16 I heard and my heart pounded, my lips quivered at the sound; decay crept into my bones, and my legs trembled. Yet I will wait patiently for the day of calamity to come on the nation invading us.
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.
19 The Sovereign Lord is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer, he enables me to tread on the heights. Habakkuk 3:16-19
It’s about 600 years before Jesus, and the prophet Habakkuk is deeply afraid.
The little nation of Judah - God’s special people - is threatened with destruction, annihilation, by the mighty and cruel Babylonians.
“What’s going on, Lord?” Habakkuk cries out to God. “What’s going to become of us? All right, we haven’t been faithful to you as we should have been - but surely we are nothing like as bad as the Babylonians! Are you really going to use them to punish us?- you, a pure and holy God?”
Well, God gives him some answers to his frightened questions (you can read about them in chapters 1-2). And then he takes him on a journey.
It’s a journey you may very well have travelled in your own personal experience. It’s outlined in the last four verses of chapter 3, and it’s well worth focussing on, especially at times when we are afraid, or feel that the bottom has fallen out of our world.
If I were to give it a title (and if you will forgive the naff rhyme), it would be From hopeless despair to dancing on air. It falls into four stages, each of which prompts a question...
Stage 1: This is the hopeless despair part, in verse 16a. Habakkuk says his heart is pounding uncontrollably, his lips are quivering, and his legs are like jelly. That’s how scared he is. You know that feeling?
To his credit, he doesn’t try to pretend he’s all right; no, he is completely honest and open - rather like Jesus in Gethsemane, you could say.
Are you the stiff-upper-lip type? In some ways that’s very admirable. But is it always right? God doesn’t expect it of us, and it’s often better to pour things out and get them off our chest.
Question: Are you due for such an unburdening session?
Stage 2: This is where Habakkuk gets a grip on himself and takes himself in hand: “I will wait patiently,” he says, to see what God is going to do (verse 16b).
“Keep calm and carry on” say the signs and the coffee-mugs. Easier said than done! But there are times we need to make the effort, bringing our emotions under control and focussing our attention not on our problems but on God’s power.
Question: Do you need, today, to take a deep, calming breath and take yourself in hand?
Stage 3: This is where Habakkuk is inspired to utter one of the Bible’s greatest declarations (verses17-18). Three times he repeats the word “though” - though everything seems to be going to wrack and ruin, and though the future is so uncertain... But then he follows it up with that wonderful little word “yet”: “yet I will rejoice in the Lord”.
It’s as if, by a sheer act of will, he has mustered every scrap of faith he has and hurled it defiantly in the face of his doubts and fears. “I won’t allow myself to be defeated!” he cries, “I refuse to be crushed. I’m going to carry on doing what I’ve been doing all my life - I’m going to trust and even rejoice in my God...”
Is this just bravado, “the power of positive thinking”, the kind of thing any strong-minded person might be capable of? No, I don’t think so, because it flows from the fact that Habakkuk has his gaze fixed on God himself.
Question: Is it time you took your eyes off your circumstances and turned them on God?
Stage 4: This is the “dancing on air” part (verse 19). He says he’s like a mountain-deer springing up the crags of the rocks - in rather the same way that his fellow-prophet Isaiah spoke of “soaring on wings like eagles” (Isaiah 40:31). This is exhilaration, joy, a glorious lightness of spirit. This is life, this is hope, this is victory.
See the journey Habakkuk has travelled? See the truly amazing contrast between verse 16 and verse 19?
This is what God can do when we focus on him. And though we may presently be in stage one or stage two, this is what he one day will do. An unspeakable joy awaits God’s faithful people.
So... whatever your circumstances or feelings are like today, be like Habakkuk and hang on in there!
Lord God, I do get frightened and worried sometimes, when I look around me at the world, or at my own problems and difficulties, when there seem to be so many questions and so few answers. Please help me to be like Habakkuk - to trust you with all my heart, and indeed to rejoice in your love and care. Amen.