Habakkuk’s Opening Cry
Base on sermons preached in PCC Worship Services, Mar-Aug 2014


In our last article, we looked at the introduction to the book of Habakkuk. In this article, we’ll consider the prophet’s opening cry found in verses 2 to 4 of chapter 1.

The prophet opens his cry with these words in verse 2, “O LORD, how long shall I cry, and thou wilt not hear! even cry out unto thee of violence, and thou wilt not save!”

In Hebrew, the words “how long” actually begin the sentence, so literally, it is reads, “How long, O LORD, shall I cry for help…?” The words “how long” imply that this is not the first time the prophet is crying out to the LORD regarding this matter. For some time now, he had been crying out to Him and the LORD does not seem to hear or answer or do anything about it.

This question “how long, O LORD” is not an inappropriate or uncommon question in the Bible. It is used by believers throughout the ages when they are faced with adverse circumstances and there seems to be an inactivity and unresponsiveness on the part of the One whom they are addressing.

For example, David in Psalm 13 verses 1-2 said, “How long wilt thou forget me, O LORD? for ever? how long wilt thou hide thy face from me? How long shall I take counsel in my soul, having sorrow in my heart daily? How long shall mine enemy be exalted over me?”

Even in the New Testament, we find these words “how long” being used in the cries of believers to the LORD. In Revelation 6:10, we read, “And they cried with a loud voice, saying, How long, O Lord, holy and true, dost thou not judge and avenge our blood on them that dwell on the earth?”

But it is very interesting to note that in the Bible, the first person to ever use the words “how long” is the LORD Himself.

Long before people like David and Habakkuk and others struggled with the problem of evil and injustice and wickedness, the LORD Himself had asked the question “how long” in response to the disobedience and rebellion of the people to His Word.

In Exodus 16:28, after some of the people in the wilderness disobeyed the Lord by going out on the Sabbath day to look for manna, the Lord said to Moses, “How long refuse ye to keep my commandments and my laws?”

Later when the people chose to accept the assessment of the 10 unbelieving spies rather than the faithful report of Joshua and Caleb, the LORD said to Moses, “How long will this people provoke me? and how long will it be ere they believe me, for all the signs which I have shewed among them?” (Num. 14:11)

Perhaps it might have been some consolation to Habakkuk to know that the LORD Himself has asked “how long” on various occasions and He understands what it means to ask such a question.

But it is especially in the LORD Jesus Christ that we find One who has fully entered into the agonies and grief and sufferings of His people in this regard for He said, for example, in Matthew 17:17 in response to the gross unbelief of the people, “O faithless and perverse generation, how long shall I be with you? how long shall I suffer you?”

Here we are reminded that the LORD Jesus is well able to sympathise with His people and help them at such moments when they see and feel and know that things are not right and yet the time to put them right has not arrived, and thus they are called to wait patiently upon the sovereign God. 

Let’s look again at verse 2 to see what Habakkuk was specifically crying out to the LORD about. The verse contains a synonymous parallelism. The first line corresponds to the third line, while the second corresponds to the fourth.

In the first line, he says, “how long shall I cry” and in the third line, he says, “cry out unto thee violence.” Then in the second line, he says, “and thou wilt not hear!” and in the fourth line, he says, “and thou wilt not save!”

Quite clearly, the specific complaint of Habakkuk is that there is violence in the land – not a violence that is brought about by external forces or enemies but violence that is carried out by and among the covenant people themselves.

Remember the context, the godly king Josiah had passed away and in his place reigned the very ungodly king Jehoiakim and under him, wicked and ungodliness was allowed to propagate and spread. In fact, so wicked was Jehoiakim that he was even guilty of hunting down and killing a true prophet of the LORD because he did not like what he prophesized. You can read that sad account found in Jeremiah 26:20-23. 

So from the king down to the common people, the land was full of violence. Interestingly, the Hebrew word for violence, which Habakkuk uses, is the word “Hamas.” It first appears in the Bible in Genesis 6:11. There, Moses describes the prevailing circumstances in the world just prior to the flood in these words, “The earth also was corrupt before God, and the earth was filled with violence (or Hamas).”

Hamas is often used to speak of great physical violence – the kind that is senseless and cruel and mad. It appears that the covenant people were increasingly becoming like the people of Noah’s day. Such was the unbearable situation in the land of Judah for those who were righteous and godly like Habakkuk.

They desperately needed to be saved or rescued by the LORD. The word “save” in verse 2 is the same word used to describe how God delivered His people from the pursuing Egyptian army at the Red Sea. And so perhaps Habakkuk was hoping that the LORD would intervene in his day as He had done in the past to deliver His people with a mighty hand and to destroy the wicked in the land with a great judgment.  

He cried unto the LORD with great earnestness and persistence, but the LORD did not intervene. Habakkuk simply could not understand how the Holy and Almighty God could allow such a situation to carry on indefinitely.

