“A Prophet for Such a Time as This”: A Sermon on Habakkuk

By Michael Kinnamon
General Secretary
National Council of Churches of Christ
A sermon at Riverside Church
June 1, 2008

How many of you have heard a sermon recently on Habakkuk? How many can find it quickly in the Bible?! (It is right after Nahum and right before Zephaniah. That help?) There are several familiar verses in this short book, including “The righteous shall live by faith,” which Paul quotes in Romans 1, and my grandmother’s favorite verse of scripture (which some of you can probably say with me): “The Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him.” But Habakkuk hardly appears in the Common Lectionary , and is unknown territory, I suspect, for most Christians.

I decided to preach on it, in part, because Habakkuk has spoken powerfully to me in my own biblical study, but also because it raises timeless questions in a very timely way. The basic question of the prophet is this: How can we affirm, how can we give obedience to, a God of justice and peace in a world that is so apparently unjust and violent? Of course, many of us face such a question in personal terms: Why did my cousin die so young? She was the most religious person I ever knew. Why did God give my mother more than she could bear? Where is the gracious God we talk so much about in all of this? This is a familiar biblical theme – for example, in the book of Job.

The prophets, such as Habakkuk, however, are more concerned with the social than the individual. Why did those in New Orleans who had the least lose the most in Hurricane Katrina? Why does the gap between rich and poor grow greater with every passing year? Why do children suffer so in wars started by adults? Where is the God of justice we talk so much about in all of this?

What makes this book so unusual even among the prophets is that much of it is a debate between the prophet and God. This is certainly not the only time this happens in the Bible (think of Abraham defending the city of Sodom), but no other book has such an extended argument with God as Habakkuk.

Some people may think it is unseemly or inappropriate to argue with God, but I wish we did more of it in our worship. The biggest problem, as I see it, is not talking back to God but regarding God as so distant or unreal that argument isn’t worthwhile. It is only when we believe that God is immediate and intensely real that we will bring our deepest questions before the Lord.

In this case, Habakkuk begins with an argumentative lament. Most prophetic books start with judgment in the voice of God. Habakkuk starts with a lament, in his own voice, directed to God. Listen as Shanelle reads verses 1-4.

The oracle that the prophet Habakkuk saw.
O Lord, how long shall I cry for help,
and you will not listen?
Or cry to you ‘Violence!’
and you will not save?
Why do you make me see wrongdoing
and look at trouble?
Destruction and violence are before me;
strife and contention arise.
So the law becomes slack
and justice never prevails.
The wicked surround the righteous –
therefore judgment comes forth perverted (1:1-4).

We can tell from references in the text that Habakkuk lived in Judah (the area around Jerusalem) around 600 BC, during the reign of King Jehoiakim – a time of violence and perverted justice. Habakkuk’s contemporary, Jeremiah, is even more pointed: “Scoundrels are found among my people; they take over the goods of others … They have grown fat and sleek... They do not judge with justice the cause of the orphan…. and they do not defend the rights of the needy… No, they have treated the wound of my people carelessly, saying ‘Peace, Peace,’ when there is no peace. They have acted shamefully… yet they are not ashamed. They do not know how to blush!” And Habakkuk wants to know: How long must such evil go unpunished?

Now God answers. Hold on just a minute (I’m paraphrasing). I am about to do something so astonishing that you wouldn’t believe it if I told you. But I will tell you. I am about to get rid of King Jehoiakim by rousing up the Chaldeans (another name for them is Babylonians) to conquer your country!

Look at the nations, and see!
Be astonished! Be astounded!
For a work is being done in your days
that you would not believe if you were told.
For I am rousing the Chaldeans,
that fierce and impetuous nation,
who march through the breadth of the earth
to seize dwellings not their own.
Dread and fearsome are they;
their justice and dignity proceed from themselves.
Then they sweep by like the wind;
they transgress and become guilty;
their own might is their god (1:5-7, 11)!

This is not the response Habakkuk was looking for! God, he says (again, I’m paraphrasing), this is a very bad plan! These Babylonians are worse than our king. It’s like planting kudzu to prevent soil erosion; it’s like importing poisonous snakes to get rid of mice. These people think that justice is simply what they say it is. There is a wonderful line in Ezekiel where the prophet declares that the pharaoh in Egypt has grown so arrogant that the thinks he invented the Nile! That, says Habakkuk, is what these Babylonians are like. They have made a god out of their own military might. (Repeat).

