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Bible Commentaries
Habakkuk 3

Pett's Commentary on the BiblePett's Commentary

Verse 1

Chapter 3 Habakkuk’s Prayer.

‘A prayer of Habakkuk the prophet set to Shigionith.’

This third chapter consists of ‘a prayer of Habakkuk’ in the light of his visions. It includes an initial prayer, followed by a meditation on the glory of God as revealed in His powerful movement towards, and entry into Canaan, but with a wider connotation relating it to the whole earth. For YHWH is the great Deliverer of His people.

Thus in his meditations he is setting forth God’s effective power, using thoughts and ideas from the Exodus and Conquest, which were seen in Israel as the highest expression of His delivering power. It then concludes with praise and worship.

‘Shigionith.’ Compare the introduction to Psalms 7:0 where it is in the singular. Compare also introduction to Psalms 6:0; Psalms 8:0; Psalms 12:0 etc. They are clearly musical directions.

Verse 2

‘O YHWH, I have heard your report,

And I fear, O YHWH, your work,

In the midst of the years, renew it,

In the midst of the years make it known,

In wrath remember mercy.

As Habakkuk considers what he has heard from YHWH about what He is going to do, he is filled with awe and trepidation. But nevertheless he prays that YHWH will continue to carry it through and bring it about in the eyes of all creation, so that all may see it. One thing, however, he pleads, and that is that in exercising His wrath, God will remember mercy.

Thus the righteous man is living by faith (Habakkuk 2:4), no more questioning God’s will. He admits his fear and awe, but still prays for the fulfilment of His purposes. Let God bring about His will, only, in His wrath, let Him remember mercy. We too must learn to have such confidence in God, even when we cannot understand. His ways are not our ways, and His thoughts not our thoughts. And we must recognise that in the end it is He Who knows best.

Verses 3-4

‘God came from Teman,

And the Holy One from Mount Paran, (selah - consider that!),

His glory covered the heavens,

And the earth was full of his praise.

His brightness was as the light,

Rays proceeded from his hand.

And there was a veiling of his power.

The picture has in mind the song of Moses in Deuteronomy 33:0. Habakkuk has firmly in mind the covenant of God, and the fact that God had chosen His people, and brought them into the land Canaan. The idea here is of God advancing with His people from the wilderness south of the Negeb into the promised land. As Israel marched forward through the wilderness, with the ark of the covenant in their midst, so did God march with them. But the ark was only one sign of His presence. Also accompanying them was the cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night. His glory could not be contained. And here is added that as He came with them His glory filled the heavens. Here we have the heavenly view of God’s entry with His people.

Habakkuk reveals the full glory of God. It covered the heavens, eliciting praise from the whole earth. He was bright as the light, shining out in His glory (Hebrews 1:3), rays of brilliance coming from His hand (compare the ‘fiery law’ of Deuteronomy 33:2 which was for His people). And yet He veiled His power. Had He not done so the world would have melted before His glory and all life would have died (compare Exodus 33:17-23).

So the thought is that none in Israel who are true to His covenant need be afraid, whatever happens, because of the greatness and glory of God’s presence among them, the God of the covenant, He Who wrought their great deliverance and continues to deliver.

‘Rays of brilliance came from his hand.’ All who heard it would remember the ‘fiery laws’ of Deuteronomy 33:2 which were for His people. This was the covenant in all its glory, given by God from the flames of Mount Sinai, and continually brought home to His true people, burning its way into their hearts.

Teman was a place in Edom. (See Gen 36:11 ; 1 Chronicles 1:36; 1 Chronicles 1:45; Jeremiah 49:20; Ezekiel 25:13; Amos 1:12). Mount Paran (see Deuteronomy 33:2) would be a prominent peak in the wilderness of Paran on the west shore of the gulf of Aqabah as you come into the Negeb and Canaan from the probable site of Mount Sinai. (It may even be another name for Sinai).

‘Selah’ - the word appears continually in the Psalms in a similar way to here, probably as suggesting the need for a pause to consider what has been said or sung. Habakkuk clearly expected his psalm to be sung in the temple..

