May 18, 2008
The book of Habakkuk deals with issues that are familiar to our world today, such as injustice, cruelty, violence, and idolatry. We may find our own prayers relating to Habakkuk more than we would be willing to admit. Though the weight of circumstances can be oppressive, Alistair Begg encourages us to follow the prophet’s example and learn to wait on God as He responds in His perfect timing.
Sermon Transcript: Print
And I invite you to turn to Habakkuk and to chapter 2. In our church Bibles, it’s page 663, if that is of help to you, as I’m sure it will be to some. We begin reading at the second verse of Habakkuk chapter 2:
“Then the Lord replied:
“‘Write down the revelation
and make it plain on tablets
so that a herald may run with it.
For the revelation awaits an appointed time;
it speaks of the end
and will not prove false.
Though it linger, wait for it;
it will certainly come and will not delay.
“‘See, he is puffed up;
his desires are not upright—
but the righteous will live by his faith—
indeed, wine betrays him;
he is arrogant and never at rest.
Because he is as greedy as the grave
and like death is never satisfied.
he gathers to himself all the nations
and takes captive all the peoples.
“‘Will not all of them taunt him with ridicule and scorn, saying,
“‘“Woe to him who piles up stolen goods
and makes himself wealthy by extortion!
How long must this go on?”
Will not your debtors suddenly arise?
Will they not wake up and make you tremble?
Then you will become their victim.
Because you have plundered many nations,
the [people] who are left will plunder you.
For you have shed [men’s] blood;
you have destroyed lands and cities and everyone in them.
“‘Woe to him who builds his realm by unjust gain
to set his nest on high,
to escape the clutches of ruin!
You have plotted the ruin of many peoples,
shaming your own house and forfeiting your life.
The stones of the wall will cry out,
and the beams of the woodwork will echo it.
“‘Woe to him who builds a city with bloodshed
and establishes a town by crime!
Has not the Lord Almighty determined
that the people’s labor is only fuel for the fire,
that the nations exhaust themselves for nothing?
For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord,
as the waters cover the sea.
“‘Woe to him who gives drink to his neighbors,
pouring it from the wineskin till [they’re] drunk,
so that he can gaze on their naked bodies.
You will be filled with shame instead of glory.
Now [it’s] your turn! Drink and be exposed!
The cup from the Lord’s right hand is coming [round] to you,
and disgrace will cover your glory.
The violence you have done to Lebanon will overwhelm you,
and your destruction of animals will terrify you.
For you have shed man’s blood;
you have destroyed lands and cites and everyone in them.
“‘Of what value is an idol, since a man has carved it?
Or an image that teaches lies?
For he who makes it trusts in his own creation;
he makes idols that cannot speak.
Woe to him who says to wood, “Come to life!”
Or to lifeless stone, “Wake up!”
Can it give guidance?
It is covered with gold and silver;
there is no breath in it.
But the Lord is in his holy temple;
let all the earth be silent before him.’”
Let us pray together:
Our gracious God and loving heavenly Father, we bow humbly in your presence, knowing that by the Holy Spirit you have promised to be with us as we gather in the name of your Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, our risen Savior and our ascended King. As we gather in his presence before the one who is Lord of all the nations and King over all the earth, we recognize tonight that as we represent in some measure the nations of the world, we do good to set an example to our world by being silent in your presence, by endeavoring to be still and to know that you are God.
For our world is in turmoil. The earth groans and creaks. Man’s inhumanity to man is unabated, despite the passing of time. Empires of our world rise and crash into oblivion. Others emerge out of the ashes and reestablish themselves. And you, O God, breathe from heaven, and the things that man has erected topple and crumble. And men and women’s hearts fail them on account of fear, causing them to make idols of their own contriving, to worship at shrines of their own making.
