Walking as Jesus Walked

Having the Mind of Christ

Monday, July 11, 2011

A More Perfect Union

Over the next four weeks I will be lifting up the message of Habakkuk.  In fact, if you would like to get the copy of the little book on Habakkuk on Amazon by Keith Kent, I invite you to do so. It’s another way to follow along with what we will be sharing.


We know very little about Habakkuk other than what he wrote here.  We do not know about his tribe or hometown, and we really don’t know what his name means.  In Hebrew, for example, Habakkuk means “embrace” or “hug.”  In Akkadian, Habakkuk means fruit tree. We don’t know for sure./1/ 
What we do know is that, based on his writings, Habakkuk lived near the end of the seventh century B.C., contemporaries with the prophets Nahum, Zephaniah, and Jeremiah.

That’s important to keep in mind because that period of history was a turbulent period of history. 
If you will remember:  following the reign of King Solomon the nation of Israel splits into two kingdoms:  a northern kingdom of Israel and a southern kingdom of Judah.
In time the Assyrians would conquer and destroy the northern kingdom, deporting the population in 722-721 B.C, and then in 587 B.C., the Babylonians would march into Jerusalem in the south and take the people into exile.
Over a period of two hundred years the people of Israel would be scattered throughout the Middle East – in Babylon, Assyria, and Egypt, to name a few.
Nothing was stable. The whole world was in flux, and not only the world, but the tiny nation of Judah was in turmoil. Things were not right. 

And that’s where the prophet Habakkuk comes into the picture.   Habakkuk loves God, but he is not happy with God. /2/ In fact, Habakkuk has questions for God as to why God is not acting in the face of so much violence and injustice in the land.  

That’s a major question in this book:  Why?  If God is just and good, why is he tolerating so much evil, so much injustice, so much sin? 

Habakkuk knows God does not approve of violence and corruption, but somehow violence and corruption seem to have the upper hand:  Why doesn’t God do something to change it?  “The wicked hem in the righteous and pervert the good” (1:2-4).

That’s how Habakkuk begins this book:  complaining!  Not so much against the people, though the people are not innocent, but against God!  Why is there so much oppression, so much hate, murder, poor health, greed, war, floods, homelessness, strife, conflict in families, and disease?

Habakkuk does not doubt God can act in the face of these problems, but he is filled with anguish as to what God will do, or won’t do: Why is it taking God so long to act?
Difficult Questions

To the hard-hearted these questions are simply part and parcel of life’s journey:  that’s just the way life is!  We will always have the poor with us, right?  There will always be wars and rumors of war, right?! It’s normal!

But to a prophet like Habakkuk these things are not normal: they are disasters! Violence, cheating, apathy, exploitation – are like deathblows to our existence as human beings, injuring everyone./3/

And that’s what concerns Habakkuk: he sees the wrong the people are doing, and the consequences of what could happen, and he wants God to do something about it, but he is dismayed and even fearful over how God will take care of the problem: God will use the Babylonians to execute justice!

And that’s not what Habakkuk had in mind! To be sure, the people of Judah have done wrong, but isn’t God going overboard punishing them by using the Babylonians? After all, didn’t God make a promise to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and their descendents to be a great nation (Gen. 12:1-3)? What if the Babylonians wipe out the entire nation of Judah? What would happen to the covenant?  That’s not the kind of punishment Habakkuk wants!/4/ 

Question:  have you ever prayed to God for a certain answer only to have God answer that prayer, and then you are actually surprised with the answer?  What’s the old adage?  Be careful what you pray for!  If so, you can understand Habakkuk’s anguish:  Habakkuk gets an answer from God, but it’s not the answer he expects! 

Habakkuk wants to know when God will execute justice and how God will provide for the people in the face of so much violence, but he also wants to know what the people need to do to respond to God as part of the covenant.

Habakkuk’s Message

Those are the concerns that guide this prophet, and they are the concerns that lead him to conclude in the face of so much chaos that “the righteous will live by faith” (2:4b)./5/

Standing watch on the walls of the city of Jerusalem, Habakkuk receives God’s answer to his complaints, and it’s an answer that Habakkuk is to write plain on tablets big enough so that if you and I are driving by them, we will see them (2:1-2); even though the world around us is coming apart, even though we don’t understand what is going on:  the righteous will live by faith. 

