A speaker at a recent conference helpfully pointed us to the book of Habakkuk. This is a book often quoted for it’s best known verses (1:5) and (3:2) which at a glance seem to promise ‘ a new thing’ and to ask for ‘revival’, but in reality are promising and asking for something far more fundamental – justice and judgement.
The clue is in Habakkuk’s name: It means ‘wrestler’ or ’embraced’ – but as you read through the book you quickly realise that the ’embrace’ of the name is not an comfortable cuddle but a wrestler’s embrace – like the grip that held Jacob as he wrestled through the night with an angel of the Lord and ended up both with a blessing and a permanent disability. It is the embrace/wrestling of Job who assaults God with questions of justice, and demands answers. It is the embrace/wrestling that we so often want to know we have permission to do. For, to be truly held while you ask deep and disturbing questions is another level of security. We instinctively know it is one thing to be loved when you are as meek as a proverbial child, but quite another thing to be held when you are as truculent as a real life child can be. Habakkuk is embraced and wrestled with. He asks and he is answered.
The second clue in in the root meaning of the opening word in Habakkuk. We have it translated as ‘oracle’ but the root meaning is burden.
So why would an oracle be a burden, or a burden an oracle for that matter? What does he see that is a burden?
Habakkuk’s Burden: Act One Scene One:
The first thing is an assessment of the wickedness of the world around him. It troubles his spirit. Just as hearing harrowing tales of extreme persecution world-wide should harrow our spirit’s, Habakkuk is troubled by violence, iniquity, strife and destruction. This is a message we can connect to, and a ‘secular’ world can connect to as well. Why are we in such a mess?
The second thing is that God is not intervening in this mess. He is not hearing the cries, his law is paralysed, justice doesn’t work and the wicked have the upper hand.
This are his first two burdens. The world is a mess. God is absent.
Enter God: Act One Scene Two:
God begins with what sounds like the sort of platitude that could get him a main stage slot at any prosperity conference at any time in the planet’s history (including in Jerusalem in the 7th Century BC when Habakkuk was seeing what he saw). But having told Habakkuk:
Look to the nations and see, wonder and be amazed, behold I am doing a work in your days what you would not believe if I told…
The Lord God then goes on to define that work, and it is a seriously bad news for the complacent 7th Century BC conference attender whose immediate response is “more Lord please”…
Because the “work in your days” God is going to do that “you would not believe” turns out to be a heart level response to Habakkuk’s initial cry for justice and judgement. The “work in your days” is not a warm whisper of love and care. The “work in your days” is not a friendly or cuddly ’embrace’ of all that is wrong, No, it is to wrestle back his people from their sin, through the shock tactic of allowing their near decimation by a neighbouring superpower – the Chaldeans/Babylonians.
If Habakkuk’s first burden (the world is a mess) and second burden (God is absent) seemed bad, his new, third, burden will seem scarier still to many readers. It is vividly described in Habakkuk 1:5-11. A marauding army is approaching ‘dreaded and fearsome’, with horses compared in swiftness to leopards and fierceness to wolves, coming to devour and set on violence.
When we preach on burdens, of course, we often jump to Jesus’s words that ‘my burden is light’. We like ‘light’ to mean incidental, inconsequential and so easy to carry that we hardly notice it. But Habakkuk definitely noticed these burdens, and of course, if we read Matthew’s gospel Jesus definitely noticed his burdens too, and expected us to as well.
Habakkuk now is in full wrestle mode with God: It’s an old cry: Here we go again. In verse 12 he is prepared to see that this judgement is necessary, and believes strongly in the sovereignty of God so he can say ‘we will not die’ despite this decimation. But he courageously challenges God again (wrestles with God) and questions why he can use those even less righteous than the Judeans to judge them.
How topical this is for a church currently facing the full judgement of the civil courts for our extreme neglect of those made vulnerable and weak by predatory pompous paedaphiles. A church handed over to the judgement of the Third Estate and government for her many and outrageous wrong doings. And yet the government and media have proven again and again to be as corrupt (and often more) than the failing church. Why does God allow media/courts to sit in judgement on his wayward people when they have institutionally done such wrong themselves?
