Two Complaints, Five Woes, and a Prayer

Habakkuk was a minor prophet of major importance. He undoubtedly wrote his prophecy as Babylon was rising to power and before it first lay siege to Jerusalem in 597 BC. While Jeremiah was confrontational, using simple visual illustrations such as a yoke around his neck, Habakkuk wrote as a scholar whose poetic excellence was spectacular. In the coming years, his words would explain to the Jews in captivity why they were there. This book can be summarized as two complaints, five woes, and a prayer.

A complaint is an expression of disapproval, finding fault with God. Prophets used the literary style of a complaint in order to express popular erroneous ideas, giving God an opportunity to reply to our natural human instincts. Job, for example, complained that he was a good man and that it’s not fair for God to allow him to suffer. God responded by showing Job the bigger picture of his sovereign plan. A prophetic complaint is meant to answer our questions before we ask them.

Habakkuk’s first complaint goes something like this: “God, how can you allow people in our country to get around the law, hurt so many people, and destroy so much property? How can we be sure you really exist when you don’t do anything about it?” (1:1-4). God’s answer was to describe the Babylonians that He was raising up (1:5-11). War is defined as an extension of politics. When people don’t respond to negotiations, you have to bring in the big guns. When God finally took action, everyone would be astonished (1:5).

Habakkuk’s second complaint followed close behind the first: “God, since you’re so good, how can you choose to use such a wicked nation to punish people who are more noble than they are?” (1:12-2:1). You get the idea. If the police are corrupt then we don’t feel they have the right to arrest us, even when we break the law. God answer has two parts. First, God says, “It’s true that Babylon is proud and wrong, but good people live by their faith” (2:4). That’s God’s way of saying, “Mind your own business”. Two wrongs don’t make a right. Israel just needed to focus on doing God’s will. The second part of God’s answer is that Babylon would get what it deserved. That brings us to the five woes.

A woe is an OMG of catastrophe. It’s not a curse on someone as much as a recognition that bad consequences are going to follow bad actions. It is cause and effect that cannot be violated because it’s a law of the universe. We stand in awe of the impending, inevitable disaster that comes to those who stubbornly make the wrong choices. Babylon made five bad choices:

  1. Babylon plundered many nations. Property is an inalienable right, and wholesale violation of property rights brings poverty, not riches. (2:6-8)
  2. Babylon tried to hide its evil gain behind fortress walls, but both the wall and the victims would cry out against them. Stolen property would become the desire of others, and the plunderers would forfeit their lives. (2:9-11)
  3. Babylon killed many innocent people to build a great city, that would only be burned down and come to nothing. (2:12-14)
  4. Babylon debased its neighbors to take advantage of them, putting everyone else down to promote themselves. That always ends in their own shame. (2:15-17)
  5. Babylon worshipped material idols, “teachers of lies”. That never ends well when the Lord is in his holy temple (2:18-20).

The ending prayer is a magnificent tribute to God for his works, recalling how God overthrew Egypt in the days of Moses. This is not just flowery speech. Like Habakkuk, we often complain about how God is running the world, without realizing how justice is already at work around us. God doesn’t just work in individual lives, He deals with great nations such as Egypt and Babylon. Habakkuk’s prayer recognizes that God “shook the nations” (3:6) and “threshed the nations in anger” (3:12). It’s a part of history. Our response of faith is not to take justice into our own hands but to trust God. “Yet I will quietly wait for the day of trouble to come upon people who invade us.” (3:16)

The Jewish captives had many hours to reflect upon their crime and punishment. Unlike us who have books and videos, they used their superior brain power to memorize Scripture. Scattered throughout the Babylonian empire, God’s people put themselves to sleep reciting the amazing poetry of Habakkuk. As they quietly submitted to being a witness throughout the nations, God was preparing them to return and rebuild the city of David, to learn from their mistakes, and to finally get it right.

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