And how, when Jesus moved amongst the people of his day and stood and looked on Jerusalem and grieved over it, “How often,” he said, “would I have gathered you as a hen gathers its chicks, but you would not come to me. If only you had known what makes for peace.” And surely he looks upon the nations of the world today and says again the same. And you have charged your people with the good news of great joy for all the peoples: that there has been a Savior born who is Christ the Lord, and that all the expectation of the Old Testament has found its fulfillment in Jesus, the Prophet and the Priest and the King. And you have sent us out into all the world so that by the good news we proclaim and the good deeds that we do we may see men and women turning from themselves to Jesus and finding in Christ all that they need and more besides.
And so tonight, as we turn to the Bible, unless you are our teacher, then we are of all men and women most miserable. On our best day, we are unprofitable servants. We cannot do anything as we ought without your help. Therefore, come now and meet with us. Grant to us clarity so that there will be no obscurity of the truth that we read on the pages of the Bible. Grant to us a sense of conviction so that we won’t read it like as if we were reading simply an ancient poem but as it is the very Word of God. And convert our lives, O God, we pray. Bring them into conformity with your Son and with the truth of the Bible. For we ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Well, those of you who have been with us for the last two Sunday evenings will know that we have left Habakkuk standing at his watch in 2:1, looking to see what God would say in response to his second complaint, waiting to discover the answer that God would provide.
We began by noticing that Habakkuk was overwhelmed by the problem of the declension on the part of the people of God. They were tolerating that which God was opposed to, and Habakkuk had approached God and asked him why it was that he was tolerating this and wondering how long it would be that such tolerance would last. In response, God had answered him in 1:5, telling him—that is, telling his servant Habakkuk—that he was about to do something that he wouldn’t believe. Because he was raising up the Babylonians—or it may read “Chaldeans” in your version—he was raising up these people to take care of all of the injustice and oppression and disinterest in God that was marked by those who should have known better. That actually wasn’t a terrific help to Habakkuk, as it turned out, because he couldn’t handle the idea of God somehow or another choosing to use really bad people in order to deal with the problem of quite bad people. And as he works out his complaint through chapter 1 and to the beginning of chapter 2, he’s really asking, “Is there going to be any end to the oppression, now, that is coming by way of the Babylonians?” What answer is he going to receive to this complaint? And that is where we ended last time, at the beginning of chapter 2.
As he tries to come up with his own answer to the question, he finds that the issue is oppressive. In this respect, he’s not unlike the psalmist, who, on another day and in another set of circumstances, was confronted by the same kind of thing, only expressed differently. And for some of your research you can read Psalm 73, and you will find it an important and a helpful parallel to what we’re considering this evening. And there the psalmist says, “I had almost lost my place in the living of life. My feet had almost gone out from under me, because I envied the arrogant. And when I saw the prosperity of the wicked and I saw that wicked people could continue being wicked and prosper at the same time, I just couldn’t make sense of it. I couldn’t understand why it would be that God would tolerate such a thing and why he would not intervene.” And I’ll leave you to read Psalm 73. It resolves, towards the end of the chapter, in much the same way as we will discover here.
Now, let me say to you again and quite forcibly that although all these events took place long ago and far away from here, they remain instructive for us, helping us to think along these lines. Remember that all of the Scriptures, all of the Bible, is profitable for instruction and for correction and for reproof and for training in righteousness. Not all of the Scriptures are as immediately and obviously applicable as some parts are, but we may be absolutely certain that there is nothing in the Bible that is extraneous and that there is nothing that has been left out of the Bible that is necessary. And some of us who are reading through the New Testament in a year were confronted by the challenge of that when we did the genealogy of the life of Jesus just the other morning. And as I sat eating my cereal, I was tempted to skip all the way to the end of it, saying, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.” But I deliberately read it all the way through, just in order to remind myself of the fact that nothing is in there that is inconsequential or unnecessary.
And when you come, for example, to this little prophecy all these 650 or 700 years before Jesus, it is a helpful reminder to us that Christianity, that our Christian lives are about something far more significant than just how everything relates to us. One of the great dangers that we face is to view the Christian life in distinctly private terms. To become a Christian is, of course, a personal thing, but it isn’t a private thing. And in our experience of God’s grace to us in Jesus, we discover that it opens up wide vistas to us in relationship to the world in which we live, so that for us to be genuinely Christian is to have our ears open to the cries of the needy, is to have our eyes open to the needs and challenges of our world.
