Most famous for its line saying, “the righteous shall live by faith” (Hab 2:4), the prophet also was a psalmist. The book begins with an alternating pattern of lament and then answer, includes five woe oracles, and the third chapter is a long psalm.
The subtitle for Habakkuk reads, “The oracle that Habakkuk the prophet saw” (Habakkuk 1:1). The answer of YHWH to his first complaint says, “I am raising up the Chaldeans” (Habakkuk 1:6). This suggests that the prophet is writing in the late seventh or early sixth century B.C. Most likely it was written around 640-615 B.C. This would put the date not long before the fall of Assyria to the Babylonians (aka Chaldeans). He was probably writing around the same time as Jeremiah and Zephaniah.
Habakkuk begins with an alternating pattern of Habakkuk’s lament and YHWH’s answer. These are similar to the lament psalms, which often include YHWH’s answer.
The first cycle of lament and answer is Habakkuk 1:2-11. The complaint opens, “O YHWH, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not hear? Or cry to you, ‘Violence!’ and you will not save?” Habakkuk laments the injustice that he sees in the nation of Judah. He laments that the righteous God YHWH is not punishing the sin of Judah.
The answer that YHWH gives is that YHWH will punish the sin of Judah using the wicked nation of Babylon. This of course is part of a larger question – How can the righteous YHWH use the wicked nation of Babylon to punish Judah?
But we are getting ahead of ourselves at this point – let us begin with the first answer that YHWH gives Habakkuk. The Chaldeans are characterized as “that bitter and hasty nation,” that seizes homes that do not belong to them, they are dreaded and fearsome, and most of all “guilty.”
The Chaldeans are a people who enjoy violence and go to war for it, “they gather captives like sand,” and scoff at kings and laugh at rulers, these are a people “whose own might is their god!” The nation of Babylon worships their own strength as a god. This fits what we know about them from other prophetic books and Daniel.
Note the vivid imagery: “Their horses are swifter than leopards, more fierce than the evening wolves; their horsemen press proudly on. Their horsemen come from afar; they fly like an eagle swift to devour” (Hab 1:8).
Given then how wicked the Babylonians are the natural question would be ‘why would God use them to punish Judah, which is relatively better?’
Habakkuk’s second lament begins, “Are you not from everlasting, O YHWH my God, my Holy One?” He says, “You who are of purer eyes than to see evil and cannot look at wrong, why do you idly look at traitors and are silent when the wicked swallows up the man more righteous than he?” This lament consists of Hab 1:12-2:1. We know that the answer will be that YHWH will judge Babylon for their wickedness too.
The king of Babylon is an interesting twist on the idea of fishers of men. “He brings all of them up with a hook; he drags them out with his net; he gathers them in his dragnet; so he rejoices and is glad. Therefore he sacrifices to his net and makes offerings to his dragnet; for by them his portion is fat (ESV: he lives in luxury), and his food is rich.” The lament continuing, “Is he then to keep on emptying his net and mercilessly killing nations forever?” (Hab 1:15-17). Habakkuk ends saying that he will stand at his watchpost and tower and look out to see what YHWH will answer concerning this lament.
The idea of the Chaldeans making sacrifices to their net and offerings to their dragnet is saying much the same as YHWH’s first answer that their own might is their god. The lament then takes that up and is asking why God would allow people who do not acknowledge Him as God to be the army that will punish Judah. After all, it is only because God made men like the fish of the sea that the Chaldeans can fish them. Habakkuk said, “You make mankind like the fish of the sea, like crawling things that have no ruler” (Hab 1:14). The latter image is of crawling things that will scatter when attacked.
YHWH’s answer in Hab 2:2-5 is not a complete one but the announcement that the answer will come in the form of a vision. And Habakkuk is told that he should write down this vision. In fact, F.F. Bruce describes the point of Hab 2:2 as follows: Habakkuk is to “write it, so to speak, in large letters on a public billboard, so that it may be read without difficulty by passers-by.” He further explains, “The sense is not that the person who reads it will start running, but rather that the reader will be able to take it in at a glance, so large and legible is the writing: the eye will run over the text with ease.”
