May 12, 2008
No generation escapes injustice or outbreaks of violence—and in every era, victims have cried out to God for mercy, pleading with Him to take action against the wicked. Alistair Begg addresses the tough issues raised by an Old Testament prophet, pointing out that the unfolding events in our day, just as in Habakkuk’s, are under God’s sovereign rule. In this sermon, we are reminded that all of our problems only find resolution at the foot of the cross.
Sermon Transcript: Print
Can I invite you to turn in your Bibles to the Old Testament, to Habakkuk, which, if you need help in finding and you want to use one of the church Bibles to enable you to that end, you’ll find on page 662. Page 662.
And if any of you have been honest enough to say to yourself, “I wonder what in the world we’re doing studying the book of Habakkuk,” then just feel perfectly free to voice that. You’re not alone. That’s exactly what I was thinking at about a quarter past eight last Sunday evening, after we’d finished our first study. I was actually severely tempted to put Habakkuk back in his box and just trust in your forgetfulness. But here we are, back again. Let me read as you follow along:
The oracle that Habakkuk the prophet received.
How long, O Lord, must I call for [your] 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.
“Look at the nations and watch—
and be utterly amazed.
For I am going to do something in your days
that you would not believe,
even if you were told.
I am raising up the Babylonians,
that ruthless and impetuous people,
who sweep across the whole earth
to seize dwelling places not their own.
They are a feared and dreaded people;
they are a law to themselves
and promote their own honor.
Their horses are swifter than leopards,
fiercer than wolves at dusk.
Their cavalry gallops headlong;
their horsemen come from afar.
They fly like a vulture swooping to devour;
they all come bent on violence.
Their hordes advance like a desert wind
and gather prisoners like sand.
They deride kings
and scoff at rulers.
They laugh at all fortified cities;
they build earthen ramps and capture them.
Then they sweep past like the wind and go on—
guilty men, whose own strength is their god.”
O Lord, are you not from everlasting?
My God, my Holy One, we will not die.
O Lord, you have appointed them to execute judgment;
O Rock, you have ordained them to punish.
Your eyes are too pure to look on evil;
you cannot tolerate wrong.
Why then do you tolerate the treacherous?
Why are you silent while the wicked
swallow up those more righteous than themselves?
You have made men like fish in the sea,
like sea creatures that have no ruler.
The wicked foe pulls all of them up with hooks,
he catches them in his net,
he gathers them up in his dragnet;
and so he rejoices and is glad.
Therefore he sacrifices to his net
and burns incense to his dragnet,
for by his net he lives in luxury
and [he] enjoys the choicest food.
Is he to keep on emptying his net,
destroying nations without mercy?
I will stand at my watch
and station myself on the ramparts;
I will look to see what he will say to me,
and what answer I am to give to this complaint.
Well, Father, we pray our Bible class prayer:
Make the Book live to me, O Lord,
Show me yourself within your Word,
Show me myself and show me my Savior,
And make the Book live to me.
For Jesus’ sake. Amen.
Although Habakkuk lived long ago and far away, he introduces us to a timeless issue. Because as his prophecy opens, he’s wrestling with the apparent inactivity of God in the face of injustice, violence, and destruction. His questions to God are straightforward. He’s been praying, but he’s growing weary. And so, in verse 2, he asks the Lord how long is it going to be that he has to keep coming to him in prayer looking for an answer.
And from the perspective of the prophet, there is a problem here as far as God’s timing is concerned. The prophet knew well enough that when God established his covenant with his people, he promised that blessings would accompany their obedience. But he also promised that their disobedience would be followed by curses and by judgment. If you want to read of that for yourselves, you can read the whole of chapter 28 of Deuteronomy. It runs to some sixty verses or so, but essentially, that is all that it is saying. God is saying to his people, “If you will obey me, I will bless you and prosper you. If you disobey me, then curses will come down upon you, and judgment will face you inevitably.” And so the prophet, knowing that, is essentially saying, “So what are you doing? You said back in Deuteronomy that if we stepped out of line, if your people were out of line, if they were involved in wickedness, you would do something, but apparently, you are not doing anything. How long is this going to go on?”
Not only did he have a problem with God’s timing, but he had a problem, as verse 3 makes clear, with God’s tolerance. “Why are you tolerating wrong? Why do you make me look at injustice?” Now, for those of us who were present last time, we noted that verses 3 and 4 provide us with a description of the moral and spiritual declension that existed among the people of God. Verses 2, 3, and 4 are referencing the internal problem of God’s people. And the prophet recognizes that the people of God have turned in the wrong direction, and he anticipates that God will do something.
