6 Shall not all these take up their taunt against him, with scoffing and riddles for him, and say, “Woe to him who heaps up what is not his own—for how long?—and loads himself with pledges!” 7 Will not your debtors suddenly arise, and those awake who will make you tremble? Then you will be spoil for them. 8 Because you have plundered many nations, all the remnant of the peoples shall plunder you, for the blood of man and violence to the earth, to cities and all who dwell in them. 9 “Woe to him who gets evil gain for his house, to set his nest on high, to be safe from the reach of harm! 10 You have devised shame for your house by cutting off many peoples; you have forfeited your life. 11 For the stone will cry out from the wall, and the beam from the woodwork respond. 12 “Woe to him who builds a town with blood and founds a city on iniquity! 13 Behold, is it not from the Lord of hosts that peoples labor merely for fire, and nations weary themselves for nothing? 14 For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. 15 “Woe to him who makes his neighbors drink—you pour out your wrath and make them drunk, in order to gaze at their nakedness! 16 You will have your fill of shame instead of glory. Drink, yourself, and show your uncircumcision! The cup in the Lord’s right hand will come around to you, and utter shame will come upon your glory! 17 The violence done to Lebanon will overwhelm you, as will the destruction of the beasts that terrified them, for the blood of man and violence to the earth, to cities and all who dwell in them. 18 “What profit is an idol when its maker has shaped it, a metal image, a teacher of lies? For its maker trusts in his own creation when he makes speechless idols! 19 Woe to him who says to a wooden thing, Awake; to a silent stone, Arise! Can this teach? Behold, it is overlaid with gold and silver, and there is no breath at all in it. 20 But the Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him.”
I am struck by a stunning painting painted in 1851-3 by the British artist John Martin entitled “The Great Day of His Wrath.”
The Tate website description of the piece is most helpful and interesting.
This is the third picture in Martin’s great triptych, known as the Judgement Series. Along with the other two vast panels, The Last Judgement and The Plains of Heaven…it was inspired by St John the Divine’s fantastic account of the Last Judgement given in Revelation, the last book of the New Testament. Martin’s aim in producing this series was highly Romantic: to express the sublime, apocalyptic force of nature and the helplessness of man to combat God’s will. Of all Martin’s biblical scenes, this presents his most cataclysmic vision of destruction, featuring an entire city being torn up and thrown into the abyss.
The Book of Judgement is sealed with seven seals. As each seal is broken, mysterious and terrifying events occur, culminating in the breaking of the sixth seal:
and, lo, there was a great earthquake’ and the sun became black as sackcloth of hair, and the moon became as blood; | And the stars of heaven fell unto the earth, even as a fig tree casteth her untimely figs, when she is shaken of a mighty wind. | And the heaven departed as a scroll when it is rolled together; and every mountain and island were moved out of their places. (Revelation 6:12-14)
Martin follows the biblical description closely, but adds his own sensational effects. A blood-red glow casts an eerie light over the scene. The mountains are transformed into rolling waves of solid rock, crushing any buildings that lie in their wake. Lightning splits the giant boulders which crash towards the dark abyss, and groups of helpless figures tumble inexorably towards oblivion.
The three pictures in the triptych became famous in the years after Martin’s death and were toured throughout England and America. They were described as “The most sublime and extraordinary pictures in the world valued at 8000 guineas”…Many mezzotints of the pictures were sold, but the vastness and theatricality of Martin’s visions now appeared outmoded to the mid-Victorians, and the paintings themselves failed to find a buyer. By the twentieth century, Martin’s work had fallen into obscurity and he became known as ‘Mad Martin’. In 1935 the triptych was sold for seven pounds and the separate panels dispersed. It was reunited by the Tate in 1974.
The painting itself is beautiful and powerful and captures something of the immensity and devastation of the day of judgement. I am intrigued by the painting, but I am also intrigued by the painting’s story. This astonishing depiction of God’s wrath and judgment went from being celebrated, valuable, and of interest to large audiences to being somewhat ignored, considered outdated, and of much less value.
What strikes me about the journey of this amazing painting of judgment is that, in some ways, it reflects the journey of the amazing doctrineof judgment. There was a time when preaching on judgment and the wrath of God was commonplace, was valued, and was appreciated by many, many people. This is much less so now. In many ways, it seems that the doctrine of God’s judgment and God’s wrath is much less valuable to many, even in the church. This is tragic because the jettisoning of divine wrath from one’s conception of God will inevitably lead to a warped and skewed theology.
In Habakkuk 2:6-20 the Lord declares five woes upon Babylon. Yes, God would use Babylon to chasten His own sinful people, but God’s pronouncement of woes on Babylon means that His justice is consistent, and that the wicked people He would allow to bring discipline would themselves be the objects of discipline in time.
Woe upon wicked Babylon!
