How to read Habakkuk


  • Content: Habakkuk enters into dialogue with God over the question of injustice (How do people get away with evil and God seems to do nothing?) and receives grounds for trust

  • Prophet: Habakkuk, o prophet of Judah, is unknown apart from this book

  • Date of prophetic activity: sometime between 612 and, 599 B.C., when Babylon had begun to dominate the international scene, but before she had attacked Jerusalem

  • Emphases: prophetic indignation over God's apparent toleration of injustice; prophetic confidence in the justice and power of God; the stance of the righteous is faithfulness and trust in God; God's assurance that the wicked will be punished


You may find this eighth in the Book of the Twelve to be among the easier of the prophetic books to read, because the structure is clear and the train of thought easy to follow. The first two chapters take the form of a dialogue between the prophet and Yahweh over injustice. Chapter 3 is the prophet's final response to God in the form of prayer in which he longs for the new exodus, yet affirms his trust in God no matter what.

In his complaint Habakkuk wrestles with what he knows to be true about God's character alongside God's apparent tolerance of the violence and injustice that abound in Judah ( 1:2-4). God's response-that he is raising up the Babylonians to handle this matter (1:5-11)-is small comfort to the prophet (1 :12-17), since the Babylonians are more violent yet! So he takes his stand like the watchman of the night to see what answer will come in the morning(2:1). God's second response is twofold: (1) The prophet must wait and continue to trust in God (2:2-4), and (2) the arrogant will surely meet their doom in kind (plunder for plunder, 2:4-20). Habakkuk's prayer is a dramatic metaphorical remembrance of the exodus from Egypt, which inspires hope, trust, and rejoicing in God in the face of all difficulties.


In many ways reading Habakkuk is like reading an extended lament such as one finds, for example, in Psalm 10 or 13. Everything is predicated on God's character-and the prophet's/psalmist's confidence that God will indeed eventually judge the actions of the wicked. In each case it is precisely because of who God is that the prophet or psalmist cries out, "How long?" at what seems to be divine tolerance of evil.

It is this relationship to the laments in the Psalter that best explains the most unusual feature of Habakkuk, namely, that there is no oracle directed toward God's people as such. Rather the prophet has himself taken on the role of the people in his dialogue with God over present injustice. And the liturgical notations at the beginning and the end of chapter 3 make it clear that Habakkuk intended his prayer/psalm to be sung in the community of the righteous.

For the biblical background to Habakkuk you will want to read 2 Kings 22-23 and 2 Chronicles 34:1-36:4. The way he mentions the raising up of Babylon in Habakkuk 1:6 suggests that she had not yet achieved full international ascendancy (after 605 B.c.), which also means that Habakkuk was a contemporary of Zephaniah, Nahum, and Jeremiah. The descriptions of Judah's sins in these four books confirm the Kings-Chronicles testimony that Josiah's reform was only short-lived and skin-deep, and that Judah was a society of continuing injustice, violence, and rejection of the law. Yet, like his contemporaries, Habakkuk saw the future with clarity-that God's justice would prevail.

You will recognize that the oracles against Babylon are quite in keeping with the whole prophetic tradition, which clearly understood Yahweh to be the sovereign God of all the nations. God is the one who raised up Babylon to execute judgment against Judah.



Habakkuk's First Complaint

Note how much the complaint (w. 2-4) is like the lament psalms- a cry for God to act in light of the present situation, plus a catalogue of reasons for the lament.


Yahweh's Answer

Yahweh's response is scarcely what the prophet is looking for! God is raising up Babylon to mete out his judgment against Judah. you might want to compare the relentless, unstoppable nature of the coming Babylonian attack with either Nahum's vision (Nah 2:3-4, g-10; 3: 1-3) or with Joel's (Joel 2:1-11).


Habakkuk's Second Complaint

Try to put yourself in Habakkuk's sandals in order to see how thoroughly unsatisfactory God's answer is. How can this be justice, when the God whose eyes are too pure to look on evil summons the treacherous to "swallow up those more righteous than themselves" (1:13)? So Habakkuk takes the place of the watchman to see how God will respond this time (2:1).


Yahweh's Answer

The answer is threefold: (1) Habakkuk must wait,for the answer (..the revelation") will come at its appointed time, (2) the Babylonians, present stance of arrogance is doomed and (3) the righteous will live by their faithful trust in Yahweh (v.4, the passage that became crucial in Paul's theology).


Woe Oracles against the Oppressor

Here watch for the lex talionis ("eye for eye") nature of God's justice as his judgment is meted out on Babylon. Picking up a different image in each oracle, God strikes his gavel five times: The plunderer is plundered (vv.6-8), the haughty conqueror is shamed (vv.9-11), the builder's building becomes fuel for the fire (w. l2-14),the one who forces the other to get drunk will drink shame from the cup of God's wrath (w. 15- 17), and the silent idol is silenced before Yahweh, who is present in his holy temple (vv. 18-20).


Habakkuk's Prayer and Confession

This marvelous psalm comes in three basic parts: verse 2, & prayer that God would renew his deeds of old; verses 3-15, & celebration of God's past victories as the Divine Warrior; and verses 16-19, Habakkuk's twofold commitment to "wait patiently for the day of calamity" and to put his trust and hope in God under any circumstances (cf. 2:2-4).

As with many readers, you may find the central section to be hard going. What is crucial to note here is that in three stanzas (3:3-7, 8-10, and 11 -15) Habakkuk weaves together ( 1) God's dominion over the chaotic waters in creation, (2) his causing the sun to stand still for Joshua, (3) the theophany at Sinai, and (4) poetic descriptions of the exodus (cf. Exod 15:6-8; Ps 114) into a brilliant,breathtaking reminder of God's triumph over Pharaoh in delivering his people-a picture that

makes Habakkuk's hair stand on end, as it were (Hab 3: 16). A11 of this serves to assure God's people that he will act once more on their behalf.

Habakkuk carries on the biblical story in grand fashion-that the

Creator, Redeemer God will do something about human iniquity, while

his people live in hope and with faithful trust in him.