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Commentary On The Prophecy of Habakkuk

- by Dr Peter Pett BA BD (Hons-London) DD

Habakkuk prophesied at a time when the Babylonians were on the rise in the late 7th century BC, after the collapse of the Assyrian Empire, and the prophet is informed that they were being used as a means of God’s judgment against Judah and Jerusalem. Nevertheless his vision was not blinkered and he was well aware of their dark side. Indeed He could not understand how God could use such an evil nation in His purposes. But his even greater problem was as to how can God be good and yet allow evil to continue?

His reply is twofold. Firstly that ‘the righteous man shall live by his faith.’ His confidence and trust in God will give him life, so that he will trust God even in the dark. And secondly that although He will use Babylon in the normal course of history to chasten His people, He will finally judge them, and that, partly through this, the earth will be filled with the knowledge of YHWH, and will come to know that He is in His holy temple, with the result that they will worship before Him.

His name has been connected with the root ‘to embrace’ and also with the Akkadian hambaququ referring to a plant, but nothing else is genuinely known about him.

Commentary.

1.1 ‘The burden which Habakkuk the prophet saw.’

This description of a prophecy as a ‘burden’ occurs regularly. This was firstly because it burdened the prophet’s soul. He could not forebear to speak because the message lay heavily on him. And, secondly, it was a burden because he found it very difficult to deliver. It was rarely a happy message, even though usually containing comfort for the future of God’s people. And yet he had to deliver it because God had told him to, we may assume in the face of fierce opposition. Being a true prophet was by no means an easy task.

This designation as "the prophet" as an opening designation is found in two other prophetic books, Haggai and Zechariah. This is probably because they were official prophets, belonging to the recognised order of prophets and connected with the central sanctuary (see Zechariah 11.12 where Zechariah is due his wages).

Habakkuk’s Cry From His Heart - Why Does God Not See and Act? (1.2-4).

1.2-4

‘O YHWH, how long shall I cry,
And you will not hear?
I cry out to you of violence,
And you will not save.
Why do you show me iniquity,
And look on perverseness?
For spoiling and violence are before me,
And there is strife, and contention rises up.
Therefore the law is slacked,
and justice never goes forth.
For the wicked crowd round the righteous.
Therefore justice goes forth perverted.’

The prophet is bewildered as he looks around him and sees wickedness triumphant in Jerusalem and Judah. Justice is lacking, the law is not being followed truly, and there is the taking of goods by force, and violence, contention and strife. Obedience to God’s moral instruction is almost non-existent. The powerful and the rich misuse their influence for their own gain and the poor and needy are trodden underfoot.

As an official prophet he would learn much of what was taking place and would indeed probably be consulted by people seeking guidance from God. And he has been so moved by it that he has cried out to God about it. But there has been no answer. He is frankly baffled. Why does God not do something about it?

His concern is not because of how it affects him, but because of how it affects the honour of God. It is God’s name that is shamed when His people fall into sin. It was this that caused him to cry to God with such urgency.

‘How long shall I cry and you will not hear.’ How often we have heard this cry from God’s people. This is a cry about the purposes of God that do not seem to be being fulfilled. People seem to be able to do wrong and get away with it, and the weak and helpless suffer. Compare Amos 5.10-11; 8.4-6; Micah 3.9-11. And he cannot understand why God stands by and does nothing. Why does He not step in and do something about it? Jesus faced the same question in people’s minds, and His reply was that God would do so eventually, even though it might seem that it was not as soon as they hoped (Luke 18.7. Compare also those in Revelation 6.10).

This was the cry of the Psalmist in Psalm 73.3-12. It was the cry of Isaiah 5.7-8, 18-23. It was the cry of Job about his own personal position. It has constantly been the cry of the righteous down the ages. It is just as true today.

‘I cry out to you of violence and you will not save.’ His prayers had been focused. He had seen much violence, violence within Israel, violence perpetrated by the leaders of the people, violence perpetrated by the rich and influential, violence between neighbours. And he had cried out to God. And yet it seemed as though God had not delivered in any sphere. He had allowed the violent to triumph. This includes ‘violence’ to the God’s laws as well as physical violence. They had been manipulated to men’s hurt.

‘Why do you show me iniquity, and look on perverseness? For spoiling and violence are before me, and there is strife. And contention rises up.’ His heart had been burdened by the sin and iniquity that he found around him. God had shown it to him, and he could see what it was doing to God’s people. But what was the point of it being laid on his heart if God was not going to do something about it? Furthermore he could not understand why God seemed willing to look unmoved at man’s perverseness, at men taking spoil from each other by false means, at man’s continual violence and strife, at the contention that so often reared its ugly face among them, not over good, but over their own selfish concerns.

‘Therefore the law is slacked, and justice never goes forth. For the wicked crowd round the righteous. Therefore justice goes forth perverted.’ And because of this violence, and the misuse of authority, the law of God was not exacted in its purity. It was interpreted slackly, twisted by lawyers to gain their clients’ ends, or made to mean something different from its original intention. Furthermore, pressure was used to prevent true justice, the pressure of those who had authority in Israel who sought their own advantage, the pressure of wicked people ganging up against and isolating the righteous for gain, or to prevent measures that would hinder their own self-advancement. Thus justice was being perverted. Why did God not act?

God’s Reply. He Is Bringing the Babylonians As His Chasteners (1.5-11).

1.5-6 ‘Behold among the nations and regard, and wonder marvellously (‘wonder with wonder’). For I work a work in your days which you will not believe though it be told to you. For, lo, I raise up the Chaldeans, that bitter and hasty nation, who march through the breadth of the earth, to possess dwelling places that are not theirs.’

God points out to Habakkuk and his followers (plural verb) that what He is doing is something that will be mysterious and inexplicable to them. Or possibly he is pointing it out through Habakkuk to the evildoers who will be punished as a result of their activity. Either way it will seem unbelievable to them. It will make them marvel. God’s ways are ever so. His ways are not our ways, and His thoughts are not our thoughts. But in the end they achieve what our way would never have achieved.

‘Which you will not believe though it be told to you.’ This indeed was their problem, lack of belief in what God says. This is in contrast with the righteous in 2.4, stressing that there it is faith that is the prominent idea. These do not believe, while those in 2.4 believe what God says and find strength from it and ‘live’.

And what was this amazing thing? In order to see it they must look among the nations, and consider carefully. They must consider what they saw around them. It was that He would use the Chaldeans (the Babylonians) as His instruments. Ezekiel had said the same thing, even seeing Nebuchadnezzar as someone whom God paid wages to for his services (Ezekiel 29.18-20), and as the one who bore the sword that YHWH had given to Him, YHWH’s own sword (Ezekiel 30.24-25).

The Neo-Babylonian empire began its rise to ‘world’ domination with the accession of Nabopolassar to the throne of Babylon in 626 BC, whose first task was to finally free Babylon from being tributary to Assyria. Like Israel and Judah they had every now and again sought to free themselves from the Assyrian yoke, and they had suffered under their transportation policy. Thus their rise resulted from a sense of bitterness at the way they had been treated, and they were out to make up for it.

And they seemed to be in a hurry, for within a short time of destroying Assyria with the aid of the Medes and the Scythians, and defeating Egypt, who sought to aid Assyria against them, they were out to take over their empire. Thus are they here described as ‘bitter and hasty’, and that ‘bitterness’ was seen as continuing in the way in which they treated the conquered nations who would not submit to them. By 605 BC they were at the gates of Jerusalem, and the first of a number of transportations began, which included Daniel. For their attacks on Egypt see Ezekiel 28.7; 30.11; 31.12; 32.12.

