16 I hear, and my body trembles; my lips quiver at the sound; rottenness enters into my bones; my legs tremble beneath me. Yet I will quietly wait for the day of trouble to come upon people who invade us. 17 Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, 18 yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will take joy in the God of my salvation. 19 God, the Lord, is my strength; he makes my feet like the deer’s; he makes me tread on my high places. To the choirmaster: with stringed instruments.
James Montgomery Boice has passed on a very interesting story about our text.
The last section of this chapter contains some of the most moving verses in all the Bible. On one occasion it was used by Benjamin Franklin, who was not a Christian, to confound some of the sophisticated, cultured despisers of the Bible whom he met in Paris when he was serving as United States Plenipotentiary to that country. The skeptics were mocking him for his admiration of the Bible. So he decided to find out how well they knew the book they professed to scorn. One evening he entered their company with a manuscript that contained an ancient poem he said he had been reading. He said that he had been impressed with its stately beauty. They asked to hear it. He held it out and read this great third chapter of Habakkuk ending with:
Though the fig tree does not bud
and there are no grapes on the vines,
though the olive crop fails
and the fields produce no food,
though there are no sheep in the pen
and no cattle in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord,
I will be joyful in God my Savior.
The Sovereign Lord is my strength;
he makes my feet like the feet of a deer.
he enables me to go on the heights.
The reading was received with exclamations of extravagant admiration. “What a magnificent piece of verse!” they cried. Where had Franklin found it? How could they get copies? They were astonished when he informed them that it was the third chapter of Habakkuk’s prophecy.
Yes, this is indeed a powerful verse, but it is not merely powerful because it is beautifully written and constructed. It is powerful because of what it reveals about the Lord our God and about the prophet Habakkuk’s trust in Him.
It is possible to trust in God when you are scared.
Remember the unfolding development of the book of Habakkuk: (1) the prophet Habakkuk complains about what he sees as God’s silence in the face of the corruption and wickedness of His own people, (2) God responds that He has indeed seen it and that He is going to allow Babylon to discipline His unruly children, (3) Habakkuk responds with shocked outrage that God would use a people who are even more wicked than His own people, (4) God responds that He is indeed aware of the wickedness of Babylon and that, though He will use them to chasten His children, He will judge Babylon for its wickedness and they will face His wrath, and (5) Habakkuk trembles before the awesome power, might, and wrath of God. Now, in this final movement, Habakkuk accepts the decision of God and chooses to trust in God and His plan.
We begin with Habakkuk’s acknowledgment that God’s plan and God’s might and power have shaken him to the core.
16 I hear, and my body trembles; my lips quiver at the sound; rottenness enters into my bones; my legs tremble beneath me. Yet I will quietly wait for the day of trouble to come upon people who invade us.
David Garland summarizes verse 16 with the idea that Habakkuk “was all shaken up.”That is true enough! It is an understatement, in reality. Habakkuk is overwhelmed by what He has heard. His body trembles before the awesome power of God and before the reality of the suffering that they will endure before the Babylonians. Notice the physical manifestations of Habakkuk’s fear:
- “my body trembles”
- “my lips quiver”
- “rottenness [weakness, loss of strength] enters into my bones”
- “my legs tremble beneath me”
Yes, this was an exceptional situation to be sure. Even so, when we see God as He is—clothed in power, majesty, glory, and might—we cannot help but tremble! And, yes, sometimes we tremble before His plan, for even though we trust we fear the road that we will have to walk to salvation. Yet trust is key, and it is present in this verse: “Yet I will quietly wait for the day of trouble to come upon people who invade us.”
It is possible to trust in God when you are scared.
It is possible to tremble but say, “Hallelujah!”
It is possible to fear but to worship.
It is possible to know that the reality of what is happening is beyond your own meager human capacity to withstand it but to trust simultaneously that God will see you through!
It is ok to quake, but do not give up! Tremble with Habakkuk but also trust with Habakkuk!
It is possible to have joy in God when things look hopeless.
What is more, it is possible actually to have joy in God when things look hopeless! Habakkuk continues:
17 Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, 18 yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will take joy in the God of my salvation.
Habakkuk’s description of woe upon the land would make anybody in an agrarian society (or in any society) despair! The picture of fig trees not blossoming, vines not producing fruit, olive crops failing, and the animals dying and not being born is enough to chill the hearts of even modern urban people. It is a picture of outright hopelessness.
