Why Then Do You Look 

On The Wicked?

an exposition of Habakkuk 1:11-2:1
Part 2 of 3
Based on sermons preached in PCC Worship Services, Mar-Aug 2014

We’re continuing our study of Habakkuk 1:11-2:1 which may be divided into three parts, namely, the prophet describes God (1:12-13a), the prophet questions God (1:13b-17), and the prophet waits for God’s answer (2:1).

We’ve already considered the first part. In this article, we’ll look at the second.

The Prophet Questions God (vv. 13b-17)

He says in verse 13b, “wherefore lookest thou upon them that deal treacherously, and holdest thy tongue when the wicked devoureth the man that is more righteous than he?”

Now understand that Habakkuk is not questioning God’s declaration of judgment upon Judah. He knows very well that Judah is guilty of all kinds of sins, including the perversion of law and justice, and violence in the land, and thus it deserves God’s judgment. 

But what perplexes him deeply and what he questions God about is God’s method of judgment and retribution. How can a morally pure and just God make use of the terribly depraved Babylonians to carry out judgment on His own covenant people, who are relatively less depraved?

Let’s look at his question more closely.

Habakkuk is saying, “If God is of purer eyes than to behold evil, and cannot look on perverseness, then how can He look with approval on those who deal treacherously? And how can He be silent while the wicked swallow up those who are more righteous than they?”

This second part of the question is probably related to Leviticus 5:1, where the LORD Himself says, “And if a soul sin, and hear the voice of swearing, and is a witness, whether he hath seen or known of it; if he do not utter it, then he shall bear his iniquity.”

In other words, according to the law, it was wrong for a witness to keep silence when a matter was brought before the public. And yet, the LORD Himself remains silent while the injustice of a wicked man devouring a more righteous man is allowed to proceed.

The word “devour” or “swallow up” speaks of utter annihilation and extinction, just like how the earth swallowed up the Egyptians at the Red Sea (Ex 15:12), and how it swallowed up Dathan and Abiram in their rebellion against Moses (Num 16:30). 

But now, it is Judah, the last remaining tribe of Israel, that is in danger of being swallowed up by the Babylonians and God is going to remain silent and allow it to happen. How can this be? O LORD, what are you doing?

Earlier on, Habakkuk had asked the LORD how He could allow wickedness and violence to continue unchecked in the land. But that questions pales and fades in comparison to this second one.

After all, it is one thing to allow violence to continue in the land. It is quite a different thing to allow a more violent and wicked people to come into the land to punish the less violent and wicked people there. In Habakkuk’s eyes, such an action was utterly unjust, and inconsistent with the justice and righteousness of God.

But Habakkuk doesn’t stop there. He goes on in verses 14-17 to challenge the Lord’s plan of punishment with greater intensity and passion.

Verses 14-15, “And makest men as the fishes of the sea, as the creeping things, that have no ruler over them? They take up all of them with the angle, they catch them in their net, and gather them in their drag: therefore they rejoice and are glad.”

Habakkuk uses an illustration that is drawn from the world of fishing to graphically describe the situation of Judah in the hands of the Chaldeans.

Judah and indeed the other nations of the world have become like the fish of the sea and the creeping things that have no ruler over them, in the sense of having no one to defend and protect them against the awesome Babylonian forces. They are helpless. They are like sitting ducks, to change the analogy a bit.

Now it is one thing for the other nations to have no ruler to defend or protect them. It is another thing for Judah to have no ruler over them for it means that God has ceased to be their ruler and king. He was not going to protect and shelter and defend them against the mighty Chaldean army that was even now making its way to their land.

So what happens when the Chaldeans eventually arrive and there is none to protect Judah? Verse 15 tells us that they will all be captured like fish by the fisherman.

The word “angle” refers to a fishing hook. The Babylonians will hook the people of Judah up like fish on a fishing hook. Now this may not just be a figure of speech but might have been fulfilled literally. The Babylonians were known to have carried on the cruel tradition started by the Assyrians of driving a hook through the lower lip of their captives and stringing them single file as they brought them to captivity. Captives were thus forced into submission by such a cruel method of being dragged by hooks in their mouths.