So the fact that God uses them is no recommendation of the Chaldeans. He describes them as a ‘bitter and hasty’ nation, who go everywhere taking dwellingplaces that are not theirs. They are as bad as the Assyrians, but He nevertheless uses them to punish the Assyrians, and also finally to punish the wicked and violent in Judah and Jerusalem, as Ezekiel makes clear.

This is a clear statement that YHWH is the Lord of history and makes history fulfil His will. Out of evil He produces good. He can use as His instruments even the most unworthy. This is not to make Him responsible for how they do it. Man acts as he is, freely, and often cruelly and reveals his true nature. As Daniel shows us he is like a wild beast. But over all YHWH is sovereign, bending all things to His will.

1.7-9

‘They are terrible and fearsome.
Their judgment and their dignity proceed from themselves.
Their horses also are swifter than leopards,
And are more fierce than the evening wolves.
And their horsemen spread themselves.
Yes, their horsemen come from far.
They fly as an eagle which hastens to devour.
They come all of them for violence,
The eagerness of their faces is as the east wind,
and they gather captives as the sand.’

A fuller description of Babylon is now given. God does not want Habakkuk and his hearers to be under any illusions. These are a terrible foe who cannot be thwarted or turned aside. Jeremiah later tells the people that they must submit to them because it is God’s will. Not only do they seize what is not theirs, but in doing so they appear terrible and fearsome. They are proud and self-sufficient. They behave as they wish to behave and have their own way of doing things, which is not always very pleasant to say the least. They make their own decisions and pass their own judgments. They are not to be thwarted. There is irony here for we will soon learn that YHWH can thwart them.

They are also powerful warriors. Swift as the leopard, fierce as hungry wolves in the evening (compare Jeremiah 5.6; Zephaniah 3.3), eager to satisfy their hunger. Moreover they spread themselves, they reach out further and further, and come great distances. They swoop like the eagle hastening on its prey (Deuteronomy 28.49; Job 9.26; Lamentations 4.19). And their aim is violence, in which they are eager and determined like the scorching east wind. The picture of faces eager to scorch up the earth is a vivid one.

The east wind is a dry wind from the wilderness (Job 1.19; Jeremiah 4.11; 13.24), strong and gusty (Exodus 14.21; Job 27.21;38.24; Jeremiah 18.17) and of scorching heat (Amos 4.9; Hosea 13.15). Its attentions are therefore very unwelcome and unpleasant.

‘They gather captives as the sand.’ Both in subjugating nations and transporting people into exile they deal with huge numbers. Their captives are numberless like the sand by the seashore.

So while they are being used as God’s chastening instruments, in a similar way to the Assyrians, ‘the rod of God’s anger’ (Isaiah 10.5), this does not recommend them as worthy. Rather God is to be seen as turning the beastliness of man to fulfil His own purposes.

Israel were constantly confident, in their few times of independence, that God would not again allow the Gentiles to overrun their nation or destroy their temple (see Jeremiah 5.12; 6.14; 7.1-34; 8.11; Lamentations 4.12; Amos 6.1-14). Yet their law and their prophets warned them again and again that it would happen, because of their sinfulness (see Deuteronomy 28.49-50; 1 Kings 11.14, 23; Jeremiah 4.1-31; 5.14-17; 6.22-30; Amos 6.14). But that was a message that they did not want to hear. So God stresses through Habakkuk the powerful nature of the forces that are coming. They are irresistible. And He stresses that though they may be seen as far away they will come swiftly and unstoppably.

1.10-11

‘Yes, he scoffs at kings,
And princes are a derision to him.
He derides every stronghold,
For he heaps up soil and takes it.
Then will he sweep by as the wind,
And will pass over, and be guilty.
Even he whose might is his god.’

The king of Babylon is so mighty that he sweeps minor royalty aside in derision, he mocks at fortresses and strong defences, for he puts up his siege mounds and takes them. Thus let not the king of Judah think that he can stand against him. He comes like the wind, the east wind (verse 9), and then he passes on like the wind, and he leaves behind the devastation and barrenness that has increased his guilt. For even kings like the king of Babylon have their sins counted against them. But for the time being at least, he sees might and power as his god. He looks to them to be the foundation of his life, a foundation that one day will crumble (and all too soon, for within seventy years the Babylonian empire was no more).

Habbakuk Is Even More Put Out. How Can God Use Such Instruments to Chasten His People? (1.12-17).

1.12

‘Are you not from everlasting, O YHWH?
My God, my Holy One, We will not die.
O YHWH, you have ordained him for judgment,
And you, O Rock, have established him for correction.’

Habakkuk acknowledges that he recognises that they are coming as instruments of chastening, and that God is over all and that therefore there was no need for despair. God will not finally allow His people to cease to be (die). But he is still baffled. Why such instruments?

An alternative reading to ‘you will not die’ in very ancient manuscripts, which were said to have been corrected by Ezra and the Scribes (there were eighteen such corrections), is ‘You shall not die’. This would be contrasting the eternal God to the gods who could die and then live again, and further strongly asserting His everlastingness. It may well be correct, the emendation being made at the horrific suggestion that death could be associated with YHWH, even theoretically.

His first confidence is in the everlastingness of God. Empires come and go, but YHWH is from everlasting and goes on for ever (Genesis 21.33; Psalm 41.13; 90.2; 93.2; Isaiah 40.28; Jeremiah 10.10). He has everlasting power. That is why He can show everlasting mercy (Psalm 100.5; Isaiah 54.8; Jeremiah 31.3), He can make an everlasting covenant (Genesis 9.16; 17.7, 19; Psalm 105.10; Isaiah 55.3; Jeremiah 32.40; Ezekiel 37.26), He can establish an everlasting kingdom (Psalm 145.13; Daniel 4.3, 34; 7.14, 27), He can deliver with an everlasting deliverance (Isaiah 45.17), holds His true people in His everlasting arms (Deuteronomy 33.27), and will finally give them everlasting life (Daniel 12.2). All these privileges His true people will enjoy. This was certainly not true of the king of Babylon.

His second confidence was in the fact that God was his own God, as ‘the Holy One’, the One Who was ‘set apart’ as different, the One Who was unique (Exodus 15.11; 2 Samuel 7.22; 1 Kings 8.23), the One Who was ‘wholly other’, totally distinctive from the world which He had created. And that holiness included a moral purity as revealed in His Law, and in His final dealings with man, which is why He will call all men to account (Genesis 18.25; Exodus 34.7; Nahum 1.3), so that when men experienced His presence they felt as though they were dust and ashes, they felt totally unclean, they were filled with awe and reverent fear (Job 41.5-6; Isaiah 6.5; 33.14; Genesis 15.12; 17.3; Ezekiel 1.28; 3.23).

So because God offered everlasting mercy and everlasting deliverance, and was faithful to His everlasting covenant, Habakkuk knew that His true people could not ‘die’, they could not cease to be.

‘You have ordained him for judgment, and you, O Rock, have established him for correction.’ He accepted that God had ordained the king of Babylon as His means of chastisement and correction for His people. But he will now argue that he does not think that they are fit instruments. What he did not realise, however, as God did, was how deep was the sin of his own people, how greatly it had offended Him, and how difficult it would be to root out. Most of us fail to recognise the difficulty that God has in rooting out sin in inveterate sinners like us. That is why we too often have to suffer. Note the fact that in the final analysis the king of Babylon was ordained and established by God. Nabopolassar and Nebuchadnezzar were his instruments.

