Habakkuk: Active Faith in Uncertain Times

Here’s an edited manuscript of the sermon I delivered at Word of Life Baptist Church on November 15th, 2020. I have removed some of the material that doesn’t lend itself to this format.

Some have also asked me to explain more of what I mean about current Christian-like slogans. I will plan on writing a follow-up blog specifically addressing this issue.  

If you’d rather listen to this sermon than read it, you can find the link to the YouTube recording here on Word of Life Baptist Church’s YouTube channel (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eELw8Way0qw).

Active Faith in Uncertain Times (Habakkuk 1:1-3:19)

Hello! Good morning to those of you who might be watching our service from home at this moment. And good afternoon or evening to those who might be watching when you return from your tree stands or hunting blinds.

Before we get into things, let me also just briefly address the elephant in this very empty room.

Yes, we have moved our church services, for this week and next, completely online. Like Pastor Scott mentioned, it was a unanimous decision by the elders, but one that wasn’t particularly easy to make. Our in-person gatherings provide a place for both fellowship and encouragement, two things that are somewhat of a rare commodity these days. But because of the increase in positive cases within our church and community, we felt that this was the safest route for us to take at this particular time.

For those of you frustrated, we feel your pain. For those of you disappointed, we feel the same. For those of you angry, we are too. And for those of you who might be ill, know that you are sincerely in our prayers.

These are uncertain times, right?

I feel like that phrase has been used so much lately that it’s beginning to lose its meaning somewhat. But I’m not sure how else to put it. This is an unusual hour for God’s people. There is so much uncertainty about everything right now, and that uncertainty doesn’t really seem to be getting much better as the days pass. And if your prayers have been anything like mine, you might be asking God a lot more questions lately: “Where are you, God?” “What is your will in this moment?” “When will this end?” 

We might be living in unusual times, but did you know that prayers like these aren’t new or novel to us?

Actually, there’s an entire book of the Bible that’s based around a man of God wrestling with very tough questions similar to the one’s we might be asking now. In fact, this book is a record of one long argument between the Lord and his prophet. And I think that there is a great deal we can learn from it here and now. 

So, let us now look together at the book of Habakkuk.

Introduction to the Book (Habakkuk 1:1-4)

A nation filled with violence and destruction. Contention and strife dividing the people. The law not being followed or enforced. Justice being perverted. The wicked winning at every turn. While these might also serve as apt descriptions of our current country, these are the things that the prophet Habakkuk was seeing as he looked out at the land of Israel.

And as we read in 1:2, God’s prophet audibly wonders how long the Lord will allow it to happen.

Just to give you all a brief background to our book today, Habakkuk is one of the twelve Minor Prophets. If you don’t have your copy of scripture in front of you now, know that his is one of the smaller texts that appear at the back of our English Old Testaments.

And just as an aside, if you remember back to when I preached last, I talked about another one of these books: Haggai. So somewhat accidently, I think I’ve actually started a really slow series on the books that have the hardest to pronounce titles within the Bible. First Haggai, now Habakkuk, and I’m thinking either Nahum, Ecclesiastes, or Malachi next.

But again, Habakkuk is one of the 12 Minor Prophets.

And specifically, he was a prophet after the destruction of the Northern Kingdom of Israel under the hands of the Assyrian warlords but before the Southern Kingdom of Judah was overthrown by Babylon. That’s important to note. You need to get that in order to understand this book in the way that it’s intended to be read.

At one time, Israel was a united monarchy.

The twelve tribes of Israel were given land by God and were ruled by kings like Saul and David. But during Rehoboam’s reign, the kingdom of Israel split into two. The ten northernmost tribes then formed what came to be known as Israel or Samaria, and the two southernmost tribes became the nation of Judah. But in 721 B.C., the Northern Kingdom of Israel fell to Assyria. This happened because of the sins of the people and the idolatry of the northern kings. However, the Southern Kingdom was spared. Assyria tried to conquer Judah, but the Lord miraculously intervened. God did not let His people get wiped out completely by the Assyrian forces.

But it wasn’t like the Southern Kingdom was any better than the Northern Kingdom though. They too were violent. They too were idolatrous. And they were also not faithful to the law that had been given to them through Moses.

In fact, in Habakkuk’s day, kings like Manasseh and Aman were both evil men who elicited an evil following. You might even remember that Manasseh was the king who happily sacrificed his own children and burnt them up in the fire in a display of worship to the gods of other nations. And it isn’t like he received public outcry for such actions.

