Sermon Commentary for Sunday, November 3, 2019
Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4 Commentary
This passage is part of an extended dialogue between the prophet Habakkuk and his God, whose ways with God’s own people are a mystery to the prophet. In the first 4 verses, the prophet passionately voices his complaint to God. In 1:5-11, God answers that complaint with a truth that Habakkuk finds unbelievable. So in 1:12-17, Habakkuk replies that God’s answer to his question and God’s solution to Israel’s problem makes no sense at all.
Then in the rest of our text for today, 2:1-4, we have a short version of God’s long answer to the prophet’s accusation in 2:5-20. He calls on the prophet to walk by faith, even when he can’t figure out God’s answer: “the righteous will live by faith (2:4, a verse that figures prominently in the New Testament and in church history).” This little prophecy concludes in chapter 3 with perhaps the loveliest expression of enduring faith found anywhere in Scripture (especially verses 17-19).
Rather than commenting on each verse of the Lectionary reading or today (particularly the second part), I’m going to share a sermon I once preached on these opening verses of Habakkuk, a sermon entitled, “And God Lets Them.”
The title of this sermon was taken from that famous pre-Civil War anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin. In that novel there is a scene where a poor slave named George Harris is bitterly numbering the woes afflicted on him and his fellow slaves by merciless slave-owners. Particularly, he laments the fact that no matter what he does, he is always going to be a slave, and his wife and children can be sold away from him at the whim of their master. He cries out, “They buy and sell us, they make trade of our heart’s blood and sweat and tears, and God lets them. He does. God lets them.”
The prophet Habakkuk looked at the world through the eyes of a George Harris, or to be chronologically correct, Harris had on Habakkuk’s glasses. Habakkuk saw the wicked prospering, the righteous suffering, and God doing nothing. And he struggled to hold on to his faith. How can I square my faith in a God of justice with a world that is filled with injustice and horrible suffering?
I can relate to the George Harris’s and Habakkuk’s of the world, and I suspect that you can, too. Habakkuk’s questions and complaints are the deep concerns of our hearts. How do you square your faith in God with the facts of the world? This little prophet is for people oppressed and depressed by the ways of the world. It can teach us how to live triumphantly in times of trouble, how to keep living and believing when there are pieces missing in life’s puzzle. These first four verses explain the prophet’s problem and the prophet’s response, in words that resonate with our hearts.
Even a cursory reading of thee verses reveals what the prophet’s problem was: there didn’t seem to be any justice anywhere. He was prophesying during the last days of the southern kingdom of Judah, about 600 B.C. The northern kingdom, Israel, had already gone into exile. That once proud and powerful nation had been reduced to a fourth-rate power. As I read these verses, I thought about all the bigtime tennis my wife and I watched this summer, where heavy hitters like Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer and Serena Williams blasted that little yellow ball back and forth. That was Judah. It had become the ball in a game of power tennis between the great kingdom of Assyria to the north and east of Judah, and the nation of Egypt to the south and west. They were smashed back and forth by whichever nation was in power at the time.
That international power match had produced internal chaos. As so often happens when a nation is in decline, this little country was experiencing moral and spiritual bankruptcy. Everywhere he looked, the prophet saw pretty much what you and I see when we look around at 21st Century America. “Violence and destruction are before me,” he says in verse 3. Everywhere he looked he saw people taking advantage of each other, lying and stealing and cheating; people hurting each other with swords or words or money or whatever they had at hand.
As a result of this, he says, “there is strife and conflict abounds.” Everybody was fighting everybody. It was every person for himself or herself. It was one seething mess of self-interest, a special interest group there against a special interest group here, this neighbor against that neighbor, conservatives versus liberals, Democrats against Republicans, the President and the Congress and the courts. “Strife and conflict abound.”
In that atmosphere, he says, “The law is paralyzed. “We know what that is about, don’t we? When there is so much wrong, where do you start to make it right? Another translation of that passage says, “The law is relaxed or slacked.” That is exactly what happened then and what happens now. Think, for example, of the currently contentious problems of illegal immigration or climate change or sexual orientation. When there are so many things vying for our attention and support, what often happens is that we redefine right and wrong. We relax the law. And in the end, “the law is paralyzed.” Doesn’t that describe the gridlock in Washington?
Finally, says the prophet, “justice never prevails.” Of course not. There are some righteous people left, people who want to do the right thing, who want to live by the law of God, and who try to make that happen in their culture. But the wicked are so numerous, and they so surround the righteous that the righteous are hemmed in. So even when the righteous try to make justice happen, justice gets perverted. And so, says the prophet, the righteous suffer, while the wicked prosper, and God lets them.