In terms of the history of Habakkuk, we again learned last time that he was a younger contemporary of Jeremiah; that the king during this period was Jehoiakim. Jehoiakim had a wonderful father. His name was Josiah. And Josiah was a terrific king. However, Jehoiakim, his son, wasn’t. And he is addressed in Jeremiah chapter 22, in the prophecy that Jeremiah brings. And he speaks directly to this king—which takes some significant bravery, I think you would agree—and he says to him as follows:
“Woe to him who builds his palace by unrighteousness,
his upper rooms by injustice,
making his countrymen work for nothing,
not paying them for their labor.
He says, ‘I will build myself a great palace
with spacious upper rooms.’
So he makes large windows in it,
panels it with cedar
and decorates it in red.”
And then the prophet says,
“Does it make you a king
to have more and more cedar?
Did[n’t] your father have food and drink?
He did what was right and just,
so all went well with him.
He defended the cause of the poor and needy,
and so all went well.
Is that not what it means to know me?”
declares the Lord.
But here’s the judgment:
“Your eyes and your heart
are set only on dishonest gain,
on shedding innocent blood
and on oppression and extortion.”
Therefore this is what the Lord says about Jehoiakim son of Josiah king of Judah:
“They will not mourn for him: [No one will say,]
‘Alas, my brother! Alas, my sister!’
They will not mourn for him:
‘Alas, my master! Alas, his splendor!’
He will have the burial of a donkey—
dragged away and thrown
outside the gates of Jerusalem.”
Now, given the principle that the people will never go beyond their leadership, we read purposefully in relationship to the circumstances concerning Jehoiakim. And when you read that, you realize that it is no small wonder why the prophets, in introducing what they have to say, refer to it not always as an “oracle,” as it is here at the beginning of Habakkuk, but as a “burden.” Indeed, “a burden” is the alternative word for “oracle,” and I think it is better to read it as “a burden.” Because what is actually happening is that God comes in some supernatural way and invades, if you like, the heart and mind of the prophet—a normal individual living a normal life in normal surroundings, reading his newspaper, going about his business. And God, if you like, impresses upon this character God’s burden: his burden for a broken world, his burden for his wayward people. And he comes, as it were, and he lays that burden on the shoulders of the prophet, and he gives the prophet to see with eyes that make him unique among his contemporaries. And when he views the events and circumstances of life, he sees them almost, as it were, in another dimension, which lays upon him. And so it is that under the direction of God, for him to write in this way, to speak in this way is not simply the proclamation of a seer or the introduction of an oracle but is, in every realistic sense, the off-loading of a burden.
Now, it is in verse 5 that we begin to get God’s answer. And look at how he begins. Essentially, he says to Habakkuk, “You may want to sit down for this, Habakkuk.” That’s really verse 5, isn’t it? “I want you to look at the nations and watch. Let me tell you what to look for. But beware—and in fact, be aware—that it is going to be unbelievable to you. In fact, it is frankly amazing.”
Now, what he goes on to say is that this emerging superpower of “the Chaldeans” it may be in your translation, or “the Babylonians”—it’s a description of the same peoples—the emerging of this superpower is an instrument in Yahweh’s hand. That’s the significance of the opening phrase of verse 6: “I am raising up the Babylonians.” “I am raising up the Babylonians.” So, if you like, when Habakkuk read his newspaper, or the equivalent of, and he reflected on the power and might of the Babylonian Empire, as he drank his coffee and said to his wife, “I can’t believe that the Babylonians have sacked another city”… They first of all, in 614, had sacked Assur; in 612, Nineveh; and in the ensuing years, they were just gobbling up places until eventually they gave the Egyptians a hiding in the classic historic battle in Carchemish in 605 BC. And when he would have read of these events and people would have spoken of them, they would have said to one another, “It’s amazing what is happening with these Babylonians.” And then God lays this burden on him, and he says, “You know what’s happening with the Babylonians? I am raising up the Babylonians, that ruthless and impetuous people.” In other words, God reveals that the momentous historical events that are unfolding in Habakkuk’s lifetime are under God’s sovereign control.
May I just say parenthetically that the momentous historical events which are unfolding in our lifetime are equally under God’s sovereign control? God is not watching, as it were, from the ramparts of heaven to see how history is unfolding. He isn’t doing it today, and he wasn’t doing it then.
