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Thoughts on Habakkuk (FA Blair)

F.A. Blair

WHEN overwhelming calamities are about to fall upon a people, in what can the faithful hope? Habakkuk finds the answer in a day when the oncoming evil appeared as though it would overtake all. The ten tribes of Israel were in captivity, Jerusalem alone stood all but forsaken. He lifts his voice in a cry, for the moment he could see nothing but the iniquity that was bringing down judgment; only the inter­vention of the LORD could save the upright in heart, and faith counted on His answer to their cry.

When prophets speak of the happenings of their day they raise their eyes and look away to the future; they see with God Who knows no past nor future but lives in an unbounded NOW. Prophets live in the counsels in the mind of God and use present events as portents of the great day of the LORD when He “will unveil the mystery of iniquity for its judgment.

Both Habakkuk and Joel look on to the last judgments that will fall on the land of Israel. Joel has in vision the Northern army coming down to desolate the land in the last days. Habakkuk foretells the chastisement of the Jews by a power that will be raised up for the purpose, when they go back to the land of Palestine while not yet owning the Messiah who was cut off having nothing (Daniel 9:26, J.N.D.).

In the past the Chaldeans were used for the judgment of Jerusalem; these proud people advanced to successful con­quest in spite of all rivals. At the time of the end God will allow man in his pride to oppose all that is of God on earth, and for their chastening afflict His ancient people whom He has not forgotten, while they are still not outwardly owned as His people. This opposition will be headed up in a man who will lead many nations into open rejection and defiance of God, this will be the power of Satan in a man, but God will interfere to judge him and those with him to lay low his pride for ever (Isaiah 14:4-22, Revelation 19:20).

Habakkuk lived and prophesied at the time of a crisis, only a few years before the destruction of Jerusalem. God opened his eyes to see the coming disaster, though at first the preva­lent evils of the day filled his sight, and these weighed heavily on his heart.

Before chastening judgment there is present a state which brings it, God does not afflict needlessly. A state ripe or ripening for judgment must be evident in what is called the house of God on earth for Peter to say, “For the time (is come) that judgment must begin at the house of God; and if it first (begin) at us, what shall the end be of them that obey not the gospel of God?” (1 Peter 4:17). The evil began in the days of the apostles (Jude, and 1 John 2:18), and has ripened; the judgment has waited long but it will come.

Paul says that God has a building here (1 Corinthians 3:9) where He now dwells through the Spirit (Ephesians 2:22), the building of this house is entrusted to man and every man must take heed how he builds for the work is to be tried by fire (1 Corinthians 3: 13). Christians are responsible for their workmanship, the appearance and order of the house of God on earth is the result of man's labour. We are warned in the epistle to the Hebrews that “Our God is a consuming fire”(Hebrews 12:29), and He is the God of the Christian. We dare not ignore these warnings. Jude desired to write to believers of the common salvation which is a subject of joy, but he had to exhort them to contend for the faith earnestly because evil men with evil doctrine were making terrible inroads. We can see the power of evil to depress the spirit of man, even that of an apostle, and hinder God's work, in the effect the failure of the Corin­thians had on Paul (2 Corinthians 2:12,13 also Matthew 24:12). Only by the grace and power of God is the spirit of man upheld when evil advances like a flood.

 

CHAPTER 1

Habakkuk, faithful in heart, feels the evil in the land and cries to the LORD against the violence, oppression, and viola­tion of the law on every side. He does not rise above the law, the standard of their life; he and his people were under law which gave them the measure of their responsibility and the evil that had come in was against the law. Then again the wicked oppressed the righteous, and since the days of Cain this complaint has gone up to God.

The LORD did not appear to hear, nor did He save. What could the answer be? Jeremiah who prophesied at the same time was told to speak to a people who would not hear, and that all his pleading would be useless (Jeremiah 7: 27). The LORD allows Habakkuk to feel the burden of the iniquity of His people on his heart, but begins to answer His servant from the fifth verse. Paul preaching at Antioch uses this verse against the despisers of the gospel, the Jews of the synagogue, and he turns from them to the Gentiles (Acts 13:41).

The Jews had turned away from Jehovah, and from the law; they would receive no testimony from the LORD, but they listened willingly enough to false prophets (see Jere­miah and Ezekiel for the same accusation). God has to warn His people against false prophets in all ages, and especially at the times of crises. There were plenty of false prophets in Israel, and there are plenty abroad to-day for we too live in a time of crisis.

