WHEN GOD DISAPPOINTS
STEPHEN M. CROTTS
THE BOOK OF HABAKKUK
My son went through a stage in which he endlessly asked questions. Our conversations usually went sometime like this: “Dad, how big is the world?” “I don’t know, son.” “Dad, you don’t mind me asking questions, do you?” “Of course not, son.” How are you ever going to learn if you don’t ask questions?“
Habakkuk was a man who asked big questions of God like that. And many times the answer was slow in coming, inexplicable, or quite disappointing. Yet he clung to God in faith and in doing so, lived up to his name, for “Habakkuk” in Hebrew means “to embrace.” And Habakkuk did embrace God even when he did not understand God’s ways.
This prophet lived at the end of the seventh century B.C. And it is possible he was a Levite musician in Jerusalem’s temple for in chapter 3, verse 19, he addresses his oracle to the choirmaster to be sung to the accompaniment of stringed instruments.
Two great powers wrestled for dominance in the Mideast during Habakkuk’s time. Egypt and Babylon. And a weakened Israel was stuck right between them. Then in 605 B.C., at the battle of Carcherish, King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon defeated Egypt’s Pharaoh Neco to become the new master of the near East. And all Israel painfully wondered what this would mean for their state.
So, into this difficult time the minor prophet Habakkuk lived, ministered and wrote his oracle. In calling Habakkuk a minor prophet, this is not to say his message is of lesser importance than that of major prophets like Jeremiah or Isaiah. Actually the designation of major and minor has to do with book length. Habakkuk is a minor prophet because his writings are brief, only three chapters long. But, I tell you, there is a major lesson to be learned from this minor prophet!
So, to his oracle we now turn.
“GOD, ARE YOU THERE?”
When Habakkuk began his ministry, King Josiah likely was reigning. A good kind, Josiah brought reform to Israel by cleaning out the temple, rediscovering the law, and implementing its dictates in society. But, tragically, King Josiah was slain in the fields of Megiddo by Egypt’s Pharaoh Neco.
And then Manassah came to the throne of Israel. Only twelve years old, he was to hold a 55 year tenure in which he returned Israel to idol worship, set up false gods in the temple, and burned his son to Molech, the god Satan.
All of this was too much for Habakkuk. He just couldn’t believe the Lord would let a good king rule so briefly while a perfectly horrible king ruled for 55 years! “God, are you there?” He asked incredulously.
His book opens with him looking into his society and decrying all of the festering sins of his people. He sees “violence,” “strife and contention.” “The law is slacked,” or actually “paralyzed,” the Hebrew reads. “Justice never goes forth,” and “The wicked surround the righteous.”
The prophet knows God is holy and Israel is His covenant people. So why does the Lord do nothing about His people’s corrupt behavior? “Where is God and why is He taking so long to punish the sins of His people?” Habakkuk is asking. “How long shall I cry for help and Thou wilt not hear?” (1:2).
“God, are you there?” This has been the plaintive cry of humanity down through the ages. The Jews asked it in Europe during Hitler’s reign of sorrows. Dragged from their homes, forced to live in ghettoes, then shuttled off in cattle cars for “the final solution”—German death camps—they were gassed, victimized by ghastly medical experiments, worked to death, or shot. Millions of them were slain, their bodies stacked up like so much cordwood. “God, we are your chosen people, Israel, the apple of your eye. Are you there?”
The same question is asked in Spanish painter Goya’s Third of May, 1808, in Madrid painting. Napoleon’s soldiers have marched into a village, arrested the grown men, herded them into a square, and are proceeding by firing squad to execute them. The sky is dark and closed. No angel descends to help the innocent. A church spire in the distance is dark and empty. The soldiers, their backs to us, kill with an energetic efficiency. The bodies pile up. The blood runs thick. And one peasant, dressed in white, a look of abandonment and terror on his face, holds his arms up as if he is
being crucified. The painting is overwhelming. “God, are you there?” It asks eloquently.
“GOD, DO YOU CARE?”
Habakkuk stares into his world and sees violence, a law that is paralyzed, and the good being surrounded by wickedness. Good King Josiah rots in an early grave while evil Manassah, the boy king does every indecency, prospers for 55 years. And Habakkuk begins to question the very character of God. “Are you there? Do you care? Aren’t you going to do something about all of this terrible sin?”
Habakkuk wasn’t the first and neither the last to look into heaven and earth and question the very character of God. Great thinkers of every era have wondered quietly and aloud if the Lord was inactive, indifferent, or inadequate.
I now a young mother of three whose children died when her car plunged down a steep bank into an icy farm pond. Then her husband, a very fine Christian and dentist, fell into a severe depression, and eventually hung himself. When I talked with this lady, I asked her, “What is your view of God at this point that I might pray more effectively for you?” And she said, “Oh, I see God standing there, smiling at me, with His hands in His pockets.”