These ideas must be held in tension. These kings were free men, with freedom to choose and act as within their limits they wished. Nor did God force them into their behaviour. But nevertheless He was sovereign over them in a way they could never have dreamed of, and they therefore unknowingly fulfilled His will. (But that does not mean that all that they did was His will).

‘O Rock.’ This is in contrast with these kings who are but as sand. He is the Rock, unshakeable, unchanging, permanent, a tower of strength (Deuteronomy 32.4, 18, 30, 31; 1 Samuel 2.2; 2 Samuel 22.2, 32; 23.3; Psalm 31.3 and often; Isaiah 17.10). Habakkuk is declaring His confidence that although he cannot fully understand what is happening, He is confident that in the end God is their Rock.

1.13

‘You are of purer eyes than to behold evil,
And you cannot look on what causes wretchedness.
Why do you look on those who deal treacherously,
And hold your peace when the wicked swallow up the man who is more righteous than he?’

Habakkuk cannot understand why the Rock, the Everlasting One, the Holy One, will allow this situation to happen. He knows that God is pure, and so pure that He cannot look with equanimity on evil and wrongdoing (see for example Psalm 5.4-6; 34.16, 21). He knows that He cannot bear what causes wretchedness. (The root ‘ml refers to what causes wretchedness, such as labour and toil, distress and trouble, disaster and evil, and so on). So why does He stand by and allow this, yes, even bring it about? Israel may be wicked, but not as wicked as Babylon which was proverbial for wickedness. Why then allow Israel to be ‘swallowed up’ by them, with the result that they become leaderless and helpless? (As with the Assyrians it was Babylonian policy to remove the leadership of rebel nations so as to tame them).

1.14-17

‘And make men as the fish of the sea,
As the creeping things that have no ruler over them?
He takes all of them up with his hook,
He catches them in his net,
And he gathers them in his dragnet.
Therefore he rejoices and is glad.
Therefore he sacrifices to his net and burns incense to his dragnet,
Because by them his portion is fat,
And his food plenteous.
Shall he therefore empty his net,
And not spare to slay the nations continually?’

The smaller nations, including Israel and Judah, are likened to fish and creeping things, who have no ruler (while not true of all fish and creeping things this is certainly true of many, and in those days it appeared even more so). The nations have no proper ruler because their rulers have been removed into captivity. And Babylon is likened to fishermen using every possible means, hook, net and dragnet, in order to catch the fish.

And because he catches so many fish, giving him a fat reward and plenty of food, he sacrifices to his net and burns incense to his dragnet. He worships what he sees as the means of his provision. The net and dragnet are metaphorical. They did not really exist. So the prophet cannot mean that he literally worships them. Rather he sees behind them the gods who grant them to him. He sees the gods themselves as making provision for him through his activities and conquests. Thus it is the gods behind his net and dragnet that he is worshipping. So as it makes him rich with plenty can anyone therefore imagine him ceasing to use the net, leaving it empty, and ceasing to spoil the nations?

We do not need to particularise the details, it is the impression that counts. His net includes the gathering of regular tribute, the looting of cities, the obtaining of wealth by violent means, the seizing cattle and sheep, exactions by crooked officials, the robbing of temples and so on. In fact any means by which the Babylonians could enrich themselves. And Habakkuk’s problem is that in the face of this YHWH does nothing. What is the explanation?

Habakkuk Looks Anxiously For The Answer To His Questions (2.1-5)

2.1

‘I will stand on my watch,
And settle myself on the tower,
And look out to see what he will say to me,
And what I will answer, to do with my complaint.’

Having questioned first why God has not dealt with His people’s sinfulness, and then questioned God’s method of dealing with that sinfulness on the grounds of the unworthiness of the instruments being used, he now declares that he will be on watch for God’s reply.

He will be like a sentry on watch peering through the darkness, hoping to find an answer. Yes, he will settle down on the watchtower. He will wait to see what God has further to say about his complaint, and then he will consider his answer.

2.2 ‘And YHWH answered me and said, “Write the vision and make it plain on tablets, that he may run who reads it.” ’

God replies that He will give the answer in a vision and that he must take his reply and record it on tablets so that messengers may carry it far and wide. It is messengers who read a tablet and then run.

Or the idea might have been to write it in large tablets for public display (compare Isaiah 8.1; 30.8), large enough for even those who ran by, or those who were in a hurry, to read what was said.

2.3

“For the vision is yet for the appointed time,
And it pants towards the end, and will not lie.
Though it tarry (come not quickly), wait for it,
Because it will surely come, it will not delay.”

God assures Habakkuk that the vision He is about to give him will be fulfilled in its appointed time. Indeed it is in such a hurry to reach the appointed time that it is panting. Nevertheless it may seem to be delayed, but he must wait for it, because it will definitely come. It will not be delayed.

2.4 “Behold, his soul is puffed up. It is not upright within him. But the just shall live in his faithfulness (or ‘his faith’).”

While he is waiting for the answer God contrasts the attitude of those whom He has spoken about and whom he is again about to describe, with the attitude of the truly righteous. He assures him that he knows exactly what the king of Babylon, with his people, are like. The one who has subjugated the nations and whose judgment is about to be announced is puffed up. He is arrogant and boastful. He is not upright, or behaving rightly. He is decidedly in the wrong. Therefore he too will receive what he deserves.

‘But the just shall live in his faithfulness.’ On the other hand the righteous man is the exact opposite of the puffed up oppressor. He has faith in God, and is faithful to His covenant. Here is the secret of successful living in the face of all doubt and tribulation. Whatever happens and whatever God’s answer, the righteous will live because of his faith, and in his faithfulness. He is confident in God. The idea of ‘live’ here is more than just remain alive. He will live a fulfilled life, a life with God (compare Ezekiel 33.10-19, where to ‘live’, while containing an element of not dying, also seems to add a similar qualitative factor).

It is, however important to recognise what this means. It is not in his righteousness that he will live, but through his faith which results in his faithfulness, his faithful acceptance of and response to the covenant. What will give him life is His true response to the God of the covenant. This consists of a right attitude of trust and love towards God (Deuteronomy 6.4-5), which results in a loving response to His requirements, both ritual and moral. As God’s covenant offered to Israel at Sinai made clear, they must first believe His promise to be their Saviour (Exodus 20.2), and then they must respond to it fully and faithfully. Faith and faithfulness to the covenant are both sides of the same coin. So here we may translate both ‘faith’ and ‘faithfulness’, for it includes both. (We have no word that is similar). And yet faith precedes faithfulness, for it is the essence of it. A man is faithful because of what he has faith in.

It is the attitude of Abraham. ‘Abraham believed in God and He counted it to him for righteousness’ (Genesis 15.6). He exercised personal faith. He believed in Him, he believed in His promises, he believed His covenant. And he responded to it. And God counted this response of faith as righteousness, as putting Abraham in a right relationship with God, simply because he looked up to God and believed Him. And it was the fact of his believing that He counted for righteousness, not his final response, although that naturally followed his belief. They were both part of the whole.

Deuteronomy 32.20 also makes clear that faith was important in relation to the covenant, although usually being expressed as ‘covenant love’ (chesed). Covenant love was the outward expression of faith. You do not love someone you do not wholeheartedly believe in. Compare also Psalm 78.22 where Israel are rebuked because they did not believe in God and trust in His salvation (compare also Psalm 116.9-10; Isaiah 28.16; 43.10). Thus faithfulness in Habakkuk has a similar meaning. They believed in God and trusted in Him and in His deliverance and responded with faithful lives, lives faithful to the covenant.

