12 Are you not from everlasting, O Lord my God, my Holy One? We shall not die. O Lord, you have ordained them as a judgment, and you, O Rock, have established them for reproof. 13 You who are of purer eyes than to see evil and cannot look at wrong, why do you idly look at traitors and remain silent when the wicked swallows up the man more righteous than he? 14 You make mankind like the fish of the sea, like crawling things that have no ruler. 15 He brings all of them up with a hook; he drags them out with his net; he gathers them in his dragnet; so he rejoices and is glad. 16 Therefore he sacrifices to his net and makes offerings to his dragnet; for by them he lives in luxury, and his food is rich. 17 Is he then to keep on emptying his net and mercilessly killing nations forever?
1I will take my stand at my watchpost and station myself on the tower, and look out to see what he will say to me, and what I will answer concerning my complaint. 2 And the Lord answered me: “Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so he may run who reads it. 3 For still the vision awaits its appointed time; it hastens to the end—it will not lie. If it seems slow, wait for it; it will surely come; it will not delay. 4 “Behold, his soul is puffed up; it is not upright within him, but the righteous shall live by his faith. 5 “Moreover, wineis a traitor, an arrogant man who is never at rest. His greed is as wide as Sheol; like death he has never enough. He gathers for himself all nations and collects as his own all peoples.”
The phrase “Be careful what you ask for!” has a great deal of merit. Sometimes it feels like life has a way of responding to our wishes in ways not only that we could not have foreseen but in ways that sometimes seem downright worse than the way things were before! It is possible that Habakkuk the prophet felt that way after hearing God’s initial response to his voiced complaint in the beginning of the book. Habakkuk had complained about rampant injustice and wickedness in his own land. James Montgomery Boice notes that Habakkuk had seen a period of great national revival only to see it collapse into national godlessness. So Habakkuk complained to God about what he perceived to be God’s inactivity. “Why are you silent? Why will you not do something to right these wrongs?” Habakkuk had asked.
And God had responded.
God told Habakkuk in chapter 1 that He in fact knew what He was doing. He revealed that He was going to use another people to discipline His own rebellious people. The only problem was that the people God was going to use to accomplish His desires was the Babylonians! This was shocking for a couple of reasons, the second worse than the first. First of all, it was shocking because the Assyrians, not the Babylonians, were at that time the dominant power. It was unlikely by any human reckoning that the Babylonians would become a dominant world power. Secondly, it was shocking because the Babylonians were worse than the Jews whom God was seeking to discipline!
Habakkuk, to put it mildly, was flabbergasted. Thus, he complains again…and God answers again. We see this exchange unfolding in Habakkuk 1:12 and following.
Habakkuk offers worship that is still mingled with protest.
We begin with Habakkuk’s response to God’s revelation of His plan.
12 Are you not from everlasting, O Lord my God, my Holy One? We shall not die. O Lord, you have ordained them as a judgment, and you, O Rock, have established them for reproof. 13 You who are of purer eyes than to see evil and cannot look at wrong, why do you idly look at traitors and remain silent when the wicked swallows up the man more righteous than he?
Let us first observe that Habakkuk uses worshipful language as he begins. He speaks of God as “from everlasting.” He speaks of God as “my Holy One.” He recognizes that, yes, God will save His people: “We shall not die.” He recognizes that God has the right to use the Babylonians: “you have ordained them as a judgment” and “you…have established them for reproof.” He finally speaks of God as being “of purer eyes than to see evil.”
Depending on how charitable you are, you will either see this as sincere worship or sarcasm or mockery. I believe it is sincere but, if so, it is certainly conflicted. This becomes clear in the words that follow these words of adoration. Mark Dever sees Habakkuk as responding with shocked disbelief. He paraphrases Habakkuk as saying, “The Baylonians?! The Babylonians?!…The Babylonians? They live more wickedly that your people.”That is probably not far off.
Habakkuk begins with a repetition of his initial complaint. He believes that God is “idly look[ing] at traitors and remain[ing] silent.” This shows, by any reckoning, quite a measure of cheek and audacity. Again, some may see these words as rendering the words that precede them meaningless or possibly even mocking. That is possible, but I would point out that it is indeed possible for a heart that trusts in God to still be deeply confused about what God is doing. Is this what is happening with Habakkuk? Again, I believe so, though it is hard to say for certain. Regardless, his complaint abides and continues. He next complains about the wickedness of the Babylonians, as if God was unaware of this.
14 You make mankind like the fish of the sea, like crawling things that have no ruler. 15 He brings all of them up with a hook; he drags them out with his net; he gathers them in his dragnet; so he rejoices and is glad. 16 Therefore he sacrifices to his net and makes offerings to his dragnet; for by them he lives in luxury, and his food is rich. 17 Is he then to keep on emptying his net and mercilessly killing nations forever?
