Text: O Lord, how long shall I cry, and thou wilt not hear! even cry unto thee of violence, and thou wilt not save!… Thou art of purer eyes than to behold evil, and const 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?… I will stand upon my watch, and set me upon the tower, and will watch to see what he will say unto me.… And the Lord answered me, and said, Write the vision and make it plain.…
—Habakkuk 1:2, 13; 2:1, 2
1. The Book of Habakkuk reveals the deepest gloom in Judah’s long night of apostasy and peril preceding the Babylonian captivity.
The world outlook was grim and threatening. It was a time of mighty upheavals. The great Assyrian empire was disintegrating; Babylon and Egypt were locked in a titanic struggle for world supremacy. Caught between the two was the tiny kingdom of Judah. Israel had been conquered and her people taken captive, and Judah was on the way. It was a time of ruthless conquest, bloody suppression, and merciless tyranny.
The internal outlook of Judah was hardly less grim and threatening. There was widespread wickedness, violence, injustice, and idolatry. The masses were dulled in conscience and calloused by long exposure to danger. Unmoved by the warnings and pleadings of the prophets, they showed the unconcern of a people living complacently on the slopes of a smoldering volcano.
Habakkuk, agonizing over the delinquencies of his own people and the wicked expansionism of pagan empires, and sensing that disaster is in the offing, cries out, “O God, why don’t you do something!”
2. The prophet, in his perplexity and distress, finds the only way out of the dark, the only true refuge, near to the heart of God. Symbolically, he speaks of ascending the water tower and there waiting on God.
Here he sees, through the deep gloom, light-beams from some of the brightest stars of God’s heaven. God was speaking to him as He spoke to one of our missionaries at her lonely outpost during World War II. A night-time bombing raid by enemy airmen was raining death and destruction from the sky. Helpless natives were trembling in the pitiable shelter of their huts. In the midst of panic and horror, the missionary looked up and saw, by the grace of God, the stars above the bombing planes. To her, in that desperate moment, they were the silent sentinels of the eternal, unchanging sovereignty of God, who never forsakes his own and never forgets a promise. Immediately she became quiet within, and her spirit was fortified for that harrowing ordeal.
Habakkuk, from his vantage point near to the heart of God, gains new insights for the warning of the wicked and the encouragement of the righteous.
I. The Woes Of The Wicked
Five times he hears the voice of God in thunderous denunciation.
1. Woe to the aggressor who, with insatiable greed, “increaseth that which is not his” (v. 6). Here the primary reference is to the Babylonian empire, drunk with power, steadily enlarging itself through conquest, irresistible in its advances and seizures. The descending judgment of God falls in the familiar pattern, “They that take the sword shall perish with the sword” (Matt. 26:52). How consistently this has been true the history of kingdoms and empires abundantly demonstrates.
2. Woe to the covetous plunderer, who craftily “sets his nest on high,” to make his spoils secure (v. 9). The primary reference is to the Edomites, who lived among the cliffs in the semi-desert area south of the Dead Sea. From their lofty fastnesses they made raids upon the neighboring lowlands, and they stored their plunder in the almost inaccessible cliffs. To the Edomites, the Lord speaks through the prophet Obadiah: “Though thou exalt thyself as the eagle, and though thou set thy nest among the stars, thence will I bring thee down, saith the Lord” (Obad. 4). The emphasis of Habakkuk is upon the fact that the plunder will not remain hidden. “The stone shall cry out of the wall,” and the beams and timbers shall echo the accusation. Sooner or later every dishonest dollar will avenge itself, as the prophet Ezekiel points out: “They shall cast their silver in the streets, and their gold shall be removed: their silver and their gold shall not be able to deliver them in the day of the wrath of the Lord” (Ezek. 7:19a).
3. Woe to the destroyer who builds upon the destruction of others (v. 12). The judgment is of the Lord, and not of man. “Except the Lord build the house, they labor in vain that build it” (Ps. 127:1a), whether it be the tower of ancient Babel (Gen. 11:4–9) or the wall of modern Berlin. The Judge himself has been an eye-witness to every crime, every tear, every drop of blood that has been shed. What he said to Cain, the first murderer, he will say again to every mass murderer or individual killer, “Thy brother’s blood crieth unto me from the ground” (Gen. 4:10).
