THE PROPHET’S PROBLEM: Mystery of Justice
Sick society is a phrase often heard to describe the moral degeneracy seen in American culture. Analyses warn that the tidal wave of moral changes sweeping this country could mean the demise of its social order.
Sick art forms portray distorted freak figures of despair. Sick music blares out weird vibrations arousing the sensual emotions of its listeners resulting in dehumanizing acts. Sick commercials on television advertise the latest movies of the week filled with crime, violence, drugs, sex, and demonic acts of horror. What more could be said about the destructive forces of the sexual revolution, new age movement, eastern religious cults, and occult philosophies gaining acceptability throughout the country.
Many concerned Christian leaders have stepped forward to be a voice of hope. They have formed movements and legal organizations to fight the tide of moral decay eroding society.
None of this is new! In Habakkuk’s day, Judah had become rotten to the core, she was ripe for judgment, but judgment was not forthcoming. Like many leaders today, Habakkuk was a voice trying to stem the tide of moral decay eating away at Judah. Like many today, he wondered why God allowed wickedness to prevail without bringing judgment. Thus, Habakkuk has dialogue with God over the problem of justice.
CONCERN OVER JUSTICE (v. 1)
Habakkuk’s concern is expressed in the phrase, “The burden which Habakkuk, the prophet, did see” (v. 1). Three ideas are presented in this short title to show the prophet’s heartfelt concern over the nation’s condition.
Habakkuk’s name means embrace. How appropriate, for although he is concerned that God’s justice prevail over Judah’s sin, he will strongly embrace her to his heart (as one would a wayward child), hoping that through love and compassion, she will acknowledge her sinful way and return to God.
Habakkuk’s concern became a “burden” (v. 1). The word “burden” has the idea of something heavy, a load to be lifted. He is burdened over the nation’s sin and God’s seeming indifference to act in judgment. But the message of judgment he must deliver becomes a great burden too.
Habakkuk “did see” (v. 1) the social, political, and religious evils of Judah. The woes pronounced against the Babylonians apply to Judah as well. Abusive leaders filled their coffers with ill-gotten gain (2:6-8), extorted from the poor (2:9-11), built cities at the price of human life (2:12-14), used drink to coerce people into lasciviousness (2:15-17), and committed idolatry (2:18-20).
What believer, if asked, could not articulate the same corruptions in his own society? What believer, if asked, would not agree that more should be done to curb, correct, and stamp out the corruption? But what believer, if asked, would embrace his society in love, lift the burdensome message, and help correct the corruption? Few indeed! But not so with Habakkuk, for his concern breaks forth into a cry for God to act.
CRY FOR JUSTICE (v. 2)
Although Jeremiah is known as the weeping prophet, Habakkuk, his contemporary, must be placed alongside him. The pent-up message of justice burning in his bones breaks forth in, ‘”O Lord, how long shall I cry, and thou wilt not hear! . . . ” (v. 2). He had lamented over Judah’s sin for a long time before verbalizing his burden.
The word “cry” is used twice in verse two, each having a different meaning. The first “cry” (Shawa) is for help. Habakkuk is asking how long he must wait until God sends an answer to his plea for help.
Jeremiah and Isaiah asked the same question, but David’s cry for help is the most descriptive. In Psalm 13, David asked, “how long” four times in his plea for help: “How long wilt thou forget me, O Lord? Forever? How long wilt thou hide thy face from me? How long shall I take counsel in my soul, having sorrow in my heart daily? How long shall mine enemy be exalted over me?” (vv. 1-2). Although the heavens were silent, David came to the place where he trusted God for the answer to his “how long.” He trusted in the “mercy” (lovingkindness) of God (v. 5), knowing that He had a purpose for His delay. He had faith in God’s “salvation” (v. 5), believing that He would not allow his enemy to triumph over him. He was able to “sing unto the Lord” (v. 6) in the midst of trial, because of God’s bountiful help in past times of distress. Faith kept David from withering under the oppressing trials by bringing to remembrance former victories of God’s power, mercy, and faithfulness to him. By reflecting on David’s experience, Habakkuk could be greatly encouraged and supported through God’s purposeful delay.
