The Burden of Habakkuk

Lessons in
the Book of Habakkuk

by Bob Burridge ©2013, 2015
Understanding God in Troubled Times
(Video #1)

Lesson 1: The Burden of Habakkuk Habakkuk 1:1-4

The Prophesy of Habakkuk is an old book with a very contemporary message. The struggles we face in life are nothing new. Tragedies happen, temptations get the best of us at times, cultures deteriorate morally, nations rise and fall, evil violence claims its victims, and in our limited understanding we try to make sense of it all. The answer the Prophet received when he asked God about it all was not what he expected or looked for, but it still answers the questions raised by questioning minds today.

The burden of Habakkuk the Prophet

Habakkuk 1:1, “The burden which the prophet Habakkuk saw.”

The Bible doesn’t tell us much about the personal side of the prophet Habakkuk. Legends and apocryphal stories have produced some rather bizarre traditions that in their attempt to fill in the gaps of our understanding they tend to confuse the message of the book. Obviously the Holy Spirit didn’t consider the prophet’s background necessary information for appreciating what He intended in this book. We need to be content with the information the Bible gives us, and resist the temptation to make vain speculations.

We know from 1:1 and 3:1 that God called Habakkuk to be a prophet. The book ends (3:19) with a subscription like that in the psalms indicating that Habakkuk was a musician who played a stringed instrument. That’s about all we know about him personally.

Some scholars have tried to find out about him in the meaning of his name. The problem is that its meaning and origin have remained obscure and are probably unimportant. If it had some relevance God in His inspired word would have explained it. Most biblical names were family names, or had some special meaning to the parents just as they do today. Almost all the names we encounter in Scripture were contemporary ones commonly in use at the time. Only under special circumstances were Bible names really significant.

Habakkuk is presented as a man with a sensitive heart. When he thought about the violence and oppression in his world he was troubled. He described the message of his book as his “burden”. The Hebrew word he used is mas-SA’ (משּׂא). It comes from a root word meaning “to lift something up.” The troubles of his world were important to Habakkuk. They were heavy matters that needed to be dealt with, taken up by someone. He could not help but make them his own burden. The prophet felt compelled to deal with the heavy weight of his people’s oppression. Habakkuk wanted to understand why God was allowing unpleasant things to happen at that particular time.

Habakkuk wrote during troubled times before the captivity.

In the confusing days from 609 to 605 BC, evil and immorality were destroying the moral foundation of the Jewish nation of Judah. Foreign powers repeatedly invaded. As the Book of Deuteronomy warned long before in the days of Moses, the Lord was using a foreign nation, the wicked Chaldeans, to deal with His people’s disobedience. The corrupt kings of Judah had begun to make deals with God’s enemies, and they defied God’s prophets. They hoped for political victories and personal gain.

The prophet Jeremiah labored during the time of Habakkuk warning about God’s coming judgment. About one hundred years earlier the Northern tribes of Israel had been taken captive for their disobedience. But just like the countries we know today, they had not learned the lessons of history.

It was during this period of moral and political confusion that the Lord raised up Habakkuk to deliver a special message to His people. The questions that troubled the prophet were not much different from those we deal with today. The customs and enemies may be different, but the human struggle that tries to understand suffering and the perseverance of evil never changes.

Many have asked, “How can a Sovereign, Loving, and Almighty God allow the seeming injustice we see around us? Why should the unfaithful prosper while God’s loyal people struggle for survival and many of them die?”

This was the burden Habakkuk was dealing with, this heavy weight of oppression by evil. Habakkuk wanted to understand why God was allowing this to happen.

The confusion of Habakkuk

Habakkuk 1:2-4, “O LORD, how long shall I cry, And You will not hear? Even cry out to You, ‘Violence!’ And You will not save. Why do You show me iniquity, And cause me to see trouble? For plundering and violence are before me; There is strife, and contention arises. Therefore the law is powerless, And justice never goes forth. For the wicked surround the righteous; Therefore perverse judgment proceeds.”

How could a Holy God allow such things to continue? Habakkuk knew that the Scriptures taught that God is the very essence of Holiness. Leviticus 19:2 had said, “You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy.”

Evil is offensive to God. We know that even when it’s used for good, He is not approving of it. Psalm 5:4-5 reminds us, “For You are not a God who takes pleasure in wickedness, Nor shall evil dwell with You. The boastful shall not stand in Your sight; You hate all workers of iniquity.” So Habakkuk concludes in Habakkuk 1:13, “You are of purer eyes than to behold evil, And cannot look on wickedness.”

The reason Habakkuk struggled, was that it seemed to him that God was allowing evil to overcome his people and not doing anything about it. He was having a hard time reconciling the holiness of God with the fact that the evil in Israel was obvious, and God didn’t seem to be correcting it.

As finite creatures we cannot fathom the infinite. God in His wisdom has not determined to reveal all his secrets to us. Moses wrote in Deuteronomy 29:29 “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our sons forever, that we may observe all the words of this law.”

