Tough Questions [part 3]
1 A prayer of Habakkuk the prophet. On shigionoth. 2 Lord, I have heard of your fame; I stand in awe of your deeds, Lord. Repeat them in our day, in our time make them known; in wrath remember mercy. 3 God came from Teman, the Holy One from Mount Paran. His glory covered the heavens and his praise filled the earth. 4 His splendor was like the sunrise; rays flashed from his hand, where his power was hidden. 5 Plague went before him; pestilence followed his steps. 6 He stood, and shook the earth; he looked, and made the nations tremble. The ancient mountains crumbled and the age-old hills collapsed— but he marches on forever. 7 I saw the tents of Cushan in distress, the dwellings of Midian in anguish. 8 Were you angry with the rivers, Lord? Was your wrath against the streams? Did you rage against the sea when you rode your horses and your chariots to victory? 9 You uncovered your bow, you called for many arrows. You split the earth with rivers; 10 the mountains saw you and writhed. Torrents of water swept by; the deep roared and lifted its waves on high. 11 Sun and moon stood still in the heavens at the glint of your flying arrows, at the lightning of your flashing spear. 12 In wrath you strode through the earth and in anger you threshed the nations. 13 You came out to deliver your people, to save your anointed one. You crushed the leader of the land of wickedness, you stripped him from head to foot. 14 With his own spear you pierced his head when his warriors stormed out to scatter us, gloating as though about to devour the wretched who were in hiding. 15 You trampled the sea with your horses, churning the great waters. 16 I heard and my heart pounded, my lips quivered at the sound; decay crept into my bones, and my legs trembled. Yet I will wait patiently for the day of calamity to come on the nation invading us. 17 Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, 18 yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Savior. 19 The Sovereign Lord is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer, he enables me to tread on the heights. For the director of music. On my stringed instruments.
There we go. If you have been with us the last two Sundays, then you can check off that you read through an entire book of the Bible in church this month. Habakkuk began with a complaint/question before God—namely, why does God continue to tolerate corruption and injustice? God provided a response by declaring that the Babylonian army is coming to wipe out Judah. Habakkuk then repeats his complaint/question since the Babylonians are even more corrupt and unjust than the leaders in Jerusalem. God again provides a response declaring his sovereignty in the matter. And now in chapter three we see Habakkuk come to his final conclusion on this back-and-forth confrontation with God.
I think it will be helpful for us to understand Habakkuk’s concluding prayer by working through the progressions he makes in these verses of chapter three.
Verses 2-13 begin with Habakkuk looking back upon all that God has done for his created world in the past. It is not quite like some of the Psalms which recount specific acts of God in Israel’s history—like parting the Red Sea or providing manna in the wilderness. Habakkuk uses language that is much more poetically generic. But his words would have certainly conjured up images of God’s powerful actions on behalf of his people in the past. It would bring to mind in his audience remembrances of delivery from Egypt by the power of the plagues, conquest of the mighty inhabitants of Canaan by God’s power displayed in battle. Habakkuk is reminding his audience of the many times in the past when the entire earth stood and trembled in terror before the awesome majesty and power of the Most High God.
Recalling God’s faithfulness to his people in the past
His prayer begins with this language as a reminder of who God is and what he has done for his people in the past. This is important for Habakkuk to recall and remember these things. he needs to look back because he knows Judah is facing a time when they might easily forget these mighty acts of God. Habakkuk knows he is living in a time when seeing this awesome power of God on full display for the entire world might be difficult.
Remembering what God has done before gives wider perspective on what God is doing now
It’s as though he begins this prayer with a moment of remembrance so that the people do not lose track of God in the days coming ahead. In times when those around him may hold a bleak outlook, Habakkuk is pressing into a reassurance that God has not abandoned his world and has not abandoned his promises. He begins with these statements of God’s majesty to a people barely hanging on to hope. He is declaring, “Let’s not forget who it is we are talking about here!” Do not forget who God really is.
