Habakkuk’s questions about God’s presence in the face of evil are answered not ultimately within his writing or his time but beyond it. If we wish to get the solutions for the fundamental issues raised in the book—the questions of God’s dealing with injustice, His providing necessary judgment while remaining true to His character, His delight in showing mercy, etc.—then we must look beyond Habakkuk to Jesus Christ.
Although the prophet Habakkuk lived more than 2,500 years ago, the book that bears his name begins with an issue that is relevant in every age and in every culture: God’s apparent inactivity in the face of injustice, violence, and destruction.
In the book’s opening verses, we’re introduced to a faith-filled yet weary prophet:
O LORD, how long shall I cry for help,
and you will not hear?
Or cry to you “Violence!”
and you will not save? (v. 2)
Habakkuk’s been praying but has become increasingly disheartened. His complaints have to do with God’s timing and tolerance. Familiar with God’s word to Israel in Deuteronomy 28, in which God promised that judgment would follow His people’s covenant disobedience, Habakkuk appeals to God to make good on His promise. Grieved by God’s apparent lenience toward Israel’s wickedness (vv. 3–4), the prophet essentially asks, “How long until You act?”
We can understand why Habakkuk was grieved. He lived during a period of great spiritual darkness in Israel and is believed to have been a younger contemporary of Jeremiah and a subject under king Jehoiakim. We read some about Jehoiakim’s royal malpractice in Jeremiah 22:
Woe to him who builds his house by unrighteousness,
and his upper rooms by injustice,
who makes his neighbor serve him for nothing
and does not give him his wages…
…You have eyes and heart
only for your dishonest gain,
for shedding innocent blood,
and for practicing oppression and violence. (vv. 13, 17)
The context that Jeremiah’s prophecy lends to Habakkuk is staggering, bringing a greater depth of meaning to his complaint in verse 4: “The law is paralyzed, and justice never goes forth.” As understandable as his complaint was, though, Habakkuk still needed to learn to trust God’s work in the world—especially since he hadn’t begun to understand all that was taking place.
God’s people today must also learn this vital skill—and the Spirit-inspired prophecy of Habakkuk is a qualified instructor for us. Habakkuk reminds us that God works in the world, regardless of time and place. We can discern this work through three topics connected to chapter 1: the revelation that God discloses, the answer that Habakkuk gives, and the fulfillment that Jesus provides.
In 1:6, God answers Habakkuk’s complaint in an unbelievable manner: “Behold, I am raising up the Chaldeans.” The Chaldeans—or “the Babylonians” in some translations—were a notorious geopolitical power in their day. They had sacked Assur in 614 BC and Nineveh in 612, and in 605 they had besieged Egypt in the historic Battle of Carchemish. And now God discloses that Babylon is heading toward Judah.
Though this news was doubtlessly devastating, it’s remarkable to pause and reflect on the fact that all of these historical events unfolded under God’s sovereign control. As powerful as the Babylonians were, they were merely instruments in God’s hand. He would raise Babylon up, and He would hold them accountable for their wickedness (1:6; 2:12). Even in reading of such a severe judgment we can take comfort, for the events of our day are no less under God’s control than they were in Habakkuk’s. God doesn’t watch and wait for history to progress. Instead, He’s actively involved in the affairs of the world and of every individual (Matt. 10:29–30).