Do you ever feel that way about God? Does His seeming slowness to act make you wonder if His hands aren’t thrust deep down into His pockets? Many Christians fully believe God can judge a sinful nation, heal an illness, right a wrong, rescue the perishing. But they quietly wonder, “But will He do it for me?“ “Does God care about me?”
Let me assure you that it is perfectly permissible to experience such thoughts, questions, moods, and otherwise dark nights of the soul. The real heavyweights of faith in Scripture were honest to God with their feelings. The prophet Jeremiah once grew so frustrated with God that he called the Lord a “deceitful brrok.” Isaiah thought God so inexplicable he confessed Gods’ ways to be higher than ours. And here is Habakkuk questioning God’s very character—“Are you there? Don’t you care?” He feels like a faithful citizen who sees a house on fire, pushes the fire alarm and the celestial fire department never comes.
“GOD, IS THIS FAIR?”
That, the perplexity of the prophet, a very sensitive and tender inquisitive man of God. Now, the answer of God. I am here, God says. And I do indeed care. And, yes, I will do something about Israel’s sin. “For I am doing a work in your days that you would not believe it told. For lo, I am rousing the Chaldeans and they will execute my judgment on Israel (1:5-6). Then God goes on to detail just how harsh the hordes of Nebuchadnezzar will be. He calls them “bitter,” “nasty,” “terrible.” They “seize habitations not their own.” Their horses are swifter than leopards.” “They gather captives like sand.” Their “own might is their God.” And they “laugh at every fortress.”
At this point Habakkuk comes unglued. God seems to be taking His own sweet time in bringing punishment to Israel for their may sins. And when God finally rouses Himself to do something about it. He says he will choose an even more wicked nation to punish the less wicked Jews.
This is just too much for Habakkuk to bear! “Thou who are of purer eyes than to behold evil and canst not look on wrong, why dost Thou look on faithless men and art selling when the wicked swallows up the man more righteous than he?” (1:13). Translated, that means, “God, is this fair?“
So far the book of Habakkuk reads like one those jokes. “First the good news, then the bad news!” Except for Habakkuk it is first the bad news then the worst news! God is telling Habakkuk, “Look, I know how bad Israel’s sin is, but believe me, things are going to get much worse! For the Babylonians are coming and they will trash you!”
One of our beloved and effective missionaries in Kenya is Phillip Karanja. For twenty years Philip has preached the good news of Christ and practiced a legitimate healing ministry in Africa. But last year his own daughter fell ill and died. None of Phillip’s prayers to the Lord for help resulted in healing. Instead, she was overrun by death, literally tased be sickness. And Phillip will tell you he had a hard time accepting it. “God, I don’t understand. This doesn’t seem fair!”
So, this is where we find Habakkuk. He questions the very existence and character of God. “Are you there? Do you care? Is this fair?”
“GOD, DO I DARE HAVE FAITH?”
All of this brings us to the prophet’s final question: “Do I dare have faith in you?”
It is interesting that God calls the pagan Babylonians a “hasty” people (1:6). But not so Habakkuk. When he became disappointed with God, rather than do something hasty like resign from his post, join another religion, get drunk, or take his own life, he does something very mature. “I will take my stand to watch, and station myself on the tower, and watch, and station myself on the tower, and look forth to see what He will say to me…” (2:1). In other words, Habakkuk goes off alone to his watchtower or prayer closet and seeks the Lord. Rather than look at his troubles, he looks to his God.
And there Habakkuk slowly begins to realize that God is indeed there, that He cares, that He is able, but that God is working His and not Habakkuk’s purposes out.
I was arguing with a friend of mine. There was a job to be done. I was in charge.
And I was doing the work. But my friend was upset with me. As we talked he blurted out, “Stephen, if I were doing the job, I wouldn’t do it the way you’ve chosen.” And Habakkuk essentially tells God the same thing.
Yet God doesn’t change His mind. He orders the prophet, “Write the vision: make it plain upon the tablets, so he may run who reads it. For still the vision awaits its time; it hastens to the end—it will not lie. If it seems slow, wait for it: it will surely come, it will not delay.” (2:2-3). Then God utters the most famous verse in the book of Habakkuk, chapter 2, verse 4. “The righteous shall live by faith.” God is saying, “Hard times are coming, Habakkuk. If you are righteous, you’ll have to trust me. You have to live by faith, not by sight or understanding or property or success or fun or even by getting your way.
Have you ever read that famous old poem, “Not till the loom is silent, and all the shuttles cease to fly, will God unfold the canvas and explain the reason why the dark threads are as needful as the golden threads in the pattern He has planned”? Have faith, Habakkuk! Even though you do not understand, even though you don’t like it, even though the Babylonians trash you, live, and live by faith!
