I started reading the book of Habakkuk this past week in preparation for the church's next sermon series, and I have to say I'm liking this book a lot.
Habakkuk is found among the minor prophets, or in the Nevi'im if you prefer the Hebrew terms for the Tanakh, and it's not one of the most familiar books. It lacks the easy narrative of Jonah, it comes after the really neat stories of Daniel, and no one's really sure how to pronounce his name or where the emphasis should go. No one even really knows anything about the prophet, except that he was an early contemporary of Jeremiah.
But I'm really digging this guy, if for nothing else than for his honesty.
The first chapter of Habbakuk starts out with a complaint: Things stink, and there is no justice in the land. The wealthy exploit the poor, the proud and the mighty oppress the weak, and every time Habakkuk complains to God, he says absolutely nothing happen to change the situation. His complaint essentially boils down to this: "Is anybody paying attention up there? Lord, have you fallen asleep at the wheel? Wake up and do something!" This makes him unique among the Hebrew prophets.
And then there's God's response. "Oh yeah, don't worry about it. I've got it all under control. You know the Babylonians? I'm going to send them in to Judah, and they'll destroy all your cities, they'll kill a bunch of the men, they're going to burn your crops, and they're going to scatter the Jewish people all over the world.."
One can almost imagine Habakkuk's confusion. The situation is depressing as it is, and this is your answer? I'm objecting to the untrammeled greed and lust for power of the elites, and your answer is that you're going to dechouke every major population center and destroy our nation? Please pardon me while I jump for joy. (This isn't much of an exaggeration. Habakkuk's response immediately following God's answer to his prayer is to ask, "O God, aren't you Lord from everlasting? 'Cause it sure doesn't seem like it to me."
It's long been a point of frustration for me with other Christians when they try to sugarcoat bad situations by saying that God is in control, and he'll get us through them. "Just keep up the faith," they say. "Chin up. It looks bad, but give it 18 months, and you'll be amazed how much better things'll be. Look at it from God's perspective."
The message Habakkuk gets from God is completely different: "Sure, things are bad now, but just wait a few years. These will look like the good old days before I'm finished." Long-term perspective? The Temple will be destroyed, Judah will be a vassal state of Babylon, the Jewish people will be scattered across the Middle East from Egypt, through the Arabian peninsula, and into Persia, and the House of David will to all intents and purposes be lost.
Sure, six hundred years or so from now, Judah's situation will be much better. It'll be a vassal state of Rome, subject to unbelievably high levels of taxation and relentless oppression. Having narrowly escaped eradication under the Seleucids in the first century B.C.E., the Jewish state will be dealt a severe blow in 70 C.E. under Titus Vespasian and then again a hundred years later under Marcus Aurelius, by which time it'll be annihilated for some 1,800 years. It does so help to keep an eye on the big picture, doesn't it?
Admittedly, I'm being a little facetious here; as a Christian I'd have to add that the Diaspora created pockets of monotheism throughout the ancient world, leading to the existence of many God-fearing Gentiles who believed not so much in Plato's doting grandfather sort of God known for his disinterested love but in the Jewish sort of God who was relentlessly involved in human history as an active expression of love. These Jews, and the Gentiles who believed with them, would be eagerly awaiting a messiah; and while not all of them accepted Paul's proclamations about Yeshua ha Mashiach, ben David, a good many of them did, which allowed Christianity to become a major force for justice and for mercy in the ancient world and in the centuries since.
But none of this was clear to Habbakuk. All he had to go on was a promise from God that things were going to get worse, a lot worse; and his faith that in the final analysis, God would still be worth following.
I love this book.