4. Woe to the debaucher “that giveth his neighbor drink” (v. 15). Surely no greater menace threatens the moral and spiritual life of our nation than the rising tide of alcohol that is sweeping across the land. “Drink” has proven itself the archenemy of everything that is essentially Christian and is probably the greatest single destroyer of the souls of men. Recent statistics indicate approximately five million drunkards, both men and women, with all that this means in lives wrecked, homes broken, crimes committed, and souls doomed. And the end is not yet; the frightening increase of drinkers and drunkenness continues. The percentage of drinkers has risen from 33 per cent to 63 per cent in our generation; 50 per cent more men are drinking; 174 per cent more women are drinking; and 74 per cent of all college students are drinking.
Surely no greater outpouring of the wrath of God will take place on the day of judgment than that upon the makers and sellers of alcoholic beverages and upon the false friend “that giveth his neighbor drink,” thus placing the deadly reptile at his neighbor’s bosom.”
One of the saddest aspects of the problem of alcohol is the easy tolerance into which so many otherwise sensible and discerning people have been lulled. Once, the corner saloon was the menace to be feared. Now, with the expenditure of $250 million a year to glamorize social drinking as an element in “gracious living,” the homes are being invaded with this unholy propaganda by every known means of publicity. If all professed Christians became abstainers, with the courage of Daniel of old, this would be a staggering blow to the alcohol traffic and to alcoholism. Drunkards are recruited, not from the ranks of abstainers, but from moderate drinkers.
One of the most devastating arraignments of alcohol is Upton Sinclair’s book, The Cup of Fury. It records the tragic story of seventy-five victims of alcohol whom he has known. All had attained to fame and fortune and were “men of distinction”; but alcohol became their undoing. The book makes clear the wisdom and moral necessity of total abstinence. A comparable book is that of the American Business Men’s Research Foundation entitled, What’s New about Alcohol and Us? Actually, there is nothing new. Alcohol is what it always was and does what it always did, whether served in cocktails or in some other form, whether one drinks alone or in a group. It is the same whether served in the sacred vessels profaned by King Belshazzar centuries ago, or from dainty goblets in some elegant living room, or from an uncorked bottle passing from one dirty mouth to another in the foulest dive in the underworld. “Woe unto him that giveth his neighbor drink!”
5. Woe to the idolator (v. 19). The pagan Assyrians, Babylonians, and Egyptians were not the only idolators. Among Habakkuk’s own people, as in the days of Moses, Joshua, Elijah, and Isaiah, there were those who practiced idolatry. This was not because they knew no better, with their long tradition of godly training, but apparently because it seemed the expedient and sophisticated thing to do. Political considerations and status-seeking are not of modern origin.
It would be pleasant to assume that the pronouncement against idolatry is no longer relevant. We do not worship “the golden image” or “the molten image,” but how often profit, pleasure, prestige, or public opinion are placed ahead of God! And perhaps we are closer to ancient Israel than we realize. We do not bother to fashion an image; we just worship our gold without melting it, and our greenbacks without taking them out of the bank.
The prophet Habakkuk was not left in a spirit of depression. Near to the heart of God he gained new insights into the woes of the wicked; and there were further insights into the blessedness of the righteous.
II. The Comfort Of The Righteous
Three stars of hope never cease to shine in the believer’s firmament.
1. The just shall live by faith (v. 4). His reliance is not upon defensive armaments but upon spiritual defenses and resources from Almighty God. “Some trust in chariots, and some in horses: but we will remember the name of the Lord our God” (Ps. 20:7).
Faith is the life of God in the heart of man. “… Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Col. 1:27). Besides this hope, there is none other. Salvation is not by merit, but by relationship. The household of God is for the children of God. In the Scriptures, the children of God are sharply distinguished from the rest of humanity. To unbelievers Jesus denied the fatherhood of God. “Ye are not of God.… If God were your Father, ye would love me.… Ye are of your father the devil …” (John 8:47, 42, 44). No less clear is that further reference: “the children of God … and the children of the devil” (1 John 3:10). Thus the fatherhood of the devil is no less a scriptural doctrine than the fatherhood of God.
Faith guarantees the survival of the soul through the most perilous night. “… The Lord knoweth them that are his” (2 Tim. 2:19a). “He calleth his own sheep by name, and leadeth them out” (John 10:3b). He identifies his own even in the largest flock; he finds his own even in the darkest night; he reads the fine print of the soul when all the lights are out.
