B. Habakkuk preaches to us:
The unique dialogue of the book is in the style of God giving a message to Habakkuk for the people to ask in complaint to God. The primary complaint that the people would offer to God is in reference to the suffering of the people. The people complained as to why their prayers were not answered in the midst of great suffering. In reference to their suffering at the hand of the unbelievers (the Babylonians), the people complained concerning why God would use unbelievers to bring suffering upon the believers.
There is no answer given to either the people or Habakkuk as to why God would use the unbelievers to punish His people. The fact that the unbelievers would prosper at the expense of the believers, leaves a question in the minds of the people that is not specifically answered by God. God’s only answer is that He is God, and thus, His people must have faith in Him that He knows what He is doing in the affairs of the nations of the world.
In the first two chapters of the book, Habakkuk is perplexed concerning the violence and sin of the people. The people had lost their moral identity as the people of God because they had forsaken the direction of His law. Though it was not revealed to Habakkuk how God would cure His people of their idolatry, Habakkuk wondered why the wicked were not punished (Hk 1:2-4). Habakkuk complained,
Why do You show me iniquity and cause me to behold injustice? For plunder and violence are before me. And there are those who raise up strife and contention (Hk 1:3).
God’s answer was that He was about to bring the Chaldeans (Babylonians) from the east in order to bring judgment upon Judea (Hk 1:5-11).
God’s answer to cure the sin of the people perplexed Habakkuk. So Habakkuk complained again:
Why do You look on those who deal treacherously and hold Your tongue when the wicked devours the one who is more righteous than he? (Hk 1:13).
Habakkuk had a difficult time understanding why God would use the unrighteous to punish His people who were more righteous than those who would bring judgment upon them (See Hk 1:12-17). But Habakkuk needed to be patient. God would eventually bring the proud conquerors, the Chaldeans, into judgment for their mistreatment of His people (Hk 2:1-20).
Though Habakkuk is perplexed concerning the work of God among His apostate people, and the proxy judgment of the Chaldeans who would bring God’s judgment on His people, he defines the judgment of God in a poetic theophany (appearance of God) that justice will be done. And thus Habakkuk concludes the book by giving His allegiance to God, regardless of his inability to understand all that God does in His relationship with His people (Hk 3:16-19). In reference to the work of God among those of the world, and the necessity that believers trust in Him, there are two very important lessons that Habakkuk still preaches today.
1. The suffering of the righteous affirms the justice of God. As Job, Habakkuk presented what to many believers is the primary argument against the existence of the God in which the Christian believes. It has been said that these two Old Testament personalities reflect on what is referred to as the evidence for the atheist. The argument is this: The Christian believes in an all-benevolent God who is all-powerful (omnipotent). Now if God is all-benevolent, and yet allows evil and suffering to exist, and is not able to relieve the righteous of evil and suffering, though He might will to do so, then He is not all-powerful. And, if God is all-powerful, and can relieve the righteous of evil and suffering, but does not, then He cannot be benevolent. Therefore, the atheist concludes, the God of the Christian does not exist. He cannot exist since He would be a logical contradiction between being benevolent and omnipotent at the same time. This supposed dilemma for the believer was presented millennia ago by Epicurus (341-270 B.C.) in his Aphorisms:
The gods can either take away evil from the world and will not, or being willing to do so cannot; or they neither can nor will, or lastly, they are both able and willing. If they have the will to remove evil and cannot, then they are not omnipotent. If they can, but will not, then they are not benevolent. If they are neither able nor willing, then they are neither omnipotent nor benevolent. Lastly, if they are both able and willing to annihilate evil, how does it exist?
The atheist simply replies to the above that the believer’s God is a logical contradiction, and thus, cannot exist.
And indeed, the believers of old struggled with this supposed logical contradiction. Elijah questioned why God would allow suffering to come upon the widow of Zarephath who had helped him survive. “O Lord my God, have You also brought evil on the widow with whom I sojourn, by slaying her son?” (1 Kg 17:20). And Gideon questioned, “… if the Lord is with us, why then has all this happened to us?” (Jg 6:13). And finally, Job was left in question as to why he was allowed to endure so much suffering when he had sought to live righteously before God (See Jb 10:1-3). Habakkuk wondered why God would look on those who were evil, but allow suffering to come upon the righteous by the works of the evil (Hk 1:13). There are answers to this supposed contradiction concerning the Christian’s belief in a benevolent, omnipotent God. Consider the following:
a. The atheist must answer the reason as to why good exists in a totally material world. The dilemma for the atheist is that if all that exists is matter in motion, then he must explain from where good originated among human organisms that supposedly evolved from innate matter. The believer must answer the question as to why evil exists in a world that was created by a benevolent God. But the atheist must answer how there could be benevolence in an amoral material world without the existence of a benevolent God.
b. We must confess the limits of our knowledge and understanding. God answered Job and Habakkuk in a manner that forced both to reflect on their inability to know all that God was doing to work out His plans according to His will. God questioned Job concerning who he thought God was in his infinite knowledge. If God is who He reveals Himself to be in the world around us, then we must understand that our knowledge is limited concerning the purpose of all things. In our limited knowledge of how God is working all things together for His purpose (Rm 8:28), the finite must trust the Infinite. It is sometimes as Herbert Farmer concluded, “Christianity has never claimed to take the sting out of evil by explaining it, but rather by giving victory over it.”