And in verses 6–11, we essentially have a poem. I’m going to leave it for you to read. You can memorize it if you want. It doesn’t scan particularly well, but I tried to read it in my best English in a way that my English teacher at the grammar school in Ilkley would have been proud of. I hope you caught something of it. But you will notice that at the very heart of it are these striking statements. Verse 7, the character of the Babylonians: “They are a feared and [a] dreaded people; … a law to themselves and promote their own honor.” And so he describes in rich poetic form the horses “swifter than leopards, fiercer than wolves at dusk.” I was just with a friend who told me that he goes wolf hunting in Alaska. And as Sue and I listened to this description, it was clear to me that wolves are a remarkable species, and you’re going to have to be very, very good if you think you’re going to do anything to inhibit their progress. The Babylonians came like “wolves at dusk … their horsemen [flying] from afar.”
Verse 10: when they come on these various cities and when they bump up against these other little rulers, they just “deride” them. They “scoff at rulers. They laugh at all [the] fortified cities; they build earthen ramps.” You’ve got the picture of them moving ground material, and moving the material and creating ramps, and then using the ramps as a launching pad for them being able to force their way into the citadels of the time and take them over and establish their control. But the prophet needs to know of their destiny, and in verse 11 we’re told that “then they sweep past like the wind and [they] go on,” but they’re “guilty men, whose own strength is their god.”
Now, in that section, what is happening is that God is answering the request of Habakkuk. He’s letting him know that he—that is, God—is at work, even though the prophet can’t see it. He’s letting him know that although the prophet is asking, “Why aren’t you doing something?” he is doing something. He is always at work. God is always at work. And so it was that far, far away from where Habakkuk was living, in Babylon, the events were unfolding—momentous events that were going to change the course of world history. Now, Habakkuk couldn’t see that—not until God opened his eyes to it. And even as he does, it is so amazing, it is so unbelievable that he stumbles over it, as we’re about to see; that the rise of Babylon wasn’t as a result of some unique political strategy but was as a result of God’s sovereign design.
And when you just pause for a moment and think about that and put it in contemporary terms and view the little history in which we live and the time in which we’ve lived—for myself, post–Second World War, what, seven years after the end of the Second World War, and all the way through until today. Oh, the things that those of us of the same vintage have lived through! The rise and fall of various groups and plans and dreams. The collapse of the Berlin Wall. The opening up of borders once closed. The meeting of people from places in the world that we thought we would never meet people and never see because they were closed off, they were unavailable. I just met somebody the other day from Albania, and I said to her, “Are you an atheist?” And she said, “But no.” And I said, “Well, do you know anything of God?” She said, “No.” Because you will remember that Albania was the great atheist country in the world, the one country that Christianity would never, ever penetrate. Today its borders are open, and today there are people worshipping God in the very heart of Albania.
And so we stand back from our newspapers, and we talk together about the multicultural nature of our world, about the ascendancy of China, about the phenomenal wealth of India, about their tremendous technology in the internet world and in the realm of computers, and all these other things, and we look at our own dwindling empires, and we see the destruction of the auto industry, and we see Detroit a shadow of what it once was, and people bemoan and complain and wonder and worry and spill their coffee over their morning newspapers as they put their hands over their eyes, unwilling to see any more of it happen at all—forgetting all the time that God is sovereign over all these things too, and that his designs are different from our designs! He doesn’t think as we think. He doesn’t plan as we plan. He is not preoccupied with the trivial issues that focus our agendas.
And again, the hymn writer helps us, doesn’t he? Cowper. For a different reason, but the verse is good:
Deep in unfathomable mines,
Of never-failing skill,
He treasures up his bright designs,
And works his sovereign will.
You see, that’s what Habakkuk needed to learn in his day. And the benefit of reading again the prophecy is being reminded of it in our own day.
But you know, here’s the exciting thing. And it just occurred to me this afternoon when I was thinking of this again—as I was thinking about all the dreadful aspects, if you like, of God raising up the Babylonians, all of these wolflike characters, and doing all these dreadful things in relationship to the people of God. And I decided I would go back and look at the beginning of Daniel, just to see how Daniel began. And I was so delighted to discover how it begins, and you’ll be delighted too. Because look at how it starts: “In the third year of the reign of Jehoiakim.” Remember Jehoiakim from just a couple of moments ago? Remember what God said would happen to Jehoiakim? That’s what Habakkuk has discovered, and that’s what Habakkuk is going to have to share.
“[The] king of Babylon came to Jerusalem and besieged it. And the Lord delivered Jehoiakim king of Judah into his hand.” And as you read on, they brought all these fine young people into the place with them, dragging them away from Judah: families, “nobility—young men without any physical defect, handsome, showing aptitude for every kind of learning, well informed, quick to understand, … qualified to serve in the king’s palace.” Well, that’s what I would do as well! If you go in there and you rampage and you steal, you might as well steal the brightest and the best. And so they did.