And any temptation that we may have to do an Austria at the time of the Second World War needs to be resisted in every way. What did Austria do in the Second World War? They developed as a nation a policy which they referred to as the policy of “splendid isolation”: “Let the war go on all around us, but we will remain isolated from it.” Some Christians that I meet have an approach to life which is exactly that: “This is about me and about my awareness of Jesus and what he has done and accomplished and how it has affected me” and so on, “and it doesn’t really have much relationship to the world beyond my little, tiny world.” But that will not do. That will not do.
And tonight, if you’re a Christian and you read the newspaper, as you should, then presumably you wonder, don’t you, at the struggles in Zimbabwe? You wonder how a nation that is so phenomenally rich in natural resources can be in such an unbelievable shambles. Because you are a Christian, you have thoughts on that. Because you are a Christian, you respond to the circumstances in Burma in a way that you wouldn’t were you not a Christian. And when you view the devastating state of affairs in mainland China, you respond as a Christian, because your Christian life is far beyond the borders of your home and your heart. So that Christians of all people will be asking questions regarding justice and poverty and brutality and immorality as it works itself out in the kingdoms and empires of the world. And if we could find the justification for that nowhere else, then we have all the justification we need in a study of the Minor Prophets, of which Habakkuk is one.
Now, a far more detailed analysis of Habakkuk will be repaid if you endeavor to do it. Our approach in these evenings is about forty thousand feet, flying by. I make no apology for it. I determined that this should be my approach, and I’m sticking to it. That’s why we’re going to the end of chapter 2. It won’t take us a long time, but we will get there.
I have three points. Number one, the Lord’s answer. The Lord’s answer. That is pretty easy to get to, because it’s actually written in the NIV, so I figure that’s as good a start as any.
“Then the Lord replied: ‘Write my answer large and clear so that anyone can read it at a glance and run to tell others. Write it down.’” Now, what is he writing down? He’s not writing down what is passing through his mind. Because he may have a fertile imagination as well. The role of the prophet is not to say whatever comes to his fancy, but the role of the prophet is to declare the revelation of God. And the prophets were given direct supernatural revelation in order that they might speak forthrightly to their time and to their day, often not even understanding the depth nor the breadth of that which they conveyed.
And that which has been given to us in the prophetic word we now have more certain in the Word of God inscripturated, so that always the people of God are listening to the revelation of God—the declaration, the manifestation of himself in his world and in his Word and in his Son. And this revelation, which is the answer to Habakkuk’s question, God tells him, is marked by four things. Let me just point them out to you.
Number one: “Write down the revelation. Make it plain so that someone can run and read it. For the revelation,” number one, “awaits an appointed time.” From Habakkuk’s position, everything else is just going on as usual. “A time to be born, a time to die…” And so it goes on. And from his perspective, it just seems as though history is entirely cyclical; it looks as though it’s going around and around and around. God says, “No, I want you to write this down; write it down clear. What I am doing has an appointed time. I haven’t disclosed the time to you, but I know what the time is. Trust me.”
Number two, it “speaks of the end.” Incidentally, the appointed time for the end of the Babylonians, we now know, was 539 BC, when he raised up the Persians to come in and give the Babylonians their hiding. But you can read that in your history books.
It “awaits an appointed time.” It “speaks of the end”—you’ll see that there in verse 3. It “will not prove false.” And though it apparently lingers, “wait for it; it will certainly come and will not delay.”
Now, Habakkuk has to take all of that as per God’s word to him. And we could apply that, of course, in many ways and have benefit from considering its truth in relationship to all that still awaits the unfolding of God’s purpose in terms of the end of time and the return of Jesus and so on.
