How Long and Why?
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How Long and Why?

Habakkuk 1:1–4  (ID: 2627)

In his obscure Old Testament book, the prophet Habakkuk asked piercing questions that continue to resonate today. Why does God tolerate evil? How long will He continue to do so? As Alistair Begg shows, bringing these questions to God’s throne is the proper action, because God rules and is very much in control. The plan is in place, and it culminates in the arrival of the ultimate answer to evil: the person and work of Jesus Christ.

Series Containing This Sermon

A Study in Habakkuk

No Simple Answers Habakkuk 1:1–3:19 Series ID: 13501

Encore 2020

Selected Scriptures Series ID: 25911

Sermon Transcript: Print

“Now this was John’s testimony when the Jews of Jerusalem sent priests and Levites to ask him who he was. He did not fail to confess, but confessed freely, ‘I am not the Christ.’

“They asked him, ‘Then who are you? Are you Elijah?’

“He said, ‘I[’m] not.’

“‘Are you the Prophet?’

“He answered, ‘No.’

“Finally they said, ‘Who are you? Give us an answer to take back to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?’ …

“The next day John saw Jesus coming toward[s] him and said, ‘Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! This is the one I meant when I said, “A man who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.” I myself did not know him, but the reason I came baptizing with water was that he might be revealed to Israel.’”[1]

I invite you to take your Bible and turn in the Old Testament to the book of Habakkuk. Going to read just the first four verses, and in view of our time, this will be an introduction to an introduction:

The oracle that Habakkuk the prophet received.

How long, O Lord, must I call for help,
 but you do not listen?
Or cry out to you, “Violence!”
 but you do not save?
Why do you make me look at injustice?
 Why do you tolerate wrong?
Destruction and violence are before me;
 there is strife, and conflict abounds.
Therefore, the law is paralyzed,
 and justice never prevails.
The wicked hem in the righteous,
 so that justice is perverted.

Father, what we do not know, please teach us. What we are not, please make us. What we have not, please give us. For your Son’s sake. Amen.

I think it is time for us as a congregation to be in the Old Testament, and so we are. I decided that it would be good for us to go to the Minor Prophets, because they are so routinely neglected. I have somewhat arbitrarily decided to dip into the Minor Prophets here in Habakkuk, perhaps because I think in all the Minor Prophets, I may have done one or two studies in my life from this particular prophecy. Neither of them were any good; one of them was while I was still a student, and it is a great investigation for me and a journey on which we will go together.

It is important to recognize that when we reference this as one of the twelve Minor Prophets, as they’re referred to, the reason that they’re regarded as being “minor” prophets, in contrast to the five big ones, is not in relationship to their content, but it’s simply in relationship to their length. And in contrast with, for example, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, the Minor Prophets are all far smaller than those larger books. And when we study in this way, in this little book of three chapters, I don’t think that we will have reason to regret the time that we spend.

It is important for us to turn to it and to read it, and I want to encourage you to read it at home so that you can immerse yourself in it and become familiar with it. I don’t plan to stay in these three chapters for a long time but over some of these Sunday evenings together.

The temptation for us, especially going into the Old Testament, is to immediately assume that we are so far removed from the circumstances that are described in these chapters that they may well have nothing at all really to say to us. But in actual fact, as we’re going to discover, although we’re a long way away both chronologically and geographically, we are far closer than we may be prepared to admit when it comes to thinking in terms of the moral and the spiritual condition of the people of God as described here in these three chapters. And as in all of our study of the Bible, we dare not jump too quickly to application, lest we do not understand what it is we’re studying. So before, if you like, we bring Habakkuk to Cleveland, we have to go and meet him first in his own setting. Because it is only as we understand who and where Habakkuk was that we can then make any kind of sensible application to who we are and to where we are.

In the time that is afforded to us, we will notice just two things. Let’s pay attention first of all to the prophet, and then just say a word concerning the problem that he surfaces.

The Prophet

First of all, the prophet: “The oracle that Habakkuk the prophet received.” If you’re taking notes and you look for subpoints, the first subpoint that I wrote down is simply “Biographical Content.” “Biographical Content.” What is the biographical content? Actually, it is totally nonexistent! It just isn’t there. You can’t find Habakkuk anywhere else in the Old Testament; at least, I’ve been unable to find him. And all that we know of him, we may derive from our study of these three chapters.

