Who was Habakkuk?
Habakkuk is a shadowy figure, with neither parentage nor time indicated in the prophecy. Only his role as prophet, an intermediary between Yahweh and Israel, is given. His name is apparently Hebrew but reflects the influence of the Mesopotamians, who ruled over Israel from the ninth to the sixth century bc. In their Akkadian language his name means a plant or fruit tree.
In later Jewish tradition of the apocryphal ‘Daniel, Bel and the Snake’, Habakkuk brings Daniel food in the lions’ den. The musical notation and the form of the psalm in Hab. 3 have suggested he was a Levite, which was a tribe associated with music (Ezr. 3:10; Ne. 12:27). This is supported by one manuscript which identifies his father as Jesus, a Levite. Others suggest he was an official court or temple prophet. All suggestions are speculative, with no compelling evidence for any of them.
While Habakkuk’s identity is in doubt, his character is clear. A sincere, devoted follower of Yahweh, he not only submitted himself to his Lord’s will, but also confronted that same Lord when he felt God was ignoring his own promises. Like Job, Habakkuk does not hesitate to question God, in a form of literature called a ‘theodicy’. He questions God for different reasons, however. Where Job maintains his innocence, asking why, in the light of it, he is punished, Habakkuk has the opposite question—since the wicked are clearly not innocent, why are they not punished, even though they are unjustly treating the righteous? Not praying for relief from suffering (cf. Pss. 10; 12 etc.), he asks why judgment does not fall.
Habakkuk’s questioning does not lessen his faith in God, with whom he enjoys a personal bond (1:12). He is aware of the awesome power of the King and Creator of the universe (3:16), but he also knows this one’s care for him (3:17–18). Habakkuk the prophet teaches us that questioning God is acceptable; it is refusing to trust God that causes our downfall.
The historical setting
No date for these prophecies is given, though the events referred to can be dated. Some have suggested a composition as late as the second century bc, but the necessity of rewriting the text of 1:6 to support this proposal tells strongly against it. As it now stands, 1:6 anticipates the impending invasion of the Babylonians. The nation previously ruling over Israel was Assyria, whose capital Nineveh fell to the Babylonians in 612 bc. They consolidated their hold, establishing the Neo-Babylonian Empire by defeating an alliance headed by Egypt at Car-chemish in Syria in 609 bc (Je. 46:2). The Babylonians finally attacked Jerusalem, sacking it and destroying the temple in 587 bc. Since the prophet anticipates this event in the text, it was apparently written, or the message given, before then. Babylon’s own downfall at the hand of Cyrus, the Persian king, in 539 bc is also anticipated. (See the chart ‘The prophets’ in Song of Songs.)
The book and its message
The prophecy divides into two sections: a dialogue with God (chs. 1–2) and a hymn of praise (ch. 3). The dialogue comprises two queries by Habakkuk to God, each with his response. The first concerns God’s slowness in punishing the wicked among his chosen people (1:2–4). Does he allow sin? God responds that the Babylonians are soon to bring judgment on the wrongdoers (1:5–11), an apparent reference to the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in 587 bc. This answer does not allay Habakkuk’s perplexity, however, since the cure seems to be too extreme for the disease. While the wicked of Israel are bad, the ferociously cruel and inhumane Babylonians are even worse. Surely there is disproportion between Israel’s wrongdoings and God’s punishment (1:12–17). God shows that this is not the end, however. His people deserve punishment, but Babylon is not without blame, since its barbarity will also come under God’s judgment (2:2–20), a reference to the Persian conquest of the area in 539 bc.
A sharp contrast is drawn between the arrogant, misguided Babylonians and those within Israel who act justly (2:4). This verse, especially its second half, is undoubtedly the most familiar in the book. This is not due to familiarity with Habakkuk, but rather to its quotation in various forms in Hebrews (10:38) and by Paul (Rom. 1:17; Gal. 3:11). Grappling with the interpretation of this verse led Martin Luther to question the prevailing doctrine of justification, ultimately precipitating the Protestant Reformation.
Seeing God as just, contrary to what might at first glance be the case, in ch. 3 Habakkuk praises him for his provision, knowing that he can put his trust in him (3:17–18). The place of the third chapter within the book has posed a problem. It has its own psalm-like heading and conclusion (3:1, 19), possibly indicating that at one time it had an independent existence. The commentary on Habakkuk from Qumran discusses the first two chapters, but not the third, suggesting its later inclusion. The argument is not compelling, however, since the chapter is included in the lxx and other early texts. Whether the prophet composed the hymn himself or adapted it from some earlier source, it functions beautifully in its canonical context to express Habakkuk’s relationship to his God, and the book can only be read and fully appreciated if it is left intact.
In some ways, Habakkuk’s role and message is the opposite of that normally found among prophets. Instead of chiding Israel on God’s behalf, he confronts God himself, demanding an account of his actions, or lack of them. The covenant at Mt. Sinai was between two parties, God and Israel, and neither can ignore his obligations. Habakkuk reminds God of the promised curses should Israel renege on her duties (Dt. 28:15–68), curses which seem a long time coming. He is confident that God will hear his prayers and act mightily towards Israel and Babylon. He is so aware of the justice of God that, even with no response, even if God did not bless his people in general, or Habakkuk in particular, he is still worthy of praise.
Habakkuk for today
Many view questioning God as sinful, but Habakkuk and Job show this is not so. Rough passages in life can produce honest doubt and perplexity, and God condemns neither Job nor Habakkuk for expressing these doubts. Only in open dialogue are misunderstandings resolved and differences righted. Even today it is better to express vexation than to let it fester, erupting into bitterness. While an answer might not come immediately (2:1), or might itself cause consternation (1:12–17), God does not ban honest questioning.
God already knows the beginning from the end (Is. 46:10). He does not act in secrecy, but reveals himself to inquiring believers (Am. 3:7). It is important to address the great and awesome God with the respect due him (Hab. 3:16), but one may still address him. Comfort awaits the doubter, questioner or sufferer because part of what God is about involves salvation and help for his own (3:19). We also, like Habakkuk, expect his reponse to our questions and needs, not only because he met with Habakkuk in the first millennium before Christ (3:3–15), but also because he has already met us in our own personal past approaching the third millenium after Christ, and will do so again. Whether the problem arises from the acts of national entities, as Habakkuk’s did, or because of individual wrongdoing, God is there.
M. Goldsmith, Habakkuk and Joel: God is Sovereign in History (Marshalls, 1982).
P. C. Craigie, Twelve Prophets, Vol. 2, DSB (Westminster/John Knox Press, 1985).
J. M. Boice, The Minor Prophets, 2 vols. (Zondervan, 1983, 1986).
D. W. Baker, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, TOTC (IVP, 1988).
O. P. Robertson, The Books of Nahum, Habakkuk and Zephaniah, NICOT (Eerdmans, 1990).
F. F. Bruce, Habakkuk, in T. McComiskey (ed.), The Minor Prophets, vol. 2 (Baker Book House, 1993).
E. Achtemeier, Nahum–Malachi (John Knox, 1986).
lxx Septuagint (Gk. version of OT)
DSB Daily Study Bible
TOTC Tyndale Old Testament Commentary
NICOT The New International Commentary on the Old Testament
Carson, D. A. (1994). New Bible commentary : 21st century edition. Rev. ed. of: The new Bible commentary. 3rd ed. / edited by D. Guthrie, J.A. Motyer. 1970. (4th ed.) (Hab 1.1). Leicester, England; Downers Grove, Ill., USA: Inter-Varsity Press.