Habakkuk 1:1-2:4.
Salvation by Faith Alone

American Journal of Biblical Theology, www.biblicaltheology.com
Copyright © 2015, John W. (Jack) Carter     Scripture quotes from KJV

Habakkuk 1:1.  The burden which Habakkuk the prophet did see.

It may be axiomatic that every person who professes faith in the LORD would confess that their prayer-life could use some improvement.  Prayer takes many forms, for at its simplest, it is communication with the LORD.  For some, prayer is a one-way work of faith that takes the form of word recitation, often from pre-written text, with the intent that God would hear those prayers, but lacks any expectation of a dialogue.  For some, prayer always takes a particular form of stature, whether it be head bowed, eyes closed, and hands clasped or standing, looking upward, with hands raised.  The apostle Paul taught that prayers should be unceasing.[1]  None of these models of prayer could be described as unceasing.

The LORD is seeking a relationship with His children much like a loving father seeks a relationship with his child.  Such a father would not typically proscribe the manner of communication with his child, necessitating repetition of recorded phrases, or the assumption of a specific posture.  Nor would a loving father desire that his children only speak to him at specific times of the day, and only those times.  Paul understands prayer to be an open dialogue between himself and the LORD.  Understanding that God knows our thoughts, and consequently “hears” our words, the opportunity to speak to the LORD is literally unceasing.  Furthermore, the LORD speaks to those who have faith in Him through the leading and guiding of the Holy Spirit.  One can understand God’s will and purpose in our prayers when we simply listen to Him in the peace that is found in one’s heart when that peace comes as an understanding of God’s purpose in a way that is always consistent with His Word.  By this means, prayer becomes a dialogue with the LORD that is open at all times.

Habakkuk was a Jewish prophet who was contemporary with Jeremiah, Nahum, and Zephaniah from approximately 625 B.C. to 575 B.C.  This was during that period of time after the northern nation of Israel had been destroyed by Assyria (721 B.C.) and shortly before the destruction of the southern nation of Judah by Babylon(586 B.C.)  during this period, several generations of Judeans had the opportunity to witness and respond to the disaster that was experienced by the northern nation, and the potential that the same disaster would come upon them if they did not repent of their apostasy that mimicked that of the northern nation.  During this time the prophets spoke grave warnings of what was to come if the nation did not repent.  Habakkuk was one of these prophets.

Habakkuk’s writing is unique among the prophets in that his opus is a prayer dialogue between himself and the LORD.  Habakkuk makes no use of the traditional prayer forms, but rather speaks with the LORD in open conversation.  Unlike the other Old Testament prophets, Habakkuk speaks to God for the people rather than speak to the people for God.[2]  The book is in two parts: an initial dialogue with God, and a final hymn.

Unlike the other prophets, Habakkuk’s work opens with a salutation that fails to speak to the lineage of the author, and does not include historical milestones with which to determine an exact date of writing.  He simply refers to himself by name, one that is unknown in the other Old Testament works,[3] and the simple fact that what follows is a “burden.”  This word is difficult to define, but does carry the idea that it is a message from the LORD that requires effort to carry.  By the use of this word, ancient readers would understand that what follows is a very significant prophecy, and the next statement makes it clear that the prophecy is a sacred presentation of the Word of God 

Some of the major themes of the book include:


HABABBUK’S QUESTION:  How long must I cry for help? 

Habakkuk 1:2.  O LORD, how long shall I cry,
   and thou wilt not hear!
even cry out unto thee of violence,
   and thou wilt not save!

How many times do we experience or witness injustice and are at a loss to explain why God does not intervene?  Probably one of the greatest contemporary examples experienced by Americans in this generation were the attacks on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and an intended third target on September 11, 2001 when almost 3000 lives were lost at the hands of a few radical Islamic extremists.  People may have asked questions like, “why didn’t God intervene.”  The truth is that those planes that were used in the attack were usually filled to capacity, but this morning they were only 25% filled.  The lower part of the Trade Center was not yet open, and only a few hours later would have had many more thousands would have been killed.  The plane that flew into the Pentagon hit the one wedge that was under renovation and had very few people in it.  One group was delayed entry as they waited on a tardy participant.  There are literally hundreds of stories of people who missed their flight or showed up late for work due to unusual circumstances and were saved from certain death.  Though there have been far worse atrocities perpetrated upon mankind in the past, this one resulted in a world-wide call to prayer, and for a short time, tolerance between the people groups of the world was found. 

