Bible Commentaries
Habakkuk 3

Layman's Bible CommentaryLayman's Bible Commentary

Verse 1


Habakkuk 3:1-19

Tide (3:1)

The third section of the Book of Habakkuk begins with a new title (Habakkuk 3:1), as though the third chapter were an appendix. It is interesting but not necessarily significant that the commentary on Habakkuk found at Qumran is concerned quite clearly with only the first two chapters of the book. Since other commentaries found at Qumran are also concerned with sections of books or with individual psalms, this fact by itself does not prove anything regarding the length of the contents of the book as it was extant among the people of Qumran.

The psalm is definitely ascribed to Habakkuk "the prophet" and is described as a "prayer." In spite of arguments to the contrary, it is appropriate for Habakkuk. The psalm is a prayer for the renewal of God’s ancient work. The vision reviewing God’s activity touches events of the earliest periods of Hebrew history, and the final expressions of confidence and joy in the Lord are an appropriate response to the oracle of 2:4b.

The meaning of the expression "according to Shigionoth" (compare the title of Psalms 7) has been the subject of much discussion and remains in doubt: some have been led by the Greek version and by the note at the end of the psalm to make a slight change so as to translate it "on the stringed instruments"; others prefer to derive the sense of "a lamentation" from an Akkadian word with the same root. The meaning of the word "Selah" found at verses 3, 9, and 13 is also undetermined, but its appearance probably indicates liturgical use of the prayer.

Verse 2

The Opening Petition (3:2)

The prayer opens with an address to the Lord, which declares the poet’s fear of the action of the Lord and asks for a renewal of his work "in the midst of the years." Much is expressed in the brevity of this verse: the poet has been told of the work of the Lord; he feels a sense of awe as he recollects what God has done; in his time no clear evidence of divine activity has been known; his time may thus be considered as a time of "wrath" in contrast to the earlier time of "mercy," "Mercy" refers to the gracious activity of God on behalf of his people which is about to be described, while "wrath" suggests the absence of such gracious work and hence a sense of being under divine displeasure.

Verses 3-15

When God Came from Teman (3:3-15)

The heart of the prayer is an extended description of the coming of God from Mount Paran in Teman, set forth in highly graphic figures of speech with brief historical allusions.

Though God is addressed as the "Lord" at one point in this section (vs. 8, where some commentators believe the word should be omitted), the vision begins with the unusual word for God (Eloah) found throughout most of the Book of Job and elsewhere in scattered instances throughout the exilic and postexilic literature. Although used in what appear to be late sources and often in connection with foreign settings, this word for God is often associated with ideas of creation and redemption. Particularly in Deuteronomy 32:15; Deuteronomy 32:18; Proverbs 30:5; Psalms 18:32; Psalms 50:22; Psalms 114:7; and Nehemiah 9:17, as in the psalm of Habakkuk, this word is related to the familiar Exodus narrative which is described in terms of the appearance of God through a violent storm. Many of the elements of Habakkuk’s prayer may also be found in the other passages in which this name for God appears.

The reference to Teman and Mount Paran points to the area of desert inhabited in historic times by the Edomites, east of the Arabah, that dry valley extending south from the Dead Sea to the Gulf of Aqabah, and to the area south of Kadesh-barnea and west of the Arabah. To this desolate and terrifying area, to which also Cushan and Midian in verse 7 refer, the Hebrew people looked back in connection with the experiences which followed the Exodus. From here God had manifested his power. In the figurative (but difficult) language of one form of the familiar tradition, the prayer of Habakkuk recalls this revelation of God’s power.

God is visualized as possessing a surpassing brightness as he comes from the dazzling desert area of Teman. His march toward the settled lands is accompanied by "pestilence" and "plague"; these should probably be printed with capital letters as names of demons (actually once the deities of Semitic tribes). As the vision proceeds, the poet watches while God stands and measures the earth, looks at and shakes the nations, and scatters "the eternal mountains." Cushan and Midian in particular tremble from his nearness and power.

Naturally the heat and brightness of God’s presence affect the rivers (vss. 8-10), drying up those of the desert and cleaving the mountainous regions with new streams of raging waters. So also the mountains and the deep are affected, the one writhing and the other giving forth its roar as the manifestation of God takes the form of a thunderstorm. The lightning of the storm is pictured as arrows (vss. 9, 11), familiar in representations of deity from ancient Greece as well as from the eastern world; sun and moon are temporarily hidden, seeming to stand still for the duration of the storm.

The Lord, the Holy God, is now addressed directly in words depicting his action through the theophany: bestriding the earth in furious anger, he tramples the nations; going forth for the salvation of his people, he crushes and pierces the head of the wicked. The final verse (15) of the poetic recollection of God’s appearance seems to identify the terrible events of the storm with the destruction of the Egyptians at the Red Sea at the beginning of the Exodus, but it must be admitted that if this identification had not been made elsewhere (as, for example, in Psalms 77), it would not be clear at this point.

Verses 16-19

Meditation and Response to the Appearance of God (3:16-19)

The remaining verses of the psalm express the poet’s reflection upon the ancient theophany which he has just recalled, and then in noble language he asserts his own joyful dependence upon the God of his salvation.

His first reaction to the recollected vision is a feeling of helplessness and terror (vs. 16), but quickly his spirit is calmed as he determines to wait quietly for the day of trouble to come upon the invaders of his time.

Then he returns to the thought of God who is a "present help in trouble." Though the economy of his land be ruined by the devastations of the enemy, Habakkuk can conclude, "Yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will joy in the God of my salvation." The real and vital presence of God gives him strength and a sense of triumph which goes beyond the patience and perseverance called for by the declaration, "The righteous shall live by his faith." To the noble expression of faith in the concluding verses of this psalm many persecuted saints have returned through the centuries. Does it not deserve to be used again?

Bibliographical Information
"Commentary on Habakkuk 3". "Layman's Bible Commentary".