The Faith to Rejoice
A sermon on Habakkuk 3:17-19 by Coty Pinckney, Community Bible Church, Williamstown, MA 7/22/01
What is the most difficult experience you have had to weather in your life? What event most wrenched you emotionally?
For some that might be:
· the death of a spouse, or of a child, or of a parent;
· for others it might be an act of violence committed against you;
· for others, being ignored, rejected, or put down by someone you love;
· for others, the consequences of a sin you yourself committed.
Think back, now: What were your thoughts toward God at that difficult time in your life? Did you pray? If so, how? With tears? With anger? With a broken and contrite heart?
Today’s text – Habakkuk 3:17-19 – contains words of great hope. But we won’t understand those verses unless we see the depth of despair that faced the prophet writing them.
Recall the last verse we read three weeks ago, Habakkuk 3:16:
I heard and my inward parts trembled, At the sound my lips quivered. Decay enters my bones, And in my place I tremble. Because I must wait quietly for the day of distress, For the people to arise who will invade us.
As we noted last time, Habakkuk sees God as a consuming fire, pure and holy. In chapter 1 he called out, “God, why don’t you give us justice! Punish these evildoers!” By 3:16 he sees the enormity of that punishment – the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians. And he trembles.
Recall that Habakkuk is writing about 18-20 years before Jerusalem is destroyed in 586 BC. Quite possibly he was alive to see that destruction – he may have been killed in the battle, or he may have starved during the siege; he may have lived through it. We don’t know. But we do know that Jeremiah experienced all the terrors of that time. King Nebuchadnezzer of Babylon surrounded the city and besieged it for two years, starving the people into submission. Eventually the King of Judah and his army tried to escape through a hole in the wall at night, but they were caught and slaughtered. The Babylonian army then entered the city, looting, murdering, plundering, destroying. Let me read you some verses from Lamentations 2, which Jeremiah wrote shortly after this terrible event:
1 How the Lord has covered the daughter of Zion with a cloud in His anger! He has cast from heaven to earth the glory of Israel, . . . In His wrath He has thrown down the strongholds of the daughter of Judah; . . . 3 In fierce anger He has cut off all the strength of Israel; He has drawn back His right hand from before the enemy. And He has burned in Jacob like a flaming fire consuming round about. 4 He has bent His bow like an enemy; He has set His right hand like an adversary and slain all that were pleasant to the eye; In the tent of the daughter of Zion He has poured out His wrath like fire. 5 The Lord has become like an enemy. He has swallowed up Israel; He has swallowed up all its palaces, He has destroyed its strongholds And multiplied in the daughter of Judah mourning and moaning. 6 And He has violently treated His tabernacle like a garden booth; He has destroyed His appointed meeting place. The LORD has caused to be forgotten the appointed feast and sabbath in Zion, And He has despised king and priest in the indignation of His anger.. . .
11 My eyes fail because of tears, My spirit is greatly troubled; My heart is poured out on the earth because of the destruction of the daughter of my people, when little ones and infants faint in the streets of the city. 12 They say to their mothers, "Where is grain and wine?" as they faint like a wounded man in the streets of the city, as their life is poured out on their mothers' bosom. 13 How shall I admonish you? To what shall I compare you, O daughter of Jerusalem? To what shall I liken you as I comfort you, O virgin daughter of Zion? For your ruin is as vast as the sea; Who can heal you? . . . 15 All who pass along the way clap their hands in derision at you; They hiss and shake their heads at the daughter of Jerusalem, "Is this the city of which they said, 'The perfection of beauty, A joy to all the earth '?" 16 All your enemies have opened their mouths wide against you; They hiss and gnash their teeth. They say, "We have swallowed her up! Surely this is the day for which we waited; We have reached it, we have seen it." 17 The LORD has done what He purposed; He has accomplished His word which He commanded from days of old. He has thrown down without sparing, And He has caused the enemy to rejoice over you; He has exalted the might of your adversaries. . . .
20 See, O LORD, and look! With whom have You dealt thus? Should women eat their offspring, The little ones who were born healthy? Should priest and prophet be slain in the sanctuary of the Lord? 21 On the ground in the streets lie young and old; My virgins and my young men have fallen by the sword. You have slain them in the day of Your anger, You have slaughtered, not sparing. 22 You called as in the day of an appointed feast my terrors on every side; And there was no one who escaped or survived in the day of the LORD'S anger. Those whom I bore and reared, my enemy annihilated them.
Without minimizing the pain that any one of us here this morning has experienced, I believe what Habakkuk and his contemporaries endured during the destruction of Jerusalem was worse.
