1 The oracle that Habakkuk the prophet saw. 2 O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not hear? Or cry to you “Violence!” and you will not save? 3 Why do you make me see iniquity, and why do you idly look at wrong? Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise. 4 So the law is paralyzed, and justice never goes forth. For the wicked surround the righteous; so justice goes forth perverted. 5 “Look among the nations, and see; wonder and be astounded. For I am doing a work in your days that you would not believe if told. 6 For behold, I am raising up the Chaldeans, that bitter and hasty nation, who march through the breadth of the earth, to seize dwellings not their own. 7 They are dreaded and fearsome; their justice and dignity go forth from themselves. 8 Their horses are swifter than leopards, more fierce than the evening wolves; their horsemen press proudly on. Their horsemen come from afar; they fly like an eagle swift to devour. 9 They all come for violence, all their faces forward. They gather captives like sand. 10 At kings they scoff, and at rulers they laugh. They laugh at every fortress, for they pile up earth and take it. 11 Then they sweep by like the wind and go on, guilty men, whose own might is their god!”
A couple of years ago a church member told me that I had been both complimented and criticized on Facebook. I guess that makes me no different than anybody else, come to think of it! I am not on Facebook, so I asked him what was said. The person told me that my name had come up and that somebody had said that I was decent enough as a preacher but that I was “an SJW.” I did get a good laugh out of that! If you do not know, “SJW” is a derogatory term that stands for “social justice warrior” and is usually applied to far left, screaming liberals who are constantly offended about this or that, whose entire life is dominated by politics, who have adopted a far-left political agenda, and whose lives are enmeshed in gender, race, and identity politics. Since I am usually criticized for not talking enough about politics from the pulpit, you will perhaps understand why I laughed! As far as what “SJW” means today as an insult against unstable people who are always protesting this or that or are hyper-sensitive to perceived slights, nothing could be further from the truth. After all, I am a pro-life conservative in my politics and, if pressed to speak to the issue, I will quickly say that I find the extreme fringes of both the political left and the right to be pretty shrill and ineffective. So, as far as the comment went, I found it pretty amusing.
If, however, I could be allowed to detach “social justice warrior” from its present-day connotation of a deranged, radical wingnut and use it simply and literally as “somebody who desires a just society,” then I very much hope that all of us would own the term. After all, the Bible is filled with condemnations of injustice. Perhaps we find the most poignant and powerful of these in the prophets. Habakkuk is certainly no exception.
In the book of Habakkuk, the prophet who goes by that name cries out to God for justice in the midst of Judah. The people of God had corrupt rulers and their corruption had seemingly poisoned the whole of society. For this reason, he cries out to God for help. Furthermore, he cries out to God because he feels that God is being silent in the midst of these injustices. Habakkuk cries out, and God answers.
Habakkuk grieves over the social injustices he sees all around him as well as the perception that God is silent.
Let us begin with Habakkuk’s complaint.
1 The oracle that Habakkuk the prophet saw. 2 O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not hear? Or cry to you “Violence!” and you will not save? 3 Why do you make me see iniquity, and why do you idly look at wrong? Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise. 4 So the law is paralyzed, and justice never goes forth. For the wicked surround the righteous; so justice goes forth perverted.
Habakkuk’s complaint is both horizontal and vertical. Vertically, he complains to God about what he perceives to be the silence of God in the face of injustice in the land. Specifically, Habbakuk feels that God is silent in the face of his pleading prayer that God do something, that God move to help his people. Habukkuk alleges that God (1) “will not hear,” (2) “will not save,” and (3) “idly look[s] at wrong.”
These are, to be sure, strong accusations to make! And they may even make us a bit uncomfortable. Even so, let us note that there is a difference between the disbelieving accusation of the atheist and the heart-rent cry of anguish that comes from a believing heart. While it is true that Habakkuk frames his words as accusations, God does not treat Habakkuk like an atheist. He responds to him as a father.
Calvin Miller once said that “Why?” is the bullet in the gun that we aim at the heart of God. Perhaps that is so in many cases, but not always. “Why?” can also be the cry of the struggling child who simply wants to understand. That, I would propose, is the case with Habakkuk.
Horizontally, Habakkuk complains about the gross injustice he sees in the land. It needs to be noted that Habakkuk’s complaint is against his own people and, specifically, the rulers of Judah. Habakkuk sees within the habitat of God’s own people reasons for grief and rage. In particular, Habakkuk complains about:
- Violence (stated twice)
- “the law is paralyzed”
- “justice never goes forth”
- “the wicked surround the righteous”
- “justice goes forth perverted”
In our country, the statue of justice depicts a blindfolded lady holding scales. In reality, however, we know that oftentimes there are two sets of books. The powerful and the wealthy get treated one way and the poor and the weak get treated another. The connected get treated one way and the stranger or the person on the margins gets treated another way. We know, in other words, what Habakkuk is talking about.
What Habakkuk says about justice is fascinating. He first says that “justice never goes forth.” That is, there is no justice to be found. He concludes by saying that “justice goes forth perverted.” It is almost a picture of a maimed and wounded animal that lies dying but, on occasion, tries to pull itself forward, dragging its body behind him. This is how Habakkuk depicts justice. It either appears to be dead or, when you see it, it is all crooked and wrong.
