Habakkuk 3:1-19.
Habakkuk's Song

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


Habakkuk 3:1.  A prayer of Habakkuk the prophet upon Shigionoth.

The book of Habakkuk is a short dialogue between the prophet and God as Habakkuk initially has questions concerning the egregious sin and injustice that has come to characterize Judah and its surrounding nations.  The LORD answers Habakkuk’s prayer by assuring him that He is acting in His own time and in His own way to accomplish His greater purpose, the judgment of Judah and the protection of the remnant of faithful.  The LORD corrected Habakkuk’s belief that Judah was a nation of righteous people who were being abused by their unrighteous neighbors by revealing to Him that righteousness is found in faith in the LORD, not in the keeping of the Mosaic Law.  Habakkuk learned that Judah is not righteous, has rebelled against the LORD, and like the northern nation of Israel, Judah will be destroyed by an invading pagan army, but a remnant will be taken captive and not destroyed. 

It was difficult for Habakkuk to believe that the LORD would use an evil nation like Babylon to do His work, but came to also understand that Babylon would be judged.  In the second chapter of his poetry, Habakkuk traces the sins of Babylon and proclaims the judgment that awaits them also.

In the third chapter of his work of poetry, Habakkuk turns to an expression of awe as he considers the nature and purpose of the LORD.  Though the entire book is a work of poetry, the last chapter is a poetic prayer-song that celebrates the LORD.  Prior to its presentation, Habakkuk gives an instruction for its use by referring to Shigionoth.  This is an English transliteration of a Hebrew term that has been difficult to translate.  Since this passage closes with instructions concerning its use as a song, many scholars hold that the word refers to some form of musical expression. 

It is important that, as we observe the poetry of Habakkuk that the genre of poetry is to be interpreted differently than that of prose.  Hebrew poetry utilizes symbolic imagery to represent its points.  Consequently, it is helpful that the lines are written in parallel sequences that serve to reinforce the basic message of the lyrics.  When reading this form of poetry it is best to consider what you already understand about the basic message in God’s Word concerning the issues that are addressed, and note how the symbolism enhances what you already understand.  The text is not describing literal events, but rather uses symbolism and metaphor to describe a bigger picture as graphic images are presented.  The writers of apocalyptic-style biblical content, which include Daniel, Ezekiel, the Apocalypse, and others, use a similar approach as they use visual vignettes to present theological truths.

HABAKKUK’S REQUEST

Habakkuk 3:2.  O LORD, I have heard thy speech,
   and was afraid: O LORD,
revive thy work in the midst of the years,
   in the midst of the years make known;
   in wrath remember mercy.

Referring to God as LORD, which is an English rendering of the Hebrew “Jehovah” or “YAHWEH,” Habakkuk notes that he has come to understand God’s plan for Judah, though he still struggles with the reality of the LORD’s use of Babylon in its judgment.  God’s promise of judgment is consistent with what Habakkuk had already learned concerning the character of the LORD.  His response is one of awe and wonder.  The word that is rendered “afraid” in the KJV is an appropriate thought as certainly the prospect of the profound tragedy of the destruction of the nation would bring to mind the tremendous violence and loss that this event will bring.  When we consider the awesome character of God it would be foolish to do so without the application of some element of fear.  There is no reason for one who loves the LORD to be in fear of Him, yet when we consider God’s awesome power, as He is able to create the entire universe by the power of His word alone, we should be aware of the consequences of sin, and God’s promise to deal with it.

This is the only verse in Habakkuk’s work where the prophet asks the LORD for something.  It is virtually impossible to properly understand Israel’s history and its prophecy apart from the historical Exodus from Egypt.  Israel defines itself by this experience.  Consequently as Habakkuk states “revive your work,” he is making a petition of the LORD to reach into the world circumstance as He did in ancient Egypt and save Judah from its pending doom. 

Habakkuk also asks that the LORD perform this act of judgment within his own lifetime, making a petition that He would not tarry as the evil in Judah is creating such havoc among the people.   Finally, recognizing that the judgment of evil is an expression of the wrath of God towards sin, Habakkuk asked that the LORD would exercise is judgment of Judah in mercy.

