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Introduction to HABAKKUK

by Sam Middlebrook
Doct. of Divinity; Deacon & Exec. Director
The King Institute,
The Church of the Way
Van Nuys, California
(See also Hosea and Haggai)


Author: Habakkuk
Date: Around 600 B.C.
Theme: The righteous will live by faith
Key Words: Faith, Why?, woe to those

Author: The name of "Habakkuk" means "to embrace", as much in the sense of being "embraced by GOD", and thus strengthened by Him in order to accomplish his difficult work, as "to embrace others", and thus encourage them in times of national crisis. The final note dedicated to the principal musician (3:19) perhaps signifies that Habakkuk was authorized, as a member of the Levitical family, to lead the worship in the temple. The prophet is imbued with a sense of equity that doesn't allow him to ignore the rampant injustice that surrounds him. He has also understood the need to present the great questions of life to those who believe and redeem life.

Background and Date: Habakkuk lived during one of the most critical periods in the history of Judah. The land had descended from the heights of Josiah's reforms to the depths of the abuses that its inhabitants suffered, oppressive measures against the poor, and the collapse of the legal system. The world that surrounded Judah was at war, with Babylon gaining ascendency over Assyria and Egypt. The threat of invasion from the north submerged Judah's internal problems. Habakkuk probably wrote his book in the interval between the fall of Nineveh, in 612 B.C., and the fall of Jerusalem in 586 B.C.

Historical Setting: (IBD) The Book of Habakkuk belongs to that turbulent era in ancient history when the balance of power was shifting from the Assyrians to the Babylonians. Assyria's domination came to an end with the destruction of its capital city, Nineveh, by the invading Babylonians in 612 B.C. Less than 20 years after Habakkuk wrote his book, the Babylonians also destroyed Jerusalem and carried the leading citizens of Judah into captivity. GOD used this pagan nation to punish His Covenant People for their unfaithfulness and worship of false gods.

Content: The book of Habakkuk offers a story of a spiritual journey, testimony of the spiritual pilgrimage of a man who travels from doubts to faith. The difference between the beginning of the book (1:1-4) and its end (3:17-19) is impressive.

In the first four verses Habakkuk shows himself being overwhelmed by the circumstances that surround him. He can't thing of anything that isn't iniquity and violence in the midst of his people.

Although he directs himself to GOD, he believes that He has left the earthly scene: His words have been forgotten; his hand is not manifested; GOD can't be found anywhere. Men are in control of everything and, even worse, evil men. They act like GOD isn't restraining them. Words and phrases like these describe the scene: "iniquity...difficulties...plunders...violence...fights...contentions...the law is ineffective...justice never prevails...the evil have surrounded the righteous...the judgment of the perverse prospers".

How different is the situation in the final three verses of the book (3:17-19). Everything has changed. The prophet still is no longer under the control of the circumstances or anxious about his cause, because the vision has been raised. The events of the moment no longer cloud his mind, because he has risen above them. Instead of allowing himself to be dominated by the contingencies of the world, Habakkuk has put his hope in GOD; he has comprehended to the end that the LORD is concerned for his creatures. GOD is the source of his strength and joy. He reports that he has been called for higher purposes. "And in my heights he makes me walk" (3:19). The terminology of the final paragraph contrasts notably from the first: "I will rejoice in Jehovah...I will joy in the GOD of my salvation...the LORD is my strength...he makes my feet like hinds' feet..in my heights he makes me walk" (3:18,19). Thus Habakkuk has passed from complaint to trust, from doubt to faith, from man to GOD, from the valley to the peak.

If the central part of the gospel is change and transformation, the book of Habakkuk shows an evangelical renewal. In the center of change and the center of the book, this clear creed of faith arises: "The just will live by faith" (2:4). For the prophet the promise is for physical protection in times of insurrections and war. When the announced foreign invasion becomes a reality, that remnant of the righteous for whom GOD is their LORD, who trust and depend on Him, will be delivered and will live. For those writers of the New Testament, like Paul and the author of Hebrews, this declaration of trust and faith, becomes an evidence of the power of the gospel to give us the assurance of eternal salvation. For Martin Luther, this theme of Habakkuk became the motto of the Reformation.