The second word for “cry” (Zaaq) is a more intense cry for help, meaning to shout or scream. God’s silence toward the prophet’s prayer caused him to “scream” out a fervent cry for justice against the violence in Judah.
The “violence” (v. 2) being experienced within the land was extreme, similar to that manifested before the Flood (Gen. 6:13). Man had become totally corrupt and oppressive to his fellow man, for “every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (Gen. 6:5). Only a generation earlier, King Josiah had purged Judah of Baal worship. He had the priests who served Baal burnt upon their own altars, which were then torn down, the images broken in pieces and ground to dust, and then scattered over the graves of those who worshiped them (2 Chr. 34:4-5).
Josiah not only destroyed idol worship, but repaired the Temple and restored its worship. While the Temple was being repaired, Hilkiah the priest discovered the Law and read it to the king, who immediately repented of his sin and required that the nation do likewise.
King Josiah died at the hand of Pharaoh-neco, king of Egypt. Josiah’s son, Jehoahaz, succeeded him in rule, but Pharaoh-neco dethroned him after a short reign of only three months (2 Ki. 23:31-33).
Pharaoh-neco replaced Jehoahaz with another of Josiah’s sons by the name of Eliakim, who later changed his name to Jehoiakim. Jehoiakim was a godless dictatorial despot who raped the people of any wealth they had left, after Pharaoh-neco had impoverished them by extorting great amounts of tribute.
Jehoiakim went on to build a huge regal palace, paneled with expensive cedar, painted in vermilion, and studded with jewels, at both the forced and unpaid labor of his subjects.
Religiously, he undid all the reforms of his father Josiah. He raised up shrines of worship in Jerusalem and introduced many heathenistic gods and religious practices from Egypt. The epitome of his contempt toward God was when he cut to pieces the revelation from Jeremiah detailing the catastrophic judgment which was about to descend upon him and the land (Jer. 36:1-26).
His reign can be summed up in the words of Jeremiah, “But thine eyes and thine heart are not but for thy covetousness, and for shedding innocent blood, and for oppression, and for violence, to do it” (Jer. 22:17). Jeremiah went on to predict that Jehoiakim would not be lamented in death, nor buried, but dragged outside of the city and dumped on the garbage pile of Jerusalem (Jer. 22:18-19; 36:30). He was humiliated in death, because he committed the horrible sins of Manasseh, filling Jerusalem with innocent blood (2 Ki. 24:3-4).
Although reform did take place in Judah, it was short-lived, for the leaders turned back to the old ways of polluting the land, perverting the people, and provoking the Lord to judgment (Jer. 11:10; 14:7, 10-12).
Although Habakkuk screamed as fervently as he knew how against the moral depravity of his day, God remained silent.
COMPLAINT ABOUT JUSTICE (v. 3)
The cry of Habakkuk’s “how long” progressed into the complaint of, Why? God, why do You not bring judgment in the midst of such iniquity and violence? God, why do You remain silent to my fervent prayers? Habakkuk is perplexed, because it is out of character for a holy God to behold sin (1:13) and not judge it.
Puzzled over the silence of God, Habakkuk asked, Why dost thou show me iniquity, and cause me to behold grievance? For spoiling and violence are before me; and there are those who raise up strife and contention” (v. 3). He is saying, God, if You refuse to act or answer prayer, why do You show me the depths of Judah’s depravity?
Habakkuk used six descriptive words to express the moral decay surrounding him. Judah was full of “iniquity” (v. 3), which emphasized the physical trouble or corruption in the nation. Iniquity leads to “grievance” (v. 3) or distress suffered by those who were exploiting their neighbors for personal gain. When people are exploited, “violence” (v. 3) breaks out resulting in the “spoiling” (v. 3) or destruction of government, home, and other social institutions. When self-serving, greedy individuals desire to do what is right in their own eyes at the expense of others, “strife and contention” (v. 3) will result.