This verse was later taken by Paul in its LXX rendering pistis to signify, ‘the righteous by faith will live’ (Galatians 3.11; Romans 1.17 see also Hebrews 10.38). He recognised the heart of the matter. Life comes through faith in God as a result of the sacrifice of Christ (or in the case of Habakkuk’s day, through faith in God as a result of the means of atonement that God had provided).

And he recognised too that faith is something a man cannot ‘do’. He is aware of something and he either believes or he does not. He cannot choose to believe. That is why when Jesus told men that they could be saved through believing He was not saying that they could be saved through anything that they could do, He was rather telling them that if there was a response of faith in their hearts it was evidence that they would be saved. God had drawn them and their response of faith demonstrated that God had done a work in their hearts producing their faith. It was all of God.

This is central to God’s message to Habakkuk. It was both a gentle rebuke and an enlightening. A gentle rebuke because Habakkuk had for a moment lost sight of the centrality of faith and trust in his relationship with, and life with, God, and enlightenment because it centred on what was truly important in an uncertain world. Habakkuk did believe, but he had forgotten for a moment what kind of God he believed in. The true believer trusts in the dark, even when he does not understand. He recognises that God’s ways are beyond his understanding, but must be right in the end. And thus he is faith-full, his faith responds in obedience. It is similar to the trust of a small child in his father, once it is established it is unquestioning because he knows that Daddy knows everything and is always right.

In the New Testament Paul take part of this verse as signifying justification by faith, ‘The just shall live by faith’. This was to make use of LXX. But the idea is the same (and unites James and Paul). The man who truly believes will be faithful. Thus the faithful man is the true believer.

2.5

“Yes, moreover, wine is a treacherous dealer,
A haughty man, and which does not keep at home.
Which enlarges his desire as the grave,
And he is as death and cannot be satisfied,
But gathers to him all nations,
And heaps to him all peoples.”

This verse refers back to verse 4a, the one whose soul was puffed up and not upright within him. This partly explains why it was so. He is a man of wine. Here wine, and its consequences, is contrasted with faith. In contrast with the man who lives by faith in God is the man or nation who trust in wine for their deliverance (compare Isaiah 28.1, 3). Certainly Israel saw the really dedicated believers as avoiding wine (Numbers 6.3; Amos 2.12; Jeremiah 35.2-14 compare Leviticus 10.9). For wine is treacherous and deceives (Isaiah 28.7). It causes men to be puffed up. It haughtily ignores all argument, all justice and all decency (Isaiah 5.22-23). It causes men to err and not be upright (Proverbs 20.1). It is the opposite of faithfulness.

The king who lets himself be influenced by wine becomes expansive in his behaviour (compare Psalm 78.65), he does not stay at home (compare Proverbs 23.30), his desire is enlarged so that it cannot be satisfied. He seeks to grasp everything for himself, and make them drink his wine (verse 15; Jeremiah 51.7). Nations become his playthings. Whether the references to the underworld and death are just examples of what is insatiable, or whether the thought is that he gorges himself on slaughter is an open question. but verse 8 might suggest the latter.

And when God would bring his judgment on men and nations He does so as through wine (Psalm 75.8; Isaiah 51.17; Jeremiah 25.15-16). So the wine man drinks is symbolic of his coming judgment (see verse 16).

Thus Habakkuk appears to see the king of Babylon as such a man driven by wine, (Jeremiah 51.7 compares Babylon to a wine goblet, making the nations drink of their wine, and thus can be defined in terms of wine). It is his sustenance and driving force, driving him forward to his conquests. It makes his desire for slaughter as wide as the underworld, the world of the dead (Sheol), and like death itself he can never have sufficient victims. (Alternately these may simply be examples of his expansive conquests). For the thought of wine as man’s god see Micah 2.11, and for its effect on a Babylonian king and his nobles see Daniel 5.4 where it resulted in false worship and blasphemy. Perhaps Habakkuk saw all great kings in this light (see also in general Hosea 7.5; 4.11; Jeremiah 51.7).

The word for ‘wine’ is ha-yyayin. Some have suggested reading as something like hayyoneh (possibly a waw having been at some time misread as a yod ), ‘the oppressor’, but it is not necessary.

The Five Woes of God (2.6-20). .

God now outlines to Habakkuk how He is going to finally punish Babylon for what it is, and the wonderful blessing to the whole world which will come from His actions, fully justifying in the long run His use of the Babylonians to chasten Israel.

There are here five woes (and we should note the way in which they can personally apply to us):

  • Woe to the plunderer, the one who makes himself rich at the expense of others.
  • Woe to the greedy and proud, the one who wants only to build up more and more for himself of wealth and status.
  • Woe to the one who builds up great cities at the cost of the blood and enslavement of men and women. That is in our terms one who builds up his own assets at the expense of others.
  • Woe to the one who makes people drunk so that they behave foolishly, giving them cheap wine so that they expose their follies. The initial thought is of the bribing and leading astray of nations, but it equally applies on the personal level.
  • Woe to the one who goes after idols. Or indeed anything that takes away their thoughts from the living God.

All these of course included and represented Babylon and its king. They are a picture of a desire for wealth and glory at any price, without any regard for the victims.

And there are five who bear witness against him (in the same way as our works will testify against us at the last Day).

  • The land and treasure he has purloined, (compare James 5.1-4).
  • The high palace in which he glories (compare Daniel 4.30-33).
  • The great city which he has built.
  • The violence done to those who have suffered at his hand.
  • The lifeless idols without breath in them in which he trusted.

And there are five consequences. These bring out two things. Firstly that whatever a man sows he will also reap, and secondly that God often uses man’s perfidy in order to bring about His own purposes. Thus he describes:

  • The retaliation and vengeance on him of those who have been dispossessed.
  • The crying out of the stones and timber drawing attention to his overweening pride.
  • The filling of the earth with the knowledge of the glory of YHWH because of what God has done in bringing down Babylon.
  • The chastisement of Judah and Jerusalem because they have followed the way of Babylon.
  • The revealing of YHWH in His holy temple with all the earth silent before Him in awe, as all Babylon’s idols have proved to be worthless and lifeless.

Should not Habakkuk then recognise that these ends make worthwhile all that has gone before? These are God’s explanation to Habakkuk of the reason for His using Babylon as the chastener.

One question that immediately raises its head as we look at the five woes is as to who the speakers are. ‘Shall not all these take up a saying against him --.?’ Who then are ‘all these? The probable answer it that it is Habakkuk himself speaking on behalf of the nations, not strictly as they would speak, but as he ideally sees them as speaking. He is speaking on their behalf as though they saw things from God’s viewpoint.

Let us now consider in detail the five woes.

The First Woe (2.6-8).

2.6-8 ‘Shall not all these take up a parable against him, and a taunting proverb against him, saying,

‘Woe to him who increases what is not his. How long?
And who loads himself with pledges.’
Shall not those who will bite you rise up suddenly,
And those awake who will vex you, and you will be for booties to them?
Because you have spoiled many nations,
All the remnant of the peoples will spoil you,
Because of men’s blood, and for the violence done to the land,
To the city and to all who dwell in it.’

God’s first reply to Habakkuk’s question had been the need for faith and a faithful response to God by those who believed in him, thus obtaining life. Here is God’s second reply as revealed to him, expressed in a taunt song against the king of Babylon. The oppressor will become the oppressed. It is the first of a number of ‘woes’.

Woe to him because he increases what is not his. Compare the description of Babylon as those who possess dwelling places that are not theirs (1.6). The question must then be ‘how long? How long can God allow this to go on? How long will it be before Babylon is judged?

