Saturday, May 13, 2023

Mining the Minors: Habakkuk (5)

In scripture, woe-pronouncing should almost be considered its own genre. Take our present chapter, for example. From verse 6 on, Habakkuk 2 is nothing but a series of woes.

The first woe on record in scripture is a single curse against the nation of Moab in a ballad preserved in Numbers 21. Isaiah tops that, pronouncing six woes against the inhabitants of Judah and numerous others in the scope of his many-chaptered prophecy. Ezekiel has a pair of woes in chapter 13 and another pair in chapter 24. Hosea and Amos sprinkle them throughout, and Zephaniah has a trio. Luke gets an honorable mention for recording 15 different woes the Lord pronounced on various parties. Revelation has three, or maybe four, depending on how you read it. But Matthew 23 is the all-time single-chapter woe champ, in which the Lord pronounces seven on the Pharisees.

I would not have wanted to be those guys.

In between these exemplars, Habakkuk pronounced five woes on Babylon. These were not inconsequential, and they were probably very comforting to a patriotic prophet looking for answers to tough questions.

Habakkuk 2:6-8 — The First Woe

“Shall not all these take up their taunt against him, with scoffing and riddles for him, and say,

‘Woe to him who heaps up what is not his own — for how long? — and loads himself with pledges!’ Will not your debtors suddenly arise, and those awake who will make you tremble? Then you will be spoil for them. Because you have plundered many nations, all the remnant of the peoples shall plunder you, for the blood of man and violence to the earth, to cities and all who dwell in them.”

The “him” in verse 6 is probably Nebuchadnezzar, who conquered Judah and took its people captive. If we read Daniel, the man seems preoccupied with the preservation of his multi-ethnic empire, to the point where God sent him dreams about it. His curiosity drove him to threaten the lives of all his advisors in an effort to interpret them. This was a man who cared deeply about the legacy he left behind and how he would be perceived by history.

Unfortunately, Nebuchadnezzar’s methods left something to be desired. He wasn’t the first empire builder to use them, but he was the first to take captive the apple of God’s eye. In doing so, he stacked the ledger in favor of the peoples he had conquered in order to build Babylon’s reputation and immense acquired wealth. He loaded himself with pledges. One day the people of the nations with their names on those IOUs were going to show up to collect.

It’s a basic biblical principle that blood shed demands an accounting, and Nebuchadnezzar and those who succeeded him in the brief revival of the (Neo-)Babylonian Empire had a great deal of shed blood to account for.

Habakkuk 2:9-11 — The Second Woe

“Woe to him who gets evil gain for his house, to set his nest on high, to be safe from the reach of harm! You have devised shame for your house by cutting off many peoples; you have forfeited your life. For the stone will cry out from the wall, and the beam from the woodwork respond.”

Those who injure others may do so from the most pristine of motives. What’s wrong with wanting to be “safe from the reach of harm”? Absolutely nothing. Jabez begged God to keep him from harm, and “God granted what he asked.” The problem was not with Babylon’s motive or its desire for security, but with the method it chose to keep itself from the reach of harm. The kings of Babylon went after “evil gain”. They cut off other nations in order to prosper. The fate of Babylon is proof the end never justifies the means. Leftists take note.

There is nothing wrong with caring about your household or your kindred, or wanting the very best for them. Just be careful how you pursue those goals. What goes around comes around. God says so. Those who heap up riches at the expense of others will find those riches testify against them in the judgment. Just like the stone and the wooden beams in Habakkuk’s prophecy, they will cry out against the profiteers.

Habakkuk 2:12-14 — The Third Woe

“Woe to him who builds a town with blood and founds a city on iniquity! Behold, is it not from the Lord of hosts that peoples labor merely for fire, and nations weary themselves for nothing? For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.”

The first four woes are all related. Each has to do with some aspect of Babylon’s treatment of other nations. This one has to do with building towns and cities on wealth taken by force.

Urbanization in those days meant stone walls to keep enemies out. Walls and riches insulate a man or a nation from having to think about God, and from perceiving the truth. Meanwhile, the vast majority of the world labors merely for fire — for the ability to sit down at end of day and eat a cooked meal. It is not without good reason Paul tells Timothy to be content with “food and clothing”, or that the Lord told the rich young ruler to sell all his possessions, give to the poor and “Come, follow me.” A man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions. This was a lesson Babylon needed to learn. The nations who seek after power and wealth weary themselves for nothing. The accumulation of possessions adds nothing to a man’s spirit, nor does it address the bottomless human need for living water.

One day the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. If only man would be content with that. It is all that really matters.

Habakkuk 2:15-17 — The Fourth Woe

“Woe to him who makes his neighbors drink — you pour out your wrath and make them drunk, in order to gaze at their nakedness! You will have your fill of shame instead of glory. Drink, yourself, and show your uncircumcision! The cup in the Lord’s right hand will come around to you, and utter shame will come upon your glory! The violence done to Lebanon will overwhelm you, as will the destruction of the beasts that terrified them, for the blood of man and violence to the earth, to cities and all who dwell in them.”

Not only did Babylon conquer, they took delight in humiliating those they conquered. When they finally took Jerusalem, the Chaldeans slaughtered the sons of King Zedekiah in front of him, then gouged out his eyes so the death of his children would be the last thing he ever saw. That’s mean-spirited, no? Then they burned the house of the Lord and every great house in Jerusalem. They carried away the treasures of Solomon’s temple and broke down Jerusalem’s walls. What was the aim of all that? Ritual humiliation. The equivalent of displaying the nakedness of their enemies. There’s no reason to suppose the Chaldeans were any kinder to the other nations they conquered.

God says this will all come back to haunt them. Habakkuk surely appreciated the thought.

Habakkuk 2:18-20 — The Fifth Woe

“What profit is an idol when its maker has shaped it, a metal image, a teacher of lies? For its maker trusts in his own creation when he makes speechless idols! Woe to him who says to a wooden thing, ‘Awake’; to a silent stone, ‘Arise’! Can this teach? Behold, it is overlaid with gold and silver, and there is no breath at all in it. But the Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him.”

The first four woes had to do with Babylon’s devouring, conquering spirit that devastated the world of its day. The final woe may seem slightly out of place after all that, but Babylon was also notorious for its idolatry, and God does not leave that feature of their civilization off the list of Babylon’s sins. The futility of idol worship is stressed here: idols cannot speak, they cannot instruct, cannot teach. God can. There is no breath in idols. God breathed life into the human race. It is not just that the God of Israel will win when he competes with Babylon’s gods, it is that he is on another level altogether.

The book of Daniel records Nebuchadnezzar’s conversion to the God of Israel. If he did not become a believer, at least he was the most chastened monarch since Pharoah. These are his words:

“How great are his signs, how mighty his wonders! His kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and his dominion endures from generation to generation … all the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, and he does according to his will among the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth; and none can stay his hand or say to him, ‘What have you done?’ ”

That’s a powerful personal testimony. God does according to his will. No idol or false god can say that.

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