Friday, May 13, 2016

What's the Deal with Habakkuk?

For those who know me or who have followed this ministry for a while, you know that I am what is called an Evangelical Christian. That means different things to different people, but it generally entails a deep devotion to the Bible. While essentially all Evangelicals will claim that, however, they are sometimes accused of having a hole in their esteem for Scripture. The problem is that they focus almost exclusively on the New Testament while disregarding the Old.

To some extent, of course, that makes sense. The New Testament (NT) reveals Jesus Christ, the Savior of the world, so obviously we should be focused on Him. Also, the accusation is largely overblown. Many Evangelicals do pay attention to the Old Testament (OT). It is still true, however, that the OT is placed in a secondary position by most and that it then becomes easy to treat it as less important. But given that the OT is 3/4ths of the Bible, that is not a healthy attitude.

Quest Forums articles do spend a good bit of time in the OT, and that is part of the reason why. I want to show how it still matters to the Christian faith. However, it is also because of the interplay of the Testaments. The Old makes more sense in light of the New, which is just common sense. But the New can also be illuminated by the Old. Knowing both allows us to gain an ever increasing appreciation for God’s revealed purposes.

A Good Example

One great example of that is the book of Habakkuk. Say “Habakkuk” in a crowd and people are likely to think you are coughing up a lung. He was one of the Minor Prophets, author of one of the last 12 books of the OT whose order most people do not know and would be hard pressed to find if handed a paper Bible. They are known as Minor Prophets not because what they have to say is unimportant, but because their messages are fairly short in comparison to those of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel. At only three chapters, Habakkuk clearly fits in that category.

But what chapters they are! The first centers around the prophet’s doubts, and makes Habakkuk and intensely personal book. While most prophets spoke to others on behalf of God, this one begins by speaking to God on behalf of others. People so often have this impression of the Bible containing perfect characters who never had any doubts, but that is certainly not the case and Habakkuk is part of the proof. He (gasp!) questioned God, how He could allow evil if He was good, and why He permitted the innocent to suffer while the wicked prospered. People ask those same questions today, often as though they have never been thought of before when, in fact, they have been contained in Scriptures for the last 2600 years (actually, they are also the theme of Job, which is far older). Then, when the Lord answered Habakkuk, he was not satisfied with the response and fired off another series of questions. He was glad that God was going to punish the wicked, but how could He do it by using people who were even worse? Habakkuk wasn’t afraid to ask tough questions. We don’t have to be either.

The reason why he wasn’t afraid is given in Hab. 1:12 and in the first verse of Chapter 2. Habakkuk had his doubts, but he knew they were his problem. He still believed that the Lord was holy, that He was in control, and that He had the answers. Habakkuk just needed a reminder that this was the case, and that is the right attitude to take into our questions. Some people ask because they do not want an answer. They decide beforehand that there cannot be one, and only ask to be defiant and to raise doubts in the hearts of others. We need to be able to wrestle with those doubts, but we also need to be like Habakkuk. We may not always get it, but we will have all the answer we need so long as we remember that God has got it.

Finding Answers

Which is precisely what the Lord tells the prophet in Hab. 2:2–4. What God has determined to do, He will do. We don’t like to wait, and when we have to, we start to think that something has gone wrong and the Lord is running late. But He is not, and everything is going according to plan. In the end, there will be two types of people. Those who refused to wait on the Lord will topple like the last hand of a game of Jenga. Those who trust in the Lord, relying on nothing else, will live.

The rest of Chapter 2 focuses on the destruction of the proud, who live to worship their own power and who therefore condemn themselves. This is followed in Chapter 3 by a prayer psalm of the prophet. In it, he is no longer asking for the judgment of the Lord and instead requests mercy in the face of that judgment. He then recalls the acts of God’s mercy to His people through the Exodus and the Conquest of Canaan, remembering the glorious and awesome power of the Lord who split rivers, shattered mountains, and held the sun and moon in place.

And at the end, Habakkuk is finally comforted. He still feels overcome, but instead of being weighed down by sorrow, it is by joy at the glorious revelation of the Lord. Now the prophet is no longer in doubt, because he no longer looks at the things God has or has not done. Instead, he is exclusively focused on who the Lord is. In that focus, the circumstances of life cease to have such a hold. He is at peace.

The final verse has a point that is easy to miss. The New King James Version says, “The Lord God is my strength; He will make my feet like deer’s feet, and He will make me walk on my high hills.” And while there is still accessible concept there, it has a little less impact than the original. It would be better if it said, “Yahweh is my Lord and my strength.” Because He is Habakkuk’s Lord, He is his strength. This ties the close of the book back to its heart, Hab. 2:4. The prophet trusts the Lord, and that is the source of the life he is now equipped to live. His faith gives him strength, and enables him to travel lightly over life’s most difficult places.

The Old Testament in the New

That is the overview of Habakkuk, but we are not finished with it yet. As I said, the OT has insight we can carry into what came after. In spite of being such a short book, Habakkuk was quoted by the authors of the New Testament four times. Three of them are quotations of Hab. 2:4, while the fourth was certainly intended to remind the audience of the message that “the just shall live by his faith.” As for those three direct quotations, they each draw attention to a slightly different aspect.

In Romans 1:17, the Apostle Paul uses it to remind his readers that justification, being made right with God, does not come through anything we do. It comes through faith in Jesus Christ, believing that He has paid the full price for our sins and opened the way to the Father for us. Galatians 3:11, in context, gives a slightly different view. Faith still leads to justification, but it also leads to sanctification. Because we are made right with God, we are empowered like Habakkuk to live a life of righteousness. In God’s strength, we do works to glorify Him. And finally,  Hebrews 10:36–38 adds another wrinkle. It quotes Hab. 2:3, 4, reminding us that what Habakkuk was ultimately to wait for, and what we are all awaiting, is the coming of Jesus Christ. He is surely coming, and though it may seem to be taking forever, He is not going to be a moment later than the Father intends. Therefore, those who have faith in Him, who have been made right by Him and do good works through Him, will share in His eternal life.

That is the full promise of Hab. 2:4. By looking to the NT we understand it better than Habakkuk’s first audience could have. But in a similar sense, we can only understand the NT by going back to Habakkuk. The triumph of faith only makes sense in light of the struggle with doubt that led to the proclamation of its saving power. The prophet’s example is an invaluable one for us. It helps us see how to question without giving up, and it shows us how the answers can be found in a total reliance on the Lord. No wonder Habakkuk has been called “a minor prophet with a major impact!” And with him in mind, hopefully we can renew our appreciation for the OT. It still has a lot to teach us.

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