Be careful regarding what you request in prayer; you may just receive it.
The prophet Habakkuk saw a burden, or oracle, at some point before the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BCE (Habakkuk 1:1). The event would take place during Habakkuk’s lifetime (Habakkuk 1:5); therefore, he is some sort of contemporary of Jeremiah, Daniel, and Ezekiel (ca. 615-586 BCE). We do well to consider Habakkuk a prophet of Judah in these final days of the first Temple.
Whereas we today understand those days to be the end of Judah, it was not thus apparent to the Judahites of the time. Habakkuk was dismayed and distressed regarding his fellow Judahites and their behaviors. He cried out to God for help, deliverance, and particularly the execution of justice: violence was all around, people wantonly destroyed, the tension of conflict endured, rife with strife, and the forces of wickedness seemed to overpower the forces of righteousness: the law was toothless, and justice was perverted (Habakkuk 1:2-4). Habakkuk’s concern and description is consistent with the portrayal given by Jeremiah and Ezekiel: despite Josiah’s reforms, the people continued to serve idols, the rulers entrusted themselves to their foreign policy machinations, the wealthy prospered, the poor remained marginalized and oppressed, and all the people carried on as if YHWH would never allow any foreign nation to overthrow His house in Zion.
Many similar laments have been uttered by God’s people in distress at the violence and injustice around them, but few have received an answer from YHWH, especially in the way Habakkuk did.
God had certainly seen the violence and injustice, and He was about to act. He would do a work which Habakkuk would see but would not believe even though it was told in advance (Habakkuk 1:5). YHWH was lifting up the Chaldeans to come and possess lands not their own. Their army was dreadful and terrifying, hastening to devour, fierce as wolves, looking for violence, marching straight forward (Habakkuk 1:6-9). They scoff at kings and princes and would deride every fortified city; they would pass over as a wind (Habakkuk 1:10-11).
At this moment the Chaldean army would have been a terrifying prospect indeed. They had allied with the Medes to not only defeat the Assyrians but completely destroy Nineveh and other cities and eliminated Assyria as a going concern. The Chaldeans had taken over the Mesopotamian and Levantine portions of the Neo-Assyrian Empire and could raise a large army. They had soundly defeated the Egyptians, the only other local power of significance, twice. YHWH was their only hope against the Chaldean army, and if YHWH Himself was bringing that army against Judah, all hope was lost, and all that remained would be a terrifying expectation of death and destruction.
Habakkuk no longer wondered if YHWH had noticed the violence and injustice in Judah. Nevertheless, YHWH’s answer distressed Habakkuk. Habakkuk was not distressed about what would happen to Judah: YHWH was eternal, and Habakkuk was confident God would leave a remnant of His people according to His promises, even if the rest would perish in judgment (Habakkuk 1:12). Habakkuk’s distress centered on the agent of YHWH’s destruction, the Chaldeans: is not God of purer eyes than to look upon evil and perversity? Then how can God hold His peace and even actively facilitate an even more wicked and perverse people, the Chaldeans, to overcome the Judahites, who are comparatively more righteous (Habakkuk 1:13)? Habakkuk compared people to the fish of the sea; the Chaldeans were as fishermen who cast a wide net and caught many fish, were very happy, and then offered sacrifices to their nets as if a god, since they have brought them food and live in plenty (Habakkuk 1:14-16). Would God allow for this to continue on unabated, allowing the Chaldeans to destroy nations and spare none, and be reinforced in their conviction that their gods have brought them power and success (Habakkuk 1:17)?
Habakkuk saw the violence and injustice all around him. We also see violence and injustice around us; how many times does it seem that the wicked prosper in their wickedness and justice is never delivered? The violent and aggressive get away with their behaviors and those who seek to pursue justice and righteousness fall behind or suffer harm. Habakkuk knew well to cry out to God in lament and complaint; do we pray to God regarding the wickedness and injustice we see all around us? Note well how only those who sighed and cried over the abominations done in Jerusalem were to be marked for preservation in Ezekiel 9:4; those who became hardened to such things were treated similarly to those who perpetuated them.
Habakkuk learned of God’s imminent judgment against Judah: they would be overrun by the Chaldeans. They would certainly suffer the consequences of the injustice and wickedness they had perpetrated. Yet what do we think of Habakkuk’s conundrum? How could the God of holiness and righteousness allow a wicked nation to destroy a comparatively more righteous one? We could imagine Ezekiel quibbling with Habakkuk’s assessment: he portrayed Jerusalem as more sinful than Sodom (Ezekiel 16:47-49)! Jeremiah might add that the Chaldeans at least proved more faithful to their gods and their religion than the Judahites did to theirs (cf. Jeremiah 2:10-13). Whatever we may think of comparing the relative righteousness or wickedness of Babylon and Judah, Habakkuk’s final concern is quite valid: would not the Chaldeans vaunt over Jerusalem and Judah and presume that their gods had given them victory, and YHWH would not save? Would they not continue to overrun nations? How could God establish His righteousness and justice against the wicked and unjust by granting strength and power to those even more wicked and unjust?
Habakkuk then took his post and waited for YHWH’s response to his complaint (Habakkuk 2:1). God would answer, but we do well to sit a moment with Habakkuk on that tower and grapple with his consternation, because there are times in which we find ourselves in Habakkuk’s position in Habakkuk 2:1. We see injustice and wickedness all around us, and the only way that injustice and wickedness seems to be overrun is by those who act even more unjustly and wickedly. Do we give voice to our laments and complaints before God? Do we really wish to see righteousness and justice in the land?
Habakkuk asked God if He was going to do anything about all the injustice in the land. God certainly heard his prayer and lament; God was going to do something about it. It was not exactly what Habakkuk had in mind. We do well to keep Habakkuk’s example in mind in terms of our own prayer life: what if God really does grant us what we want, but it does not look like anything we were expecting? Perhaps, in fact, God will give us that for which we ask, but He does so in ways very much against what we were expecting or wanting. Do we have the trust and confidence in God to accept the situation? Will we draw near to God in prayer even though we might get all for which we ask but not in the way we would like it? Or would that prospect cause us to shrink back and not bother asking at all? May we prove faithful to God like Habakkuk in his generation, willing to complain and lament regarding injustice and violence, even if God’s answer is not exactly as we would intend!
Ethan R. Longhenry