Introduction – Habakkuk’s response to the revelation that God gave him of his intent for Judah and for Babylon was to bend the heart and pray. Praying is not a contradiction to keeping “silence before him,” as the closing admonition of chapter 2 commands. Habakkuk has had his go at questioning God and now he must stop all questions, all challenges, all sophisticated perplexities and simply consent to the infinite wisdom holiness, power, and counsel of God. We are fallen people in a fallen world; the Lord may do with us as he sees fit. He allows us to burn ourselves out in seeking to find pleasure, stability, and unchanging fulfillment in our own strength (2:13). For God to set forth one ravenous people against another ravenous people as punishment is no injustice on his part but his just and holy prerogative. The only “oughtness” that drives him is the faithful exhibition of his glory, which he will accomplish (2:14; cf. Philippians 2:10, 11). The wise manner in which that will be done is the fulfillment of the terms of the eternal covenant, a covenant that unfolds in the lives of his people through faith alone (1:12a; 2:4). Preeminently the constellation of truths surrounding the doctrine of justification by faith alone manifests God’s immutable righteousness and his wise, faithful, just, and merciful way of saving and preserving his covenant people. This passage became a regular part of the worship of Israel. It was given a particular setting and musical arrangements accompanied its presentation in corporate worship.

I. A Prayer – Habakkuk already has been addressing God, hearing a response and continuing the dialogue. Why is this portion now referred to as a “Prayer?” The rest of the chapter should answer this.

II. An Address to God – verse 2

A. It appears now that his mood of challenge and questioning the ways of God is past and he is ready to make requests based on a submission to his goodness.

B. “the report of you” – from the rest of the chapter we learn that Habakkuk is reflecting on the recorded history of Israel and how God has intervened for them.

C. He has developed a reverence (‘fear”) for God in his work and now sees God’s glory far beyond the actual events. For how intrinsic the “fear of the Lord” is to real worship, remember that “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge” (Proverbs 1:7), turning away from the fear of the Lord is self-destructive (Proverbs 1:29-32), the fear of the Lord is the culmination of a deep desire to know the ways of God (Proverbs 2:1-5), the fear of the Lord arises when one abandons self-conceit (Proverbs 3:5-8), the fear of the Lord is the hatred of evil (Proverbs 8:13), and the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, which is equated with “knowledge of the Holy One” (Proverbs 9:10).

D. Based on what he now senses about God’s purpose with his people, and how he has shown his faithfulness in the past, he prays for a revival of that same kind of powerful and purposeful intervention in light of the coming disaster. “In the midst of the years” seems to imply that he desires to see these things happen before the culmination of the ages; God’s manifestation of his glory now, before the rolling up of all things at the final conflagration, is at the heart of Habakkuk’s prayer.

E. He knows that wrath is the proper response to evil, injustice, and idolatry; but mercy is a surprising display of wisdom and power and gives a marvelous symmetry to the revelation that God gives of Himself in this age. “In wrath remember mercy.” He follows this request with examples of how the Lord has done exactly that in Israel’s past history.

III. A Meditation about God – Verses 3-6

A.  Verses 3 and 4 – Teman refers to the power and earthly glory of the descendants of Esau who had established a kingdom of Edom before “any king reigned over the people of Israel” (1 Chronicles 1:43-45). Mount Paran is a part of the Sinai area and is mentioned in Deuteronomy 33:2 as virtually synonymous with Sinai. Habakkuk clearly has in mind the passage in Deuteronomy 33:1-5. In Numbers 20:14-21, Edom refused the Israelites passage through their land. Edom is just above the wilderness of Sinai.

1. God had appeared in great glory in the giving of the Law at Sinai (Exodus 19; Deuteronomy 33). The people of Israel, selected from all the nations of the earth, had been given the moral law of God by divine revelation, in order to lead them to a true knowledge of him (Galatians 3:23-25). This had been given them before the wanderings and sustained them gloriously as God’s peculiar people even in the midst of their resistance to his particular attention and holy intentions.