Structure of the Book: (IBD) Habakkuk's book contains only three short chapters, but they present a striking contrast. In the first two, Habakkuk protests, complains, and questions GOD. But the final chapter is a beautiful psalm of praise. Habakkuk apparently used this complaining and questioning technique to drive home his powerful message about the approaching judgment of GOD.

Habakkuk begins his book with a cry of woe. Injustice is rampant, the righteous are surrounded by the wicked, the law is powerless, and GOD doesn't seem to care about the plight of His people (1:1-4). Habakkuk's prophecy is even introduced as a "burden" which the prophet saw (1:1). He wonders why GOD is allowing these things to happen.

GOD's reply brings little comfort to the prophet. He explains that the armies of Babylon are moving throughout the ancient world on a campaign of death and destruction. At the time when Habakkuk received this vision, the Babylonians had already defeated Assyria and Egypt. The implication is that Habakkuk's nation, Judah, will be the next to fall.

The prophet was shocked at the news. He reminded GOD of His justice and holiness (1:12-13). How could He use the wicked Babylonians to destroy His Chosen People? Surely He realized the sins of His people were as nothing, when compared to the pagan Babylonians (1:13). "Why do you...hold your tongue when the wicked devours one more righteous than he?" he asks (1:13). This direct question indicates Habakkuk's great faith. Only a person very close to GOD would dare question the purposes of the Almighty so boldly. GOD assures Habakkuk that the Babylonians will prevail not because they are righteous but because they are temporary instruments of judgment in His hands (2:4). Then he pronounces five burdens of woe against the Babylonians (2:6,9,12,15,19). GOD will not be mocked; the end of the Babylonians is as certain as the judgment they will bring on Judah. In all of this, GOD will vindicate His righteous character: "For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD, as the waters cover the sea" (2:14).

After this assurance, Habakkuk breaks out with the beautiful psalm of praise to GOD contained in chapter 3. This is one of the greatest testimonies of faith in the Bible.

Theological Contribution: (IBD) The question-and-answer technique of the prophet Habakkuk teaches a valuable lesson about the nature of GOD. That GOD allows Himself to be questioned by one of His followers is an indication of His long-suffering mercy and grace.

The theme of GOD's judgment against unrighteousness also is woven throughout the book. GOD soon will punish His wayward people for their transgression, but He also will punish the pagan Babylonians because of their great sin. GOD always acts in justice. He will not forget mercy while pouring out his wrath (3:2). His judgment will fall on the proud, but the just will live in His faithfulness (2:4). GOD's acts of judgment are in accord with His holiness, righteousness, and mercy.

Special Considerations: The Protestant Reformation under Martin Luther was influenced by the Book of Habakkuk. Luther's discovery of the biblical doctrine that the just shall live by faith came from his study of the apostle Paul's beliefs in the Books of Romans and Galatians. But Paul's famous declaration, "The just shall live by faith" (Rom. 1:17), is a direct quotation from Habakkuk 2:4. Thus, in this brief prophetic book, we find the seeds of the glorious gospel of our LORD and Savior Jesus Christ.

Personal Application: Habakkuk shows us that the question of how can, should and has to be established. The circumstances of that moment brought him to ask GOD about the apparent triumph of the injustice in their midst. Since he believed in GOD, he thought that he must have an answer for that problem. His questions demonstrated the presence of faith, not the absence of it. For an atheist the question "why?" doesn't make sense; for a believer this can only be answered by GOD.

The Apostle Paul took the declaration of Habakkuk 2:4 and made it the heart of the gospel. GOD's righteousness can only be achieved through faith, so the just manner of living is by faith. Habakkuk calls believers of all times to trust in GOD, to be faithful and thus live as GOD wants us to live.