That’s good instruction for us. In times when every single one of us might find ourselves questioning why it seems that God appears silent, it is good to remind ourselves as well of who God is. Are you able to do that? Habakkuk demonstrates something here for us. He is able to stop and pause for a moment in the midst of whatever else is going on. He is able to carve out enough time to look back upon his past and call up all the times God has been there before. This is Habakkuk’s way of spending a few minutes scrolling though Time-Hop on his facebook feed and seeing all those pictures from years ago and saying, “Oh yeah, I remember that time.” It is all those moments from the past that are so important in shaping where we have been and who we have become. Sometimes we forget those things and it is good to be reminded.
Two or three major events in my past in which God showed his faithfulness
So, what does that list look like in your life? What are the two or three major events that bring you back to remembering where God has shown his faithfulness in your past?
Habakkuk uses this backdrop of looking to his past as a foundation for surveying what he sees around him at the present moment. After taking time to look back, he moves his attention in this prayer to look around. Picking it up again in verse 13, Habakkuk turns his focus towards the fate of those in power who lead with corruption and unjust purpose. This is the point in which Habakkuk’s questions from chapter one come full circle to an acknowledgement that God’s faithfulness to his people continues. And it happens by widening his view to look and see what God is doing around him.
From narrow self-centered focus to bigger picture beyond myself
You see, the original complaint Habakkuk brings in chapter one is very narrow in focus. His complaint about the corruption and injustice he was experiencing was just that—something he was experiencing. It was a narrow critique of God’s actions based on a single time, in a single place, from a singular group of people. And God’s responses to Habakkuk have now led him in chapter three to widen his perspective and acknowledge that God is, in fact, acting according to his righteous purposes.
We all tend to do this in our relationship with God from time-to-time. We all have moments of viewing the circumstances of our world with blinders that block out every other perspective but my own. We all have situations in which we cannot or will not see beyond my own time, and my own place, and my own perspective.
It is the principle of peek-a-boo-ology. When kids are somewhere between infants and toddlers it’s fun to paly peek-a-boo. The child covers their eyes with their hands and suddenly everything and everyone else in the room disappears and is completely gone. The kid removes their hands from their face and now it is all magically back again. That’s just a ridiculous and silly game for babies, right? Of course, we all know that the people don’t really completely disappear when kids cover their eyes. I mean, their singular perception of what they experience in that particular moment is not actually the collective experience of everyone. That’s just babies who are too young to know better. Or is it? I always get a chuckle whenever I hear someone on a bitterly cold day make some comment about how climate change and global warming is a myth. Now I know some people are just joking about the weather on a cold day. But there are others who actually believe it. They fully believe that if a singular isolated collection of people, at a singular moment in time, in a singular place on the globe experience a cold day then that must somehow be the common experience of all people all over the world over an expanse of time. It’s fully grown adults trying to use peek-a-boo as an explanation for what’s going on around them.
That is exactly what Habakkuk gets caught doing in chapter one. He is not looking around him to see the bigger picture of what else God might be doing.
Even in the bigger picture, my concerns matter to God
Now here is the interesting thing about God’s responses to Habakkuk. God does not push him away or dismiss him. God doesn’t just shut him down as asking questions based on misguided arrogance. Even though Habakkuk is one single human being in a single place during a single time, the eternal sovereign God gives an answer to his questions. Habakkuk and his concerns matter to God. That’s helpful for us to see.
It should be a comfort to know that my life matters to God. But it should also be a comfort to know that God is concerned with so much more than just me. Maybe it is just my selfishness that only ever thinks about God’s attention to me or to my needs, or to my church, or my church’s needs, or to my community right now, or my country right now. A step back to look around makes me realize that it is, in fact, so much better that God has then entire scope of cosmic history dialed into his purposes.
What else is God actively doing around me in the lives of others?
What else is God doing around me, even beyond my own circumstances? If I take some moments of reflection to see the experience of others around this world, how might my perspective of God’s activity change?
In verse 16 Habakkuk moves his focus again. After looking back and after looking around, now Habakkuk returns to look within—but this time with an altered perspective. No longer does he look within himself being blinded by a narrow and self-centered focus. Now Habakkuk sees himself within the larger perspective of God’s divine purpose.
Guided by humility before God
I am not the center of God’s universe, I do not make the rules for God
This is a look within that is guided by humility before God. It is a realization that I am not the center of the universe and that God’s perfect plan and purpose for creation is about something much larger than just my comfort. Now Habakkuk understands this. He comes to accept that God will indeed remain faithful to all his promises even if Habakkuk does not always like the way God goes about keeping his promises.