Verses 5-6

‘Before him went the pestilence,

And fiery bolts (burning coals, thunderbolts, fearsome heat, plague) went forth at his feet,

He stood and measured the land (or ‘earth’),

He beheld and drove asunder the nations,

And the eternal mountains were scattered,

The everlasting hills did bow,

His goings were of old.

The ‘fiery bolts’ (burning coals), translated as burning heat, and therefore plague in Deuteronomy 32:24, or thunderbolts in Psalms 78:48, represent something burning and fiery.

Because the parallel line has pestilence we are possibly to see it as the burning heat experienced by those who suffer from certain kinds of plague. Faithless Israel was threatened with pestilence in the wilderness (Numbers 13:12), after which God would produce a new nation. And those who did not observe the covenant were promised terrible plagues (Deuteronomy 28:59). But here the thought, while including this, probably refers to God’s wider judgments. He is the God Who punishes by pestilence and plague. Compare the words of Jesus in Luke 21:11.

On the other hand pestilence denotes a variety of afflictions, and so it may well be paralleled with thunderbolts. Thus the thought may be of the afflictions that would come on the Canaanites, and on all the enemies of God’s true people, as they had on Egypt, softening them up in preparation for the arrival and triumph of His people..

‘He stood and measured the land (or ‘earth’), He beheld and drove asunder the nations.’ Again we have reference to the entry into Canaan as God conducts affairs and leads His people, especially through the captain of His host (Joshua 5:14). First He is seen as weighing up the land. And then He drove asunder the nations before His people But He will also do this on a universal scale. He also measures the whole earth and there too has His way on the nations.

‘And the eternal mountains were scattered, the everlasting hills did bow, His goings were of old (or ‘were everlasting’).’ Even that which is most permanent could not, and cannot, resist His coming. The eternal mountains and the everlasting hills give way before Him and yield to His presence (see Nahum 1:5). For He is the eternal God, and His ways are of old, even from everlasting, from before time began.

Verse 7

‘I saw the tents of Cushan in affliction,

The curtains of the land of Midian trembled.’

Midian combined with Moab in seeking to prevent the passage of Israel into the promised land (Numbers 22:4; Numbers 22:7). They were a feared nomadic people, and vexed Israel with their wiles (Numbers 25:18), while their women led Israel astray (Numbers 25:6). But they had cause to tremble for YHWH commanded Israel to smite them (Numbers 25:17; Numbers 31:2-9) because of their activities against them, and in order to prevent any further mischief. The remainder (for they were widespread) feared as Israel entered the land.

Cushan must in some way be related to Midian, possibly a large Midianite tribe, large enough to be seen as representative. The trembling of the curtains may represent their women peering out in fear.

Verse 8

‘Was YHWH displeased against the rivers?

Was your anger against the rivers,

Or your wrath against the sea?

That you rode upon your horses,

On your chariots of salvation?

The opening up of the River Jordan and of the Reed Sea (Yam Suph) may be in mind here, but with wider reference to the rivers of the world. The point being that He smote them in order to go forth on His heavenly horses and chariots of deliverance (2 Kings 6:17), with and on behalf of His people.

It was not that He was angry with the rivers or the seas, but because He was angry with those whom they represented. The nations of the world were often denoted in connection with their rivers. See Isaiah 27:1 (which is probably speaking of the Tigris, the Euphrates, and the Nile); Ezekiel 29:3; Isaiah 7:18; Isaiah 8:7, and the sea often denotes peoples (Psalms 65:7; Daniel 7:3; Isaiah 23:11). But YHWH’s anger is against the peoples, not against river and sea. It was against the peoples that He rode with His heavenly host, (and still rides on behalf of His people), on horses, and on His chariots of deliverance, as He will also at the end of time (Revelation 19:11-16).

YHWH smote the Jordan as He led His people victoriously into the land of Canaan. But it was not because of His anger against the Jordan, but because of His anger against the people beyond the Jordan for whom the time of their judgment had come. Zechariah pictures the destruction of nations in judgment as connected with the smiting of the rivers and the sea (Zechariah 10:11), while the Psalmists speak of the smiting of river and sea as denoting the powerful activity of God (Psalms 89:25; Psalms 114:3; Psalms 78:13) mainly because of the smiting of the Reed Sea and the Jordan.

