Date: 28 May 2017
Text: Habakkuk 2:2-20
So far in our brief study in Habakkuk we have learned that the prophet had been praying for God to do something about the sinful ways of the people of Judah. He had been crying out for quite some time and felt that God was very obviously not listening since He hadn’t given Habakkuk an answer. We then learned that when God did answer the prophet found His answer to be totally unacceptable; it wasn’t what he expected and certainly not what he wanted. Consequently he complained to God again about what he regarded as a rather poor answer! You see, God had decided to pass judgement on Judah by using the even more evil Babylonians as a weapon with which to punish them, and that was most definitely not the answer that Habakkuk expected.
Now, in 2:2-20, we come to a rather longer answer and explanation from God. I wonder why He did that; surely we can’t expect God to explain Himself every time He gives an answer to prayer that we don’t like. God is God; He is the Almighty and as a result is entitled to do what He wants, when He wants and how He wants. However, what follows is a very detailed breakdown of what God felt about the Babylonians.
Habakkuk had been complaining that God can’t have been listening as He hadn’t answered the prophet’s heartfelt prayers. However, when God did answer Habakkuk was horrified by what God had had to say to him. He simply couldn’t accept what God had said and so complained again and argued with God. God had of course been listening all along and now decided that it was time to explain to Habakkuk what He had planned in some detail. Habakkuk leaves us in no doubt about what was happening by opening 2:2 with the words “Then the LORD replied”. What follows in the rest of 2:2 and all of 2:3 are God’s instructions as to what Habakkuk should do.
God wants Habakkuk to write down everything that he is about to be told and “make it plain on tablets”, presumably tablets of stone. He wants His words to be preserved for the times still to come, a revelation that “awaits an appointed time”. You see, the events being described here would happen but in a time of God’s choosing. By writing this vision down others would be able to share in what God had to say and had planned. By recording the details of the vision on stone God was ensuring that the words would be preserved for times to come. That was important since many of the things that Habakkuk was to record were still to happen and wouldn’t happen in his lifetime, just as God says in 2:3 NLT, “This vision is for a future time. It describes the end, and it will be fulfilled. If it seems slow in coming, wait patiently, for it will surely take place. It will not be delayed.” This is simply because God wanted people to be able to read of these matters in future times, which we are doing some 2600 years after these words were written.
In 2:4-5 we see God describing the Babylonians in very bad terms. He begins by calling them “puffed up” or perhaps a better word, “proud”. Such people were only interested in themselves and were extremely self-centred having no concern whatsoever for anyone else. On the other hand there were those whose focus was solely on God, and He says of them, “the righteous will live by his faithfulness” although other translations use the word “faith” rather than “faithfulness”. This thought that the just shall live by faith was quoted by Paul in Romans 1:17 when he discussed the theology of justification by faith; a thought that he repeated in Galatians 3:11. The writer to the Hebrews had a similar thought when urging believers to persevere in their faith since, “... my righteous one will live by faith.” (Hebrews 10:38). It was this verse in Habakkuk in particular that triggered Martin Luther’s thinking at the very beginning of the Reformation and although Paul and the writer to the Hebrews expand on the thought, the words were actually given by God Himself. Luther realised the truth that he could only be declared just, or approved, before God by coming to faith in Jesus Christ. It is faith that is at the centre of our relationship with God and it is that type of faith that the Babylonians sadly lacked. Their faith was in themselves and their own power.
God described the Babylonians as being proud. We see pride all around us even today and it can take all shapes and forms. There are the rich who are proud of how much money they have; the talented who are proud of their skills; the member of the establishment who is proud of his position in society; and there is the highly intelligent individual proud of their learning and knowledge. The prophet Daniel spoke of pride when talking about Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon. He reminded Nebuchadnezzar’s son that it was God who gave him “sovereignty and greatness and glory and splendour” (Daniel 5:18) and yet “... when his heart became arrogant and hardened with pride, he was deposed from his royal throne and stripped of his glory.” (Daniel 5:20). Pride is a sin that is to be avoided at all costs since it is always hateful to God and leads people away from worshipping Him and towards worshipping their own abilities and position.
God goes on to expand on that thought and ascribes a number of not very nice characteristics to these proud people and makes it very clear what He thinks of them. He describes them as “not upright” and implies that they may well be drunkards when He says “wine betrays him”. Many who lived in Judah were regarded as righteous in God’s eyes whereas the Babylonians were regarded as pure evil. God goes on in His description by describing them as being arrogant, never at rest, greedy, never satisfied and as a people who invade nations and take prisoners.
I’ve no doubt that Habakkuk knew all this and felt the same which is why he was so taken aback by God’s decision to use them as a means of passing judgement on Judah.
