Habakkuk—Pivotal Prophet of Judah

FROM: Steve Daskal



What Was Happening?  Judah is on the Brink of Disaster

— Judah’s new king at this time, Jehoiakim, aka Eliakim, is a relatively young man.  But he is characterized in 2 Chronicles 36:1-8 and 2 Kings 23:34-24:6 as being an evil king, who did not follow the pattern of godliness of his father Josiah.  Josiah had been an ally of Assyria against Egypt who died in battle when the Egyptians had defeated the last remnant of Assyrian power at Megiddo [in the lands of the former northern Israelite kingdom of Israel].

— Jeremiah refers to him this way:  “your eyes and your heart are intent only upon your own dishonest gain, and on shedding innocent blood and on practicing oppression and extortion.”  [Jer. 22:17]  While it may have required heavy taxes and harsh action to pay the required tributes to great powers and keep his throne in the face of widespread violence and disorder, the tone of Jeremiah’s condemnation [and those in 2 Kings and 2 Chronicles] indicates that not only was Jehoiakim tough and demanding, he was also brutal and corrupt.   Jehoiakim apparently reverted to the idolatry and unjust rule of his grandfather Amon and great-grandfather Manasseh [ref 2Ki21].  Jehoiakim also openly rejected and mocked prophetic warnings from Jeremiah [36:23-27] and had them destroyed.

— The Israelite kingdom of Judah is really no longer an independent state, but a pawn in the great-power struggle between the Egypt of Pharaoh Necho [alternatively Neco II] and the Chaldean or Neo-Babylonian Empire of Nebukhadnezar.  These two empires had just finished off Assyria, which had previously destroyed the northern kingdom].  Hamitic Egypt, Semitic Babylon, and Indo-European Assyria [the successor to the Hittite empire] had been jockeying for power across the Levant-Mesopotamia for centuries.  Think of a triangle:  Assyria in what today would be greater Kurdistan; Babylon in what today would be Iraq and southwest Iran; and Egypt incorporating the Nile, the coast from central Libya through Gaza.  Modern Syria, Lebanon, Jordan & Israel would be a buffer zone warred over by the great powers.

— Judah is essentially a protectorate of Babylon; Johiakim was put on the throne by the Babylonians after they deposed good king Josiah’s older son Joahaz [circa 608 BC], and [perhaps under duress] pledges loyalty to Nebukhadnezar.  Secretly, Jehoiakim is trying to play Egypt against Babylon.  This backfires when Nebukhadnezar of Babylon wins a great victory over the Egyptians at Karkhemish in 605, and becomes aware of Johiakim’s deceit.  With Egypt out of the way, Babylon is free to re-conquer Judah and besiege Jerusalem, which falls within a year.  As a result, Babylon removes Jehoiakim, along with thousands of hostages from among the political, religious, and social elite of Judah, including Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah.  [See Daniel 1:1-6].  Babylon did not destroy Jerusalem at this time; that occurred after another unsuccessful rebellion was launched by Jehoiakim’s successor Zedekiah, the last king of Judah listed in the Tenakh, in 586 BC.  Gedaliah, who was not of the Davidic line, was installed by Babylon and ruled five years until a third and final Jewish revolt led to the final destruction of Jerusalem and the largest deportation of Jews as captive/slaves to Babylon by Nebuzaradan, “captain of the guard” to Nebukhadnezar.


Who Was Habakkuk?

We know very little about the prophet who delivered this book.

— Westerners universally mispronounce his name — it is really KHabakkuk [like KHanukah, not like “habit”].

— His name apparently means “The Embracer” [implicitly, of God] [per John MacArthur, Charles Ryrie] or alternatively “the wrestler” [but not the same root as Yisrael (Israel), the name the Angel of the Lord gave to Jacob after they wrestled on the banks of the Jabbok Brook].  Other sources [NIV Archaeological Study Bible, HCSB] claim his name derives from an Akkadian [precursor language of Aramaic] name of a flower, but that would an odd name for a Jew [as opposed to a Samaritan or someone living under the Assyrians].

— His prophecy appears to date from 606 or early 605BC [ESV-SB proposes as early as 620 BC].  It may have been recorded a bit later.

— Habakkuk may have been so well known in Jerusalem and Judah that there was no need to identify his position or lineage, or that information may simply never have been recorded.

— He was a contemporary of Jeremiah.  We don’t know anything about his status [Kohen, Levi, Judah/Benjamin] or family [no mention].  He apparently was sufficiently educated to compose the chapter 3 psalm.