CELEBRATING THE POWER OF THE LORD

Habakkuk 3:3.  God came from Teman,
   and the Holy One from mount Paran.   Selah

His glory covered the heavens,
   and the earth was full of his praise.

4
And his brightness was as the light;

Teman, and the parallel poetic reference to Paran refer to the region through which the LORD brought Israel out of Egypt and entered into the “Promised Land.”  This would be the region south of the Dead Sea.  By making yet another reference to the Exodus, Habakkuk is reminding his readers of the miraculous power of the LORD to save His people at a time of tremendous national stress.  In another poetic prayer, Habakkuk proclaims the mighty glory of God that both covers and fills all the universe as he refers to both the heavens and the earth.

 

The word “Selah” is the transliteration of a Hebrew term that we find frequently in the Psalms,[1] and three times in Habakkuk’s poem.  There are no other biblical uses of the term.  Its meaning has been open to much speculation, as it did not endure in the Hebrew lexicon into the modern era.  One is forced to look at the context of its use in order to determine its meaning.  Its use is limited to works of poetry that are meant to be sung.  Most scholars hold that the term is an instruction to pause, perhaps allowing the instruments to play while the singers consider the message of the lyrics.

Habakkuk 3:4.  And his brightness was as the light;
   he had horns coming out of his hand:

   and there was the hiding of his power.

It is reasonable that when one considers the glory of the LORD, they also consider the idea of “brightness.”  God demonstrated His presence among the people in the Shekinah Glory, the pillar of fire that lit the area around the Tent of the Tabernacle at night.  The parallel line in this poetic duplet may be difficult to discern in the archaic English text of the KJV, and might be better understood in the manner that it is translated in modern translations, for example:

 

Habakkuk 3:4. (NIV).  His splendor was like the sunrise;

   Rays flashed from his hand

   Where his power was hidden.

 

The idea that Habakkuk presents is the power of the light to overwhelm and disperse the darkness.  In a world that is dark with sin, the splendor of the LORD is like the brilliance of the sunrise that dispels the darkness.  The light of the LORD exposes sin just as light exposes a surface that would otherwise be dark.  Darkness has no power over the light as the light simply reaches directly onto every surface it encounters.  One might understand that darkness “retreats” as light advances unimpeded by any power of the darkness it encounters.  It is the light that has power, not the darkness.  Darkness is simply the absence of light.

 

The word rendered “hidden” may also be rendered “restrained.”  The idea that God has the power to unleash His judgment at the time of His own choosing, and until that work takes place, this awesome display of God’s power is unseen. 

Habakkuk 3:5-7.  Before him went the pestilence,
   and burning coals went forth at his feet.

6
He stood, and measured the earth:
   he beheld, and drove asunder the nations;

And the everlasting mountains were scattered,
   the perpetual hills did bow:
    his ways are everlasting.

7
I saw the tents of Cushan in affliction:
   and the curtains of the land of Midian did tremble.

Habakkuk also recognizes the glory of the LORD in His ability to use the natural forces that He created in order to accomplish His purpose.  The pestilence, or the plague, may be a reference to the times when the LORD used a plague to judge the sins of the people.  The word that Habakkuk chooses is also used to describe the plagues that the LORD brought upon Egypt immediately prior to the Exodus experience.  The burning coals reminds us of the fire and brimstone that rained upon the sin-filled cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. 

 

The word rendered “measured” may also be rendered “shook.”  Habakkuk may be reminded of the history of earthquakes that served to destroy cities.  This theme is common to the scriptures as the LORD uses earthquakes to demonstrated His power and presence, as well as to exact judgment upon those who are caught up in its violence.[2]  Entire nations can be destroyed in an earthquake, and mountains can come crumbling down.  Mountains that have stood for eons crumble at the hand of the LORD as even those ancient mountains must surrender to the will of God.

