The Perplexed Prophet Misunderstanding God’s Justice HABAKKUK 1:12-2:1
Perplexed had to be the feeling of Habakkuk when God answered his cry for justice in Judah. Most likely he sat in stunned silence contemplating the unexpected revelation from God. The thought would flash across his mind, How could a holy God tolerate the Chaldeans’ sin, let alone use them to bring judgment upon Judah?, for Judah, although sinful, was less wicked than the Chaldeans! It was all an enigma to him; so inconsistent was the revelation with God’s nature. Had he in some way misunderstood the message and means by which Judah would be chastened?
Misunderstand? No! Habakkuk had received the right message. God would use the Chaldeans, a sinful and savage people, to chasten Judah.
Then how would Habakkuk respond to God’s message? He began by rehearsing the seeming paradox, questioning, How can a holy God use a sinful nation to accomplish His righteous purpose?
PERPLEXED OVER THE SUCCESS OF THE WICKED (vv. 12-13)
Habakkuk’s search for an answer to his perplexity began from a position of faith. He attempted to understand the Lord’s dealing with Judah by logically reviewing four truths he knew about God’s nature and character.
First, God is eternal, “Art thou not from everlasting [lit. from before]” (v. 12). God is eternal in the sense of His relation to time; He stands outside of time having neither beginning nor end, for time came to be at the point of creation (Jn. 1:3) and has meaning only in relation to it The Bible attests to the eternality of God: Abraham called Him the “everlasting God” (Gen. 21:33); Moses said, “. . . from everlasting to everlasting, thou art God” (Ps. 90:2); and Isaiah revealed God as the “high and lofty One who inhabiteth eternity’ (Isa. 57:15). For God to be God, He, of necessity, must have always existed. Since God is infinite and exists outside of time, the past, present, and future are all one — the NOW to Him. Therefore, He had full knowledge of the Chaldeans’ character and action against Judah.
Second, the prophet knew that his God was the “Holy One” (v. 12). Holiness refers to God’s absolute separateness from any moral evil — it is the foremost attribute expressing God’s nature. Israel knew well the attribute of God’s holiness, for He revealed it through the Levitical law (Lev. 11:44-45), the priesthood (Lev. 8-10), the laws of purity (Lev. 11-15), the Tabernacle worship (Ex. 26:33), the sacrificial system (Lev. 1-7), and the feast days (Lev. 23).
Third, since God is holy, He is of “purer eyes than to behold evil [look upon with approval], and canst not look on iniquity” (v. 13). Habakkuk concluded that God could in no way be charged with, or implicated in, sinful acts.
Fourth, Habakkuk called God a “Mighty God” (v. 12) which literally means a “Rock,” having reference to His immutability (unchangeableness). Moses described God as “the Rock, his work is perfect; for all his ways are justice; a God of truth and without iniquity, just and right is he” (Dt. 32:4). Five times Moses referred to God as a “Rock” in Deuteronomy 32:4, 15,18, 30 and 31. The word Rock has reference to God as a sure foundation, a stable refuge, from which Israel could succor sustenance as she rested beneath its shadow when facing the storms of opposition.
Christ referred to God as the trustworthy Rock upon whom all men should build their lives (Mt. 7:24-27). Paul described Christ as the “spiritual Rock” (1 Cor. 10:4) who followed and protected the children of Israel during their forty years in the wilderness.
Habakkuk also realized that God had “ordained [appointed] them [Chaldeans] for judgment; and… established [founded] them for correction [to chasten His people]” (v. 12). Knowing all this, the prophet cried out, “We shall not die” (v. 12). Habakkuk knew that God had chosen Israel to be a “special people unto himself” (Dt 7:6), a people with whom He had made an eternal, unconditional covenant (Gen. 17:7-8,13, 19), which the Lord sealed with blood (Gen. 15:7-17; 17:9-14).
Having reviewed his solid faith in the glorious character of God’s person and program as it related to His purpose for Israel, Habakkuk still struggled with the haunting question, How can a holy God use a sinful nation to accomplish His righteous purpose?
