When my father pastored a small Southern Baptist church in rural Northeast Mississippi, we lived in the pastorium, an old stone house that was full of character. The floor plan was consistent with the older homes of the area – it had one long hardwood hallway running from the front door through the center to the back of the house, with bedrooms, living room, one bathroom, kitchen, and dining room branching off to either side. The rear of the hallway served as the utility room, where the washer and dryer were installed facing the front entrance.
While living in that home, we collected an assortment of pets, including a slightly aloof, highly opinionated, and intensely curious Siamese cat named "Cat-two." (We had another Siamese cat before this one. Her name was "Cat" – we were pragmatic when it came to naming pets.) One day, Cat-two's curiosity led to an extraordinary encounter with our new dryer at the end of the hall.
My mother had just taken a load out of the machine and was preparing to replace it with a wet load from the washer, when the phone rang. While she was on the phone, Cat-two ventured into the dryer and had just settled down into this cozy, newfound bed, when my mother returned. She had no idea the cat was in the dryer, so she tossed a new wet load in on top of her, slammed the door, set the dial, and pushed the button.
But before she could get far, she was stopped by a dreadful commotion from within the machine.
"Thumpity, thump, bump, thump, … bumpity, thump, … ka-bumpity, thump bump …"
She hurried back to the dryer, thinking one of her mischievous sons had thrown a basketball in while she wasn't looking. But when she opened the door, Cat-two shot out and sailed through the air – her feet were outstretched in every direction and her fur was standing on end, making her appear three times her normal size. She landed on that slippery wooden floor and her feet flailed about as she desperately struggled to get her footing. Then she crouched down low for a moment with her ears pasted flat against her head which was still spinning (much the same as when we would hold her as we spun around in circles and then put her on the floor to watch her stagger across the room). She shook her head violently, paused, shook her head again, and then struggled to race a few more feet down the hall. She stopped with her ears still pasted to her head, shook her head again – and then again. She shot down the hall way a bit further, paused, and shook her head some more. Then she dashed into the living room at the opposite end of the hall – the farthest distance from that dreadful machine – and ran under the couch, where she hid the rest of the day and evening.
She wouldn't come out – she just lay there all day, pouting and grumbling, shaking her head occasionally, with her ears still flattened against her head.
After regaining her dignity, she let us examine her claws, and we found they were shredded from desperately, but futilely, trying to cling to the holes lining the inside wall of the dryer.
She eventually recovered, but from then on she kept a healthy distance from the dryer.
Sometimes life is like that, isn't it? We reach a stage in life that seems safe, warm, and cozy. Then, without warning, a smothering load crashes down on us, everything goes dark, our world starts spinning, flipping us upside down, and we're hit in the face with a blast from hell. We try desperately to cling to something – anything – but to no avail.
We find ourselves spinning helplessly and hopelessly out of control and feel doomed unless somebody rescues us.
On a larger scale, our nation is in a social and moral tailspin, and fully deserves God's wrath. If He rains down judgment on this nation, we could all find ourselves relating to Cat-two. If so, I commend to you someone who has walked that path, who survived, and who has priceless lessons for you. His name? – Habakkuk.
Habakkuk's world had spun out of control, and to compound the matter, it seemed as though God didn't care. He was deeply confused, completely frustrated, and thoroughly irritated with God.
Habakkuk lived in dark and foreboding times. Earlier, he had experienced the good times under the noble reign of King Josiah when stability and righteousness once again characterized Judah. The people had returned to the Lord, rampant idolatry had been virtually eradicated from the land, the economy was good, there were no obvious threats to national security, and the future looked bright for the people of God.
But that dramatically and suddenly changed one fateful afternoon. Babylon had been on the move against Assyria to the north and King Neco of Egypt was determined to resist the growing Babylonian threat. He advanced his troops through Judah en route to confront Nebuchadnezzar and his armies, but Josiah, for some unknown reason, chose to oppose the Egyptians. Through Neco, God warned Josiah not to get involved, but Josiah ignored His command and led his army in battle against the Egyptians, only to be soundly defeated. He died that day – and with him so did all vestiges of national sovereignty.1
Peace, independence, international and political stability, national confidence, economic and national security – all of these were now casualties of that ill-fated battle.
