Introduction To Habakkuk
Based on sermons preached in PCC Worship Services, Mar-Aug 2014

Over ten years ago, I watched a VCD of the movie “Pearl Harbour” one night, and that movie had quite an impact on me at that time, particularly the part showing the devastating effects of the Japanese Navy on the American harbour and navy ships.          

I was particularly affected by the chaotic scenes at the hospital where hundreds of casualties were being brought in all at the same time for treatment, many of whom were suffering from severe burns. The medical personnel were simply overwhelmed by the number of casualties and the horrific wounds they had sustained. In the end, almost 2400 people were killed and over 1200 wounded.

One thought came to my mind as I was watching it – why? Why Lord did you allow something like that to happen? Remember that Pearl Harbour was not the end of the war. It was just the beginning. As a result of what happened that day on the 7th December 1941, the United States officially entered World War II and that in turn led to the death of another 300000 or so American soldiers.  

In all, World War II claimed the lives of over 60 million people, both military and civilian, or about 2.5% of the world’s population at that time.

Why did God allow so much death and sufferings to occur?

A famous visitor to the concentration camp of Auschwitz, where thousands of Jews were slaughtered by the Nazis during World War II, was asked what his thoughts were after visiting the place. He responded, “In a place like this, words fail; in the end, there can be only a dread silence, a silence which itself is a heartfelt cry to God: Why, Lord, did you remain silent? How could you tolerate all this?”


In theology, such a cry or question is given a name. It is called theodicy and it comes from two Greek words: God and justice. Theodicy is the attempt to understand the nature and actions of God in light of so much evil and suffering. It seeks to answer the question of why or how a good God can allow the manifestation of evil. It also deals with the seeming or apparent inactivity of God in the face of much sin and adversity. And this is exactly what we find in the opening verses of the book of Habakkuk.

Background

But before we look at them, let us consider some introductory information about the book. Little is known about the prophet Habakkuk. He was probably a contemporary of prophets like Zephaniah and Jeremiah and possibly even Daniel and Ezekiel. His name appears twice in this book so we know that he was its author.

As for when the book was written, there are three things that help us to locate it in history. First, the book predicts the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians. So it must have been written before 586 BC when Jerusalem fell.

Second, the book portrays the Babylonians as a very fierce and powerful nation that can easily overwhelm the other nations. So most probably, Habakkuk wrote his prophecy after the previous world power, namely, the Assyrians had passed from the scene and the Babylonians had taken over as the next great power in history.

Now the Assyrian empire started to decline rapidly in 640 BC but it was in 612 BC that their capital city Nineveh was destroyed by the Babylonians. After that time, the Babylonian army began to have a great military impact on the world. So Habakkuk probably wrote his prophecy after 612 BC.

A third consideration is that the situation in Judah that is described in this book seems to fit the reign of Jehoiakim who reigned from 609 to 598 BC. During his reign, the good practices and reforms that his father Josiah had earlier introduced had largely been forgotten. Instead, Jehoiakim’s reign was marked by moral and spiritual corruption. 

And so a reasonable date for the book of Habakkuk would be the early years of the reign of king Jehoiakim prior to the Babylonian invasion of the land, sometime between 609-605 BC.

With that as an introduction, I will like to move on to give an overview of the book of Habakkuk.

Overview 

Verse 1 says, “The burden which Habakkuk the prophet did see.” As I mentioned earlier, we know very little about Habakkuk. He was probably a full-time prophet as compared to an occasional or part-time prophet since he is spoken of as Habakkuk the prophet not once but twice in this book. He might even have been a priest in the temple, but we cannot be sure of that.

The word “burden” in verse 1 may be translated oracle or message. This message or burden which he must unload on the people came to him in a vision, which is why verse 1 says, “which Habakkuk the prophet did see.”

As a prophet of the LORD, he had the twofold task of seeing the vision and then faithfully proclaiming to the people of God and indeed to the world what he had seen.

What is very unique about the book of Habakkuk is that such words as Judah or Jerusalem or Israel or Jacob do not appear at all in the book even though Habakkuk was clearly ministering to the people of Judah at that time. This feature gives the book a universal stamp, that is, what it says can be easily applied to the rest of the world.

Another very unique feature about the book of Habakkuk is the extended dialogue between the prophet and God in the form of question-and-answer exchanges between them. Habakkuk puts forward a question to God and God answers it. This leads him to ask a further question and it leads to God’s further answer. Because of the first-person format, which Habakkuk uses, not only for the dialogue with God but even for his vision and testimony at the end, the book reads very much like a personal journal or diary.

In a very remarkable way, we, as readers, are allowed the unique privilege of witnessing the prophet’s own struggles with what God was doing and how he grew in his submission to and trust in God and in God’s higher purposes. Indeed, Habakkuk was a different or changed person by the end of the book compared to when he started it.

According to the commentator, O Palmer Robertson, the underlying theme of this book may be summarized as follows, “A matured faith trusts humbly but persistently in God’s design for establishing righteousness in the earth.”  

God’s sovereignty underpins the entire book and comes out in almost every part, and though we will never be able to fully understand or comprehend all the ways and workings of God’s sovereignty, yet we can trust in Him and wait upon Him and submit to His will.

The book has three main parts. From verses 1-11, we have Habakkuk’s first complaint or lament and God’s response to Habakkuk and indeed to all who have a similar cry. Habakkuk lamented to God about the lawlessness in the land that went unpunished. God responded by saying that the Babylonians were coming to punish Judah.

This leads to the second part of the book, from chapter 1 verse 12 to chapter 2 verse 20 where Habakkuk issues a second complaint to the LORD and the LORD again responds to him. Habakkuk’s second lament was basically about how God could use a very wicked nation to punish a less wicked one. God responded by saying that the just shall live by faith and that all the wicked will be punished at the right time.

The third part of the book is the whole of chapter 3 where Habakkuk, having been humbled by God, praises Him and confesses his faith and trust in Him.       

In the next article, we’ll consider the prophet’s opening cry in verses 2 to 4 of chapter 1.

Linus Chua