— Habakkuk’s sin is not explicitly called out, but it is right before us.  Habakkuk doubts that God keeps His promises, that He has the will and/or power to restore the righteous and enforce justice.  He has trouble trusting in God’s wisdom and the perfection of His plan.  Don’t confuse God’s judgment of the unbeliever with His loving (sometimes severe) discipline of His own.


Who Was Habakkuk Addressing?

The original intended audience is clearly and by God’s direction [2:2] the Jews who were present in Jerusalem and its vicinity in the early years of the 7th century BC — especially those with authority, power and wealth who were exploiting their fellow Jews and setting an ungodly example of idolatry and debauchery.  In sharing this “divine dialogue” and psalm with his fellow Jews he is giving a final warning from God about His imminent judgment for their rebellious sinfulness.

Habakkuk is also seeking to share a more enduring message with his hearers/readers — what he had learned about the holiness of God and the importance of human obedience and faithful trust in Him. God ordained that this prophesy be written down, preserved, and announced.  It is His divine will that we know “the LORD is in His holy temple.  Let all the earth be silent before Him.” [2:20]

Habakkuk is specifically reading out God’s judgment on the shameless sinners he began by pleading against:  greedy usurers [2:6-8], brazen extortionists [9-11], rulers who exploit the poor to build cities and palaces for themselves [12-14], hedonists who dive into drunken debauchery [15-17], and, last and most infuriating to the LORD, idolaters who worship their own dumb and mute creations [18-20].

Habakkuk’s prophecy — specifically its most famous line, v.2:4, “the righteous shall live by his faith,” was cited by the author of the Letter to the Hebrews [10:38] and by the Apostle Paul in both Romans 1:17 & Galatians 3:11.  This is a seminal statement from the Tenakh stating the key doctrine of justification by faith that is repeated in both Tenakh and New Testament.

God wants to engage with His people.  The Tenakh makes it clear that when a genuinely God-fearing person has doubts, fears, or needs, God wants to hear from them, and will engage them and “renew their minds” to expand their understanding of His holiness, loving-kindness, and power.  Habakkuk’s dialogue is but one example of this.


What does the book contain?

  1. 1:1-4 Habakkuk questions God
  2. 1:5-11 God answers
  3. 1:12-2:1 Habakkuk responds with another question
  4. 2:2-20 God answers
  5. 3:1-19 Habakkuk’s psalm praising God’s power and justice.


The book was originally written in Hebrew [like nearly all of the Tenakh].  The first two chapters are a dialogue between the LORD [YHVH] and His prophet Habakkuk.  The form is reminiscent of the dialogue in Job 38-42.  The third chapter is a psalm.  Both of these forms were well known to learned Jews of the 7th century BC.


Highlights & Observations:


1:1-4> Habakkuk begins by responding to the rapid and serious moral decline of Judah under young king Jehoiakin with the question “where is God?” Habakkuk wants and is praying for justice and monotheism restored; he wonders why God isn’t acting, as He has in the past, to chastise His people and turn them back onto the right path.  We have seen similar prayerful cries to God for justice elsewhere in the Psalms & Prophets.


1:5-11> God responds by giving Habakkuk a vision in which He explains how He will respond.  He will not bring revival to Judah [perhaps because they had backslidden too quickly after Josiah’s death, overturning decades of reforms in months].  Instead, the LORD would chastise Judah — by sending the Chaldeans [Babylonians] to punish them.  The punishment will be so shocking that the nations will be astounded.


1:12-2:1> Habakkuk is shocked — he knows and trusts God, but does not understand why a perfect and holy God, who cannot abide sin, choose to punish sinful Judah through the agency of an even more sinful, proud, and ruthless Babylon?  He notes that “they burn incense to their dragnet” (1:16) — they worship their own power and skill at war and plunder.  Habakkuk says he will be faithful and alert like a watchman for God’s reply.  In the last phrase of 2:1, Habakkuk expects to be corrected by God.


2:2-20> God then replies by telling Habakkuk to write down this vision on stone tablets — in the clearest possible way [“that the one who reads it may run” (2:2) — it is to be a clear call to action].  The proud, the Jewish elite, “is like death, never satisfied” (2:5) but “the righteous shall live by his faith.” (2:4) God will cause them to be “filled with shame instead of glory… and be exposed as uncircumcised.” (2:16–NKJV; alternate reading [ESV], exposed from throat to thigh) God goes on to show that His justice is complete, and that while Judah will be chastised but restored, Babylon will be utterly destroyed, never to rise again.  This will also be a shocking proof of God’s sovereignty and a lesson to all the nations — the nation that harms God’s people will be cut off — destroyed utterly.

