THE PROPHET’S PRAISE: Memory of God’s Justice

HABAKKUK 3:3-19

 

Memory is a wonderful gift from God, but it can be a burden or a blessing. A burden it was when Habakkuk recalled the injustice taking place in Judah and God’s seeming complacency to judge it. A burden it was when the prophet heard that God would use the savage Chaldeans to judge Judah. A burden it was as he patiently waited and watched for God’s answer to his perplexity: How can a holy God use a sinful nation to accomplish His righteous purpose?

But memory was a blessing as well, especially when Habakkuk reflected on the lessons which had been learned from his experience. A blessing it was to hear that God would eventually destroy the Chaldeans and deliver His people from the tyrant’s onslaught. A blessing it was to receive the revelation from God, “the just shall live by his faith.” A blessing it was to remember that God is in control, and all things take place according to what He has purposed for His people. A blessing it was when he rejoiced over God’s past deliverance and realized that it prefigured Israel’s future deliverance. In celebration of her future deliverance, the prophet offered a hymn of praise as he portrayed, in poetic psalm, God’s powerful deliverance of Israel throughout past centuries.

PORTRAIT OF GOD’S POWER (vv. 3-15)

WONDERS IN THE SINAI (VV. 3-5)

Habakkuk described “God” (Eloah) as the “Holy One” (v. 3), a name which expresses His absolute holiness and is in keeping with the spirit of this book (cf. 1:12-13).

His glory and power were mightily manifested to Israel when they were delivered from Egypt and received the Law at Sinai. Habakkuk recalled this time when he said, “God came from Teman, and the Holy One from Mount Paran . . .” (v. 3). Teman is in Edom, east of the Arabah, between the Dead Sea and the Gulf of Eilat. Paran is a mountainous desert area, west of Edom, in the Sinai Peninsula (Dt. 33:2).

At this point Habakkuk inserts “Selah” (v. 3), a musical notation whose meaning is uncertain. It is used in this chapter (vv. 3. 9, 13) as a pause to allow the reader time to reflect upon God’s deliverance of His people.

First, God’s glory “covered the heavens” (v. 3) evoking praise from the Israelites at Sinai. It streamed forth in great power: “And his brightness was like the light; he had horns [rays] coming out of his hand; and there was the hiding of his power” (v. 4). God’s effulgent glory was inexplicable; it was like holding a candle up to the sun in comparison. The words,  “horns coming out of his hand” (v. 4), is an anthropomorphic (giving human expression to God) phrase to simply say that rays of God’s glory were emitted in all directions. Although God’s glory was greatly manifested, He still hid “his power” (v. 4) from the people, for no man can see God and live (Ex. 33:20). So awesome was His glory that Moses had to be hidden in the “cleft of the rock” when God passed by (Ex. 33:18-23), or he would have perished.

God’s glory was revealed at Mount Sinai as a “devouring fire on the top of the mount in the eyes of the children of Israel” (Ex. 24:17). God has given glimpses of His glory often: It was present in the holy of holies (Ex. 40:34); it filled Solomon’s Temple (1 Ki. 8:10-11); the disciples saw it when Christ was transfigured before their eyes (Mt 17:2); and John saw the glorified Lord on the isle of Patmos (Rev. 1:13-16). Today, the believer can see the glory of God through Jesus Christ, for He is “the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth” (Jn. 1:14). When the Lord returns to deliver Israel and set up the kingdom, “. . . the earth shall be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea” (2:14).

Second, the power of the Lord was seen by Israel. It was as “. . . the pestilence, and burning coals [plague]” going “forth at his feet” (v. 5) . When God passed through the earth to deliver Israel from Egypt, the land was full of pestilence and plague (Ex. 7:14-12:30). The Israelites saw the same manifestation of God’s power when they murmured in the wilderness (Num. 16:46-49). The glory and power revealed to Israel during this time will be experienced again when God delivers them in the future (v. 13) and destroys their enemies (v. 12).

WRATH ON SIN (vv. 6-12)

God not only showed Israel the wonders of His glory and power, but poured out wrath upon her enemies. He is pictured as standing to measure the earth (v. 6) in preparation for judgment. Like a giant, stepping off his land, God is pictured stepping off the area He will destroy (cp. Isa. 40:12, 22). At His gaze nations will be destroyed: “. . . he beheld, and drove asunder the nations” (v. 6). The mountains and hills (v. 6), symbols of stability and permanence, although having been in existence since creation, will crumble at His gaze. Nothing will stand before God, neither nations nor nature.

There is a perpetuity with God; His “ways are everlasting” (v. 6). What He was able to do for Israel in the past, He can do in the future – God is immutable in His judgment of sin.