We can understand the necessity of the existence of evil and suffering. James essentially stated that we can understand to the point of even rejoicing when we fall into different trials (Js 1:1,2).
If we could understand as God, then we would be God. Therefore, we must content ourselves with the limited knowledge we have of things in order to trust in Him who is working His plan through the existence of the temporary in order to take us into the eternal. But we must be clear on this matter in reference to Christian belief. We can understand enough about this matter that we can trust that God is working all things together for our good.
The atheist must not assume that we are here dodging a supposed logical contradiction, nor that we have our heads in the sand. To say that we do not understand all that God is and does is not a weakness in the theology of the believer. The fact is that if there is a God—and there is—then we must suppose that we do not fully comprehend the totality of who He is, or the extent of His ways. His ways, as Paul wrote, are simply past finding out (Rm 11:33). If we were to understand all that God is and does, then He would be a god who was limited to the limits of our imagination. And if He were limited to our thinking, then truly He would only be a god of our invention. He truly would not exist, and the atheist would win the argument.
c. The believer must determine that which is actually good or evil. Simply because something brings pleasure does not mean that it is good. That which brings pleasure can often be evil. Ask a drunk driver who has just ruined his life with alcohol.
Pain does not always indicate that something is evil. Our body expresses pain in order to protect itself. It is sin, not suffering, that is the only real evil. It is obedience to God, not fleshly pleasure, that is the only real good. However, rebellion against God brings all sorts of evil and suffering into our lives (See Gl 6:7). We would not conclude, therefore, that all suffering is evil. We cannot attribute to God the result of the consequences we suffer when we violate His principles within the environment we live.
d. Wrong reactions sometimes confuse our definitions. A bee sting may bring pain, but the bee must protect the honey. The same sun that causes a sunburn, also produces vitamin D in the body. When defining that which is suffering, we must consider the fact that natural laws of both the organic and inorganic world are necessary for the existence of order and the continuation of life on earth. The balance of nature and the circle of life are processes of life that are necessary to continue life as we know it. If we violate the laws of nature, and subsequently suffer for our violations, we cannot define our suffering as evil. The same gravity that keeps us from floating into space is the same gravity that will cause death if one were to leap from a ten-story building.
Natural laws are necessary for the preservation of life. Natural laws are necessary for the continuation of the universe of which we are a participant. When the laws that hold the universe together are violated, there is suffering. But we cannot assume that this suffering is an argument against the Creator of these laws. In fact, the existence of the laws of order are an evidence that the eternal Designer of order does exist. At least this is what Paul affirmed in Romans 1:20:
For the invisible things of Him since the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made ….”
e. A free moral individual cannot exist without being in an environment that allows choice. God is love, and in order for Him to pour out His love on those whom He created, the created must be able to respond with love. Robots express no love. There would be no meaning in preprogrammed individuals who would supposedly love their Creator. There is no such thing as programmed love. Therefore, man must be a truly free-moral individual in order to express true love.
But being truly free to make moral decisions of love comes with a tremendous risk. It comes with the risk that the individual can freely make the worst possible decisions to be evil. However, this truly free individual can also make the best decisions to do good. And in order to make either decisions to do evil or good, the free-moral individual must be placed in an environment wherein choices can be made to the extremes of either good or evil. So we wonder how many evil decisions are made within this environment that lead to war, and theft, and a host of other evils with which the righteous must endure. God cannot be blamed for the evil that results from the bad decisions that are made by free-moral individuals who choose to do evil.
We believe that God created the best of all possible environments in which a truly free-moral individual can dwell. We can think of no better environment. So in order for the God of love to bring individuals of this environment into eternal dwelling with Him, He was willing to take the risk of doing that which only love can do. Love must create. Love must be poured out in creation in order that eternal reward can lovingly be given to those who have suffered through the ordeal of an environment that often goes wrong because some free-moral beings make bad decisions. Such is the cost of love. But in view of this cost, the reward for those who truly make the choice of obedience to their Creator has to be something awesome beyond the imagination of the created. We believe that both Habakkuk and Job came to this conclusion, for both decided to walk by faith in the One who had control over all things. They were content to exist in what may appear to us to be a flawed environment, than not to exist. They concluded, therefore, that it is better to believe than disbelieve.
The awesomeness of the reward possibilities far outweigh any suffering we must endure in order to receive the crown. Paul was right: “For I consider that the offerings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that will be revealed to us” (Rm 8:18).
f. God can do only that which can be done. He cannot create round squares. Likewise, a truly free-moral individual could not exist without being in an environment in which he could not choose between right and wrong. And so we wonder as to how much evil exists in this world where free-moral individuals have chosen to do evil. But if we would argue that it would have been better for God not to create, then we would ask if it would be better to have existed with the possibility of eternal existence with a loving Father, than not existed?