In Matthew 23 Jesus announced seven woes on the scribes and Pharisees. Here, the Lord announces five woes on Babylon. He prefaces the woes with a rhetorical question in the beginning of verse 6: “Shall not all these take up their taunt against him, with scoffing and riddles for him, and say…” Who are “all these” and who is the “him” against whom “all these” will taunt and scoff? We can define “all these” by considering the end of verse 5:
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 “all these” are the numerous nations and peoples who will fall beneath Babylon’s wicked and cruel sword. The “him,” therefore, is Babylon. Thus, in Habakkuk 2 God is announcing the woes that will come upon Babylon when He brings judgment against them, part of which will the judgment of Babylon’s victims rising up against them as conquerors. The woes are profoundly chilling:
6 Shall not all these take up their taunt against him, with scoffing and riddles for him, and say, “Woe to him who heaps up what is not his own—for how long?—and loads himself with pledges!” 7 Will not your debtors suddenly arise, and those awake who will make you tremble? Then you will be spoil for them. 8 Because you have plundered many nations, all the remnant of the peoples shall plunder you, for the blood of man and violence to the earth, to cities and all who dwell in them.
Babylon will be judged for their economic oppression of others, their demanding of pledges. In time, the debtors will “suddenly arise” and strike back at their oppressor. D. David Garland notes that the phrase “will not your debtors suddenly arise” is literally translated “they will rise up with suddenness and bite.”The powerful will, in time, become the powerless and the violent will become the victims. Indeed, the plunderer will be plundered. Babylon’s violence and wickedness will not go unchecked forever. There will be a day of reckoning.
The great preacher Ambrose of Milan made these verses personal and applied them to individuals who have a lust for wealth and power and who run over others to get it.
Woe to him who has a fortune amassed by deceit and builds in blood a city, in other words, his soul. For it is this that is built like a city. Greed does not build it but sets it on fire and burns it. Do you wish to build your city well? “Better is a little with the fear of the Lord than great treasures without fear.” The riches of a person ought to work for the redemption of his soul, not to its destruction. Wealth is redemption if one uses it well; so too it is a snare if one does not know how to use it. For what is a person’s money if not provision for the journey.
In applying these verses in this way, Ambrose was making an important point: the woes against Babylon are truly against any who partake in Babylon’s sins. They are as applicable to us today as to them. For this reason, we must heed these warnings and tremble before the wrath that God will visit against all wickedness.
9 “Woe to him who gets evil gain for his house, to set his nest on high, to be safe from the reach of harm! 10 You have devised shame for your house by cutting off many peoples; you have forfeited your life. 11 For the stone will cry out from the wall, and the beam from the woodwork respond.
In this woe, the Lord mocks Babylon’s assumption that they were untouchable, that their “nest” was like the nest of the eagle, so high that it could not be assailed. On the contrary, because of Babylon’s shame “the stone will cry out from the wall.” There is no use building your nest high on the mountain if the mountain itself will rise up in condemnation of you! The implication is clear: you cannot escape the judgment of Almighty God!
12 “Woe to him who builds a town with blood and founds a city on iniquity! 13 Behold, is it not from the Lord of hosts that peoples labor merely for fire, and nations weary themselves for nothing? 14 For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.
This woe condemns Babylon’s violence. Their supposed greatness was established on the backs of their victims. They built their empire “with blood” and “on iniquity.” Against this unholy habitation, God announces that He will bring it to nought. He will bring Babylon down! Babylon had wearied itself for nothing and their efforts would come to nothing. David Garland explains the image of “labor[ing] merely for fire”:
The expression labor…for firein v.13 means in Hebrew “for what suffices for fire.” The term fireapparently has reference to the devastation left in the wake of war (cf. Amos 1:4, 7, 10), and indicates total destruction. The great cities and imposing buildings of the oppressors will be reduced to ashes. The Lord of hostswill bring them to naught; he will destroy them. All that the oppressors have built, they have founded upon cruelty, violence, and bloodshed. Therefore, all that they have done, they have done in vain. God will not permit evil to continue indefinitely.
Next we see a woe against Babylon’s violence and debauchery:
15 “Woe to him who makes his neighbors drink—you pour out your wrath and make them drunk, in order to gaze at their nakedness! 16 You will have your fill of shame instead of glory. Drink, yourself, and show your uncircumcision! The cup in the Lord’s right hand will come around to you, and utter shame will come upon your glory! 17 The violence done to Lebanon will overwhelm you, as will the destruction of the beasts that terrified them, for the blood of man and violence to the earth, to cities and all who dwell in them.
Some see in these words a condemnation of Babylon’s violence. In this reading the emphasis is on “make”: “you pour out your wrath and make them drunk.” It is a picture of a strong man forcing a weak man to drink himself into oblivion. In this reading, this is not a party in which one person passively corrupts another by making corrupting elements available, it is a forced act of drunkenness, a violent plunging of another’s head into the vat. Others suggest that what we have here is a description of the spread of debauched culture. Both are forms of violence, in truth, but in this latter reading the idea is that decadent, godless Babylonian culture would be spread throughout the world, thus bringing the wrath of God upon Babylon. Ralph Smith writes:
The fourth woe is the doom of debauchery. The guilty ones here are those who ruin their fellow men by strong drink in order to gaze on their shame…Strong drink, crime, immorality often go together. Unquestionably, drink and drugs have been the path of doom for many. Habakkuk says that the one who makes his neighbor drunk will himself drink the cup of the wrath of God.
