Woe To The Wicked & Coveteous
Five Woes To The Proud

Based on sermons preached in PCC Worship Services, Mar-Aug 2014
Part 1 of 3

We come now to consider Habakkuk 2:6-20. This passage is really the second part of the Lord’s response to Habakkuk’s second question.

A very quick review of the book of Habakkuk might be helpful at this point. Habakkuk ministered as a prophet in Judah towards the end of the history of the southern kingdom. The last of the godly kings of Judah, Josiah, had already passed away. Judah was in very bad shape, morally and spiritually speaking. The ungodly King Jehoiakim was ruling, the wicked people in the land were thriving, and the godly ones were suffering.  

And so Habakkuk begins his prophecy by essentially crying out to the Lord to address this unbearable situation and not to allow it to continue. The Lord responded almost immediately and very surprisingly. He told Habakkuk that He had already begun to answer his request by raising up the Chaldeans or Babylonians to come and judge the nation of Judah. He then went on to describe the Babylonian army, which was an awesome as well as fearsome force. 

Habakkuk sought the Lord a second time, this time questioning the very justice and righteousness of God in using a more wicked nation to punish a less wicked one. Habakkuk was well aware that what he had just said to the Lord constituted a very strong and even audacious challenge to God’s sovereignty and justice. And so he braced himself for a strong rebuke from the Lord.

But that rebuke never came. Instead, the Lord responded to him a second time by assuring His prophet of two things, namely, that the just shall live by his faith and that He will punish all the wicked at the right time.

We looked at what that phrase “the just shall live by his faith” meant, namely, that a justified person continues to receive the gift of life by his faith. In other words, life is a gift of God and is to be received gratefully from Him, and faith is the hand or instrument by which he receives this ongoing life from God.

The passage that we are now considering focuses on the second part of the Lord’s response, namely, that the Lord will judge the wicked and the proud in due time. This whole section consists of a series of five woes or five lamentations. We see this in verses 6, 9, 12, 15, and 19. They show us why the Babylonians deserve the coming judgment and what they can expect to come upon them.

Verse 6 says, “Shall not all these take up a parable against him, and a taunting proverb against him, and say,”

Now remember that the speaker in this whole passage is God Himself. Nevertheless, He speaks from the perspective of what His people will say about the Babylonians. They are the ones who will take up their taunting proverb and byword, and ridicule the boastful Chaldeans.  

In the rest of this article, we will look at the first two woe oracles that God’s people will take up against the Babylonians.

The First Woe

The first is found in the second part of verse 6 till verse 8. Verse 6b says, “Woe to him that increaseth that which is not his! how long? and to him that ladeth himself with thick clay!”

The word “woe” can simply be translated “ah” or “alas” or “ha.” It is frequently used to introduce a statement of judgment although it also includes a sense of exclamation. In this context, it takes on a tone of scorn and derision, “Ha!”

We could rephrase verse 6b as “Ha! The one who multiplies that which is not his and who loads himself with many pledges. O how long will it be?”  

Here the Babylonians are condemned for their sin of excessive greed and exhortation in their conquests of the nations. The word translated “thick clay” refers to a pledge. These are items used as security in case of default on a loan. When a person is unable to pay the loan, this pledge is taken away. The Babylonians were guilty of taking away these pledges from their debtors, when they were unable to pay, leaving them impoverished and poor. 

Verse 7 says, “Shall they not rise up suddenly that shall bite thee, and awake that shall vex thee, and thou shalt be for booties unto them?”

Verse 6 asked “how long?” Verse 7 answers “suddenly.” When God’s judgment falls upon them, it will fall suddenly. Those who would bite them refer to their creditors. At the time of their judgment, the Babylonians will be in debt and their creditors will rise up and bite them without mercy just as they had shown no mercy to those who were indebted to them. Likewise, their enemies will suddenly awaken and vex them, and they will become booty or plunder for them.

Verse 8, “Because thou hast spoiled many nations, all the remnant of the people shall spoil thee; because of men's blood, and for the violence of the land, of the city, and of all that dwell therein.”

So besides their greed and extortion and plundering, yet another reason for the coming judgment is the violence or hamas that they brought upon the land and the city and all its inhabitants.

You remember how in chapter 1, Habakkuk complained to God about the hamas that was taking place among the people of the land. God replied Habakkuk that He was sending the Chaldeans, a nation that is full of hamas, in order to give the people a taste of their own medicine. Those who caused violence were now going to be the recipients of violence themselves.

But that is not the final word about hamas. Here in chapter 2 verse 8 and later in verse 17, God tells Habakkuk that He was going to punish the Chaldeans for the hamas which they have inflicted on the land and its inhabitants.   