Woe to him who loads himself with pledges, pledges of tribute and fines and obedience to the gods of Babylon to be paid by the nations. The only final result will be that these people will suddenly creep on him and bite him, like a snake or a wild animal. They will stir themselves up and vex him. They in turn will take booty from him, siding with the Medes and Persians against him. Because he has plundered many nations, and shed masses of blood, and shown violence to their lands, those who are left will get their revenge.

‘To the city and to all who dwell in it.’ This probably means cities in general seen as one, but has possibly special reference to what he will do to the city of Jerusalem and those who live in it. He may be God’s instrument in chastening and punishing them, but that does not excuse his behaviour towards them.

The overall warning for us is against building up treasures for ourselves on earth. Rather we should build up treasures in Heaven where they are permanent and everlasting (Matthew 6.19-20).

The Second Woe (2.9-11).

2.9-11 ‘Woe to him who obtains an evil gain for his house, that he may set his nest high up, that he may be delivered from the hand of evil. You have devised shame to your house, by cutting off many people, and have sinned against your soul. For the stone will cry out of the wall, and the beam out of the timber will answer it.’

The second woe concentrates on his obtaining evil gain for himself and his house. With it he exalts himself, building on heights that he may dwell secure, where evil, the evil that he visits on others, cannot reach him. By his planning he has devised shame to his house, because it has resulted in him cutting off many peoples, with the consequence that God will have to deal with him. And this is also a sin against his own soul. He is personally marred and guilty. For these verses compare Jeremiah 22.13-17 which may have been influenced by this passage.

The result is declared in vivid terms. The house he has built for himself will shout out his guilt. The stones in the wall will cry out, and the timber will answer them. His great palace of such majesty will sufficiently reveal his guilt and draw all men’s attention to it.

And so will all that we do from a selfish motive speak against us in the last Day.

The Third Woe (2.12-14).

2.12-14

‘Woe to him who builds a town with blood,
And establishes a city by iniquity.
Behold is it not of YHWH that the peoples labour for the fire,
And the nations weary themselves for vanity?
For the earth shall be filled with the knowledge of the glory of YHWH,
As the waters cover the sea.’

The third woe stresses his murderous and evil behaviour. Babylon has been built on the blood of the slain and the sufferings of the nations. But it will not stand for ever. Those who have been forced to build it, often in much pain and suffering, are but building it in readiness for the fire that will burn it down. All their efforts, and slaves from many peoples would have been involved in its building and restoration, will be finally vanity (uselessness) for it will be destroyed. And will it not be YHWH Who has done it? Compare here Jeremiah 22.13, 17; Micah 3.10, where Jerusalem is guilty of something similar.

There is a reminder here to all who build up their own or their company’s wealth in blood, sweat and tears. God sees what we do, and the cries of the misused reach up to Him (James 5.4), and one day He will require it of us.

And the result of its destruction by fire will be that great glory will come to YHWH, and the earth will be filled with the knowledge of His glory as the waters cover the sea (compare Isaiah 11.9 from where Habakkuk partly obtained this idea). Babylon the Great will fall (Isaiah 13.19-22; Revelation 17-18). And by it great glory will be His.

This was not fulfilled in the way that Habakkuk probably expected, and it would be many centuries before the two were connected, but it was fulfilled nevertheless. Today peoples around the world know of His glory, and know what He did to Babylon. In Abraham’s seed all the world has been blessed through the knowledge of Christ. And through His word all know of the defeat of Babylon which precipitated the return of the exiles to Jerusalem, and of the later destruction of the first Great Babylon, so that it became a mound and a heap, proof of the certainty of the judgment of God, and of its even greater destruction yet to come at the judgment, where it sums up the cities of the world. Beginning from Babel Babylon has always symbolised the world in opposition to God.

The Fourth Woe (2.15-17). .

2.15

‘Woe to him who gives his neighbour drink,
Adding your wrath to him,
And makes him drunk as well,
In order that you may look on their nakedness.’

The fourth woe concerns the fact that Babylon led astray other nations besides herself. It is pictured in terms of wine and drunkenness.

This expands the thought in verse 5. Not only is the great king drunk with his sin, but he gives the same to his subjected peoples, that they might drink, and share in the wrath of God that will be poured out on him (Jeremiah 51.7; Psalm 75.8; Isaiah 51.17; Jeremiah 25.15-16). They are made drunk in sin as well as him. Thus all of them are revealed as naked before YHWH. (Habakkuk may especially have had in mind here Genesis 9.20-27, an incident of great shame revealing man’s sinful weakness). The king has forced others into his own sinful and evil ways.

To ‘look on their nakedness’ is to see them laid bare so that their sins and their shame and their mere humanity are openly apparent, so that they are seen to have no excuse. ‘All things are naked and opened to the eyes of Him with Whom we have to do’ (Hebrews 4.13; compare Genesis 2.25; Isaiah 47.3; Micah 1.11; Nahum 3.5).

This is a reminder that we all need to consider what the effects of our actions might be on others. There is also a reminder here of the dangers of the misuse of strong drink.

2.16

‘You are filled with shame for glory.
You also drink and be as one uncircumcised.
The cup of YHWH’s right hand will be turned to you,
And foul shame will be on your glory.’

But it is not only other nations that are affected. Jerusalem and Judah are included, for they are now addressed. They too have been affected, ‘they will become as one uncircumcised’. They who should have been glorious in YHWH will instead be filled with shame. Becoming like Babylon and the other nations they will forsake the covenant. Thus they will become as though they were not circumcised. For to them circumcision was the seal of the covenant. The result is that they too will drink of the cup of YHWH’s right hand, that is, of His most powerful hand. And the glory that was Jerusalem’s as the holy city will instead be replaced by foul shame.

Sadly this was indeed what they did descend into on the death of Josiah. The influence of Babylon soon manifested itself and resulted in many of the infamies described by Ezekiel in his prophecy (e.g. Ezekiel 8.6-18). Thus they too would drink of the cup of YHWH’s right hand, His manifested judgment, which would finally result in the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple. Babylon had a lot to answer for.

2.17

‘For the violence done to Lebanon will cover (or ‘overwhelm’) you,
And the destruction of the beasts which made them afraid.
Because of men’s blood, and for the violence done to the land,
To the city and all who dwell in it.’

At the approach of the advancing Babylonian army Lebanon would suffer first. But what would be done to Lebanon was a picture of what would also be done to Judah and Jerusalem. They would suffer the same violence as Lebanon. (Lebanon came first as Nebuchadnezzar descended from the north in his conquest of the area). They will be ‘covered’ or ‘overwhelmed’.

And Lebanon would be made especially afraid because of the huge slaughter of their cattle and sheep, which would demonstrate the savageness of Nebuchadnezzar’s troops. The same would be true for Judah and Jerusalem. Little would be left to them. The armies of Nebuchadnezzar would certainly need provisions, and they would provision themselves by using whatever was available, but some of the slaughter was no doubt carried out to teach them a hard lesson for their rebellion, and was also for the very purpose of frightening them into submission. Men would be slaughtered as well, men’s blood would be spilled, and so the fear would be multiplied, because of the shedding of men’s blood, because of the destruction of cattle and sheep, and because of the violence done to the trees and vegetation (the violence done to the land). And on top of this was the destruction of their city and all who dwelt in it.

So God’s chastening of His rebellious and sinful people would be fulfilled. To find the full extent of their sinfulness at this time we need to turn to Jeremiah and Ezekiel. Society had become violent and corrupt, on top of being idolatrous. The two aspects went together.

The Fifth Woe (2.18-20).