Two nations, Cushan and Midian (v. 7), are selected to illustrate how nations who opposed God and His people stood in fear.

Abruptly, Habakkuk shifts from speaking of God’s judgment upon nations to questioning Him concerning His wrath upon nature: “Was the Lord displeased against the rivers? . . . Was thy wrath against the sea [Red Sea, Ex. 14:21-22; Jordan, Josh. 3:16], that thou didst ride upon thine horses [like a mighty warrior] and thy chariots of salvation [to physically deliver Israel from Egypt]?” (v. 8). No, God is not showing wrath against nature, but nature was affected when God brought physical deliverance to His people.

As a mighty warrior makes his “bow . . . quite naked” (v. 9) – that is, takes it from the case in preparation for battle – so God will defend His people “according to the oaths of the tribes” (v. 9). God will be true to His covenant promise to Israel. They (the oaths) never fail because they are based upon His Word. Again, Habakkuk inserts a “Selah” (v. 9), pausing to reflect on the above promise.

The prophet reminded his reader that God did “cleave the earth with rivers” (v. 9). He could have had in mind the rivers at creation, or those after the flood; but most likely he was referring to the dividing of the Red Sea when Israel was delivered from Egypt. In verse ten the earth is personified, from the mountain top to the depth of the sea, in order to express God’s great power and judgment. His power and judgment were clearly seen in the flood of Noah’s day, but will be seen in an even greater way during the Tribulation (Mt. 24:21, 29; Rev. 6:12). The imagery of God’s power is continued by Habakkuk in reference to Joshua’s long day, when he requested more light in order to defeat the Canaanites at Gibeon (Josh. 10:12-14). At that time “The sun and moon stood still in their habitation . . .” (v. 11). “. . . the light of thine arrows . . . and . . . the shining of thy glittering spear” (v. 11) express, in poetic form, the awesome lightning that shot forth from Heaven and accompanied the storm which was sent on the Canaanites. The point being made by Habakkuk is evident, God will exercise His mighty power in the form of miracles to deliver Israel.

WORK OF SALVATION (vv. 12-15)

Having stood in awe at God’s majesty and power, Habakkuk now focused in on God’s work of physical deliverance for Israel. In the past God had marched “through the land in indignation” (v. 12) with a purpose to “thresh the nations” (v. 12) and bring “salvation” (physical deliverance) [v. 13] to Israel. He acts with a purpose, never capriciously. If God has done this in the past to Israel’s enemies, He will perform it in the future as well, when they are ripe for threshing (Mic. 4:13; Isa. 41:15; Rev. 14:18-20).

When God delivers Judah it will be through His “anointed” (v. 13). The phrase, “with thine anointed,” has been interpreted in many ways. Some believe it refers to Israel as the anointed deliverer of themselves, but the term is singular and is always used of a single person, not a nation. Others hold that the reference is to a king like David or Cyrus (Isa. 45:1) the Persian (558-529 B.C.) who would deliver Judah from the Babylonian captivity (Isa. 44:28). Still others believe the phrase has reference to the Messiah who was and will be the agent of Israel’s deliverance.1  Most likely the reference is to Cyrus who was the anointed representative and delivered Israel from Babylon.

Israel would be delivered by God’s anointed who “woundedst [did crush] the head out of [from] the house of the wicked [one], by laying bare the foundation unto the neck” (v. 13). Here is an allegorical picture of Babylon’s impregnable walls being torn down from top to bottom (Jer. 51).

Upon reading this prophecy Judah would recall God’s great deliverance of their forefathers from Egypt and be able to take hope, being certain that God would deliver them from the Chaldeans.

Here is a picture of Israel’s final deliverance, when Jesus (God’s Anointed) will crush Gentile world rule (Dan. 2:44-45) and destroy the armies of the world at Armageddon (Rev. 19:19-21). Once again a crescendo of this poetic prophecy is reached with the word “Selah” (v. 13). Habakkuk goes on to describe what will happen to his enemies. They shall destroy themselves. For he said, “Thou didst strike through with his own staves [shafts] the head of his villages . . .” (v. 14). The enemies of Israel would be brought to confusion and actually fight among themselves. This has happened a number of times in Israel’s history. The Midianites destroyed themselves in the day of Gideon (Jud. 7:22); it happened when God delivered the Philistines to Jonathan (1 Sam. 14:16, 20); and when Ammon, Moab and Edom fought among themselves (2 Chr. 20:22-23). It will happen again when Russia descends upon the mountains of Israel (Ezek. 38:21). In the case of Babylon, the Medes joined them to destroy the Assyrians but then turned upon Babylon to destroy her (Jer. 51:11, 28).

