Living By Faith When God is Confusing
A sermon on Habakkuk 1:1-2:1 by Coty Pinckney, Community Bible Church, Williamstown, MA 3/25/01
Lydia is a 10-year old who lives in a rural area of Malawi in southern Africa. In her early years, she lived with her Christian mother, who read the Bible to her and taught her the way of salvation. Her non-Christian father worked in the city of Blantyre, and came home only one weekend a month. Three years ago he died of AIDS; then, last July Lydia’s mother died also. Lydia and her 3 younger siblings now live together with 12 other cousins – all AIDS orphans – in the small home of her grandfather. There is no money for school fees, so she can’t go to school; and anyway, she is needed at home to take care of the younger children. Where is God for Lydia?
Malak is a 15-year-old boy who lives in extreme southwestern Pakistan – in the province of Baluchistan, near the borders with Iran and Afghanistan. He is one of approximately 1.1 million members of the western Baluch ethnic group in Pakistan, who have their own language and are largely isolated from the rest of Pakistani society by the mountainous, remote area in which they live. Malak is a Moslem; everyone he knows is a Moslem. Among the 1.1 million western Baluch in Pakistan, how many Christians do you think there are? Zero. Not one. The Bible has not been translated into Malak’s language. Malak lives in darkness. He is separate from Christ, excluded from God’s people, a stranger to the covenant of promise; he appears to have no hope; he is without God in the world. Does God care about Malak? Is God doing anything to reach him?
Sarah, a single mother of 3 year old Naomi and 1 year old Michael, is driving home from work after picking up her children from daycare. Sam, also on his way home, stops at a bar and has 4 or 5 drinks. He realizes he’s stayed too long and is already 15 minutes late for his evening appointment. He rushes out to his car – and runs through the first stop sign just as Sarah pulls into the intersection. His car broadsides hers, killing Naomi and leaving Michael and Sarah crippled for life.
Who is in control of this world? Anyone? Does it make sense to talk about a wise, loving, and all-powerful God who governs all the affairs of men when stories like this happen every day? Where is justice in a world full of AIDS orphans, and unreached people groups, and innocent, crippled children? How can we have faith, how can we believe in the God of the Bible when we are faced with such darkness, such tragedy, such devastation?
We could multiply the stories, and tell of 40 million babies killed in this country by their parents while still in the womb; we could tell of child abuse, and hunger and starvation; we could tell of the mocking of God on public airways and in college classrooms. All this simply brings into sharper focus these questions:
Today we begin a series of sermons entitled “Living By Faith.” Our text will be the book of Habakkuk, written about 2600 years ago. But the world of Habakkuk was in many ways much like ours. Habakkuk too was faced with great evil in his country, and then sees even greater evil ahead for his people. Habakkuk too faced a world that seemed to be out of control, a world in which there was no justice. Habakkuk too struggled with the seeming inconsistency between the revealed nature of God and the evidence he saw in the world around him. But Habakkuk in the end rejoices in God, concluding with one of the greatest statements of faith in the entire Bible.
So the lessons of Habakkuk are lessons we need to learn today, in the year 2001. I encourage you to read this book over and over, and soak up its truths.
Habakkuk was a contemporary of Jeremiah; the book was probably written between 609 and 605 BC. This was a time of major upheaval. Assyria – the major world power that had destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel about 100 years previously – has recently fallen, and the Babylonians or Chaldeans are beginning to look threatening. At the same time, Egypt has come out from under Assyrian domination and may be the major world power once again. The southern kingdom of Judah has had a mixture of good and bad kings in the previous century, but nevertheless is filled with corruption. Writing 15-20 years before Habakkuk in about 625 BC, Jeremiah assesses the state of his country:
26 "Among my people are wicked men who lie in wait like men who snare birds and like those who set traps to catch men. 27 Like cages full of birds, their houses are full of deceit; they have become rich and powerful 28 and have grown fat and sleek. Their evil deeds have no limit; they do not plead the case of the fatherless to win it, they do not defend the rights of the poor. 29 Should I not punish them for this?" declares the LORD. "Should I not avenge myself on such a nation as this? Jeremiah 5:26-29 NIV
So Jeremiah declares the guilt of the people. But note that he also states that God intends to punish them.