Do you see why I like this book? Why I find it so contemporary?! If you are having trouble relating to it, imagine how contemporary all of this sounds to Christians in, say, the Congo. Conditions were terrible under former dictator Mobutu – average income under $100 a year, while the dictator amassed a personal fortune in excess of $5 billion. Corruption was routine, violence endemic, the infrastructure destroyed. And I can imagine more than one preacher asking, “How long, O Lord, will we cry and you will not listen?” But then Mobutu was overthrown in 1997 by armed groups coming over the eastern border, and the chaos that followed turned out to be worse. In the five years of warfare between 1998–2003, an estimated four million Congolese died (many of disease or malnutrition stemming from the violence).

Let’s be more controversial. I know that churches in Iraq (which, ironically, is the site of ancient Babylon) at times lamented the oppression of Saddam Hussein. “How long, O Lord?” Many of them surely welcomed the intervention of the US, only to watch the country descend into chaos. The friends I have there among Iraqi Christians could well cry, “Why, O lord, have you delivered us from one evil only to lead us into even more violence?”

This part of the book ends with Habakkuk stationing himself on the ramparts “to see what God will say to me, and what God will answer concerning my complaint” - which leads to these verses.

Then the Lord answered me and said:
Write the vision;
make it plain on tablets,
so that a runner may read it.
For there is still a vision for the appointed time;
it speaks of the end, and does not lie.
If it seems to tarry, wait for it;
it will surely come, it will not delay.
Look at the proud!
Their spirit is not right in them,
but the righteous live by their faith.
Moreover, wealth is treacherous;
the arrogant do not endure (2:2-5a).

The prophet, as I read it, hears two responses to his challenge. First, “there is still a vision for the appointed time.” The present may be a time of violence and economic injustice, but God has given, through prophets from Isaiah to Martin Luther King, Jr., a vision (a dream) of a different way of living. The question is: Do we trust in this vision? Or, to say it another way, do the promises of the prophets speak louder than the newspaper headlines? We don’t know the appointed time, but we find the strength to work for a better future not because things look bright, but because we trust in God. I like the way the Kentucky poet, Wendell Barry, puts it: “Be hopeful, though you’ve considered all the facts.” We will return to this at the end of this sermon.

The second response Habakkuk hears from God is summarized in the phrase, “The arrogant do not endure.” We have a vision of God’s future in which justice reigns, and, beyond that, we have the record of history which shows us that the pretensions of empirical power do not last. Think of the ancient empires of Babylon, Persia, and Rome. Think of the colonial empires of Britain, Spain, and Belgium. Think of Hitler and Stalin. The trappings of power, when seen in proper perspective are illusory, transitory. Wealth gained at the expense of others ends in ruin, which itself is a sign of God’s justice being worked out in history.

Now, I don’t know whether these answers to the problem of unjust suffering are satisfactory for you; but what I want to suggest is that the Bible doesn’t so much answer our theological questions as it calls us into an ongoing theological conversation. In my experience, Christianity turns narrow and legalistic whenever we have misunderstood scripture as the last word in theology rather than as an invitation to do theology. Habakkuk struggled with the problem of evil in his lifetime; we struggle with in it ours, informed by his wisdom. And in this way, our faith is expanded and deepened.

Are you with me so far? That’s good, because the rest of Chapter 2 is bound to make us very uncomfortable. Starting with verse 6, we have a collection of sayings (five of them to be exact) that name characteristics of the Babylonian empire, each of them ridiculing the pretensions of those in power. As I read it, the prophet is holding a mirror up to any country or empire that (as my grandmother would have said) gets too big for its britches – including the United States.

Each of the five sayings begins with the taunting phrase, “Alas for you…” I don’t have time to look at them all, but listen, as an example, to verses 9-10.

Alas for you who get evil gain for your houses,
setting your nest on high
to be safe from the reach of harm!’
You have devised shame for your house
by cutting off many peoples;
you have forfeited your life (2:9-10).

