Habakkuk: Journey Toward a Theodicy
Every prophet is unique in his own right, Habakkuk being no exception. Unlike the other prophets of God Habakkuk did not speak to the people for God, but spoke to God concerning the people.1 Habakkuk is a message of one man's journey toward a theodicy. He sought to understand the existence and continuation of evil in light of God's righteousness. In this paper I wish to examine the contents of the book from within it's own historical and theological context, and then examine the theological implications for the church today as we also develop our own theodicy.
Little is known about Habakkuk. We are only told that he is a prophet (1:1). Unlike many of the other prophets, Habakkuk's prophecies are not dated by the reign of a specific Hebrew king. The date can only be ascertained by an examination of internal clues. Habakkuk indicated that He, and apparently others, were being oppressed and suffering violence (1:2-4). The identity of this oppressor is not named, but it appears to be fellow Hebrews. When Habakkuk asked God what He was going to do about this, God said He would raise up the Chaldeans to judge the nation (1:6ff).
The Chaldeans were an Aramaic tribe in Mesopotamia that joined forces with other Babylonian tribes to form the neo-Babylonian empire under Nabopolassar. Babylonian prominence began to emerge in 626 BC when they defeated the Assyrians at Babylon, and Ninevah in 612 BC, the capital of the Assyrian empire. Seeing that God expected Habakkuk to be shocked when he discovered the identity of God's vessel of judgment, it would seem that Babylon had not yet risen to great prominence. A date before 626 is most likely, although a date between 626 and 612 is also possible. Any date later than 612 BC would diminish both the predictive and surprise element of the prophecy because Babylon would have already had great prominence and been a present threat to Judah.2 It seems that Habakkuk prophesied during the decline of the Neo-Assyrian empire and the beginnings of the rise of Babylon. It is very likely that Habakkuk prophesied during the reign of Josiah, in either 641/40 or 628/27, the times at which the sins mentioned in 1:2-4 were most prominent.3 Such a date would mean that it was Judah who was the object of God's judgment, Israel having already gone into Assyrian captivity nearly a century before (722 BC). Contemporary prophets would have included Jeremiah, Zephaniah, and Nahum.
The prophecy consists of several literary devices: complaint (1:2-4, 13-17), prophetic oracles (1:5-11; 2:2-5), prophetic woes (2:6-19), and a psalm (3:1-15). The most obvious structure of the book is the dialogue between Habakkuk and God. Habakkuk makes a complaint or prayer to YHWH, and then YHWH answers. There are two such episodes:
These two episodes are followed by prophetic woes against Babylon (2:6-19), prayer in the form of a psalm, depicting Habakkuk's faith that God will answer his prayer for justice and mercy (3:1-15), and a final declaration of confidence in YHWH (3:16-19).
Habakkuk's prophecy began by addressing the issue of God's righteousness in the face of men's unrighteousness. He struggled with God's lack of instantaneous judgment on sin, seeing such longsuffering as a mark of injustice, in conflict with God's holiness, fostering continued sin, and weakening law and justice (1:3-4, 13). God's lack of judgment on the heinousness sins of Judah brought God's reputation on the line.4 The Lord affirmed that He had a plan for dealing with Judah's injustice, even if that plan is not carried out in a time-frame expected by man (2:3). In the Lord's appointed time the unrighteous would be judged and the righteous would be vindicated (2:4). God was not unaware or unconcerned about the injustice of men.
While God had a plan for judging Judah's sins, it involved using an even more sinful nation. This caused Habakkuk to question, Can a righteous God use a wicked people to judge a people more righteous than themselves (1:13)?5 It would seem that a less wicked people (Judah) should be used to punish a more wicked people (Babylon), not vice versa. Habakkuk saw God's plan as in conflict with God's holiness, and unjust in itself (1:13ff). The Lord assured the prophet that Babylon would also be punished for their sins, but only after He used them to punish Judah for her sins (2:6-19). Upon gaining understanding of the Lord's plan, and seeing His holiness and justice demonstrated through it, Habakkuk composed a psalm of faith in God's justice, celebrating what God would do through remembrance of what God had done in days past. He concluded his prophecy with a declaration of his confidence in God, knowing that the Lord would perform His word and demonstrate His justice as He had foretold (3:16-19).