Return to Darkness
Judah immediately lost her independence and became a vassal of Egypt. After three months, Neco dethroned Jehoahaz, Josiah's son, and imposed a heavy tax.2 He replaced Jehoahaz with his brother, Jehoiakim, who satisfied Egypt's ongoing demands by levying stiff taxes against the people of Judah.3 With Jehoiakim came a return to idolatry across the land, including idol worship in the temple.4
When Jehoiakim came to power, he brought more than oppressive taxes with him. The author of II Kings said: "…he did evil in the eyes of the Lord, just as his fathers had done." (23: 37) As king, he was expected to uphold and enforce God's law,5 but the prophet Jeremiah, Habakkuk's contemporary, revealed that the wicked king allowed, and was himself guilty of, gross injustices.
Josiah had been a just king who destroyed the altars to Molech and was careful to protect the poor and needy. Jehoiakim, however, allowed perjury, theft, and murder to go unpunished.6 The poor and needy were oppressed and defenseless under his reign7 and the insidious abomination of child sacrifice once again besieged the land.8
Rather than protecting the oppressed, Jehoiakim himself oppressed the helpless. In his greed, he forced his countrymen to build his palace and adorn it with the finest amenities, but refused to pay them any wages.9 He chased, caught, and murdered a prophet who had the audacity to condemn his behavior.10 Jehoiakim was described as having his eyes and heart, "… set on dishonest gain, on shedding innocent blood and on oppressions and extortion."11
Jehoiakim was not alone in his sin for once again the leader reflected the fallen values of a depraved nation. The people had returned to immorality, idolatry, and bloodshed, as a dog returns to its vomit.12
Darkness had fallen upon Judah once more.
This return to wickedness was more than the prophet could stand. Habakkuk cried out for God to confront the evils of the land, but it seemed God was not listening. The book by his name contains the prophet's impassioned plea:
"How long, O Lord, must I call for help, but you do not listen? Or cry out to you 'Violence!' but you do not save? Why do you make me look at injustice? Why do you tolerate wrong? Destruction and violence are before me; there is strife, and conflict abounds. Therefore the law is paralyzed, and justice never prevails. The wicked hem in the righteous, so that justice is perverted." (1:2-4)
Habakkuk knew God's expectations of justice from His people. When He delivered them from Egypt, God gave specific commands requiring justice in all facets of their society. Those who labored were to receive fair wages,13 innocent life was to be protected,14 and the helpless, particularly orphans, widows, and strangers were to be defended and cared for.15 God expected the leaders to serve as unbiased judges who would exemplify and uphold His standards of truth and justice.16 They were to enforce the law and punish those who violated God's laws, including the application of the death penalty when necessary.17
Judah and her leaders had abandoned these commands, and Habakkuk was justifiably angered, but he was also frustrated with God. Habakkuk had pled with God to correct the situation, but God was inexplicably silent. He couldn't understand this for God had identified Himself as a just God.18 He was fair in all of His dealings with people, and was an impartial judge who could not be bribed.19 He was Himself concerned for the needs of the helpless, particularly orphans, widows, and aliens.20 Furthermore, He promised punishment for those who violated His commands.21 These national injustices blatantly contradicted the commands and nature of God, and Habakkuk could not harmonize the injustices of God's people with God's silence and seeming refusal to correct these injustices.
So Habakkuk let God "have it." He poured out his frustration with Judah and with God in one open, sincere, and poignant prayer. He opened his heart and told God exactly what was on his mind.
And this time God responded.
God broke His silence and revealed His plan to the perplexed prophet. God told Habakkuk that He would indeed punish Judah, but justice would come at the hands of the ruthless and merciless Babylonians (1:5-11). Their mighty juggernaut would sweep across the world, conquering every nation in its path, and utterly destroying all those foolish enough to resist.
Habakkuk's Second Complaint
God's answer stunned Habakkuk. He was looking for an answer, but not this one! How could God do such a thing? It was inconceivable that God would use the Babylonians as an instrument of justice in punishing Judah! Judah was bad – but surely not that bad.
God had Himself identified the Babylonians as ruthless, impetuous, and those who seized what did not belong to them (1:6,7). They replaced God's law with their own, promoted their own honor, were bent on violence, and even worshipped their own military strength (7-11). Surely He knew that these pagans were not fit to punish Judah!
Habakkuk reminded God that the Babylonians were evil, treacherous, wicked, grossly idolatrous, and merciless (13-17) – people who destroyed nations merely to satisfy their own gluttonous appetites (16).
