By Barnard C. Taylor
Parallel reading: 2 Kings 21 to 25; 2 Chronicles 33 to 36; Isaiah 10:5-27.
1. Date and Historical Occasion
Habakkuk prophesied probably about 605 B. C. In the former part of that century the reign of Manasseh had been excessively wicked. Reforms had been instituted by Josiah, but the people were not turned back to Jehovah in faithfulness. They continued in-sin. Idolatry was prevalent. After the death of Josiah (608), the condition of Judah grew more hopeless. The king Jehoiakim led his people into deeper wickedness. The apostasy of the chosen people was more complete than ever before.
The Assyrian power had come to an end practically with the death of the great king Ashurbanipal. Nineveh, the Assyrian capital fell. (606.) The Babylonians had been an important power in the east for centuries. They had opposed the sway of the Assyrians, and had been conquered by them many times during the last period of Assyria’s greatness. (745-625.) After they had destroyed Nineveh, the Babylonians succeeded the Assyrians as masters of all Asia, including Palestine. The Egyptian power was checked, and their army driven back to their own land. Judah, subject to Egypt after Necho’s victory, now was to become subject to Babylon.
Just before the advance of the Babylonians to grasp dominion over Palestine, Habakkuk was troubled because God did not punish his people for their wickedness. He was perplexed because the sins of Judah seemed a matter of indifference to Jehovah. His prophecy contains this thought and the answer to it.
2. The Chief Thought
As already indicated, there is first the complaint of the prophet that sin is allowed to go unpunished. God answers him that the people shall be punished by the Babylonians. The terribleness of this foe is described, and the certainty of punishment by them asserted.
This threat gives the prophet further trouble. How can it be that God will allow these heathen to triumph over his people, since they are worse than the Jews. It cannot be just that the more wicked shall be victorious over the less wicked, and utterly destroy them.
The answer to this is, the punishment will be with discrimination. The just shall live by his faithfulness, or faith, and the Babylonians themselves shall be destroyed because of their wickedness.
All this part of the prophecy is given in the form of a dialogue between the prophet and his God. Chapter 3 is a psalm of praise to Jehovah for all his wonderful interventions on behalf of his people in the past, when he had displayed his majesty and terrible power. The mighty power of God makes even the prophet tremble, but he closes his psalm with a declaration of the fact that whatever comes he has the utmost confidence in God who is his strength! and Saviour.
The general truth of this prophecy, that God would use the outside heathen to punish his people, and afterwards destroy these heathen, is found also in the passage cited in Isaiah, ch. io:5-27. The fact that the heathen power was accomplishing the will of Jehovah did not relieve them from the guilt that resulted from an act that their own wickedness prompted them to do. A distinction must be recognized between God’s purpose in an act and the motive of the agent. (Cf. Acts 2:23; 4:27, 28.)
3. The Course of Thought
The prophet asks how long he must continue to cry to God about violence that he sees about him without getting an answer. Everywhere wrong prevails, and there is no judgment, 1:1-4.
God answers that he is about to work a wonderful thing, till now incredible: he will raise up the cruel, swift, dreadful Chaldeans, and they shall swoop down upon Judah like an eagle, 1:5-11.
In view of this threat, the prophet appeals to the justice of God. How can he see the wicked devour those more righteous than himself? He further recalls the cruel progress of the Chaldeans as they plunder the nations at will. He waits for God’s answer, 1:12 to 2:1.
The word that is returned to the prophet he is to write upon tablets, that it might be clearly seen that God had foretold the destruction when it should come upon them, 2:2, 3.
The most significant truth of the prophecy is given in 2:4:The just would not be destroyed. Two readings of this have been urged as correct: that of the common version, “the just shall live by his faith,” and “the just by his faithfulness shall live,” i. e., those who remain faithful to God, and are thereby just, shall not perish in the destruction by the wicked Chaldeans. Paul uses the words in the former sense (Rom. i:17), the original Hebrew favors the latter.
Beginning with 2:5, there follows a description of the devastation wrought by the Chaldeans, as they conquered and plundered all nations. Successive woes are pronounced upon them for their selfish wickedness, with a threat that they themselves shall be destroyed. Idols cannot deliver them, ver. 5-20.
The whole of ch. 3 is a psalm growing out of the revelation which God had made to the prophet.
In ver. 2 there is the prayer that God would carry on his work in his people, that he would show mercy, and not wrath only.
Then from ver. 3 to ver. 15 there is a magnificent description of God’s manifestation of his power on behalf of his people during the past history of Israel from the time that he brought them from Egypt. There is something like this in the Sixty-eighth psalm.
This thought makes Habakkuk tremble, but he expresses his supreme confidence in the midst of any calamity that might come. His trust is in the God whose might is terrifying to the wicked, but comforting to those who fear him.