Bible Speaks by Rev. L Althouse
Oct. 5, 2014
Background Scripture: Habakkuk 2:1-5; 3:17-19
Forty-three months ago, while awaiting open-heart surgery for my wife, Valere, I made an unexpected and unusual promise to God. Having prayed for a successful surgery, I added if the surgery should be unsuccessful, I would not abandon my faith.
I was puzzled by the words I had just uttered. Why had I said that?
Then, a few days later after a surgery that was pronounced “quite successful,“ I numbly joined hands with friends around her bedside – and this beautiful and gifted woman slipped away.
After three years of contemplating what I had said to the Lord, I suspect I was making a subtle offer to God that He would not refuse. Subconsciously, I was probably attempting to persuade God to save Valere’s life, because I had so magnanimously promised that I was not praying conditionally. I guess I had not expected I wouldn’t have to make good on my promise.
I didn’t allow myself to become angry with God or challenge Him; it was more a sense of disappointment that He had “let me down.” If you’ve ever had a deep disappointment with someone, you know the one thing you won’t do is really “forget it.”
But that’s what I tried to do, to block it from my memory. I wouldn’t challenge God to answer me, but I pretended to forget it. Almost!
What I have just revealed is something that until now I have not mentioned to anyone. I share it with you because the account of the prophetic ministry of Habakkuk is quite relevant to this experience. God called him to a ministry of prophecy, which is not so much predicting the future as warning what will happen if people continue as they are.
But, few responded positively – except lots of people, high and low, who reacted with anger and hatred. If anyone had a reason to complain to the Lord, Habakkuk was that person. And he did.
Oracle and burden
So, who was Habakkuk and why are we studying his book? We know almost nothing about him, but that he was a prophet, roughly during the decade between 608 and 598 B.C. His name is confusing because it is an Assyrian name for a plant, not a Hebrew name.
Some scholars suggest the name was forced upon him by the conquering Assyrians. In the first chapter is a Hebrew word often translated as “oracle.” Other translations, however, render the word as “burden.” Both are adequate because God’s call to be an “oracle” to the nation was also a “burden” he carried with some regret and disappointment. He was not the kind of prophet who enjoyed the message he was sent to give. And when God gives us a message, we often experience it as unpleasant. The Good News is often perceived as “Bad News.”
Uncomfortable and dismaying as was the task to which God called him, unlike me and countless others, Habakkuk made a complaint to God: “Oh Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and thou wilt not hear? Or cry to thee ‘Violence!’ and thou wilt not save?” (1:2,).
He not only complains, he calls God to explain: “Why dost thou make me see wrongs and look upon trouble? Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise” (1:3). All of Habakkuk 1:2 to 2:5 is cast as a dialogue between the prophet and the Lord.
We may shudder at Habakkuk’s temerity in demanding an answer from God and an implied criticism of the Lord. But his questioning of God and his complaints are evidence not of a nebulous relationship between the mortal prophet and the immortal God, but of a good and solid relationship. The prophet questions God, not in spite of but because of the enduring relationship between the Almighty and his servant.
And that was my failure: I was not close enough to God to risk complaining.
Complaints and responses
As we will also see in our studies of the Book of Job in the next three weeks, a good relationship with God may produce both human complaints and Divine responses. In Habakkuk 2 the prophet boldly says: “I will take my stand to watch, and station myself on the tower, and look forth to see what he will say to me, and what I will answer concerning my complaint” (2:1).
The key words Habakkuk speaks are “I will.” These are words of faith, evidence of the prophet’s trust in God – a trust that is undamaged by the nation’s experience of destruction and rejection. When things went wrong for me, I did not trust enough to think or say, “I will.” Thus, neither could I say or believe: “And the Lord answered me” (2:2).
How did God answer Habakkuk? “Write the vision; make it plain upon tablets, so he may run who reads it. For still the vision awaits its time; it hastens to the end – it will not lie. If it seems slow, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay. Behold, he whose soul is not upright in him shall fail, but the righteous shall live by his faith.” (2:2-4).
God’s message, though poetically rendered, is clear: the day of God’s will is coming; wait, knowing that God has both the first word and the last word; and the faithful will find their trust rewarded. It may not come as soon as we want, or in the way that we would have it, but it is coming.
To this challenge Habakkuk, if not Israel, answers: “I will.” “Though the fig tree does not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will exult in the God of my salvation” (2:17,18).
We do not know how many responded to the prophecy, but he answered God’s challenge, as we also are called to answer: “I will!”
The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of Farm World. Those with questions or comments for Rev. Althouse may write to him in care of this publication.