READ : Habakkuk 2:1-4
Habakkuk was a Hebrew prophet who lived 2,500 years ago. In his writings we find that he struggled with the many of the questions that we struggle with today. He questioned God about his silence, “Lord, how long must I beg for your help before you listen?” (1:2) and God’s apparent inactivity, “Why do you tolerate wrong? Why do you allow such terrible things to happen, God?” (1:3). Have you ever asked those same questions?
I will stand at my watch and station myself on the ramparts;
I will look to see what he will say to me,
and what answer I am to give to this complaint.
Then the Lord replied:
“Write down the revelation and make it plain on tablets so that a herald may run with it.
For the revelation awaits an appointed time; it speaks of the end and will not prove false.
Though it linger, wait for it; it will certainly come and will not delay.
“See, he is puffed up; his desires are not upright – but the righteous will live by his faith
You really don’t have to be afraid of questioning God, or even complaining to him. He’s not touchy; he won’t squelch you. In fact, he’ll probably respond to you.
I think we have probably all had one of those “It’s a small world” kind of experiences. You know, you’re in some far-off, exotic place or some gathering of total strangers, and you look up and there’s your next-door neighbor. Years ago my wife and I were wandering through the main square of the city of Amsterdam, staring in amazement at the bizarre collection of humanity that had drifted into that early 70s counter-cultural gathering place. I said to her, “Look at all those hippies sitting over there on the steps.” She replied, “Well, one of them is so and so.” Sure enough, there was one of our college classmates, big as life. It really is a small world!
I have a similar experience when I read the book of Habakkuk. Here you are, in the minor prophets of the Old Testament – sort of a strange place, really. There are a lot of little books in this part of the Bible that aren’t read very often. They were written by people with odd names like Obadiah and Haggai. These writers are talking about issues in civilizations that have been dead for 2500 years. Then as I am walking around in this remote corner of the Old Testament, all of a sudden I bump into somebody I know. I recognize this man Habakkuk! He is struggling with the same questions I am. He’s asking about the silence of God: “Lord, how long must I beg for your help before you listen?” (1:2). Haven’t you ever wondered that? He’s questioning God’s strange inactivity: “Why do you tolerate wrong? Why do you allow such terrible things to happen, God?” (1:3). Haven’t you ever asked those same questions?
FAITH VS. EXPERIENCE
Habakkuk’s basic problem is the same as that of thoughtful believers everywhere. It’s the struggle to reconcile our faith with our experience. How can we square what we believe about the goodness, the love and the power of God with what we see happening in the world around us – or even in our own lives?
If God is good, if he’s so holy he can’t even bear to look on wrongdoing as Habakkuk says (1:13), and if he’s also watching over and governing the world, well then, what’s going on? What’s wrong with this picture? Because the world, in case you haven’t noticed, is chock full of wrong. This problem of God’s silence in the face of our cries for help and his failure to act to prevent the occurrence of horrible things is a difficult one to understand. But it’s really only difficult for those of us who believe everything about God that Habakkuk believed. After all, if God isn’t all that powerful, then maybe he can’t help it when bad things happen. No, says Habakkuk, the God of the Bible is the one in control. It is God who ordains and appoints, who raises up and casts down. Nothing happens without his permission.
Well then, what if God isn’t as good or as kind as we think he is. Perhaps he doesn’t really care what happens to us. Maybe God isn’t all that involved in what’s going on down here. Perhaps he isn’t interested in good and evil as we understand them; he just keeps grinding out his purpose, and if innocent people get crushed in the gears of the machinery of his will, well, that’s just too bad. Maybe God is long on power, but a little short on loving-kindness and tender mercy. No, says Habakkuk again. God is the Holy One, he is perfect goodness; he is the Rock, he is steadfast covenant love (1:12)
ON THE WATCHTOWER
So what’s the answer? How does God respond to our struggle to understand his purposes in a world where all is not well? That’s what Habakkuk wants to know, and in a famous passage in chapter two he tells how he climbs up on a watchtower to wait for God to answer his questions. “I will stand at my watch,” he says, “and station myself on the ramparts; I will look to see what he will say to me, and what answer I am to give to this complaint” (2:1).
Isn’t that a wonderful picture: harassed Habakkuk standing up there on a watchtower like a sentinel in a besieged city looking for the approach of the relief column. It’s as though Habakkuk wants to leave his questions behind him on the ground for the time being and draw closer to the Lord as he waits for him to speak. Some may think that questioning God is a sign of defective faith. Not at all. To question God is a sign of healthy faith; what’s defective is to question him without waiting for his answer.