Now, that tells us something not simply about this individual, but it actually tells us something about the role of the prophet, the role of the one who is raised up by God to speak to the circumstances of the times in which he lives, to bring the burden of God’s insights and designs to bear upon those who are his listeners. And if you like, we may say, as with true preaching, that the significance of the prophet is to be found in what he says. Or, if you like, that his biography, nonexistent as it is, is subservient to the burden that he brings.

As with true preaching, the significance of the prophet is to be found in what he says. His biography is subservient to the burden that he brings.

You say, “Well, I don’t understand ‘burden.’” Well, depending on your translation of the Bible, you may have “oracle” as the second word in the first verse, or you may have “burden” as the second word in the first verse. I prefer the word burden. It’s in the King James, I think: “The burden [that] Habakkuk the prophet [received].” Was it an oracle? Yes, but it was a burden. What was the burden? The burden of seeing things as per the insight that God had given him. The burden of looking out at circumstances that others had seen but didn’t see the significance of what they were seeing.

It’s very similar to what you have in Nehemiah: although he was not a prophet, he was called to something of a prophetic role. When he arrives in Jerusalem and he sees that the walls are broken down, the people are living in disunity and in chaos, and he says to them, “Do you see the trouble we are in?”[2] And the fact was, they did, but they didn’t. And it was the burden that had been given to Nehemiah, a burden of leadership, a burden of responsibility.

And so, for Habakkuk, his credentials are all in his call. His credentials are all in his call. His significance is all in his sermon. No time at all is taken up with personal introductions. Why? Because the message is greater than the man. And the message is always greater than the man. Despite our preoccupations in twenty-first century America with personalities, the message is always more significant than the man. All of my sermons preached are eventually grass. Their only significance is to be found insofar as they represent any dimension whereby the unerring truth and reliability of God’s Word itself finds an anchor in our souls.

And hence, we began with John the Baptist. Perhaps took you off guard. Strange reading with which to begin our evening worship. No, not so strange! “And they asked John. ‘Who are you?’”

And remember his answers: “No, I’m not him.”

“Well, are you him?”

“No, I’m not him.”

“Are you him?”

“No, I’m not.”

And in their frustration, they said, “Oh, come along now, John. We’re going to have to have something to put up on the screen. We need something for our bulletin. We need something to tell everybody how significant you are.”

And remember, he eventually says, “I’m a voice crying in the wilderness, I’m a light that is shining for a little while, but he is the light of the world. I am a finger that is pointing in the direction of him, and he must increase, and I must decrease.”[3]

I think that’s part of the significance of the absolute total absence of biographical emphasis here. It runs through the prophetic words, actually. We know more about some than others. But even the things we know about them were not that profound or compelling. You go to Amos, for example, and what does he have for his credentials? He’s a keeper of fig trees and a tender of sheep.[4] “And now here we have at our conference this week, Amos. Now, we were going to put something in the bulletin about Amos, but really, there’s nothing much to put in. I mean, he had a few fig trees, and he was looking after sheep, but it was rather embarrassing, and so we just left it out.” But I tell you what, when he stood to his feet and began to preach, it was all forgotten then.

There is an important lesson here, then. I want to point it out, especially for young men who are here who feel that God may calling them to the preaching role. Let me tell you what the key is, in one verse, and it’s Isaiah 66:2, where God says, “This is the one I esteem: he who is humble and contrite in spirit, and trembles at my word”—that in the very core of the individual called to the task, there is a genuine self-effacement which understands the compelling nature of the call.

It says something not only concerning the individual, but it says something concerning the reality of that which he’s called to do: to speak prophetically and to preach. And I’ve been reading the most recent book by David Wells for these last few days—and boring all my colleagues with quotes from it. But I have three more for you right now, as the book draws to a close, and I’ve slowed down to just about a page a day, because I’ve been enjoying it so much, and I only have a few pages left.

