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by John Dummelow
1. Author. Nothing whatever is known of Habakkuk other than what may be inferred from his book. The inference, based on the subscription ’on my stringed instruments’ (Habakkuk 3:19), that he was a singer or player in the Temple choir is altogether precarious, if not untenable; partly because there is no certainty that this chapter is Habakkuk’s own (see on Habakkuk 3:17); partly because the text is probably faulty, the true reading being simply ’on stringed instruments’; and still more, because this subscription is in all probability no part of the original poem which forms Habakkuk 3. All that we know of the person of Habakkuk is that he was a great prophet who has left us one of the noblest and most penetrating words in the history of religion (Habakkuk 2:4).
2. Summary of Contents. (Habakkuk 1:1-4) The prophet begins with a complaint to Jehovah touching the prevalent violence, oppression, and perversion of the law. ’How long,’ he cries, ’and why?’ For answer (Habakkuk 1:5-11) comes the divine word that the Chaldeans are to be raised up in chastisement, and the work which they will do is such as to be almost incredible. Then follows a graphic description of their terrible army, with their swift horses, their keen cavalry, their cruel and brazen faces. They laugh at all authority, and at every attempt to stop their advance. They worship might, not right. But in the next section (Habakkuk 1:12-17) the prophet’s attitude towards this people (if it is the same people as in Habakkuk 1:5-11) has changed. He shudders at their impiety, and is confounded by it. They have overstepped the limits of their commission; how can Jehovah reconcile with His own holiness and purity the barbarities perpetrated by the conqueror?
(Habakkuk 2:1-4) The divine answer to the prophet’s perplexity comes when he climbs his tower (the tower of faith) and looks abroad. The answer is that the proud shall perish and the righteous shall ultimately live. It may not be obvious now: the visible solution may tarry a long time; but faith sees it already. ’The just shall live by his faithfulness.’ The next section (Habakkuk 2:5-20) consists of five ’woes,’ which elaborate the thought of Habakkuk 2:4;—the sure destruction of the proud. Woes are denounced upon the cruel rapacity of the conquerors, the unjust accumulations of treasure, the passion for building, the unfeeling treatment of the land, beasts, and people, and finally the idolatry. In contrast to the impotent gods worshipped by the oppressor, is the great Jehovah whose Temple is in the heavens, and before whom all the earth must be silent (Habakkuk 2:20). He comes, and His coming is described in Habakkuk 3 in rich and varied imagery; and this ’prayer’ concludes with the expression of unbounded confidence and joy in Jehovah, even when all visible signs of His love may fail.
3. Occasion calling forth the Prophecy. The prophecy of Habakkuk may be dated approximately about the year 600 b.c. The last twenty-five years had been a time of great significance for Western Asia in general and for Judah in particular. At the beginning of that period Assyria had been the great world power; but from the year 625 b.c., when Nabopolassar succeeded in establishing an independent Babylonian monarchy, the Assyrian empire had rapidly declined, till at length, in 607 b.c., Nineveh, the capital, was taken, and by the battle of Carchemish, in which Egypt, the great competing power in the West, was defeated, Babylonian supremacy was assured. Judah naturally became a vassal of Babylon, and about the year 601-600 was invaded because of the rebellion of king Jehoiakim.
Within Judah herself, much that was of first-rate importance both for history and religion had happened. Zephaniah and Nahum had prophesied, and Jeremiah was in the middle of his great career. In 621 b.c., on the basis of the newly-discovered book of Deuteronomy, king Josiah had inaugurated a reformation which had raised the hopes of good men; but its influence, as we learn from Jeremiah, had been, upon the whole, but brief and shallow. The death of Josiah upon the battlefield in 608 b.c. aggravated a situation already difficult enough. His son Jehoahaz, who reigned but three months, was succeeded by Jehoiakim, a man of extravagant tastes and contemptible character—the very last man to guide the state through the perplexities and perils of the time.
It was in his reign, apparently, that Habakkuk delivered his message. Through his words we can clearly read the prevalent disregard of law and order, and the abounding political confusion and religious perplexity occasioned by the supremacy of the Chaldeans. The precise interpretation and occasion of the book, however, are unusually hard to. determine. We shall very briefly indicate the difficulties and the solution which seems the most probable. In Habakkuk 1:1-4 it is not clear who the oppressors are, whether foreigners or the ruling classes within Judah itself. As in Habakkuk 1:5-11, the Chaldeans (i.e. the Babylonians) appear to be raised up to chastise them, it is more natural to suppose that the oppressors are natives of Judah. But in Habakkuk 1:12-17 the Chaldeans themselves seem to be the oppressors—though this is not expressly said—as they are described in terms very similar to the description in Habakkuk 1:5-11 and they bring fresh perplexity to the prophet by ’swallowing up the man that is more righteous than’ they (Habakkuk 1:13). The ’righteous’ would in this case be Judah, and that description of Judah, coming after such a picture of anarchy as we have in Habakkuk 1:1-4, would be somewhat strange.
The difficulties may be partly met by assuming that the various sections were written at different times, Habakkuk 1:12-17, in which Judah is relatively righteous in comparison with the Chaldeans, being later than Habakkuk 1:1-4. The only real clue fco the historical occasion of the prophecy is the mention of the Chaldeans in Habakkuk 1:5-11. Their appearance and their military methods are apparently well known, and this circumstance implies a date shortly before, or more probably shortly after, the great battle of Carchemish in 605 b.c., in which the Babylonian army under Nebuchadrezzar defeated the Egyptians, and established a supremacy, which lasted about seventy years, over Western Asia. The prophet welcomes the advent of the Chaldeans (Habakkuk 1:5-11) as the divinely-appointed scourge of the evils among Jehovah’s people in Judah (Habakkuk 1:1-4); but this solution only heightens the horror of his problem, as he becomes better acquainted with the cruel and aggressive pride of the Chaldeans (Habakkuk 1:12-17); and he must find a deeper solution. He finds it finally, upon his watchtower, in the assurance that somehow, despite all seeming, the purpose of God is hasting on to its fulfilment, and that the moral constitution of the world is such as to spell the ultimate ruin of cruelty and pride, and the ultimate triumph of righteousness (Habakkuk 2:1-4). His faith was historically justified by the fall of the Babylonian empire in 538 B.C.
4. Religious Ideas of the Book. The dominant ideas of the book shine most clearly out of the great vision which Habakkuk saw from his watchtower (Habakkuk 2:1-4). Briefly, they are Patience and Faith (Habakkuk 2:3-4). The prophet had expected an adequate solution to his doubts to arrive in his own day (cp. Habakkuk 1:5, ’in your days’); and he welcomes the Chaldeans as divine avengers of sin. But Habakkuk is an independent and progressive thinker, and the more he watches the Chaldeans, the more he feels sure that the solution they bring is utterly inadequate. Then he lifts his sorrowful heart to God, and he is soothed and strengthened by a larger vision of the divine purpose and its inevitable triumph. He does not now know, as once he thought he did, by what human and historical means that triumph is to be secured; but he knows that it is certain. ’It is sure to come, it will not lag behind.’ That is faith, and the obverse of faith is patience. It is so sure that he can afford to ’wait for it, though it tarry,’ and though it come not in his own day. It is ’trust’ in God that will carry the ’righteous’ across his doubts and fears, and sustain his ’life’ even when he seems to perish (Habakkuk 2:4). ’The righteous shall live by his faithfulness.’ This is also the great lesson of the closing vv. of Habakkuk 3, that God may be trusted, even when all visible signs of His presence fail; and this trust is not resignation, but joy unspeakable (Habakkuk 3:17-19).
the Second Week of Advent