poetic narrative, describes a conversation with God. The prophet tries to understand God’s long suffering over sin, and His holiness and divine purpose in calling Israel. How can God use evil for His holy purpose? The final solution to this puzzle is a grand psalm complete with musical notation for worship.
Hebrew writing is often condensed, in the sense common expressions and symbolic images substitute for much longer comments. Often the question itself implies an answer not obvious to the modern Western reader. Thus, the parabolic expressions leave us confused because we often lack the background a prophet reasonably assumed his readers would have.
Habakkuk knows the Covenant as rediscovered during the time of Josiah, long forgotten during his grandfather Manasseh’s reign. As a Levite it would have been his duty to teach the Law in conferences held throughout the Kingdom of Judah. He understands the divine calling on the Nation of Israel, how they are to live the Law and thus reveal God and His truth. They do not; it’s painfully obvious to anyone. The legacy of Manasseh’s gross idolatry still infests the common people everywhere he goes. The old idolatry habits seem intractable, and the Law seems foreign, and they can scarcely be restrained from the evil ways taught by false deities. How does Jehovah put up with this?
God’s reply implies a full awareness of Judah’s sins. Indeed, His patience is gone. He warns the entire nation to pay attention, as they are about to experience something unimaginable. The distant empire they supported, Babylon, that horrifying threat to all in her path, would come to invade and discipline the people of God as His rod of wrath. They will experience for themselves first hand just how awful a sinful nation can be. The infamous siege mounds will be built against the walls of Jerusalem.
Bad as Israel has been, she was nothing like Babylon. So Habakkuk wonders aloud how God could use something so awful against His own people. He justly characterizes Babylon as a fisherman who casts his net into the world fully stocked with fish. Having eaten all he could hold, he keeps fishing for the sheer evil pleasure of tossing them on the bank to die. Habakkuk is aware God has a Law for other nations, too, as recorded in the revelation to His people. Are they not also held accountable before Him?
It would be a mistake to think Habakkuk is challenging God. Rather, he reverently asks for assurance God is consistent with what he believes to be the Lord’s own Word, His stated promises. So if God is going to use Babylon to punish Israel, what is to become of Babylon, far more evil than Judah at her worst? There’s no question God holds Israel to a higher standard and Habakkuk accepts this. Rather, he wonders if God has a promise for what comes after that act of discipline on His own.