Some unbelieving scholars have observed Habakkuk’s questions, and have made him out to be a man filled with doubts. They make the mistake of labeling Habakkuk to be a doubting rationalist. He has been called the “freethinker among the prophets”, “the father of Israel’s religious doubt.” But that ignores the substance of his message.

Habakkuk was no mere rationalist. He saw what appeared to him to be iniquity, and thought of it as such only because he knew God’s law and believed it. As the Apostle Paul wrote, “I would not have known sin except through the Law” (Romans 7:7). The Law is one of the gracious provisions of God’s covenant. It’s there so that His moral character would be revealed to us so we can know it.

Habakkuk’s problem was not that he had trouble accepting what God said, or His holiness. His burden shows just the opposite. Knowing that what God said about Himself was true, he was unable to fit it together with what he could see happening. On the one hand the prophet knew that God was holy and had pledged to oppose ungodliness. On the other hand he saw that ungodliness seemed to be prospering while the godly were suffering.

It was not doubt about his confidence in God’s revelation that formed the basis for his logic and reasoning. Logic and reason are only able to organize facts and draw conclusions based upon our interpretation of them. The “facts” must be founded upon some standard of truth. Habakkuk didn’t question the facts. He simply didn’t know how to fit them all together.

He didn’t find real contradictions. None of the facts he had to work with were opposite to one another. He showed by his prayer that he believed there was a way to link what God had revealed about Himself and what He was then doing. His plea indicates that he wanted God to let him know how these things were to be reconciled.

Habakkuk didn’t accept evil apathetically. He was appalled by it. It would be easy just to whine about the evil around him, but that’s not what he was doing. Modern eschatology has become a doctrine of defeat. It depicts Christ and His church as defeated. There are some who hope that evil will grow to speed up the coming final return of Jesus Christ. That is a totally unbiblical attitude. The Prophet didn’t adopt an attitude of defeat the way many do today.

Habakkuk was not about to retreat from a corrupt culture. He didn’t simply accept the presence of evil and withdraw. He was bothered by the evil. He wanted to see it judged. He wanted it beaten. He wanted holiness to triumph over evil, but he didn’t see it happening.

The action taken by Habakkuk

When doubt or confusion arises, God’s Prophet did the right thing. He cried out to the Lord. He turned to God, not to his own understanding. He was not raising some general question of the existence of evil. He was trying to figure out what was behind the specific things he saw happening to God’s people at that moment in history.

He was not a man of humanistic doubt that deifies uncertainty. He was no classic rationalist who reasoned and theorized while knowing his facts were uncertain and incomplete. He was not an existentialist who simply leaped upon some belief and ignored what was obvious to the eyes.

As a believer in the promises of the Covenant of Grace, Habakkuk turned to God and waited for His answer. He knew the assurances in God’s word.
Proverbs 3:5, “Trust in the LORD with all your heart, And lean not on your own understanding;”
Proverbs 14:12, “There is a way that seems right to a man, But its end is the way of death.”

When plagued by doubts, when things are not easy to understand, we must turn to our Covenant God as did the Prophet. There are things it is vital for us to remember:

  • We are mere creatures.
  • We are not able to hold the infinite in our finite minds.
  • There are more things in this universe than any one person can know.
  • Even our senses are limited in their degree of reliability.
  • There is nothing we can know exhaustively, but there are things we can know.
  • God has given us answers that clear up the problems we imagine.

The secret things of God are beyond us, except what God has revealed (Deuteronomy 29:29). But dealing with what is revealed is challenging to our yet imperfect reasoning.

We are a fallen race. Our understanding is distorted by our fallen nature. Aside from the new life we receive when we are given life by grace, we see nothing as it really is. We miss the declaration of God’s glory that surrounds us in everything our Creator made. Even the gospel itself is seen as a caricature of the true work of our Savior. In 1 Corinthians 2:14 we are reminded, “But the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.”

When we are redeemed by Christ we still struggle in our yet imperfect estate to satisfy a corrupt spirit. We tend to want to defend our innocence. We want to know how to explain everything that happens. We have a continuing need to be reminded of the gospel of grace.

We need to turn away from our curious speculations to rest upon the firm foundation of truth revealed by God. We will find it to be sufficient and satisfying. It’s not that we become unmotivated to learn more. We hunger for God’s truth. But we also recognize the limits of what we can and need to know.

We leave the inscrutable to the infinite Creator and Sovereign Lord. There are things we cannot fully “scrutinize” or comprehend. As one of my professor often said, “Don’t try to unscrew the inscrutable.”

As we study on through this Book of Habakkuk, we will follow this Prophet as he leads us humbly into the presence of the infinite God to find an answer to the confusion of our fallen and very human hearts.

It was God’s time to make known how we as his people ought to view his purpose in allowing evil. He even lets us see a little into how it fits beautifully into his plan for the ages, yet without corrupting his most holy nature.

(Quotations are from the New King James Version of the Bible unless otherwise noted.)

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