You hear how this speaks directly to the dominant issue of this election season: the search for security. “Alas for you who… set your nest on high to be safe from the reach of harm. You have devised shame for your house but cutting off many peoples.” We may think that fences and missiles will protect us; but, in biblical perspective, true security is never won through unilateral defense but through attentiveness to the injustice that afflicts other children of God. Since God is Creator, all life is interrelated (we cannot “cut off” other people), which means that there is no security apart from common security. If we take Habakkuk to heart, we will raise urgent questions about whether spending $650 billion a year on the military (rather than on houses and health and education in Louisiana or Liberia) is the best way to be secure.

Verse 17 also grabs me: “The violence done to Lebanon will overwhelm you; the destruction of animals will terrify you.” Lebanon was known in the ancient world for its wonderful forests (the “cedars of Lebanon”) which the Babylonians are known to have cut during their conquests. This passage speaks of how empires destroy the environment – and Habakkuk gives us a picture of ruined nature turning on those who destroy it! Do you see why I say this book feels contemporary?

And listen, please, to verse 19.

Alas for you who say to the wood, ‘Wake up!’
to silent stone, ‘Rouse yourself!’
Can it teach?
See, it is plated with gold and silver,
and there is no breath in it at all (2:19).

This is a theme that runs throughout the Bible: Those with power almost always put their trust in idols, as if the things they have made or bought could save them. What might Habakkuk say today? “Alas for you who put your trust in dollar bills or who say to images on a screen, ‘Give meaning to my life.’ ”

Let me ask what may seem like a strange question: Did you ever wonder how the Babylonians saw all this? They may have seen themselves as a force for good in a world filled with wickedness. After all, that King in Judah is an evil doer. Overthrowing him (they might have said) is an act of liberation, not conquest. Without our military presence, the world is an unstable place, filled with local conflict. Yes, we carried some people in Judah off to Babylon. But who wouldn’t rather be in Babylon than in a backwater like Jerusalem!? We are the center of the world. And, besides, these foreigners have a chance to move up in our society, if only they worship our gods.

Maybe that’s how they thought. But we don’t know because the Bible is always written from the point of view of those on the margins. That, of course, is why the Bible seems so alive, so contemporary, in Africa and Latin America (where the church is growing by leaps and bounds) and so strangely unfamiliar here. Habakkuk not only holds a mirror up for us to see ourselves, but also forces us to see through the eyes of those who are not in a rich and powerful country. And all of the Hebrew prophets refused the nearly-universal practice of identifying God’s rule with the purposes of our own group, our own nation, our own church. God does not bless Judah or Babylon or America more than God blesses other people.

I hope these all-too-brief reflections have been useful. Does this encourage you to read the other ignored prophets?! I will end by noting that Habakkuk ends with a prayer; all of Chapter 3 is, in effect, a prayer to the One with whom he has argued. I am particularly moved by the simple petition in verse 3: “I have heard of your mercy. Make that mercy know in our own time.”

I need to add that the God to whom he prays is not warm and fuzzy! People who live in empires tend to domesticate God, to turn God into a super nice guy who upholds the status quo. The God of the prophets, however, is the Creator of all that is, before whom even the mountains writhe (verse 10) and the nations tremble (verse 6). And the astonishing thing is that this Creator God cares even for us.

This leads us to the closing verses:

Though the fig tree does not blossom,
and no fruit is on the vines;
though the produce of the olive fails
and the fields yield no food;
though the flock is cut off from the fold
and there is no herd in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord;
I will exult in the God of my salvation (3:17-18).

Habakkuk is not an optimist; he is a person of hope. They key word here in this amazing passage is “yet.” Though the fig tree does not blossom … though the flock is depleted … yet “I will rejoice in the Lord.”

Hope (like faith) is a gift, but it is also a decision to live a certain way. The world is filled with wars and rumors of wars; yet will we hope in God’s shalom - and we will demonstrate the credibility of our hope by acting to make it so. The world is filled with those who are desperately poor, life reduced to a daily struggle for survival; yet will we hope in the coming of God’s reign of justice – and we will demonstrate the credibility of our hope by acting to make it so. May it be so for us. Amen.


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