 

Verse seven is the only line in Habakkuk’s poem that is written in the first person, noting a personal touch to the statement.  “I saw” can also be rendered “I understood,” or “I perceived”  as he refers in parallel passages to Cushan and Midian.  Though the identity of Cushan is unclear, some hold that the name refers to a nomadic tribe that is in the region of Midian rather than a specific place.  Habakkuk appears to be repeating in what might be described as a chorus the statement made in verse 6 as the pagan nations are “driven asunder.”  We might note some inferences to Moses in this passage, as it was in Midian that Moses spent forty years in exile prior to returning to Egypt to lead the Israelites out of bondage.  Furthermore, Moses’ wife is referred to as a Cushite, reinforcing the idea that Cushan was a Midianite tribe.  Ancient Hebrews would be thinking of Moses as they sing these words.  The history of the nation and the circumstances of the pagan cities beyond Judah would come to mind.  Though the judgment that God is planning is for Judah, the sovereignty of God is going to be exercised well beyond its borders

 

CELEBRATING THE HOLY BATTLE

Habakkuk 3:8.  Was the LORD displeased against the rivers?
   was thine anger against the rivers?

Was thy wrath against the sea,

   that thou didst ride upon thine horses
   and thy chariots of salvation?

Having described the judgment of the LORD as being so mighty that the mountains shake, Habakkuk asks what may be an obvious rhetorical question.  It is rhetorical because the context of his poem clearly states that Judah is the recipient of judgment.  Habakkuk drives this home by asking this question, not of the LORD as were previous questions, but of those who are reading or singing his words.  We might then insert a couple words to possibly gain a better understanding: “Do you people really think that the LORD’s displeasure is directed towards those mountains, the rivers, and the seas?”  The prose is meant to indicate that even the world is suffering and groaning under the weight of mankind’s sin, a world that is fully in subjection to the Creator.  If the people who witness the groanings of the world can attribute it to God’s displeasure with it, they can deflect from themselves their true guilt and the displeasure that God has with them.  The mountains, rivers, and seas are victims of the atrocities of man’s sin.  God is not working to save the rivers, He is working to save the souls of man as His judgment will fall upon Judah and the pagan nations.

Habakkuk 3:9-11.  Thy bow was made quite naked,
   according to the oaths of the tribes, even thy word. Selah
Thou didst cleave the earth with rivers.

Habakkuk continues to describe the power of God to judge by doing so in additional metaphoric language as he describes the dispensation of the LORD’s judgment as arrow that are shot from His bow.  Again, a modern translation can help us a little in understanding this passage:

 

Habakkuk 3:9 (NIV).  You uncovered your bow,

   You called for many arrows.  Selah

   You split the earth with rivers.

 

One may visualize an image of the warrior removing his bow from its sheath, an action that takes place prior to its intended use.  Then, by calling for many arrows, Habakkuk is implying that there are many targets. 

 

We can understand that Habakkuk is using the metaphor of a bow and arrows to illustrate the weapon that God will use in conquering the pagan nations.  By examining the biblical narrative, particularly in the Revelation of John, the weapon that God uses to destroy the pagan nations is truth.[3]  If we take the metaphor of the arrows shot in many directions at many targets and apply it to this apocalyptic application, we find that Habakkuk is literally referring to the power that will be dispensed on the world when the LORD, the Messiah, uses the quiver of the Word of God to destroy the pagan nations and their evil systems of belief.

 

Referring to the final judgment at the end of the age, Habakkuk moves to a description of the tremendous physical power and violence that will be unleashed upon the earth.  Starting with a torrent of rain (vs. 4-6) mighty rivers will form that divide the land.  This concept is something that would be quite foreign to his readers who live in an arid land that has very little rainfall.  However, they are familiar with the small creeks, or wadis, that fill following a thunderstorm.  Habakkuk notes that these wadis will become raging torrents that will create devastation in the land.[4]

Habakkuk 3:10.  The mountains saw thee, and they trembled:
   the overflowing of the water passed by:
   the deep uttered his voice,

   and
lifted up his hands on high.

Continuing his description of the impact of God’s final judgment, Habakkuk notes that the torrent has the power to effect the mountains.[5]  When the writer of the Revelation of John, the Apocalypse refers to this prophecy, he states that the mountains are leveled.  Habakkuk refers to their groaning in pain. 

