Habakkuk is a fascinating text struggling to understand how Israel’s god can be the good, just and all-powerful Creator while there is suffering and evil permeating his creation. Habakkuk was written in the early 6th century BCE. It is the first prophetic text to shift from reflecting on the evils and sufferings created by the Assyrian captivity to reflecting on the exile of the southern kingdom, Judah, at the hands of Babylon. Three times the armies of Babylon came to Jerusalem and took away slaves, with the last date coinciding with the destruction of the wall and temple of Jerusalem: 597, 587, and 582 BCE. Written at least after the first enslaving deportation in 597 BCE, and possibly after the second in 587, the prophetic text of Habakkuk is the reflection of Israel’s surprise and confusion about how Israel, particularly Jerusalem where God’s Temple sits, could be subjected to  such pain and humiliation at the hands of a pagan empire. Habakkuk sees the inevitable destruction of Jerusalem at the hands of these pagan armies, but he demands the Creator god answer how there can be this much suffering and evil in his creation, especially against his own chosen people!

Habakkuk is a prophet who challenges the god of Israel. The prophets first challenge is, How long will the Creator god allow injustice and evil in his creation?[1] This is a pointed theological issue because the answer could be that Yahweh, even as Creator, is not able to control the evil in creation as the stories that will be compiled in Genesis suggest. Maybe God is not able to overcome or control the suffering or evils of this world. This is a theological inquiry about how powerful and sovereign Yahweh the Creator truly is. God’s response is that these sufferings and evils at the hands of the Babylonians are his own action.[2] He, as Creator, has chosen to create Babylon and send its armies to Jerusalem. Ironically, God points out that the Babylonian power he has given to them to overthrow kings and cities has become their god.[3]

Habakkuk’s response is twofold. He can understand and accept that God has ordained another nation to punish Israel for her unfaithfulness because he is the Rock upon which the nation is built. In this light he trusts that Israel will not perish completely, instead they will be disciplined.[4] But, Habakkuk struggles to understand how a God, if he is completely good, is able to allow for the other nations to exalt their actions as worship to other gods? Put another way, If the Creator god is good how do evil men, such as the Babylonians, even exist in this creation?[5] Doesn’t the Creator god actually create the evil of idolatry by allowing evil men to worship their power as a god?[6]

God’s response to Habakkuk is that there is an appointed end for all things. If anyone doubts this they should simply wait a little longer because the end comes for all.[7] God reveals to the prophet that there is an End, an eschatology for all peoples. The evil one, represented by Babylon in the text, has a way of life that is bent, broken, and evil. The innocent people of God will find sustained and enduring life in the End because they are upright, or righteous, by following the straight paths of God in faithful obedience.[8] The evil actions of Babylon reveal now the kind of End that will come to it. On account of Babylon’s greed and violence the oppressed peoples will rise up and destroy it. The evils that are the content of the Babylonian way of life will rebound onto it and destroy all who participate in it.[9]

Then the text of Habakkuk reveals something theologically profound. The Creator god does not have the nations come to their eschatological Ends without purpose or to simply be burnt up as in fire and come to nothing. The Creator god is creating nations, allowing their expansion, and bringing about their Ends for the purpose of filling creation with knowledge of his own presence.[10] The nations must learn, through trial and error, that only Yahweh their Creator can bring them the knowledge of how to live in his creation in peace and life. No idol worshipped as a god can reveal a good End for the nations. Only the Creator god can lead the nations to life when they come to worship him.[11]

Habakkuk ends with the prophet worshipping God for his wisdom out of fear of this creative work.[12] Habakkuk employs some of the most vivid apocalyptic imagery found in the prophetic literature thus far as it describes God’s terribly creative work of making the nations rise and fall.[13] The prophet ends the oracle by making a statement of allegiance to Yahweh, the Creator god. This is the purpose of the text: to reassure those in the southern kingdom of Judah near Jerusalem that the God of Israel is still the Creator who is in control of his creation no matter the circumstances.[14] Habakkuk offers a theological understanding of Israel’s suffering. The prophet would have the people of God declare themselves dedicated to faithfully obeying God in their way of life and worship so that the eschatological End of Israel is life with God beyond the End of Babylon. Babylon and its evil’s will come to an End formed by its own wicked ways, but those right with God will find life in faithfulness in the Creator’s good way of life in his creation.

