Habakkuk is unique among the prophets, because his book begins as a conversation. He calls out to God wanting answers to what he sees going on around him among the people of God and the nations around them. And its not just the people, but Habakkuk himself who is changed by the message he bears. Ultimately, Habakkuk’s very life is changed so that he is able to trust God in the face of sin and evil: “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. God, the Lord, is my strength; he makes my feet like the deer’s; he makes me tread on my high places” (3:17-19).
But before he comes to that place of transformation, he feels the weight of the sin and evil around him. As I thought about, I realized that we are often insulated to the sin and evil around us. Perhaps by looking at Habakkuk’s heart, we will find our own softened?
Habakkuk opens up with his first complaint to God: “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not hear? Or cry to you “Violence!” and you will not save? Why do you make me see iniquity, and why do you idly look at wrong? Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise. So the law is paralyzed, and justice never goes forth. For the wicked surround the righteous; so justice goes forth perverted” (1:2-4).
Habakkuk looks around at the people of Judah—the remaining people of God among the nation of Israel—and he can’t stand what he sees. Everywhere he looks there is sin and evil among God’s people. Specifically, Habakkuk was appalled by the violence that seemed to permeate God’s people. He says, “Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise” (1:3). More than that, in the midst of the culture of brutality and cruelty, we see that there was also strife and contention. These words have a legal connotation. That is to say, not only was the culture one of violence, but people had also taken to being overly litigious. Sue your neighbor whenever you think you’ve been wrong, and milk them for all they have.
They were so bad, Habakkuk laments that “the law is paralyzed” (1:4). The law was God’s gift to his people. In the law, God revealed his holy character and the practical ways by which Israel was to live in order to imitate that holiness. God regulated their society and provided them with the means of giving him proper worship. Yet now, Habakkuk says the people have become so wicked that the law is paralyzed. That is to say, the nation’s leaders—the kings and priests—were so corrupt that the law wasn’t looked to or followed or enforced. Therefore it was rendered useless among God’s people. Thus, he says, “justice never goes forth. For the wicked surround the righteous; so justice goes forth perverted” (1:4). The righteous among God’s people have become so few in number that the nation is characterized by wickedness, and in that wickedness, there is no justice. The leadership is wicked so that even when some of justice is sought, it’s corrupt.
So, Habakkuk is looking around at all of this and is calling out to God. In fact, he’s called out before. He’s been calling out, endlessly in his mind, begging the Lord to do something! These are your people, Lord—send revival! And so now he calls out, ‘O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not hear? Or cry to you “Violence!” and you will not save? Why do you make me see iniquity, and why do you idly look at wrong?’ (1:2-3). Habakkuk called out to God, questioning his handling of this situation of Israel. He couldn’t understand why God wasn’t answering his prayer.
And God says, ‘I am doing something. In fact, I’m about to do something you could not of imagined’: “Look among the nations, and see; wonder and be astounded. For I am doing a work in your days that you would not believe if told. For behold, I am raising up the Chaldeans, that bitter and hasty nation, who march through the breadth of the earth, to seize dwellings not their own” (1:5-6). God says I’m raising up the Chaldeans—the people also known as the Babylonians—to invade Judah and as an instrument of my judgment against the wickedness of my people. Now, you need to understand what this would have meant to Habakkuk. The Babylonians were an incredibly wicked people. God himself says, “They are dreaded and fearsome; their justice and dignity go forth from themselves.” Their sin is so great there is no such thing are dignity or justice in their culture. Verse 8: “Their horses are swifter than leopards, more fierce than the evening wolves; their horsemen press proudly on. Their horsemen come from afar; they fly like an eagle swift to devour. 9They all come for violence, all their faces forward. They gather captives like sand.” The Babylonians weren’t just wicked; they were utterly relentless in war.
Now, Habakkuk’s situation is worse! He calls out to God again. The first time it was in anger and grief that God hadn’t done something about the sin of Israel, now he’s upset that he doing something—he’s upset that God is using an even more sinful nation to punish his own. Habakkuk cries out, “Are you not from everlasting, O Lord my God, my Holy One? We shall not die. O Lord, you have ordained them as a judgment, and you, O Rock, have established them for reproof. 13You who are of purer eyes than to see evil and cannot look at wrong, why do you idly look at traitors and remain silent when the wicked swallows up the man more righteous than he? 14You make mankind like the fish of the sea, like crawling things that have no ruler. 15He brings all of them up with a hook; he drags them out with his net; he gathers them in his dragnet; so he rejoices and is glad. 16 Therefore he sacrifices to his net and makes offerings to his dragnet; for by them he lives in luxury, and his food is rich. 17Is he then to keep on emptying his net and mercilessly killing nations forever? (1:12-17).
Habakkuk says, ‘How can you punish Israel with these people?’ He alludes to what we know from history—that the Babylonians would literally run a hook through the lower lip of their captives and lead them along in a line like fish. As Habakkuk explains, the Babylonians inflicted brutalities and they enjoyed it (1:15). They worshiped implements of war, and their victories only added to their arrogance (1:16). They would siege the city—blitzkrieg style—crushing everything and moving on to the next. And Habakkuk asks, ‘Will the Babylonians last forever and destroy everyone?’ (1:17).
Reading all of that–do you feel the weight of what Habakkuk sees? His own people we so corrupt and wicked that even the law of God itself seemed ineffective. He’s called to God, insisting he do something and when God says he is about to do something, it’s almost too horrific to imagine. Like about it like this. Suppose you called out to God asking him to do something about the moral degradation of America and he came to you and said, ‘I am about to do something. I will send Al-Qaida to come across the borders and shame, embarrass, and destroy America.’ How would you feel? What would you say? Like Habakkuk would you say, ‘We’re bad and deserved to be punished, but, Lord, how can you use such a wicked people?’ As you see later in the book, Habakkuk’s motivations and feelings weren’t all that they should be. There was more than a little presumption. Yet, at the core of his prayer, Habakkuk acknowledges something we sometimes ignore: the weight of sin and evil.
We we have to ask something of ourselves: do we feel that weight? Do we feel the weight of the sin of our culture? Does the weight of 3700 abortions per day weigh on our hearts? Does the weight of 740,00 homeless people weigh on our hearts? Do we feel the weight of every murder near your city, every drop of alcohol served to struggling alcoholics, every robbery in your neighborhood? What about the church? Does the weight of open morality and false preaching, does the weight of the ridicule brought on Christ by our actions, weigh on our hearts?
Here’s the reality that we have to face—usually we don’t feel the weight of those things. For several reasons, I think—including the kind of movies and television we watch, our inability to take seriously and read God’s word, and our general distance from God—we have become immune to the weight of sin and evil. Yet, if we are going to come to a place of full and confident trust in God in face of sin and evil, we must first have our hearts softened to first feel its weight. Then, we will be ready to hear from God and be transformed by his perspective–the perspective he gives us through the cross of Christ, where the full weight of sin is on display in gruesome yet glorious detail.