Now let’s read today’s text. Remember, Habakkuk has foreseen this event Jeremiah described for us: starvation of young and old; cannibalism of children; the destruction of Solomon’s temple; the apparent end of his country. And seeing this, he writes 3:17-19:
17 Though the fig tree should not blossom and there be no fruit on the vines, Though the yield of the olive should fail and the fields produce no food, Though the flock should be cut off from the fold and there be no cattle in the stalls, 18 Yet I will exult in the LORD, I will rejoice in the God of my salvation. 19 The Lord GOD is my strength, and He has made my feet like the feet of a deer, And makes me walk on my high places.
Our outline this morning will follow the verse divisions, with a title for each:
· 17: I’ve lost everything!
· 18: Yet I will Rejoice!
· 19: For God Led Me Here!
We will then look at an example of a man who rejoiced in the midst of extreme trials, and draw out two final lessons for living by faith.
Verse 17: I’ve Lost Everything!
Look again at verse 17. Remember, the economy of Judah at this time was based almost exclusively on agriculture and livestock. And agriculture could be divided into permanent crops – fruit trees, olive trees, grape vines – and annual field crops, like wheat and barley. According to this verse, what parts of this economy have failed?
The first three items: figs, grapes, and olives – that is, all the permanent crops.
The next item: fields – that is, the annual crops, the staple foods, the source for most of the calorie supply. So neither the permanent nor the annual crops have yielded anything
Final two items: Flock and cattle – that is, sheep and cows. All their livestock are dead.
So do you see what he is saying? “Even though I’ve lost everything; even though all my income disappears.” We might say, “When I lose my job and the unemployment insurance runs out; when I can’t work and am denied my disability claim; when the bills come in but no money comes in to the checking account.”
But really Habakkuk’s situation is worse than anything we can imagine in this country. For in Judah there is no social services agency, there are no homeless shelters, there are no food stamps – and during the destruction of Jerusalem there are no well-off relatives. No income for Habakkuk means starvation. It means death – first for the weakest in the family, the old and the young, and eventually for everyone. I doubt that anyone here this morning has ever faced the genuine prospect of having a family member starve to death because they of a lack of income. That’s what Habakkuk faced.
But don’t let the extremity of these circumstances blind you to their relevance for us today. Another way to think of this verse, which perhaps is easier for us to relate to: Though it looks like all God’s gifts have been taken from me.
How does Habakkuk respond to this situation?
Verse 18: Yet I will Rejoice!
Yet I will exult in the LORD, I will rejoice in the God of my salvation.
Note here three reactions Habakkuk avoids:
(a) He does NOT lash out at God in anger: He does not say, “God, you have no right to destroy your people! You are a faithless God!”
(b) He does NOT pretend that the evil won’t happen. He doesn’t withdraw into a fantasy world, saying, “That’s too terrible to think about. I will close my eyes and think of something else. I’ll sit in front of the TV and get distracted.”
(c) And, note carefully, he does not even say, “Despite all this, I will endure! I will keep a stiff upper lip and stick it out! I will still wait for the Lord! I will remain faithful!”
No. Habakkuk is not the Little Train that Could, puffing up the side of the mountain saying, “I think I can, I think I can.” Instead, what does he say? “I will EXULT in the Lord, I will REJOICE in the God of my salvation!”
Habakkuk not only foresees the possibility that he could lose everything; he foresees the certainty that the world as he knows it – along with everything and everyone he loves – will be destroyed terribly. And in this extremity he says not only, “I won’t accuse God of being unfaithful,” but, “I will REJOICE in God.”
How can he say that? Looking ahead to the terrors of Nebuchadnezzer’s siege, how can Habakkuk rejoice in God? He answers that in verse 19:
Verse 19: For God Led Me Here
The Lord GOD is my strength, and He has made my feet like the feet of a deer, And makes me walk on my high places.
This verse explains why Habakkuk can rejoice in the midst of the terrible suffering he foresees. Consider three questions that arise as we try to understand what he is saying: Why does he say his feet are made like those of a deer? What is implied by “high places”? And what does he mean by He “makes me walk”?
(a) “He has made my feet like the feet of a deer.” If Habakkuk had lived on this continent, he might have said, “like those of a bighorn sheep.” Almost 22 yrs ago, Beth and I hiked for a week in Montana’s Glacier National Park. Frequently we would look up at a rocky, seemingly inaccessible peak – and there near the top we would see bighorn sheep. They would climb to the uppermost crags, and run over rock fields as easily as we would run on the beach.
Why are bighorn sheep able to do this? Because of their feet – their tough, cloven hooves. These hooves aren’t hurt by sharp rocks, but are able to grip even small outcrops. God designed their feet for climbing. They don’t slip. They don’t fall.
Note that the point is not the power of the sheep, but the design of the sheep’s foot. Habakkuk uses the word for the female deer, not the male, to make this point. The female deer too is able to climb to the highest heights, to run over rocky fields, because of her special feet.