2.18-20

‘What does it profit the graven image that his maker has graven it,
The molten image, even the teacher of lies,
That the maker of his work trusts in it,
So that he makes dumb idols?
Woe to him who says to the wood, “Awake.”
To the dumb stone, “Arise.”
Will this teach? Behold it is laid over with silver and gold,
And there is no breath at all within it.
But YHWH is in His holy temple.
Let all the earth keep silence before him.’

The final woe is over men’s idolatry. What profit is there for a graven image or a molten image that its maker has made it? It is a dead thing without consciousness, and remains so. It does not appreciate what has been done. And yet the maker trusts in these teachers of lies. That is indeed why he makes dumb idols. He has confidence in them (in contrast with the righteous who have confidence in YHWH - verse 4). And yet they are teachers of lies because men read into them what is untrue, and their priests declare falsehoods to them.

‘Woe to him who says to the wood, “Awake.” To the dumb stone, “Arise.” Will this teach? Behold it is laid over with silver and gold, and there is no breath at all within it.’ The picture is one of the idol maker futilely saying to the wooden thing, ‘Awake’. And to the dumb stone. ‘Arise’. Vainly he seeks to stir them into action (compare 1 Kings 18.26-27), but there is no answer. Will they teach him? The answer is ‘no’. All he will learn through them is falsehood. The image may have been clothed magnificently in silver and gold, but it has no breath at all within it (see Jeremiah 10.14; Psalm 135.15-17; Isaiah 41.7; 44.9-20; 45.16, 20; 46.1-2, 6-7; ). For only YHWH can breathe life into His creation.

‘Woe to him.’ For it can only lead him away from God into sin, meaninglessness and judgment. The New Testament makes clear that it also brings him under Satan (1 Corinthians 10.20). The folly of such images, made to represent humans, animals, fish, birds and creeping things is brought out well in Romans 1.18-23. They look to created things and not to the Creator. Modern man may pride himself that he does not indulge in such folly. Instead he looks to and worships skyscrapers, wealth, success, fame, pop idols, sportsmen and their clubs, and such like. They too are creaturely things not worthy of man’s adoration.

‘But YHWH is in His holy temple. Let all the earth keep silence before him.’ It is unlikely that Habakkuk had a lesser view of God than Solomon. He knew that God would not dwell in an earthly house, that even the heaven of heavens could not contain Him, thus how much less a house built with human hands (1 Kings 8.27; see also 1 Kings 22.19; Daniel 7.9). So this temple that he has in mind is a heavenly temple, similar to that which descended to earth on ‘a high mountain’ away from Jerusalem in Ezekiel’s vision, not to be seen by man, and is revealed in Revelation 4-5 and constantly.

YHWH is seated above His creation (Psalm 29.10, the flood represents the whole of creation - Genesis 1.2), unlike the gods which are simply a part of it. He sits in glorious splendour surrounded by His hosts (1 Kings 22.29) and in view of what He is, and in view of what history reveals about His actions, let all the earth keep silent before Him. Silent in awe, and worship, and reverence. This will one day be the result of what He has done.

Thus YHWH’s reply to Habakkuk’s questions is that through what He is doing Babylon will be judged and punished, the world will be filled with the knowledge of God, and all the earth will worship in awe and reverence before Him in His heavenly temple.

Chapter 3 Habakkuk’s Prayer.

3.1 ‘A prayer of Habakkuk the prophet set to Shigionith.’

This third chapter consists of ‘a prayer of Habakkuk’ in the light of his visions. It includes an initial prayer, followed by a meditation on the glory of God as revealed in His powerful movement towards, and entry into Canaan, but with a wider connotation relating it to the whole earth. For YHWH is the great Deliverer of His people.

Thus in his meditations he is setting forth God’s effective power, using thoughts and ideas from the Exodus and Conquest, which were seen in Israel as the highest expression of His delivering power. It then concludes with praise and worship.

‘Shigionith.’ Compare the introduction to Psalm 7 where it is in the singular. Compare also introduction to Psalm 6; 8; 12 etc. They are clearly musical directions.

3.2

‘O YHWH, I have heard your report,
And I fear, O YHWH, your work,
In the midst of the years, renew it,
In the midst of the years make it known,
In wrath remember mercy.

As Habakkuk considers what he has heard from YHWH about what He is going to do, he is filled with awe and trepidation. But nevertheless he prays that YHWH will continue to carry it through and bring it about in the eyes of all creation, so that all may see it. One thing, however, he pleads, and that is that in exercising His wrath, God will remember mercy.

Thus the righteous man is living by faith (2.4), no more questioning God’s will. He admits his fear and awe, but still prays for the fulfilment of His purposes. Let God bring about His will, only, in His wrath, let Him remember mercy. We too must learn to have such confidence in God, even when we cannot understand. His ways are not our ways, and His thoughts not our thoughts. And we must recognise that in the end it is He Who knows best.

3.3-4

‘God came from Teman,
And the Holy One from Mount Paran, (selah - consider that!),
His glory covered the heavens,
And the earth was full of his praise.
His brightness was as the light,
Rays proceeded from his hand.
And there was a veiling of his power.

The picture has in mind the song of Moses in Deuteronomy 33. Habakkuk has firmly in mind the covenant of God, and the fact that God had chosen His people, and brought them into the land Canaan. The idea here is of God advancing with His people from the wilderness south of the Negeb into the promised land. As Israel marched forward through the wilderness, with the ark of the covenant in their midst, so did God march with them. But the ark was only one sign of His presence. Also accompanying them was the cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night. His glory could not be contained. And here is added that as He came with them His glory filled the heavens. Here we have the heavenly view of God’s entry with His people.

Habakkuk reveals the full glory of God. It covered the heavens, eliciting praise from the whole earth. He was bright as the light, shining out in His glory (Hebrews 1.3), rays of brilliance coming from His hand (compare the ‘fiery law’ of Deuteronomy 33.2 which was for His people). And yet He veiled His power. Had He not done so the world would have melted before His glory and all life would have died (compare Exodus 33.17-23).

So the thought is that none in Israel who are true to His covenant need be afraid, whatever happens, because of the greatness and glory of God’s presence among them, the God of the covenant, He Who wrought their great deliverance and continues to deliver.

‘Rays of brilliance came from his hand.’ All who heard it would remember the ‘fiery laws’ of Deuteronomy 33.2 which were for His people. This was the covenant in all its glory, given by God from the flames of Mount Sinai, and continually brought home to His true people, burning its way into their hearts.

Teman was a place in Edom. (See Genesis 36.11; 1 Chronicles 1.36, 45; Jeremiah 49.20; Ezekiel 25.13; Amos 1.12). Mount Paran (see Deuteronomy 33.2) would be a prominent peak in the wilderness of Paran on the west shore of the gulf of Aqabah as you come into the Negeb and Canaan from the probable site of Mount Sinai. (It may even be another name for Sinai).

‘Selah’ - the word appears continually in the Psalms in a similar way to here, probably as suggesting the need for a pause to consider what has been said or sung. Habakkuk clearly expected his psalm to be sung in the temple..

3.5-6

‘Before him went the pestilence,
And fiery bolts (burning coals, thunderbolts, fearsome heat, plague) went forth at his feet,
He stood and measured the land (or ‘earth’),
He beheld and drove asunder the nations,
And the eternal mountains were scattered,
The everlasting hills did bow,
His goings were of old.

The ‘fiery bolts’ (burning coals), translated as burning heat, and therefore plague in Deuteronomy 32.24, or thunderbolts in Psalm 78.48, represent something burning and fiery.