Habakkuk is promised this vision and told to wait for it and then YHWH says, ‘Behold his soul is puffed up; it is not upright within him, but the righteous shall live by his faith” (Hab 2:4). The latter half has been called the law in a single statute: “the righteous shall live by his faith” or faithfulness. Hebrews 10:38-39 applies the words this way; “’but my righteous one shall live by faith, and if he shrinks back, my soul has no pleasure in him.’ But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who have faith and preserve their souls.” That author relies on the LXX translation of the verse.
The apostle Paul on the other hand uses the phrase “the righteous shall live by his faith” to support justification by faith in Galatians 3:1 and Romans 1:17. The object of that saving faith is Jesus Christ.
The word translated faith in Habakkuk can mean what we call faith or it can mean faithfulness or loyalty – the righteous shall live by his loyalty to God in the midst of what is happening – but in the context remember that YHWH is telling the prophet to wait for the vision that will answer his lament.
The next couple verses show us more about those who are not faithful believers (if we combine both of the related ideas of faith and faithfulness). They prepare us for the next section which consists of five woe oracles.
The first woe oracle is Hab 2:6b-8. Each one begins “Woe to him” except the fifth. The first woe compares the Chaldeans to a borrower who keeps on borrowing money until he has borrowed so much money that it is impossible for him to repay these debts. He has promised to repay these loans but will not be able to do so. Therefore, their creditors will plunder them. It is a reversal of fortunes, pun intended, because the Chaldeans have gotten rich off of the nations but those nations will collect in the end.
The reason given for the reversal of fortunes is “because of the blood of human beings and violence done to the land, to the city and all its inhabitants” (Hab 2:8b). F.F. Bruce notes, “Human life is reckoned cheap by those whose main aim is military conquest—even the life of their own followers, not to speak of the victims of their aggression.” But of course we know that human life is precious and justice requires the blood of the one who shed it.
The second woe oracle is Hab 2:9-11. The Chaldeans have made a number of enemies in their military conquests and therefore they have built their own capital on a high place. The Chaldeans did not literally do this given the geography of their capital city like some nations had done but figuratively they had done this by building fortifications. F.F. Bruce says that this language of setting one’s nest on high has become the traditional way to describe all heavily-fortified cities though originally it applied to cities built on high rocks to make them difficult to invade.
This second oracle shares a lot in common with the image presented in the first. This includes language about the value of human life: “You have devised shame for your house, cutting off many peoples, and forfeiting your own life” (Hab 2:10). Babylon in all of its glory would be shamed or humiliated and brought low.
The third woe oracle is Hab 2:12-14. It continues this theme of building projects accomplished by forced cheap labor and bloodshed. Thus, “Woe to him who builds a town with blood, and founds a city on injustice!” All of this work that Babylon would consider its glory amounts to nothing as the next conqueror will just burn it down and the like. This woe oracle ends with the famous line, “For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of YHWH as the waters cover the sea” (Hab 2:14). Thus the shame of Babylon is in sharp contrast to the glory of YHWH.
The fourth woe oracle is Hab 2:15-17. F.F. Bruce explains this one as getting at the idea of how empires try to get their conquered subjects to be so degraded that they lose their will to resist. The text says, “Woe to him who makes his neighbors drink—you pour out your wrath and make them drunk, in order to gaze at their nakedness!” But just as they have shamed and humiliated their conquered subjects, part of the theme of the Chaldeans acting as if life as cheap, so too their own self-respect will be destroyed and their will to resist will be torn down. Thus they are told: “Drink yourself and show your uncircumcision.”
Thus they will have to drink the same cup as they have forced their conquered subjects to drink and get drunk using…and “show your uncircumcision” gets at the other half of the humiliation they had forced upon others – “to gaze at their nakedness.” “Show your uncircumcision” is an appropriate way to describe their being shamed also because of the Old Testament sacrament of circumcision.