So Habakkuk rejoices that his feet are made like deer’s feet, like the feet of bighorn sheep – designed by God to travel over the most difficult ground.
(b) “My High Places”:
In the year 2001, the phrase “walking on high places” connotes recreational mountain climbing: Go out on a beautiful day, climb to the highest peak, experience a great view, exercise your body, get back to nature. But these are primarily 19th and 20th century ideas. In Habakkuk’s day, no one exercised for the sake of exercise. Recreational mountain climbing was still a few millennia in the future.
Instead, in this culture “high places” connotes a difficult, challenging place. A place one would not want to go unless it is absolutely necessary. You might climb to a high place to gain defensible ground in a battle, but you only go there if you can’t avoid it. So “high places” here means a difficult, challenging place.
(c) “Makes me walk on my high places”
The NIV translates this, “enables me to go on the heights.”
Most English translations use two verbs here: the NAS, “make” and “walk”, the NIV, “enable” and “go”. But in Hebrew, there is only one verb, the usual verb for “walk”, with a stem change that indicates the subject is caused to do the normal action of the verb. So in this case, the phrase might mean:
“He leads me to these high places; He makes me go there even though I don’t want to.”
Or, it might mean (as the NIV interprets it):
“He enables me to walk on places I could not go without his help.”
I think both ideas are present here. Habakkuk is not talking about a pleasant afternoon of rock climbing. He dreads what God has in store for him, he knows the path is very challenging, very dangerous. In that sense, God is leading him to a place he does not want to go. Yet God is his strength, and Habakkuk is confident that God will enable him to do what he could never do on his own.
And that is why he is joyful! God led him to this very spot. And though there is pain and difficulty here, he knows that God will either rescue him from the danger or allow him to die. But even death is controlled by God, and only will come about if God so directs.
So why rejoice? God is good! He is wise! He is in control! And He knows what He is doing!
An Example: Joseph
We could elaborate on this section of Habakkuk by looking at many other Scriptures. I encourage you in particular to read these chapters that talk about exulting or rejoicing in trials, temptations, and persecutions: Romans 5, Philippians 4, James 1, Hebrews 12, and 2 Timothy 4. But this morning instead of looking at one of those, I want to hold up to you the person of Joseph.
Remember Joseph? At 17 years of age his own brothers sell him into slavery! Why? Partly because of his own sins of pride and bragging. But certainly his brothers bear the far larger share of the blame. They are most at fault.
Imagine that you are Joseph, being taken in chains to Egypt. This is Joseph’s equivalent of Habakkuk 3:17, the failure of all the crops, the death of all the livestock. His own family members almost killed him, and then sold him as a slave – he thinks he will never see his father again, that he might die at any moment. Or think of Joseph a few years later, after he is falsely accused of sexually assaulting his master’s wife, and is unjustly thrown into a stinking Egyptian prison. Once again, Joseph faces his equivalent of Habakkuk 3:17.
What was going through Joseph’s mind at these times? What would be going through your mind in similar circumstances? The natural reaction would be to think: “This isn’t fair! I don’t deserve this! I worked so hard for Potiphar, and now, look! Those brothers of mine – if I can ever get back at them . . .”
The Bible doesn’t record Joseph’s thoughts. But recall that God puts his brothers in his power – and we see from his words and actions then that Joseph had put all thought of revenge out of his mind. Remember, Joseph interprets Pharaoh’s dream and is raised to become the highest official in all Egypt. There are seven years of plenty; Joseph stores the surplus. And in the second year of famine, Joseph’s brothers appear before him, wanting to buy food. It is more than 20 years since they sold him into slavery. And now Joseph has the opportunity to imprison or even kill all those brothers who sold him into slavery. In his position, he could do this without anyone asking questions, without the danger of an attorney general appointing a special prosecutor to investigate him. What does he do?
Look at Genesis 45:3-5:
Joseph said to his brothers, "I am Joseph! Is my father still living?" But his brothers were not able to answer him, because they were terrified at his presence [with good reason!]. 4 Then Joseph said to his brothers, "Come close to me." When they had done so, he said, "I am your brother Joseph, the one you sold into Egypt! 5 And now, do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here
If you were Joseph, wouldn’t you want them to be grieved or angry with themselves? Wouldn’t most of us naturally want them to feel some pain for what they had done? Wouldn’t you be tempted to say,
“Do you know what you did to me? Do you know how much you made me suffer? Do you know how many times I thought I was going to die – because of your sin? It’s about time for you to get a taste of that! Oh, I’ll be merciful – I was a slave and prisoner for 13 years – I’ll only give you 3, but you’ll know the stink and pain and danger of an Egyptian prison!