Now, in verses 4 and 5, he contrasts the righteous life, which is lived by faith, with the proud boasts and the activities that mark those who are “puffed up” and live for themselves. And this is a pretty difficult little section here, as it turns out. But the best I can do with it is this: that when he says, “See, he is puffed up”—“he is puffed up”—either what we have is the epitome of the Babylonian or, if you like, the description of the ruler of the Babylonians as being emblematic of that entire people. He is puffed up, he’s on the wrong track, he is betrayed by wine—or it may actually be wealth; both words are similar in Hebrew, and the translators disagree over it. So let’s just say both: the puffed-up individual is betrayed both by wine and by wealth, he’s arrogant, never at rest, greedy, dissatisfied, and he swallows nations whole.
You’ve got this picture—it’s a kind of Monty Python’s Flying Circus picture. Remember when they did all the little animated things, and then the big head would come? And then it would start eating things, like trains and everything and move all across the screen. It looks like about the 1940s now when you see it, but it was very futuristic then. And what you have here is the picture of this puffed-up individual, the ruler of the Babylonians, and he just moves across, and he eats nations. He just gobbles them all up as he goes.
So, from the Lord’s answer we turn to the Lord’s judgment. The Lord’s judgment. And the Lord’s judgment is expressed in a succession of five woes. “Woe!” You may remember in Matthew chapter 23 that Jesus uses the same mechanism when he gives the Pharisees a jolly good ticking off: “Woe to you,” he says. “You do this, and you do that, and you shouldn’t.” He’s employing this Old Testament mechanism. And here in these five areas, he pictures people taunting the proud boasts of this apparently unconquerable force.
Now, what I’ve done is I’ve just tried to give a heading to each of these five, and we daren’t work our way through them or we’ll be here long into tomorrow morning. And if you don’t like my heading, get your own heading! All right?
First of all, in verses 6–8, injustice. Injustice. “Woe to him who piles up stolen goods and makes himself wealthy by extortion!” “You have plundered,” verse 8, “many nations.” In other words, he sounds out a woe to the nation that has conquered lands to which it has no moral right, that has gone and taken for itself something that doesn’t belong to it, for whatever reason—usually on the strength of tyranny or the desire simply to have more than we have. Tempted to pile up stolen goods, guilty of dealing unfairly, being involved in extortion; you will find all of these words and notions in this little section, 6–8. And what he says is “What you’ve piled up will come down on your head. You thought it was a great idea to come in here and vanquish these people and plunder these people and take over everything and call it your own. Well, guess what? It’ll come down and land on your head.”
Now, I’m going to have to stop myself from making tangential points of application, but every selfish human empire in the history of humanity has proved this to be the case. “Rule Britannia! Britannia rules the waves.” That’s what we sang coming out of school: 1957, on the school bus going home, “We’re in charge of the universe,” we sang to ourselves. Well, it all came down on our heads.
Secondly, in verses 9–11: woe to those who make failed attempts at security. “Woe to him who builds his realm by unjust gain”—there’s injustice again—“to set his nest on high,” and he does so in order “to escape the clutches of ruin!” “To escape the clutches of ruin!” I looked at that little phrase “to set his nest on high,” and only one name out of all of history came to mind, and what was the name? “To set his nest on high.” Who had a nest on high? Hitler! Hitler! His Eagle’s Nest, built for him on his fiftieth birthday so that the Third Reich might go there and take tea. The Kehlsteinhaus, the teahouse, so that these most brutal of totalitarian rulers may sit in pristine beauty and drink tea. And look: “The stones of the wall will cry out, and the beams of the woodwork will echo it.” And they do. And they do.
Thirdly, verses 12–14: cruelty. Cruelty. “Woe to him who builds a city with bloodshed and establishes a town by crime!”—who holds life cheap, who uses the workers to build and beautify his temple and his palace and his own place, who watches slaves die under the blows of the taskmasters. There will be blood! And look at the futility of it:
Has not the Lord Almighty determined
that the people’s labor is only fuel for the fire,
that the nations exhaust themselves for nothing?
