THE PROPHET’S PRAYER: Meditating on Justice
While going through a trying circumstance one will often hear, “Just pray about it, for you know prayer changes things!” One is left with the impression that God will alter the circumstances for good when prayer is offered in faith.
Does prayer really change things in and of itself? Does God simply alter circumstances because a person breathes his desires to God in prayer? If God changes things because people pray, how does prayer fit into His sovereign will for the world? Does God’s program for the world depend upon man’s prayer? If God’s will for the world is already fixed, what is the use of praying? If prayer does not change things, then it must be a futile charade and a waste of one’s time. Such questions concerning prayer have plagued many for years.
Prayer is not a charade, nor is it a waste of time! The believer is to pray because God has commanded him to do so. Through prayer the believer is able to have a vital relationship with God through which he learns to know Him intimately, for prayer is one means by which God has chosen to accomplish His sovereign purposes in the world. Yet, it is not prayer that changes things, but God who changes things when prayer is offered in faith, desiring that His will be implemented in a specific situation. More than changing things, prayer changes the individual. He is brought into conformity with God’s will. This was Habakkuk’s experience as he sought God for answers to his situation.
In chapter three, Habakkuk’s prayer is more than a petition. It is a beautiful ode filled to overflowing with adoration and praise, thanksgiving and recollection of how God had dealt with Israel. Habakkuk’s prayer is sublime in both its poetic concepts and diction. It ranks as one of the finest pieces of Hebrew poetry penned in the Old Testament. 1
The prayer is composed of three major divisions. First, there is Habakkuk’s request for God to revive His work and temper His wrath (vv. 1-2). Second, the prophet presented a portrait of God’s power as he reviewed His mighty acts through history (vv. 3-15). Third, Habakkuk pondered God’s power and expressed faith in His purpose, though it might mean adversity for him (vv.16-19).
The chapter begins with a title, “A prayer of Habakkuk, the prophet, upon Shigionoth” (v. 1). There are those who believe that chapter three was not written by Habakkuk, but his name is given as the author in verse one.
The meaning of “Shigionoth” (v. 1) is uncertain. It seems to denote a dithyrambic song of great emotion and passion. Although chapter three is titled a prayer, it is actually a hymn of praise. Habakkuk, filled with great excitement, reels back and forth praising God in triumphal song, as he contemplates the Lord’s victory over Judah’s enemies.
In verse two, Habakkuk expressed three desires for God to fulfill what He had determined for Judah.
GOD’S WORD REVEALED (V. 2)
Habakkuk began, “O Lord, I have heard thy speech” (v. 2). With his spiritual ear the prophet had received the revelation of what God would do in answer to his request.
What were the request and the report? Habakkuk had questioned God’s seeming inactivity and indifference to his prayer concerning the injustice taking place in Judah (1:1-4). When God answered, He revealed an unbelievable work that was to be performed. He would raise up the heathenish Chaldeans and use them to come down for judgment on Judah (1:5-6). God’s answer had left Habakkuk utterly stunned and perplexed. He questioned, How could a holy God use a sinful nation to accomplish His righteous purpose against Judah?
The prophet did not receive an immediate answer to his questions. Thus, as a servant before his master, Habakkuk stood upon his watch to see how the Lord would answer him (2:1). It must be noted that Habakkuk did not become impatient demanding an answer; neither did he strike out against God calling Him unjust in His dealing with Judah; nor did he talk of giving up the faith because God would use the wicked Chaldeans to chasten his people. Instead, Habakkuk waited in prayer to receive God’s answer (1:11-2:1).
Habakkuk’s patience was rewarded by another revelation from God. At the appointed time He would judge the Chaldeans, but in the meantime, “the just [righteous] shall live by his faith” (2:4). He was to trust God knowing that in His time He would manifest justice to all, both the Judeans and Chaldeans (2:2-20).
Habakkuk had been humbled by the report of God’s work. No more did he question God’s dealings with Judah, for he knew that God would be just in that which His hand performed against them.