And so you have Daniel. And then you have Daniel’s friends: Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. And here’s my thought: the same God who raises up the Babylonians to accomplish his purpose in relationship to the judgment of his people is the same God who was at work in the hearts and minds of Daniel’s mom and dad so as to produce Daniel at the exact moment in time to be dragged away by the Babylonians so that he and his friends may prove themselves to be the very remnant of God’s purposes even in the midst of chaos. And what wonderful friends they were! And how brave they were before the challenge that faced them and before the image that Nebuchadnezzar had put up and before which he wanted everybody to bow. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego decided that they weren’t going to do it. They wouldn’t pay attention to it. “We will not serve your gods [n]or worship the image of gold you have set up.”
And as you read the story, it’s just fantastic. He gives them a final chance. He says, “We’re going to start playing the music,” and “if you[’re] ready to fall down and worship the image I made, very good. But if you do not worship it, you will be thrown immediately into a blazing furnace.” And then here’s the Babylonian speech. Now this is Babylonian talk: “Then what god will be able to rescue you from my hand?”
Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego replied to the king, “O Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter. If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to [rescue] us from it, and he will rescue us from your hand, O king. But even if he does not, we want you to know, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.”
All the proud, defiant, manipulative strength of the godless regime is paralyzed before these youthful characters standing in the very center of God’s covenant purposes. And how their parents would have cheered from the side when they saw them faced by this veritable holocaust, with all the power ranged against them, daring to be just like their friend Daniel.
Well, that was something of a detour, but I hope it was purposeful and helpful to you.
What we’re learning is that in this instance, as in so many instances, God’s response is totally different from that which we feel we might legitimately expect. That’s the thing that staggers Habakkuk. And that’s why in verse 12 he comes back with his second problem. And essentially what he is saying to God is, “Frankly, this cure is worse than the disease. If I hear you properly, what are you saying? How can you, the everlasting God”—now he calls God’s character in defense of his own questioning—“How can you, the everlasting God, how can you, the Holy One, employ such wicked people to fulfill your purposes?” Do you see what he’s saying? “This isn’t in keeping with your character. You are a holy God! Holy Gods wouldn’t do this!”
Look at verse 13:
Your eyes are too pure to look on evil;
you cannot tolerate wrong.
Why then do you tolerate the treacherous?
Why are you silent while the wicked
swallow up those more righteous than themselves?
He’s really back at the same thing, isn’t he? “Why do you tolerate this? Why are you silent? You can’t possibly be serious! Are you telling me,” says Habakkuk, “that you’re going to use really evil people to punish moderately evil people? I mean, we were a bad lot, but we don’t even compare to this group that you’re bringing in to do your work. I mean, we had turned our backs on you; we admit that. We had not been caring for the poor as you asked us to. There is injustice and violence and destruction in our land. But Lord, we’re nothing like these Babylonians! Is it possible that you would use these people to deal with our people?”
And then 14–17, which takes us to the end of the chapter, you have essentially almost another little poem, certainly a metaphor. And you’ll see the metaphor that is there: “You[’ve] made men,” us, “like fish in the sea, like sea creatures that have no ruler.” He pictures the people of God floating, as it were, rudderless and rulerless. And then look at the Babylonians, how they’re described in this picture: “The Babylonians,” he says, “they’re going to come at us as if they were just out on a fishing expedition.” Look at them: “The wicked, they pull all of these sea creatures up with hooks. They catch them in the net. They gather them into the dragnet.” And then he goes on, and he gets almost carried away in the metaphor, and he says, “You know, look at these characters. They’re so fascinated by their ability to do this that they’re actually setting up their fishing nets in a shrine and bowing down before them because their fishing nets are the key to their prosperity and the key to their victory. In fact, look at them there, as they worship their little gods in their little shrines.”
Now, when you realize how fishing was as important as it was in Babylonia, you realize how apt the metaphor is. For the region of the Babylonians was there amongst the Tigris and the Euphrates Rivers and bordered on the south by the Persian Gulf, and fishing was a large part of Babylonian culture. And for those of you who go to museums—and you know that I’m not often there with you—you may have actually seen some of the reliefs that have been brought from the walls of Near Eastern buildings which portray in those reliefs victorious Babylonian rulers taking their captives away in fish nets. That’s the picture. And that’s the picture employed by Habakkuk here.
