O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and You will not hear? Or cry to You “Violence!” and You will not save? Why do You make me see iniquity, and why do You idly look at wrong” (Habakkuk 1:2-3)?
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
We’ve probably all asked these questions, at least most of us. And maybe we felt guilty asking. On the other hand, maybe sometimes we should have asked and didn’t. Maybe instead of asking, we just stewed, fretted, or despaired. Well, today in our text, the prophet Habakkuk asks some questions that the righteous person might indeed ask: How long will God let the evil of the unrighteous go on? And why does He tolerate it?
In our text we see a clear example of Hebrew lament. The laments of the Hebrews called upon God to remember His people who are suffering, to be faithful and deliver them. Note this important aspect: In their laments, the Hebrews never ask permission to deliver, rescue, revenge, or punish—all this is left in the Lord’s hand. They call upon God to be faithful to His promises and deliver them. They leave it up to Him on the “how” and the “when.” It is, after all, His responsibility, His job description, and His place in the relationship. When we can’t understand Him or what He is doing or not doing, the problem is not on His part, but ours.
As God’s people, we may take our concerns about this hidden or seemingly unjust God to God Himself. We can go right to the Source with our complaints. Job does it in Job 7. Jeremiah does it in Lamentations. David does it in Psalm 22, crying “My God, My God, why have You forsaken me?” (v 1), a shout picked up by Jesus from the cross when things got worse before they got better. Habakkuk does it here—he takes his complaint directly to God. And in this lamenting, we are provided with a beautiful dialog between Habakkuk and the Lord.
The prophet Habakkuk himself is a bit of an enigma. We know nothing of him apart from his book except for a strange reference to him in the apocryphal, “Bel and the Dragon.” The text seems to indicate that he prophesied around 609-605 B.C., shortly after the death of Josiah. Josiah was one of the few godly kings of Judah. He conducted a religious reform that included destroying the idol shrines, repairing the temple, and cleansing its courts of the corrupt religious practices of the day. His work didn’t last long or go very deep, unfortunately.
After his death in 609 B.C., Josiah’s son Jehoiakim came to the throne, and Jehoiakim had none of his father’s redeeming qualities. He was an irreconcilable enemy of Habakkuk’s contemporary, Jeremiah. It seems that the godless attitudes and wicked behavior which were present in his royal house filtered down to lesser officials and, finally, to the people themselves. It is this condition in society that Habakkuk was concerned about.
Habakkuk begins by complaining that he has been praying to God for a long time to stop the violence and injustice in Judah, but God has not answered. Upset that wickedness, strife, and oppression are rampant in Judah while God seemingly does nothing, he cries out, “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and You will not hear? Or cry to You ‘Violence!’ and You will not save?” (Habakkuk 1:2).
This is not the only time that Scripture records such a cry from the lips of God’s people. The apostle John reports that he saw the souls of those who had been killed for their faithful witness to God’s Word. He heard those martyrs calling out in a loud voice, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before You will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” (Revelation 6:10).
Neither Habakkuk nor the saints in John’s vision spoke these words in a mean-spirited manner. They were not thirsting for vengeance for wrongs the wicked had done to them. After all, the Lord tells His own to love their enemies and willingly turn the other cheek when wronged. Rather, their questions simply ask the Lord when He is going to defend His honor and act justly against the wicked in the way He has promised. God Himself, after all, gave us this self-description at Mount Sinai as He handed down the Law: “I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generation of those who hate Me” (Exodus 20:5). And even though He told Moses on the mountain that He was “slow to anger” (Exodus 34:6), He also said that He “will by no means clear the guilty” (Exodus 34:7). Habakkuk knows what the Lord has said about Himself, and so He cries out, “O Lord, how long shall I cry for justice and deliverance, and receive no response from You?”
Habakkuk asks a second question: “Why, O Lord, do you tolerate wickedness in the first place?” Again, Habakkuk is not the only one, or even the first one, to put this concern into words. In His suffering, righteous Job had raised the issue: “Why do the wicked live, reach old age, and grow mighty in power… They spend their days in prosperity, and in peace they go down to Sheol” (Job 21:7, 13). The psalmist Asaph also confessed that he envied the prosperity of the wicked. He wondered, “How long, O God, is the foe to scoff? Is the enemy to revile Your name forever? Why do You hold back Your hand, Your right hand? Take it from the fold of Your garment and destroy them!” (Psalm 74:10-11).
Both Asaph and Habakkuk wonder why the Lord has His hands in His pockets, why He takes no action against those who willfully revile Him and ignore His will. How, they ask, can He permit the haughty, wicked person to slap Him in the face and dare Him to respond, and then make the godly view such behavior or, worse, become victims of it themselves?
What is it that Habakkuk sees that causes him such dismay and prods him to ask such daring questions of the Lord? As this keen observer of his times strolls down the streets of Jerusalem and looks around at the society of his day, he sees “violence” and “injustice” rear their ugly heads on every hand—whether in the hovels of the poor, the palatial homes of the rich, or the shops and booths that line the streets of the business section of the city.