2. The truth shall prevail. “The earth shall be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea” (v. 14). Here is an assurance to treasure in the dark days when all the trends and appearances are running to the contrary, as in the days of Habakkuk.
The Satanic zeal with which false religions and philosophies are being propagated fills the thoughtful believer with dismay and seems destined to win the world. With the closing of mission fields, the suppression of the truth, and the persecution of believers in many areas of the world, surely the world does not appear to be in process of being “filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord.” As a matter of fact, the growth of the non-Christian population of the world is so outstripping the growth of the Christian population as to make Christianity, percentagewise, a steadily dwindling minority. Only the long look can sustain the believer’s faith; without it he might well despair.
The destructive teaching of many educational institutions is producing skeptics and agnostics and is threatening to undo the work of our Christian homes and churches. Religion must not be taught; but religion can be undermined, at will. One minister, telling of his own experience in one of our great universities, recalls that he was one of thirty-three candidates for the ministry in the freshman class with which he entered. At graduation, four years later, thirty-one of the group had “lost their call,” and only two went on to seminary training. But “truth crushed to earth will rise again; error, writhing in pain, will die among its friends.”
3. The Lord is in his holy temple (v. 20), with something to say to every listening heart. However dark the night, he is always accessible, ready to bless, responsive to those who seek him. “Here bring your wounded heart, here tell your anguish; earth has no sorrow that heaven cannot heal”—no problem that heaven cannot solve. Habakkuk was not the first, nor the last, to cry out in agony of soul, “Why …? O Lord, how long …?” And he was not the only one to find his answer in the holy temple of his Lord.
The Psalmist Asaph, centuries before, had been grieved and perplexed by the prevalence of evil and the prosperity of the wicked. “It was too painful for me, until I went into the sanctuary of God; then understood I their end.” In the holy quietness of the sanctuary, God spake to his heart; there he saw what he had not seen before. As a result, his spirit was revived, his soul was fortified, and he closes that beautiful Psalm on a high note of grateful praise: “It is good for me to draw near to God …” (Ps. 73:3, 16, 17, 28).
Every believer will find, like Habakkuk and like Asaph, that “it is good to draw near to God.” Private devotions are indispensable; likewise, the family altar; but let not the believer forget that “the Lord is in his holy temple,” with further blessings not otherwise to be attained. It is in the Lord’s house, on the Lord’s Day, with the Lord’s people, that a man is most likely to see himself as he is and to hear the call of God to higher ground. In the Lord’s house we are reminded that our problems, perplexities, and distresses are not unlike those of previous generations. The world outlook is filled with forebodings of disaster; and in the homeland, with sickening monotony, the statistics on all forms of evil are rising from year to year. How long will God forbear? “Take courage,” Habakkuk is saying to the believer. “Draw near to the heart of God, and be assured, the just shall live; the truth shall prevail; and God is ready at this very moment to fortify the believer and to save the lost.”
Near to the heart of God, Habakkuk saw the light.
Coming from the presence of God Habakkuk reflected that light, like Moses, who came from prolonged fellowship with his Lord with such a radiance upon his face that people were actually afraid to come near him (Exod. 34:29, 30). Similarly, the mother of John Wesley had learned the secret of spiritual replenishment near to the heart of God. With her large family of children, there were times when the atmosphere of the household became tense and difficult. At such times she would quietly slip away. When she returned, it was with a serenity and poise that the children did not understand until years later. “They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength” (Isa. 40:31a).
A traveling man brought his wife a little souvenir—a phosphorescent matchbox that was supposed to glow in the dark. When he turned out the light to demonstrate its use, there was not even the faintest glow. Disgustedly, he concluded that he had been cheated. The next day his wife examined the gift more closely and found an inscription in tiny letters, “If you want me to shine in the night, keep me in the sunlight through the day.” She did as directed, and that night after dinner it was a pleasant surprise for her husband when she turned out the light and the matchbox shone with a brilliant glow. Thus only can believers “shine as lights … in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation” (Phil. 2:15).—Chapter 9, “Near to the Heart of God,” from Sermons Preached without Notes, by Charles W. Roller (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1964). Used by permission.
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