The Five Woes
American Journal of Biblical Theology,
The little Old Testament book of Habakkuk is in its essence a dialog between the prophet and the LORD. The prayers of Habakkuk were initiated by the apparent logical conflict that he observes when he tries to resolve what appears to him to be an upside-down world where the wicked prosper as they persecute the righteous. He is familiar with the destruction of the northern nation of Israel by Assyria, and is concerned about the vulnerability of Judah to a similar fate as the power of the Babylonian Empire is well-established. The Babylonians have demonstrated a distinctive wickedness, particularly in their brutal treatment of the nations around them as they move from one to another to expand their own boundaries of control.
At the same time, he is witnessing a degradation if Hebrew culture in Judah and in Jerusalem, its capitol city. He is concerned about wickedness throughout the community that reaches into its leadership who demonstrate greed and dispense injustices towards those they choose.
In the first chapter of Habakkuk’s prophecy, he simply asks the LORD how these things could be happening. He accuses the LORD of allowing injustice, of allowing the unrighteous to persecute the righteous. The LORD’s answer first serves only to confuse Habakkuk even more as he learns the LORD’s plan to use the pagan Babylonians to destroy Judah as a judgement for their wickedness. Though the LORD also promises to protect the remnant of righteous Judeans, he corrects Habakkuk in one major area of his misunderstanding: the righteous are those who live by faith in the LORD, not by keeping the law.
Habakkuk 2:5. Yea also, because he transgresseth by wine,
he is a proud man, neither keepeth at home,
who enlargeth his desire as hell,
and is as death, and cannot be satisfied,
but gathereth unto him all nations,
and heapeth unto him all people:
After hearing God’s response that the righteous will live by faith, Habakkuk turns his attention toward the nation of Babylon and voices an indictment against the behavior of those who wield power in the nation. He is struggling with the idea that the LORD, who is pure and righteous, would have anything to do with the impure and unrighteous Babylonians, much less use them in His plan. Consequently, he points out a sequence of national sins that characterize their pagan neighbor.
He is a drunkard who is misled and driven by the influences of his drunkenness.
He is proud, arrogant, and overbearing, exercising his passion without rest.
He is greedy. Habakkuk compares his greediness to that of the grave that never stops adding to its numbers.
He is a warring people who conquers and gathers the peoples around himself, taking them as captive slaves.
This is a nation that increases itself using what we today might refer to as terrorism. If we observe the impact that terrorists have on those whom they abuse, we may have a good idea of what Habakkuk is describing as the abused seek to fight back.
This is the nation that God is going to use against Judah? If the judgment of Judah is certain, than what awaits the unabated terrorism of Babylon? The remainder of this chapter is a sequence of five woes, choruses of song that are assigned to the lips of the conquered nations. These choruses each include an exposition of godlessness, a threat, a criticism, and some of the responses of the abused. They begin with the word “woe” that refers to a cry of lament for the dead.
WOE TO THE TERRORIST
Habakkuk 2:6. Shall not all these take up a parable against him,
and a taunting proverb against him, and say,
Woe to him that increaseth that which is not his! how long?
and to him that ladeth himself with thick clay!
Though God’s judgment of the wicked is sure, there are consequences of such actions prior to the “Great White Throne.” The abused are not going to sit still; they are not going to be silent. They are going to work, both individually and as groups as they communicate among one another concerning their plight and the egregious wickedness of the terrorists. The fighters of Babylon are going to meet resistance everywhere they go and from everyone whom they abuse.
How long does Babylon think that they can continue this behavior? Thinking themselves to be a mighty and powerful nation, history shows that every conquering nation has fallen when they are no longer able to control their ever-increasing population of conquered peoples.
Habakkuk 2:7-8. Shall they not rise up suddenly that shall bite thee,
and awake that shall vex thee,
and thou shalt be for booties unto them?
8Because thou hast spoiled many nations,
all the remnant of the people shall spoil thee;
because of men’s blood,
and for the violence of the land, of the city, and of all that dwell therein.
Habakkuk’s prophecy would be fulfilled not long after Babylon invaded Judah when the Medo-Persian Empire overran Babylon and took the city with very little violence. Babylon was defeated without a fight simply because of their arrogance. Like a cornered viper, those who were being abused by the Babylonians would rise up and bite them. Also, those who had been “asleep,” those who were not in a spirit of rebellion would at some point believe that “enough is enough,” and rise up. Babylonian wealth had been built upon by taking everything of value from the people it conquered. When the people would rise, Babylon would lose that ill-gotten gain and more as those who rise up take revenge upon them.