But the word “yet” in verse 18 sounds a different note. Even though all of these things happen, Habakkuk will dare not only to trust but to have joy, to rejoice!
18 yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will take joy in the God of my salvation.
Ralph Smith notes that “the words ‘rejoice’ and ‘exult’ [New American Standard Bible] each have the cohorative attached” which “is the strongest possible way to say that one is determined to rejoice in the Lord regardless of what does or does not happen.”This makes sense. In the midst of dire times and frightening happenings, it takes a deliberate step of faith and resolve to behave counterintuitively and counterculturally, that is, to rejoice!
For the moment let us think less of how such a thing is possible than of the clear fact, buttressed by the authority of scripture, that such a thing is possible. It is possible to have faith and joy in the midst of fear and happenings that appear hopeless.
I suspect that much of the incredulity we might feel at the thought of this is a result of conflating “joy” and “happiness.” “Happiness” is the emotional and physical manifestation of joy. However, it is possible to have the foundation of joy in tact even when the fruits of happiness are missing in the midst of trying times. In other words, joy is deeper and stronger than happiness. Joy is bedrock. Happiness, though valuable and though a quality that should indeed mark the believer’s life, is more susceptible to being battered by the circumstances of life.
For example, I have watched Christian people grieve the death of loved ones with great tears while holding on to a sense of expectant joy. You would not say they were “happy” in the moment but you would say that they had a deep joy about them. I have watched Christian people hold on to joy in the midst of sickness and disease even while fighting against crippling pain. Mothers may or may not feel “happiness” in the midst of delivering their children, but I have heard testimonies of great joy from numerous moms about the experience.
Let us now consider the “how” of this. How can one have joy in the midst of pain? Perhaps we could all agree with this: pray for it and fight for it! Ask God to give you a foundation of joy that is deeper than the circumstances of life. Ask God—passionately, boldly, faithfully—to grant you the gift of joy! Then fight for it in faith and worship and service when the circumstances of life threaten to take it away!
It is possible to live out God’s ultimate victory in the midst of what appears to be defeat.
The prophet ends with an amazing note. In the midst of all that is happening and about to happen, Habakkuk proclaims that he has ultimate victory through the Lord God. Habakkuk proclaims that God will see him through the day of trouble!
19 God, the Lord, is my strength; he makes my feet like the deer’s; he makes me tread on my high places. To the choirmaster: with stringed instruments.
Verse 19 contrasts beautifully with verse 17. In verse 17, the prophet prepared for “the flock [to] be cut off from the fold and [for] there [to] be no herd in the stalls.” Yet here he announces that God “makes my feet like the deer’s; he makes me tread on my high places”! In a day of death and destruction, Habakkuk sees life and victory! In a day when the stalls are empty, Habakkuk himself treads the heights like a deer!
In 1874 the commentator John Peter Lange summarized Habakkuk 3 like this:
- These tribulations must and will come (ver. 2a, 16, 17).
- But the same God, who decrees them, will also turn them away and put down all his enemies (Is. liv. 10) (ver. 2b-15)
- And the final salvation is certain, therefore the Church can already, in the midst of troubles, maintain a joyful heart (vers. 18, 19).
Yes, we can have a joyful heart in the midst of troubles. It is likely that there will be times when we will have to cry out like the hurting father in Mark 9:24, “I believe; help my unbelief!” That is ok! Even so, do not give up! Do not despair! Do not lose faith! Our great God sees you and hears you. He is coming! Yes, His answer may at times appear more frightening than His perceived absence, but that is a problem of our ability to see and not of His ability to save.
Our God reigns! Our God will not be overcome! Our God is not sleeping! He is here, in the person of His Son Jesus the Christ. He is here and He is not silent. He has not forgotten us! He will save His people!
James Montgomery Boice. The Minor Prophets: Micah-Malachi. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1986), p.432-433.
D. David Garland. “Habakkuk.” The Broadman Bible Commentary. Vol. 7 (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1972), p.269.
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.117.
John Peter Lange. “Habakkuk.” Commentary on the Holy Scriptures: Minor Prophets. Translated by Philip Schaff (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1874), p.39.