As people of Christ’s covenant, we may not have all the answers to the problems of injustice, or to all the problems that assail us, but as those who believe in God we are to be steadfast in our trust of God:  God will act, in God’s time, for God’s vision of what is true will come to pass.  God doesn’t lie./6/

That’s how God answers Habakkuk:  though this present time is filled with all kinds of problems, the righteous shall live by faith! 

In other words, God’s message is, “Keep the faith!”  I can hear my mom in the background:  “Yes, things are not going well, but in order to be a witness to Christ, keep the faith – even when everyone else isn’t, even when the rest of the group isn’t, even when your friends are not, even the nation you love is not going in the direction you think is right – keep the faith!  Even when you don’t understand God and God’s ways, keep the faith!  Keep on trusting God!”

A popular message today?  Yes?  No?  Maybe what Habakkuk is saying is,  “We can’t have change until there is faith, and until there is faith in what God can do righteousness is in short supply.”   

Reminder and Lesson

It is also why it may be important to remember that what the prophets of Israel usually give us is what I call the “minority report”:  typically, what the prophet says is not popular; the vast majority of the people do not listen to the prophet – whether it’s Habakkuk, or Amos, or Jeremiah. There is a kind of Rodney Dangerfield effect:  no respect! Traditionally, the people of God – whether it’s Israel or the church – ignore the prophets.    

In Habakkuk’s case, few listen, and fewer understand why he is so upset.  They don’t understand why this prophet who loves God questions God; and they don’t see the judgment that is coming:  there is a “disconnect” between the vision of what God seeks and the reality of what the people do.  And so, Habakkuk prays for God’s mercy (3:2). 

No prophet ever wants to see judgment come upon the people! That is, the prophet is not a person who goes about in pride announcing doom. Instead, in fear and trembling there is the announcement of God’s word and God’s mercy.

There is a lesson here, I believe, as we approach a time of national celebration and reflection; for in the Preamble to the Constitution, it states that “We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union…”

The key word in that statement is “we.”  In the history of the United States that “we” has not included everyone:  this union is not a perfect union; instead, it is a work in progress, an experiment, distant goal, a vision of what can be.  Along the way, there have been moments of “discontent” between what we profess and what we do.

In fact, I think most of our conflicts in our history have had to do with how we interpret who gets included in the “we”!  Hence, the discontent!

Now to be sure that’s not all bad:  without discontent we get little accomplished.  On the other hand, when our discontent becomes outright anger we can say and do things that can only make matters worse.

The other day as I watching television I overheard Thomas Friedman of The New York Times suggest that at this moment in history we Americans could be characterized as “frustrated optimists”:  we are frustrated because we know as a people that we are falling short of what we profess we say we are about; we are frustrated because we can’t seem to agree on a way forward; and yet, we are optimistic because we believe the future holds promise. 

I think the prophet Habakkuk would understand:  there is the vision of what God intends, but then there are the problems that fly in the face of that vision.  Hence, the frustration!

And what Habakkuk wants to say is, “All right, God, even with all the problems we face as a nation, we as God’s people will live by faith, even if we don’t understand, even when everyone else isn’t, we will…”

We will live by faith and be thankful.  We will witness to Christ and be thankful.  We will pursue justice and be thankful.  We will walk in the way that leads to life and be thankful. 

Yes, we will!  Amen.

1.     See Kent M. Keith, Have Faith Anyway:  The Vision of Habakkuk for Our Time (San Francisco:  Jossey-Bass/A Wiley Imprint, 2008), p. 2.

2.     See Kent M. Keith, Have Faith Anyway:  The Vision of Habakkuk for Our Times (San Francisco:  Jossey-Bass/A Wiley Imprint, 2008), pp. 2-4 and 9ff.

3.     See Abraham J. Heschel, The Prophets: An Introduction – Volume One (New York:  Harper & Row Publishers, 1962), p. 4.

4.     See Have Faith Anyway, pp. 7ff.  See also Theodore Hiebert, “The Book of Habakkuk” in The New Interpreter’s Bible (Nashville: Abingdon Press 1996), p. 641; and see Donald E. Gowan, The Triumph of Faith in Habakkuk (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock, 1976), pp. 40ff. 

5.     See Have Faith Anyway, pp. 13ff.

6.     See Have Faith Anyway, p. 19.

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