Everything is given into the hands of the Chaldeans, “that bitter and hasty nation” (verse 6).

It is solemn to contemplate that God had given up His throne in Jerusalem and refused to own His people openly and to govern in their midst. In their place He raised up a nation violent and terrible, to rule over all other nations as a chastening judgment (see Ezekiel 20:25 for this govern­mental judgment of Israel).

Nothing would be able to oppose the onward march of this dreadful army of Chaldeans. Proud in their conquest, their exalted thought of themselves was their glory. Their famous cavalry advancing with speed would sweep all before them, and scoop up captives as sand, kings and princes would be held in scorn and contempt, fortresses would prove no ob­stacles. Such was their arrogance. Making a god of their power, they swept on to excesses.

Men may be raised up to do a work, but unless they are men of God and are kept by His power in grace they always go on beyond that for which they are raised up. Man must have authority for what he is doing and if he does not know the true God he will make a god for himself. If God is not his god he makes a god to sanction all his lusts. If man does not learn what he is in the presence of God, his god will be like himself. The gods of the heathen became more human and frail as civilization developed, and as the people drifted farther away from the knowledge of God that could be gath­ered from the works of creation which He had wrought so as to be known by them (Acts 14: 15-17). The gods must uphold the society or the society disintegrates.

Christians always must be on their guard against the evil that would make truth bend to their state; truth judges the state while we are responsible.

Habakkuk stops speaking of coming woes to vindicate God, “We shall not die” (verse 12). The Chaldeans were but a rod for correction. Faith looks to God, it sees through trials and counts on God at all times.

But why does God use such a treacherous people who only look on the instruments of gain and never to God who gives the increase? (verse 16).

 

CHAPTER 2

The Prophet says he will watch for his answer standing upon his watch-tower; this is his fenced place, he is not with­out God in the depths of his trial (Job 1:10). With nothing else but faith he perseveres in watching, and is “Kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation ready to be re­vealed in the last time” (1 Peter 1:5).

Prayer is the believer's resource in an evil day, “Praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit, and watching thereunto with all perseverance and supplication for all saints” (Ephesians 6:18). The Lord Jesus exhorted His disciples to “Watch and pray” (Matthew 26:41).

The Prophet will see what to answer when he is reproved. When the LORD speaks what can the Prophet say?

It is not faith to pass over evil lightly and not feel its burden. A heart deeply affected by the state of God's people so as to cry and sigh before God, not for itself, but for those who should feel their departure but are insensible to it, is the heart that receives its answer and learns to know the depths of God's nature.

How little the people could endure such prophets we learn from the experiences of Jeremiah and Ezekiel. When every­ thing is going well there is no need for a prophet. A prophet is the gift of God in sovereign grace and when there is failure He must intervene. The very fact that a prophet is sent is proof of the mercy that methods judgment. His is a thankless task, for him there is no relief but the hope of faith that God Who sent him in mercy will preserve the upright. A prophet reaches his highest note when interceding for a people, not merely in foretelling events. A New Testament prophet is a gift to the Assembly (Church) in these days of its responsibility to edify, exhort, and comfort the saints, to bring the word of God with power upon the conscience and heart. Prophets were associated with apostles as the founda­tion of the Church and in a lesser sense they minister to-day when the gift is given (Ephesians 2: 20: 4:11; 1 Corinthians 12:28, 14:1-5; 1 Thessalonians 5: 20).

Habakkuk's cry brought forth an answer of judgment. His faith waited and watched for God to intervene for he knew God must, as He can never wholly forsake His people nor withhold the expectancy of faith indefinitely.

The vision was to be engraven plainly and permanently on tables, runners would bear the message, which was for an appointed time. Though patience must have time to do its perfect work faith was to wait and hope; faith brought the vision near, faith hastened the day. Not a dot of an “i” or the cross of a “ t “ of God's word can fail, all must be fulfilled (Matthew 5:18).

We learn in prophecy from what to turn away, and know­ing what things are about to take place: “What ought ye to be in holy conversation and godliness, waiting for and hasten­ing the coming of the day of God…?” (2 Peter 3:11, 12 J.N.D.).

Although evil be exalted and truth be in sackcloth, “The just shall live by his faith”.

Headiness and pride are as insatiable as death and the grave; the evil man may gather all to himself, yet he will receive God's retributive judgment, he is doomed-(vs. 4-6).

