Guide to the Book of Habakkuk
One important aspect of the ancient TaNaK order of the Hebrew Bible is that the 12 prophetic works of Hosea through Malachi, sometimes referred to as the Minor Prophets, were designed as a single book called The Twelve. Habakkuk is the eighth book of The Twelve.
Habakkuk lived in the final decades of Judah, Israel’s southern kingdom. It was a time of injustice and idolatry, and he saw the rising threat of the Babylonian empire on the horizon. Unlike the other Hebrew prophets, Habakkuk doesn’t accuse Israel or even speak to the people on God’s behalf. Instead, all of his words are addressed to God. The book of Habakkuk tells us about Habakkuk’s personal struggle to believe that God is good when there is so much tragedy and evil in the world.
Many of Habakkuk’s words are actually poems of lament, similar to the lamentations in the book of Psalms. In a lament, the poet lodges a complaint to draw God’s attention to the suffering and injustice in the world and then demands that God do something. Knowing this is actually the key to understanding the design and message of this short book. Chapters 1 and 2 are framed as a back-and-forth argument between Habakkuk and God. The prophet lodges two complaints (Hab. 1:2-4, 1:12-2:1), to which God offers two responses (Hab. 1:5-11, 2:2-5).
6:49 • Old Testament Overviews
The book of Habakkuk is seen as a collection of messages given by Habakkuk throughout his prophetic life. However, the author is not explicitly stated within the book.
The events described in the book of Habakkuk take place in Judah, Babylon, and Egypt, before the Babylonian siege (587/586 B.C.E.) and subsequent exile.
Habakkuk contains mostly poetry with some prose-discourse.
Habakkuk is divided into three parts. Habakkuk 1-2:5 contains Habakkuk’s lament over Israel’s injustice. Habakkuk 2:6-20 details the woes God pronounces against Babylon. Finally, Habakkuk 3 concludes with the call to trust God and his ultimate justice.
Habakkuk’s first complaint in verses 1:2-4 is that life in Israel is horrible. The Torah is neglected, resulting in violence and injustice, and all of it is being tolerated by Israel’s corrupt leaders. Habakkuk is crying out, asking God to do something, but nothing is changing.
All of a sudden, God responds (Hab. 1:5-11), saying that he is aware of the deep corruption among his covenant people and that he’s summoning the armies of Babylon to bring justice down on rebellious Israel. Similar to the message of Micah and Isaiah, God says that he will use this terrifying empire to devour Israel because of their injustice and evil.
Habakkuk has a problem with this answer and offers up his second complaint (Hab. 1:12-2:1). Babylon, he says, is even worse than Israel. They are even more violent and corrupt; they’ve deified their own military power and treat humans like animals, gathering them up like fish in a net. They devour nations and people groups to further build their empire. Habakkuk asks, How can such a holy, good, and just God possibly use such corrupt people as his instruments in history? He demands an explanation and depicts himself as a watchman on the city walls, awaiting God’s response.
God tells Habakkuk to get some tablets and write down all that he sees and hears, sending him a vision about an appointed time in the future that may seem slow in coming but that will come. God also tells him that the “righteous person will live by their faith” (Hab. 2:4) in the hope presented in this vision.
What exactly is the divine promise that Habakkuk is to write down? God will one day bring Babylon down using the never-ending cycle of revenge and violence created by nations like Babylon. The fact that God may, for a time, use a corrupt nation like Babylon doesn’t mean that he endorses everything they do. He holds all nations accountable to his justice, and Babylon will fall along with any nation that acts like them.
God’s promise is then elaborated by a series of five “woes” that describe the typical forms of oppression and injustice perpetrated by nations like Babylon. The first two target unjust economic practices, like how wealthy people charge ridiculous interest to keep others trapped in debt, building their own wealth through crooked means. The third woe is a critique of slave labor and those who treat humans like animals, threatening them with violence if they aren’t productive enough. The fourth woe targets the abuse of alcohol by irresponsible leaders. While others suffer under their bad leadership, they’re partying and wasting their wealth on sex and booze. The last woe exposes the idolatry driving such nations. They have made money, power, and national security into gods, offering allegiance to them at all costs and becoming slaves to their own empire.
Now, the practices described here aren’t unique to Babylon, and that’s the point. Given the human condition, most nations will eventually become Babylon. God’s answer to Habakkuk becomes God’s answer to all later generations, to anyone who lives in a world ruled by other Babylons. This leaves us with an unsettling, open question: Will God let this cycle go on forever, letting Babylon-like empires ruin each other and his world?
This question is what the last chapter is all about. It opens with a prayer of Habakkuk, where the prophet begins by pleading with God to act in the present like he has in the past, bringing down corrupt nations. “Renew your work in our days” (Hab. 3:2). What follows is an ancient poem that describes a powerful and terrifying appearance of God through clouds, fire, and earthquake. It’s very similar to the opening poems of Micah and Nahum, as well as the appearance of God at Mount Sinai in Exodus 19-20. When the Creator shows up to confront human evil, it will get everyone’s attention.
Habakkuk continues by describing the future defeat of evil among the nations as a future exodus. Just like God came as a warrior and split the sea in his battle against Pharaoh, Habakkuk says that God will once more bring his judgment down on the “head of the evil house.” Pharaoh, like Babylon, serves as an archetype of violent nations. At the same time, when God confronts evil, he will “save his people, and his anointed one” (Hab. 3:13), a reference to the coming king from the line of David. In this poem, the Exodus story of the past has become an image of a future exodus God will perform. He will once again defeat evil and bring down the Pharaohs and Babylons of the world, bringing justice to all people and rescuing the oppressed and innocent.
It’s this promise that enables Habakkuk to end the book with hopeful praise. Even if the world is falling apart from food shortages, drought, war, or whatever, he will choose to trust and take joy in the covenant promise of God. By the end of the book of Habakkuk, the prophet becomes a shining example of how “the righteous live by faith.” He recognizes just how dark and chaotic the world and our lives can become, but he also sees how this invites us into the journey of faith, trusting that God loves this world more than we can imagine and that he will one day deal with its evil.
Habakkuk sees the darkness of the world as an invitation to have faith in God’s promise to one day set things right. Living with such faith means trusting that God loves this world and works to one day eradicate all evil forever.