Minor Prophets XIII: Habakkuk 1-3
Habakkuk is the record of a prophet’s discussion with God about justice, and God’s answer becomes a gospel tagline fulfilled in Jesus, in each of us, and in His Church.
The Text: Immediately following the identification of the prophet, Habakkuk cries out to the Lord concerning the injustice in the land, violence, plunder, and perversion (1:2-4). The Lord responds by pointing to the Babylonians/Chaldeans that He is raising up to judge the nations (1:5-11). This is not very reassuring to Habakkuk since this seems like more of the same, and in some ways worse, having an even more wicked nation devouring the comparatively righteous (1:12-2:1). The Lord replies again telling the prophet to write down the vision, in effect saying, “mark my words, this will come to pass” – the proud are not upright in heart but the just one shall live by his faith (2:2-4). God goes on to agree with the prophet and says that those who live by their drunken pride, those who grasp and plunder and conquer only weary themselves in vain and will ultimately be judged (2:5-13). God is planning to fill the earth with the knowledge of His glory like the waters cover the sea (2:14). Those who encourage this drunken rebellion against God will be covered with the violence they have done to others – because the Lord is in his holy temple and all the earth will be silent before Him (2:15-20). In response, Habakkuk sings a psalm of praise for God’s glory and greatness, envisioning God as the Great Warrior marching through the land destroying His enemies and delivering His people (3:1-16). The prophet closes in confident joy, resting in God’s sovereign care (3:17-19).
A theodicy is a defense of the goodness and justice of God in the face of evil. This is just a slightly more sophisticated version of the question: why do bad things happen to good people? The first thing we should note is that the Bible does not shy away from this question. Second, Habakkuk knows that the only way to coherently address the question is to address it to God. But to deny the existence of God is to immediately cut the legs off the argument. The center of God’s answer to Habakkuk is that the just one will live by his faith (Hab. 2:4), and this is also filled out by God’s affirmation that the wicked will be judged and the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea (Hab. 2:14). So what does this mean? How does God’s answer comfort Habakkuk (and us)? The New Testament helps us understand the answer, quoting Hab. 2:4 three times: Rom. 1:17, Gal. 3:11, Heb. 10:38. In Romans, Paul is launching into a defense of God’s justice to Jews and Gentiles centered on the person and work of Jesus. In other words, the center of the fulfillment of Habakkuk is seeing that Jesus is the Just One who lived by faith and was vindicated by God in His resurrection. But this vindication is for all men by faith in Him. Jews and Gentiles can trust God because Jesus came to be God’s justice and our justification (Rom. 3:26).
Piecing this Together
So the question is: How is Jesus the answer to Habakkuk’s cry for justice? Galatians explains a bit more. Paul is addressing the problem of the Judaizers, Jewish Christians who are claiming that Gentiles must become Jews to become full Christians. But Paul says that this is to pretend that we want God to deal with us according to the works of the law. The problem is that the law reveals how unjust and unrighteous we are. To cling to the law or insist that Gentiles must come under the law to become righteous in God’s sight is to end up under a curse, under demands that cannot be kept. But Paul says that the plan all along was that God would justify His people by faith (Gal. 3:7-9). Salvation and blessing would not come by strict merit; they would come by believing the promises – by grace. The problem is that in our sin, we are under the curse of the law, and in our sin, we are deceived into thinking that somehow we can fix the problem, we can fix ourselves, we can do better next time. Somehow we can keep the law and earn God’s blessing, but this ultimately reduces to: “At least I’m not as bad as…” And Paul says that’s a dead end: no one is justified by the law. This is why Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law: having become the curse for us, that the blessing of Jesus might come upon us through faith (Gal. 3:10-14).
In other words, there are basically two ways of life: the way of law and the way of faith. The way of the law is the way of merit, the way of striving and demanding and penny pinching. The way of faith is the way of grace, the way of unearned blessings, the way of forgiveness and generosity. When Jesus died in our place, taking the curse of the law upon Himself, He not only took away our sins, He also made a way to transfer out of the way of the law and into the way of faith. This is what believing in Jesus means. It’s not merely getting your slate wiped clean and trying again to be good. It’s getting the slate wiped clean and then smashed on the floor. There is no slate for those who are in Christ Jesus. This means recognizing that all of your efforts at law-keeping are flawed, and that if you are really honest with yourself your own efforts were always very bad. But it also means that the righteousness and obedience of Jesus are now ours and we are received and treated by God as though we have been as faithful as Him. This doesn’t add up, but this is the way of faith.
The Hope of Faith
Hebrews addresses Christians who are contemplating returning to Judaism as persecution has heated up, and they are urged to remember that they have been brought into the way of faith, the way of grace. And since the way of faith is not based on our achievements, on our situation, on our failures or weaknesses or the bad things happening to us, all is grace, everything can be turned to glory. And Hebrews points us to all the examples of faith in the Old Covenant to prove it: men and women who trusted God, who judged Him faithful who had promised (Heb. 11:11). This is probably hardest to remember when it seems to us that the story has gone all wrong, but part of the way of faith is seeing how our stories are being woven into God’s greater story (Heb. 11:39-40). The justice of God is not merely about personal, individual rights and satisfaction. The justice of God through Jesus is about the story that He is telling. Our lack is made up in the great cloud of witnesses.