In 1965 Bob Dylan made a similar complaint about injustice in his song, “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)”:
While preachers preach of evil fates
Teachers teach that knowledge waits
Can lead to hundred-dollar plates
Goodness hides behind its gates
But even the president of the United States
Sometimes must have to stand naked
Habakkuk was grieving that both goodness and God appeared to him to be hiding behind its gates. Yet God responds and shows that Habbakuk is short-sighted in his complaint.
God announces that He will chasten His children by using an unexpected implement of discipline.
God does not deny that injustice is loose in the land. On the contrary, He sees it and is angered by it. He does deny, however, that He is hiding or silent, for He reveals to Habakkuk that He is raising up a chastening rod to discipline His people.
5 “Look among the nations, and see; wonder and be astounded. For I am doing a work in your days that you would not believe if told. 6 For behold, I am raising up the Chaldeans, that bitter and hasty nation, who march through the breadth of the earth, to seize dwellings not their own. 7 They are dreaded and fearsome; their justice and dignity go forth from themselves. 8 Their horses are swifter than leopards, more fierce than the evening wolves; their horsemen press proudly on. Their horsemen come from afar; they fly like an eagle swift to devour. 9 They all come for violence, all their faces forward. They gather captives like sand. 10 At kings they scoff, and at rulers they laugh. They laugh at every fortress, for they pile up earth and take it. 11 Then they sweep by like the wind and go on, guilty men, whose own might is their god!”
God says that He is going to raise up the Chaldeans. Some versions have “Babylonians” instead. The Chaldeans were the Babylonians. Interestingly, however, God says that this news of coming Babylonian might will cause wonder and astonishment and that people will find the idea hard to believe. This is because at the time of Habakkuk’s prophecy Assyria was still the big kid on the block, the bully in the playground. Yet, within a short time of Habakkuk’s prophecy, Babylon will indeed rise up and become the dominant power.
God says that He is going to let loose these warlike people and that through them He will discipline His own rebellious children. Theologically, we must acknowledge that God can use a wicked tool to accomplish a righteous purpose. God’s implementation of a rebellious people (i.e., the Chaldeans) does not render Him culpable for their rebellion. On the contrary, whenever we see this dynamic in scripture, we see that God punishes the rebellious nations that He employs to this or that end.
His description of the Chaldeans is chilling. He depicts them as a bloodthirsty people, lovers of war, “bitter and hasty,” a seemingly unstoppable force of woe and misery. In the midst of this amazing description, the Lord says of Babylon that “their justice and dignity go forth from themselves.” Habakkuk complains that justice was paralyzed and perverted. The Lord appears to be saying, “I will send upon you a people who have a system of justice, but it is centered in their own wicked hearts. Their justice goes forth from themselves.”
There are two types of justice. The first type is true and eternal and emanates from the heart and mind of God Himself. This is just justice. The other is a justice that comes from man, that originates out of his own desires and wisdom. This justice is a perversion of true justice and usually borrows from it only to the extent that it serves the interest of the ones writing the laws. The goal of a just society is to bring its laws and statutes into alignment with the true justice of God and to reject the false justice of man.
So God has not been sleeping after all. God has seen the injustice and wickedness of the land and God was raising up a people to chasten His own. We may rest easily and uneasily in this: easily because we can be assured that God is not blind to injustice and uneasily because God will move to punish all injustice, even the injustices that we, His people, perpetrate. God sees all, including you and me! What our sinful hearts seem to want is for Him to see the injustices committed by others but not by ourselves. But, no, God sees all.
Our text is a fascinating text. It is also fascinating to see it quoted in the New Testament, in Acts 13. There, Habakkuk 1:5 is quoted (5 “Look among the nations, and see; wonder and be astounded. For I am doing a work in your days that you would not believe if told.) Yet Paul quotes it in an interesting way. Listen:
38 Let it be known to you therefore, brothers, that through this man forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you, 39 and by him everyone who believes is freed from everything from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses. 40 Beware, therefore, lest what is said in the Prophets should come about: 41 “‘Look, you scoffers, be astounded and perish; for I am doing a work in your days, a work that you will not believe, even if one tells it to you.’”
There, Paul does indeed warn of coming judgment, but the judgment should now be seen in terms of rejecting God surprising Savior. In other words, whereas the words originally referred to the surprising news that God was raising unlikely persecutors up to punish God’s people they can now be applied to the surprising news that God has raised an unlikely Savior up to save His people, Jesus Christ! Habakkuk warned of the coming Chaldeans. Paul warned of the price of rejecting the Savior who has come.
Before, God sent a punisher to chastise.
Now, God has sent a Savior to forgive.
Both were unforeseen and shocking, but the former brought agony while the latter brings life to whoever will embrace Him in repentance and faith.
God sees the wickedness of the earth, including the wickedness of our own hearts. God is right to punish such. Yet God, in the fullness of time, sent forth His Son, our Savior, Jesus Christ, so that we might be rendered right before God, so that we might be able to see reality as we should see it, and so that we might now be equipped to speak truth to a world adrift in an ocean of lies.
See there the Savior who has come! Who could have guessed that God would save us like this! But He has! Flee the coming judgment! Run in the arms of Jesus!