Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Habakkuk: a Book Report

The following is from a work-in-progress called "The Bible: a Book Report" in which I read each book of the Bible, summarize it in my own words, and occasionally give some commentary. I will also include biblical artwork by famous artists.

After reading the very disturbing book of Nahum, in which the prophet gloats over the destruction of Assyria, I was pleasantly surprised to read the next book, Habakkuk, which is much more humane and relatable.  The short book of Habakkuk is a dialogue between the prophet and God in which the prophet boldly questions God’s justice in the midst of tragedy.  The book was probably written around the first wave of the Babylonian conquest of Judah (597 B.C.E.)., in which the king of Judah and several nobles were deported to Babylon.  God’s chosen kingdom was falling, and the prophet, quite understandably, had some poignant questions for God.  The book begins with these questions:

“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.”

These questions are universal and timeless, relevant in every generation (including our own).  Where is God in the midst of suffering and tragedy?  Why does God not just intervene and save the innocent?  I have asked these questions, as I’m sure most human beings have who have experienced suffering and tragedy.  God’s reply is that he is in control of things.  It is he who has roused Babylon:

“For I am rousing the Chaldeans (another name for Babylon),
that fierce and impetuous nation,
who march through the breadth of the earth
to seize dwellings not their own.”

Habakkuk is not satisfied with this answer, and neither am I.  If God is in control of nations who commit atrocities against innocent people, what sort of God is that?  How can such a God be called good?  Habakkuk courageously continues his questions of God’s reasoning:

“Why do you look on the treacherous,
and are silent when the wicked swallow
those more righteous than they?”

In other words: why do you allow injustice, God?!  That is the burning question that still causes people to lose their faith in God.  Was God in control of the Nazis who committed the holocaust?  God’s answer to this is not totally satisfying, but maybe it’s all we humans get.  God tells Habakkuk to wait with hope for a future restoration:

“For there is still a vision for the appointed time;
it speaks of the end (of suffering?) and does not lie.
If it seems to tarry (delay), wait for it;
it will surely come, it will not delay.”

God doesn’t answer the question why; he merely tells the prophet to hold onto hope, and wait.  God also encourages the prophet with the insight that the wicked reap what they sow.  Though the wealthy and powerful may oppress for a time, the righteous will endure their suffering through faith and hope:

“Look at the proud!
Their spirit is not right in them,
but the righteous live by faith.
Moreover, wealth is treacherous;
the arrogant do not endure.”

Habakkuk is granted a vision of a future time of peace, when “the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.”  The prophet ends his book with a beautiful song, which (the text tells us) is meant to be played with stringed instruments.  The song expresses the prophet’s pain and confusion:

“I hear, and I tremble within;
my lips quiver at the sound.
Rottenness enters into my bones,
and my steps tremble beneath me.”

But the song ends on a note of hope, despite the prophet’s pain and bewilderment.  As gay rights martyr Harvey Milk said, “Without hope, life is not worth living.  You gotta give them hope.”  Though the land is desolate and the situation bleak, the prophet still holds onto hope.  Here’s how his song ends:

“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.
God, the Lord, is my strength;
he makes my feet like the feet of a deer,
and makes me tread upon the heights.”

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