So the whole picture that is being presented is that of God’s great deliverance of His people, both as something that has happened, and as something that, in the mind of the prophet, continually happens. Wherever God’s true people are, there are the horsemen and chariots of YHWH (compare 2 Kings 6:17).

Verse 9

‘The bow was made quite bare,

The oaths to the tribes were a spoken word. Selah. (Consider that!)’

This probably denotes the moment of entry into Canaan. God prepared His bow for action and confirmed His oaths personally to the tribes in readiness to march through the land in His wrath (Habakkuk 3:12). For we know that the entry of His people into the land of Canaan was not only in order to present them with an inheritance, but also to bring His dire judgment on the Canaanites (Amorites) because of their extreme sinfulness (see Genesis 15:16).

And Habakkuk knew that God’s bow was still bared, and that His promises to His true people, His remnant, still stood firm. He would still protect them and deliver them.

Verses 9-11

‘You divided the earth with rivers,

The mountains saw you and were afraid,

The tempest of waters passed by,

The deep uttered his voice,

And lifted up his hands on high.

The sun and moon stood still in their habitation,

At the light of your arrows as they went,

At the shining of your glittering spear.’

All that is permanent in the world is seen as responding to God as He comes to the aid of His people. The rivers, the mountains, the tempest of waters, the deep, the sun and the moon all yield obedience to Him.

In mind here, at least partly, are the natural phenomena that came to the assistance of God’s people as they conquered Canaan. Note how in Judges 5:4-5, as here in Habakkuk 3:3-4, the march of God out of Edom is connected with the deliverance of His people. In the case of Judges it was that wrought for Deborah against Sisera. Thus we have the rocks cloven by the rivers in the wilderness (Psalms 78:15-16; Psalms 78:20), the quaking of the mountains at Sinai (Exodus 19:18), the earthquake at Jericho as the mountains no doubt also quaked (Joshua 6:20), the overflowing of waters ‘passed by’ (did not interfere with them), and the deep refused to swallow them up, either at the Reed Sea (Isaiah 63:12-13) or at Jordan, the hailstones in the mountain passes fell like God’s arrows (Joshua 10:11; Psalms 18:13-14), the sun and the moon affecting the light (Joshua 10:12-13), and the river Kishon overflowing its banks (Judges 5:21).

There would seem certainly to be an element of protection. The rivers provide water to drink, the mountains (possibly also representing difficult opponents) make no move because they are afraid, the tempest of water (great storm) passes by instead of overwhelming them, the deep, that recognised enemy of the people of Israel, speaks and lifts up his hands, probably in fealty to YHWH. His people are protected by their connection with YHWH on all sides.

Let us, however, examine the ideas in more depth.

‘You divided (or ‘cleaved’) the earth with rivers.’ This could refer back to the beginning of creation, where rivers were the provision of God for the peoples of the earth and were divided up outside Eden, thus themselves dividing the earth (Genesis 2:10). Everywhere they provided sustenance for the world. But cleaving the earth with rivers might refer to the cleaving of the rock with rivers, which burst through the rock at Moses’ command. See Psalms 78:15-16 (compare Isaiah 43:20) where the opening of the rock to provide water to Israel in the wilderness is described in terms of rivers and streams. They would be seen as coming from some underground source. Deuteronomy 33:13 speaks of ‘the deep that couches beneath’, and we can compare the river of God which is full of water (Psalms 65:9). Israel thought in terms of a great table of water beneath the ground (which, of course, there is).

Psalms 78:15-16 says , ‘He brought streams also out of the rock, and caused waters to come down like rivers.’ And again, ‘He smote the rock and waters gushed out, and streams overflowed’ (Psalms 78:20). Both thus see rivers as cleaving the rock. Thus Habakkuk seems here to be centring on God’s creative power in the phenomena of nature, while having in mind also His use of them especially on behalf of His people.