God’s ultimate plan was not changed by the murders on 9-11, and that plan involves the ultimate salvation of Israel from her enemies who have vexed her since the battle started between Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, and between Israel and the Canaanites.  Habakkuk is witnessing much of that same battle for Israel and is faced with the same questions that we are today.  This makes Habakkuk’s prayer as relevant today as it was 2500 years ago, and will be until the end of the age of man.

We often cannot see the answer to our prayers because we look in the wrong places.  Our wisdom is not God’s wisdom, and His ultimate plan may not be evident in what we perceive in our short-term expectations.  God’s plan for mankind stretches out over the entire period of man, where our own plans tend to require results in a matter of hours or days.  We get impatient or believe that God is not answering our prayers if the results of those prayers do not fit the paradigm of our own expectations whether in response or in the timing of that response.

We should not be too discouraged.  Habakkuk suffered from the same short-sightedness that seems to vex all people.  In a prayer that utilizes the literary form of  Hebrew poetry, Habakkuk expresses a sincere and well-defined concern:  he accuses God of failing to hear his prayers when he does not perceive the LORD’s answers.  When witnessing such sin and injustice in the world around him, he accuses God of failing to save the faithful from the violence and persecution that they receive at the hands of the ungodly.

We might first be surprised by Habakkuk’s candid criticism of the LORD.  He is expressing some serious doubts concerning the nature and purpose of God, and though he shows reference by referring to the LORD by His covenant name, he also shows a boldness in his questions that we might even find offensive.  If we can learn one initial truth from Habakkuk’s prayer, it is that the LORD is a mighty God, and can easily accept our concerns in love, despite the manner in which we express them. 

Habakkuk 1:3-4.  Why dost thou show me iniquity,
   and cause me to behold grievance?
for spoiling and violence are before me:
   and there are that raise up strife and contention.

Therefore the law is slacked,
   and judgment doth never go forth:
for the wicked doth compass about the righteous;
   therefore wrong judgment proceedeth.

As Habakkuk prays, he identifies some of the specific injustices that he witnesses around him, injustices against the faithful people of God who he believes should be defended.  He implies that God’s failure to intervene has allowed wickedness to overtake Judah, touching everyone, including himself.  That wickedness takes many forms including lascivious behavior by both Jews and Gentiles (iniquity), injustice in the treatment of the people by Jewish and Gentile authorities (grievance).  He is witnessing a culture of unabated thievery (spoiling) and violence.  There is a culture of strife and contention in the people that has served to compromise the very infrastructure of the courts, to the point that even the Jewish courts mete out injustice, showing favoritism to the rich and powerful while subjugating the poor.  Those who have faith in God are so outnumbered and overpowered by the ungodly that the love and compassion of God seems to have left the culture entirely.

We might easily look at the world today and come to a similar conclusion.  Habakkuk implies that there are a remnant of faithful who are experiencing this injustice and persecution.  We may be encouraged to know that there are millions of Christians around the world who are sincere and faithful, and seek to follow the LORD in obedience, and their influence in the world around them cannot be understated.  Even today when the church seems to be under such overwhelming attack, people are coming to the LORD in the millions in places that were once closed to the gospel:  Africa, China, and Russia.  Even Muslims who have experienced the atrocities of radical Jihadists are turning to the LORD in faith when they experience the compassion of Christians in their refugee camps. 

Still, the Christian community is experiencing alarming injustice as people of faith are being separated out and killed by the hundreds in the Middle East, the battleground of the Battle for Israel.


GOD’S ANSWER:  Watch, and you will be amazed at the solution. 

Habakkuk 1:5.  Behold ye among the heathen, and regard,
   and wonder marvellously:

for I will work a work in your days,
   which ye will not believe,
   though it be told you.

Often, if not usually, when we pray, we are making a specific prayer and requesting a specific answer to that prayer, one that we prescribe, and one that we expect to take place soon.  This illustrates our lack of understanding of the sovereignty of God and His infinite wisdom, when we attempt to pre-judge the timing, context, or content of God’s answer.  Often we simply do not see what God is doing around us because we are looking for a different answer.  God reveals to Habakkuk that he is not looking in the right places.