Observations:

  1. The use of the eschatological end of nations is the same theological shift Zephaniah pioneered. While Zephaniah focused on depicting how the Creator will, on account of his justice, reshape at least remnant parts of the nations into worshipping elements of creation, Habakkuk reveals that the Creator does not determine the eschatological End for the nations he creates. It is their way of life that determines their End.[15] The Creator simply holds the cup of consequences and enforces the End they choose in his creation.[16]
  2. The intimate presence of God as Creator in the development of nations is the very moment God is hidden from those very nations.[17] No doubt this is the text Paul is reflecting on in Romans 1:16-32. God’s presence is clearly perceived in the formation of the nations, intuited as the very structure of all creation, yet the nations turned and worshipped their created idols rather than their own Creator. For both Habakkuk and Paul, it is the way of life of the nations that reveals what eschatological End they are participating and manifesting already.
  3. This theological contention, that the nations’ communal ways of life form their eschatological Ends, echoes themes found in both Genesis and Deuteronomy. A significant purpose of Genesis is as an etiology, an account of how things came to be the way they are, concerning where the nations came from and why they are the way they are.[18] Deuteronomy reveals the way of life in the people of God covenantally determines the realities of God’s relationship to them in blessings or curses. Habakkuk, following Zephaniah’s interpretive perspective, reveals the Creator god’s justice means he will treat the nations just as he does Israel. If the nations do not obey his way of life for creation then they will destroy themselves. But his desire as Creator is that they learn of his presence with them in creation and turn to worship him,[19] which will naturally change their way of life. The nations are created by the god of Israel, Yahweh the Creator god, but the nations choose to live in abhorrent and unnatural ways in his creation leading to their destruction. Their evil behavior in this world forms their own eschatological End of destruction.
  4. There are also couple of interesting possible allusions to Genesis’ creation accounts. First, there is at least a conceptual similarity between Habakkuk 3:13b and Genesis 3:15, where the head of the enemy is being crushed. The End of the evil nations will be their destruction by the Creator god’s enforcement. This is salvation for God’s people. Their judgment is actually a part of the ongoing creative and sustaining act of Yahweh.[20] The second allusion is the ending phrase of God’s creational involvement in nation building in 3:15, “You trampled on the sea with your horses, upon the raw creative material of the many waters.” Habakkuk seems to be concluding that the Creator god’s continued work of forming and shaping the nations is actually his forming creation from the primordial waters of the sea as talked about in the Genesis creation account. As the nations are recreated and do evil, their destruction is a witness that the Creator is still present and shaping his creation. He brings these evil ways of life to an End because he is purging evil from his creation. Only those who live in his good ways will find the End of life and not destruction.

 


[1] 1:2-4

[2] 1:5-11

[3] 1:10-11

[4] 1:12

[5] 1:13

[6] 1:14-17 referring back to 1:9-11.

[7] 2:2-3

[8] 2:4

[9] 2:5-12

[10] 2:13-14

[11] 2:15-20

[12] 3:2

[13] 3:3-15

[14] 3:16-19

[15] 2:4, 8, 10

[16] 2:15-17

[17] 3:3b-4

[18] By way of example from Genesis: 1) Canaan in 9:18-27, 2) Israel in 12:1-3, 3) the Ishmaelites in 16:1-16, 4 & 5) the Moabites and the Ammonites in 19:30-38, 6) the Midianites in 25:1-6, and 7) the Edomites in 25:19ff, 27:1-40, 36:1-42.

[19] 2:13-14, 20

[20] 3:12-14

Posted by Justin Gill

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