Little has changed in twenty-six centuries! Like a modern Judah, the United States is sowing the seeds of moral decadence. In any given day there is a rape every 8 minutes, a murder every 27 minutes, a robbery every 78 seconds, a burglary every 10 seconds, and a car theft every 33 seconds.
The divorce rate in this country has reached epidemic proportions, having risen 700 percent since the turn of the century; there is at present one divorce for every 1.8 marriages. At least one million children per year must face the problem of their parents divorcing. An overwhelming 38 percent of the children in America will be reared by one parent today.
Is it any wonder that there are 450,000 adolescent alcoholics, while at least one quarter of the high school kids get drunk at least once a month? Is it any wonder that 1 million teenage girls (1 out of 10) get pregnant each year, and 50 percent of the nation’s 15 to 19 year old girls have had premarital sex? Is it any wonder that the number one criminal is a young person between the ages of 15 to 20 years old? Is it any wonder that drug abuse is costing the country between 10 to 17 billion dollars annually and is responsible for over 15,000 deaths per year? Is it any wonder that last year in the public schools of this country there were 200 murders, 6,000 robberies, 9,000 rapes, 20,000 assaults, and over 600 million dollars worth of property damage to repair?
What can account for the eroding moral fiber of young people in America? There are many factors to be sure, but television has played a major role. By the age of sixteen, most children have watched from 10,000 to 15,000 hours of TV. Every hour of prime-time programming contains an average of five acts of violence, but on the weekend violent acts per hour on children’s programs jump to eighteen. Researchers have found that children are being impacted through television and are becoming more violent, aggressive, fearful, and less intelligent. Is it any wonder that the United States faces so many social ills?
COMPLACENCY OF JUSTICE (v. 4)
Habakkuk comes to a number of conclusions about justice in Judah. First, that “the law is slacked” (v. 4), or paralyzed, since it has been ignored as a body of rules to govern the civil, moral, and religious life of the nation. The second conclusion flows naturally from the first. If the Law is ignored, “justice doth never go forth” (v. 4), or since it is not upheld by those called to administer it, the Law is ineffective to bring about change in Judah. His next conclusion is that the righteous suffer under such conditions, for “the wicked doth compass about the righteous” (v. 4). He sees the righteous hemmed in and defrauded by wicked judges who have stripped them of their personal and property rights. Thus, the righteous have no redress to obtain justice. Therefore when justice is handed down, his final conclusion is that it “goeth forth perverted” (v. 4). The leaders have interpreted the Law to distort its true meaning for their own gains. No wonder a righteous man such as Habakkuk, in his concern over sin, cries out to God, complaining about the complacency of justice.
Many, like Habakkuk are perplexed with the prosperity of the wicked who seem to flourish, while the faithful pine away under persecution. Asaph was one like this, who became envious of the wealthy wicked. In Psalm 73, he portrays the wicked as prosperous, proud, and perverted, persecuting the righteous with continual oppression. From the outside they do not seem to be plagued like other men, for they die in physical strength, without pain (Ps. 73:3-12).
Many of God’s people are like Asaph, living in a society full of perverted laws run by polluted leaders. They become discouraged over the seeming indifference and inactivity of God to bring change, thus they themselves slip into an attitude of indifference and inactivity.
But Asaph took his perplexity to God and was shown the true end of the wicked (Ps. 73:17). From God’s viewpoint, things are quite different for the wicked! They live in a slippery place having no guarantee of their place and prosperity in society. For they suddenly perish into perdition by means of terror (Ps. 73:18-19). Such was the case of Jehoiakim who ruled at this time!
Asaph came to the realization that faith in God’s sovereign control over the destiny of men and nations promised the only security (Ps. 73:21-28), even when God was silent to society’s sufferings.
Although God’s silence to the prophet’s plea pictured Him as indifferent because of His inactivity, God neither slumbers nor sleeps (Ps. 121:4) as will be shown in the next article covering the next portion of this chapter.
Remember, God’s justice may work in mysterious ways, but He always has the answer to, “HOW LONG?” AND “WHY”!