Background of Habakkuk
Author and Date
Habakkuk is unusual as a prophetic book. It never addresses the people of Judah directly. Rather it is a dialogue between the prophet and God. The prophet Habakkuk was probably a contemporary of Zephaniah and Jeremiah, and possibly even of Ezekiel and Daniel. He probably prophesied no later than the end of Josiah’s reign (640–609 BC).
Theme and Overview
The first two chapters are organized around Habakkuk’s questions and the Lord’s replies. Habakkuk saw Judah’s rapid moral and spiritual decline, and this deeply troubled him. Yet God’s response puzzled him even more. How could a good and just God use a more wicked nation (Babylon) to punish a less wicked one (Judah)? God makes it clear that both nations are to be judged and appropriately punished for their sin. Although Habakkuk may not fully understand, he has learned to rely totally on God’s wisdom and justice. He knows God can resolve issues in ways he could never have imagined. This God is certainly worthy of Habakkuk’s praise and worship, which is how the book ends.
Many of the righteous in Judah would have agreed with Habakkuk’s words. They wondered what God was doing and struggled with the same issues as Habakkuk. God’s words reassured them that he was in control and would deal appropriately with the nations.
1. God is just and merciful, even though his people may not always understand his ways (Habakkuk 2:4).
2. Wickedness will eventually be punished, and the righteous will ultimately see God’s justice (Habakkuk 2:5–20).
3. God uses some wicked nations to punish other wicked nations, but ultimately God will judge all nations (Habakkuk 1:6; 2:5–20).
4. The key phrase “the righteous shall live by his faith” (Habakkuk 2:4) summarizes God’s plan for his people. It is quoted three times in the New Testament (Romans 1:17; Galatians 3:11; Hebrews 10:38). Each time a different aspect of the phrase’s meaning is highlighted.
I. Superscription (1:1)
II. First Cycle (1:2–11)
A. Habakkuk’s lament (1:2–4)
B. God’s response (1:5–11)
III. Second Cycle (1:12–2:20)
A. Habakkuk’s lament (1:12–2:1)
B. God’s response (2:2–20)
IV. Habakkuk’s Prayer (3:1–19)
The Near East at the Time of Habakkuk
The Global Message of Habakkuk
Trusting the Lord
Trust the Lord, no matter what. That is Habakkuk’s message for God’s people around the world today. Believers can, and must, trust in God no matter how tumultuous outward circumstances may become.
Habakkuk is unique in that the prophet is not speaking to God’s people but rather to God himself. Habakkuk is perplexed because God is planning to use Babylon to punish his own people, Judah, even though Babylon is far more wicked than Judah. The three chapters of this prophecy show Habakkuk wrestling with God in anguish, but ultimately learning to trust in the Lord no matter what.
Down through history and around the world, this has been the test to which God’s children are called. Whatever political circumstances or economic hardships or religious persecution they are experiencing, will they trust him? Will they gladly rely on God for all that they need to nourish and sustain them as they await their inheritance of the world itself (Matthew 25:34; 1 Corinthians 3:21–23).
Habakkuk in Redemptive History
Trust in Self
Though it is difficult to know when Habakkuk was written, it was clearly at a time when Judah was at a moral low point, possibly during the reign of the extremely wicked kings Manasseh or Amon. Judah had sunk so low that the people were worshiping Baal, offering their children in sacrifice to the pagan god Molech, dedicating horses to the sun god, and neglecting the care of the temple.
The sin of Judah 2,600 years ago traces all the way back to the fall of Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden. Since that critical moment, all of humanity has been plagued with a tendency toward self-centeredness and pride. One way this manifests itself is in unhealthy self-trust and self-reliance—depending on our own abilities or cleverness or resources for a stable existence. This was Judah’s sin.
Trust in Christ
Yet Judah’s sin reaches not only backward to Eden but also forward to our own day, and it is ultimately healed only in Christ. Only through Christ can the mercy of God toward his people and his justice toward their sinful self-trust be equally upheld. Beholding Christ and his work on the cross, we are freed by the Holy Spirit from self-trust as we learn to trust in Christ. As the New Testament puts it, drawing on Habakkuk, “The righteous shall live by faith” (Romans 1:17; Habakkuk 2:4; compare Galatians 3:11; Hebrews 10:38).
As we consider the book of Habakkuk in global redemptive history, we remember God’s unchanging commitment to preserve his people. He will sustain and purify his people at all costs, yet he does this at times in ways that are deeply mysterious to them. Yet even when it is through strange events that his people are purged, they are called to put their faith wholeheartedly in him, no matter what.
Universal Themes in Habakkuk
Confidence in the Lord
This is the key theme of Habakkuk, and it is a universal need for God’s people around the world and down through history. God can and must be trusted at all costs. This has been proven to us supremely in Christ. Jesus Christ gave up everything in heaven to come to earth and die for sinners so that we sinners, having been forgiven, can give up everything on earth when so required, knowing that we will one day be in heaven with him. God is the maker of heaven and earth, the upholder and sustainer of all things. He is sovereign, wise, and abundant in mercy—he can be trusted.
God Will Bring All Wickedness to Account
Judah had become deeply wicked, and God brought Babylon to punish them. Yet Babylon too was desperately wicked—in Habakkuk’s eyes, even more wicked than Judah (Habakkuk 1:13). Therefore God would also bring Babylon to account, as well as all other nations of the earth (Habakkuk 3:12). God’s justice will ultimately be universally distributed in perfect righteousness and fairness. No one will get what is not deserved. All who have walked uprightly will be treated accordingly. And all who have walked in wickedness, no matter how hidden from human eyes, will be judged accordingly (1 Corinthians 4:5).
The Global Glory of God
Habakkuk’s prophecy presents believers with a picture of a majestic God who in his dealings with us transcends ethnic, racial, and economic differences. Responding to Habakkuk’s astonishment that he would use the Babylonians to punish Judah, the Lord proclaims that “the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” (Habakkuk 2:14). This vision of what will one day be true of all the earth shows us how we should conduct ourselves in the meantime: “But the Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him” (Habakkuk 2:20). Recalling God’s great deliverance of Israel from Egypt (Habakkuk 3:3, 15), Habakkuk reflects on how “his splendor covered the heavens, and the earth was full of his praise” (Habakkuk 3:3) as God “shook the nations” (Habakkuk 3:6). In all of this we see the worldwide dimensions of God’s glory, his resplendent magnificence as he goes into action.
The Global Message of Habakkuk for Today
It is often difficult to see the hand of God in a fallen world. We become quickly perplexed and doubtful of his faithfulness and care in light of natural disasters, poor stewardship of the earth’s resources, political corruption, rejection of the gospel, hostility toward followers of Christ, hunger, economic instability, and a thousand other frustrations and disappointments.
Yet even when all outward evidence points to the contrary, the church is called to trust in the Lord. This trust is based not on what we see but on who God is—the God who will “in wrath remember mercy” (Habakkuk 3:2). God’s character is supremely revealed in Jesus Christ, the final “anointed” one (Habakkuk 3:13), in whom divine wrath and divine mercy meet. Because of Christ’s saving work on the cross, God calls all people from every tribe and nation to place their trust in him, for “the righteous shall live by his faith” (Habakkuk 2:4).
As believers around the globe meditate on Habakkuk’s prophecy, may we all join together in affirming,
Though the fig tree should not blossom,
nor fruit be on the vines,
the produce of the olive fail
and the fields yield no food,
the flock be cut off from the fold
and there be no herd in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord;
I will take joy in the God of my salvation. (Habakkuk 3:17–18)