How was Habakkuk brought to a place of submission to God’s plan? First, he got his eyes off of his surroundings — Judah’s condition, and the choice of the cruel Chaldeans to bring judgment. Second, he submitted his circumstances to God in prayer, trusting Him for an answer to his perplexity. Third, he patiently and alertly waited for a word from God concerning his request. Fourth, when the word was revealed, he accepted it and his perplexity vanished. The same pattern should be followed today for those who desire to know God’s will during times of trial and uncertainty.
When Habakkuk heard God’s Word he “was afraid” (v. 2). He stood in reverential awe of what
God was about to perform in judgment upon both Judah and Babylon. He had cried for justice, but when God revealed it, he was overwhelmed with its severity. The revelation impacted his whole being, for he said, “When I heard, my belly [inner man] trembled, my lips [voice] quivered . . . rottenness [decay] entered into my bones [his legs became weak], and I trembled in myself . . .” (v. 16). Others such as David (Ps. 119:120), Isaiah (Isa. 6:5) Jeremiah (Jer. 23:9), Daniel (Dan. 7:15, 28), and John (Rev. 1:17) were physically moved when hearing the Word of God or seeing the Lord’s holiness. Few today are so impacted by God’s prophetic truth.
GOD’S WORK REVIVED (V. 2)
Upon receiving God’s Word, Habakkuk prayed that His work would be revived, “O Lord, revive thy work in the midst of the years” (v. 2) . Once he fully understood what God had planned for his people, Habakkuk petitioned the Lord to bring it about. To many this would seem like a strange petition, but the prophet desired for the Lord’s will to prevail.
The Hebrew word “revive” (hayah) means to live, preserve, or keep alive. It has nothing to do with the present-day concept of revival. In fact, the term revival is often misapplied today. Churches advertise in the media that revival meetings are to be held on certain dates, and the public is invited to hear both a famous evangelist and good gospel music. There is hope that through prayer and evangelistic preaching people will accept Christ, new life will be breathed into the church membership, and individual believers will rededicate their lives to the Lord. In such meetings true revival could sweep over the congregation and produce a lasting commitment of many believers. But in all due respect, these meetings should be described as evangelistic meetings rather than a revival.
Many confuse the concept of evangelism with revival. Evangelism is the spreading of Christ’s gospel to a lost humanity. Revival is an extraordinary work of God whereby He brings a sinful believer to renewed spiritual life by means of the Holy Spirit’s convicting power. Revival takes place when a few dedicated people earnestly pray for God to move on a church or society. The longevity of a revival will vary. Some last a few days, and others a few weeks; but the changes produced will last for years.
American history is punctuated by revivals which usually came during times of moral declension or a longing for spiritual renewal. They bring in their wake the salvation of many, mass rededication of Christians, commitment to missionary service, the building of new churches and Bible schools, and social reforms.
Habakkuk was not requesting that God revive Judah to a place of commitment, but he wanted God’s work to be revived.
Just what work was the prophet referring to? The work was God’s predicted judgment which was to fall upon Judah at the hands of Babylon (1:5-6). Had Habakkuk always been in agreement with what God planned to do? No, it was an enigma to him, but further revelation had convinced the prophet that God’s work was righteous and must proceed as planned.
Although the prophet knew that judgment must fall, he also knew that Judah would “not die” (1:12) or utterly perish from the earth. 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), and, sealed it with blood (Gen. 15:7-17; 17:9-14).
Not only did Habakkuk want God’s work to be revived, but he petitioned Him to “make [it] known” (v. 2) before the judgment was executed. This God desired as well, for the prophet had been instructed to receive the vision and write it down (2:2) so others could read it and spread the news. Hopefully those who read would repent before disaster fell.
Habakkuk had come to a number of conclusions. First, he could not pray for Judah’s preservation from judgment, because it was not God’s will. Second, a holy God must judge sin. Third, he knew that Judah’s renewal could only come after cleansing had taken place. Fourth, his supreme concern must be for the will of God to be accomplished. Fifth, God must preserve the nation through judgment, because His covenant with Israel guaranteed it.