Five woes are pronounced against the bitter and hasty nation that is exalted in its own pride. God hates pride. In each of the woes except the fifth the first verse gives the character of the evil, the second verse develops it, the third verse begins with “for” and confirms the woe.

Verses 6-8 give the first woe. Man's ambition is insatiable, he is cruel and greedy in his pursuit of gain, and this will be the cause of his downfall, for all comes back on his own head.

Verses 9-11. The second woe exposes the covetousness that characterizes the oppressor. He seeks safety in setting himself so high that he cannot be reached. Cutting off others out of the way of his self-gratification he only causes dissen­sion in the house, stone and beam in the building cry to one another until woe is brought down on the destroyer himself. A conquering and oppressive power may crumble to pieces when subjugated people rise in revolt.

Verses 12-14. The third woe says that violence cannot establish a city on an enduring foundation. Has not history fully proved that no power can rule long by merciless oppres­sion?

The world will labour in the fire and endure great affliction, God will not only allow it, but all people will be brought to know that the trial is from God. Nations will weary them­selves with all manner of schemes, scripture calls them vani­ties; nothing will work out rightly and no profit accrue from all the labour. Yet it is written, “For the earth shall be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD as the waters cover the sea”. Judgment will establish the glory in the earth, and this will be for woe on the oppressor (See also Isaiah 26:9).

Verses 15-17. In the fourth woe debauchery is seen to characterize the Chaldeans. Belshazzar's feast (Daniel 5) shows how quickly the glory of the Empire degenerated into impious feasts and uncontrolled lust. Shame and not glory would be the lot of him who, drunk with power and pleasure, violated every claim of God and nature. Divine wisdom discovers the roots of all evils, and in these four woes we have stated boldly that ambition leads to covetousness, covetousness to violence, violence to excess and shame. Righteousness exalts a nation (Proverbs 14:34); oppression, violence, looseness of morals ail degrade a people, and history bears this out.

Verses 18-20. The fifth and last woe condemns idolatry, and the eighteenth verse explains the reason why this verse comes before the denunciation. Man without God makes a god, for a god he must have; he is not sufficient for himself and though he put his best workmanship into the making of his god, what does it add? Men boast of their efforts, but their boasting adds nothing to their achievements and brings no peace nor satisfaction to their restless hearts. An idol with­out breath or life, bedecked as man pleases to array it, only offers a challenge to God, who now in the prophetic view of the woe, is in His holy temple, and the earth must be silent. We know from many prophecies that He will silence it.

The Prophet has received his answer. The evil will re­ceive its judgment in the woes, and then the LORD will come to His holy temple (verse 20). Faith waited and waited not in vain, for Jehovah appeared to waiting faith.

But there has been no real comfort of heart in all these judgments; faith has had to look on to the end. Faith will change to sight when the LORD is found once again in the midst of His people dwelling in His holy place. The Christian's faith will be answered in a different manner; he will receive the glory when the Lord Jesus comes to take His own to be with Himself where He is, in the Father's house above.

 

CHAPTER 3

This chapter is connected with the former chapters, but in it is summed up the whole scope of the prophecy. It gives a complete picture of the Prophet's feelings and sentiments as under the influence of the Spirit of God. We need to hear the groans and the sighs of the Prophet to know how faith strives with human weakness and fear, making man a moral battle-ground.

The Prophet has heard Jehovah's words and they subdue his heart and will. Every true-hearted saint when his heart is, through grace, opened to receive the thoughts of God, knows the power of what His words convey. Job had the same ex­perience. Daniel was constantly on his face toward the ground as each fresh revelation brought home to him his own powerlessness and nothingness. John fell as one dead when he saw the Lord in His glory (Revelation), though he had leaned on His bosom on earth. Do we know what it is to be in the presence of God? Has the knowledge of God reached our hearts to break up our self-confidence? No flesh can exalt itself in His sight. Do we know His strengthening touch to enable us to take in knowledge too wonderful for us? Mere nature could not endure it.

