READ : Habakkuk 3:1-19
Life may have stolen much of your joy, but you can learn to sing again
At the end of his second chapter, the prophet Habakkuk is meditating on the greatness of God: “The Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him” (Hab. 2:20, rsv). When Habakkuk says that the Lord is in his holy temple, he doesn’t mean God is sitting inside a building in Jerusalem. (Every believer in the Bible knew that the true God does not live in temples. No, this is a theological statement, not a geographical one. Habakkuk isn’t trying to tell us something about God’s location but about his presence and activity in the world. What he means is: God is on his throne. God rules. God is in control.
Habakkuk had been bothered by the unfairness and inconsistencies of life. He could have agreed with the words of the book of Ecclesiastes, “There is something meaningless that occurs on earth, the righteous who get what the wicked deserve and the wicked who get what the righteous deserve” (8:14). Habakkuk has been struggling to make sense out of it all. Why am I suffering? Why doesn’t God seem to answer my prayers? How come the evil are prospering while the innocent are being destroyed? Then he had a vision. He saw the prospective triumph of God’s justice and truth. And for now, he knew that the Lord does reign and that we should all bow before him in silence, reverence and trust. We must wait for God to accomplish his work.
Habakkuk had the answer to all his questions, at least intellectually. But now he needed it emotionally, so what to do? He decided to pray, and the last chapter of his little book is the result. Actually, Habakkuk 3 is more than just a prayer. It’s really a psalm, that is, a song. It’s introduced this way: “A prayer of Habakkuk, the prophet, on shigionoth (3:1, niv). Now I don’t what shigionoth means. Actually, nobody does, exactly. But it could be the name of a tune. Later on, at the end of the chapter, Habakkuk talks about the stringed instruments which should accompany this song (v.19). So even if we don’t recognize the tune, we can follow the words, and maybe we’ll even be able to hum along a little as this servant of God teaches us how to sing again when life has shaken our faith in God.
Habakkuk’s song begins on a quiet note. “Lord, I have heard of your fame; I stand in awe of your deeds, O Lord. Renew them in our day, in our time make them known; in wrath remember mercy” (3:2, niv). Humility and awe are the best ways to begin when you want to speak to God. It’s good to realize that God is high and we are low. God is big and we are little. God is holy and we are not. So we stand in awe of him.
Then the prophet gets down to business by looking backwards. “I have heard . . . of your deeds, O Lord,” he says. And Habakkuk starts to recite them. If you’re having trouble singing the song of faith because of what’s going on in your life at present, the best thing to do is to start remembering. Look back into the past, call to mind the things that God has done for you. Recite them over again, and not just the things God has done for you since you’ve been born. Remember all the things he did, things he did for you long before your life began.
What the biblical writers most often recalled were God’s mighty acts of salvation. It’s amazing how often believers in the Old Testament liked to tell the story of the exodus. Habakkuk does it again here in this chapter. Over and over the psalms recite the great events of Israel’s history and especially the greatest event of all, when God brought them up out of Egypt, led them through the Red Sea, kept them in the wilderness, and delivered them into the land of Canaan. God did all that. He did all those things, but he did even more. We can go on to the next part of the story. That involves a stable in Bethlehem, and a cross on Golgotha, and an empty tomb, and tongues of fire in an Upper Room, and the gospel going out to the ends of the earth. God did all that, too. Have you heard about the awesome deeds of God? That’s the place to start your song. And remember, if God did all those things, then he’s the one whose writing your story too. You can be sure about that.
After looking back into the past, Habakkuk brings his prayer into the present when he asks the Lord to do today the kinds of things he did back then. “I stand in awe of your deeds, O Lord. Renew them in our day, in our time make them known; in wrath remember mercy” (v. 2). It almost sounds presumptuous, as if Habakkuk is telling God to get back to work and do something. Does God need to be reminded to do his job? We humans do. I do. My kids especially do. But the Almighty?