I have to admit, it’s pretty easy in our world to slip into a selfish view of religion. It’s easy to convince ourselves that God’s primary concern ought to be about whatever it is that captures our own anxieties. It’s pretty easy to have a look within that tries every day to squeeze God inside of my plans and my purposes and my preferences.
A new look within - may God complete his purpose for me no matter what that looks like
But it is a much different look within which longs for God to complete his divine purposes in me and in my life no matter what that ends up looking like. It is a look within that says to God I will go where you want me to go, I will do what you desire me to do. This is a look within that declares to God and to the world an assurance of God’s presence with me every day. It is an assurance of his presence that sees beyond cheery circumstances and comfortable pleasures. It also sees God’s faithful presence on rainy days and sleepless nights.
At the conclusion of the entire back-and-forth letter Habakkuk lays out, he arrives to a simple statement that summarizes the entire matter. Yet I will rejoice in the Lord. The sovereign Lord is my strength. After looking back, looking around, and looking within, Habakkuk arrives to a place of looking up.
It is a simple statement that acknowledges God’s presence and his provision. And it does not take away the original complaint. Habakkuk shows us a path here in which we can still be honest before God. Habakkuk still carries a desire that God would intervene on behalf of those who have been victimized by violence, corruption, and injustice. But his desire for God’s intervention does not ride on any conditions. By ultimately looking up to God, he is declaring that he finds his peace and his hope in God regardless of the answers or the outcomes.
My desires for God’s intervention do not come with demands or conditions
That’s a great example for us. It seems so often like our tendency is make deals with God. We live in a world in which many people only turn to God in a time of desperate need. And in that moment of desperate need, we try to cut deals with God. God, if you do this thing for me then I promise I will be a better person. If you intervene and take away this illness, then I promise I will be better about attending church, or giving an offering, or having personal devotion time. That’s not looking up to God; that’s trying to strike a bargain.
Habakkuk shows us an example of assurance in God’s faithfulness with no strings attached. He is able to desire God’s intervention, but at the same time not hold out or leverage that desire as a condition for obedience.
In this letter there is no look ahead
As I was putting this message together there was one more piece I wanted to add. There is a longing I have in all these various directions of Habakkuk’s looking to also add a look ahead. After all, God promises redemption and restoration for his people. It seems only natural that Habakkuk would want to go there, that he would want to reassure his audience that it will come out alright in the end. I want for us to be reminded that there is a glorious future ahead.
We like that kind of happily-ever-after ending to our stories. Even the Apostle Paul speaks in his letters about pressing on to win the race for which God has called him. So, it’s not wrong. I suppose it is natural to see that our eternal future is secure with God. But, as much as I want to add that to this message, Habakkuk doesn’t go there. As much as I want to provide some soothing comfort by looking ahead, I can’t do that in a message on Habakkuk because he leaves that part out.
Why? Why doesn’t Habakkuk want to end his prayer with some kind of hopeful reminder that God’s salvation makes all things new in a glorious future? Why doesn’t he end with a look ahead like that? I think the answer is because he doesn’t want us to let go of the moment we find ourselves in right now. Too often we gloss over or look past God’s presence in the everyday moments of our lives because we want to speed ahead to some grand and glorious future moment.
Habakkuk wants us to embrace God’s presence right now today, no matter what that looks like
And this is where Habakkuk leaves us. He stays in the moment in which God has placed him. He cannot wish himself out of it. He cannot force God to bow to his own list of desires. He cannot escape to a future destination. The lesson Habakkuk rests upon comes in embracing the peace of knowing that God is faithfully present with his people right now in this very moment—whatever that moment looks like.
It means that you and I need to reframe the way in which we are looking for God. Habakkuk teaches us that we should not let our desires for God’s active presence overshadow what God is actually present and doing in our lives right now. Where is God active and present in your life right now? We declare along with Habakkuk that there is peace and joy in God’s faithful and abiding presence because the sovereign Lord is my strength—he always has been my strength in my past, he always will be my strength in my days ahead, and he is my strength right now in this very moment.