THE PERVERSE PEOPLE: Manifestation of Justice
History is punctuated by nations who spread themselves like a green bay tree, and with imperial precision subjugate the world under their feet.
In verse five the Chaldeans are pictured as a proud man, totally given over to wine, who becomes intoxicated with power and greed which moves him to roam the earth and swallow up nations at will. The Chaldeans’ appetite for spoil was insatiable “as sheol, and is as death” (v. 5), which cannot be satisfied (Prov. 27:20; 30:15-16). Inflamed with a consuming passion for greater spoil, he piled up nations and their wealth as one does plundered treasure.
The righteous were perplexed by the why of it all. Why does God seem to allow dictators to triumph over democracy? Why does He seem to allow the poor to suffer at the hands of the prosperous? Why does He seem to allow the godless to triumph over the godly? Why is it allowed? For God’s own purposes!
Though the world might stagger under the power of evil nations, God is still sovereignly in control. Secular history has proven that their prosperity is fixed, their power is short-lived, and their doom is sealed. Such was the destiny of Babylon who held sway over the Middle East during the sixth century B.C.
God had raised up the Chaldeans, granted them power, and used them to judge Judah, but they abused their power and had to be punished. Five woes were symmetrically pronounced against them in five stanzas (strophes) of three verses each. They were uttered not only by God, but by all nations whom the Chaldeans had mercilessly oppressed.
WOE AGAINST ILL-GOTTEN INCREASE (vv. 6-8)
The nations who had been oppressed by the Chaldeans “take up a parable . . . and a taunting proverb against him” (v. 6). In satirical riddles, filled with double meaning, the nations made up taunting songs concerning the Chaldeans’ brutality and their eventual judgment.
The first woe was against Babylon, because he “increaseth that which is not his” (v. 6). The nations asked, How long will these atrocities be allowed to go on?
In denouncing Babylon, God portrayed them as deceptive money lenders who “ladeth [loads] himself with thick clay [heavy pledges or debts]” (v. 6) through taking spoils from the nations. The huge quantity of wealth amassed by the Chaldeans is pictured as a great burden of debt (with interest) that was owed to the conquered nations.
These nations would raise up and collect the debt. Like a fierce viper they would “bite” and “vex” (v. 7) the Chaldeans. The word “vex” means to shake one violently like a man would shake a debtor who refused to pay. God would turn the Chaldeans over to the nations as “booty” (v. 7) for the “blood” and “violence” (v. 8) done to them.
Men and nations think they get away with robbery in their wickedness to others, but they simply pile up debts against themselves, and pay day will come someday from the Lord. The sinner is not to be deceived by thinking God does not see. Man might forget, but God does not: “. . . be sure your sin will find you out” (Num. 32:23). God is not to be mocked by man, for He has said, “. . . whatever a man soweth, that shall he also reap” (Gal. 6:7).
WOE AGAINST INHUMANITY (vv. 9-11)
The second woe was pronounced against the Chaldeans because of their covetousness, self exaltation, and inhumanity. They are pictured as an eagle who built his nest on a high mountain in order to be impregnable to predators (v. 9). The Chaldeans erected high walls and towers similar to those in Babel (Gen. 11:4), in order to protect themselves from the invasion of others.
The plundered wealth collected by Nebuchadnezzar was to be used in building “his house” (v. 9) or dynasty. But he brought “shame” and retribution upon his dynasty by inhumanely carrying “off many people” (v. 10) to work as slaves in building Babylon.
Even inanimate “stone shall cry out of the wall, and the beam out of the timber shall answer it” (v. 11), because of the cruel slave labor practiced by Nebuchadnezzar. No matter how strong or secure a people might be, whatever they build by covetousness or cruelty will witness against them and eventually mean their destruction.
Such was the case soon after Nebuchadnezzar’s reign. “Nebuchadnezzar’s son, Amel Maruk (Evil Merodach; 2 Kings 25:27), reigned only two years (562-560 B.C.) before he was assassinated by his brother-in-law, Nergal-Shar-Ussur, who ruled only four years. The latter’s son, who succeeded him, was murdered nine months later. Nabonidus, one of the conspirators, seized power and appointed his son, Belshazzar, co-regent of Babylon, and under him the empire fell in disgrace (Dan. 5).” 1
Such was the case with the Edomites who boasted of their strength and security (Obad. 3), but God said, “Though thou exalt thyself like the eagle,. . . from there will I bring thee down . . .” (Obad. 4).
