Saturday, May 27, 2023

Mining the Minors: Habakkuk (8)

During his incarnation, the Lord Jesus frequently and deliberately neglected to answer questions he was asked, and just as frequently answered questions he was not asked. After all, if you’re not asking the right question, what use is getting your answer?

This was Habakkuk’s experience with God. He asks the Lord, “Why do you remain silent when the wicked swallows up the man more righteous than he?” Did he ever get a direct answer? Not in so many words. Not even a “Because I said so.”

What he got was the assurance that God would judge both Judah and Babylon in his own good time, and an apocalyptic vision of YHWH in his glorious wrath against the nations that shook him to the core. It was not the answer Habakkuk was looking for, but who are we to tell God how he should respond to our petulant, ill-formed and immature queries?

And you know what? It did the trick.

Habakkuk 3:16 — Waiting for the Day

“I hear, and my body trembles; my lips quiver at the sound; rottenness enters into my bones; my legs tremble beneath me. Yet I will quietly wait for the day of trouble to come upon people who invade us.”

My Body Trembles

Nobody has ever seen a true vision of God and remained unmoved. Ezekiel saw the Lord at three removes and fell on his face. Isaiah cried, “Woe is me, for I am lost.” His sense of unfitness for God’s presence nearly undid him. Job said, “I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.” Daniel saw one “like a Son of Man” and became alarmed and anxious. John, beloved of the Lord in life, fell at the feet of the glorified Christ as though dead.

Habakkuk stayed upright, but just barely. He shook uncontrollably. His bones felt insufficiently sturdy to support his body. The Hebrew for “rottenness” describes a condition akin to a garment eaten away by moths. Such is the effect of the glory of God on fallen human beings. But in the midst of all these overwhelming physical sensations, the prophet expresses confidence in the Lord: “I will quietly wait,” he affirms. He has his answer: Babylon will get its just reward for its sins. God is not indiscriminate or random in dispensing justice.

Waiting Patiently

Waiting for the Lord to act is what we might call a dominant sub-theme of the Old Testament. It’s certainly the occupation of the psalmists. That said, there is a fair bit of ambiguity in the Hebrew underlying this verse about the attitude Habakkuk is describing. Translators are all over the map with it. Many modern Bibles have variations of “I will wait quietly” or “patiently”. That is a resolution or an aspiration: “I have purposed to behave in a particular way.” Others have some variation of “Now I must quietly wait …”, which is more an expression of stoicism than faith: “This is a thing to be endured, but I must get through it.” The King James and NKJV have an interesting formulation that goes something like “I trembled in myself that I might rest in the day of trouble.” That one almost sounds as if, having experienced visions of the wrath of God, Habakkuk is hoping not to be there to see it. The Aramaic Bible in Plain English is even further out there, saying, “He searched me and showed me the day of trouble.”

Given this profusion of translation options, perhaps the one thing we can say decisively is that Habakkuk now recognized the fall of Babylon was a done deal. He was in no doubt God would fulfill his promise to punish Judah’s oppressor, even though he had shown his willingness to use wicked Babylon as an instrument of much-needed discipline on his own people.

There is probably a cautionary moment in there for those of us who have the upper hand in life: deal gently with those under our care. God will bring every work into judgment one day, including every one of our own.

Habakkuk 3:17-19 — And Again I Say …

“Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will take joy in the God of my salvation. God, the Lord, is my strength; he makes my feet like the deer’s; he makes me tread on my high places.

To the choirmaster: with stringed instruments.”

Things Not Seen

“Faith,” says the writer to the Hebrews, “is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” This is precisely what Habakkuk is expressing. He no longer seeks proof that God will do as he has said or an explanation of the thinking behind YHWH’s choices with respect to his nation. It is enough that he has the Lord’s promise. Once Judah has endured its period of chastening, the evidence of the Lord’s blessing will appear in due season.

In the meantime, Habakkuk is describing a sad scene in the land of promise: no figs, no grapes, no olives, a flock wandering in the wild and no herd to speak of. Interestingly, all the images of plant life referenced in this verse are used elsewhere in scripture as pictures of the role national Israel was intended to play in the plans and purposes of God: the fig tree (fruitbearing), the vine (joy), the olive tree (blessing and testimony). So there may be something buried in the prophet’s choice of botanical references that is deeper than I can dredge out currently.

But in the middle of all this missing evidence that God is still working, Habakkuk determines to “rejoice in the Lord” and “take joy in the God of my salvation”. YHWH’s people have not been abandoned. They are not the subjects of wrath, as Babylon will be in a day to come. Rather, they are children under the discipline of a loving Father.

Feet Like a Deer’s

God made Habakkuk’s feet like those of a deer. The prophet did not make this image up on the spot. Rather, he nicked it from David, who was at the time writing about his deliverance from his enemies, especially Saul. David used that deer simile repeatedly. Now, there are deer that live in Israel, but the word used here is probably “hind”, which is closer to an ibex. If you want to get an idea of the surefootedness of this particular beastie, check out World Net Daily’s footage here. These are animals that look like a cross between deer and goat, and which climb into the branches of trees to feed. They are extraordinarily dextrous.

The truth of God can make even a man who doubts his goodness feel just that confident.

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