God is “of purer eyes than to behold evil, and canst not look on iniquity” (v. 13). Habakkuk was not saying that God could not see sin, for “all things are naked and opened unto the eyes of him with whom we have to do” (Heb. 4:13). But God cannot endure or approve the deeds of the wicked, for His holy nature would repeal it— evil being the opposite of holiness.
Since God is holy and abhors sin, Habakkuk had two questions which needed to be answered. First, “why lookest thou upon them that deal treacherously?” (v. 13). The prophet wondered why God would choose a beastly, heathenish people like the Chaldeans, and bestow on them favor, honor, and prosperity. How could He use this people for any purpose, let alone to chasten Judah?
This invokes a second question from Habakkuk, “why . . . holdest thy tongue when the wicked devoureth the man that is more righteous than he?” (v. 13). The prophet could not understand how a holy God could keep silent and restrained from manifesting His justice against the wicked Chaldeans; for Judah, although wicked, was extremely more righteous than the Chaldeans, On a humanistic level, Habakkuk’s assumption might seem correct; Judah would be considered more righteous. But to say Judah was more righteous than the Chaldeans was a misconception, for no man is righteous in God’s sight (Ps. 14:2-3; Isa. 64:6). Habakkuk should have said, the nation which sinned less before God.
God was not chastening Judah on the basis of who was or was not the greater sinner. Judgment was coming because she had refused to repent of her sin after years of warning. God remained silent to the prophet’s questions.
God does not always answer the many questions which righteous people have in the time or manner they desire. All believers have experienced times of delay or no answers to their questions. There are the husband and wife who ask why they could not have children, but the answer is not given. There is the cry of why when parents lose a child, but the answer is never known. There is the plaintive why of a paraplegic who has been debilitated by a freak accident, but the reason is never given. In Habakkuk’s case the answer would come, but not now.
PERMITTING THE WICKED TO SUCCEED (vv.. 14-15)
Still perplexed over the ways of God, Habakkuk continued to question Him about what was happening to Judah. He asked, was not Judah as “fish of the sea, as the creeping things, that have no ruler over them?” (v. 14).
Fish and creeping things are helplessly weak and unable to buck either the fierce waters or winds which push them along to their destruction. Even if they wanted to fight back, they have neither the physical or mental ability to cry for help, and having no power to resist their environment, they are at the mercy of whatever befalls them. Moreover, they have no leader to provide wisdom, protection, or guidance away from the predator that waits to destroy. Such was the case in Judah, or any nation, if God were to remove His providential care.
The Chaldeans were a formidable predator against Judah, who took “up all of them with the hook,… and gather[ed] them in their drag [net]” (v. 15). A similar revelation was given to Jeremiah. God said that after He sent the fishermen to net the Judeans, He would send for many hunters who would comb the mountains, hills, and cliffs of the rocks for captives (Jer. 16:16) —none were to escape captivity. This was graphically portrayed when the Romans defeated Israel in A.D, 70; they sought out every pocket of resistance.
Habakkuk was crying out in concern, God, how can You allow Your people to be swept away in the net of captivity as insignificant creatures by such brutal beasts as the Chaldeans? An answer never came.
Nations should learn a number of lessons from Judah’s experience. First, they should not boast in their strength, for their prosperity and power are from the Lord. If God chooses, He can remove it in a moment, without notice. Second, they should not rely upon their finite cunning, for they are at the mercy of God who can sweep them away like fish and creeping things. Third, when the net of judgment falls, everything is swept away; the righteous are dragged off with the wicked.
PROMOTING OF THE WICKED (vv. 16-17)
Another perplexity for Habakkuk was the promoting of the Chaldeans, for they “sacrifice unto their net, and burn incense unto their drag” (v. 16). Instead of bowing the knee to an omnipotent God as the source of victory over the nations, they deified the power of their weapons and, thus, themselves (cf. v. 11). How could God prosper the way of a nation who refused to credit Him for their victories?