Shortly after Jeremiah writes these words, in 622BC the High Priest Hilkiah finds the Book of the Law in the temple. King Josiah then reads the book to all of Jerusalem, leading to religious reform and revival (2 Kings 22 and 23). He remains a godly king until his death in 609. But the problems of injustice and idolatry run deep in this society, and after Josiah’s death, the situation deteriorates rapidly
This is the situation Habakkuk finds: turbulence all around the known world; and at home, a hoped-for revival fizzling out, with apparently no long-term effects, as injustice and violence prevail.
Habakkuk, aware of Jeremiah’s prophecy we read above, knows that God has promised to punish the nation for the lack of justice. Yet the punishment – and the hoped-for cleansing – have not come. So Habakkuk calls out for justice in the first four verses of the book:
The oracle which Habakkuk the prophet saw. 2 How long, O LORD, will I call for help, And You will not hear? I cry out to You, "Violence!" Yet You do not save. 3 Why do You make me see iniquity, And cause me to look on wickedness? Yes, destruction and violence are before me; Strife exists and contention arises. 4 Therefore the law is ignored And justice is never upheld. For the wicked surround the righteous; Therefore justice comes out perverted. (Hab 1:1-4 NAU)
Note four characteristics of this cry:
A repeated cry – Habakkuk does not just pray once. “How long will I call for help and you will not hear?” He cries and cries and cries.
An unanswered cry – Despite his repeated cries, there is no evidence that God hears. Violence continues, with no salvation from God.
A painful cry – Verse 3 indicates that Habakkuk was in sorrow and pain over the evil and violence around him. He is no disinterested observer! He asks, “Why do you make me look at all this! All this destruction and violence!”
The content of the cry: no justice – Verse 4 begins, “The law is ignored.” The word translated “law” is “torah,” here, I believe, referring specifically to the Book of the Law found in the temple by Hilkiah. When that happened and the revival began, Habakkuk must have thought, “Great! Now this country will return to God!” But now, about 15 years later, the moral climate looks even worse than it did before the Book was found. So he cries out (literally), “The Torah is paralyzed!” The Law has no influence! Injustice abounds and violence increases. And where is God, who promised to punish the evil in the land?
So this is Habakkuk’s cry: a repeated cry, an unanswered cry, a painful cry – even though he is crying out for God’s glory, for the God of justice to implement justice! This is not a selfish prayer; instead, this is a prayer for God to purify His people, according to His promises.
Some interpreters, however, take verse 3 as selfish, arguing that Habakkuk is pleading not for God’s glory but for relief from his own personal pain of having to witness suffering and injustice. They even label this section as “Habakkuk’s complaint.” And doesn’t Paul tell us to do everything without complaining or arguing? (Phil 2:14).
Was Habakkuk right to cry out in pain? Was he right to be troubled by the evil around him? Should he have just said, “Oh, God is in control, so this evil doesn’t really matter?”
In answering that, let’s look at the way that Jesus and Paul respond to evil around them. They too weep over the impact of sin on the world:
So you and I have much to learn from Habakkuk (and Jesus and Paul). How easy it is to get used to the evil around us! Once we’ve witnessed 10,000 murders on TV and in the movies; once we’ve seen even more fake crimes; once we’ve heard again and again the number of children aborted, or who go hungry, or who are AIDS orphans in Africa, it is so easy for us to become callous.
But the evil around us should produce tears in us! It should prompt us to plead, “Your kingdom come! Your will be done HERE, NOW! As it is in heaven!” We should react, “Oh God, why do we witness such pain and suffering and evil and abuse? Come, Lord Jesus, put an end to it all!