The final verses of this prophecy teach that it's possible to raise ourselves above the circumstances, and even rejoice in them, putting our eyes on the one who is above the contingent. Habakkuk doesn't cloud the problems that concern him, nor underestimate them; instead, he discovers that GOD is sufficient in the midst of difficulties.

Christ Revealed: The terminology utilized by Habakkuk in 3:13 ties the idea of salvation with that of the anointing of the LORD. The roots of these Hebrew words reflect the two names of our LORD: Jesus, which means "Salvation", and Christ, which mens "the Anointed". The context here alludes to the great power of GOD manifested in favor of his people, through a king of the lineage of David, to deliver them from their enemies. The Messiah came in the fullness of time (2:3; Gal. 4:4), was given the name of Jesus" as a prenatal prophecy of his future ministry (Matt. 1:21), and was born "in the city of David", as "a Savior", "Christ the LORD (Luke 2:11).

While Habakkuk awaits the answer to his questions, GOD offers him the gift of a truth that satisfies his most intimate dreams, at the time that he puts the solution of the problem that preoccupies him in that moment in his hands: "The just will live by their faith" (2:4). The Apostle Paul considers this principle of the book of Habakkuk as the cornerstone of the Gospel of Christ (Rom. 1:16,17). Christ is the answer to human needs, including the forgiveness of sins, the relationship with GOD and hope in the future.

The Holy Spirit in Action: Although direct references to the Holy Spirit don't appear in Habakkuk, there are allusions of how He works in the life of the prophet. While Habakkuk makes a recount of the destruction occasioned by the invading armies, he expresses a feeling of ineffable joy, of which not even a disaster of that magnitude can rob him; which reminds us that "the fruit of the Spirit is...joy" (Gal. 5:22).

Also in Galatians Paul connects the most famous verse of the Book of Habakkuk with the promise of the receipt of the Holy Spirit by means of faith (2:4; Gal. 3:11-14). The just live by faith in all the situations of life, including that which leads to a beginning of a new life in the Spirit.

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HABAKKUK (Holman Bible Handbook; David S. Dockery, General Editor; pub. by Holman Bible Publishers)
Habakkuk is identified only as "the prophet". Haggai and Zechariah are similarly identified. The meaning of Habakkuk is not clear. It may be a foreign word. The book is called "an oracle", which may also be translated a burden as several other books or sections of books are called.

The only clue for a date comes in 1:6, which refers to "the Chaldeans" (KJV), another name for Babylonians. They were one of the two nations that overthrew Assyria and fell heir to its territories. Babylonia's share included Mesopotamia, Palestine, and Egypt (if it could be conquered). Babylon defeated the last Assyrian armies at Haran in northern Syria in 609 B.C. and beat back Egypt's challenge at Carchemish the same year.

Babylon established its authority over Palestine, including Judah, in 605 B.C. It campaigned again in Palestine in 598 on its way to Egypt and finally destroyed Jerusalem in 587 B.C. In both of the last two campaigns Judeans were taken into Egypt. The record of these years from a Judean viewpoint is found in II Kings 23-25, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel. Babylon continued Assyrian oppression of Judah with renewed vigor. Its ambitions to conquer Egypt made this necessary from its point of view. The Book of Habakkuk relates to the earlier part of the period of Babylon's conquests (around 605 B.C.). The Book of Zephaniah in more general terms portrays the climax of judgment on Jerusalem.

Habakkuk's position in the Minor Prophets, after Nahum and before Zephaniah, is appropriate. It deals with the disappointment of Judeans and Israelites, dispersed in exile, that the fall of Nineveh had not brought immediate relief and restoration for Judah and Israel. Instead, an extended period of almost three decades was a time of greater repression and final disaster. Another half-century under Babylon would follow before Persia would succeed Babylon and bring new hope for Israel and Jerusalem. The Book of Habakkuk deals with the frustrations of that period and teaches how one can maintain faith and hope in an extended period of adversity and trouble.