God’s answer starts with a word rendered, “Behold.”  This carries the idea that what Habakkuk needs to see to understand God’s work is already evident around him.  God is going to deal with the apostasy of the godless Jews, and will also deal with the pagan nations that persecute Israel.  Meeting Habakkuk at his point of need, God causes him to consider what is happening among the pagan nations, and to appreciate with wonder what God is going to do through the “international intrigue” to answer Habakkuk’s prayer.  Furthermore, God makes it clear that Habakkuk may not see the actual work of the LORD in the immediate future, but God promises that Habakkuk will live to see it, and when he does, he will be utterly amazed.

It is not unreasonable that we would be amazed when we see the LORD at work when His ways are not our ways.  God’s ultimate solution for the apostasy of Judah and Jerusalem will be its destruction while preserving the remnant of the faithful.  Many of the Judeans believed that since God “abode” in the Jerusalem temple, the city could never be destroyed by any army of man.  All Judah will be astonished when this happens.  Pointing Habakkuk to the observation of the nation, God reveals some specific things to be watching for:

Habakkuk 1:6-8.  For, lo, I raise up the Chaldeans,
   that bitter and hasty nation,
which shall march through the breadth of the land,
   to possess the dwellingplaces that are not theirs.

They are terrible and dreadful:
   their judgment and their dignity shall proceed of themselves.
 8Their horses also are swifter than the leopards,
   and are more fierce than the evening wolves:
and their horsemen shall spread themselves,
   and their horsemen shall come from far;
They shall fly as the eagle that hasteth to eat.

While Habakkuk has been focused on the injustices that seem to overwhelm the small remnant of faithful in Jerusalem and Judea, he has been unaware of what is taking place around it.  At the time that Habakkuk writes, the Assyrians are no longer the power in the region.  Following the destruction of the northern nation of Israel, Sennacherib, Assyria’s king and his entire army, laid siege on Jerusalem, a siege that ended with the miraculous death of the largesse of that army in the night.   Sennacherib was subsequently assassinated, and stripped of its army by a work of God, Assyria soon fell to the up-and-coming nation of Babylon to their south.[4]

Babylon’s success over Assyria emboldened the nation and its army to enforce its power throughout the region, and where Jerusalem had been protected from Assyria when the leadership of the city prayed to the LORD for their deliverance, even that leadership had turned away from God by the time that Habakkuk writes.  When the remnant of faithful no longer have any influence in Jerusalem, evident by Habakkuk’s prayer, the LORD will use the power of Babylon to judge an apostate Judah.  Their defeat of Jerusalem will come with great power, and Judah will be powerless to resist.  The LORD uses allusions to the swiftness of their horses, the power of their mass, and their horsemen, Babylon’s armed military, will descend upon Jerusalem and devour it as an eagle devours its prey.

Habakkuk 1:9-10.  They shall come all for violence:
their faces shall sup up as the east wind,
   and they shall gather the captivity as the sand.

And they shall scoff at the kings,
   and the princes shall be a scorn unto them:
they shall deride every strong hold;
   for they shall heap dust, and take it.

Then shall his mind change,
and he shall pass over, and offend,
imputing this his power unto his god.

Despite the power of Babylon as it descends upon Judah and Jerusalem, the LORD assures Habakkuk that the remnant of faithful will be preserved while those who have turned away from God will be destroyed.  The army of Babylon is bent upon utter destruction and has no respect for any of its neighboring kings or kingdoms.  Their utter fearlessness in the face of any opposition makes them a formidable and indefatigable foe. 

It is quite evident that the LORD is using the “hasty” army of Babylon to bring His judgment upon Jerusalem, yet this is still a pagan people who have no regard for the LORD, or any other god for that matter.  This made them an enemy and foe to all.  However, like Sennacherib, Nebuchadnezzar did not get to enjoy his kingdom long after his encounter with the LORD.  The LORD judged Nebuchadnezzar and his Babylonian kingdom when it soon foolishly fell without a fight to the Persians.


HABAKKUK’S QUESTION:  Why do you tolerate the wicked?

Habakkuk 1:12.  Art thou not from everlasting,
   O LORD my God, mine Holy One? we shall not die.
O LORD, thou hast ordained them for judgment; and,
   O mighty God, thou hast established them for correction.

Using a literary device that is not as evident in the English rendering, Habakkuk offers up a second set of questions that parallels the first in structure.  It is evident that Habakkuk was quite shocked and confused concerning God’s plan for the judgment of Judah.  How could a holy God use an ungodly people to serve His purpose?  How could a Holy God allow any of Judah to be destroyed?[5]  This leads Habakkuk to consider the very nature of God in order to reconcile what to him is an amazing contradiction.  He confesses his faith in God as the One who is eternal, the One who is Holy.  He then admits to God’s sovereignty as it is He who determined the plan for the judgment and correction of Judah.

