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The Problem of Evil–Habakkuk Revisited

June 2013
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the-problem-of-evilWhere is God in the midst of injustice, suffering, and evil? That question has echoed down through the ages and is still being asked today by both skeptics and believers alike. The skeptics point to it as some sort of proof that God doesn’t really exist, and the believers ask it because they don’t understand where God is in the midst of great tragedy, injustice, and evil.

Of the sixteen writing prophets in the Old Testament, there is one who took our side and asked that question of God from our perspective–“Where are you, God, in the midst of injustice and suffering?” His name was Habakkuk and he wrote three chapters that appear in the book with his name on it in the Old Testament. Habakkuk was a contemporary of Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, and Zephaniah and prophesied during the final days of the Assyrian Empire and the beginning of Babylonia’s world rulership (source here). Little else is known about him other than what is written in his book.

Most of us (well, the believers among us) can certainly relate to the opening lines in Habakkuk (see below). Habakkuk levels two complaints and the Lord gives His answer each time, and then Habakkuk ends with a prayer. As stated in a study of Habakkuk in Bible.org, he was wrestling with the very issues we wrestle with (in fact, his name means “embrace” or “wrestle”)–“If God is good, then why is there evil in the world? And if there has to be evil, then why do the evil prosper? What is God doing in the world?” (quote source here). The study notes a similar thought in Zephaniah 1:12 coming from the Israelites who thought that “God did not do good or evil. They thought God was not involved and so continued in their sin.” However, “Habakkuk is one of the good guys. He fears God and does what is right, but it is getting him nowhere” (quote source here).

I think most of us (e.g., the believers among us) can definitely relate to that last sentence. I know I sure can. The study in Bible.org continues with a quote from a book on Habakkuk published in 1983 titled, From Worry to Worship, by Warren Wiersbe: “While Habakkuk begins by wondering or worrying about the world around him and God’s seeming indifference, he ends by worshipping God” (p. 8). Habakkuk has a fair amount of fear after God tells him what is going to happen in answer to his first complaint which brings about his second complaint and God’s second answer. The progression of Habakkuk through three chapters takes him from a place of fear, trembling, and complaints to trusting and worshiping God (source here).

With that in mind, let’s read the three chapters in Habakkuk (NIV):

The prophecy that Habakkuk the prophet received.

Habakkuk’s Complaint

How long, Lord, must I call for help,
but you do not listen?
Or cry out to you, “Violence!”
but you do not save?
Why do you make me look at injustice?
Why do you tolerate wrongdoing?
Destruction and violence are before me;
there is strife, and conflict abounds.
Therefore the law is paralyzed,
and justice never prevails.
The wicked hem in the righteous,
so that justice is perverted.

The Lord’s Answer

“Look at the nations and watch—
and be utterly amazed.
For I am going to do something in your days
that you would not believe,
even if you were told.
I am raising up the Babylonians,
that ruthless and impetuous people,
who sweep across the whole earth
to seize dwellings not their own.
They are a feared and dreaded people;
they are a law to themselves
and promote their own honor.
Their horses are swifter than leopards,
fiercer than wolves at dusk.
Their cavalry gallops headlong;
their horsemen come from afar.
They fly like an eagle swooping to devour;
they all come intent on violence.
Their hordes advance like a desert wind
and gather prisoners like sand.
10 They mock kings and scoff at rulers.
They laugh at all fortified cities;
by building earthen ramps they capture them.
11 Then they sweep past like the wind and go on—
guilty people, whose own strength is their god.”

Habakkuk’s Second Complaint

12 Lord, are you not from everlasting?
My God, my Holy One, you will never die.
You, Lord, have appointed them to execute judgment;
you, my Rock, have ordained them to punish.
13 Your eyes are too pure to look on evil;
you cannot tolerate wrongdoing.
Why then do you tolerate the treacherous?
Why are you silent while the wicked
swallow up those more righteous than themselves?
14 You have made people like the fish in the sea,
like the sea creatures that have no ruler.
15 The wicked foe pulls all of them up with hooks,
he catches them in his net,
he gathers them up in his dragnet;
and so he rejoices and is glad.
16 Therefore he sacrifices to his net
and burns incense to his dragnet,
for by his net he lives in luxury
and enjoys the choicest food.
17 Is he to keep on emptying his net,
destroying nations without mercy?

2 I will stand at my watch
and station myself on the ramparts;
I will look to see what he will say to me,
and what answer I am to give to this complaint.

The Lord’s Answer

Then the Lord replied:

“Write down the revelation
and make it plain on tablets
so that a herald may run with it.
For the revelation awaits an appointed time;
it speaks of the end
and will not prove false.
Though it linger, wait for it;
it will certainly come
and will not delay.

