Habakkuk’s Lament

It’s only three chapters long, but the prophecy of Habakkuk packs a decent punch.

It helps, before diving into some of the gems in this book, to repeat a point made throughout this blog — if you read the Bible with pre-set assumptions, or filtered lenses, you will lose sight of what it is saying. As explained recently, in the essay Circling Back to the Text, we can easily overlook, since our assumptions prevent us from looking any deeper, that the fact Uriah is a Hittite is earth-shattering and damning to the Davidic saga. You can only “see” this if you study the text long enough to recognize the connections the authors make for us.

Because of centuries of theological training, it became the norm for people to see the prophets as people “predicting” the future, be it the coming of the Messiah or world events. Lost in this view was a more basic human concern, such as taking up a complaint with God for all the pain and injustices in the world. We tend to overlook this aspect of the prophets, but the prophets are filled with their own very real complaints about how God does things. And they want answers.

Habakkuk is a good place to look at how the authors of Scripture address human complaints against God and what they learn, and we from them, in this process of challenging God. The Book of Habakkuk is essentially the questions of a human being for why the vulnerable suffer in war.

The Complaint

Habakukk’s lament is expressed in the opening verses:

“O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? Or cry to you ‘Violence!’ and you will not save? Why do you make me see wrongdoing and look at trouble? Destruction and violence are before me, strife and contention arise” (1. 2-3)

Habakukk is expressing the position of being part of a people who are on the receiving end of a war, and with the violence he observes (“destruction and violence are before me”), he is calling on the Lord to answer for this. But the response, far from being an exercise in hand holding, seems to add fuel to the fire. In his retort, the Lord is admittedly proud of raising up foreign armies to punish the disobedient and wayward nations (vv. 6 – 11), including Habakkuk’s!

The Lord’s response in verses 6-11 gives the reader the impression that God relishes war. Not satisfied at all with this reply, Habakkuk continues:

“I will stand at my watchpost, and station myself on the rampart; I will keep watch to see what he will say to me, and what he will answer concerning my complaint” (2.1). In other words, I won’t leave from here until he gives me a decent reply.

In chapter two, verse 2, the Lord responds. What is important here is that we, along with Habakkuk, are learning that the prophet’s original question was myopic.

In his extended response in chapter two, the Lord expresses that his concern is for all the earth (2.8), something absent from Habakkuk’s original complaint: “destruction and violence are before me” (1.2). The key verse in the Lord’s response is 2.4: “Look at the proud! Their spirit is not right in them, but the righteous live by their faith.”

Where are these righteous found? All over the earth (2.14).

The Lord has to teach Habakkuk to enlarge his concern. Noble as it is to lament the violence against our own people, or people like us, the Lord is educating the prophet to also be concerned about the violence against people over the face of all the earth. In other words, compassion is not ethnic, national, or geographical.

After a lengthy song of praise, the prophecy ends with the words, “God, the Lord, is my strength” (3. 19). The only hope for strength is trust in the Lord. Strength is not the number of chariots or the size of the treasury of a state.

In three short chapters, Habakkuk learns that the Lord is not a God who relishes violence. At the same time, he learns also that a human being’s concern must be for all those suffering on the earth. Human compassion must mirror that of God’s.