Friday, 26 April 2019

Confused? Then read Habakkuk!

The prophecy that Habakkuk the prophet received. How long, O Lord, must I call for help, but you do not listen? Or cry out to you “Violence!”, but you do not save? Why do you make me look at injustice? Why do you tolerate wrongdoing? Habakkuk 1:1-3

When we read the Old Testament prophets, we often find them giving the people a scolding on behalf of God. But when we read Habakkuk, it’s almost as if he is giving God a scolding on behalf of the people! - or at least on behalf of himself.

“Why don’t you listen to me?” he grumbles in 1:1-4. “Why don’t you step in to save your people? Why must I put up with watching all these bad things going on while you seem to be just twiddling your thumbs?”

Habakkuk is not a happy man! - and it is Almighty God that he is not happy with.

So... who was Habakkuk?

Usually the books of the prophets start with the prophet’s name, plus perhaps his father’s name, the name of the town or village he was from, and the names of the kings during whose reigns he lived. This enables us to plot him on a time-chart of Israel’s history.

But not Habakkuk. He is a mystery man, springing out of nowhere.

The experts tell us that in all probability he lived about 600 years before Jesus. This was a time when the northern kingdom of Israel (strictly called “Israel”) had been swept away by the Assyrians, and it now looked as if the same thing was going to happen to the southern kingdom, “Judea”, only this time at the hands of the Babylonians (1:6).

Habakkuk doesn’t question that this is exactly what Judea deserves, given their wretched failure to be true to God. No problem there.

But what he can’t swallow is that God should make use of the godless and cruel Babylonians to do the job. Punish the wicked by all means, but surely not by using others who are even more wicked! I just don’t understand, Lord!

I don’t think I would find it easy to address God in quite such a bold way. But it’s refreshing to see this man refusing to speak to God in smooth, conventional ways, and, in effect, getting this load of frustration and confusion off his chest.

What can we learn from this mysterious prophet?

1. Most obviously, perhaps, this: given that God knows exactly what goes on in our hearts and minds (we can’t hide it, can we?) we might as well speak to him just as we feel. Do we too feel frustrated and disappointed, even angry, with God? Well, let it out! His shoulders are big enough to take it.

Habakkuk questions God - but from a position of faith; and as he does so he works his way toward some kind of solution to his problem.

The same thing is often true for us: we don’t get immediate answers to our questions, but somehow things gradually clear over time as we persevere in faith and prayer.

2. Notice that in 2:1 he adopts a spirit of expectation - “I will stand at my watch... I will look to see what he will say to me”.

Could we say that? How much do we expect answers to our prayers? When we pray, do we really believe that God hears and that he will answer; or do we just pray out of a sense of routine or duty, expecting nothing or very little?

3. We can be encouraged that, in 2:4, Habakkuk seems to receive at least a partial answer to his questioning: “the righteous person will live by his faithfulness [or ‘his faith’]”. (The apostle Paul famously quotes this rather throw-away line, albeit in a slightly different sense, to back up his doctrine of “justification by faith” (Romans 1:17).)

Habakkuk is saying: there are times when God’s faithful people can do no more than devote themselves to God, trust in him whole-heartedly, and wait to see the unfolding of his purposes. Christian, be patient!

Is this a message we specially need in our time of political and social uncertainty? The wonderful, simple words of 2:20 - “The Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth be silent before him” - remind us of God’s total control and lordship. In spite of appearances, our world, and our own affairs, are in good and holy hands.

4. Whatever we do, don’t put Habakkuk aside without soaking up the powerful prayer of chapter 3 - a passage that harks back to the dramatic events of the exodus, God’s great rescue act for his people.

What a climax we come to in verses 17-18! - that sequence of “thoughs”, culminating in one of the Bible’s thrilling “yets”: “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 sheepfold and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord...”

And then, “I will be joyful in God my Saviour.”

Faith, and even joy, in the teeth of discouragement! - if that doesn’t shoot a few thousand volts into our spiritual systems, I’m afraid nothing will.

Lord God, I confess that often I feel confused at what’s going on in my life, and in the world around me. Please help me, by your Holy Spirit, to hold on to you through thick and thin, to speak to you out of the fulness of my heart, and so to come to the same place of peace, hope and joy as your servant Habakkuk. Amen.

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