“See, the enemy is puffed up;
his desires are not upright—
but the righteous person will live by his faithfulness—
indeed, wine betrays him;
he is arrogant and never at rest.
Because he is as greedy as the grave
and like death is never satisfied,
he gathers to himself all the nations
and takes captive all the peoples.

“Will not all of them taunt him with ridicule and scorn, saying,

“‘Woe to him who piles up stolen goods
and makes himself wealthy by extortion!
How long must this go on?’
Will not your creditors suddenly arise?
Will they not wake up and make you tremble?
Then you will become their prey.
Because you have plundered many nations,
the peoples who are left will plunder you.
For you have shed human blood;
you have destroyed lands and cities and everyone in them.

“Woe to him who builds his house by unjust gain,
setting his nest on high
to escape the clutches of ruin!
10 You have plotted the ruin of many peoples,
shaming your own house and forfeiting your life.
11 The stones of the wall will cry out,
and the beams of the woodwork will echo it.

12 “Woe to him who builds a city with bloodshed
and establishes a town by injustice!
13 Has not the Lord Almighty determined
that the people’s labor is only fuel for the fire,
that the nations exhaust themselves for nothing?
14 For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory
of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.

15 “Woe to him who gives drink to his neighbors,
pouring it from the wineskin till they are drunk,
so that he can gaze on their naked bodies!
16 You will be filled with shame instead of glory.
Now it is your turn! Drink and let your nakedness be exposed!
The cup from the Lord’s right hand is coming around to you,
and disgrace will cover your glory.
17 The violence you have done to Lebanon will overwhelm you,
and your destruction of animals will terrify you.
For you have shed human blood;
you have destroyed lands and cities and everyone in them.

18 “Of what value is an idol carved by a craftsman?
Or an image that teaches lies?
For the one who makes it trusts in his own creation;
he makes idols that cannot speak.
19 Woe to him who says to wood, ‘Come to life!’
Or to lifeless stone, ‘Wake up!’
Can it give guidance?
It is covered with gold and silver;
there is no breath in it.”

20 The Lord is in his holy temple;
let all the earth be silent before him.

Habakkuk’s Prayer

3 A prayer of Habakkuk the prophet.

Lord, I have heard of your fame;
I stand in awe of your deeds, Lord.
Repeat them in our day,
in our time make them known;
in wrath remember mercy.

God came from Teman,
the Holy One from Mount Paran.
His glory covered the heavens
and his praise filled the earth.
His splendor was like the sunrise;
rays flashed from his hand,
where his power was hidden.
Plague went before him;
pestilence followed his steps.
He stood, and shook the earth;
he looked, and made the nations tremble.
The ancient mountains crumbled
and the age-old hills collapsed—
but he marches on forever.
I saw the tents of Cushan in distress,
the dwellings of Midian in anguish.

Were you angry with the rivers, Lord?
Was your wrath against the streams?
Did you rage against the sea
when you rode your horses
and your chariots to victory?
You uncovered your bow,
you called for many arrows.
You split the earth with rivers;
10 the mountains saw you and writhed.
Torrents of water swept by;
the deep roared
and lifted its waves on high.

11 Sun and moon stood still in the heavens
at the glint of your flying arrows,
at the lightning of your flashing spear.
12 In wrath you strode through the earth
and in anger you threshed the nations.
13 You came out to deliver your people,
to save your anointed one.
You crushed the leader of the land of wickedness,
you stripped him from head to foot.
14 With his own spear you pierced his head
when his warriors stormed out to scatter us,
gloating as though about to devour
the wretched who were in hiding.
15 You trampled the sea with your horses,
churning the great waters.

16 I heard and my heart pounded,
my lips quivered at the sound;
decay crept into my bones,
and my legs trembled.
Yet I will wait patiently for the day of calamity
to come on the nation invading us.
17 Though the fig tree does not bud
and there are no grapes on the vines,
though the olive crop fails
and the fields produce no food,
though there are no sheep in the pen
and no cattle in the stalls,
18 yet I will rejoice in the Lord,
I will be joyful in God my Savior.

19 The Sovereign Lord is my strength;
he makes my feet like the feet of a deer,
he enables me to tread on the heights.

(Source: Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.®)

From-Fear-to-FaithIn so many of our church settings today, this is a vision of God that we don’t often hear about. As I read through the words in Habakkuk, I can understand his fear and trembling as it is my same reaction. In fact, with all the talk of “God’s favor” that is so pervasive in many segments of Christianity in our culture, it smacks of a certain “unreality” to what we are used to hearing. In fact, it’s almost like we want to do a “double take” to make sure we read it right. God is raising up a foreign nation (the Babylonians) to come and destroy Judah? And the Babylonians are really wicked and powerful and no one can stop them? (See Hab. 1:6-11.) While verse 11 indicates that the Babylonians will be held responsible for their wickedness, God is using them to bring about His purposes.