Because the parallel line has pestilence we are possibly to see it as the burning heat experienced by those who suffer from certain kinds of plague. Faithless Israel was threatened with pestilence in the wilderness (Numbers 13.12), after which God would produce a new nation. And those who did not observe the covenant were promised terrible plagues (Deuteronomy 28.59). But here the thought, while including this, probably refers to God’s wider judgments. He is the God Who punishes by pestilence and plague. Compare the words of Jesus in Luke 21.11.

On the other hand pestilence denotes a variety of afflictions, and so it may well be paralleled with thunderbolts. Thus the thought may be of the afflictions that would come on the Canaanites, and on all the enemies of God’s true people, as they had on Egypt, softening them up in preparation for the arrival and triumph of His people..

‘He stood and measured the land (or ‘earth’), He beheld and drove asunder the nations.’ Again we have reference to the entry into Canaan as God conducts affairs and leads His people, especially through the captain of His host (Joshua 5.14). First He is seen as weighing up the land. And then He drove asunder the nations before His people But He will also do this on a universal scale. He also measures the whole earth and there too has His way on the nations.

‘And the eternal mountains were scattered, the everlasting hills did bow, His goings were of old (or ‘were everlasting’).’ Even that which is most permanent could not, and cannot, resist His coming. The eternal mountains and the everlasting hills give way before Him and yield to His presence (see Nahum 1.5). For He is the eternal God, and His ways are of old, even from everlasting, from before time began.

3.7

‘I saw the tents of Cushan in affliction,
The curtains of the land of Midian trembled.’

Midian combined with Moab in seeking to prevent the passage of Israel into the promised land (Numbers 22.4, 7). They were a feared nomadic people, and vexed Israel with their wiles (Numbers 25.18), while their women led Israel astray (Numbers 25.6). But they had cause to tremble for YHWH commanded Israel to smite them (Numbers 25.17; 31.2-9) because of their activities against them, and in order to prevent any further mischief. The remainder (for they were widespread) feared as Israel entered the land.

Cushan must in some way be related to Midian, possibly a large Midianite tribe, large enough to be seen as representative. The trembling of the curtains may represent their women peering out in fear.

3.8

‘Was YHWH displeased against the rivers?
Was your anger against the rivers,
Or your wrath against the sea?
That you rode upon your horses,
On your chariots of salvation?

The opening up of the River Jordan and of the Reed Sea (Yam Suph) may be in mind here, but with wider reference to the rivers of the world. The point being that He smote them in order to go forth on His heavenly horses and chariots of deliverance (2 Kings 6.17), with and on behalf of His people.

It was not that He was angry with the rivers or the seas, but because He was angry with those whom they represented. The nations of the world were often denoted in connection with their rivers. See Isaiah 27.1 (which is probably speaking of the Tigris, the Euphrates, and the Nile); Ezekiel 29.3; Isaiah 7.18; 8.7, and the sea often denotes peoples (Psalm 65.7; Daniel 7.3; Isaiah 23.11). But YHWH’s anger is against the peoples, not against river and sea. It was against the peoples that He rode with His heavenly host, (and still rides on behalf of His people), on horses, and on His chariots of deliverance, as He will also at the end of time (Revelation 19.11-16).

YHWH smote the Jordan as He led His people victoriously into the land of Canaan. But it was not because of His anger against the Jordan, but because of His anger against the people beyond the Jordan for whom the time of their judgment had come. Zechariah pictures the destruction of nations in judgment as connected with the smiting of the rivers and the sea (Zechariah 10.11), while the Psalmists speak of the smiting of river and sea as denoting the powerful activity of God (Psalm 89.25; 114.3; 78.13) mainly because of the smiting of the Reed Sea and the Jordan.

So the whole picture that is being presented is that of God’s great deliverance of His people, both as something that has happened, and as something that, in the mind of the prophet, continually happens. Wherever God’s true people are, there are the horsemen and chariots of YHWH (compare 2 Kings 6.17).

3.9a

‘The bow was made quite bare,
The oaths to the tribes were a spoken word. Selah. (Consider that!)’

This probably denotes the moment of entry into Canaan. God prepared His bow for action and confirmed His oaths personally to the tribes in readiness to march through the land in His wrath (verse 12). For we know that the entry of His people into the land of Canaan was not only in order to present them with an inheritance, but also to bring His dire judgment on the Canaanites (Amorites) because of their extreme sinfulness (see Genesis 15.16).

And Habakkuk knew that God’s bow was still bared, and that His promises to His true people, His remnant, still stood firm. He would still protect them and deliver them.

3.9b-11

‘You divided the earth with rivers,
The mountains saw you and were afraid,
The tempest of waters passed by,
The deep uttered his voice,
And lifted up his hands on high.
The sun and moon stood still in their habitation,
At the light of your arrows as they went,
At the shining of your glittering spear.’

All that is permanent in the world is seen as responding to God as He comes to the aid of His people. The rivers, the mountains, the tempest of waters, the deep, the sun and the moon all yield obedience to Him.

In mind here, at least partly, are the natural phenomena that came to the assistance of God’s people as they conquered Canaan. Note how in Judges 5.4-5, as here in verses 3-4, the march of God out of Edom is connected with the deliverance of His people. In the case of Judges it was that wrought for Deborah against Sisera. Thus we have the rocks cloven by the rivers in the wilderness (Psalm 78.15-16, 20), the quaking of the mountains at Sinai (Exodus 19.18), the earthquake at Jericho as the mountains no doubt also quaked (Joshua 6.20), the overflowing of waters ‘passed by’ (did not interfere with them), and the deep refused to swallow them up, either at the Reed Sea (Isaiah 63.12-13) or at Jordan, the hailstones in the mountain passes fell like God’s arrows (Joshua 10.11; Psalm 18.13-14), the sun and the moon affecting the light (Joshua 10.12-13), and the river Kishon overflowing its banks (Judges 5.21).

There would seem certainly to be an element of protection. The rivers provide water to drink, the mountains (possibly also representing difficult opponents) make no move because they are afraid, the tempest of water (great storm) passes by instead of overwhelming them, the deep, that recognised enemy of the people of Israel, speaks and lifts up his hands, probably in fealty to YHWH. His people are protected by their connection with YHWH on all sides.

Let us, however, examine the ideas in more depth.

‘You divided (or ‘cleaved’) the earth with rivers.’ This could refer back to the beginning of creation, where rivers were the provision of God for the peoples of the earth and were divided up outside Eden, thus themselves dividing the earth (Genesis 2.10). Everywhere they provided sustenance for the world. But cleaving the earth with rivers might refer to the cleaving of the rock with rivers, which burst through the rock at Moses’ command. See Psalm 78.15-16 (compare Isaiah 43.20) where the opening of the rock to provide water to Israel in the wilderness is described in terms of rivers and streams. They would be seen as coming from some underground source. Deuteronomy 33.13 speaks of ‘the deep that couches beneath’, and we can compare the river of God which is full of water (Psalm 65.9). Israel thought in terms of a great table of water beneath the ground (which, of course, there is).

Psalm 78.15-16 says , ‘He brought streams also out of the rock, and caused waters to come down like rivers.’ And again, ‘He smote the rock and waters gushed out, and streams overflowed’ (Psalm 78.20). Both thus see rivers as cleaving the rock. Thus Habakkuk seems here to be centring on God’s creative power in the phenomena of nature, while having in mind also His use of them especially on behalf of His people.

‘The mountains saw you and were afraid.’ See Exodus 19.18; Judges 5.5, both connected with Sinai. The mountains quivered or flowed down before His presence. He is not only the Creator but also the Mighty One before Whom even the mountains tremble. But mountains can also portray great obstacles and powerful enemies (Jeremiah 51.25; Zechariah 4.7). They too yield to YHWH.