Habakkuk has prayed again and again. Now, in His perfect timing, God answers:
5 "Look among the nations! Observe! Be astonished! Wonder! Because I am doing something in your days-- You would not believe if you were told.
Our English translations obscure an important parallel between verses 3 and 5. In verse 3, Habakkuk asks, “Why do you make me see iniquity and cause me to look on violence?” In verse 5, God uses these same two verbs in the same order: “Look among the nations! Observe!” So God is saying, “Yes, I know what you see. But you’re focused on your little kingdom -- look around! Lift your eyes! Wonder at my power and authority! I’m doing something worth looking at - unbelievable even! Look up!”
Habakkuk’s situation is similar to that of a captain, whose military unit has been told to hold its position at all costs; the army cannot win the battle unless this unit holds its ground. As the enemy attacks, the captain becomes desperate; low on ammunition and with high casualties, the captain pleads with his superiors to send reinforcements. But there are no reinforcements – because the general, in his wisdom, has sent an entire corps around to the rear of the enemy. This corps will attack and destroy the enemy momentarily. While focusing on the details of the battle right in front of him, the captain can’t see the general’s strategy – but if he looks up and peers with his binoculars, he will be able to see the conquering forces about to attack! He needs to look up!
How do you think Habakkuk reacts after hearing this verse? I believe he becomes quite hopeful! “God is doing something marvelous! Maybe even the Messiah is coming! Maybe the kingdom will be restored! Maybe we’ll have true, long-lasting revival!” But then God says something completely unexpected:
6 "For behold, I am raising up the Chaldeans, That fierce and impetuous people Who march throughout the earth To seize dwelling places which are not theirs. 7 "They are dreaded and feared; Their justice and authority originate with themselves. 8 "Their horses are swifter than leopards And keener than wolves in the evening. Their horsemen come galloping, Their horsemen come from afar; They fly like an eagle swooping down to devour. 9 "All of them come for violence. Their horde of faces moves forward. They collect captives like sand. 10 "They mock at kings And rulers are a laughing matter to them. They laugh at every fortress And heap up rubble to capture it. 11 "Then they will sweep through like the wind and pass on. But they will be held guilty, They whose strength is their god."
Instead of bringing revival, God brings the Chaldeans! Instead of bringing the Messiah, God brings Nebuchadnezzer! And, indeed, God makes very clear that he is the one bringing this destruction, as He begins this section by saying: “I am raising up the Chaldeans.” Nor does God soften the blow. Look at the words He uses to describe these people: “Fierce. Impetuous. Dreaded. Feared. They swoop down to devour.”
And look at verse 9. What has Habakkuk been complaining about? Injustice and violence! Yet He says of the Chaldeans “All of them come for violence.”
This isn’t what Habakkuk asked for! He wants justice in Judah – not the destruction of Judah! It’s almost as if God said: “You want justice? I’ll give you justice!”
Those are all answers Habakkuk wants to hear! Those are all answers we want to hear!
But: What is He going to do? Send the Chaldeans to destroy the kingdom of Judah!
It is hard for us to imagine what this must have meant to Habakkuk. To help you to feel what he feels, try to imagine yourself as an adult in 1970. Now I know that will be much easier for those of you my age and older, but do your best. Recall that the 1960’s were turbulent in this country: full of rebellion against authority, violence on college campuses and in the streets; the expansion of the use of drugs and so-called sexual liberation (which was really slavery to sex); stark, deep-seated disagreements, even among Christians, about the Vietnam war; racism and hatred are prevalent. Imagine that you are a Christian who has prayed and prayed throughout the decade that God would cleanse this country from violence, that God would be honored in the US, that true revival would break out, that God’s name would be honored among the American people. And then God tells you, “Yes, I’ve heard your prayers, and now I’m going to do something about the situation: I’m going to send the Soviet Union to destroy the US!”
How would you respond? “Excuse me? I know our country is in bad shape, but: the Soviet Union? Won’t that make matters even worse?”