— Jeremiah 50-51 provides an oracle from God concerning how He will bring Babylon to destruction in judgment for its idolatry, injustice, & aggressive violence.  This parallels in greater detail God’s plan to use Babylon to punish Judah’s disobedience and idolatry, and then in turn be destroyed by the Medo-Persian Empire of Cyrus [Xerxes].


3:1-19> Chastened, Habakkuk crafts a psalm of praise to God.


Note re 3:3 > Why is God coming from Teman and Mount Par’an?

— When God is described as coming from or speaking from a place on earth, it has usually been from either Mt Sinai [in southeastern Sinai] or Mt. Zion, upon which David and Solomon built Old Jerusalem, the seat of the Ark of the Covenant and the Holy Temple.  Mt. Zion is geographically very close to or the same as Mt. Moriah, where Abraham offered Isaac back to the LORD, but instead was directed to offer a ram.

— Midian was populated by Ishmaelites who had reconnected with Israel at the time of Moses.  The Midianite homeland was located in eastern Sinai and the area around and to the east and south of Aqaba, Jordan.  Cushan was either another name for Midian or a closely related tribe.

— Looking at various Bible study notes, etc. I find nothing conclusive.  Here are some theories, not mutually exclusive:

1)  God had already demonstrated His power at Mt. Par’an in Sinai and in Teman [which can mean either “south country” or be a proper name as referring to a descendant of Esau], and this is what the prophet alludes to in his psalm of praise.

2)  Some great storm had arisen from the south in Habakkuk’s time, a vast frontal storm that covered the skies from the southeast [Edom] to the southwest [Sinai] — very noteworthy because normally storms either came in from the west off the Mediterranean or from the north.

3) The Babylonians were coming, and indeed when they came the last time against Judah [when they finally took and sacked the city], they came from Egypt and thus might well have followed a course similar to that taken by the Israelites coming out of Egypt a millennium earlier, avoiding the most desolate parts of Sinai and of the Negev.  This could be seen as something that verifies Habakkuk’s prophetic vision — predicting this unusual invasion route that would be followed decades after his prophesies. The more usual invasion route from Mesopotamia would have been the “Aramean road” following the Euphrates up into what today would be Syria and Lebanon, and then coming down either from NE of Galilee or down through the Bekaa Valley between the Lebanon and Anti-Lebanon ranges further west.


Note re 3:13> “Laying him open from thigh to neck” [NAS95] ESV uses “bare” vice open.  Prisoners were regularly stripped naked to humiliate them — animals went about naked; people wore clothing.


Note re 3:16> “I heard and my inward parts trembled, at the sound my lips quivered.  Decay enters my bones, and in my place I trembled.”  The Hebrew is unclear as to why Habakkuk responds this way.  Is he trembling with eagerness and yet also terrified at what is about to befall his own nation?  Is he in awe at the terror the Babylonians will face? Ever barely escaped a catastrophe, and then felt the shiver of nervous release, accompanied by prickling skin and a sudden sweat?



CONCLUSION— What Does the Book of Habakkuk Mean for Us?

  • This short story is a snapshot of the thoughts every believer has at least once in a while as we are disciplined by God and grow in our understanding of Him, His plan, His timing… Growing in faith is growing in trust.  What keeps you from maturity?
  • Notice God’s patience with impatient, short-sighted, questioning Habakkuk.  Habakkuk starts out complaining, demanding, but winds up amazed at the grace, wisdom, and holiness of God.  How are we like Habakkuk?  Are you where he was in Chapter 1?  [Anxiously waiting for and wondering if or how God’s intervention for righteousness will come.] Have you made it to the Habakkuk of Chapter 2? [Marveling at, but uncomfortable with, how God is working out His sovereign plan?]  Or have you grown to the Habakkuk of Chapter 3 [praising and trusting fully in His grace and justice.]  Be amazed at and thankful for the gracious patience [loving-kindness] of God in your life.
  • God allows sinners to prosper for a time; He allows His faithful believers to suffer for a time. Wait for it… Judgment, justice (setting things aright) and eternal reward are surely coming.  God’s plan and timing differs from ours.  What to us “here-today-gone-tomorrow” mortals is God appearing to be uncaring or inattentive is His patience in working for repentance from sinners and His pruning and testing of believers to strengthen their faith and courage.  Have you stopped grieving His Spirit with doubts and complaints & instead started thanking Him and praising Him for His patience and perfectly balancing justice and mercy?  That is a sign of spiritual maturity.

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Filed under Judeo-Christianity, Religion, Steven E. Daskal

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