by Anton Chan
There is a legend that says Habakkuk was given the task of taking food to Daniel in the lion den in Babylon. And when he says that he does not know where the den is, an angel lifts him by his hair and transports him there by the speed of the wind. Another story told by Jewish Rabbis says that Habakkuk was the son of the Shunamite woman that was raised to life by Elisha (2 Kings 4). Both these stories are from extra-biblical literature without any historical truth.
Who then is Habakkuk of our Bible? Let us explore the circumstances and the ethos of Habakkuk's time so that we can see the relevance of his message for us today.
The prophet Habakkuk
Habakkuk's name comes from the Hebrew verb habaq, which means “to embrace.” It implies that Habakkuk trusted in God’s faithfulness (2:4b) despite the destruction of Jerusalem and his people. A few scholars suggest that the book was written between 608 and 605 BC, during the pre-exilic period. The prophet lived in the Southern Kingdom because the Northern Kingdom has already fallen to Assyrian in 722 BC. He lived in times of increasing corruption and fear as the rising nation of Babylon had already begun invading Judah. His writing, in poetic form which includes a psalm of praise, shows that he was not only a prophet but also a poet and a musician. Indeed, his closing prayer is a song of worship: "To the choirmaster with stringed instruments." (3:19b).
Habakkuk lived during the time of political turmoil – the Assyrians were weakened and losing power, while the Babylonians were gaining power. He resided in Judah during the time of corrupt King Jehoiakim whose many evil deeds are recorded in Jeremiah 22:13-19, 23:1-2 and 9-11. Jehoiakim ruled Jerusalem as a puppet of Egypt (609-605 BC, 2 Kings 23:34-35). This was when Egypt, having been defeated by Babylon at Carchemish in 605 BC, became its vassal state. Habakkuk's message was for the Judeans who lived under King Jehoiakim before the fall of Jerusalem in 587 BC.
The ESV Study Bible states that the key phrase “but the righteous will live by his faith” summarizes the path of life God sets for his people and is quoted three times in the New Testament (Rom 1:17; Gal 3:11; Heb 10:38), each time highlighting a different aspect of the phrase’s meaning.
In Romans 1:17, Paul quoted “the righteous will live by faith” as a universal message for all people, Jews and Gentiles. In Gal 3:11 he quoted the verse to convince the Gentiles not to seek righteousness by following the Jewish law. In Hebrew 10:38, the writer's purpose is to encourage listeners to persevere in challenging times. This is similar to Habakkuk’s call to the Judeans to live in confidence that the Babylonians would be destroyed and God's presence will appear on earth in power (3:1-15).
Hab (2:4b) describes the way of a righteous person: “The righteous person will live by their faith,” referring to faithfulness, trust, and steadfastness in God. It means that despite the circumstances of pain and suffering we can be committed to the radical faith as expressed in Habakkuk’s prayer:
Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Saviour.
Habakkuk complained to the Lord about what was happening in Judah and asked God: “Why do you tolerate such wrongdoing?” (1:2-4). To the dismay of Habakkuk, the Lord replied that He had already brought judgment to Jerusalem; the cruel Babylonians were coming to punish his people. (1:5-11). This reply caused Habakkuk to be even more upset and disturbed. He posed another question to God: “Why do you want to do that?” Bringing in the more evil and cruel Babylonians to judge your people? Are you not God everlasting, and why are you silent while the wicked swallow up the more righteous? (1: 12,13b).
David Dorsey’s analysis of the seven-fold chiastic structure of Habakkuk supplies a summary of the book. He notes that the purpose is to take its readers from confusion and despair to clarification and hope. The prophet Habakkuk declares that God will right all wrongs but in the meantime, patience is necessary for God's people. Initially, Habakkuk complains that God does not hear the cries for help from His people (1:2). In the end, Habakkuk hears YAHWEH arriving to save His people (3:2, 12). The focus is to wait. In the end, the wicked will be punished, the righteous will live by faith (2:1–5).
Habakkuk’s message for today
When a person turns their life to God, there is always hope and a new relationship of trust and faith beyond any human being can provide. We embark on a journey of thinking differently from the way we thought before. We come to an awareness of a living God whom we can talk to and relate to. We have self-awareness of who we are. We learn to take responsibility for our lives. We exercise our free will to make choices to do things differently.
Repent [turn back, go back, return], change your thinking and believe in the Gospel (Mark 1:14-15). When a person understands that God is calling him or her to think, act, and live differently, he will understand one of the great purposes of life. Habakkuk repented of his wrong thinking and understanding of God. His attitude changed from despair to hope in a faithful God that will certainly deliver his people from pain and suffering.
So, no matter how difficult life is and will be, we should always rejoice in the Lord.
Do you have any complaint to God about your life? Are you unhappy and stressed about your finances, the Church, social injustice and why the innocent suffer? Do you ask why there is so much suffering when God exists? Why is there so much pain because of the Covid-19 pandemic? Does God have a message for us during in such a time as this? If so, what is He saying?
Habakkuk had complained to God twice. When God told him to trust Him and to live by faith in His faithfulness, Habakkuk rejoiced and prayed: The Sovereign Lord is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer; he enables me to tread on the heights. (3:19).
The prophet learned to listen to God by looking to the Sovereign Lord as his strength and NOT at the circumstances. The righteous will live by faith! How do I know I can have faith and trust God? And if faith is so important, how do I get it, and keep it? Let us be reminded of the Chapter of Faith in Hebrew 11.
“Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. And without faith, it is impossible to please God because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.”
(Heb 11:1,6) NIV
Habakkuk was a very courageous prophet. He dared to complain to God about God’s seeming inaction against the unjust and was shocked to receive the reply that God is sending the treacherous Babylonians to punish his people.
The prophet then stood on the walls of Jerusalem to wait for God’s reply. God replied the second time. He asked Habakkuk to write His message on a tablet and run with it to let the people know that His judgment of sending the Babylonians to punish the Jews will certainly come and will not be delayed. However, Habakkuk and those who trust God, should live by faith within God’s faithfulness.
Habakkuk accepted the message from God and in humility offered the prayer psalm of 3:17-18.
The vision (2:2-3) the Lord told Habakkuk to record came to pass. In July 587 BC after 18 months of siege, Jerusalem was totally destroyed by the Babylonians.
Another prophet, Jeremiah, who also foretold the downfall of Jerusalem, wrote the Book of Lamentations, a collection of five poems lamenting the pain, suffering, and destruction of Solomon temple in Jerusalem. Yet, in the same book, he wrote of this great hope:
"Because of the LORD's great love, we are not consumed,
for his compassions never fall.
They are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.”
Lamentation 3:22-23 (NIV)
 The apocryphal Bel and the Dragon, Daniel 14:33-36, NRSVCE.  David Dorsey, “Chapter 34: Habakkuk: The Just Shall Live by Faith”, in The Literary Structure of the Old Testament: A Commentary on Genesis–Malachi (Grant Rapids: MI, Baker Books, 1999), pp. 306–309. And also, The Book of Habakkuk by Ernest L. Martin, PhD., July 1997 (www.askelm.com).