Or for you younger kids, imagine that you’re having a problem with bullies at school, and the school authorities have not been able to do anything about it. So the principal comes over the loudspeaker and says, “We’ve decided on a course of action to solve the bullying problem at Williamstown Elementary: We are bringing in a gang of thugs from Los Angeles – they’ll take care of the bullies!”
Your response to these situations probably is quite similar to Habakkuk’s. But before we look at that, read over these verses one more time. Is there any hope in these verses? Is there any indication that justice really will be done?
Verse 11 ends, “But they will be held guilty, they whose strength is their God.” God will use the Babylonians, but He will also judge them. God elaborates on this judgment much more in chapter 2, as we will see in the weeks ahead.
But Habakkuk, overwhelmed by God’s decision to use the Babylonians, doesn’t focus on His promised judgment of them. Instead, how does the prophet react to this? How would you react?
He must have been tempted to say, “Aaargh! I can’t be a spokesman for a God like this! I quit!” Remember, in similar circumstances, Jeremiah and Elijah said something very much like that. (Jeremiah 20, 1 Kings 19)
But Habakkuk doesn’t do that. Instead, he gives us a wonderful blueprint to follow whenever we too are faced with the confusing nature of our God. Let’s read what he says, and then draw out the implications for us:
12 Are You not from everlasting, O LORD, my God, my Holy One? We will not die. You, O LORD, have appointed them to judge; And You, O Rock, have established them to correct. 13 Your eyes are too pure to approve evil, And You can not look on wickedness with favor. Why do You look with favor On those who deal treacherously? Why are You silent when the wicked swallow up Those more righteous than they? 14 Why have You made men like the fish of the sea, Like creeping things without a ruler over them? 15 The Chaldeans bring all of them up with a hook, Drag them away with their net, And gather them together in their fishing net. Therefore they rejoice and are glad. 16 Therefore they offer a sacrifice to their net And burn incense to their fishing net; Because through these things their catch is large, And their food is plentiful. 17 Will they therefore empty their net And continually slay nations without sparing?
In these verses, Habakkuk (1) remembers the promises of God; (2) remembers the character of God; then (3) asks God how His use of the Chaldeans is consistent with His character. Let’s look at these in turn:
In verse 12, Habakkuk says, “We will not die.” Why does he say that? How does he know that the Babylonians will not wipe out the nation completely? Because of God’s promises to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and David! Habakkuk knows that God plans to bless all the nations of the earth through Abraham’s seed (Gen 12:3, 22:18, 26:4); he knows that God will establish the throne of David forever (2 Sam 7:16). So Abraham’s seed cannot die out; David’s descendants cannot all die. God is faithful to His promises; this Habakkuk knows.
Habakkuk also reminds Himself of God’s character. Note how many attributes of God He mentions in just the first few verses. He sees God as:
Let’s look at this last a bit more closely. Habakkuk says that God’s eyes are “too pure to approve evil.” Recall verse 3; there Habakkuk is the one whose eyes are tired of looking at evil. So in verse 13, Habakkuk says, “If I’m tired, you must be more so! If I, evil as I am, am bothered by this injustice, you must be too!”
One more characteristic of God is included indirectly in verse 16: God always acts for His own glory. Habakkuk tells God that the Babylonians are not going to glorify Him. Instead, they will praise their nets, that is, their military might. The prophet was surely familiar with these words written by Isaiah about 70 years previously:
"For My own sake, for My own sake, I will act; For how can My name be profaned? And My glory I will not give to another. (Isaiah 48:11)
So Habakkuk asks, “God, how are you glorified by this action?”
Asking God How His Actions are Consistent with His Character and His Promises
In effect, in these verses Habakkuk is asking God a logical question: “God, I know You are eternal. I know You are sovereign. I know You are pure. I know You act for Your own glory. I know You are the Rock, our security, our foundation. So why are You doing this? How does bringing the Babylonians to overwhelm Your people advance Your purposes? I don’t understand.”