1I will take my stand at my watchpostand station myself on the tower,and look out to see what he will say to me,and what I will answer concerning my complaint.
We see in these words deep confusion and deep hurt. We also see something like anger. Habakkuk argues that the Babylonians, like all the mighty of the earth, treat the weak of the earth with contempt. “He brings all of them up with a hook; he drags them out with his net; he gathers them in his dragnet.” These were images that were common in the ancient world and images that were sometimes applied to the mighty rulers of the earth, as the Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary demonstrates:
Nineteenth-century B.C. Egyptian wall paintings from Beni Hasan depict fishermen using spears, hook and line, as well as dragnets made of woven baskets (see Ezek. 12:13; Amos 4:2). Rulers, in their propagandistic pronouncements, used proverbs or metaphors to depict their strength. Thus they were capable of trapping their enemies like fish or birds in a net (see Hos. 5:1). For example, the use of a net filled with fish is found in the account of Pharaoh Thutmose III’s victory at Megiddo, where he refers to his enemies “lying prostrate like fishes in the bulge of a net.” In the Mari texts, the gods assist the king to overcome treacherous enemies, promising to gather Babylon “into the net” and assuring him that the ruler of Eshunna will be collected “into a net with which I will surround him.”
Yes, the mighty of the earth were those who drug others in their nets. In applying these images to Babylon Habakkuk was registering his shock and outrage at the very notion that God would use these people to chasten His own. Yet this was God’s plan.
God asserts His control over human history and calls upon Habakkuk to have faith.
The Lord responds with unbelievable patience and grace.
2 And the Lord answered me:“Write the vision;make it plain on tablets,so he may run who reads it.3 For still the vision awaits its appointed time;it hastens to the end—it will not lie.If it seems slow, wait for it;it will surely come; it will not delay.
God tells Habakkuk that he can count on God’s word, God’s faithfulness, and God’s plan, no matter how surprising that plan might be. The Lord makes a powerful statement about time. What seems slow to us only seems that way because of our limited perspective. But perceived slowness does not mean that God actually is asleep at the wheel. He never is! He is never slow! God determines what is slow and what is quick. His perspective is eternal. Ours is temporal. The words “Wait for it; it will surely come” are words we should cling to when we are confused or when we feel that God is silent. God is faithful! Indeed, His answer and the completion of His plan “will come.”
God next tells Habakkuk that He is fully aware of Babylon’s wickedness, that He is not in the dark on the matter.
4 “Behold, his soul is puffed up; it is not upright within him,but the righteous shall live by his faith.5 “Moreover, wineis a traitor,an arrogant man who is never at rest.His greed is as wide as Sheol;like death he has never enough.He gathers for himself all nationsand collects as his own all peoples.”
The Lord begins an oracle of judgment against Babylon. In other words, while God will use wicked Babylon He will yet judge Babylon for their wickedness. Babylon is responsible for its evil behavior. They are culpable. God’s usage of them does not sully God’s character. Babylon and Babylon alone is responsible for its own behavior. So God’s plan stands. He will use wicked Babylon to discipline His children then He will bring judgment against Babylon.
Habakkuk 2:4 contains the beautiful expression “the righteous shall live by faith.” You may have heard the phrase before. In the New Testament it is used to describe the nature of saving faith in Jesus Christ. In Romans 1, Paul writes:
16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. 17 For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.”
He uses the phrase again in Galatians 3.
10 For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.” 11 Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for “The righteous shall live by faith.”
It is occasionally asked how people in the Old Testament were saved. They were saved exactly the same way anybody is saved: by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. The fact that the Old Testament saints did not know the name of Jesus the Savior does not mean they could not look forward in anticipatory faith in the Savior.
“The righteous shall live by faith,” God told Habakkuk. See and trust and believe in the saving heart of our great God! For in time God would bring to fruition a plan that was even more shocking than the plan He revealed to Habakkuk concerning the Babylonians. The more shocking plan was that God in the fullness of time would send His only begotten Son to die on a cross and then rise from the dead to save a lost and rebellious world.
Our God is the God of the unexpected, the shocking, and the miraculous. He is always catching us off guard, just as He caught Habakkuk off guard. But His greatest surprise would come in the form of a little baby born in Bethlehem. Now thatwas a surprise!
See the surprising hand of God! See and have faith. Dare to believe. For “the righteous shall live by faith.”
Mark Dever, The Message of the Old Testament. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2006), p.842, 844.
Victor H. Matthews, “Habakkuk.” Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009), 169-170.