WOE TO THE WICKED RICH
Habakkuk 2:9-11. Woe to him that coveteth an evil covetousness to his house,
that he may set his nest on high,
that he may be delivered from the power of evil!
10Thou hast consulted shame to thy house by cutting off many people,
and hast sinned against thy soul.
11For the stone shall cry out of the wall,
and the beam out of the timber shall answer it.
Habakkuk likens the arrogance of the Babylonians to an image of an eagle who builds its nest in high, inaccessible places, able to fly down at will and take of any prey of its choosing. Likewise the Babylonians think that they are untouchable, that there is none who can approach them and challenge their power.
However, the scope of their wickedness is so great that they cannot escape their coming doom. The phrase “cutting off” refers to selling material that has been shortened, thus cheating the customer. This is just one of the many examples of sinful behavior that Habakkuk describes in this sequence of woes. Their homes, built on ill-gotten gains are a testimony to their wickedness. When people look upon their houses, they will not be impressed by their grandeur, but rather will be observing an edifice that is built on shame. The very rocks that form their houses will “shout out” a testimony against them. The great, expensive timbers that span the ceilings of great rooms shout out an opulence that has come from the stolen property of others.
WOE TO THE VIOLENT
Habakkuk 2:12-14. Woe to him that buildeth a town with blood,
and stablisheth a city by iniquity!
13Behold, is it not of the LORD of hosts
that the people shall labour in the very fire,
and the people shall weary themselves for very vanity?
14For the earth shall be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD,
as the waters cover the sea.
Habakkuk moves from his exposure of the arrogance and thievery of the Babylonians to their wanton violence. In their greed for material wealth and control over those around them, the Babylonians killed anyone of their choosing, wiping out entire villages and tribes. The crime of bloodshed can only be paid for with blood, usually that of the murderer. Furthermore, their cities are built upon perversity, crimes that also carry a penalty of death.
Habakkuk writes to remind the Babylonians of the purposes of God, and their ignorance of the LORD will bring their doom. All that they have amassed in their murderous subjugation of others may create a house, or a city, but any edifice that is built in direct disobedience to the LORD cannot stand. Note this point as recorded by the writer of Psalm 127:
Psalm 127:1. Except the LORD build the house, they labour in vain that build it: except the LORD keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain.
The last verse speaks to the issue that inspired Habakkuk’s questions: Does God punish the wicked, or does He allow the wicked to prosper in their sin? God revealed that His purpose is larger than taking sides in the intrigue of warring nations. It is God’s purpose that those who place their faith in Him will be ultimately preserved, and those who do not will be ultimately judged to condemnation. Habakkuk states that there will be a time when all people will know of God and His purpose. Where currently the power of God’s word is known by few, that word will be as evident to all people as the waters above are to the seabed. If one were submerged, it would be rather difficult to ignore the water. Likewise, the glory of God will one day be revealed in as obvious a manner when every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus is LORD, and salvation comes through faith in His name.
WOE TO THE ABUSERS
Isaiah 2:15-16. Woe unto him that giveth his neighbour drink,
that puttest thy bottle to him, and makest him drunken also,
that thou mayest look on their nakedness!
16Thou art filled with shame for glory:
drink thou also, and let thy foreskin be uncovered:
the cup of the LORD’S right hand shall be turned unto thee,
and shameful spewing shall be on thy glory.
Babylon was known for its drinking parties that would turn into wild orgies, shaming those who they pressed into engagement in those parties. Using the drinking orgy party as a metaphor, Habakkuk is referring to the ways that the Babylonians manipulate those whom they conquer into acts of shame. We might simply remember the conflicts that Daniel and the trio of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego experienced when they refused to bow down and worship the Babylonian king. To refuse the manipulation of the Babylonians could be met with death.
Habakkuk notes that Babylon will experience the same shame that they had exacted on other nations when the LORD ultimately reverses the pattern of authority. Habakkuk communicates a confidence in the response of the LORD to Babylon’s iniquity that he did not have when he first inquired of the LORD.
Drinking from the “cup” is to drink from the cup of God’s wrath, a metaphor that is used to describe the wrath of the Father against the shame of sin.
Isaiah 2:17. 17For the violence of Lebanon shall cover thee,
and the spoil of beasts, which made them afraid,
because of men’s blood,
and for the violence of the land, of the city, and of all that dwell therein.