The fifth woe oracle (Hab 2:18-20) has a different structure because the “Woe to him” line falls in the middle. This one has to do with idolatry, “What profit is an idol when its maker has shaped it, a metal image, a teacher of lies? For its maker trusts in his own creation when he makes speechless idols!” This is a typical prophetic indictment of the foolishness of idolatry. “Woe to him who says to a wooden thing, ‘Awake;’ to a silent stone, ‘Arise!’ Can this teach? Behold, it is overlaid with gold and silver, and there is no breath at all in it.”
The true prophets of YHWH have a long history of mocking idols to wake up or get up – like Elijah to the prophets of Baal.
This is then contrasted to the true and living God, “But YHWH is in His holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before Him” (Hab 2:20). So ends the vision that Habakkuk saw. He sees YHWH in His holy temple in heaven above.
Chapter three begins with a subtitle: “A prayer of Habakkuk the prophet, according to Shigionoth” (Hab 3:1). Shigionoth is left untranslated but it is assumed, F.F. Bruce says, to be derived from the verb “to stray” or “swerve to and fro.” What follows this subtitle is a psalm. The chapter also ends with musical directions, “To the choirmaster; with stringed instruments” (Hab 3:19d). Thus the inclusio of musical directions frames the psalm.
What we normally would consider prayer is actually limited to verse two.
“O YHWH, I have heard the report of you,
and your work, O YHWH do I fear.
In the midst of the years revive it;
in the midst of the years make it known;
in wrath remember mercy” (Hab 3:2).
But the poem does continue through verse nineteen.
What we see then is a vision of God.
“God came from Teman,
and the Holy One from Mount Paran.
His splendor covered the heavens,
and the earth was full of His praise. Selah”
Teman is in Edom and Mount Paran is one of the areas mentioned in the wilderness wandering of Israel (it is where Ishmael lived). Thus the vision is one of God coming from the direction where Israel had gone on their journey to the Promised Land.
The vision resembles the one we found in Ezekiel. “His brightness was like the light [sun or dawn?],
Rays flashed from his hand;
And there He veiled His power” (Hab 3:4).
Then, as F.F. Bruce describes it, “Pestilence and Plague are personified as two members of the divine entourage, one acting as forerunner of the theophany [from the Greek meaning appearance of God] and the other bringing up the rear.”
Cushan and Midian mentioned in verse 7 are places in the path God is taking.
YHWH then is pictured as riding on horses and His chariot of salvation. The next verse mentions His bow and many arrows. The vision shows YHWH in military language and fitting for the military picture is the phrase “the sun and the moon stood still in their place…” (Hab 3:11). This reminds us of Joshua 10:12-13 where the sun and moon stood still. They stand still to show their submission to YHWH of Hosts, the heavenly warrior. “At the flash of your glittering spear” F.F. Bruce says is literally “the lightning of my sword.”
The next verse says,
“You marched through the earth in fury;
You threshed the nations in anger”
The picture is one of threshing crops on the threshing floor. There is a cosmic shaking in this passage because YHWH is coming for judgment of the nations. But this is so that He can do what follows in the next verse: “You went out for the salvation of your people, for the salvation of your anointed.” While the LXX takes anointed as plural it is singular in the Hebrew probably for the king.
If we fast-forward to Hab 3:15 we see this language: “You trampled the sea with your horses, the surging of mighty waters.”
The sea is the forces of chaos and so this is a demonstration of YHWH’s ordered rule.
The last section of the poem shows Habakkuk’s faith. It begins in an interesting way by describing his body as trembling and lips as quivering and bones as rotten, and legs trembling. This seems like a typical response to seeing a vision of YHWH. But it is accompanied by faith: “Yet I will quietly wait for the day of trouble to come upon people who invade us” (Hab 3:16b).
The pattern repeats with Habakkuk describing a desolate situation where fig trees yield no blossom, no fruit on the vines, olive fails, fields produce no food, flock cut off from the fold, no cattle in the stalls but then followed by the statement of faith, “yet I will rejoice in YHWH, I will take joy in the God of my salvation” (Hab 3:18). And the statement of faith continues with the next verse: “YHWH, the Lord, is my strength; He makes my feet like the deer’s; He makes me tread on my high places” (Hab 3:19). His feet are such that he will not slip in the rocky high places.
This psalm was designed for worship. It is a psalm of living by faith.