No, the people of Judah were happy to follow Manasseh and others like him into idolatry. They even began to label all of what they were doing “good” and “godly.”

That’s because Judah hadn’t actually stopped sacrificing to the true God. They were just doing it alongside idolatry and violence. And they also had adopted some religious sounding catchphrases like “the Temple of the Lord, the Temple of the Lord, the Temple of the Lord” that made them feel safe and good about themselves in the midst of their sinfulness. 

But Judah’s faith, ultimately, was passive at best. It was empty. It was riddled with silly slogans and syncretism. All of that is the kind of wickedness that Habakkuk is talking about here in chapter 1. And because of it, I think that his questions are understandable. 

Where was God? 

The Disappointment (Habakkuk 1:5-9)

Have you ever been disappointed?  Have you ever received an answer to a question and it just did not go the way you expected it to? Maybe that was the case for you when you heard that we’d decided to suspend our in-person services for a few weeks.

But for Habakkuk, his disappointment derives from God’s response to his previous question. It definitely wasn’t the answer he was expecting. Where was God? Check out the Lord’s response to this in Habakkuk 1:5-9.

Where was God? Had he noticed the wickedness of Judah? Was He aware of the sin and violence being committed by His people? Did He plan on acting in any way? Yes. Yes, He did. And He had actually begun to act already, but just not in the way that Habakkuk expected or wanted. He was raising up the nation of Babylon to come and conquer Judah. He was going to use the Babylonian armies to finish the job that Assyria once started. In the past, God spared the Southern Kingdom from total destruction. He wouldn’t this time around.

And again, I think that God’s prophet responds rather understandably. To this news, Habakkuk expresses shock and immediately begins to argue. 

What did the Lord mean by this? Was He really going to use an even more wicked nation to punish a less wicked nation? Was He going to punish evil with worse evil? Was he really going to send His own people into exile? Or, to use the prophet’s own words as recorded in 1:13: “Lord, your eyes are too pure to behold evil, and you cannot look at wrongdoing, so why do you look upon the more treacherous and are silent when the wicked swallow those more righteous than they?

God what about Babylon? When will be their judgement? Yes, Judah is violent and yes, they don’t follow your laws, but isn’t Babylon worse?

The Promise (Habakkuk 2:2-5)

And God again responds to His prophet’s questioning. The conversation continues in chapter 2. Check out a small chunk of the Lord’s answer in chapter 2 verses 2-5.

God gives his prophet a promise: Babylon will also get what they deserve, but just not yet.

In the passages we just read, as well as within the continuing verses, God describes Babylon, the more wicked nation, by naming some of their specific character and moral flaws. He then preemptively begins to judge their actions and paints a picture for Habakkuk of their eventual future downfall.

So, what does God say about Babylon? Well, they are greedy and proud. Specifically, they are “greedy as the grave,” which is a sinister sounding idiom that basically means they take everything just as death eventually takes all life. When they conquer other lands, they take all the treasure they can find and enslave all able-bodied men to do their bidding.

Ironically, though, this greed is what will lead to their demise. Their love of amassing wealth and lust for controlling other nations will be their ultimate undoing as the very nations they’ve plundered will rise up and do the same to them. Babylon will be ransacked by the very people they attempted to steal from and control. 

And in terms of their pride, this wicked nation thought that it alone was steering the course of world history. Kind of like how Mussolini, during his reign in WWII Italy, created a new calendar that claimed day-one-year-one started on the 29th of October 1922, the day he rose to power. Or, kind of how North Korea has a calendar that claims we are living in the year Juche 109, as Kim Il-Sung’s birth begun a new world era in 1912.Babylon felt that their rise and rule was all important.

But the Bible is clear that only the Lord sets up and takes down kings and kingdoms. Only God is sovereign. Only He controls the outcome of history, even in our time now.

And He does what He pleases in His good and perfect will.

The Challenge (Habakkuk 2:4)

There’s also another facet to God’s response here that we shouldn’t miss. God not only answers with a promise, but he also gives Habakkuk, and inadvertently any God-fearing individual, a challenge which can be seen in the second half of 2:4.

The enemy is puffed up. His desires are not upright. But the righteous person will live by his faithfulness.” Or, depending on the translation you might have: “the righteous person will live by his faith.”

But what does that mean?

Well surely it means what Paul explains it to mean in Romans chapter 1 and in Galatians 3. The righteous live by faith because only faith in God saves. No action or obedience on our part earns us our salvation. It’s a free gift from God bought for us by Jesus’ blood spilled on the cross.  And that’s is absolutely true.