Another of Babylon’s sins is referred to as the violence of Lebanon. Known for its forest of cedars, both the Assyrians under Sennacherib and the Babylonians under Nebuchadnezzar clear-cut forests, destroying or displacing its animals. Just as Babylon had destroyed the habitats of people, it also destroyed the habitats of animals. Just like Habakkuk’s threat that the abused people would rise up against Babylon, the wicked nation will find itself afraid of the very animals that it had displaced. Though referring to a single event, Habakkuk is pointing out one of the ways Babylon has exploited those it conquers.
Though Babylon’s violence is described as against the land, the cities, and all that dwell therein, Babylon’s violence is ultimately a sin against God. God does not take the defensive: He will apportion His justice in His time and in His manner.
WOE TO THE IDOLATOR
Habakkuk 2:18-20. What profiteth the graven image that the maker thereof hath graven it;
the molten image, and a teacher of lies,
that the maker of his work trusteth therein,
to make dumb idols?
19Woe unto him that saith to the wood, Awake;
to the dumb stone, Arise,
it shall teach!
Behold, it is laid over with gold and silver,
and there is no breath at all in the midst of it.
20But the LORD is in his holy temple:
let all the earth keep silence before him.
In his fifth woe, Habakkuk refers to the practice of idol worship that characterizes Babylon, and every other nation outside of Israel. The “graven image” is that same object that the LORD commands be not made in the second of the Ten Commandments. Failing to believe in the one true God, mankind still seeks Him, but does so in all the wrong places.
A graven image is simply an object that is fabricated by the hands of man, but is given authority over he who made it. Even today we might note a little bit of this idea in western culture when we observe some object made by man and are amazed. A Christian missionary to Africa tells a story of how he was so impressed with the beauty of a hand-carved image of a crocodile that he purchased it and brought it into his home, placing it on display. Soon, some of his African neighbors started coming to visit him with the expressed purpose of visiting the carving. Once they started bringing offerings to the crocodile, the missionary understood his error and quickly disposed of the carving.
As one who likes antiques, I am always impressed by man-made objects that are very old. One day I was walking between two small villages in rural China when I stopped at one of the small Buddhist shrines that are often placed where people travel into and out of those villages. It was simply a small box on a stand that contained what looked like a porcelain doll. People had left burning incense and other sacrifices at the shrine. While observing this, my Chinese guide noted that the doll was over one thousand years old. Before I was able to consider the wonder of such an old object I was quickly reminded of its use as an idol and I no longer venerated it as an antique.
The sin of idolatry, replacing the honor and worship of the LORD with the worship of created objects has been a part of human history from its first record. It was the sin of idolatry that led the northern nation of Israel to its destruction prior to Habakkuk’s writing.
Habakkuk provides a quite logical argument: what gain is there in an object that is made by man? Whether it has been carved (graven) or molten, why would one put their trust in it? What message could one possibly expect to hear from an object that cannot speak?
Habakkuk speaks to the futility of one who carves an image of wood and has an expectation that it will speak to him, or one who carves an image of stone and has an expectation that somehow it will come to life. While they search for authority in the things they have made they are missing an opportunity to worship the one who is truly real, truly powerful, and truly God. While they place their idols in powerless temples, the LORD is in His Holy Temple awaiting His creation to turn to Him.
Habakkuk’s five woes are in response to his understanding of the LORD’s answer to his earlier question concerning the permissive will of God. People tend to choose sides in a conflict, evident by the seating in a football game. Some will even state after a victory something like, “I thank God that He gave us the victory.” Thankfulness in God is always a good thing, but it may not be a wise choice to think that God takes sides in a game of sport. Habakkuk found that God does not intervene in the intrigue of faithless competitors. God allows the wicked to be wicked, and allows the righteous to be righteous, stepping into the conflict only when the righteous turn to Him for help.
Though God gives us the opportunity to make our own choices, whether sinful or holy, He also gives us the opportunity to experience the consequences of those choices. The ultimate consequence of rejecting the LORD for a lifetime is simply to receive in eternity that which one chose in this life: separation from God. Habakkuk understands that the LORD will not be mocked, and He will dispense His judgment on Babylon in His time and in His way. As we observe the egregious persecution of Christians across the world we may ask the same questions that vexed Habakkuk: how can God not step in and stop the persecution? We can be confident in knowing that the LORD loves the faithful and will have a special place for them, while He will deal with the judgment of the persecutors in His time and in His way.
Much of the violence against Christians that we observe today is an integral part of the Battle for Israel that started with Jacob and Esau, and has continued through the ages, and will continue until the LORD finally intervenes. The persecution of the faithful will be vindicated when every knee shall bow.