Judah had sinned against God, but Babylon was patently wicked. Judah had violated God's standards of justice, but Babylon had rewritten them. Judah worshipped idols, but Babylon worshipped their own destructive military might. Judah was guilty of shedding innocent blood, but Babylon seemed bent on global genocide.
How could this be justice? It seemed to contradict everything Habakkuk knew of God.
So Habakkuk challenged God:
"Your eyes are too pure to look on evil; you cannot tolerate wrong. Why then do you tolerate the treacherous? Why are you silent while the wicked swallow up those more righteous than themselves?" (1:13)
Habakkuk made his case, and prepared himself for God's response. (2:1)
God's Second Response
Again God responded, and again it wasn't what Habakkuk expected – though it was what he needed.
The Lord admitted Babylon's arrogance, but followed with the remedy for Habakkuk's confusion, frustration, and despair. In 2:4 He declared:
"See, he is puffed up; his desires are not upright – but the righteous will live by his faith."
Which leads us to this principle:
Even when His actions and timing don't make sense, we are to trust God and remain faithful to Him.
In the midst of uncertainty, turmoil, confusion, calamity, frustration, social upheaval, rampant immorality, and gross injustice, God gave Habakkuk one answer – live by faith. God revealed later in the chapter that He would eventually judge Babylon for her sin, but He never explained to Habakkuk why He was using the pagan nation. He didn't attempt to resolve the apparent contradiction in Habakkuk's mind, nor did He justify His decision and actions. He simply told Habakkuk to trust Him.
The solution to Habakkuk's dilemma was not comprehension; it was faith in God, regardless of the circumstances.
Seven hundred years after this troubled prophet pled his case before God, the author of Hebrews addressed an audience of Jewish converts to Christianity who suffered for their beliefs and practice. They had been insulted, persecuted, had their property seized, and were thrown in prison. As a result, some were ready to give up on God (10:32-35).
That response is not surprising. We are more likely to question God's love from deep within the pit of pain, than from high atop the pinnacle of prosperity.
The author reminded his readers of this classic instruction from Habakkuk, encouraging them to persevere in their struggle, not on the basis of their current condition, but on the basis of faith. The answer to their predicament was not found in removal from the struggle, but trusting God in the midst of it. Through this passage, he redirected their focus from the temporal circumstances that had engulfed them, to the eternal God who is above all – from the confusion and despair that accompanies turmoil, to the God who transcends turmoil.
In addition to God's emphasis to Habakkuk on trust, He also indicated that faith is the means by which the righteous will live.22 Faith is not only the manner in which the righteous live, it is also the only way the righteous will survive, particularly in the face of confusion and hardship. Paul, in his letters to the Romans and Galatians, picked up on this element and applied it to salvation.23 He declared that the means to salvation is faith. The familiar "by faith alone" became the battle cry for the Reformation. Indeed, from both a temporal and eternal perspective, the only way we will live is by trusting God rather than our own sinful and limited resources.
If God judges our land, and if we live to see the national calamity and upheaval that accompanies His punishment, we may question God's choice of instruments in His judgment. We may not agree with the course of action He chooses or allows in His sovereign plan. Events could unfold and individuals could take actions that defy explanation or human reason. We might behold activities that seem inconsistent with God's promises and character.
Furthermore, God may not answer our prayer the way we expect or desire. He may allow us to experience the hardships that accompany national judgment. We may find ourselves crying out with Habakkuk in confusion, frustration, and despair. Nevertheless, if we want to survive the calamities and confusion that surround us, we must trust Him – that He is good, that He still cares, that He is still at work, that He will bring about justice, and that indeed one day all will be made right.
Our faith dare not to be confined to that which we comprehend, but rather it must be established firmly upon the One Whose wisdom defies human comprehension, the One Who alone is worthy of our trust. Otherwise, we face certain defeat.
God's lesson for Habakkuk is not limited to trust, however. The Hebrew word for faith in this passage can also be translated faithfulness. The concept behind the word is that the one who trusts God demonstrates that trust through faithful actions and obedience. The translation here need not be a choice between either faith or faithfulness, but indeed includes both concepts.24 Those who trust God in the midst of hardships and apparent contradiction will also remain faithful to obey Him despite those difficulties.
Again, the author of Hebrews captures this essential link in what some have called "Faith's Hall of Fame." Each of the heroes in chapter 11 responded to God with both faith and faithfulness, despite difficulties and seeming contradictions. Accordingly, God not only walked them through the darkness; He accomplished crucial elements of His eternal plan through them.