The reference to “the violence done to Lebanon” is also intriguing. It speaks to the greed and pompous arrogance of Babylon. Victor Matthews explains:
The forests of Lebanon are mentioned in the earliest texts from Mesopotamia. Each strong ruler began his royal annals and his career by staging campaigns to establish ownership over the cedar needed to help construct their palaces and temples. The Assyrian king Tiglath-Pileser I (1114-1076) notes in his annals: “Upon the command of Anu and Adad, the great gods, my lords, I went to the Lebanon mountains. I cut cedar beams for the temple of Anu and Adad.”
According to his royal annals, Nebuchadnezzar ordered his army to construct a road “for the transport of the cedars” of Lebanon. He describes how they “cut through steep mountains, split rocks, [and] opened passages” to build this commercial logging road. This was done in the name of freeing the land of its foreign enemies. However, these trees actually were used to build his palace and to enhance the temple of Marduk in Babylon.
The final woe is a condemnation of the pagan religiosity of Babylon:
18 “What profit is an idol when its maker has shaped it, a metal image, a teacher of lies? For its maker trusts in his own creation when he makes speechless idols! 19 Woe to him who says to a wooden thing, Awake; to a silent stone, Arise! Can this teach? Behold, it is overlaid with gold and silver, and there is no breath at all in it.
The wording of this final woe drips with scorn. The Babylonians make their idols but, in truth, their idols have no power! They are simply “wood things” and “silent stones.” The Lord mocks them: “Woe to him who says to a wooden thing, Awake; to a silent stone, Arise! Can this teach?” No, it cannot. At the end of the day, the Lord says, “there is no breath at all in it.” This wording is reminiscent of Elijah’s taunting in 1 Kings 18 of the prophets of Baal in their great showdown on Mt. Carmel.
27 And at noon Elijah mocked them, saying, “Cry aloud, for he is a god. Either he is musing, or he is relieving himself, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened.”
Truly idols are silly things when compared to the living God! Yet they are deadly and deadly serious in their effects upon mens’ souls. Woe upon all who turn from the worship of the true God to worship lifeless things! Woe upon giving affections that should be reserved for God alone to a dumb and mute object.
God reigns on high!
This is a hard chapter filled with hard words. However, in the midst of these word, there are two words of great worship and praise. One is found in the midst of the woes and the other is found at the end of the chapter.
14 For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.
20 But the Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him.
The first statement is a statement of contrast. Whereas Babylon will seemto fill the earth, their reign will be temporary. Their retreat would not be subtle or gentle either. Rather, God Himself will bring them to nothing. Their great empire will be reduced to a memory and their name tossed on the fabled scrapheap of history. But “the knowledge of the glory of the Lord” will fill the earth “as the waters cover the sea!”
The name of God is eternal. It is above all nations, empires, and kings! Babylon is no more, but the name of Jesus is heralded throughout the world today! May we bear this in mind when we are tempted to think too well of ourselves, to put too much stock in our own names. God’s name alone deserves honor and glory! God’s name alone is eternal!
The chapter concludes with a powerful statement that “the Lord is in his holy temple.” Because of this, “all the earth” should “keep silence before him.” Francis I. Anderson says of verse 20 that “[i]t is full of irony. The whole matter began with the frantic prayers of the prophet to his silent God. Now the whole world is reduced to silence before the majesty of Yahweh.” Anderson sees in this a parallel to Job: “Like Job…Habakkuk ends by putting his hand on his mouth.”It is a valid parallel to point out! Complaining Habakkuk, like complaining Job, is ultimately silenced before grandeur of God!
God is greater than Habakkuk. God is greater than His own people. God is greater than Assyria. God is greater than Babylon. The whole story leading up to Habakkuk’s complaint and the whole story that has unfolded since his complaint has all led up to this great and grand truth: God alone is sovereign and God alone reigns!
D. David Garland. “Habakkuk.” The Broadman Bible Commentary. Vol. 7 (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1972), p.259.
Alberto Ferreiro, ed. The Twelve Prophets. Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture. Gen. Ed., Thomas C. Oden. Old Testament Vol. XIV (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003), p.196.
Ralph L. Smith. Micah-Malachi. Word Biblical Commentary. Gen. Ed., David A. Hubbard and Glenn W. Barker. Vol.32 (Waco, TX: Word Books, Publishers, 1984), p.111.
Victor H. Matthews. “Habakkuk.” Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009), 169-171.
Francis I. Andersen. Habakkuk. The Anchor Bible. Gen. Ed., William Foxwell Albright and David Noel Freeman. Vol.25 (New York, NY: Doubleday, 2001), p.256.