Let earth be silent: Act Two Scene One
The answer to Habakkuk is that God is a God of justice who brings judgement by whatever means necessary. But if / when those who bring judgement overstep the mark then none of the things that they place their security in will save them. The Chaldean/Babylonian invaders had little such restraint. Unlike in our 21st Century context these agents of God’s wrath were far removed from the restraints, checks and balances of the British justice system and media standards. They would have no such restraints, and thus when they over stepped their God-given task to discipline his people they would drink in shame and not glory. Ultimately there will be a day that is hinted at in 2:14 when the earth will be filled with the glory of God as the waters cover the see, and it will be those who live out faith (2:4) who will be right with the ultimate ruler – God – and will live in that glory filled earth. So whatever you think you have to say against God or his people now, one day, Habakkuk reveals, you will be silent before him (2:20).
Renew them in our day: Act Two: Scene Two
All this is the backdrop to Habakkuk’s famous prayer:
O Lord, I have heard the report of you
and your work O Lord do I fear
In the midst of the years revive it
In the midst of the years make it known
And so you see his wrestling journey nearly complete.
He is not harking back to some glorious day when he (in Simon Ponsonby’s words) had a ‘cuddle with Christ on the carpet’ and asking for a renewal of that loving feeling while the nation goes to hell in a handcart.
No, he’s acquiescing to God’s right to judge in his own way. He is saying he is sees the need for burden three (invasion) to be the response to his initial burden (the mess we’re in) and burden two – the common complaint that God does nothing. A holy God drawing near brings with him holiness. Habakkuk now wants that work that he rightly fears to come in the midst of his years. He keeps referring to Israel’s deliverance from captivity in Egypt as a reference point for how cataclysmic intervention can/may be necessary:
He is saying: Revive your work God who saved us from Egypt with your mighty hand (3:3). Revive your work God of plagues (3:5). Purify us God of the Passover. Do not let us neglect Josiah’s reforms unchallenged… be a good Father to us… discipline us, BUT:
…in wrath remember mercy”
Give us a chance – as you did to previous generations you have also had to judge and discipline. Do not wipe us totally out even as you purify us.
AND destroy any of our enemies who overstep the mark in bringing judgement… (3:14-15), like you did with Pharoah of old.
Hinds Feet in High Places: Act Two: Scene Three
All this leads Habakkuk back to a place of trusting in God’s sovereignty despite the doom and destruction now inevitably coming his way. The righteous will live by faith, and despite the purge approaching their will be justice. Even when it gets so bad that there is no harvest God will be with him in the exile on the hills he will now expect to go into:
Though the fig tress should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and fields yield no food, the flock shall be cut off from the fold and their 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 deers, he makes me tread on my high places. (3:17-19)
Before Daniel is taken into exile as a boy, while Jeremiah is stubbornly weeping over a people gone wrong, as Josiah’s sons fail to carry on the turn around work their kingly father had begun in their youth…
Habakkuk got angry.
He got angry at the wrong in the world.
He got angry with God for doing nothing.
He wrestled with God for an answer and in that embrace got another burden and answer. He saw destruction. And he saw justice. The justice was needed enough to cause him to ask for the destruction. But he also saw that that destruction would have a limit. That God would judge those who unjustly judge his people. That God would in wrath remember mercy.
Is Habakkuk a book for the church today? It is not a book that easily allows us to think of God as a the ‘I love you’ God of self-actualisation, who cuddles us on a carpet and cares for us like an easily neglected maiden aunt who is unerringly grateful for our occasional attentions. It is not a book that enables us to think of burdens as ‘light’ by a 21st Century definition of that phrase. It is not a book that is much about ‘us’ at all.
This is a book about a roaring lion, not a lamb. Slow to be aroused to anger, but able to summon up pagans to do his work for him when he must. The sort of God who would expose hypocrisy and paedophilia in church and hang it out there on display until repentance comes, but will not spare the agents of government or media either if their integrity is likewise compromised. The sort of God who has already ordained the outcome, where earth will be silenced before him, and the knowledge of the glory of God will cover the earth as the waters cover the sea. A God that you have to stand in awe of. To fear. But can wrestle with if you dare, for a while. A God who is ‘not a tame lion’, nor a ‘conjuror of cheap tricks.’
But is that a God that the contemporary Christian church is ready to know?