What a lesson for us! Cry out! Hold on to God’s promises! Remind yourself of God’s character! (You can only do these two by feeding on His word.) And then ask Him questions! Reason! Think hard! And present Him with the problem!
Waiting for an Answer
So what does Habakkuk do next? See 2:1
I will stand on my guard post And station myself on the rampart; And I will keep watch to see what He will speak to me, And how I may reply when I am reproved.
Does the prophet say, “Oh, I’ll never understand, so forget it!”
Does he say, “This is the best of all possible worlds, so don’t worry, Be Happy!”
Does he say, “Maybe God will answer, maybe He won’t.”
No! He says, “I will keep watch and see what He will speak to me!” He waits! He expects!
Question: Does the last phrase in the verse indicate that he thinks God will be upset with him? That God will reprove him? While the point is debatable, I do not think that’s the prophet’s meaning. At about this time, Jeremiah first prophesies that God will destroy Jerusalem, breaking the city like a clay jar. And Jeremiah actually acts this out in public: he takes a clay jar and smashes it to pieces. This is seen as sedition, so Jeremiah is thrown into prison and put in stocks. As he says in Jeremiah 20:2, “for me the word of the LORD has resulted in reproach and derision all day long.”
I believe in this last phrase of 2:1, Habakkuk anticipates the same sort of treatment. He is a prophet (1:1) and must proclaim what God tells him: If he himself is confused, he needs to know how to answer his listeners. And if he says God will destroy Judah, he will certainly be reproved. So he trusts God to tell him how to speak to those among his listeners who will reprove and rebuke him for saying their country will be overwhelmed by the Babylonians.
So I agree with John Calvin on this point, who paraphrases Habakkuk like this: "If the wicked deride my faith, I shall be able boldly to confute them; for the Lord will suggest to me such things as may enable me to give a full answer."
Or, more simply: “I’m your prophet Lord, and I don’t know what to say to your people! How am I going to explain this to them? You gave me this office, this gift: Give me the words to say! I know they will challenge me: What do I say in response?”
So how do we live by faith in a confusing world? The answer will come out piece by piece as we go through this great book over the next several months. But from this passage, let me bring together and expand upon three main lessons for us:
(1) Mourn and weep: Our hearts should be broken by the pain and suffering and sin in this life, and by the eternal pain and suffering coming to all those who reject God; our hearts should be broken that God is not yet glorified on the earth, that instead His name is dragged through the mud.
(2) Remember God’s character:
Soak yourself in the Word. Think hard about the implications of God’s character. Draw the contrast between what you know about God and what you see in the world. And cry out to God. Always remember:
6 For after all it is only just for God to repay with affliction those who afflict you, 7 and to give relief to you who are afflicted and to us as well when the Lord Jesus will be revealed from heaven with His mighty angels in flaming fire, 8 dealing out retribution to those who do not know God and to those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. (2 Thessalonians 1:6-8)
(3) Look for an answer:
Pray through the difficulty! Wrestle with God!
We’ll see next week that God does answer Habakkuk, with words that are full of hope and encouragement. But it is good for us to end today with the confused prophet, waiting for an answer. For so often, God leaves us in that position, waiting, confused, not understanding Him.
So how do you react to the Lydia’s and Malak’s and Sarah’s of this world? What goes through your mind when such stories come to you, in person or in print? Can you say to the AIDS orphan and the unreached people and those crippled by drunk drivers that God is good? Can you show them that God is good? That He cares? That He is in control? That He answers?
When God is confusing, we must live by faith in the future grace of the God who hears. So wait! Feed on His word, and expect Him to speak through it!
This sermon was preached at Community Bible Church in Williamstown, MA on 3/25/00. The stories of Lydia, Malak, and Sarah are fictional, though in truth they occur every day. The details about the Western Baluch people are accurate; see the Joshua Project. The Calvin quote is from his Habakkuk commentary.
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