‘The mountains saw you and were afraid.’ See Exodus 19:18; Judges 5:5, both connected with Sinai. The mountains quivered or flowed down before His presence. He is not only the Creator but also the Mighty One before Whom even the mountains tremble. But mountains can also portray great obstacles and powerful enemies (Jeremiah 51:25; Zechariah 4:7). They too yield to YHWH.

‘The tempest (overflowing) of waters passed by.’ This may have in mind the Flood, with the significance here that God will not allow such a catastrophe to overflow His people. It passed by the remnant of His people in the days of Noah, and it will still do so, in whatever new form God’s judgment takes. But Isaiah 28:2 (compare Jeremiah 47:2) also compares the tempest of waters to the activities of a mighty and strong one who casts down to the earth, which probably signifies the king of Assyria overwhelming the northern kingdom of Israel by defeat and transportation. Either way, when YHWH gives the word such a tempest of waters ‘passes by’ rather than overwhelming. It is under YHWH’s control. However it might also refer to the overflowing Jordan which halted in its way while Israel crossed, thus ‘passing them by’.

‘The deep uttered his voice, and lifted up his hands on high’. The deep was always seen by Israel as their enemy (Psalms 69:14-15; ), although thankfully controlled by YHWH, Whose word it obeys (contrary to some claims He is never literally depicted as struggling with it. That is read in by those who wish to do so). It was from the inanimate deep that creation took place (Genesis 1:2; Genesis 1:6). The floods lift up their voices to YHWH, acknowledging His authority (Psalms 93:3-4), and here the deep does so with hands lifted high, probably in covenant fealty (see Daniel 12:7). The deep can also refer to powerful enemies who seek to overwhelm Israel (Ezekiel 26:19), while the waters of the Reed Sea were ‘the deeps’ through which Israel passed safely, in contrast with the enemy, when YHWH delivered His people (Isaiah 63:13 see also Exodus 15:8).

‘The sun and moon stood still in their habitation, at the light of your arrows as they went, at the shining of your glittering spear.’ It is difficult not to see here the battle near Aijalon in Joshua 10:9-14, where the sun and moon stood still, the hailstones (arrows - Psalms 18:13-14; Psalms 77:17; 2 Samuel 22:15) hurtled down on the enemy, and God fought for Israel. The glittering spear would represent the lightning which would probably accompany the hailstones (see Psalms 144:6; 2 Samuel 22:15; where it parallels the arrows of God).

But there is probably also to be understood that the sun and moon would also stand still in awe, at the sight of the God of battle, with his hailstone-arrows, and His glittering lightning-spear, whenever He was protecting His people.

Habakkuk 3:12-13

‘You marched through the land in indignation,

You threshed the nations in anger.

You went out for the deliverance of your people,

For the salvation of your anointed.’

Here we come face to face with YHWH carrying out His wrath against their sin on the inhabitants of Canaan. Of all the nations they had gone too far with their perverted sexual religion, and their extreme behaviour. But it was also in order to finalise the delivering of His people, those who were His anointed, that is those who were set apart for Himself. (Although the anointed one may be Joshua). Anointing was an act of separation for service and they had been called to be a kingdom of priests (Exodus 19:6; for their anointing see Ezekiel 16:9; Isaiah 10:27).

‘Threshed.’ Threshing is the act of beating the grain to remove the chaff. See Micah 4:13; Amos 1:3 for its application to warfare.

Verses 13-15

‘You wounded the head from the house of the wicked,

Laying bare the foundation, even to the neck. Selah (consider that!)

You pierced with his own staves the head of his warriors,

They came as a whirlwind to scatter me.

Their rejoicing was to devour the poor in secret.

You trod the sea with your horses,

The heap of mighty waters.’

Parallels with the conquest continue. The head from the house of the wicked can be seen as referring to a petty king or similar. Many were executed by Joshua (Joshua 10:26; Joshua 12:7-24). Some would be executed by striking the neck, presumably with a sword. The piercing with their own staves may well have referred to the Midianites and their allies (Judges 7:22) who slew each other in panic. They had descended like a whirlwind on Israel (Judges 6:4), and met their end mainly at each other’s hands. But in the end God will slay all the heads of the wicked.