Then consider also the definition of God. Can a loving God exist without creating a free-moral individual who has the choice to respond to love with the statement, “I love you, too”? We exist because God is love. We exist as free-moral individuals because of the action of true love on the part of God. God could not be love if we did not exist. And thus, the fact that we do exist as loving creatures is evidence that a loving God does exist.
If we concluded that it would have been better for God not to create, then we would be atheists in reference to the God in which we believed. A god who would not create would certainly not be a God of love. To think that a God of love who not create that which would respond with, “I love You, too,” would truly be the god of a logical contradiction.
2. The just will live by faith. Because Habakkuk concluded that God had all things under control, though he did not understand the teleology of God’s plan, he was willing to live by faith. In 2:4 he wrote, “But the just will live by his faith.”
Habakkuk 2:4 is an incredibly important statement simply because of the contexts in which it is quoted in the New Testament. It is a statement that expresses the very foundation upon which the believer has a relationship with God.
In Romans, Paul argues against the legalistic Jewish brethren who would impose on the disciples of Jesus the necessity of being justified before God by law-keeping. Paul comes to the following conclusion after arguing his case against meritorious justification by works of law:
And if by grace, then it [salvation] is no more by works, otherwise grace is no more grace. But if it is by works, it is no longer grace, otherwise work is no longer work” (Rm 11:6).
Paul’s conclusion concerning self-justification was clear: “… by works of law no flesh will be justified in His sight …” (Rm 3:20).
Paul’s arguments in Romans, that we are saved by faith through grace, brought his readers to the conclusion of Habakkuk 2:4: “For in it [the gospel] is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith, as it is written ‘The just will live by faith” (Rm 1:17).
In Galatians, Paul is also arguing against the same legal theology that was promoted by some in Rome. Paul’s aggressiveness in the book of Galatians inferred that Christianity was in danger of losing its identity if the judaizing teachers of the area had their way by enforcing legal obedience to law as a means by which one is justified before God. So Paul was direct when he approached Peter at a time when Peter manifested in his behavior that which was contrary to the grace of the gospel:
… knowing that a man is not justified by works of law, but by the faith of Christ Jesus, even we have believed in Christ Jesus so that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by works of law, for by works of law no flesh will be justified (Gl 2:16).
In the context of this statement against legal justification, Paul quoted Habakkuk 2:4: “But that no one is justified by law in the sight of God is evident, for ‘the just will live by faith.’” (Gl 3:11).
In Hebrews, some who had been Christians for several years were intimidated into returning to the Sinai law that was given to Israel. Though the Roman and Galatian disciples were not moving away from Christ in this manner, they were imposing a system of law-keeping on the disciples that was contrary to the grace of the gospel. The Hebrew Christians were thinking about abandoning Christ for the Levitical priesthood of the Sinai law. So again in the same context of legal justification that Paul addressed in both the Roman and Galatian letters, the Hebrew writer quoted Habakkuk 2:4: “Now the just will live by faith. But if any man draws back [to law], My soul will have no pleasure in him” (Hb 10:38). So the Hebrew writer concluded his arguments against drawing back to justification by law by stating, “But we are not of those who draw back to destruction, but of those who believe to the saving of the soul” (Hb 10:39).
Habakkuk 2:4 reveals that salvation has always been based on faith and grace. Ephesians 2:8 is a New Testament passage, but the principle has always been true since the creation of Adam, the first free-moral person. “For by grace you are saved through faith, and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God.” From the beginning of time, salvation could never be of ourselves. All have sinned (Rm 3:23). And the wages of sin is separation from God, and thus, death (Rm 6:23). And because we sin, we have no atonement for sin that originates from within ourselves. We cannot offer good deeds for our imperfect obedience.
The offer of good deeds in atonement for lawbreaking has led to all sorts of evil among religionists, which evil prevailed throughout the Dark Ages of humanity. Men offered money in order to have the right to sin. Such was called “the sale of indulgences,” meaning that one could indulge in sin if money were paid to the church. Similar beliefs are often seated in the minds of many religionists today who believe that their salvation is based on an equal-arm scale system of salvation. In other words, one’s sins of the day can be atoned for tomorrow by being a better person tomorrow than today.
Habakkuk wanted Israel to understand that God’s creation of the remnant of Israel was based on grace. Those nations that God used to judge Israel were terminated. They would no longer exist in the world. And though Israel was given so much, but gave up for sin all her advantages, she would still survive as a remnant. This is the grace of God being played out in history. If God had handed out to them that which they deserved, then there would have been no remnant to receive God’s grace into the world through the cross (See Ti 2:11). The existence of the remnant is a manifestation of the grace of God. Instead of rightful national extinction, there was undeserved and unmerited salvation from national extinction. It was because of grace that grace was revealed.