GOD’S WRATH RECOGNIZED (V. 2)
Although Habakkuk was in full agreement with God’s work, he cried out in prayer, “in wrath remember mercy” (v. 2). The Hebrew word for “mercy” (rahem) speaks of God’s deep inner feeling of compassion and pity.
God’s mercy is frequently described in two ways. First, there is the binding relationship which God has with His children (Ps. 103:13). He looks upon the believer as an earthly father would his own children, having mercy and pity on them, because he knows that they are weak (Mic. 7:18).
Second, God shows mercy on those whom he chooses for His sovereign purposes. He said to Moses, “I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy” (Ex. 33:19).
God’s loving mercy is expressed in several ways. His unconditional election of Israel was an act of mercy (Ex. 33:19). His forgiveness shown to them on the basis of repentance (Dt. 13:17), when they deserved judgment, was also an act of mercy. His continuing preservation from judgment through the centuries even though they refused to repent (2 Ki. 13:23) was a further act of mercy. 2
Though God had terminated His mercy for a season, allowing judgment to fall on Judah, Jeremiah realized God had in wrath remembered mercy (v. 2). With tears streaming down his face, the prophet looked over Jerusalem and saw the awesome destruction which Babylon had left in its wake. Every wall and home had been broken down; the Temple had fallen like a green hedge surrounding a garden; and bodies of both young and old filled the streets to overflowing (Lam. 2). The hunger was unbelievable: babies died from thirst; young and old alike combed the streets begging for a morsel of food; and mothers even boiled their own children and ate them (Lam. 4).
Yet after all this, Jeremiah could pen, “It is because of the Lord’s mercies that we are not consumed, because his compassions fail not. They are new every morning; great is thy faithfulness” (Lam. 3:22-23).
Jeremiah knew full well that God still loved His people, for they did not perish during the Babylonian invasion. The Hebrew word he used to express God’s mercy is “hesed” (Lam. 3:22). In essence the word means that God is gracious and God is love. Here is solid proof that God compassionately cared for His stricken and suffering people. He graciously loves them! 3
Someone else has expressed that “hesed” speaks of God’s loyalty to the covenant relationship He has with Israel.
For Jeremiah, the only reason any hope remained was that God’s compassions failed not. The prophet stepped out of the dark rubble of a destroyed Jerusalem with a renewed hope and proclaimed that God’s mercies “are new every morning; great is thy faithfulness.”
God has continually stretched out His hand of love and mercy to Israel. It was prophesied in the Palestinian Covenant that although Israel had sinned against God, He would show mercy to her, upon repentance, and restore her to the land in the latter days (Dt. 30:2-3). God has a permanent father-son relationship with Israel which will never be broken (Hos. 2:23; Isa. 54:8, 10).
Inspired by the words, “Great is Thy Faithfulness” Thomas O. Chisholm penned three stanzas to a hymn by this title. The first and third stanzas go like this:
Great is Thy faithfulness, O God my Father!
There is no shadow of turning with Thee;
Thou changest not, Thy compassions, they fail not;
As thou hast been thou forever wilt be.
Pardon for sin and a peace that endureth,
Thine own dear presence to cheer and to guide,
Strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow —
Blessings all mine, with ten thousand beside!
Confused over your situation in life? Circumstances grinding away at you? Pressures too great to bear? Remember that friend’s advice, “JUST PRAY ABOUT IT!” God not only showed gracious love to Judah, but He will to you also. Great is God’s faithfulness! Seek Him in prayer. It might be He will change your situation. But again, it might be you that He changes! When Habakkuk prayed, God changed him. He was brought into conformity with God’s will for his life.
- Merrill F. Unger, Unger’s Commentary on the Old Testament (Chicago: Moody Press, 1981), Vol. II, p.1910.
- C. Laird Harris, Gleason L. Archer, Jr., Bruce K. Waltke, Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (Chicago: Moody Press, 1980), Vol. II, pp. 841-842.
- Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., A Biblical Approach to Personal Suffering (Chicago: Moody Press, 1982), p. 79.