Saturday, May 06, 2023

Mining the Minors: Habakkuk (4)

Why do the wicked appear to prosper while allowed to oppress, injure and even murder those more righteous than they? The question has troubled anyone with an attention span and reasonable powers of observation over the centuries. One of these was the prophet Habakkuk, who took his question to almighty God. God graciously responded, and Habakkuk wrote down what he said for those of us who would come later.

Here is how God answered him.

Habakkuk 2:2-3 — The Vision Hastens

“And the Lord answered me: ‘Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so he may run who reads it. For still the vision awaits its appointed 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.’ ”

And the Lord Answered Me

This is a lovely thought, but it doesn’t only happen to prophets. God’s answers to prayer come in various forms, as you have probably encountered. He doesn’t always use words.

Naomi said the Lord had “answered” her (same Hebrew word). She thought the loss of her husband and sons was a divine commentary on her own character. Not so. Circumstances, both good and bad, are sometimes an answer from God, but not always, as Job also discovered. In Naomi’s case, she lost three men and replaced them with a loyal, devout Moabite daughter-in-law her neighbors would say “is more to you than seven sons”, and a grandson to boot, who took his place in the genealogy of Messiah. The Lord knew what he was doing.

Samuel too got an “answer” from the Lord in the form of a thunderclap that threw the Philistine army into confusion and enabled Israel to rout them. Elijah got the Lord’s answer by fire from heaven. The Lord answered David by telling the angelic destroyer to put his sword back in his sheath. David probably heard no words, but the results of the Lord’s answer were immediately apparent: people stopped dying. The psalmist wrote that the Lord’s answer to him was deliverance from all his fears.

The Lord’s answers may come in many forms, but none of them are easy to miss. This one was not the least bit enigmatic. God spelled out his response in plain words of assurance.

Write the Vision

When God said, “Write the vision”, Habakkuk obviously did as commanded. We are still looking at the results millennia later. The Lord continues, “Make it plain on tablets.” The word “tablets” is the same word used for the stone tablets on which the words of the law were etched by the finger of God, and which took their place in the ark of the covenant within the tabernacle of the testimony. But the word is also used metaphorically. Proverbs speaks of the “table of your heart”. I think this is probably what God had in mind here, not that Habakkuk should literally chisel the Lord’s words on stone, but that his answer should be written down in such a way as to preserve those words so they would never be lost. God’s word is a guaranteed certainty, and Habakkuk was to take it that way.

The non-literalness of the “tablets” is borne out by the next statement, “so he may run who reads it”. If you’ve ever tried to run with your arms full of carved stone, you will probably recognize that won’t work at all. The point is, I think, that there would come a time when devout men who treasured the words Habakkuk was preserving for them would leap to their feet and run with this message of Babylon’s destruction to the people of God: “Fallen is Babylon the great.”

Awaiting and Hastening

These two concepts initially seem a little at odds. How can a vision simultaneously await its appointed fulfilment but also hasten to the end? Perhaps we are speaking of two different things. From man’s perspective, God’s answer “awaits”. He eagerly looks for it. But from God’s perspective the thing is already done. The times and circumstances of its fulfilment have been established and everything necessary for its full accomplishment set in place. God is working to execute his purposes with no delay even as man awaits the evidence of God in action.

When God says, “It will not lie”, we could understand that one of two ways in English: either that God’s answer will not turn out to be deceptive, or alternatively that God’s answer will not keep still; it will not lie quiet but will move forward. In Hebrew there is no such ambiguity; the first interpretation is correct. It is the same word we find in the famous statement that “God is not a man that he should lie.” He is assuring Habakkuk there are no tricks here. In due course, the Almighty will do to Babylon exactly as he has promised.

Finally, the Lord adds these words of assurance: “If it [the fulfillment of what follows] seems slow, wait for it; it will surely come; it will not delay.” God always answers at just the right time.

Habakkuk 2:4 — Living By Faith

“ ‘Behold, his soul is puffed up; it is not upright within him, but the righteous shall live by his faith.’ ”

Judah would ultimately be conquered during Nebuchadnezzar’s reign, but Babylon itself would not fall until some years after his death. Now, there’s no doubt Nebuchadnezzar’s soul was puffed up. He had a distorted view of his own place in history and his own right to rule. The book of Daniel is all about how Nebuchadnezzar was humbled by God and taught that the heavens rule, not men. But probably the Lord is speaking of the diabolic, self-asserting spirit of Babylon more generally, from generation to generation. Nebuchadnezzar learned his lesson in a timely fashion. Belshazzar learned his too late. The haughty spirit of Babylonian superiority and independence continued throughout its rulers and would ultimately have to be ended by conquest and armies rather than patient teaching.

God contrasts this with the righteous man who lives by acting faithfully. This verse would take on several different meanings when quoted by the writers of the New Testament, and we will attempt to consider them in a future post on “Habakkuk in the New Testament”. Here, I think the Lord probably has in view a humble, quiet spirit that waits on the Lord and trusts in him to accomplish his purposes in his time. That is after all the context in this passage.

Habakkuk 2:5 — Gotta Catch ’em All

“ ‘Moreover, wine is a traitor, an arrogant man who is never at rest. His greed is as wide as Sheol; like death he has never enough. He gathers for himself all nations and collects as his own all peoples.’ ”

Wine is a Traitor

The Lord is still talking about the Babylonian spirit of conquest and domination here, epitomized in the person of Nebuchadnezzar but typical of all powerful pagan rulers of the day. The word “wine”, which appears in the Masoretic text, is a bit confusing. The Dead Sea Scroll for Habakkuk substitutes “wealth”, which is quite different. This leads to the multitude of translation possibilities on view here, of which the one in my ESV is among the least helpful. Some of the most understandable major translations follow:

NIV: “Wine betrays him; he is arrogant and never at rest.”

NLT: “Wealth is treacherous, and the arrogant are never at rest.”

KJV: “Because he transgresseth by wine, he is a proud man, neither keepeth at home.”

NASB: “Wine betrays an arrogant man, so that he does not achieve his objective.”

The most comprehensible translations portray a man or men of expanded appetites and distorted vision, never content with what they possess and always seeking more. The wine problem certainly reminds us of Belshazzar, who literally drank away his final night ruling Babylon.

He Has Never Enough

“Never enough” is a bad place to be. When I was much younger, I collected and traded hockey cards and comic books, usually in the hope of accumulating entire series or lines of my favorites. I quickly learned such efforts are futile. When manufacturers discovered there was financial interest in their products, they responded by cranking out multiple alternate versions of everything collectors were seeking, making sure the quest to “catch ’em all” either ended in disappointment or bankruptcy.

The collection of nations is orders of magnitude more ambitious, and that’s what Babylon was about: accumulating endless wealth, slaves and power. Of course, we know that is a doomed ambition. Empires expand until somebody more powerful comes along and puts an end to them, which always happens. The mindset that thinks the process of accumulation and hoarding can continue forever is as addled and deluded as that of the drunkard.

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