They illustrate the blending of trust and obedience that God expected from Habakkuk. In the face of societal collapse, and before the prospect of invasion and destruction at the hands of a pagan nation, God knew Habakkuk needed faith and faithfulness more than explanations.
A True Story
One day I took my two sons to a park that had an enclosed, tubular, winding slide. My two-and-one-half-year-old son, Philip, had never seen such a thing and was especially intrigued by it. He watched in wonder as older brother and other children mysteriously disappeared at the top and suddenly shot out at the bottom, laughing and anxious to do it again.
After watching several children repeat the activity, with no apparent injury or trauma, he decided to try it. But when he climbed to the top of the stairs and looked down into the opening, he wasn't so sure he wanted to jump into that dark hole. He knew I was at the other end, but there was plenty in between that he couldn't see and it frightened him.
So I called up through the opening at the bottom, "Come on, Philip. I'll catch you!"
He laughed nervously and called back, but he wouldn't jump in. I called again, and he called back again, but he still wouldn't come.
We repeated this exercise several times until finally his confidence in my voice overcame his fear of the darkness before him, and with reckless abandon, he threw himself into the mouth of that slide.
As his feet and body came around the curve in the slide, his hands were outstretched like a baby's when it has just been startled. His face was grimaced and his eyes were panic stricken.
But then he saw my face, and his eyes locked on mine. Instantly his face lit up. Relief, then delight replaced all fear and panic. His grin was bigger than the slide by the time he shot out of the tunnel and into my waiting arms.
The rest of the morning he was only interested in playing on that slide.
The future may bring us face-to-face with crises that threaten to overwhelm us. Our nation has dramatically deteriorated and certainly deserves the full measure of God's judgment. As He deals with our nation and with this world, we may not understand all that unfolds. At times, God's course for us may not make sense. We might become frightened or confused, and we may be tempted to ignore our Father's clear instruction and look instead for what appears to be less threatening options.
Or we may follow His voice and step out, only to find ourselves tumbling out of control down an uncertain path, panicked, surrounded by darkness, with no certain end in sight.
Whatever we encounter, we will only survive if we have faith in Him and follow His instruction. If we trust and obey His clear voice as revealed in His Word, eventually that frightful path will lead us straight into the waiting arms of our loving Father – and He will not let us fall!
And when we see His face, when our eyes lock on His, He will wipe every tear from our eyes. All pain, sorrow, fear, anxiety, and confusion will be instantly erased and replaced with eternal joy, praise, and adoration. God's plan may not make sense to us now, but as we continue in faith and faithfulness, we will one day rejoice in the wisdom of that plan and the memory of these temporary frustrations will be lost in the eternal joy of unfettered fellowship with our loving heavenly Father.
1. 2 Chron. 35:20-24.
2. 2 Chron. 36:2, 3.
3. 2 Kings 23:35.
4. Jer. 7: 5-10, 30, 31; 19:4, 5; Ez. 8:5-17.
5. Deut. 1:19-17; 16:18-20; 17:8-12, 18-20; 2 Sam. 15:2-4.
6. Jer. 7:9.
7. Jer. 22: 15-17; 7:5-7; 22:3,4.
8. Jer. 7:5-9, 30, 31; 19:4,5; 22:3, 17.
9. Jer. 22:13, 14.
10. Jer. 26:20-23.
11. Jer. 22:17.
12. Jer. 7:5-9, 30, 31.
13. Lev. 19:13.
14. Ex.20:13; 21:12-14, 23, 28-29.
15. Ex. 22:2-24; Deut. 14;29; 24:17-21; also see Pridmore, DNTT, II, 737, also R. Hubbard, NICOT, Ruth, 96, 97.
16. See Deut. 1:9-18; 16:18-20; 17:14-20.
17. Ex. 22:1-14; 21:12-17; Lev. 20:1-16.
18. Ps. 11:7, 89:14; Deut. 1:17.
19. Job 33:5-13; 34:1-12; 40:1-14; Deut. 10:17.
20. Deut. 10:18,19; Deut. 10:18,19; Ps. 146:9; Ps. 146:9.
21. Ex. 34:6, 7.
22. See Waylon Bailey, The New American Commentary, vol. 20, (Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 1995), 325.
23. Rom. 1:17; Gal. 3:11.
24. Bailey, 326.