I think what Habakkuk is really saying to God is something like this, “Lord, I want to experience your presence in my life, just as people did in the Bible. Please do your work in me, even though it may hurt sometimes. I don’t ask to be let off easily. I only ask that when you judge me, when you discipline me, when you use painful experiences to make me grow, that you also show me your mercy.” That’s the key thing. Anyone can ask God for his blessings. Even an atheist will cry out to be delivered from a crisis. But have you prayed for God to do his most important work in your life? To save you, not just in the sense of forgiving your sins but actually beginning to deliver you from them? Have you invited God to make you over into the likeness of Jesus Christ through the long, sometimes painful process of spiritual discipline and personal change? You’ve probably asked God to work according to your plans; for example, to prove that he’s real when you’re finding it hard to believe, or to perform a miracle to get you out of trouble. But have you asked him to work out his plan for your life, whatever that might entail?
After he has prayed, Habakkuk begins to speak. Now remember his situation. He’s writing just a few years before his city and country are going to be destroyed by a powerful enemy. He’s been praying and he feels better. His faith is being restored. But when he gets up and looks around, nothing external has changed. The threat of invasion still looms on the horizon. He, along with all his family and friends and fellow citizens are still facing the violent destruction of their home and city, the loss of all their possessions and for many of them, even their lives. Things haven’t somehow miraculously turned around. Life hasn’t suddenly become sunny and cheerful.
So what does Habakkuk do? Well, the first thing he does is to shake with fear! “I heard and my heart pounded, my lips quivered at the sound; decay crept into my bones, and my legs trembled” (v. 16, niv). Trust in God is great, but it isn’t magic. It doesn’t automatically make all our problems go away – or our very natural reactions to them.
But then Habakkuk speaks these beautiful words of faith:
Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord. I will be joyful in God my Savior. The Sovereign Lord is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer, he enables me to go on the heights.
These wonderfully graphic words of Habakkuk paint first of all a picture of hard times. There are no buds on the fig tree, only dry, lifeless branches. No grapes on the vine, no crop from the olive orchard, no produce from the fields, no sheep or cattle in the pen. What if that’s your situation? No income, no provisions, no resources. The cupboard is bare and the paycheck is gone. What then? What do you do when you pray and believe and trust God and try to live a decent life, but still you’re lying in a hospital bed, sick and frightened and in pain, and the doctor tells you he’s sorry but there’s nothing more they can do for you? What do you say then? Or when your husband informs you he’s just tired of being married to you and nothing’s going to change his mind? Or your boss says he’s sorry but you no longer fit in with the company’s plans for the future. Or your investment turns sour and the security you were counting on for the future suddenly evaporates? Or you miscarry the baby you’ve been trying to have for ten years. Or you don’t get the job or the promotion or the girl or the award or the prize. What do you do say when the fig tree does not bud?
Habakkuk says this: “. . . I will still celebrate because the Lord God saves me. The Lord gives me strength. He makes my feet as sure as those of a deer, and he helps me stand on the mountains” (vv.18-19 cev). Habakkuk sings with joy. His song may have been in a minor key, with tears mixed in. Habakkuk doesn’t sing because he’s so happy, or because things are so great. Habakkuk sings because he knows God. His life just then was down in the depths, but Habakkuk himself could run on the mountains because he knows God has saved him. The Lord has set his feet on the high ground.
You know, the real test of faith is how you meet loss. I remember going to visit an elderly lady once whose husband had recently died. As we talked for a while, it became obvious that she wasn’t a Christian. She told me that her one consolation was reading. Reading the Bible, I wondered? No, she liked to read the novels of Thomas Hardy, a 19th – century English writer whose works are uniformly bleak and pessimistic. Something light or escapist I could have understood, but Thomas Hardy? But, you see, when people don’t know God, the best they can do in the face of suffering is muster a sort of dull resignation. Resignation is when you give up hope. You accept the inevitable, because there’s nothing else you can do about it. You simply resign, the way a chess player resigns when he sees that the game is lost.
Biblical faith is as different as can be from resignation. Faith sings. Faith even leaps. It climbs like a deer. What was it that Paul said? “We are more than conquerors through [Christ] who loved us.” Christians don’t just win the victory over life’s problems and tragedies. We win with style!
You know, if your faith has been beaten down recently and you have been suffering in silence, you can learn to sing again. Habakkuk can teach you. Why don’t you try humming along with him today?