Verse 15 also mentions the fish being gathered and dragged in their net. Again, this speaks of the brutality and cruelty of the Babylonians for the Babylonians were also known to have dragged their captives in nets.

But as if being led by hooks or dragged in their net were not enough, the last part of verse 15 speaks of the joy and gladness of their captors. The Babylonians rejoice and gloat over the sufferings and humiliation of their captives. It gives them great pleasure to inflict such humiliating brutalities on the nations, including Judah.

How can this be, asks the prophet? But it gets worse. Verse 16 says, “Therefore they sacrifice unto their net, and burn incense unto their drag; because by them their portion is fat, and their meat plenteous.”

As a result of their mighty victories and conquests, the Babylonians will sacrifice to their net and burn incense to their dragnet. What this means is that their great success will actually add fuel to their idolatry and pagan worship.

And what will they worship? Their “net” or their instrument of victory. Ultimately, they are worshipping their own might and resources and skill. They are their own god, and they claim for themselves all the glory and honour of their success.     

The second part of verse 16 speaks of the economic prosperity that comes to them as a result of their military conquests. The Babylonians conquered the nations for their wealth and material resources. And they used this wealth to fund their elaborate building projects and materialistic lifestyle.

And so the Babylonians have made a god of their military success and economic prosperity. The question in Habakkuk’s mind is – why do the wicked prosper and the righteous suffer? How can God allow such an intolerable situation to exist?

Finally, in verse 17, Habakkuk asks, “Shall they therefore empty their net, and not spare continually to slay the nations?”

The picture here is of a very successful fisherman who after having caught a great number of fish in his net, quickly empties it and then immediately throws the net back into the water for another bountiful catch.

So too the Babylonians. Having killed or taken captive a large number and plundered the nation, they immediately prepare their instruments of war for the next. And they attack without sparing or showing mercy to the nations. The last part of verse 17 can be translated, “and mercilessly killing nations forever?” It is one massacre after another. The issue here is that of the relentlessness and continuation of the Babylonians in their wicked conquest and success. They are not content with one or two nations. They want the whole world if possible. 

Once again, Habakkuk is perplexed. How can this be? How can the LORD allow such a wicked power to sweep through the nations and to sweep away even Judah, the nation belonging to God?

Now before we move to the third part of our text, I’ll like to highlight two things that were wrong in Habakkuk’s thinking and line of questioning.

First, Habakkuk had too narrow and limited a view of God and of God’s providence. If you like, Habakkuk thought he had God all figured out. This is what He can do, this is what He cannot do, based on his own understanding of God.

It’s true that Habakkuk’s theology was good. He had learned about God’s attributes from young. God is everlasting, God is just, God is holy, God is righteous and so on. And all that is true. The problem is that based on these attributes of God, Habakkuk formed a certain view of God that ended up becoming very narrow and restrictive. He had knowingly or unknowingly “placed” God inside a little box of his own making and God was not supposed to operate outside the narrow confines of his box.

So for example, for him, God’s justice and righteousness necessarily means that He cannot use the wicked to chastise His people. Such an action is a violation of His moral purity, according to Habakkuk.

Or to use another example, if God is just, then it must necessarily follow that the wicked in this world cannot prosper and the righteous in this world cannot suffer, otherwise God would be guilty of injustice.

But Habakkuk was not the only one who had this problem of having too narrow and restrictive a view of God. The Psalmist Asaph, in Psalm 73, had that problem too for a season.

He begins that Psalm with the words, “Truly God is good to Israel, even to such as are of a clean heart.” And that is indeed true. However when he began to look around in the world and saw that the wicked prospered and even got away with their wickedness, he became deeply troubled and discouraged.