However, we need to remember the context of the book of Habakkuk too.

We also need to consider that the Hebrew word for “faith” and “faithfulness” is the same word. And faithfulness, or in Hebrew emunah, doesn’t mean some sort of passive belief or abstract trust in something.

No, the people of Israel had already been chosen by God to become His set-apart people. And as a condition of that grace offered to them, they were then given a set of guidelines which they were to follow. These rules didn’t save them, only God saved them. But in order to live a faithful and righteous life, one that pointed to God’s glory and goodness, they needed to follow them.

And in Habakkuk’s day, they obviously weren’t.

For the Lord’s prophet in this moment, and in the face of this terrible and impending destruction by the hands of the Babylonians, God was challenging him to wait and trust in His timing. And while he was waiting, he was to continue to act faithfully to the calling of embodying God’s goodness and love. He was to follow the Torah like others were not. He was to promote proper justice. He was to be that light on a hill, a foretaste of God’s ultimate reign over His entire creation. 

Yes, there was wickedness all around him, and yes even though Habakkuk couldn’t even imagine it, his world would be getting worse very soon. But eventually, God was going to bring healing, restoration, and peace.

And through faithful action, Habakkuk was challenged to help everyone catch a small glimpse of that future reality in his present. 

The Resolution (Habakkuk 3:2, 8-12, 16-19)

And it is at this point in the book that we start to see a change in the character of Habakkuk. That is, in the final chapter, instead of questioning God’s judgment, Habakkuk offers up a prayer of resolution to the Lord.

In chapter 1, Habakkuk was low.

He was depressed and despairing because of all the wickedness around him. But in chapter 2, God responds to the prophet’s questioning by giving him a promise. The Lord was going to use Babylon to punish Judah, but their reign of terror wouldn’t last forever. He also challenged him to remain active in his faithfulness. But now, in chapter 3, we see that God’s promise and challenge has moved the prophet into praise.

Habakkuk begins his prayer by recounting previous battles within Israel’s history and the victories won by God. In times of old, the Lord drove away chariots and brandished His mighty bow. Even though he doesn’t come right out and name it, it seems like Habakkuk is making some illusions to the Lord’s battle with Egypt during the Exodus event. There’s also an illusion to Joshua’s battle with the Amorites when the Lord made the sun stand still.

But Habakkuk also continues in praise by declaring that God’s might is not only visible from the past, but visible every day though the created world itself. God’s strength is on display in lightning, storms, and starry nights. The earth and all of creation serves God, and it exists as a testament to His power.

The prophet then transitions.

He recognizes that he must be living now at the cusp of one of these great and mighty acts of the Lord, those things talked about of old. And he’s so nervous about this that his lips quiver and his bones metaphorically rot. But he’s made up his mind.

He will wait patiently for the day of calamity to come upon the nation about to invade. In other words, despite the troubling circumstances, Habakkuk chooses to actively trust God and His sovereignty.

Despite the lack of goods and protection, despite suffering, despite the wicked kings practicing child sacrifice and worshipping idols, despite only seeing sin and injustice in the land of Judah, Habakkuk is prepared to live by faith in unseen promises. His initial questions about the justice of the Babylonian invasion are set aside. His trembling fear remains, and he realizes the likelihood of his own death, but he knows that all will be well because God will have ultimate victory.

Modern Application

Habakkuk is one of my favorite books in the Old Testament. I can’t help but to be moved every time I read it. It’s very convicting to me personally. But I also think that it can teach all of us a whole lot about living as Christians today in this time of uncertainty.

We live in a world now where wickedness still exists. There are injustices and atrocities committed every single day. Like Habakkuk, we too live within an odd political climate. And even though we do things through democratic election, two kingdoms warring against each other here in this country have both labeled each other the “more wicked.”

But we are also up against an invisible enemy, right? There is a virus that is wreaking havoc around the world. And it’s not something that we can so easily overcome with our own might or earnestness.

And because of all of this, again, I imagine that some of us are asking questions like Habakkuk was asking.

How can we trust that the Lord is still for us when our health is in jeopardy or when we find ourselves potentially struggling to keep our jobs? How can we be joyful when everything around us seems so joyless? As believers, how can we be faithful in this moment?

Well, taking a hint from Habakkuk, let’s remind ourselves of two last things.

God calls us to have active faith in Him, especially within times of uncertainty.  