I was in a Bible Study with a group of twenty somethings the other day. We were studying II Samuel 2, where David’s long struggle with Saul is finally over and David is officially crowned king, but people loyal to Saul want his son Ish-Bosheth to be king. So, a civil war ensues, in which young men stab and maim and kill each other. One of the guys in the group asked, “Where is God in the story? Sometimes, as in David’s life, God intervenes, but so often he just lets the blood flow.” We all said, “It’s still that way today.”
In the Middle East, shadowy insurgents plant bombs all over the countryside and innocent civilians and brave Americans are blown to pieces. And God lets them. He does. God lets them. In some African countries, dictators and rebels hack and stab and commit genocide. In the West Bank, Palestinians and Israelis riddle each other with bullets and rockets. And God lets them. He does. God lets them. Here in the United States, drug dealers peddle death disguised as pleasure, and God lets them. It seems like once a week you read about another mass shooting, and God lets them. Greedy companies ruin the lives of thousands by closing factories and going offshore. And God lets them. The Church of Jesus Christ is filled with people who act like saints on Sunday and like piranhas on Monday, living for possessions and prestige and power, while claiming to follow the principles of peace. And God lets them. He does. God lets them.
Where is the God of justice? That is what Habakkuk cried in his little book. That was his response to what he saw in the culture around him. Where is the God of justice? Specifically, he asks, “How long, O Lord? I cry for help, but you don’t listen. I scream ‘violence,’ but you don’t save.” All this evil and suffering goes on and on and on, and God doesn’t do anything. Oh, Lord, how long? Is there no end, no answer, no justice, no salvation? And why, Lord? Why do you make me look at injustice? Why do you tolerate wrong? You could do something, Lord. Why don’t you?
Some of you may know the name of Eli Wiesel. Eli Wiesel survived a Nazi concentration camp. He saw six million of his fellow Jews slaughtered in World War II. In his book, A Jew Today, Eli Wiesel turns to God and says, “Enough! Since you seem to approve of all these persecutions, all these outrages, have it your way. Let the world go on without the Jews. We’ve had it. We quit. Enough!”
That is the temptation we face as we look at the facts of injustice and suffering. We are tempted to say to God, “Enough! We quit. You will have to go on without me, because I no longer believe.” But that is precisely what Habakkuk the prophet did not do. Oh, yes, he cries out to God. He complains to God. He does what some of us have wanted to do in the last weeks and months; go straight to God and question the way things are, the way he runs things, and ask him to give an accounting of the way the world is, under his sovereignty.
Habakkuk asks his “how long’s” and his “why’s,” but he doesn’t give up. He doesn’t say, “Enough, God, I quit.” The prophet remained a believer. As a matter of fact, I am convinced that it is precisely faith that makes us ask “why,” “how long?” It is precisely because we believe that God is just and righteous and holy and merciful and gracious that the injustice and suffering in the world so confuse us. I mean, if you really believe the Gospel, that God is sovereign and God is our Savior, then there simply are those times when you look up to him and say, “God, I don’t get it. Why? How long?”
What you have in Habakkuk is a man of faith taking his questions and complaints not to the neighborhood tavern, not to the local newspaper, not to some television talk show, but to his God. He complains not against God but to God. And, wonder of wonders, God answers him. I mean, actually answers him. Not once, not even twice, but three times. We could spend a lot of time on this dialogue; indeed, I preached 6 sermons on this little book. But for now, I will stop with several observations.
First, I am happy this little book is in the Bible, because it tells us that even believers—no, especially believers—have questions for God. It is not bad. It is not wrong. It is natural for a child of God to ask our heavenly Father, “Why? How long?” As a matter of fact, such questions are often an expression of faith. They are like the little girl looking up at her father, saying, “Daddy, how long until we get to Grandma’s house?” “Why are we going this way?” “Daddy, I don’t understand.”
And if you find that the answers are too long in coming, or if you discover that the answers aren’t intellectually satisfying (as Habakkuk did in 1:5-17), may I humbly suggest that from time to time we need to stop our questions and our complaints. We need to be still and cup the ear of our faith to hear that agonized voice coming to us over the years and over the miles, the voice of the Son of God crying, “My God, my God, why?” When you can’t make sense of human suffering, and you wonder why God’s lets it all happen, think long and hard about God’s suffering for us on a cross.
God’s final word to us in our text for today has echoed through all the hard times of history. No matter how injustice and evil puff themselves up, the righteous, even the confused ones, “live by their faith…” “The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me (Galatians 2:20).” Amen.
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