Habakkuk was a prophet to the Southern Kingdom, although we know nothing of his home or call to ministry. Nothing is known about him except what we find in this prophecy. The context of his prophecy seems to be during the time period shortly before the Southern Kingdom was taken into Babylonian captivity.
Habakkuk is known for his questions about the nature of God’s activities. His questions are relevant today for a people who seem to have their own notions about what justice should look like. In Habakkuk’s day people were increasingly immoral. Lawlessness and wickedness were all around him, as the nation sank further into moral apathy which would eventually result in their being taken into Babylonian captivity.
Habakkuk can be divided into two sections:
1. Grappling with unanswered questions and gaining understanding of God
2. Growing in unwavering faith
In Chapter 1:1-4 we see a list of the sinful condition of Judah. It is from the depravity of this evil that Habakkuk’s first question arises, “Why does evil go unpunished?” It seems to Habakkuk that God is asleep. (v.2) In 1:5 God responds to Habakkuk, but in a very unusual manner. God in effect says, “You want punishment. Wait till you see what the Chaldeans (Babylonians) will do. You think YOU see violence? Wait till you see how violent the Babylonians are.”
We find in this response that God is using the Chaldeans to punish those in his nation who are committing the evils that surround him. God’s choice of disciplining this wickedness is to have it punished through Babylon subjection. This shows that the mighty nation of Babylon was actually a pawn in God’s hand to serve His purposes and accomplish His divine will. Lest Habakkuk think that God was not in control, he reminds him in 1:11 that after they had done their part, God would in turn punish them for their own pride and arrogance.
Rather than satisfying Habakkuk, God’s answer actually brought out another concern. In 1:12-17 we find Habakkuk’s second question, “Why would you use a more wicked nation to punish a less wicked nation?” His question accepts the fact that his people are in fact wicked. He has already established that. But he doesn’t understand why God would let that punishment be administered by a more wicked nation.
Habakkuk rationalizes like humans still do today. He assumes that being Jewish inherently means that they are somehow more inherently righteous. God will show him in a moment what makes a person truly righteous. Also he sees the Babylonians carrying Jewish people away in their hooks and nets, making it seem like these bonds were more powerful than God. It seems to Habakkuk to be a pretty good question, as he boldly positions himself figuratively like a guard at his post waiting for God to answer.
God’s answer is revealing. In 2:2-3, God prepares Habakkuk for his answer. He wants this answer to be so clear that anyone jogging can see it while they run. God answers when He wants to! Humans are impatient. We want things yesterday! God says, “It may seem like a long time, but rest assured, justice will come.” Don’t get discouraged if God’s timetable doesn’t match yours. And as for the answer to Habakkuk’s question, v. 4-20 says, “In my good time evil will be punished, and the righteous will live if they keep their faith.”
In this answer we find that the people who will live are those who are faithful. That is what makes them righteous. While this does apply to our life after death, in Habakkuk’s day this would dovetail with other prophets of God who had been telling Judah to go into captivity rather than rebelling. Trusting God in faith to listen to the words of the prophet would result in them being allowed to live. If they rebelled and trusted in their own hands against Babylon, they would die.
But this also applied to the Babylonians as well. Because of their own arrogance, greed, violence and cruelty (found in vv 5-15) God would punish Babylon even worse than he chastised Judah. Notice verse 18-20, where God asks, “Who is really boss?” Babylon makes these wooden idols and chant to a dumb, voiceless god. But God sits on his throne full of words for all to hear who will listen. God is in His holy temple. People here need to be silent as HE speaks. It is a contrast between (1) a vocal people and their voiceless god and (2) a vocal God and his people, who if they knew better would be silent and ready to listen.
Habakkuk Gains Understanding of God
Next we find Habakkuk’s answer to God’s revelation. This man, who is so bold as to wait with folded arms for God’s answer, is humbled and his faith renewed as he offers a prayer of submission and faith, beginning in 3:1. This prayer shows four ways that Habakkuk grew.
He grew in is faith in God’s majesty. (3:3-6) Habakkuk is reminded of how powerful God is. While it may seem like the world is on the verge of collapse and that everything seems so unstable, God is and has always been in control.
He grew in trust in God’s presence and mercy. (3:2 13, 17-19) “In wrath remember mercy!” This sentiment captures the understanding that though none of us deserve salvation God acted on behalf of his people.
He grew in his understanding of how God deals with evil. Even if it didn’t occur in his lifetime, he knew God would vindicate the righteous (3:17-18.)
He grew in his faith despite his fear. 3:16 shows Habakkuk’s distress as he waits on inevitable punishment. Yet in all of this we see Habakkuk growing from a lack of faith because of his trouble to a strong faith in spite of his trouble.
There are good lessons to be learned from Habakkuk. First of all, God is not a silent spectator to our problems in life. He cares about us, He knows all of our situations, and He has a lot to say to us if we will be silent and listen. Secondly, God is not slow to act even though from our limited vantage point it may seem so. He works in His own time to accomplish His best results. Thirdly, even when we suffer and hurt because of the activity of other people’s lives, we need to maintain our faith in the One who knows our situation and never give up on God. Lastly, even though we must suffer the consequences of our actions, we need to remember that we can have abundant life. But that life only comes through faith and trust in God.
As far as how Habakkuk speaks to the New Testament, his largest contribution is the powerful statement of God in 2:4, “Behold, as for the proud one, his soul is not right within him; but the one who is righteous because of his faith shall live.” This passage, which affirms that it is a man’s faith in God which allows him to be regarded as righteous by God. This is an affirmation of the statement of faith made many centuries ago to Abraham, where it is said that God counted Abraham’s faith toward him as righteousness. This passage from Habakkuk is quoted in Romans 1:17 as the fundamental theme of Paul’s Gospel. It is also used in Galatians 3:11 as a foundational support of his doctrine of grace through faith. We also find it in Hebrews 10:37-38.