The purpose of Habakkuk is to demonstrate God's sovereignty and wisdom in the exercise of His judgment and mercy in creation-history, stressing that such is only perceived by those of faith. God's sovereignty is demonstrated in the fact that He can raise up a foreign nation, empowering them to conquer, in order to judge those whom He wishes to judge. The rise of Babylon as a world empire was not due to their military strength, their kings, or their great military strategies, but due to the will of the Lord. They were a vessel for the Lord, to accomplish His purposes. His wisdom is demonstrated in the fact that He will use Babylon to punish Judah for its sins (1:5-6, 12), but in turn will punish Babylon because she is more wicked than Judah (2:6-19). In the end God's purpose and justice is met in respect to both nations, and God's holiness and justice cannot be called into question.
Habakkuk's trust in YHWH's sovereignty, justice, and holiness was called into question because of God's apparent inactivity in the face of unrighteousness. He was perplexed and angered by the Lord's apparent unwillingness to intervene in behalf of the righteous and to judge the unrighteous, and then further perplexed when the Lord revealed how He would judge Judah in the near future. When YHWH answered his complaints and concerns, Habakkuk was able to fully trust in YHWH again, being confident that YHWH was sovereign, just, and holy. Surely, Habakkuk was not the only righteous individual perplexed over God's apparent lack of attention to their present situation. Just as Habakkuk's dialogue with YHWH over this issue caused him to regain confidence in the Lord, so too would Habakkuk's dialogue help other righteous individuals who struggled with the same questions to regain their confidence in the Lord as the sovereign, just, and holy God. Habakkuk illuminated for all the fact that one must trust in the Lord, understanding that He has a plan to be worked out in His own time, wherein wrongs are made right, and the rights are rewarded.
Whereas in many of the prophets the point of tension is between God and the actions of His people, in Habakkuk the point of tension is between Habakkuk and the actions of His God. Habakkuk's theology of God restricted Him to a certain set of responses, of the which Habakkuk was the author. When God wished to use an option not outlined by Habakkuk, Habakkuk objected and his faith wavered. It was the difference between Habakkuk's expectations and God's plan that created the tension. The book attempts to resolve this tension, not by correcting God for His actions or lack thereof, but by correcting Habakkuk's theology.
Universal Subject and Purpose
If there is one universal theme of Habakkuk applicable for all people of all times, it is that God is aware of injustice and will judge it in His own way and in His own time. He is sovereign, just, wise, and holy, and has a plan to demonstrate his justice on and through the nations. The unrighteous will never go unpunished, and the righteous will never go unrewarded.
While Habakkuk was concerned over God's apparent lack of attention to sin and injustice, what are we concerned with today? Are our concerns much different? While the applications have surely changed, the foundational issue remains the same to this day: How are we to reconcile God's goodness and righteousness in a world in which evil seems to prevail? Our world experiences a wide range of injustices: abortion, oppressive governments, terrorism, etc. When the wrongs are not righted, what are the righteous to do?
Our theodicy never became so important as it did in light of the infamous 9-11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. Where was God? Why did He allow such a thing? Was it in His permissive will, or was it an act of divine judgment? Such questions were not only asked by Christians, but were asked of Christians. Why a good and holy God would allow such human atrocities has never been so relevant to both the Christian and non-Christian alike.
Theological Tension Today
The same theological tension Habakkuk faced also faces most believers today: our expectations of God do not match God's plan. We like to tell God what He should do, and when He should do it. Our tension is probably heightened to a level that surpasses that of Habakkuk's day because of the fact that the American church God has often portrayed God as the "big butler in the sky" waiting to attend on our every whim. This is especially true of the word-of-faith movement, but this dangerous theology has even disseminated into mainstream Christianity. Many hold to a theology that says if one prays to God in faith, God is bound by His word to answer their prayer. When we pray for injustices to be corrected, and for God to judge the wickedness of men, and we do not see an immediate response from God, we often respond in the same manner as Habakkuk. Our faith wavers, and our doubt increases. We begin to question God's goodness and sovereignty over creation. As was the case with Habakkuk, so too our reaction is to correct God for His actions or lack thereof, rather than reevaluate our own theology to see if the God we are serving is the God of Scripture or a God of our own making.