You see the main point of this first woe oracle is that the Babylonians will receive a just punishment for what they had done. They who plundered the nations and took what was not theirs will themselves be plundered and spoiled. They who treated their debtors cruelly will themselves be shown no mercy by their creditors. They who were violent towards other people will themselves be overwhelmed with violence.

And lest you think that this principle of just punishment or reciprocation in judgment is true only in the Old Testament times, we read in the New Testament in 2 Thessalonians 1:6, “Seeing it is a righteous thing with God to recompense tribulation (or trouble) to them that trouble you;” The word tribulation and trouble are very closely related. God will repay with trouble those who trouble His people. 

The Lord Jesus Himself makes reference to this principle in various places, for example in Luke 12:58-59, where He says “When thou goest with thine adversary to the magistrate, as thou art in the way, give diligence that thou mayest be delivered from him; lest he hale thee to the judge, and the judge deliver thee to the officer, and the officer cast thee into prison. I tell thee, thou shalt not depart thence, till thou hast paid the very last mite.”

Every debt of sin down to the very last mite must be paid to God the righteous judge. If the debt is not paid for by Christ on the cross, then the sinner himself must pay for it for all eternity in hell. But the point is clear, God’s punishments are just. They are not too lenient or too severe. He gives to each man what he deserves.

The author of Hebrews says in chapter 2 verse 2 that every transgression and disobedience receives a just recompense of reward. The Babylonians will begin to experience this just retribution in their lifetime when the Persians, under Cyrus, conquered Babylon in 539 BC. But they will only experience it fully in eternity.

The Second Woe

The second woe that God pronounces on them is found in verses 9-11 and it comes in the form of an architectural or building metaphor.

Verse 9 says, “Woe to him that coveteth an evil covetousness to his house, that he may set his nest on high, that he may be delivered from the power of evil!”

The Babylonians were seeking to build themselves a mighty house or dynasty. They hoped to place themselves and their descendants so high up, like an inaccessible eagle’s nest tucked away high in the mountains, that their enemies would not be able to touch them. 

The Babylonians were greedy and covetous, and sought to accumulate wealth to themselves by legal and illegal means for the purpose of achieving security for all generations. That is basically what verse 9 is saying.

According to an inscription of Nebuchadnezzar that has been found, he said that one of his chief purposes for strengthening the walls of Babylon was to make an everlasting name for his reign. And in another place, he prays to his god Marduk saying, “Life for many generations, an abundant posterity, a secure throne, and a long reign, grant as thy gift.”

But instead of building a house and dynasty of lasting glory and success, they were really building a house of shame and disgrace. Verse 10 says, “Thou hast consulted shame to thy house by cutting off many people, and hast sinned against thy soul.”

By their covetousness and violence against many people, they sinned against their soul, meaning that they were bringing upon themselves retribution and destruction.

A parallel to this can be seen in the story of Achan in Joshua chapter 7. Because of his covetousness and greed in taking the forbidden items and hiding them in his tent, he brought destruction upon himself and his whole house.

Verse 11 says, “For the stone shall cry out of the wall, and the beam out of the timber shall answer it.”

The idea here is that the most basic objects of the house, namely the stones and the wooden beams which they had used to build it will cry out against the foolishness and sin of their builders, and the judgment that was sure to come on them. These objects which were either plundered from other nations or bought using the plundered wealth of the nations would thus serve as a witness against Babylon.

Now this personification involving stones crying out as a witness reminds us of what the Lord Jesus said in Luke 19:40, where we read “And he answered and said unto them, I tell you that, if these should hold their peace, the stones would immediately cry out.”

The context of that verse is the Triumphant Entry of Christ into Jerusalem. When the whole crowd of His disciples started to pay homage to Him as the Messiah and to praise God for the wonderful works that He had done, the Pharisees immediately told Him to rebuke and silence His disciples. But the Lord responded to the Pharisees by saying that if the crowd kept silent, the stones would cry out.

The Lord was most probably making reference to Habakkuk 2:11, and the comparison is this – just as the stones in Babylon cried out, so to speak, as a witness against the sins of the Babylonians, so if the crowds at His triumphal entry kept silent, then the stones in Jerusalem will immediately cry out both in praise of the Lord Jesus as well as in testimony against the sinful silence of the people. 

If the first woe has to do with just punishment of the wicked, then this second woe has to do with the foolishness and futility of building one’s house and kingdom apart from God. As the Psalmist says, “Except the LORD build the house, they labour in vain that build it…” (Ps 127:1a).

Linus Chua