In fact, so discouraged was he that he said, “Verily I have cleansed my heart in vain, and washed my hands in innocency.” What’s the point of leading a righteous life when instead of prospering, I suffer; and all the while the wicked are prospering. Asaph had too narrow a view of God and His providence. Of course, his view changed when he went into the sanctuary of the Lord and was given a proper and godly perspective of things.

Likewise Job’s friends had a very narrow view of what God was like and what He could or could not do. God had brought a very severe trial into the life of Job. The only possible explanation for that, according to them, was that Job had sinned very grievously against God and thus he needed to repent of his sin. They allowed for no other possibility for Job’s sufferings.

Ironically, it was one of Job’s friends Zophar, who gave us that wonderful statement about the incomprehensibility of God. In Job 11:7-8, Zophar said to Job, “Canst thou by searching find out God? canst thou find out the Almighty unto perfection? It is as high as heaven; what canst thou do? deeper than hell; what canst thou know?”

God is incomprehensible. Finite human beings will never be able to fully know and understand everything about God. Zophar was right to remind Job of that truth. And yet, he failed to properly apply that truth to himself and to his whole approach to the sufferings of Job. He was blinded to his own fault.

He presumed to know everything about God’s purposes in Job’s sufferings.  The reality is that he didn’t. And so at the end of the book of Job, God rebuked Job’s friends and said to them, “My wrath is kindled against thee, and against thy two friends: for ye have not spoken of me the thing that is right, as my servant Job hath.” (Job 42:7)

We too need to be careful or we will fall into the same mistake as the Psalmist Asaph and Job’s friends and the prophet Habakkuk himself – the mistake of thinking that we have God all figured out and that He must conform to our narrow and limited view of Him and of His ways.

The words of Isaiah 55:8-9 should be a constant reminder to us, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

The second thing that was wrong with Habakkuk’s line of thinking and questioning was his view of righteousness and how God ought to deal with fallen people. Habakkuk had allowed a subtle form of works-righteousness to creep into his way of thinking.

He was very unhappy that God was going to use more wicked people to judge and chastise the less wicked ones. That was unacceptable to him. To him, God ought to place the more wicked and the less wicked on a scale of relative righteousness, and then to judge in favour of the slightly less wicked – to bless and favour them and clean them up a bit later on, and then to curse and destroy the more wicked.

This was the same problem as the scribes and Pharisees, wasn’t it? The scribes and Pharisees saw themselves as very near the kingdom of heaven whereas people like the harlots and publicans and tax-collectors were way down on the scale of righteousness.

They felt that they had done or were doing enough to merit God’s favour and that God ought to bless them. And on the other hand, God ought to curse and punish those at the other end of the righteousness scale or spectrum.

This kind of works-righteousness way of thinking is somewhat akin to the old joke of the two hikers and the bear. Some of you might have heard it before, and there are several versions of it but here is one of them: two guys are out hiking in the forest one day and all of a sudden a bear appears in a distance and starts chasing them. They both start running but one of them is very cool and calm about the whole thing. The other hiker asked him, “Why are you not afraid?” The first hiker replied him, “Huh, because I can run faster than you.” 

In other words, you only need to be slightly faster than the next guy, or only slightly more righteous than the rest, and you’ll be alright.

It seems that Habakkuk had temporarily forgotten Isaiah 64:6, which says, “and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags.”  

Dear friends and brethren, understand that God does not judge people based on how they line up in relation to other people. His judgment is not based on a bell curve or any other statistical distribution or method. No, no, God judges based on His absolute scale of righteousness. And the divine passing mark is absolute perfection. Anything less and you fail.

And that is why the only hope that sinners have is the grace of God in Jesus Christ. Only Jesus meets the mark of perfect righteousness. Only in Him can we find the righteousness that makes us acceptable in God’s sight. Only through His blood can all our sins be washed away.

To summarize this point, it doesn’t matter whether we’re Israelites or Babylonians or Assyrians or Singaporeans, we all fall well short of God’s holy law and deserve His wrath and curse for sin, and there is only One name under heaven given to men by which we can be saved – the name of Jesus.

Linus Chua

[…to be continued]