Such was the case with the wealthy farmer who, coveting the so-called “good life” of ease and materialism, built bigger barns for his crops (Lk. 12:16-19). But he died on the day of his decision, never to enjoy his wealth.
Such was the case with another rich farmer who, coveting his wealth, defrauded those who labored to bring in the harvest by refusing to pay them (Jas. 5:1-5). Such money gained by inhumane practice will cry out in judgment against the owner. God has many ways of compensating evil doers. Often those who have built their empires on the blood of others die in ignominy, leaving their posterity a corrupted inheritance and disgraceful name (Prov. 14:11), or lose the wealth altogether.
WOE AGAINST INIQUITY (vv. 12-14)
The cup of iniquity was swiftly being filled up by the Chaldeans who built their city with “blood” and established it by “iniquity” (v. 12). They tirelessly built Babylon using the riches of the people they had captured and established the city through crime and tyranny. Daniel brought this problem to Nebuchadnezzar’s attention when he interpreted his dream of the great tree (Dan. 4:27).
One cannot begin to imagine the exploitation of humanity in building Babylon:
Superbly constructed, it spread over the area of fifteen square miles, the Euphrates River flowing diagonally across the city. The famous historian Herodotus said the city was surrounded by a wall 350 feet high and eighty-seven feet thick — extending thirty-five feet below the ground to prevent tunneling, and wide enough for six chariots to drive abreast.
Around the top of the wall were 250 watchtowers placed in strategic locations. Outside the huge wall was a large ditch, or moat, which surrounded the city and was kept filled with water from the Euphrates River . . . Within this wall were one hundred gates of brass . . . The famous hanging gardens of Babylon are on record yet today as one of the seven wonders of the world. Arranged in an area 400 feet square, and raised in perfectly cut terraces one above the other, they soared to a height of 350 feet. Viewers could make their way to the top by means of stairways, which were ten feet wide.
Babylon was literally a city of gold! (See Isa. 14:4). The city had fifty-three temples and 180 altars to Ishtar. 2
But it was all built in vain: “Behold, is it not of the Lord of hosts that the peoples shall labor only for fire, and the nations shall weary themselves for nothing” (v. 13). God had ordained that this gigantic fortified city was being built to become a huge bonfire (Isa. 50:11; 55:2; Jer. 51:58). All the blood, sweat, and tears were for naught!
Habakkuk gave the reason for the emptiness of this humanistic project: “For the earth shall be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea” (v. 14; see Isa. 11:9). No man-made kingdom will last for long, especially one built on the exploitation of others. Babylon, which was a type of all godless world powers, soon perished. Someday all godless kingdoms will be subdued at the return of the Messiah (Rev. 11:15), when He shall break them into pieces (Dan. 2:45). This prophecy looks forward to the Millennial Kingdom when the glory and knowledge of the Lord will inundate every area of the world.
During the kingdom there will not be the exploitation of man, but justice will permeate the world when the Lord rules in righteousness (Isa. 11:3). Even the animal kingdom will not be exploited by each other but will live in peace (Isa. 11:6-9).
WOE AGAINST INTOXICATION (vv. 15:17)
The Chaldeans were not only charged with oppressing the people, but leading them into debauchery through drink. God said, “Woe unto him that giveth his neighbor drink, that puttest thy wineskin to him, and makest him drunk . . .” (v. 15). In verse five it was shown that the Chaldeans were totally given over to wine, which motivated them to roam the earth in brutal conquest. They also made the nations drink their wine, causing them to become mad (Jer. 51:7). It must be remembered that wine brought about the downfall of Babylon, for during a drunken feast the Medo-Persian Empire captured the nation (Dan. 5).
Drink was the major factor for many personal and social sins in Babylon. First, it produced sexual sins, “. . . and makest him drunk also, that thou mayest look on their nakedness” (v. 15). One need not reflect long to know that alcohol lowers one’s inhibitions and often leads to immoral acts in which the person would not normally indulge.
This is illustrated in the account of Noah’s drunkenness (Gen. 9:20-23). Although Noah did not commit an immoral act in his stupor, his son did. Ham, the father of Canaan, discovered his father lying naked in a drunken state and joked to his two brothers about it. He was judged severely for his deed (Gen. 9:24-27) . The two brothers did not commit the same indecent act, but took a garment and walked backward to cover their father.
