The book of Habakkuk is unique among the Minor Prophets. While most of the books written by these twelve men of God contain excerpts of their preaching, Jonah being a notable exception, the book of Habakkuk is a searching of the heart of a man of God. Reading Habakkuk is more like reading a journal than a sermon. Certainly, this book contains some of the same themes to which by now we have become accustomed, including God’s judgment on the wicked and His salvation of His people, but all of these thoughts are considered not in the heat of a man of God enflamed by passionate preaching but in the heart of a man of God broken by the brokenness that surrounds him. Habakkuk is so unusual among the prophetic writings that Habakkuk is referred to as “the prophet” twice in the book (1:1; 3:1), which perhaps occurs because of the peculiar nature of his prophetic ministry.
Habakkuk gives no indication in the introduction of the time frame in which he ministered the Word of God. All conclusions about the context of this book must come from within the book itself, and thankfully numerous references help us discern what gave rise to this potent picture of God’s work in history. Habakkuk 1:6 notes that God is raising up the Chaldeans to come and judge the nation of Judah. From our study of Nahum and the history of the Assyrian Empire, we know that Habakkuk must have lived sometime in the middle or late 7th century, because that was when the Assyrian power began to decline and the Chaldeans marched onto center stage. The evil that Habakkuk notes in 1:2-4 also helps situate his prophecy because such wickedness would not have been characteristic of the reign of Josiah, who was on the throne from 640-609 BC. The most likely time for this oracle is between 609 and 605, during the early part of King Jehoakim’s rule (609-598 BC), when Josiah’s reforms were undone by his son. The Babylonians first invaded Judah in 605, and since this vision saw the Babylonian attack on Judah as yet future, it must have occurred prior to this first incursion. With this frame of reference in view, we see that Habakkuk ministered alongside other notable men of God, such as Zephaniah and Jeremiah, and he perhaps was acquainted with Ezekiel and Daniel as well.
The book of Habakkuk divides up into three basic sections. The first two sections contain complaints the prophet lodges with God. Perhaps it seems verboten to raise complaints against God, especially for those with faith, but Habakkuk is a man under distress as he sees his nation crumbling around him under the weight of its sin. He wonders why God does not intervene, and why God allows such wickedness to go unchecked? God answers the prophet, but His answer only raises further questions, so Habakkuk lodges his second complaint in 1:12-2:1. God gives him a second answer consisting of five woes against idolaters. After Habakkuk receives this answer, he goes to God in prayer. The final chapter of Habakkuk records the prophet’s prayer in response to God’s Word, a theophany in which God comes to judge the wicked and fulfill His Word, and the prophet’s settled response of faith in God, even when he cannot understand what God is doing and he is disturbed by the prospect of the Chaldean calamity.
The theme of this marvelous work is faith. Habakkuk is undoubtedly a man of faith, but he also wrestles with some serious questions about God, namely, how can God be just and holy while not judging wickedness? How can God be just and holy and faithful to His promises while allowing people more wicked than the Israelites to judge them? The book of Habakkuk is not primarily a book about the Babylonian invasion, the judgment of God on Judah, or eschatological events. The book of Habakkuk takes on a journey of faith, a journey where a man of God understands more clearly what it means to trust God.
The key verse in Habakkuk is Habakkuk 2:4 – Behold, as for the proud one, his soul is not right within him; but the righteous will live by his faith. The key question that comes to the prophet is this: Will you trust God even in the midst of dreadful circumstances that you cannot change and that you do not understand?
This verse on faith has such central importance to the book that it becomes one of the Apostle Paul’s theme verses in his majestic letter to the Romans and his shorter treatise on justification by faith, Galatians. As Paul begins his exposition of the Gospel of Jesus Christ in Romans 1:16, he immediately moves into Habakkuk 2:4 as his scriptural foundation for the entire edifice of the evangel, quoting it in Romans 1:17. There is a sense in which the entire epistle to the Romans is an exposition of the meaning of this verse! Paul also quotes Habakkuk 2:4 in Galatians 3:11, giving a much more compact and concise summary of his Spirit-inspired interpretation of Habakkuk’s words. Paul asserts that everyone who is under the Law, or seeking to be justified by the Law, is under God’s curse, with the implication in v. 10 that the curse alights on all who try to keep the Law because none can keep the Law with the rigor it demands. Paul emphatically denies anyone is justified by the law in v. 11, and his scriptural proof for this denial is Habakkuk 2:4. Those who are justified are justified by faith, not works of the Law. While some read Habakkuk 2:4 to mean that faith is to guide the lives of the righteous, Paul takes it differently. He indicates that people are declared righteous in the sight of God through faith and through faith receive eternal life. In other words, Habakkuk 2:4 is not about how a person lives his life but about how a person obtains eternal life, namely, through faith. Another way to translate this verse to make this understanding more obvious is, “The man who is justified by faith will live.”
Habakkuk, then, is an exposition of what this justifying faith looks like. A prophet of God, overwhelmed with the evil around him and God’s seeming indifference, learns that God is always at work and never indifferent. How God is working usually will not fit within our paradigms of how we think God should be working, and so the question comes to us as well: Will we, like the rebellious Israelites of Habakkuk’s day, abandon God for idols who give us the answers we want but ultimately leave us unsatisfied and under God’s divine judgment? Or will we, like the prophet Habakkuk, be those who have faith in an inscrutable God and rejoice in Him even as we tremble?