But you know, I have an observation. And I don’t know how right it is, but I’ll share it with you anyway, and if it’s no good, you can just press Delete. I noticed something here, and I’m not sure if it’s right. But look what has happened, apparently, to the prophet. Back in verses 2–4, he was asking God to intervene because of the chaos of the people of God. He was acknowledging that amongst the people of God there was violence, there was destruction, there was wickedness. And indeed, the wicked among the people of God were hemming in the righteous, so much so that the rule of law had been nullified, had been numbed; it was essentially paralyzed. But it is, if you like, a picture of responsibility, a picture of acknowledged responsibility: “The people of God have done these things.”
Now it’s time for us to stop, and we’re going to leave him, as it says in the King James Version, “standing on his watch”—which, as children, we always loved, because we said that was the smallest man in the Bible, because he was able to stand on his watch. Some of my young people in Hamilton when I was a younger minister used to wish that I would stand on my watch. In fact, I think they thought I had, which is why the sermons went on so long. But he is standing at his watch, he’s stationing himself on the ramparts, and he’s waiting now to see what God will say.
And there’s a sense in which, in leaving it here, we leave it, of course, as unfinished business. And we must. But it is clear from the passage—and let’s affirm this—that because God is almighty, he can and does at times do things that are the opposite of what we might anticipate in order that his purpose may be achieved. And in such times, we must learn to say, “I’m not sure exactly what’s happening here, but I do know certain facts to be true of God. And so, until such times as God chooses to make the hazy clear, I will hold on to what I am confident of, and I will use it to face up to that which at the present time remains uncertain.”
And then just a PS. And the PS is this: all of the prophet’s uncertainties and questions about violence and injustice and the unbearable spiritual, intellectual tension which these things bring upon a person is ultimately answered not within the framework of Habakkuk but beyond it. There are little pointers, as we will see before we finish our studies, but we have to go all the way forward to Jesus to get the answer to the real fundamental issue that is raised here: the question of God’s intervention, the question of God’s dealing with injustice, the question of God providing the requisite judgment and showing within that judgment mercy that is true to his character. Because remember, it was something of a scene of injustice, wasn’t it, at the cross? And that injustice dawning on the mind of one of the thieves when he shouts across to his friend and he says, “We are punished justly, for we are getting what our [sins] deserve. But this man,” pointing to Jesus, “has done nothing wrong.”
And I put it to you that Habakkuk’s dilemma—and dilemma it is—is more than matched than that of Isaiah when, in describing a scene he will never see with his own bare eyes, he writes these words:
Yet it was the Lord’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer,
and though the Lord makes his life a guilt offering,
he will see his offspring and prolong his days,
and the will of the Lord will prosper in his hand.
After the suffering of his soul,
he will see the light of life and be satisfied;
by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many,
and he will bear their inequities.
Therefore I will give him a portion among the great,
and he will divide the spoils with the strong,
because he poured out his life unto death,
and was numbered with the transgressors.
For he bore the sin of many,
and made intercession for the transgressors.
Ultimately, all of these questions must be brought to the foot of the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ. I’m sure that’s why John Stott on one occasion said, “I could never … believe in God, [were it] not for the cross.” For in the cross God comes and deals with it all and enters into our suffering and pours out his blood, dying for those who hate him and revile him and in his death praying for his enemies. And all the moral and intellectual dilemma that is folded into Habakkuk’s complaints is ultimately only resolved at that place. And indeed, all of our moral, intellectual dilemmas will only adequately be addressed there.
Now just a moment of silence.
There is a fountain filled with blood
Drawn from Immanuel’s veins;
And sinners, plunged beneath that flood,
Lose all their guilty stains.
The dying thief rejoiced to see,
That fountain in his day;
And there may I, though vile as he,
Wash all my sins away.
Father, thank you for the immensity of your love. Thank you for tolerating your prophet’s questions. Thank you for being prepared to put up with our difficulties and burdens and concerns. Thank you for the more-than-adequate answers of your Word. And thank you for the graphic cry that comes from the cross, “It is finished.” Help us to this end: to bow our lives afresh before you, that we might live to serve you. For Jesus’ sake we pray. Amen.
 R. Hudson Pope, “Make the Book Live to Me” (1943). Language modernized.
 Jeremiah 22:13–19 (NIV 1984).
 William Cowper, “God Moves in a Mysterious Way” (1774).
 Daniel 1:1 (NIV 1984).
 Daniel 1:1–2 (NIV 1984).
 Daniel 1:3–4 (NIV 1984).
 Daniel 3:18 (NIV 1984).
 Daniel 3:15–18.
 Luke 23:41 (NIV 1984).
 Isaiah 53:10–12 (NIV 1984).
 John R. W. Stott, The Cross of Christ, 20th anniv. ed. (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2006), 326.
 William Cowper, “There Is a Fountain Filled with Blood” (1772).
 John 19:30 (NIV 1984).
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.