“For nothing”! At the end of the day, when the wind has blown and when time has done its work, and when political forces have arisen and others have collapsed, all of their great endeavors, with all of their bloodshed and all their crime-filled towns, just amount to nothing at all.
Fourth woe is on immorality; 15–17. Consider the people, stripped not only of their clothes but of their honor and of their dignity. “You will be filled with shame,” verse 16, “instead of glory.”
Now, you will notice that all of these little woes have a certain elasticity about them, and purposefully so. Habakkuk is not tying these things to a moment in time nor to a particular people. He is speaking under the direction of God’s Spirit, and there is a sense in which, as he makes the succession of woes, the phrase that comes to mind is “If the cap fits, wear it.” “If the cap fits, wear it.” And you can determine at what point you want the American empire to get on board with this drama. But we’re pretty close right here, aren’t we? The capital of the pornographic Western world is here in the United States. “Woe to him who gives drink to his neighbors,” gazing “on their naked bodies.”
And notice the violence in verse 17 is a violence that’s been done alongside this immorality, a violence done to Lebanon which “will overwhelm you.” That sets it in an immediate point of application in relationship to geography. “And your destruction of animals will terrify you.” I read that phrase and I said, “Now, what in the world are we dealing with here?” And then “You have shed man’s blood; you[’ve] destroyed lands and cities and everyone in them.”
It’s impossible to miss this. God expresses his judgment upon those who play fast and loose with creation. What is this but a devastation of nature? What did they do to Lebanon? What’s Lebanon known for? Its forests. Its forests. “The violence you’ve done to Lebanon will overwhelm you. The way you’ve treated animals will terrify you. The way you shed human blood indiscriminately will cry against you.”
I say to you again that to be a Christian is to have a view about everything in the world. Everything in the world! The Christian’s response to ecology is a Christian response. It is a Bible response. The Christian’s view of the doctrine of creation is guarded and guided by the Bible. So the fact that we know that all creation groans in travail waiting for the redemption of the sons of man does not mean that we’re supposed to say, “See! Therefore, it doesn’t matter.” No! We’re supposed to, on the basis of our understanding of what the Bible says, deal with it in a way that cares for that which God has given us to enjoy. We can’t sing about the “Through the woods and forest glades I wander” on the one hand and then just torch the place on the other—not unless we want just to be a walking contradiction. Which, of course, is part of our dilemma.
And the fifth and final woe, in verses 18–20, is the woe against idolatry. Idolatry. “What value is an idol?” No value at all! “Woe to him who says to wood, ‘Come to life!’ Or to lifeless stone, ‘Wake up!’” Absolutely useless!
I’m tempted to read to you from David Wells’s book, but I’m not going to, because it would take too long, and I would violate my own desires and designs for the evening. But I have an unbelievably wonderful quote out of David Wells’s latest book, entitled The Courage to Be Protestant, and I was going to quote to you from page 164 and -65 and -66. So we’ll just leave it right here; you can read it afterwards. But his point is: the idolatry of twenty-first century America is the idolatry of me. It’s the idolatry of the self. And again, if the cap fits, wear it. Of what value is an idol—that we would look inside of ourselves for God, that we would look to ourselves for our own answers? All of that is simply idolatry.
The Lord’s answer, then; the Lord’s judgment; and finally, the Lord’s glory. The Lord’s glory.
Next time, in 3:2, we will be confronted by that wonderful little call of Habakkuk to God, “In wrath remember mercy.” When he sees all that is unfolding in God’s judgment, he cries out to God to show mercy. And, of course, the whole story of the Bible is that God’s righteous judgment on sin is always accompanied by his mercy, so that when Adam and Eve are banished from the garden of Eden and the angels are there with flaming swords to prevent their reentry, it is God who then comes to them in their nakedness and provides coverings for them—an expression of his mercy in the execution of his judgment.