He uses very strong language in verse 2 to speak of God’s inactivity. He says, “how long shall I cry, and thou wilt not hear! Even cry out unto thee of violence, and thou wilt not save!” According to one Hebrew scholar, Habakkuk is employing the apodictic negative, which is the most severe negative found in the Hebrew language.

Now understand what was going on: Habakkuk was not condemning God or being critical of Him. Rather, he was deeply perplexed and troubled by the very distressing circumstance in the land, and he was sincerely trying to discern the ways of the LORD. 

Here we learn that it is not wrong to express one’s perplexity and to bring such questions before the LORD as long as they are expressed in a context of trust and never with an attitude of judgment and condemnation. 

God is the sovereign judge and ruler. We have no right to question what He does in a critical way and as if He were accountable to us. Nevertheless, it is not wrong to humbly ask questions of Him so as to discern His will and to bring our humble cries and pleas to Him.  

 We move on to verse 3 where the specifics of Habakkuk’s complaint are listed out more fully in three pairs, namely, iniquity and grievance, spoiling and violence, and strife and contention.

The prophet says, “Why dost thou shew me iniquity, and cause me to behold grievance? for spoiling and violence are before me: and there are that raise up strife and contention.”

The first part of verse 3, which contains the first pair, is structured chiastically. Literally, it reads,

“why do you make me look on

iniquity,

and grievance

you cause me to look upon?”

So the elements on the two sides of the lines have been deliberately switched. This chiastic literary technique is used to give emphasis to the words. In other words, things are really really bad in Judah. Everywhere you turn, you see iniquity and trouble and sorrow.

Habakkuk goes on to say in verse 3, “spoiling and violence are before me.” The word “spoiling” carries the idea of robbery, havoc, destruction and ruin. And then the word “violence” or hamas is the senseless, cruel and mad kind of violence. 

Finally in verse 3, we read, “and there are that raise up strife and contention.” It is not surprising that where there is much violence and iniquity, there will also be much strife and contention among the people. The point of verse 3 is that the moral and spiritual state of the nation had really deteriorated to an all-time low. There is no more shalom or peace or wellness of being in the land. Instead, there is strife and violence.

Finally, we come to verse 4, where the prophet says, “Therefore the law is slacked, and judgment doth never go forth: for the wicked doth compass about the righteous; therefore wrong judgment proceedeth.”

Habakkuk is here speaking about the consequences or results of the sinful state of Judah in those days. First, the law is slacked, or another translation has it as the law is paralysed. It is in a state of paralysis. It is numbed. It cannot move.

In Genesis 45 when the sons of Jacob came to tell their father that his beloved son Joseph was still alive, we read in verse 26, “And Jacob's heart fainted, for he believed them not.” The word “fainted” is the same Hebrew word translated slack or paralyze in our text. Jacob froze or became numb when he heard the news. Here in Habakkuk 1:4, the prophet tells us that the law of God has become cold and numb and paralyzed in their land. It has no or very little effect on society.

Second, verse 4 goes on to say, “and judgment doth never go forth…” There can be no true judgment or justice without the law of God. When the law of God is paralyzed, the justice and judgment of God cannot go forth and it will not be applied to society. This is to be expected since there is no true justice to be found outside the law and word of God. Without the law, what standard or basis of justice is there apart from the sinful ideas and philosophies of fallen men? God’s law is the sole standard and arbiter of justice and so when the law is paralyzed, there goes justice as well.

Third, Habakkuk says in verse 4, “for the wicked doth compass about the righteous.” This is a frightening scenario indeed. The righteous are already the minority in the land. They are badly outnumbered by the wicked. But that is not all. These wicked ones now compass or surround the righteous and seek to enforce their own will on them.

Fourth, Habakkuk says, “therefore wrong judgment proceedeth.” The word “wrong” literally means crocked or bent. Justice proceeds in a crocked or bent or twisted fashion.

Now imagine you were a righteous person living in those days and you were being unjustly and unfairly treated by the wicked people around you. What should you do? Well, the last thing that you should do is to appeal to the authorities and bring your case to the law courts. Why? Because there is no justice or judgment to be found there and it is certain that the decision of the crocked courts will go against the righteous person and in favour of the wicked. 

And so whether legally or illegally, the wicked are allowed to get away with their wicked deeds and the righteous are oppressed and made to suffer many injustices. Life was becoming unbearable in the land for the godly. Habakkuk identified with them and he lamented their sad situation. “How long, O LORD? How long?”

Well, the Lord does not remain silent forever. He replies Habakkuk from verse 5 and onwards. But right at the very beginning of His reply, He warns Habakkuk that what He is about to say will be shocking and unexpected.

He says, “Behold ye among the heathen, and regard, and wonder marvellously (or be astounded): for I will work a work in your days, which ye will not believe, though it be told you.”

Now what exactly did the LORD say to Habakkuk? Well, we will look at that in the weeks to come.

Linus Chua