But Joseph does none of that. Let’s keep reading:
do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you. 6 For two years now there has been famine in the land, and for the next five years there will not be plowing and reaping. 7 But God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance. 8 "So then, it was not you who sent me here, but God. (emphasis added)
Joseph had gone through Habakkuk 3:17 – he had lost everything, he had despaired even of life – and had come out into the glory of Habakkuk 3:18 and 19. His delight was in a sovereign God – a God who takes the evil acts of men, and who uses those very evil acts to accomplish His good and wise purposes – even to the saving of those same evil men!
It is this confidence in the goodness of the God who is in control that enables Joseph to forgive his brothers from his heart – and it is only our confidence in such a God that will enable you and me today to forgive from our hearts.
Understand that we are not belittling the sins of Joseph’s brothers. They sinned. They were accountable before God for that sin. Yet Joseph knew what the Bible clearly teaches: God was in control; He sent Joseph into Egypt.
Lessons for Living By Faith
There are two additional lessons that may not be obvious from what we have said so far:
(1) By definition, walking by faith is harder than walking by sight
Recall that Habakkuk chapter 2 presents us with lessons about how not to live by faith. The proud one searches for satisfaction, security, accomplishment, and honor. All of us desire these things. The natural response to these desires is to seek them directly: to try to satisfy ourselves, to try to establish our own security, to try to accomplish great things, to aim to bring honor to ourselves. The natural response is the easy response.
But to the one who lives by faith, God says, “Don’t pursue these directly! You will not find them that way. I know, that’s the natural thing to do. But I tell you: Trust in Me! Delight in Me! And I will give you the desires of your heart. You will find true satisfaction, true security, true accomplishment, and true honor in Me alone!”
So you say living by faith is hard? That’s no surprise. Walking by sight is easy. Walking by faith is hard. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be walking by faith.
(2) Living by faith means loving God, instead of loving God’s gifts.
Habakkuk sees all God’s gifts disappear. Now, the question is: will he love God?
Think of a parent who lavishes gifts on a child. The child says he loves his parent. But isn’t the child’s reaction to the ending of those gifts the real test of his love?
Or consider a young man who loves a young woman; he gives her many gifts, he writes lovely poems for her, he sends her flowers daily. She takes his gifts, reads his poems to others – but then ignores him.
How easy it is for us to act that way to God! To love His gifts, to delight in His gifts – and to become angry if those gifts disappear.
There is a great deal of difference between, “I love what you do for me” and “I love YOU.”
Living by faith means loving GOD Himself! We indeed must be thankful for His gifts – but God is our delight, He is our portion, He is our treasure, and nothing we desire compares to HIM.
In closing, let’s go back to Lamentations. You recall the terrible events Jeremiah relates in Chapter 2. But listen to what he writes in Chapter 3:
This I recall to my mind, Therefore I have hope: 22 The LORD'S lovingkindnesses indeed never cease, For His compassions never fail. 23 They are new every morning; Great is Your faithfulness. 24 "The LORD is my portion," says my soul, "Therefore I have hope in Him.". . .
37 Who is there who speaks and it comes to pass, Unless the Lord has commanded it? 38 Is it not from the mouth of the Most High That both good and ill go forth? 39 Why should any living mortal, or any man, Offer complaint in view of his sins? 40 Let us examine and probe our ways, And let us return to the LORD. (emphasis added)
In the midst of one of the most terrible events in human history, Jeremiah – knowing that God has brought it about – could say, “Great is your faithfulness, The Lord is my portion, I hope in him – let us return to the Lord.” He delights in God, who enables him to walk on the high places.
And your sorrows? Every sorrow ultimately results from someone’s sin – even the sorrow of natural disasters. And God is dealing with sin. He has conquered it – and He will end it. So rejoice! Not because of the pain and sorrow, but because you can be confident that our God Reigns! He is sovereign over the affairs of men. He will be exalted by your joy in the midst of sorrow. He will stand by you and enable you to walk over those high places.
What are the high places over which God will take you? Will he enable you to have great victories – playing a key role, perhaps, in the 3rd Great Awakening in this country? Will you see people healed of terminal illnesses through your prayers? Will you change the whole atmosphere of our local schools – the elementary schools, the high schools, Williams College – so they become places where God’s name is consistently honored? Or will your high places be more like Habakkuk’s, more like those described in Hebrews 11:35-38: Mocked, beaten, imprisoned, poor, destitute.
Whatever your high places might be, know that God has guided you there – even if, like Joseph, you are partially responsible for your situation. God has guided you, He will enable you to endure, He will enable you to rejoice. Trust Him. Delight in Him. Throw yourself upon Him. And love Him with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.
This sermon was preached at Community Bible Church in Williamstown, MA on 7/22/01.
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