Before the Babylonians were destroyed they had come upon Judah like a “whirlwind to scatter” (v. 14) them. So fierce were the Babylonians that they descended like a tornado which blows everything away. They rejoice (v. 14) with devilish pleasure at their victories, as would thieves and murderers who secretly wait to kill and rob a defenseless traveler. The “poor” (v. 14) were unprotected Judeans who were at the mercy of the Babylonians as they hunted out unprotected people to rob and murder.

But the Babylonians’ rejoicing is premature. Using a figure from the Red Sea deliverance (Ex. 14:19-22), Habakkuk portrayed God as a mighty warrior riding His chariot through the sea to destroy Israel’s enemies and bring about deliverance. No object stands in the way of God to deliver His people! What great encouragement this would be to Habakkuk. By recalling past deliverances, Judah could be assured of future liberation from her enemies. The Lord will ride out of the clouds of Heaven to deliver Israel from the armies of the world at Armageddon (Rev. 19:11).

PONDERING GOD’S POWER (vv. 16-19)

In the final section of Habakkuk’s poetic psalm the tempo changes from one of excitement to a spirit of calm and assurance concerning Judah’s victory over her enemies. As stated in verse two, Habakkuk knew that judgment was inevitable, and this struck terror in his heart.

FEARING GOD’S POWER (v. 16)

Upon hearing about God’s judgment Habakkuk said, “. . . my belly trembled [his inner being trembled], my lips quivered at the voice [the judgment left him speechless]; rottenness entered into my bones [his body became weak with fear], and I trembled in myself [it was like he reeled back and forth on the spot where he stood] . . .” (v. 16).

Yet, the knowledge of God’s future deliverance filled Habakkuk with trust. He could say, “. . . I might rest in the day of trouble. When he cometh up unto the people, he will invade them with his troops” (v. 16).

What beautiful confidence in God. Though shocked by the initial news of judgment upon Judah, yet he had perfect peace in the midst of terror all around him.

FAITH IN GOD’S PURPOSE (VV. 17-19)

The devastation left by Babylon would be awesome (cp. Lamentations). Judah would be depleted of all her natural resources, “. . . the fig tree shall not blossom, neither shall fruit be in the vines; the labor of the olive shall fail, and the fields shall yield no food; the flock shall be cut off from the fold, and there shall be no herd in the stalls” (v. 17). In modern terms, we might say, “Although the bank account is depleted, the refrigerator is empty, and the heater is broken . . .”

In spite of it all Habakkuk could say, “Yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will joy in the God of my salvation” (v. 18). He stood firm, unshaken, as a testimony to the faithful in Judah. He looked beyond the impending judgment to the time of salvation (deliverance). Habakkuk’s eyes were not focused on his circumstances, but on God!

The prophet’s faith reached its peak with the expression, “The Lord God is my strength . . .” (v. 19). The strength Habakkuk felt from the Lord is illustrated by the “hind.” The deer is weak to protect itself from predators, but when it sniffs danger its strong hind legs spring into action and carry it swiftly to the mountain summit where safety awaits. The deer is able to walk with security on the steep and slippery sides of the summit without fear of savage beasts snuffing out its life. When David was delivered from the hands of Saul, he expressed his gratitude to the Lord with the same words, “He maketh my feet like hinds’ feet, and setteth me upon my high places” (2 Sam. 22:34; Ps. 18:33).

Like the deer, Habakkuk said he was able to “walk upon . . . high places” (v. 19), an expression used to denote that he was living in victory over his circumstances (cp. Dt. 32:13; 33:29; Mic. 1:3).

Habakkuk had come full circle. He had triumphed over doubt, discouragement, despair and defeat. He began in the valley asking Why Lord? He was lifted by a vision, “the just shall live by his faith!” Here he was walking in victory, living above his circumstances, rejoicing in the God of his salvation.

Like the prophet, you might have why questions that God has not chosen to answer as yet. And like him, you must not become weary in waiting and watching for the answer. God is working, for “. . . we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose” (Rom. 8:28). The key to victory is to walk in worship knowing that God will answer in His time and way. Though Habakkuk had not personally experienced God’s deliverance, he was able to say, “. . . I will joy in the God of my salvation.” Why not do the same!

ENDNOTE
  1. It is interesting to note that the term “anointed” (v. 13) is Messiah in Hebrew and Christ in Greek. The word for “salvation” (v. 13), which is used twice in this verse, is from the Hebrew word “Yeshua” which is the same as Jesus in Greek.

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