2. Edom’s apparent superiority at the time of Israel’s need to pass through their territory did not diminish the covenantal status of this group of wanderers. Though he had appeared in great power and warned the Israelites not even to touch the mountain, his power still was infinitely greater than demonstrated. At Edom, in particular, God veiled his power, and at that time did nothing in retaliation for the cruel treatment given his covenant people by the descendants of Esau. “He veiled his power.” This manifestation of divine wrath would come later (Obadiah), and the superiority of Israel in God’s plan would be manifest even in a time of their defeat at the hands of Babylon. Habakkuk had not seen the judgment prophesied by Obadiah, but had some foretaste of it here.

B. Verse 5 – Habakkuk is reminded of the release from Egypt and the mighty power displayed in that escape effected by a series of devastating and miraculous plagues brought against Egypt.. God struck at the supposed gods of the Egyptians, showed his control of their most treasured resources, and distinguished between his people and the Egyptians. God’s clear intention was to show his power through the Pharaoh’s sinfulness and to manifest his sovereign prerogative in the selection of Israel for his covenantal redemptive purposes. “But the Lord hardened the heart of Pharaoh, and he did not listen to them, as the Lord had spoken to Moses . . . but for this purpose I have raised you up, to show you my power, so that my name may be proclaimed in all the earth You are still exalting yourself against my people” (Exodus 9: 12, 16, 17).

C. Verse 6 – Here Habakkuk envisions God measuring out the land that he would give to Israel according to the promise given to Abraham. That promise cannot fail, and the coming of Messiah must occur in that land and in the lineage of that people. “His were the everlasting ways.” So, in order to give the land to them, he shook the nations that occupied it; they seemed as immovable and established as mountains when the Israelites came, but God scattered them, broke them down, and what seemed to be impregnable and impenetrable fell before his everlasting purpose. “O God, when you went out before your people, when you marched through the wilderness, the earth quaked, the heavens poured down rain, before God, the One of Sinai, before God, the God of Israel” (Psalm 68:7, 8).

IV. Habakkuk revisits Israel’s history in light of his new perceptions of God’s holy purpose – verses 7-15

A. Verse 7 –  The tents of Cushan, or Ethiopia, and the curtains of Midian probably are synonymous referring to the nations around the promised land that were fearful as they heard of the great strength of Israel in their battles to take the promised land. Rahab recounts the fear that swamped the surrounding nations (Joshua 2:8-11). It is a possible reference to the time of Othniel and Gideon when they delivered Israel from oppression (Judges 3 and 8).

B. Verse 8, 9 – This vivid poetry shows that the forces of nature are used as servants, even weapons of God.

1. The Nile turned to blood in partial recompense for the drowning of Hebrew males in that river; the Red sea parted and then engulfed the army of Pharaoh in a massive destruction of Israel’s foes; the Jordan parted under the leadership of Joshua for the purpose that he stated,: “Here is how you shall know that the living God is among you and that he will without fail drive out from before you the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Hivites, the Perizzites, etc . Behold the ark of the covenant of the Lord of all the earth is passing over before you into the Jordan” (Joshua 3:10ff).

2. The “chariot of salvation” refers immediately to God’s power in delivering the nation and securing it in the land promised to Abraham. That particular operation, however, subserves a much greater salvation, the eternal salvation from sin and condemnation that would come through the promised Messiah.

3. All of God’s power and the perfection of his purpose in pursuit of his eternal and absolute determination to glorify Himself in the work of redemption went to work for the nation of Israel (“You stripped the sheath from your bow.”). This element of his decree was not the consummation of his purpose but was, nevertheless, a vital and necessary part of coming to the “fullness of time” in the eventual appearance of Christ, who was “born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those that were under the law” (Galatians 4:4).

4. Verses 10-15 ; This series of vivid descriptions of God’s actions for the effecting of his glorious purpose of redemption and judgment employs the imagery of nature and of military weapons and strategy. The overall impression is that God has all means at his disposal, whether the forces of brute nature or the manifestation of shrewd, well planned, well prepared, and perfectly executed strategy. Some notable features may be referenced.