And when God sounds out his judgment upon the earth and calls people to repentance, he raises up his servant Noah, and Noah is charged with the prophetic responsibility of saying to people, “God is justifiably angry with the state of affairs, and he’s coming in judgment, and he is going to flood the world. But he wants you to know that he has provided here a way of escape, because in the execution of his wrath he is preferring you and offering you mercy.” And at the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ, as his wrath is poured out upon all the sinfulness and wickedness of man, in that very scene is the expression of his merciful love to all those who will hide under the shadow of what that cross provides.
So, when you read chapter 2 again later in the week, as I think some of you may, and you go through all of these “Woe, woe, woe, woe, woes,” make sure that you finish up by noticing verse 20: “The Lord is in heaven; therefore, shut up!” That’s what he says: “The Lord is in heaven; therefore, let the earth be silent.” “Let the earth be silent.” And then notice in verse 14… If you’re tempted to doubt that it’s all going pear-shaped, that everything is going horribly wrong, know this: “The earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of God, as the waters cover the sea.” All the proud kingdoms of time will pass away, but God’s kingdom stands and grows forever.
And the pathway of the righteous—verse 4—is the pathway of faith, and “the righteous will live by his faith.” And, of course, that verse is picked up and employed by Paul and by the writer of the Hebrews and pressed into service at the time of the Reformation both by Calvin and by Luther as a very cornerstone of the nature of Christian living itself, so that not by our endeavors, by our good deeds, by our attempts at righteousness, but on account of the provision of a righteousness that we are undeserving of and could never gain, the conduit of which is our faith, is our childlike trust… For the only thing that we bring to our Christian lives is the sin of which we need to be forgiven.
And then, on that pathway of faith, we come with our complaints and our questions and seek the Lord’s answer. Yes, a painful answer, for it speaks of his judgment. But in the midst of that judgment, an expression of his mercy, which speaks of his glory. “Therefore,” says Paul, being “justified [by] faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand.” Now notice this: “And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God.” We rejoice in the certainty of God’s manifestation of himself.
“So Habakkuk, hang on. I know what I’m doing. And it won’t be late, and it won’t be premature. It will be at the right time.” Some of us have illnesses that we would like healing for right now, and God says, “Hang on.” We don’t like the answer, but it is his answer. But in his own appointed time he will accomplish his purposes. So let us learn, with Habakkuk, to wait on him.
Father, help us as our day ends and as our Bibles close and as our gaze turns towards a Monday to make sure that we bring all our questions to the one who has the answers, to you, the omniscient, gracious, living, loving God. And then help us so to bring the truth of your answer to bear upon our lives so that as we view our own circumstances and the issues represented in the history of our world, that we might increasingly think in a biblical way—that our Christianity will not be something that isolates us from our society and from the world in which we live but allows us to think properly and to live rightly.
Forgive us for all the times when we want to live in splendid isolation, to pretend that nothing’s happened, to think that somehow we can just shoo it all away. There’s no one shooing the devastation away in China tonight, nor in Burma, nor in Zimbabwe, nor in the drug-soaked, sex-crazed cities of America. Unless you come, O God, unless you execute your judgment and in so doing show us mercy, we are without God and without hope.
But no, that cannot be, because as we have just read, we actually have in Jesus a hope that goes out beyond the bounds of our own small time frame. Fill us, then, with hope. Send us out in hope so that we might speak of hope to our friends and our neighbors who feel that life is increasingly fractured and futile and hopeless. For we pray in Christ’s name. Amen.
 See Psalm 46:10.
 Matthew 23:37; Luke 13:34 (paraphrased).
 See Luke 2:10–11.
 Psalm 73:1–14 (paraphrased).
 See 2 Timothy 3:16.
 Peter Seeger, “Turn! Turn! Turn!” (1965). See also Ecclesiastes 3:2.
 Matthew 23:13 (NIV 1984).
 James Thomson, “Rule, Britannia!” (1740).
 See Romans 8:22–23.
 Carl Boberg, trans. Stuark K. Hline “How Great Thou Art” (1885, 1949).
 Romans 5:1–2 (NIV 1984).
 See Ephesians 2:12.
Copyright © 2023, 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.