This is what Wells is saying to the twenty-first century. He says,

Preaching is not a conversation, a chat about some interesting ideas. It is not the moment in which postmoderns hear their own private message in the biblical words, one unique to each one who hears, and then go their own way. No! This is God speaking! He speaks through the stammering lips of the preacher where that preacher’s mind is on the text of Scripture and his heart is in the presence of God. God, as Luther put it, lives in the preacher’s mouth.

This is the kind of preaching that issues a summons, which nourishes the soul, which draws the congregation into the very presence of God so that no matter what aspect of his character, his truth, his working in this world is in focus, we leave with awe, gratitude, encouragement, and sometimes a rebuke. We have been in the very presence of God! That is what great preaching always does. …

Preaching lives between two worlds, the world of God’s truth and the world we inhabit in our minds and daily life. If preaching does not bridge these two worlds effectively, the church inevitably stumbles. Where preaching negotiates these worlds, there one is likely to find spiritual authenticity.[5]

The biographical content: almost totally lacking.

Secondly, the historical context in which he speaks: we have more to say. I could take you to various chapters, but I’m not going to, for want of time. I simply want to say to you that if you keep the picture of Daniel in mind and all that happened to Daniel when he was dragged away into Babylon, you have in that time frame and in that incident the fulfillment of that which Habakkuk is called upon to speak to his generation. And what God burdens him with, both to see and then to say, finds the greater part of its fulfillment in those events concerning the invasion of Babylon and the captivity of God’s people.

And if you want to delve into it, then you will find that the king at this time was Jehoiakim, and if you look up Jehoiakim, that will help you; it will take you into 2 Kings. And if you look in the prophecy of Jeremiah, you will discover that the same king, Jehoiakim, is mentioned there in Jeremiah and gives to us the understanding that Habakkuk was a younger contemporary of the prophet Jeremiah. They didn’t live at all of the same time, but they lived during the same era. And it is out of that historical framework that this prophecy emerges.

So, the prophet: his biographical content is absent; the historical context may be discovered if you search out the Scriptures.

The Problem

The problem that he surfaces is there for us in verse 2 and following: “How long, O Lord, must I call for help, but you do not listen?” What he is really describing here, and surfacing, is essentially the discrepancy between revelation and experience. How can he reconcile what he knows of the character and purpose of a good and powerful God with all that he sees around him? That’s what he’s asking: “How can it possibly be that you, O God, are good and powerful, and yet violence and moral ineptitude and chaos confronts us at every point?” A collapsing economy, diminishing productivity, food shortage, violence, social injustice, and a wholesale disregard for God’s law—just a run through that little list immediately says to somebody, “Well, maybe this just isn’t as far removed from where we live as I thought.” Collapsing economy, diminishing productivity, food shortage, violence, social injustice, and a wholesale disregard for what God has said in his Word. That’s a problem, isn’t it?

And you will notice in verses 2–4 that the problem was internal. This wasn’t a problem of the people who were outside the framework of God’s family; it was those who were within God’s family. What he is describing here is that God’s people are very far from what God had designed for them. When God put them together and called them out and established them, he explained to them very clearly all the plans he had for them. And he says to them in Exodus 19,

“You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all [the] nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” [And] these are the words you[’re] to speak to the Israelites.[6]

And are they there? No, they’re far from there. And the problem is an internal problem, and the problem is a continual problem, because there was no end in sight. Because there was no apparent intervention or action on the part of God.

And when you look at those verses, you realize that the problem is essentially twofold. God’s timescale, verse 2: “How long” is this going to go on? And God’s tolerance, verse 3: “Why do you make me look at injustice?” and “Why do you tolerate wrong?” It’s a very contemporary question, isn’t it? It’s a question on the lips of every thoughtful believer. How long will this go on? And why is it that this good God whom we serve, this moral God that we serve, this all-powerful God that we serve, tolerates declension and spiritual and moral dry rot amongst those who profess to be the followers of his Son?

Concluding Observations

Well, we’ll have to wait until next time to begin to consider God’s action. But let me just give you a couple of observations in conclusion.

