Should good people stand up against the forces of evil in our world, so the whole thing doesn’t go down the drain? You’ve heard the proverb: All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.
If we were looking to good men to save us, that approach might make sense. Habakkuk wasn’t. He was looking for God to save. But he didn’t see God intervening. We could summarize his complaint as: All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for a good God to do nothing.
God gave Habakkuk a lifeline. God does not act as we expect, but he is in charge of history and this is his promise: those who do right [even in the face of all the evil] will not die out; they will live by their faith(fulness).
The New Testament relates this promise to the gospel. In Romans and Galatians, Paul quotes Habakkuk 2:4 to support his teaching that God’s goodness saves those who trust him. Before we discuss faith from a Christian perspective (a future post), we need to hear Habakkuk’s message in his context.
Habakkuk’s book is a two-sided conversation: the prophet’s concern, and God’s response.
Is evil taking over God’s kingdom?
The unfaithfulness of God’s people disturbed Habakkuk so deeply that he presented a legal complaint to God’s court. He could not sit by and watch the Abrahamic project falling apart. God had established his nation to show the majesty of divine governance to the nations, but the nations had no chance of seeing God’s faithful and just character in the kingdom of Habakkuk’s day.
God’s kingdom was full of violence, injustice, wrongdoing, destruction, strife and conflict. God’s Law was paralysed so justice never prevailed. The wicked controlled the righteous, reducing justice to a twisted mess (Hab 1:3–4).
Worst of all, God was doing nothing to set things right. When people call on the name of the Lord but don’t get justice, they take matters into their own hands. Habakkuk believed that God’s unwillingness to sort his people out was the reason violence had taken over:
Habakkuk 1:2–3 (NIV)
2 How long, Lord, must I call for help, but you do not listen? Or cry out to you, “Violence!” but you do not save? 3 Why do you make me look at injustice? Why do you tolerate wrongdoing?
Every generation can relate to Habakkuk’s complaint. We want God to reward the righteous and punish the wicked, just like the Torah said (Deuteronomy 28).
God’s response to Habakkuk’s complaint
God says not to interpret his patience as unwillingness to take responsibility. God promises that he will step in and stop his nation misrepresenting his character:
5 Look at the nations and watch — and be utterly amazed. For I am going to do something in your days that you would not believe, even if you were told. 6 I am raising up the Babylonians, that ruthless and impetuous people, who sweep across the whole earth to seize dwellings not their own.
Babylon will bring the kingdom of God to its knees. The capital will fall. The temple will no longer represent the Lord’s presence among his people. The Davidic kingship will no longer represent God’s reign on earth.
God’s character is just. God is willing to make the tough decisions. God has answered Habakkuk’s complaint.
But this tragic termination leaves an even bigger problem. If God lets Babylon overstep its boundaries and swallow Israel, how does that bring God’s justice to the earth?
Won’t everybody end up enslaved to the wicked, those who don’t recognize God’s authority? Is God okay with Babylon feasting on nation after nation like a monster with insatiable appetite: Is he to keep on emptying his net, destroying nations without mercy? (1:17).
Habakkuk presents this second complaint to the heavenly court, eagerly awaiting God’s response since he no longer believes God is unwilling to act:
I will stand at my watch and station myself on the ramparts; I will look to see what he will say to me, and what answer I am to give to this complaint.
God’s response to Habakkuk’s second complaint
God answers straightaway. But God’s decree is not implemented straightaway:
2 Then the Lord replied: “Write down the revelation and make it plain on tablets so that a herald may run with it. 3 For the revelation awaits an appointed time; it speaks of the end and will not prove false. Though it linger, wait for it; it will certainly come and will not delay.
God agrees with Habakkuk that Babylon is a violent regime caring for nothing but its own power. In bringing down the last tribe of Israel (Judah), Babylon is doing what God decreed, but only out of self-interest, not because of any desire to do right:
4 “See, the enemy is puffed up; his desires are not upright — but the righteous person will live by his faithfulness — 5 indeed, wine betrays him; he is arrogant and never at rest. Because he is as greedy as the grave and like death is never satisfied, he gathers to himself all the nations and takes captive all the peoples.”
Eventually, Babylon will fall too. It wants God’s power, but it won’t survive. By God’s decree, Habakkuk goes on to announce the downfall of the evil empire: Woe to him … (2:6, 9, 12, 15, 19).
How does this answer Habakkuk’s second complaint? If Babylon swallows Israel and then dies, we don’t have divine justice restored to God’s world. We just have death. How will God restore his reign in the midst of all this tragic failure?