Within the references to nature, it is possible that the Lord’s appearance to Elijah in a still small voice after the wind and the earthquake inform some of the imagery. Also the reality that the date of the oral prophecy of Amos was located by the written version as “two years before the earthquake” (Amos 1:1).Seemingly, verse 11 and 12 refer to God’s sustaining Joshua in his conquest of the land including the marvel of the sun’s being arrested in its course across the sky through the prayer of Joshua and the power of God (Joshua 10:12, 13). Surely Habakkuk has in mind such amazing events as recorded in Joshua: “The Lord threw down large stones from heaven on them ,. . . There were more who died because of the hailstones than the sons of Israel killed with the sword “ (Joshua 10:11)

God’s marching and threshing is certainly reminiscent of such language as “For the Lord God of Israel fought for Israel (Joshua 10: 42). Also, “For it was the Lord’s doing to harden their hearts that they should come against Israel in battle, in order that they should be devoted to destruction and should receive no mercy but be destroyed, just as the Lord commanded Moses;” “I myself will drive tem out before the people of Israel” (Joshua 11:20; 13:6).

Note also the analogy to God’s working salvation for sinners by his own will and power in the person of the Messiah (verse 13). God’s relentless actions against the enemies of Israel prefigures His utter defeat of Satan, (“crushed the head of the house of the wicked”) using Satan’s own craftiness and murderous hostility as the means by which God would set forth his own Son as a propitiation in order to bring down the entire fabric of Satan’s rebellion (13b, 14 cf. John 12:31; 13:27; 14:30; 16:11).

V. Verses 16-19 – Habakkuk’s resignation and joy – Proverbs 1:33 says, “But whoever listens to me will dwell secure and will be at ease, without dread of disaster.” These are traits of those that have not rejected the fear of the Lord.

A. Verse 16 – Habakkuk has achieved, by God’s grace, a level of understanding and of resignation that should be normal in the life of the Christian (Philippians 1:20, 21; 4:11-13). Earthly circumstances can bring about a sense of dread and the true feeling of being overwhelmed with the prospect of distress, physically and emotionally. Nevertheless, though the emotions affect us deeply, the standard of truth hangs bright before our eyes giving confidence and sustaining power even amidst the apparent uncertainties of our temporal journey. Habakkuk trusted God, and had a newly given understanding of the great mystery, but the infallible certainty, of his providence; thus he anticipated worldly trouble with a spirit of quietness.

B. Verses 17, 18 – If all blessings that give pleasure and security to the mere worldling are removed, the reality of God’s promise, his redemptive grace, and the prospect of seeing his beauty and dwelling in his presence overcome the loss, making it less than nothing, of all that thrills the mind of the pleasure-seeker that has no hope beyond this age. Salvation, in all its progress in the life of the believer, the one that is justified by faith (see 2:4), and in all its unparalleled dimensions more clearly sustains the trusting one than any amount of earthly security (Compare Hebrews 11:24-26; Philippians 3:7, 8).

C. Verse 19 – Displacing all the distress about the ways of God and the apparent injustice and startling defense of God’s treatment of Israel, we find a renewed focus on God as Himself the strength of life. Knowledge of him gives resiliency, it unfolds a key to the exploration of endless joys, the investigation of infinite graces, and the promise of never-ending peace, safety, and expansiveness of satisfying knowledge and relationship. “H makes me tread on my high places.” No wonder that this chapter was to be sung with stringed instruments.

Tom has most recently served as the Professor of Historical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He previously taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he was Professor of Church History and Chair of the Department of Church History. Prior to that, he taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Along with numerous journal articles and scholarly papers, Dr. Nettles is the author and editor of fifteen books. Among his books are By His Grace and For His Glory; Baptists and the Bible, James Petigru Boyce: A Southern Baptist Statesman, and Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles H. Spurgeon.
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