What it comes down to is this: God does not promise us a life with no pain about it. He never promised us that a sorrow wouldn’t fall. He did promise that when sparrows fall, He would be there, knowing, caring, and working His purposes out
(Matthew 10:29-31). “And you are of much more value than one of these,” he soothes.
Next God told Habakkuk that after Israel got theirs from Babylon, Babylon would get theirs as well. Nobody was going to get away with anything! What the Babylonians did to Israel would eventually be done to them.
Thus in chapter three the prophet pronounces a series of five woes upon Israel’s invaders. And, as history proves, King Nebuchadnezzar did fall to the Persians. So God is saying , “In the end, it will be all right. In the meantime it is all wrong. Wait for it, Habakkuk. Live by faith.”
Lest you and I feel singled out by God, made to suffer unfairly by a God who doesn’t know how it is, let me point you to Jesus Christ on the cross. There Jesus Himself struggled with the self-same questions: “My God, my God, Why hast thou forsaken me?” And indeed, the cross proves God cares. The resurrection proves He is there. And it also proves that not very much of this life is fair.
Finally, in chapter three God gives His prophet a vision of himself coming from Teman. And His glory and power were so evident that all nature was convulsed and history changed. Habakkuk himself is overwhelmed by the power and presence of God. And he decided to trust God no matter what. He sees the end of history by faith. But right now he lives in the terrible convulsions of a sinful nation being conquered by an even more evil empire. He has seen the Chaldeans. But even more importantly, he has seen the Lord.
And Habakkuk closes his book with a profession of his own faith in God. It is likely the most poetical and eloquent statement of faith in the entire Old Testament.
“Though the fig tree does not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines,
the produce of the olive fail
and the fields yield no food,
and the flock be cut off from the fold ant there be no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord,
I will joy in the God of my salvation.”
In this poem Habakkuk is using word pictures to contrast the ebb and flow of life, to demonstrate that this world is not yet fixed, but in process. “Though/yet” is the formula he uses.
“Though the fig tree does not blossom.” Fig trees were a source of refreshing shade in Israel. And figs were a source of both food and medicine. Fig trees also take a long time to grow. A fine grove might require several generations to nourish to its peak. Thus, fig trees became for Israel a symbol of prosperity. What Habakkuk was saying then is this: I will praise the Lord in a hot spot, without shade, without food, and when there is not medicine!
Habakkuk also mentions, “Nor fruit be on the vines.” Grapes. A source of wine. Sugar. And in Israel, a symbol of children. The prophet says he will trust the Lord even when all the sweetness has gone out of life.
“The produce of the olive fail.” From olives the Hebrew people extracted sadly, oil for their lamps, and even soap for washing. God is still God when people are dirty, when there is not light or salt in society.
“And the field yield no food,” he continues. Farming is hard work. And it is world that can come to naught if drought or pestilence prevail. Here the prophet is saying he will serve the Lord even it his labor is fruitless.
“No herd in the stall, the flock cut off from the fold.” Sheep represent meat for feasting. And for sacrificing. Without a flock there was only fasting, and the worshipper stood before the Lord empty-handed.
All this—empty-handed, unwashed, without shade, no sweetness left in life—“Yet will I rejoice in the Lord,” he says.
So the book of Habakkuk comes to an end with a man suffering by faith. The book of Job opens with Job rich, continues as he loses his health, wealth, family, and reputation, but ends with beyond a complex restoration. The book of Habakkuk opens with a man in misery who is about to come even more miserable. And the resolution will be beyond the prophet’s lifetime, for his is slain, along with the rest of Israel by the Chaldeans. Yet Habakkuk trusts God.
He concentrates on God, not history. He gives himself not the fate of the Babylonians, but to the hand of God. No bargains. No ifs or buts. No demands. Just trust no matter what.
The book opens with a cry. And it ends with a hymn of faith.
And you and I need this book. Because things will get worse. No, not just because the law is slacked in our land. Not just because the modern Chaldeans are moving to try and trash us. And not just because the world will try to crucify every single one of us. We need it because, if for no other reason, we are each getting older and our time of death approaches.
My lifelong friend Robert died of cancer last month. A few days before he died, he called me up to say goodbye. “Have you prayed for healing?” I inquired. “Yes, I have. We all have,” he said. “But God has said no. So this is the way it has to be for right now. Oh, but Stephen! He’s given me the grace to bear it! And in Him I shall surely triumph, not death! So tell them, Stephen. Tell them! It’s all true! Christ is lord!”
“Though the fig tree does not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines,
the produce of the olive fail…
yet will I rejoice in you, Lord.
I will joy in the God of my salvation For Christ’s sake. Amen.”