In the text we’ve looked at this morning, we saw that the Lord challenged His prophet, and inadvertently us, into active faith. In 2:4, after promising an eventual destruction to Babylon, God reminded Habakkuk that the “righteous live by their faithfulness.” And Habakkuk reflects this back to God when he resolves to “exalt the Lord” in 3:17.

That is to say, God doesn’t want us to be passively faithful to Him, or faithful in a flippant or empty way like the people of Judah were during Habakkuk’s time. No, God wants us to be active. He wants us to be genuine witnesses for Him and His coming kingdom.

But again, how do we display this type of faithfulness in our time now? How do we embody God’s goodness and love within this strange moment in the life of the Church?

Well, there’s a whole lot that could, and likely should, be said here. But I do think that faithfulness looks different depending on who you are. God might be calling me to do something that he isn’t calling you to do.

However, He is calling us all to do something.

Remember earlier when I mentioned that the people of Judah were happily committing sin while also offering up silly slogans that made them feel good and religious?

I think something like that is happening now.

I keep hearing these phrases that Christians keep using in relation to the pandemic and our political climate. They are things like “faith not fear,” or “I’m not going to live in fear” and so on. I know you’ve heard them, and I know that I’ve said them. 

And please don’t misunderstand me here. These phrases are good. They’re true. There is some value to them, and they do succinctly express commands we are given in Scripture. Habakkuk even says a similar thing at the end of his book.

But what I’ve also noticed is that, sometimes, these phrases are all we offer up to God. We don’t back them up with action.

Or worse, we contradict the witness to God these phrases might express by saying them and then doing things contrary to His will. 

Are we really making sure that we are being good neighbors to those we’ve been called to love? That is, are we being cautious about properly adhering to health guidelines?

Or, to bring up the message that Pastor Tim shared with us last Sunday, are we actually following our Lord’s command to submit to the governing authorities? They were put in place by God, and whether we like His choice or not, God is the One who is sovereign. And in His good will, He raises up both Israel’s, Assyria’s, and Babylon’s.  

So, let’s check ourselves: If we are letting present politics dictate our actions as believers, which kingdom are we truly loyal to?

We might not like the present circumstances which we find ourselves within. Habakkuk didn’t either. But God’s prophet vowed to not let the world around him dissuade or distract him from active and genuine faithfulness.

Will we?

Regardless of the evils in our day, we can trust the Lord because of Christ’s victory and the final defeat of sickness, sin, and death.

Habakkuk was a prophet.

And all throughout this book, we as readers are given a kind-of inside scoop into his prophetic conversations with the Lord. Habakkuk questions God, and God answers. Habakkuk argues, and God explains.

But, in certain sense, we don’t really have the luxury that Habakkuk was afforded here. When we pray to God and question our circumstances and our world, the Lord doesn’t answer us with a detailed plan of the things to come. When we argue with the Lord, he doesn’t audibly answer, or at least He doesn’t do that for me.

However, we do have something that Habakkuk didn’t have, and that’s Jesus. And by way of Christ and his cross, we have been given an inside-track as to what will happen at the end of time. 

Paul, in the book of Romans, explains this well.

I’m not going to read it for you, but in Romans 8, the apostle begins to describe how the earth is groaning because of the suffering that’s upon it. Creation itself can’t wait for the day of the Lord’s return. Because, on that day, God will finally restore the world to how it was supposed to be. And, as he further explains, we can be confident that this will happen because of Christ’s death and resurrection.

Even though we don’t even come close to deserving it because of our sin, Jesus’ blood shed proves to us that God is faithful to His people. Even though we fail Him daily, God still came and died for us anyways.

So, when we see our world and all that’s wrong with it, like Habakkuk, we can hope for that which we do not see, because through this hope we have been saved.

Because of Jesus, we now have something to look forward to. Very soon, God will come, judge the wicked, vindicate the innocent, and usher in His Kingdom in its fullness. And within that kingdom, believers will eternally enjoy a reality with no more pain, death, sickness, or sin.

Habakkuk was a prophet. And through his conversations with God, the Lord did reveal to him the future of the nation of Judah. But God has also revealed to us the future of this world through His son on the cross.

Wicked nations come and go. Sufferings come and go. Hardships come and go. And even in the midst of uncertain times, we who believe can trust in the hope that Christ has given us because we already know who comes out on top.

He has washed us clean of sin. He has defeated death. Now, all we have to do is faithfully and actively wait for our Savior to come in glory. 

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.”

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