Habakkuk 1:13.  Thou art of purer eyes than to behold evil,
   and canst not look on iniquity:
wherefore lookest thou upon them that deal treacherously,
   and holdest thy tongue when the wicked
   devoureth the man that is more righteous than he?

In his attempt to resolve the contradiction that he perceives in God’s response, he returns to his understanding of the nature of God.  His first statement refers to an anthropomorphism that describes God’s “eyes” as too holy to look upon that which is evil.  If God cannot look upon evil, how can He use an evil nation against Judah?  This question does reveal a misunderstanding of the Old Testament beliefs concerning God.   One of God’s fundamental attribute is that of omniscience:  there is nothing in this universe that escapes the knowledge of God.  Even the prophets understood the omniscience of God, yet still placed limitations upon Him based upon logical premises.  The idea that God cannot look upon evil simply comes from their understanding of His holiness.  To their thinking, a person cannot be holy and interact with those who are not.  Based on that logic, God cannot do so either.

Habakkuk’s second concern also places human cultural limitations upon God.  God is also omnipotent, having the power to do anything He pleases.  How can God stand by and allow injustice, and particularly injustice towards Judah?  Habakkuk has an opinion that one who is “righteous” has a greater value to God than one who is not, and God cannot be God and allow one who is of less righteousness to persecute one who is more righteous.  However we may be reminded that no person is righteous.[6]  God’s plan is not within Habakkuk’s view or understanding.  Consequently, that plan, when revealed to Habakkuk, does not fit his world view. 

Habakkuk 1:14.  And makest men as the fishes of the sea,
   as the creeping things, that have no ruler over them?

Unable to reconcile to himself the idea that God would use Babylon as His servant, Hababbuk “reminds” God of Babylon’s egregious and evil behavior.  He describes Judah as a leaderless nation, one that is like an unguided swarm of creatures who can easily fall prey to anyone who would take advantage of them.  How can God allow Babylon to enjoy the spoils of their attacks upon Judah?  Had God forgotten them?

Habakkuk 1:15-17.  They take up all of them with the angle,
   they catch them in their net,
and gather them in their drag:
   therefore they rejoice and are glad.

Therefore they sacrifice unto their net,
   and burn incense unto their drag;
because by them their portion is fat,
   and their meat plenteous.

Shall they therefore empty their net,
   and not spare continually to slay the nations?

Continuing the thought, Habakkuk places Judah, the swarm of creatures, into the context of a defenseless school of fish who are caught in the hook of Babylon’s army, with a remnant of its people swept up in the net and dragged to shore.  To add another insult, the pagan Babylonians, upon the destruction of Judah, “rejoice.”  This word refers to a joyful expression of thankfulness to their pagan gods.  How can God use the Babylonians to destroy Judah and then allow them to give the glory to their mythical Gods?  How could God allow Babylon to just plunder Judah and then move on to plunder yet another?  “As will be evident, his views of God were right, but his perspective was too limited.  He had looked for the punishment of the wicked so that the prosperity of his people could be assured, but God, who knew the end from the beginning, looked for the punishment of Habakkuk’s people so that they could be restored to fellowship.”[7]

Habakkuk is facing a crisis of belief.  He has a well-established and accurate understanding of the nature of God, yet that understanding is insufficient to resolve God’s description of His plan to destroy Judah, and to do so using the pagan Babylonians.  Like in many spiritual crises, Habakkuk is faced with a choice between feeding his destructive doubts and turn from his faith, or to trust God.


GOD’S SECOND ANSWER:  Wait, and watch My righteousness in action.

Habakkuk 2:1.  I will stand upon my watch,
   and set me upon the tower,
and will watch to see what he will say unto me,
   and what I shall answer when I am reproved.

Perhaps Habakkuk had taken upon himself the attitude and position of the watchman, withdrawing himself from Judean culture as he, so filled with questions, sought out the LORD for answers.  Understanding his role as a prophet, Habakkuk, having stated his doubts, will not leave is position of watchfulness until he has heard from the LORD.     

Habakkuk 2:2.  And the LORD answered me,
   and said, Write the vision,
and make it plain upon tables,
   that he may run that readeth it.