At this point the study on Habakkuk in Bible.org states the following:

Most of us have been praying for the evil in our society hoping for revival. What if God sent the Soviet Union [e.g., Russia] or Saddam Hussein [this study was written before his death] to conquer America, to instill communism or a dictatorship, imprison all Christians, etc. What would you think about that answer? Would you say God didn’t answer your prayer?

This points us to another principle we can learn from Habakkuk. God doesn’t always give us the answers we want or expect. We usually have it in our mind how we want God to answer our prayers. When He does it differently, how do you respond?

[Note: The Soviet Union was dissolved into 16 independent nations on December, 25, 1991 and is now referred to as Russia. Saddam Hussein, who was the President of Iraq from 1979 to 2003, was executed on December 30, 2006.]

This leads to Habakkuk’s second complaint found in Hab. 1:12-2:1. First, he acknowledges that God is everlasting. The study in Bible.org brings up God’s immutability–that God does not change. It states “the fact that God does not change is important because it means God keeps His promises and He has made promises to Israel. Habakkuk knows that God will not totally destroy Israel because of His covenant promises. That is why he says, ‘We will not die'” (quote source here).

Habakkuk also acknowledges that God is too pure to look at evil and that He cannot tolerate wrongdoing, and he asks, “Why then do you tolerate the treacherous? Why are you silent while the wicked swallow up those more righteous than themselves?” (v. 13). Yet even though he still doesn’t understand God’s answer, he believes in and places his trust in God.

If you’re like me, at this point we are looking for something positive–anything positive. This is not good news, yet God has His reasons. So after Habakkuk levels his second complaint, the Lord answers (see Hab. 2:2-20). After reading those verses, we discover that the enemy–in this case, the Babylonians–are puffed up, arrogant, greedy, never satisfied, and “gathers to himself all the nations and takes captive all the peoples;” dishonest, violent, sensual, and full of idolatry. In other words, as the study in Bible.org states, “God’s answer is this: Don’t worry about the Babylonians. They will get theirs, too.” But let’s not overlook a very important portion of verse 4 that is for us (e.g., those of us who believe) in the midst of all the tragedy, “. . . but the righteous person will live by his faithfulness” (e.g., by faith). That is what we (e.g., believers) are called to do in the midst of any circumstances that we find ourselves in whether good, bad, or downright awful.

At the end of the Lord’s answer is this verse (Hab. 2:20): “The Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth be silent before him.” God is in control. Way too often and most of the time we relegate God to our level of understanding. And in our own effort to understand God, we make Him like us, and that is a very grave error on our part. As Isaiah 55:8-9 states:

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
    neither are your ways my ways,”
    declares the Lord.
“As the heavens are higher than the earth,
    so are my ways higher than your ways
    and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

At the start of Chapter 1 Habakkuk was low and despairing because of the evil all around him, and by the beginning of Chapter 2 he is standing watch, waiting for the Lord’s reply, which is found in Hab. 2:3:

“For the revelation awaits an appointed time;
    it speaks of the end
    and will not prove false.
Though it linger, wait for it;
    it will certainly come
    and will not delay.”

In the rest of Chapter 2 God describes the enemy and the end that will come to that enemy. However, what the Lord had revealed to Habakkuk about the enemy was still to take place in the future, and even though he knew what was coming was going to be awful, he also knew the ultimate end of that enemy. And Chapter 3 opens up with Habakkuk praising and worshiping the Lord with these words (Hab. 3:2):

“Lord, I have heard of your fame;
    I stand in awe of your deeds, Lord.
Repeat them in our day,
    in our time make them known;
    in wrath remember mercy.”

As the study in Bible.org concludes, “Habakkuk now understands and offers a prayer of praise because God is in control. He pleads for mercy in the midst of the judgment (Hab. 3:1-2); he praises God’s majesty and power (Hab. 3:3-15); and he promises to wait on the Lord (Hab. 3:16-19)(quote source here).

While none of us knows what the future holds, like Habakkuk, we know Who holds the future. While injustice and evil abound all around us, that is not the end of the story. Not by a long shot, folks. And that’s the message of Habakkuk, going from fear to faith and worshiping God for who He is (through Jesus Christ our Savior and Lord). And if we truly know and believe in Him, we know the ultimate end of the enemy, and we know that in the end . . .

God wins . . . .

YouTube Video: “Through the Fire” by the Crabb Family:

Photo #1 credit here
Photo #2 credit here

 

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