First of all, it would be helpful for us to follow the prophet’s example in learning to call on the Lord for help. Notice what he’s doing here. He’s taking his complaint to the only place we ought to take it. Take it to the Lord: “How long, O Lord, must I call for help?” This is something that’s been going on for a while, and he’s calling at the right place. He recognizes what the psalmist says: “My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.”[7]

The history of Habakkuk’s era was under God’s control, and that is true in every age.

Secondly, we ought to be thankful that God is not so unkind as to answer all our prayers when we want them answered. Yes, I said “unkind”—that God is not so unkind as to answer our prayers in our time frame. The delays of God from our perspective are always purposeful. He may be dealing with our selfishness, he may be dealing with an area of disobedience in our lives, he may be delaying, from our perspective, in order to teach us how to trust him in the waiting room. He may be actually saving us from ourselves. There’s surely a reason why the Bible calls us on frequent occasions to wait upon the Lord.

And then notice that God’s delay in winding up history, in actually doing something dramatic, is meant to lead men and women to repentance. When people ask, “Why doesn’t this God of yours do something?” we need to learn to be able to say, “This God of ours has done something,” and tell them the story of the cross. We need to be able to say, “This God of ours is going to do something,” and tell them about the bar of his judgment. And we need to be able to say, “This God of the Bible is doing something—and that is, he is showing kindness to those who deserve his wrath in order that he might give them time to come to repentance.”[8] “Do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, tolerance and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness leads you toward[s] repentance?”[9]

And finally, we need to make clear to ourselves that the history of Habakkuk’s era was under God’s control, and that that is true in every age. Indeed, we come full circle to where we were in this morning’s study: learning to see that the events of our world, whether in Habakkuk’s day or in our own day, are all tied in their significance to God’s eternal purpose in relationship to his kingdom. And if we will keep our gaze there, focused on the gospel, focused on this great good news, focused on King Jesus, focused on the fact that his perspectives on the unfolding story of world history are far more comprehensive than we could ever imagine, and yet remain absolutely focused on the person of his Son, Jesus, and of the triumph of his resurrection and the glory of his ascension and the absolute certainty of his return, then all of our cares and all of our cancers, all of our disappointments and all of our failures, all of our heartaches and heartbreaks and confusions may be brought under the all-embracing security of God’s sovereign purpose.

He understands when, like Habakkuk, we cry out, “How long and why?” And the answer of his Word is finally given to us expressly in Jesus and in the triumph of revelation, allowing Christians in an earlier era to use words like these to help them as they went off to their work on a Monday morning:

God is still on the throne,
And he will remember his own;
Though trials may press us and burdens distress us,
He never will leave us alone;
God is still on the throne,
And he will remember his own.
And his promise is true, he will not forget you.
God is still on the throne.[10]

Now, what that meant for the people of God was absolutely devastating. And to that, if God spares us, we will come next time.

Father, we thank you that your Word shines light into the confusion and darkness of our days. And we thank you that when we turn all these years back into the prophecy of Habakkuk, and as we delve into it and try to make sense of it, we find that it pushes us out and on and on until we turn our eyes upon Jesus, we look full in his wonderful face, and the things of earth grow strangely dim in the light of his glory and his grace.[11] We pray, gracious God, that as we bring our questions and our concerns to you, that we might find in you the answer that we so desperately require. And in Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.

[1] John 1:19–22, 29–31 (NIV 1984).

[2] Nehemiah 2:17 (paraphrased).

[3] John 1:23; 5:35; 3:30 (paraphrased).

[4] See Amos 7:14.

[5] David F. Wells, The Courage to Be Protestant: Truth-Lovers, Marketers and Emergents in the Postmodern World (Nottingham: Inter-Varsity, 2008), 230, 233.

[6] Exodus 19:4–6 (NIV 1984).

[7] Psalm 121:2 (RSV).

[8] See 2 Peter 3:9.

[9] Romans 2:4 (NIV 1984).

[10] Kittie L. Suffield, “God Is Still on the Throne” (1929). Lyrics lightly altered.

[11] Helen H. Lemmel, “Turn Your Eyes upon Jesus” (1922).

Copyright © 2024, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Alistair Begg
Alistair Begg is Senior Pastor at Parkside Church in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Bible teacher on Truth For Life, which is heard on the radio and online around the world.