Second, drink manifested the Babylonians’ shame. The nation had reveled in their shameful conduct which, in God’s sight, would only bring more disgrace upon them at their fall. They were commanded by God to drink and expose their own nakedness, “let thy shame come upon thee” (v. 16), as they had done to their captives. This would be the epitome of degradation.
Third, drink produces sickness: “the cup of the Lord’s right hand shall be turned unto thee, and shameful spewing shall be on thy glory” (v. 16). The Chaldeans were to drink the cup of God’s wrath (Jer. 25:15, 27) which would come full circle from the nations upon them. They would begin to disgracefully vomit upon all their glory and become a revolting sight to the world.
Alcohol leads to illness. For example, four out of every ten hospital admissions in this country is alcohol-related. Medical studies have shown that an alcoholic will have his life expectancy shortened by 10 to 12 years.
Fourth, drink produces great squander. The Chaldeans are pictured as inflicting devastation and waste on the resources of the nations they conquered, “For the violence of [against] Lebanon shall cover thee, and the spoil of beasts . . .” (v. 17). They wasted the cedars of Lebanon (Isa. 14:8) and caused fear to come upon the wild and domesticated animals which they destroyed. The same waste and fear would be inflicted upon them at their destruction. The squander of both life and resources brought on by the use of alcohol in the United States staggers the imagination:
From 1970-1980, 250,000 people died in alcohol-related accidents on the nation’s highways, but the National Highway Safety Commission estimates for 1980-1990 the figure will double to 500,000. Fifty percent of all traffic fatalities involve alcohol. Every twenty-three minutes (70 per day) someone dies because of a drunk driver. One out of two Americans will be involved in an alcohol-related crash in their lifetime. On any given Saturday night one in ten drivers on the highway will be legally drunk. Forty percent of all pedestrians killed are alcoholics. The United States government paid out $616 in losses for every dollar that was collected in taxing alcoholic beverages. Alcohol-related expenses such as loss of production, health, medical, and accident cost $68.6 billion last year. Just the loss in production cost the country $31.5 billion last year. 3
Will things get better in the years to come? Probably not. There are ten million alcoholics in the United States, and the number is growing each day. Americans see alcohol abused or advertised on television every six seconds. One of every five divorces is caused by alcoholism. Today fifty to sixty percent of the alcoholics were raised in the homes of alcoholics, and twenty percent of them are preteen. Unless drastic measures are taken in this country to curb alcoholism, the nation could suffer the same fate as Babylon.
WOE AGAINST IDOLATRY (vv. 18-20)
The woes against Babylon culminated in the greatest sin of all, idolatry. Habakkuk asked scornfully, “What profiteth the carved image that its maker hath engraved it . . .?” (v. 18). Clearly, no profit at all! These nonentities, which teach lies (v. 18), have no power for either good or evil, for they were a mere fabrication of man, utterly impotent to save Babylon from its doom.
Woe is upon the one who says to the dumb idol, “Awake; . . . Arise, it shall teach” (v. 19). It teach? cried Habakkuk! How could an inanimate piece of wood or stone, overlaid with gold and silver, possessing no breath (v. 19), teach when it could not speak? It could not!
In contrast to the dumb inanimate idol, Habakkuk said, “But the Lord is in his holy temple” (v. 20). The true God is alive and seated on His heavenly throne in holiness, sovereignly in control of world events.
Unlike the idol, neither He nor His temple can be destroyed. Unlike the idol, He hears the cry and complaints of His people for justice. Unlike the idol, He has an answer for the perplexities of His people over life’s situations. Unlike the idol, He will strike down the oppressor and bring about justice for the righteous.
Therefore, “let all the earth keep silence [hush] before him” (v. 20). What more need be said? Those who have sought the Lord for answers to their problems can wait in silent assurance knowing God will answer in His own time and way. Thus it was with Habakkuk who patiently waited to understand the plan God had for judging a perverse people such as the Chaldeans, for God will vindicate the righteous as He said, “Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord” (Rom. 12:19).
Hush my friend! God knows and in time will undertake for you as well.
- Merrill F. Unger, Unger’s Commentary on the Old Testament (Chicago: Moody Press), 1981, Vol. II, p.1905.
- H. L. Willmington, Willmington’s Guide to the Bible (Wheaton: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.), 1981, p. 231-32.
- Pulpit Helps, N.E.W.S. of Significance (Chattanooga: AMG Publishers), a number of quotes taken from various issues.