 

The mountain motif is important in ancient middle-eastern religion as both Israel and the pagan nations gave great importance to mountains, thinking that they reached up closer to the gods.  Though Israel recognized that there was one true God, and setup altars and worshipped on mountain tops, the practice was simply a copy of a similar pagan practice that did think that somehow they were closer to their gods.  By leveling the mountains, the places of pagan worship are destroyed.  The mountains that were once used as altars to mythical gods are humbled and succumb to the power of the one true God.  The idea of lifting of hands on high illustrates how even the mountains praise the mighty power of God as He demonstrates His judgment.

Habakkuk 3:11.  The sun and moon stood still in their habitation:
   at the light of thine arrows they went,

   and
at the shining of thy glittering spear.

The humility of God’s creation even extends to the cosmic heavens as God’s judgment is dispensed.  Even the sun is put to shame by the brightness of the glory of God that is demonstrated in His holy judgment.[6]  Habakkuk’s thoughts might be returning to the historic event when the daylight was extended in order to assist Joshua’s work of judgment against the enemies of God.[7]

Habakkuk 3:12-13.  Thou didst march through the land in indignation,
   thou didst thresh the heathen in anger.

13
Thou wentest forth for the salvation of thy people,
   even
for salvation with thine anointed;
Thou woundedst the head out of the house of the wicked,
   by discovering the foundation unto the neck.  Selah

 

If God’s judgment has such a dramatic impact on the earth and on the heavens, how much more impact will it have on those who are judged?  Habakkuk has been using the poetic form to set up this work of God among the people.  This is the purpose of the cataclysmic event that Habakkuk is unfolding.  God is not judging the mountains, nor the sun, nor the moon.  His judgment is upon the wickedness in the land as He will violently separate out His enemies for destruction.  Those holding to a premillennial viewpoint would hold that this is describing the combined events of the Parousia, the second coming of Christ when the faithful are separated from the world, and the Great Tribulation when the wicked are destroyed.  The use of the word “threshing” refers to the separating of the wheat from the chaff, the separating of that which is of great value from that which is to be discarded. 

Jesus taught on this plan of God in the Parable of the Tares[8] when He refers to the sewing of good fruit and weeds together, allowing them to grow together, but then separating them at the time of harvest.  The tares are the wicked who are cast away for destruction, and the wheat are the faithful who are given the gift of salvation from such condemnation.

Habakkuk 3:14-15.  Thou didst strike through with his staves the head of his villages:
   they came out as a whirlwind to scatter me:
   their rejoicing was as to devour the poor secretly.

15
Thou didst walk through the sea with thine horses,
   through the heap of great waters.

The word that is rendered “staves” is the same word that is earlier rendered as “arrows,” continuing the narrative concerning God’s judgment upon the wicked.  Habakkuk describes a great battle wherein the enemies of God come out for one final offensive with the intent of destroying God’s people, and God Himself.  Some may hold that this refers to the same battle that the writer of the Apocalypse refers to as Armageddon.[9]  Though the descriptions are certainly consistent with the final battle for Israel, we should also be reminded that Habakkuk is framing his prophecy around the destruction of Judah by Babylon.  It is possible that Habakkuk did not realize the eternal prophecy that he was presenting.  Because of the similarities between his prophecy with those of Ezekiel and the writer of the Apocalypse, it is appropriate that we apply his prophecy to both events.

The “sea” is often used as a metaphor for the amassed population of the wicked peoples of the earth,[10] that, like the winds and waves of the sea are in a continual state of chaos.  This is also consistent with the symbolism that Habakkuk uses here.  By “walking through the sea” with horses, Habakkuk describes the LORD’s victory in the battle as like a line of horsemen dressed for the charge of battle, the line sweeps through the army of the enemies of God and literally wipes them out.  This is consistent with the description of Armageddon that we will find in the Apocalypse account.

CELEBRATING THE VICTORY

Habakkuk 3:16.  When I heard, my belly trembled;
   my lips quivered at the voice:
Rottenness entered into my bones,
   and I trembled in myself,
That I might rest in the day of trouble:
   when he cometh up unto the people,
   he will invade them with his troops.

