Have you ever read through the Minor Prophets? Those short books at the end of the Old Testament which we can easily forget about are books filled with instruction for us. Their devotional value is immense, and their beautiful manner of expressing deep spiritual truth, often rising to poetic heights, is fit for profitable and sustained meditation. The amazing power of the biblical prophets is that although they brought a particular message to a particular people in a particular time and place, they nevertheless speak the prophetic word of truth as clearly to us as they did to their original audience. The prophets speak with power and proclaim the word of the Lord which speaks to the needs and circumstances of every generation. We have the benefit of looking back and seeing how God fulfilled Old Testament prophecies in the history of Israel. This ought to prompt us then to take all the more seriously the instructions that the prophets offer us today.
In our age of growing darkness when the light of Christianity is waning to twilight here in the West, the warnings, threats, admonishments, and words of judgment as well as comfort are very relevant. Habakkuk’s day was a dark day indeed. Although our day and age does not exactly parallel that of Habakkuk, we cannot avoid drawing a few comparisons with regard to the spiritual state of God’s people. We too live in a day in which the world around us abounds with wickedness. And not only that, in our day as in Habakkuk’s, much of the church world around us has grown unfaithful to her Lord as she chases after and imitates the world rather than her Lord. This is something for which we ought to grieve, just as Habakkuk grieved for the unfaithfulness of Judah. Habakkuk was sent by God as prophet to the southern kingdom to announce the judgment of God, which would come in the form of the Chaldean invasion. It is hard to imagine how difficult it must have been as one of God’s people to herald the severe judgment of God upon the nation of Judah. We are all familiar with the horrifying destruction perpetrated by the Chaldeans. God set a vision of this terrible future before the prophet’s eye; it was the burden he saw and burden he had to deliver to his countrymen. The tone of this prophecy, therefore, is quite sorrowful, even anguished as reflected by the prophet’s cry in the opening verses of the book. Habakkuk begins his prophecy by crying out to God on account of the awful state of God’s unfaithful people. He earnestly sets before God the complaint that so weighed upon his heart.
O Lord, how long shall I cry, and thou wilt not hear! even cry out unto thee of violence, and thou wilt not save! Why dost thou shew me iniquity, and cause me to behold grievance? for spoiling and violence are before me: and there are that raise up strife and contention. Therefore the law is slacked, and judgment doth never go forth: for the wicked doth compass about the righteous; therefore wrong judgment proceedeth (Habakkuk 1:2–4).
God’s people in Judah had abandoned the heritage of their fathers. Not only had they taken to the idolatry of the heathen, they had abandoned the purity of life that obedience to the Law created. The prophet says that violence and robbery are before him and that he has been made to behold iniquity. Such sins had become normal among God’s covenant people. Thus the society of Judah which ought to have been characterized by godliness was corrupted by the people’s deliberate disobedience to God’s Law. Justice and judgment were perverted, and the covenant people lived in violence and injustice toward one another. Theirs was not a society in which the people lived in love as brethren of a common faith, rather it had become just like the societies of the pagans in which men would rather spoil their neighbor’s goods than seek his wellbeing. Such is mankind’s normal behavior. Aside from the grace of God, man is as ravenous as a wolf and cares for nothing but himself and the gratification of his desires, and values his neighbors insofar as they are of use to him. The violence, robbery, and injustice that have been an unchanging characteristic of human society since the fall can to a large degree be traced to man’s inherent selfishness and self-worship. The only place where such evil can be restrained is in the covenant society of God’s people, a society composed of those whose hearts are renewed and who are committed to serving God rather than themselves and loving their neighbor and seeking his good rather than seeking to use his neighbor merely as a means to self-gratification. That is what Judah should have been and yet violence and injustice reigned among God’s people in Habakkuk’s day. The people of Judah had relapsed and become no different than the world around them. This sorry scene was what drove the godly Habakkuk to such grief and sorrow that he nearly despaired of God’s salvation. He looked upon the hopeless situation of God’s people in which the few righteous who remained were the victims of their brethren’s viciousness and sin and asked that question which had weighed upon so many saints past and present: why do the wicked prosper and the righteous suffer? Where is the Lord’s salvation? Where is his justice for the oppressed?
By all appearances God had allowed the wicked in Judah to triumph. They continued in their sin and abused the poor and righteous with impunity. Even the judges of the land, those whose duty it was to assure justice was done, were complicit in the nation’s grievous sins. In such a situation the faithful may come to wonder if God will ever come to their aid. By putting these questions to God the prophet does not accuse God of injustice or unfaithfulness any more than the Psalmist, when he cries out to God in a similar fashion:
Why standest thou afar off, O Lord? why hidest thou thyself in times of trouble? The wicked in his pride doth persecute the poor: let them be taken in the devices that they have imagined. For the wicked boasteth of his heart’s desire, and blesseth the covetous, whom the Lord abhorreth” (Ps. 10:1-3).
The prophet’s cry just as the Psalmist’s is the outpouring of his heart before God, a heart that is filled with love for God and for God’s righteous commandments, and a heart which is deeply troubled by the unfaithfulness of the covenant people. Yet the prophet’s trust in God is evident. The wicked will not triumph over the faithful. God will ever be the savior of His people. Justice will be done. God’s people will not be oppressed forever. This truth is beautifully expressed later on in the book as the prophecy unfolds. In this regard Habakkuk’s cry is the cry of God’s people to one degree or another in every age. There has never been a time when the righteous have been free of all affliction and persecution; though in some ages that suffering is much more severe than in others. Even in the church world among fellow Christians, sadly, this is true. To a large degree the Lord has protected us from the severe persecution and affliction many of our Christian forbearers have faced. But we cannot assume that it will always be so. The situation of our day seems to show signs of drastic change. How fast things will change is hard to tell.
As we look out upon the church world of our own day it is good to keep such things in mind. As American Christianity becomes more and more worldly and accommodates to the new forms of paganism our modern world has produced, it is likely that the faithful within Christ’s universal church will find themselves pressed and squeezed both by compromised Christians within the church and by the broader society. Faithful Christians will find themselves pressured to conform to our culture’s standard of morality; a morality which enshrines ungodliness as godliness and scorns anyone who does not agree and approve of its vices. Refusal to conform will be met with scorn and marginalization from the nominal church world. We already see this trend to some degree today. Faithful Christians must always be ready to endure injustice for the sake of the truth.
In the end the Lord will vindicate His faithful people, though that does not necessarily exempt them from the troubles that God sends as judgment upon the wicked. That was Habakkuk’s comfort and it is ours as well. We will see this next time when we consider the judgment that Habakkuk foretells will fall upon the people of Judah. In circumstances such as these, it remains for God’s people always to pray. We pray that God’s justice may be done and we are confident that it will be done, even if we do not see the evidence of it here and now. God’s timing is not our timing, but His is a perfect timing. And so Scripture teaches Christians faithfully and patiently to bear whatever afflictions come their way. We are also to pray that God would, if it pleases Him, lead apostatizing churches back to truth. The gradual descent of the contemporary church world ought not to cause us to adopt a fatalistic mentality so that we throw up our hands and regard much of the church world as being as good as gone. Cold indifference to apostasy is even worse. Habakkuk’s cry shows both his righteous anger at the wickedness perpetrated within the church of his day, and a godly sorrow for his erring brethren. A dose of both is healthy. We also, who are called to pray for our enemies, ought all the more to pray for erring Christians and to pray for their repentance and a genuine turning back to the pure doctrine of the gospel. But our requests are always qualified by that great request “Thy will be done,” and we make them in the confidence that His will indeed will be done.