Modern culture has raised questioning God, doubting God, disbelieving in God, to the status of a new orthodoxy. It was that apostle of modernity, Friedrich Nietzsche, who boldly proclaimed that God is dead. One of the most characteristic expressions of the spirit of modernism is the play Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett. In this play the stage is bare except for a small, pathetic looking tree. The structure of the play is monotonous, the action repetitive. The play consists mostly of a dialogue between two main characters, Vladimir and Estragon, who are waiting for a man called Godot to show up. They have asked to meet with Godot, and they repeatedly call upon him in language with religious overtones, asking him to come. The characters are given to understand that Godot is considering their request. But nothing much happens during the play’s two acts. The same events and dialogues recur, provoking a feeling of meaninglessness and helplessness in the audience. And in the end, a messenger arrives to announce that Godot isn’t coming.
The message of the play, of course, is that God isn’t coming. Vladimir and Estragon are thoroughly modern characters. They know there is no point to waiting, because there’s no point to anything – no meaning, no purpose, no loving Father in heaven, no heaven (or hell); nothing, in fact, beyond the bare stage of this world. They only go on waiting because they have nothing else to do, and because they can’t muster the resources to kill themselves and end it all.
WRITE THIS DOWN
This is the view of life taken by modern skeptics. It could not offer a greater contrast to the outlook of biblical faith. Waiting for God is not anything like waiting for Godot. The wait of faith is as different from the wait of skepticism as hope is from despair. Habakkuk waits because he expects God to respond to him eventually. He believes both that there are answers to his questions and that God will reveal those answers to him. For some people, I’m afraid the problem of evil is really just an excuse to quit on God. They toss a complaint or two in his direction and then turn their backs on him and conclude that he must not be real. But if our hope is that God will never give up on us, our faith means we never give up on him.
So here’s Habakkuk, standing on his watchtower, waiting for the Lord to answer his questions. And finally God does.
Then the Lord told me: “I will give you my message in the form of a vision. Write it clearly enough to be read at a glance. At the time I have decided, my words will come true. You can trust what I say about the future. It may take a long time, but keep on waiting – it will happen!
“I, the Lord, refuse to accept anyone who is proud. Only those who live by faith are acceptable to me.”
Habakkuk 2:2-4, CEV
God not only answers Habakkuk, but through him he speaks to us in our struggles. “Say this loud and clear,” the Lord tells the prophet. “There is an answer. Write it plainly so that others can read it even at a glance.”
And the answer goes like this: At the bottom of everything the universe is not meaningless and chaotic, as it would be if God were not in control. Life is neither a horror nor an absurd comedy, as it would be if there were no God. It isn’t what Shakespeare’s Macbeth once called it – “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” We are not left alone in our suffering, with nothing to do but weep or shrug our shoulders in resignation. No. Because God is real, and really cares about us, all our sufferings have meaning, and all our questions do have answers.
But not always immediate answers. “At the time I have decided,” says the Lord, “my words will come true. You can trust what I say about the future. It may take a long time, but keep on waiting – it will happen!” (v. 3). God has his own schedule. He follows his own timetable. He will show us the meaning of everything; he’ll give us the answers we’re longing for; he’ll put to rest all our doubts and give peace to all our troubled thoughts. But in his good time, not ours.
TWO WAYS OF LIVING
There’s an important clue to the meaning of it all in verse 4: “I, the Lord, refuse to accept anyone who is proud. But those who live by faith are acceptable to me.” Or as that last phrase is more familiarly translated, “The righteous will live by their faith.” The Lord reminds us here through Habakkuk that there are only two ways of approaching life. One is the way of those who believe in themselves, not in God. They rely on their own power, their own strength and ability and intelligence. These are the kind of people Habakkuk alluded to earlier when he described men who sacrifice to their own fishing nets because they think that they have made themselves rich (1:16). The “proud,” in the biblical sense of that term, are those who think that they are in control, that they can dismiss God and go it alone. They have only themselves to thank (or reward) for whatever successes they may achieve. And if reversals come, well, all the proud can do is to wait them out – or take a quick exit from life. The proud live on their own and worship only themselves; the rest of the stage is bare.
The other kind of people are those who live by faith. “Only those who live by faith are acceptable to me.” “The righteous will live by their faith.” Habakkuk 2:4 may very well be the most important verse in the whole Old Testament. It was certainly the apostle Paul’s favorite verse.
In Paul’s understanding, this basic insight about faith that God gave to Habakkuk goes both ways. First of all, the righteous person will live because of his or her faith. The proud are going to disappear. They won’t endure. But the righteous who are living by faith – who go on trusting God even when they don’t understand what he’s doing – they will live forever. Through faith, eternal life is theirs. The righteous will live by faith.
But it could be said the other way around because the reverse is equally true. Those who live by faith are righteous. You see, it’s just this attitude, this willingness to believe in God when there is little else to go by, when the evidence might even seem to be against him, which makes us acceptable to God. God is pleased to count as righteous those who trust in him.
So the crucial question is this: Which kind of person are you? What category do you fall into, the proud, or those who live by faith? Pretty much everything that happens to you every day is God’s way of allowing you to answer that question. You prove what kind of person you are especially by the way you respond to trouble. It is when we are struggling, or suffering, or questioning that we are in the best position to demonstrate whether we choose to wait for God in faith – or just give up.