Modern western thought tends to use the heart as the center of one’s emotions, when of course we clearly understand that this is in itself a metaphor.  The ancients considered the belly or stomach to be the seat of emotion.  There are probably few of us who have not experienced the pain in the pit of the stomach when facing an event that brings great anxiety.  I can recall times when my father or mother would catch me in an act of disobedience, and the adrenaline rush would create stomach cramps.[11] 

Habakkuk expresses sincere shock when he comes to realize the enormity of God’s power as it is expressed in the judgment of the wicked.  This is a very important statement, coming from one who at the beginning of the poem was accusing God of failing to dispense justice when he observe the persecution upon those who he thought were righteous by those who were not.  This represents a complete turnaround in understanding as he denotes that God’s promise to judge the wicked and vindicate the faithful will take place, and will do so in a dramatic demonstration of God’s power.

A possible parallel to this shock might be the devastating grief that can come upon an individual upon their first hearing of the death of a close loved one.  One may visualize the victim of this terrible news dropping to the ground as the legs simply give way to the sobs of grief.  Though difficult to observe, this is a suitable illustration of the intent of Habakkuk’s poem.

Furthermore, Habakkuk is amazed that, when the LORD comes to judge the wicked that the faithful will be saved, and among their number is Habakkuk, himself.  On the “day of trouble,” a common metaphor for the day of judgment, Habakkuk will “be at rest” while others are violently destroyed.

CONFIDENCE IN THE LORD

Habakkuk 3:17-19.  Although the fig tree shall not blossom,
   neither shall fruit be in the vines;
The labour of the olive shall fail,
   and the fields shall yield no meat;
The flock shall be cut off from the fold,
   and there shall be no herd in the stalls:

18
Yet I will rejoice in the LORD,
I will joy in the God of my salvation.

19
The LORD God is my strength,
   and he will make my feet like hinds’ feet,
   and he will make me to walk upon mine high places.
To the chief singer on my stringed instruments.

Habakkuk finally describes the appearance of the land following the devastation that is sure to come.  Though all that the people thought was of value has been lost, Habakkuk recognizes that the one thing that is of true value remains:  his relationship with a Holy God.  When the wicked are destroyed, Habakkuk and all the faithful will find joy in their salvation.  They will find peace and comfort.  They will find a renewed strength and freedom.

All people of faith should heed Habakkuk’s message as they understand that the LORD will ultimately judge the wicked and vindicate the faithful.  When the LORD separates the wheat from the tares, the faithful will “be at rest” while the wicked are destroyed.  For the faithful, this truth should bring great praise and gratitude.  Those who have rejected the offer of God’s grace should be in great fear of the eternal torment that will characterize eternal separation from the love of God.

This truth should lead every person of faith to follow Habakkuk’s lead.  We may question why the wicked seem to prosper and the faithful are persecuted.  However, God has revealed His greater purpose to us, a purpose that will judge the wicked and bring the faithful to Himself.  Our hearts should be breaking for those who are facing eternal separation from God and look for every opportunity to spread the good news of God’s graceful plan of forgiveness for all who would place their faith and trust in Him.

At the same time, the faith of every believer should be strengthened as Habakkuk found his faith to also be strengthened as we come to understand the love of God for His people and His plan to prosper them, if not in this world, for eternity.  For that we can give God all the praise and glory that we can give, and that would be far less than He deserves.

 

[1] 71 Occurrences.

[2] Joel 2:10; Nahum 1:4; Matthew 27:51

[3] Revelation 14:16-20.

[4] Revelation 16:4.

[5] Revelation 16:20.

[6] Revelation 21:23.

[7] Joshua 10:12-13.

[8] Matthew 13:25-30.

[9] Revelation 19:19.

[10] Revelation 20:8, 21:1, et. al.

[11] It may be amusing to know that, due to my lack of academic prowess in secondary school, I would get the same pain in the pit of the stomach when my parents would visit the teacher on parent-teacher day knowing that when they arrived back home there would be a quite discomforting scene.