For those who want a change from the Gospel
Trinity 16 – Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4 (Related)
Well would you believe it? The Lectionary has thrown these passages at me just as I’m drawing to the end of teaching my students a module which is all about the book of Habakkuk. We’ve taken it to bits, put it back together again, and tried to apply it. So thanks to them in advance for all their ideas which have contributed to this blog. I would advise reading the whole book – it won’t take long, and will give you a much better sense of what’s going on than these two snippets.
The interpretation of the whole book hangs on how we understand one word in v.4 – the ‘wicked’. Are they the Assyrians, who in the mid 7th century BC had just obliterated the Northern tribes and were now turning their attention to Judah in the South? Or are they the Babylonians who had defeated the Assyrian empire and in 604 captured Philistia, right on Judah’s borders? I don’t think either of these really works. A third alternative is that the wicked are the people of Judah itself, and, having warned them through prophets for two hundred years or more, God is now intent on punishing them by using the Babylonians to overrun them. This is what did happen in 597. The reference to ‘The Law’ in v.4 is the clincher for me. Why would anyone be surprised if Assyrians or Babylonians didn’t keep the Jewish Law? This third interpretation helps us, I believe, to place ourselves right in the story, and see how our relationship with God makes sense in today’s world.
Habakkuk is living in a time when the nation is broken, and is going to pot. What he describes in v.2-4, injustice, violence, conflict and strife, is as fresh today as it was then. The rich line their own pockets while the poor starve or freeze to death, policemen rape women, gangs can execute innocent people on their own doorsteps, no-one trusts anyone else, and meanwhile a hostile nation nearby is on the rampage and is destroying its neighbour, whilst threatening nuclear war. The parallels are uncanny. So Habakkuk, like most of us today, wants the answer to three questions. Why are you letting this happen, O Lord? Where will it all end? And how are we supposed to live through times like these? The whole book answers each of these questions, but here’s a spoiler for questions 1 and 3. God is in control, he knows what he is doing, and it’s all under his control. And one day all the earth will come to recognise, and acknowledge his glory (2:14).
But it is the middle question which our lectionary invites us to consider, stopping as it does at the ‘punchline’ of 2:4. This verse, (mis)quoted by Paul in Romans 1:17, ‘The righteous shall live by faith’, became the watchword of the Protestant Reformation, with its attack on the idea of ‘salvation by works’, in other words our ability to somehow earn our own salvation, either by good works or by repeated religious rituals. In fact that simply isn’t what Habakkuk is saying, or what the Hebrew really means. A much better translation would be ‘The righteous will survive through their faithfulness’. In other words, not everyone in the nation is wicked – this is called ‘Remnant theology’ and it’s a common motif in the Bible, that of all those who think they are God’s people, only a faithful few really are living for him. You see this in the Elijah on Mt Carmel story, in Isaiah, and in many other places. However bad things look, God always keeps for himself a remnant who are faithful to him. So those who are really living for God and avoiding the idolatry and the wickedness which inevitably stems from it, will survive the Babylonian punishment by remaining faithful to God. Don’t join in with the idolatry which is so prevalent, but, more subtly, don’t give up believing that God is in control and he does know what he’s doing. In our time too we see a small but faithful church struggling to make sense of a world going to pot, and Christians often being tempted just to throw in our lot with the nasty spirit of the age, or to all intents and purposes to give up believing in God at all.
There is a major emphasis in the book on waiting (1:2, 2:1), and in a world which needs instant answers and solutions this is difficult for us. To slow down, to keep questioning God, but above all to believe that the revelation awaits an appointed time, is what it means to remain faithful. There’s a lovely image in 3:19 which is not about prancing about joyfully but rather sure-footedness (cue film clip from David Attenborough of ibexes leaping down a mountainside to avoid being eaten by a fox – you can watch it here). Keep your nerve, keep your trust in God, who does know what he’s doing, stay sure-footed in negotiating the present crisis, and long and pray for that time when the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord (2:14).