May 22, 2014

Thursday with Tabitha - Habakkuk

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Thursday with Tabitha


8. Habakkuk by Tabitha Smith

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This week we’ve reached the book of Habakkuk. There’s an awful lot of wisdom and truth packed into the three short chapters of Habakkuk’s prophecy.

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As a brief recap to the historical context, Judah was under the control of the Assyrians at this time in history. The Assyrians were still powerful but their grip on the empire was showing signs of weakening and there was a growing awareness of the rising threat of the Babylonians. In Judah there had been a succession of very evil kings including Manasseh and Amon, and then a brief period of spiritual revival under king Josiah. Generally, the people of Judah were not following God as they should have been. They had been distracted by the pagan nations around them and they were joining in with idol-worshipping practices. Their false prophets were claiming that there was no need to worry because God would not judge his own people. So the nation was living in a state of spiritual blindness.

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We don’t know much about the man Habakkuk himself. The way he writes his prophecy is unusual. It reads like a personal diary or journal and it takes the form of a conversation between Habakkuk and God. The intended audience was the people of Judah, but they are not directly addressed. The time of writing was around 620 BC so Habakkuk was a contemporary of Zephaniah and Jeremiah.

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The book opens with Habakkuk crying out to God with a desperate question. The Message translation says it like this:

“God, how long do I have to cry out for help
    before you listen?
How many times do I have to yell, “Help! Murder! Police!”
    before you come to the rescue?
Why do you force me to look at evil,
    stare trouble in the face day after day?
Anarchy and violence break out,
    quarrels and fights all over the place.
Law and order fall to pieces.
    Justice is a joke.
The wicked have the righteous hamstrung
    and stand justice on its head.”


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So Habakkuk asks the age-old question - God, why don’t you do something? Why are the bad guys getting away with it?

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God comes right back at him with an answer he isn’t expecting. This would also have been something of a nasty surprise to the people of Judah who would have read Habakkuk’s words. God tells him that he is raising up the Babylonians (also known as the Chaldeans) to be his instrument of judgement on the people of Judah. The Babylonians were a nation of awesome and ruthless military power and an invasion by their army would have been an utterly terrifying prospect. God paints the picture of the dreaded and fearsome Babylonians setting their faces towards Judah.

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Habakkuk replies to God with a sense of disbelief about what he’s just heard. He asks God how he can possibly use such an evil nation as the Babylonians to judge another people who are less evil. Habakkuk then sits and waits for God’s response.  God replies again and tells Habakkuk to write the vision down as a mark of its importance and the certainty with which it will come to pass.

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In the oracle that follows, God reveals to Habakkuk the bigger picture. He says in effect, yes, the Babylonians will come and yes, they will be my instrument of judgement on Judah. BUT, they will go too far in their punishment of Judah and so they too will be judged and held accountable for their deeds. The Babylonians are described as those who plunder, cheat and kill unscrupulously. They get drunk and take pleasure in the sadistic humiliation of their defeated enemies. Well, says God, they will reap the due rewards of their deeds and they will be judged.

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In Habakkuk 2:16, God declares to the Babylonians: “The cup in the Lord’s right hand will come around to you, and utter shame will come upon your glory!

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The second chapter ends with the words “But the Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him.” I imagine Habakkuk sitting, or perhaps lying face down, in stunned silence at the revelation he has just received.

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In the final chapter we see Habakkuk going on an amazing journey of spiritual growth. God’s words have seized his faith and imagination and he now pours out a dramatic description of the image of God he sees, coming in awesome power and majesty to judge the earth.

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In Habakkuk 3:16 - “I hear, and my body trembles; my lips quiver at the sound; rottenness enters my bones; my legs tremble beneath me. Yet I will wait quietly for the day of trouble to come upon people who invade us.

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Habakkuk is overcome by strength-sapping, gut-wrenching fear when he thinks about what lies ahead but he chooses to sit and wait for God to do what he has promised.

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So in 3 chapters we have seen Habakkuk go from earnest and desperate questioning of God to a position of awestruck faith and certainty in God’s sovereignty. Habakkuk’s prayer to God has not changed God, it has changed Habakkuk.

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We’ll come back to the very final prayer of chapter 3 in a moment. But what have we learned from Habakkuk so far?

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Firstly, that it is OK to ask God questions and to cry out to God about what we see happening in the world. When we don’t understand we need to ask God to help us. The answers God gives us may not be what we expect!

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Secondly, we learn again that God is sovereign and in control of all the events of history. He is just and good and he will not leave any evil unpunished. Nobody is getting away with anything.

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Thirdly, we learn that God can use even the most evil people and the most terrible circumstances to bring about his plans. God does not engineer the evil - people are responsible for their own decisions and actions, but God is always in control of the events of history. Joseph summarises this principle well at the end of the book of Genesis when he addresses his brothers: “Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.” (Genesis 50:19-20)

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The crux of the book of Habakkuk is found in Habakkuk 2:4 -  “the righteous shall live by his faith”. This verse is quoted no less than 3 times in the New Testament by different authors to illustrate different aspects of the life of faith (You can find it in Romans 1:17; Galatians 3:11; Hebrews 10:38).

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Habakkuk learns that the secret to finding security and true joy in life is to trust in what God has promised. Faith is not a feeling, it is a deep confidence in what God has said. The writer of Hebrews expresses the same truth in Hebrews chapter 11:1:  “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.

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This does not mean that faith guarantees comfort or safety. Faith may have to survive in situations of complete desolation and want. And this is the place Habakkuk is able to reach at the end of his prophecy. In his final prayer he says: “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, yet I will rejoice in the LORD; I will take joy in the God of my salvation.” Habakkuk 3:17-18

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So Habakkuk says, if God never does another good thing for me, and never provides me with any other provision for the whole of my life, he is still absolutely worthy of my praise for the rest of eternity.

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And this is the key for us too. If God never blessed us with another thing in the whole of our earthly lives, Jesus would still be enough to rejoice about for the rest of eternity. We have more than enough to give thanks to God for to allow us to find joy in all circumstances. If we can trust in his purposes, even when we cannot fathom them at the time, we will discover the way to irrepressible hope and strength, which is the essence of joy. It doesn’t mean we’re always happy, or that we cannot mourn and weep when terrible things happen. Distress and sorrow are absolutely appropriate responses to evil and disaster. But joy is a deeper undercurrent that can co-exist with even the deepest sorrow. It is the knowledge, in the depths of our souls, that God is good, there is hope, death is defeated and Jesus is alive. There is purpose and meaning in our lives because we are made to live in relationship with God for eternity.

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Like Habakkuk we will then discover that God can lift us above our earthly perspective and give us a glimpse of the bigger picture. As Habakkuk says in his final words of the book: “GOD, the Lord, is my strength; he makes my feet like the deer’s; he makes me tread on my high places.” (Habakkuk 3:19)
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