Before answering Habakkuk, the LORD gave him two clear imperatives:  first, Habakkuk is to write the answers upon “tables.”  This is the same word that is used to refer to the tablets upon which Moses was given the Ten Commandments.  The idea is that the answer to Habakkuk’s questions are of grave importance and are to be written down in a manner that the words will not be lost.  There are various interpretations of the second imperative that commands Habakkuk to write in a form that those who read it may run.  Some hold that the clause refers to a running reader, and others to a reading runner.  The more common understanding is that the words are to be accurate, clear, and concise so that one who reads them can quickly appropriate them for their own lives and then share those words with others.

Habakkuk 2:3.  For the vision is yet for an appointed time,
   but at the end it shall speak,
   and not lie:
though it tarry, wait for it;
   because it will surely come, it will not tarry.

The LORD further prepares Habakkuk for His answer by assuring him of the certainty of the unfolding of God’s plan.  We tend to want the LORD to respond to our prayers immediately, and act on our behalf without delay.  The LORD first causes Habakkuk to understand that the “vision,” the unfolding of His plan is for “an appointed” time, not one of Habakkuk’s choosing.  God has a plan and purpose that is not dictated by a sincere, but doubtful, prophet.  Neither is God’s plan and purpose dictated by we who often want to make use of prayer as a means to use the LORD like a credit card as we make a demand, swipe our prayer across the prayer-reader, and expect a product and a receipt immediately.

The LORD also assures Habakkuk that he will see the unfolding of Gods plan, not only in God’s time, but in a manner that Habakkuk will fully understand.  The phrase, “it will speak” refers to a message that is clear and without ambiguity.  Furthermore it will “not lie,” but rather will demonstrate and illustrate the truthfulness and righteousness of God.

The English grammar of the last two lines of this poetic passage sound like a contradiction in the KJV.  The LORD makes it clear that the unfolding of God’s plan “will tarry, wait for it.”  However the last line states “it will not tarry.”  Obviously there is something going on here that is not quite evident in the KJV translation.  A reasonable understanding of this passage is that the unfolding of God’s plan will take place with come delay, but its coming is sure.  Though Habakkuk must wait, it will not come a moment later than God’s appointed time.

Habakkuk 2:4.  Behold, his soul which is lifted up
   is not upright in him:

but the just shall live by his faith.

Finally, this is the message that is to be written on tablets.  This is considered by many to be the pivotal verse in Habakkuk’s prophecy.  Paul quotes from this verse in Romans 1:17 as he teaches that salvation is found in faith, not in works.  He also uses it in his letter to the Galatians to teach the same message.[8]  The writer of Hebrews also uses this passage to teach the doctrine of salvation by faith alone.[9]  It is this verse that Martin Luther attributes to his salvation.

It is this truth: salvation comes from faith in God, not by any work of man, that separates the Christian faith from every religion of this world.  If salvation were by works, man would work to attain those works and would be led to be prideful, attributing his salvation and righteousness to himself.  However a soul that is so “lifted up” is not “upright” in him. 

The basis of Habakkuk’s entire set of questions is a doctrine of salvation by works.  Habakkuk believes, as does most of Judah, that righteousness is attained by the keeping of the law, specifically, the Mosaic Law.  However, the Law is not a list of behaviors that must be executed to attain righteousness.  The Law simply illustrates the characteristics of the life of one who is righteous.  Righteousness itself is found only through faith in God.  When one has placed their faith and trust in God, the Law takes on a new meaning and purpose as one seeks to live a life of obedience to the LORD.  The fruit of a life of faith is characterized by behaviors that are consistent with the Law, but not dictated by it.

Habakkuk has just learned a lesson that is necessary for all people, and recorded by Paul in his letter to the Ephesians:

Ephesians 2:9-10.  For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: 9Not of works, lest any man should boast. 10For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them,

[1] 1 Thessalonians 5:17.

[2] Waylon Bailey, p. 245.

[3] The name, “Habakkuk” is not found in any other book of the Bible.  However, the writer of the Apocalypse alludes to Habakkuk 2:20 in Revelation 15:8.

[4] 2 Kings 18:13-19:36; 2 Chronicles 32:1-32:22; Isaiah 36:1-37:37.

[5] Jeremiah, Chapter 27.

[6] Psalm 14:3, 53:3; Romans 3:10-12.

[7] Barber, Habakkuk and Zephaniah, 36.

[8] Galatians 2:20, 3:11.

[9] Hebrews 10:38.