‘Their rejoicing was to devour the poor in secret.’ Those who slay in secret are especially cursed (Deuteronomy 27:24). This suggests that the Midianites may have regularly secretly sought out lone people desperately seeking food in order to kill them out of vindictiveness. It depicts the worst kind of killer.

‘You trod the sea with your horses, the heap of mighty waters.’ In Psalms 77:15-20 YHWH is depicted in Habakkuk 3:15 as redeeming His people, and it ends in Habakkuk 3:19 with Him leading His people like a flock by the hand of Moses. But examination of the context demonstrates quite clearly that between these verses there was great divine activity in terms of water, a great storm and His making His way in the sea and His paths through the waters. This can only be vivid language referring to the crossing of the Reed Sea. Thus He trod the seas, the heap of mighty waters, at the Reed Sea. But what of the horses?

No mention is made in accounts of the wilderness journey of Israel as having horses, although it may well be that some important leaders did have one for their own use which they had obtained in Egypt. But in Isaiah 63:13 Yahweh is said to have led His people through the Reed Sea ‘as a horse in the wilderness’. Thus it may be that Habakkuk, knowing this verse from Isaiah and the ideas behind Psalms 77:0 (if not the Psalm itself) utilised the references in this way, the horses representing the people of Israel who were like a horse in the wilderness. Israel were YHWH’s horses.

Alternately it may be seeing the horses of the pursuing Egyptians as YHWH’s horses. They rode into the pathway in the Reed Sea with confidence, but found themselves struggling in the mud, and then treading the sea as the waters came down on them, only to perish.

But the most probable significance in view of Habakkuk 3:8 is that it is referring to the horses of the heavenly host (2 Kings 6:17). YHWH is seen at the Reed Sea leading His invisible horses and their riders as they trod the sea and destroyed the Egyptian troops.

So the poem up to this point has been a glorious paean of victory and praise. It has depicted God as controlling nature, as delivering His people, and as showing His might in the earth. It is a full explanation of why He is able to bring about His purposes described in chapters 1 & 2.

Verse 16

‘I heard and my belly trembled,

My lips quivered at the sound (‘voice’),

Rottenness entered into my bones,

And I trembled in my place,

I will rest in the day of trouble,

When he comes up against the people,

He will overcome (or ‘press on, invade’) them.’

Habakkuk now hears, probably in vision, the approach of the Babylonian army, and describes the effect it had on him. Butterflies arose in his stomach, his lips quivered at the sound, he felt as though his bones were crumbling, and he trembled in the place where he found himself. It was a terrifying experience. But in the face of it he expresses confidence. In the day of trouble, when the invader comes up against his people and overcomes them, he will rest content. For he will know that YHWH’s will is being done. The righteous one will live by faith.

Verses 17-18

‘For though the fig tree will not blossom,

Nor will fruit be in the vines,

The produce of the olive will fail,

And the fields will yield no food,

The flock will be cut off from the fold,

And there will be no herd in the stalls,

Yet will I rejoice in YHWH,

I will joy in the God of my salvation.’

Habakkuk has won through to triumphant faith. He declare that although everything goes wrong around him, and invasion destroys all the necessities of life, and leaves them barren of food apart from what they have stored up, which will disappear in the siege, he will rejoice in YHWH, and joy in the God of his salvation.

Here salvation refers not to deliverance, but to inner peace, deliverance within himself, something that externals cannot touch. For he will find rest in the midst of tribulation, and peace of heart with his God.

Verse 19

‘YHWH the Lord is my strength,

And he makes my feet like hind’s feet,

And will make me to walk on my high places.’

From now on no disaster will be able to touch him. For YHWH, the Lord of creation and deliverance as revealed in the poem, is his strength. And He gives him feet that can clamber without slipping, and makes him walk in the high places, within his soul far from strife and trouble. He lives in the heavenly places with his God.

Bibliographical Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Habakkuk 3". "Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://studylight.org/commentaries/eng/pet/habakkuk-3.html. 2013.
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