“Violence” describes the immoral or even criminal behavior evident on all levels of Jerusalem society under Jehoiakim: murder, robbery, theft, fraud, embezzlement, rape, adultery, and other flagrant violations of God’s moral law. These are sins that flow out of godless minds and unregenerate hearts. They destroy the lives of individuals and ruin the fabric of society. They look very much like the things that fill our society today, do they not?
“Injustice” is the inability or unwillingness of society to react against and punish the “violence” it finds in its midst. Habakkuk observes that the courts are corrupt, that the processes of justice have broken down. Justice is perverted to favor the wicked intentions of the godless, and the godly find that justice eludes them, or they are ridiculed or persecuted because they refuse to condone evil but call for its condemnation and punishment.
The way Habakkuk pictures the law in his society is memorable: “The law is paralyzed.” A paralyzed person cannot walk or move his hands; he can’t work or defend himself if attacked. So likewise, is the law in an immoral society. The law has become ineffective, easy to circumvent, so crippled that “justice never goes forth.” There is no agreement on what is right or wrong. There is no willingness to effectively punish those who break laws. As a result, the law ceases to function. It becomes unable to dispense proper justice.
An immoral society is a lawless society. Where the Ten Commandments have become a dead letter, the breakdown of law and order in society is the inevitable result. This is what Habakkuk sees all around him, and he wonders why a just God does not act. Why does God tolerate this? Why doesn’t He save His people and deliver them from the wicked men who were hemming them in? Why has He let things get so bad in the first place?
The prophecy of Habakkuk reads like a textbook for those of us facing situations that are getting worse before they get getter. Habakkuk’s words weave a path from frustration, through a chaotic time in Judah’s history, to hope. For those of us sensing a downward spiral in our own world, this prophet shows how God provides the blessings that culminate in hope.
We’ve already seen God’s first provision. Habakkuk takes his frustration to God in prayer. Prayer is not just asking God for things; God invites us to open our hearts to him, freely expressing our anger, hurt, disappointment, and fears. The Psalms are examples of this openhearted prayer. All these emotions topple out of the hearts of the psalmists. As they talk and sing with God, even within a single psalm, we can often hear the mood swings along the way. Prayer recognizes that hopeless situations begin to change as God listens and acts.
A second of God’s provisions toward hope we see in 2:2, as Habakkuk says, “I will… look out to see what [God] will say to me.” Having stated his complaints clearly in prayer, Habakkuk takes a stand looking for God’s will in the form of a vision, so that Habakkuk will not only hear but also see the Word of the Lord.
Those seeking hope look for it in the Word of God, preserved in the Bible. There, too, God’s Word can be heard and seen. It is also heard and seen in the witness and encouragement of other Christians. When God comes to Habakkuk with His answers, He tells him to make the vision “plain” by inscribing it on tablets of stone or wood. It is a lasting Word God speaks, clear and plain to those who read it. So, we approach it with confidence in its inspiration and truthfulness.
A third way God provides hope to Habakkuk comes in 2:3. God makes clear that the full answer to Habakkuk’s prayer (and the complete fulfillment of his prophecy) will not come anytime soon. The Lord tells Habakkuk, “For still the vision awaits its appointed 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.”
In our day of instant gratification, the call to wait for anything goes down hard for us. Some things take time. Hope always involves waiting. It’s like standing in the checkout line, like being put on hold, like the last month of pregnancy. It’s just in the waiting that we learn dependence, we grow, and we’re shaped by God. Most important, in the waiting, faith is strengthened, and hope has everything to do with faith in what God will do in the future.
That’s the fourth blessing toward hope God offers Habakkuk—and His most significant. “The righteous shall live by his faith.” Hope from a biblical perspective is inseparable from faith. The writer to the Hebrews put it this way: “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for” (11:1). Faith, in other words, gives hope its substance. Faith is not just our trusting that everything will turn out all right. Faith is believing God will care for us because He has been reconciled to us by the one He promised even to the Old Testament people including Habakkuk.
As St. Paul makes clear in Romans when he quotes these words of Habakkuk, it is Jesus Christ who by His death on the cross and His resurrection has accomplished this reconciliation to God. Our sin, which would have forever placed us on the other side of God’s judgment—with the unrighteous of Judah, with the wicked Chaldeans—He took on Himself and took away. Faith in that—in Him!—is the faith by which we live and by which we are righteous before God.
Hope is the amazing gift of seeing the future through what we believe. It’s why Christians with cancer can see themselves whole again—if not now, on earth, then forever, in heaven. It’s why a husband and wife torn apart by conflict, sitting with a Christian counselor, suddenly see a future they may have together. It’s why Christians who look at a world that is so filled with violence, strife, wickedness, and oppression and can trust that the Lord will see them through to a better tomorrow, a day and place where there are no tears nor mourning nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.
“The righteous shall live by his faith” (Habakkuk 2:4). Yes, they live by that faith centered in a God who keeps His promises, who at the right time proved His trustworthiness and sent His one and only Son to save us. For when we needed God most, God was there, working a plan that spanned millennia with a parade of prophets preaching and proclaiming that promise. “The righteous shall live by his faith.”
Go in the peace of the Lord and serve your neighbor with joy. You are forgiven for all your sins.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.