We now move on to 2:6-17 where God describes four woes that will befall the Babylonians because of their proud actions and lack of faith in Him. These are very reminiscent of the seven woes quoted by Jesus in Matthew 23 and which were aimed at the “teachers of the law and Pharisees”. In those seven woes Jesus described these people as hypocrites, blind guides, vipers and snakes. When talking about these people Jesus didn’t mince His words and spared no one. He accused them of not only not having entered the kingdom of heaven themselves but then closing the door to others so that they may not enter either. Whilst they seemed to travel far and wide to win converts they then simply added to their already heavy burden. They appeared to worship the gold in the Temple more than anything else. They generously tithed their spices but ignored the more important aspects of faith such as justice, mercy and faithfulness. If you think it couldn’t get worse, Jesus went on to tell them that they were full of greed and self-indulgence and whilst they may have been clean on the outside but on the inside they were full of hypocrisy and wickedness. Jesus planned to send prophets and wise men to them but knew that these hypocrites would have them flogged and crucified. Jesus was talking to and about people who should have known better; they were, after all, the religious leaders of the day. Sadly Jesus’ words do not paint a pretty picture.
If those woes had an impact just consider these four woes that God aims at the wicked and evil Babylonians. God begins with the greedy; those who live on belongings that they have stolen and money that they have extorted from others. Such a person only ever does their best to protect themselves without any trace of concern for others. They won’t win of course since as God points out, those they have robbed or cheated will suddenly wake up and rise up against them. As God reminds them, “Because you have plundered many nations, the peoples who are left will plunder you” (2:8a). What’s that old phrase; what goes around comes around! It’s not just the people though who will rise up against them but also their own houses! Those who have built their grand houses on their ill-gotten gains will find that the stones in the walls and the beams in the woodwork will also cry out against them. Whichever way they turn they will stand condemned.
Having dealt with the proud and the greedy, God moves on to talk about the violent. There is little doubt that the Babylonians were a very violent people, people who built their nation and their cities on bloodshed. However, God makes very clear that they “exhaust themselves for nothing” (2:13) since what they are building or have built will only be fuel for the fire which will eventually be turned to ashes. All of this will be obliterated by the “knowledge of the glory of God” because “the earth will be filled...as the waters cover the sea” (2:14). That is how vast is the glory of God; vast beyond all our imaginations and it will totally overwhelm evil societies such as that which existed in Babylon. That final phrase in 2:14 reminds me of the hymn titled “God is Working His Purpose Out”. The first four lines say, “God is working his purpose out as year succeeds to year: God is working his purpose out, and the time is drawing near”. That “time” is the time “when the earth shall be filled with the glory of God as the waters cover the sea”. That will be quite some day and it is a day that will come; nothing will ever prevent it.
The third woe concerns God’s attitude towards drunkenness. This woe is particularly reserved for those who ply their neighbours with drink. They themselves are drunkards and promote drunkenness in those around them. It is not just the drunkenness that God abhors but what it leads to – shame, debauchery and eventually judgement. Habakkuk writes, “The cup of the Lord’s right hand is coming round to you” (2:16b). This cup is the cup of judgement that God will give them when He passes judgement on them and condemns them for their sins.
God reserves His final woe for those who worship idols. God speaks to His people; He did when Habakkuk came before Him and He still does today when we bring Him our prayers. An idol made by a craftsman cannot do that since the craftsman “makes idols that cannot speak” (2:18). They cannot say to a piece of wood “come to life” or to a lump of stone “wake up” since, although covered with gold and silver, “there is no breath in it” (2:19). Such idols cannot help no matter what the people may think.
On the other hand Habakkuk reminds us that “the Lord is in His holy temple” (2:20). God is always there and always ready to listen to us and to help us; praise the Lord.
Habakkuk may have doubted that God was listening or would ever answer his plaintiff cry for help. He may have been bemused by God’s answer when it came but he can only have been lifted up by what God had to say to him in these verses. God was there all the time and here in 2:2-20 He gives a great exposition of what the Babylonians were like and how He intended to deal with them. God truly was on top of the situation; He knew all along what He had planned even if Habakkuk didn’t have a clue; everything was safe in God’s hands.
When we left Habakkuk in 2:1 he was waiting on the watchtower for an answer from God, for an answer that he suspected would put him right in his thinking about the whole situation. He wasn’t wrong in believing that since God told him in no uncertain terms just what He thought of Babylon and what He was planning to do to them. Habakkuk simply had to be patient and wait for the time when God was ready to answer him. That is the lesson for us as well. We may sometimes think that God isn’t listening and doesn’t appear to be answering but we are wrong. God is always listening and He will give His answer when He is ready and not only will He answer but the answer may well astound us just as God’s first answer to Habakkuk astounded the prophet.
The day will come when “the earth will be filled with the glory of the knowledge of the LORD, as the waters cover the sea” (2:14) and that will be a great and glorious day when all prayers will be answered.