God opens the mind to understand the scriptures (Luke 14:45), but He has done more, He has given the Holy Spirit for power to use them (John 14:17, Luke 24:49, Acts 1: 8, 2: 2-4). Nothing could have affected the condi­tion of man on earth more than the gift of the Spirit from on high to take up His abode in the prepared dwelling-place. Believers not only have their understandings opened to un­derstand the scriptures, but they have the power to use the Word, which is the sword of the Spirit, in heavenly conflict, when walking in the power of an ungrieved Spirit. We have in that Word the mind of God, and the Holy Spirit brings the soul by it before God. It reaches the conscience, and God is known through the conscience. It speaks to the heart, and the soul learns God who is love. The apostle Paul prayed that believers might be strengthened with might by His Spirit in the inner man, to be able to comprehend with all saints that which is beyond comprehension, and to know the unknowable. For this Christ indeed must dwell in the heart by faith, and we be rooted and grounded in love, for all saints are included and love would leave not one out.

The work of years might die (verse 2), the LORD alone can keep it alive, even by chastening, for it may be needed, but He will remember mercy. His sure mercies are the com­fort and stay of the soul in evil days.

God wrought for His people in the beginning of their his­tory and no obstacle could hinder His purposed blessing; surely this was a pledge of future salvation for faith. The remembrance of Jehovah's works for Israel and their former blessings find an echo in the Prophet's heart, and his petitions and hopes reveal his feelings awakened by the answer of Jehovah to his cries. It is right to take account of all the evil around and within the house of God, and to cry out to God about it, but can the heart hear to hear God's response?

Jeremiah saw the wickedness about him and wept, God filled his tuned heart with the misery of His people, and the prophet's wail went up with much of his own personal com­plaint mingled with it.

It is most depressing and even terrifying for a feeble and fearful heart to be made conscious of the wretched state of the people of God, and to know that any testimony to that state before men will only bring down trouble on one's own head. God knows and weighs the burden that rests on the heart when He sends a frail and fearful servant to do His bidding. He uses the instrument that suits the work, and the workman is a product of his day but shaped by the hand of God. Such was weeping, complaining Jeremiah. He was allowed to feel the danger that his position aroused, he lived and prophesied amongst an incorrigible people, he also gave i voice to his own personal sufferings and these expressions of times sank down into complaints. God knew and measured the depression caused by the isolation and fears of His ser­vant. He learned about the effect on the mind and character of Jeremiah.

When Ezekiel faced an unresponsive people to expose their state his forehead was to be harder than flint. A Christian is saved by grace, and it is the key-note of his whole life here. He is redeemed through grace and he is carried all along the way of his pilgrimage by grace. He preaches grace to the sinner and he encourages fellow-heirs in grace. The power to gather believers together is grace working in love; yet it is through the cross of Christ they are gathered to Him, and there is nothing that proves God's absolute abhorrence of and separation from sin more than the cross. But it was there God displayed the riches of His grace to bring to pass the counsels of His grace in Christ according to the good pleasure of His will. The believer is brought to Him who has gone into heaven by grace to know Him the Beloved, and learns that He so loves that He must have His own loved ones with Himself. The servant of God in this day of grace speaks the truth in love, if he speaks for God, and it is not love to be indifferent to evil. The presence of the Holy Spirit makes the indwelt believer more sensitive to what is opposed to God, and he groans with a groaning creation. There is no evil that burdens his heart more than the in subjection, dis­obedience, and indifference of lukewarm hearts to the plainly written will of God given in fulness of grace in the Word. Grace despised leaves room for nothing but judgment.

Habakkuk had seen the violence, strife, and contention, he had been indignant after a godly manner, but the answer he had received aroused new sentiments, his prayer is the echo of those feelings. He feared the judgment. Vengeance on the enemies of the people of God brought him some consola­tion, but his hope was in God. Deliverance by judgment of enemies is an Old Testament sentiment, an earthly people are delivered by the destruction of their enemies, and they are left to enjoy quietness and peace. A Christian whose hope is in heaven waits to have his shoulder removed from the burden, not the burden removed from his shoulder, and he prays for all men, even for his enemies, that they may be saved to the glory of the grace of God.

The Prophet's heart was thoroughly identified with the afflicted people, and he held on to the LORD in intercession for grace to order all circumstances in favour His people. His faith brought him present joy as he waited for the LORD to come in and deliver; he knew that He must.

In verse after verse the Prophet portraits the power of God as it had been active for Israel, and he trembles. If such a mighty deliverance had been wrought, if such great power had carried them through their history, would there still be mercy enough to meet the present failure, or would the all-powerful God be found against them? Nations had dis­appeared before Jehovah who fought for Israel. Rivers had dried up before His presence. Mountains had quaked with fear. The sun and moon had stood still while Jehovah, the Captain of the LORD'S host, fought in the day of battle (Joshua 10: 14). The heathen had been threshed in His anger. All this was for the salvation of His people.