‘The tempest (overflowing) of waters passed by.’ This may have in mind the Flood, with the significance here that God will not allow such a catastrophe to overflow His people. It passed by the remnant of His people in the days of Noah, and it will still do so, in whatever new form God’s judgment takes. But Isaiah 28.2 (compare Jeremiah 47.2) also compares the tempest of waters to the activities of a mighty and strong one who casts down to the earth, which probably signifies the king of Assyria overwhelming the northern kingdom of Israel by defeat and transportation. Either way, when YHWH gives the word such a tempest of waters ‘passes by’ rather than overwhelming. It is under YHWH’s control. However it might also refer to the overflowing Jordan which halted in its way while Israel crossed, thus ‘passing them by’.

‘The deep uttered his voice, and lifted up his hands on high’. The deep was always seen by Israel as their enemy (Psalm 69.14-15; ), although thankfully controlled by YHWH, Whose word it obeys (contrary to some claims He is never literally depicted as struggling with it. That is read in by those who wish to do so). It was from the inanimate deep that creation took place (Genesis 1.2, 6). The floods lift up their voices to YHWH, acknowledging His authority (Psalm 93.3-4), and here the deep does so with hands lifted high, probably in covenant fealty (see Daniel 12.7). The deep can also refer to powerful enemies who seek to overwhelm Israel (Ezekiel 26.19), while the waters of the Reed Sea were ‘the deeps’ through which Israel passed safely, in contrast with the enemy, when YHWH delivered His people (Isaiah 63.13 see also Exodus 15.8). ‘The sun and moon stood still in their habitation, at the light of your arrows as they went, at the shining of your glittering spear.’ It is difficult not to see here the battle near Aijalon in Joshua 10.9-14, where the sun and moon stood still, the hailstones (arrows - Psalm 18.13-14; 77.17; 2 Samuel 22.15) hurtled down on the enemy, and God fought for Israel. The glittering spear would represent the lightning which would probably accompany the hailstones (see Psalm 144.6; 2 Samuel 22.15; where it parallels the arrows of God).

But there is probably also to be understood that the sun and moon would also stand still in awe, at the sight of the God of battle, with his hailstone-arrows, and His glittering lightning-spear, whenever He was protecting His people.

3.12-13a

‘You marched through the land in indignation,
You threshed the nations in anger.
You went out for the deliverance of your people,
For the salvation of your anointed.’

Here we come face to face with YHWH carrying out His wrath against their sin on the inhabitants of Canaan. Of all the nations they had gone too far with their perverted sexual religion, and their extreme behaviour. But it was also in order to finalise the delivering of His people, those who were His anointed, that is those who were set apart for Himself. (Although the anointed one may be Joshua). Anointing was an act of separation for service and they had been called to be a kingdom of priests (Exodus 19.6; for their anointing see Ezekiel 16.9; Isaiah 10.27).

‘Threshed.’ Threshing is the act of beating the grain to remove the chaff. See Micah 4.13; Amos 1.3 for its application to warfare.

3.13b-15

‘You wounded the head from the house of the wicked,
Laying bare the foundation, even to the neck. Selah (consider that!)
You pierced with his own staves the head of his warriors,
They came as a whirlwind to scatter me.
Their rejoicing was to devour the poor in secret.
You trod the sea with your horses,
The heap of mighty waters.’

Parallels with the conquest continue. The head from the house of the wicked can be seen as referring to a petty king or similar. Many were executed by Joshua (10.26; 12.7-24). Some would be executed by striking the neck, presumably with a sword. The piercing with their own staves may well have referred to the Midianites and their allies (Judges 7.22) who slew each other in panic. They had descended like a whirlwind on Israel (Judges 6.4), and met their end mainly at each other’s hands. But in the end God will slay all the heads of the wicked.

‘Their rejoicing was to devour the poor in secret.’ Those who slay in secret are especially cursed (Deuteronomy 27.24). This suggests that the Midianites may have regularly secretly sought out lone people desperately seeking food in order to kill them out of vindictiveness. It depicts the worst kind of killer.

‘You trod the sea with your horses, the heap of mighty waters.’ In Psalm 77.15-20 YHWH is depicted in verse 15 as redeeming His people, and it ends in verse 20 with Him leading His people like a flock by the hand of Moses. But examination of the context demonstrates quite clearly that between these verses there was great divine activity in terms of water, a great storm and His making His way in the sea and His paths through the waters. This can only be vivid language referring to the crossing of the Reed Sea. Thus He trod the seas, the heap of mighty waters, at the Reed Sea. But what of the horses?

No mention is made in accounts of the wilderness journey of Israel as having horses, although it may well be that some important leaders did have one for their own use which they had obtained in Egypt. But in Isaiah 63.13 Yahweh is said to have led His people through the Reed Sea ‘as a horse in the wilderness’. Thus it may be that Habakkuk, knowing this verse from Isaiah and the ideas behind Psalm 77 (if not the Psalm itself) utilised the references in this way, the horses representing the people of Israel who were like a horse in the wilderness. Israel were YHWH’s horses.

Alternately it may be seeing the horses of the pursuing Egyptians as YHWH’s horses. They rode into the pathway in the Reed Sea with confidence, but found themselves struggling in the mud, and then treading the sea as the waters came down on them, only to perish.

But the most probable significance in view of verse 8 is that it is referring to the horses of the heavenly host (2 Kings 6.17). YHWH is seen at the Reed Sea leading His invisible horses and their riders as they trod the sea and destroyed the Egyptian troops.

So the poem up to this point has been a glorious paean of victory and praise. It has depicted God as controlling nature, as delivering His people, and as showing His might in the earth. It is a full explanation of why He is able to bring about His purposes described in chapters 1 & 2.

3.16

‘I heard and my belly trembled,
My lips quivered at the sound (‘voice’),
Rottenness entered into my bones,
And I trembled in my place,
I will rest in the day of trouble,
When he comes up against the people,
He will overcome (or ‘press on, invade’) them.’

Habakkuk now hears, probably in vision, the approach of the Babylonian army, and describes the effect it had on him. Butterflies arose in his stomach, his lips quivered at the sound, he felt as though his bones were crumbling, and he trembled in the place where he found himself. It was a terrifying experience. But in the face of it he expresses confidence. In the day of trouble, when the invader comes up against his people and overcomes them, he will rest content. For he will know that YHWH’s will is being done. The righteous one will live by faith.

3.17-18

‘For though the fig tree will not blossom,
Nor will fruit be in the vines,
The produce of the olive will fail,
And the fields will yield no food,
The flock will be cut off from the fold,
And there will be no herd in the stalls,
Yet will I rejoice in YHWH,
I will joy in the God of my salvation.’

Habakkuk has won through to triumphant faith. He declare that although everything goes wrong around him, and invasion destroys all the necessities of life, and leaves them barren of food apart from what they have stored up, which will disappear in the siege, he will rejoice in YHWH, and joy in the God of his salvation.

Here salvation refers not to deliverance, but to inner peace, deliverance within himself, something that externals cannot touch. For he will find rest in the midst of tribulation, and peace of heart with his God.

3.19

‘YHWH the Lord is my strength,
And he makes my feet like hind’s feet,
And will make me to walk on my high places.’

From now on no disaster will be able to touch him. For YHWH, the Lord of creation and deliverance as revealed in the poem, is his strength. And He gives him feet that can clamber without slipping, and makes him walk in the high places, within his soul far from strife and trouble. He lives in the heavenly places with his God.

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