A seed of hope
Embedded in God’s reply was a promise. The evil that led to the demise of Judah and Babylon is not the whole story. While dishonourable passions for power bring the godless down, the people who recognize the true sovereign remain. While evil relies on death (greedy as the grave), those who remain faithful to the covenant sovereign are not wiped out. They participate in God’s goodness, life and faithful character: the righteous person will live by his faithfulness (2:4).
How will this work? Habakkuk isn’t told.
When will it be? In its appointed time is all he knows (2:3). Habakkuk is to write this down so it stands out like a signpost for those who run from the present destruction and keep looking for the Lord to redeem his people (2:2).
That’s the answer Habakkuk receives. Even through Babylon invades and destroys everything, the time will come when God saves those who keep trusting their heavenly sovereign in the face of all this devastation.
That promise runs to the end of Habakkuk’s book:
Habakkuk 3:17–18 (NIV)
17 Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, 18 yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Saviour.
How did that seed come to life?
Habakkuk received this message around 600 BC. Babylon fell a couple of generations later, but God’s reign wasn’t restored. His people were subject to empire after empire. Talk about the revelation awaiting its appointed time!
When Jesus arrived 600 years later, they were still ruled by foreign kingdoms. That’s why his message was such good news: The time has come. God’s kingdom has come close. Turn and trust the good news (Mark 1:15).
How did Jesus expect God to restore his kingdom? He did not believe he was called to oppose the evils of the empire that dominated God’s people. He did not fight violence with violence. He did not use the weapons of evil to bring down evil. His belief about how God would deal with evil matched Habakkuk’s promise: the righteous one (the one who did right) would live (even if they killed him) by faith(fulness).
And we live in him. We’re not saved by fighting evil, opposing those who do wrong. God brings us to life in the righteous one, trusting the leader appointed by God to lead us, relying on God’s good news that the righteous one will live by his faith(fulness).
That’s how God’s kingdom is restored — in the resurrected king.
Habakkuk did not predict the death and resurrection of the Messiah. He had no idea how God would save his people. All he had was the confidence that the righteous would, somehow, live by faithfulness.
It’s only as we look back that we can see how God fulfilled the promise he gave Habakkuk. Like all God’s promises, the ultimate fulfilment comes to us in the person of the messiah, the righteous one, raised to life because of this faithfulness.
In a coming post we’ll discuss how his right action and faithful life saves the kingdom. In trusting him, we’ll learn not to waste our energies condemning or fighting against evil. We’re just called to do right in God’s world, because we trust the God who raises his people to life through trusting the leadership of his faithful resurrected messiah.
What others are saying
Thomas Renz, The Books of Nahum, Habakkuk, and Zephaniah, NICOT (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2021), 290:
The revelation promises that the innocent victims of aggression who remain loyal to God will live while the swollen appetite of the oppressors will be their downfall. The promise does not so much call the arrogant to repent and adopt faith in God as urge those who put their trust in God to continue to do so. In other words, it calls for faithfulness. It does not directly address the temptation to imitate Babylonian greed and arrogance but the temptation to give up trust in God in the face of the earlier prophecy’s disastrous outcome in the Babylonian devastations and Torah’s inability to tackle injustice. Clearly, faith and faithfulness are here intricately related: it is impossible to remain faithful to YHWH without having faith in him and his revelation; it is impossible to have faith in YHWH and not remain faithful to him. One need not draw too sharp a distinction between the two.
David J. Clark and Howard A. Hatton, A Translator’s Handbook on the Book of Habakkuk, UBS Handbook Series (New York: United Bible Societies, 1989), 92:
In Habakkuk’s time, to be “righteous” or “upright” meant to obey God’s law and to treat other people fairly. …
The word translated faith in rsv is more accurately “faithfulness” (rsv footnote, jb; compare “faithful” in mft, neb, tev). This means being loyal to God and obedient to his law, even when outward circumstances make it difficult, as they did in Habakkuk’s day. In modern speech we may perhaps use the word “integrity,” though this does not have the religious overtones that “faithfulness” has.
John Goldingay, Minor Prophets II, Understanding the Bible Commentary Series (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2012), 69:
Yahweh’s promise is that “righteous” people, people who do the right thing in their relationships with God and with others, will live and not die (cf. 1:12). When things look otherwise, the key is “faith” or “faithfulness” or trust or steadfastness or truthfulness (ʾemunah). The key is to keep on trusting Yahweh and trusting Yahweh’s faithfulness and Yahweh’s promises.