Three times during the narration of the demonstration of Jehovah's power “Selah” is interposed, [being] a call to pause and consider. Last of all there is the remembrance of the pas­sage through the heaped waters of the Sea, the redemption of Israel out of Egypt.

Habakkuk had heard all with trembling body and quiver­ing lips, rottenness entered into his bones as he thought on the coming day of trouble. In the end faith triumphs for it knows God, and counts on His mercy. Only faith knows God. The wicked will see His power and feel it, but faith gets to God Himself through grace.

Although all should fail and there be no increase, the Prophet says, “Yet will I rejoice in the LORD, I will joy in the God of my salvation”. He has a sure and certain founda­tion, he would never be put to shame. Faith has God, what else does it need? God was the God of his salvation. Not only did faith say God would save the people but his own joy and strength were in the LORD GOD. The Prophet would be strengthened to face the trial but there was a deeper thought, the LORD GOD would be his strength, “The LORD GOD is my strength” (verse 19). When trial is inevitable we need strength; how much better to have God with us in it. Nothing is impossible for God to do, no enemy too strong for Him to subdue. The Prophet had no need to think of being strengthened to meet the impudent enemies of his people that might make something of him. He could not feel or be too weak, for then God would be all his strength, and that would be more than sufficient. His soul was learning that all power is of God and not of us.

“And He will make my feet like hind's feet” (verse 19), swift and sure, bounding free, the soul rejoices in the liberty faith brings into the heart, it leaps upon its high-places. “And He will make me walk upon my high-places”, those exalted places known alone where God is discovered to faith in activity, and where the heart draws near to praise. The sorrows of death may be tasted but the LORD girds with strength, gives freedom to the soul, and leads in triumph to praise (See Psalm 28: 1, 4, 32, 33, 39, 48, 49). The Christian too has his high-places, and the Holy Spirit dwelling in him leads on to fuller and more precious heights than Israel can ever know. But now all is entered into and appropriated by faith. When God sets free in spirit from the bondage of sin and the fear of death, He leads us into His heavenly purposes of grace, faith secures its triumph, and when occupied in communion with God the Father the soul is kept in peace in spite of the trials and afflictions that surround our way, it is not taken up with them.

It was not indifference to the fall of the nation that pro­duced this quietness of spirit in the Prophet as though he had no part in the trials that were imminent. But feeling everything in the presence of God and weighing all before Him, he received the answer to his cry and the comfort of God for his soul. The purposes of grace to re-establish the people in the fullest blessing is not developed here, but we see what faith has in a day of deep distress. Faith might be tried in the furnace of affliction (Daniel 3:17), God is more than a deliverer from suffering, He is the Living God (Daniel 6: 26, Matthew 16: 16), the God of resurrection power, and He is the God in Whom faith puts its trust.

Power and joy were in that first message sent by the Lord Jesus in resurrection, to His disciples: “Go to my brethren, and say unto them I ascend unto my Father, and your Father; and to my God, and your God” (John 20:17). The mighty strength of the adversary of men was broken, and now Jesus triumphant over death and the grave would associate His own with Himself where the greatest blessings could be known in the closest relationship, and in the power of resurrection in which He was proved to be the Son of God (Romans 1:4).

The trial of faith would only prove the presence and power of God. Evil though it come as a flood cannot overtake faith. Faith makes nothing of man, everything of God, and He cannot be swept away in the overwhelming wave of calamities. God is greater than the evil, and He will make the wrath of man to praise Him, and restrain the remainder (Psalm 76:10:).

The Christian's hope is the hope of glory. All that seems calamitous only brings the glory nearer, every seeming loss here is a gain in God's account; though He does not forget to comfort in the day of suffering, and His consolations are effectual, tender, and blessed. Faith hopes in God “Who responds in His own way and time, and strengthens the heart to receive His answer while He takes the faithful watcher into His confidence and reveals to him many strange works; but God is known in grace and the faithful hope and are confident according to their knowledge of grace. “For the Father Himself loveth you” (John 16:27), and “If God be for us, who can be against us ?” (Romans 8:31). “The just shall live by his faith” amid calamities in the time of waiting until the glory dawns.

 

Frederick Alexander Blair: Published October 1944 (1891 – 1974)
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