There are many truths found in Habakkuk that are applicable to the church today. Nothing stands out to me more than Habakkuk's openness and honesty with God. Following in the footsteps of Job and the psalmists, Habakkuk had the courage to approach God with His issues of doubt and confusion. While some would label Habakkuk's questioning as unbelief, I would consider it to be an act of faith seeking understanding. It is the person of faith who comes to God for answers when their faith is challenged by the affairs of life. It is the person of faith who is open and honest with God about their questions and their feelings, realizing that God is aware of their doubts and feelings whether they express them in prayer or not. We are not getting anything past God by keeping our doubts to ourselves. There is truth to the statement that "honest doubt may be a more acceptable religious attitude than superficial belief."6
Habakkuk is a call for faith in apparent difficulties that seem to contradict God's promises.7 While Habakkuk believed God was the sovereign and holy Lord, He could not reconcile this theological truth with his circumstances. His faith in God's sovereignty was more mental assent than it was trust in the will and goodness of the Lord, until the Lord revealed and explained His plan to him. Habakkuk knew better than he believed. He knew God was sovereign, but questioned His sovereignty because God was doing what He wanted to, rather than what Habakkuk wanted Him to. This same process is repeated in believers today. There are many Biblical truths that we may give mental assent to because the Bible says they are true, but do not truly believe on an existential level. What we really believe about God is best displayed in times of adversity and calamity when God does not do as we expected Him to. It is often disheartening to see how wide a gap there is between our theological knowledge and our ability to live that knowledge out in faith. Like Habakkuk, we cannot let our theological understanding of God put Him into a box. Woe is us when we judge God based on our own understanding of Him, prescribing how and when He should and/or should not act. Our knowledge and understanding is too limited for such. Ultimately our trust should be in God, and not in any systematic theology we have developed about Him, for while our understanding of Him could be in error, He is never in error.
Habakkuk is also relevant to our understanding of God's relationship to history. God made it clear that "all history was hastening to a conclusion that was certain as it was satisfying."8 God was working behind the scenes, raising up a nation to bring judgment on His people. God is working behind the scenes today in the same way. God is not unaware of our circumstances, but is fully aware of them, and constantly working toward an end (telos). God is not learning as time passes, not sure of what exactly the future holds, but is fully aware of all things, and will bring them to a satisfying end wherein He and the righteous will be the victors.
Habakkuk teaches us that God's ways are not our ways, His thoughts are not our thoughts, and His timing is not our timing. Habakkuk never imagined that God would raise up the Chaldeans to punish Judah for her sins, and that He would take so long to bring judgment. God's ways do not always make sense. His clock and our clock never seem to match up. We must always be careful to allow God to do His thing in His time, not putting Him in a box. We do not always have the privilege of having the Lord reveal to us what He is currently doing, and what He will do in the future, but we can rest assured that God is still the God of history, always at work to accomplish His sovereign plans, in His sovereign time.
In Habakkuk's psalm He recited the events of the Egyptian plagues (3:5), the wilderness crossing (3:6), the Red Sea and Jordan crossing (3:8-10, and Joshua's long day (3:11). Habakkuk looked back to events of the Exodus and the Conquest, remembering God's past victories and exploits, which in turn gave him the confidence that God would act again in his day as He had acted in the past. We too can be assured of God's sovereignty and goodness by examining what God has done in the past with Israel, the nations, the church, and even our own lives. When we look only at the present it can bring uncertainties, but when we look at the past we can have assurance that all present uncertainties will have future resolutions. God's sovereignty has seen to it, and will see to it that His righteousness, and those who follow Him in righteousness will be vindicated, and the unrighteous will be judged.
Habakkuk's journey toward a theodicy was not a solo journey. The path has been trodden down by many before him, and by many after him. It is a journey that all people of faith will make at one point or another in their lifetime. We can be assured with Habakkuk that while God may not be judging evil at the present moment in any spectacular way, He will do so in the future, whether it be in the near future, or eschatologically. The unrighteous will be judged and the righteous will be vindicated. Until that day, however, we are to wait patiently in faith, trusting in the Lord's sovereignty, knowing that He will defend His holiness in His own way and in His own time.
1. Carl E. Armerding, The Expositor's Bible Commentary: Daniel and Minor Prophets. Vol. 7. Frank Gaebelein, ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1985), 494.
2. The text says, "I will work a work in your days " (1:5), indicating that it had not begun, but it would be witnessed during the lifetime of the recipients of the prophecy. The work was worked between 605-586 BC, so the date of the prophecy cannot be more than 50-60 years before this period.
3. C. Hassell Bullock, An Introduction to the Old Testament Prophetic Books (Chicago: Moody Press, 1986), 183.
4. William Sanford LaSor, David Allan Hubbard, and Frederic Wm. Bush, Old Testament Survey: The Message, Form, and Background of the Old Testament, 2nd edition (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1996), 323.
5. Ibid., 324.
6. Ibid., 327.
7. Allen P. Ross, Old Testament Introduction, unpublished notes.
8. Armerding, The Expositor's Bible Commentary, 495.
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