Habakkuk questioned, “Shall they, therefore, empty their net, and not spare continually to slay the nations?” (v. 17). He was saying, They subdued nation after nation as fish [Assyria, Egypt, etc.], and now they are on the threshold of doing the same to Judah. Is there any stopping them? Will God just let them incessantly empty their net to fill it again with the spoils and slayings of the nations ? God, are You going to allow them to continually rejoice and be glad [v. 15] in their evil pursuits? God, are You going to stand idly by as they lift up the clenched fist deifying the power of man?
A modern-day counterpart would be the leadership of the Soviet Union who, as avowed atheists, worship the power of their state. Like a cancer, they sweep across the world promoting revolutions, trying to gain a foothold in third world countries in order to subdue and eventually control them. They net nation after nation giving credit for their victories to their god, the Communist system.
PROPHET’S WATCH (2:1)
Though Habakkuk knew he had been rash and pointed in his questions to God, nevertheless he would wait and watch, trusting Him for the answers. As a servant before his master, the prophet said, “I will stand upon my watch, and set myself upon the tower, and will watch to see what he will say unto me . . .” (2:1).
Notice, Habakkuk did not become impatient and assertive demanding his right to know why God had so acted. Neither did he strike out against God, calling Him unjust in His dealing with Judah. Nor did he talk of giving up the faith, unable to believe in a God who would use the wicked to chasten His people. Instead, Habakkuk would set himself upon the watchtower (not physically, but mentally) to wait and see (not hear) how God would answer him.
The prophet was not afraid of being reproved for his questions, as some versions seem to indicate. The words “when I am reproved” (2:1) are better translated when God argues with [answers] me. He was simply saying that when God answered him, it would be in the form of an argument. Thus, while Habakkuk watched as a sentinel, he would contemplate the type of response to give when God revealed His answer.
Habakkuk knew that God is faithful; He would never forget, fail, falter, or forfeit His word.1 He knew that “God is not a man, that he should lie” (Num. 23:19). He knew that God must chasten Judah, but He would not remove His loving-kindness; His faithfulness to them would not fail (Ps. 89:32-33). Therefore, he would wait and watch to see how God answered him.
The watchman is one who has the keen eye of an eagle, able to spot imminent danger. He must have nerves of iron and be steadfast in his assignment, not leaving his post for fear of an approaching enemy. He must be alert, for to sleep at his post could mean destruction to his people. To be selected as a watchman was a trusted honor, for the leadership of his country put the security of the nation in his care. Above all, the watchman was to be faithful to his commission. Unfaithfulness is unforgivable, for the results would be certain death to him and his people.
Habakkuk was this type of watchman — keen eyed, seeing the imminent danger coming upon Judah. He had nerves of iron, willing to be steadfast in defense of his people, but questioning why God would allow such a wicked nation to destroy Judah. He was not asleep, but spiritually alert, ready for God’s answer to his perplexity. Habakkuk knew a watchman must be faithful to his commission, obedient to the voice of God, whether He responded to his dilemma or not.
Today, believers wonder how God can allow certain things to take place in their lives. They cry out in prayer, only to find God silent to their requests.
Oswald Chambers has written, “God’s silences are His answers.. . His silence is the sign that He is bringing you into a marvellous understanding of Himself . . . God has trusted you in the most intimate way possible, with an absolute silence, not of despair, but of pleasure, because He saw that you could stand a bigger revelation.” 2
In Habakkuk’s case, it was the bigger revelation that God would give of Himself and His purpose for Judah, but he must patiently watch and wait for it. The same is true in the life of a believer today.
Chambers went on to say, “A wonderful thing about God’s silence is that . . . His stillness gets into you and you become perfectly confident — ‘I know God has heard me’.”3
Many times the believer does not understand what the Lord is working out in his life, but he has the assurance that, although God may be silent, He is in control. May the words of our Lord to Peter, “ What I do thou knowest not now, but thou shalt know hereafter” (Jn. 13:7), undergird us in times when God is silent.
- Arthur W. Pink, The Attributes of God, (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1975), p. 52.
- Oswald Chambers, My Utmost for His Highest, (New York: Dodd, Mead, and Company, 1956), p. 285.