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A Prayer for Justice
Spring Quarter: Justice and The Prophets
Unit 1: God Requires Justice
Sunday school lesson for the week of March 8, 2020
By Dr. Hal Brady
Lesson Scriptures: Habakkuk 1:1-4, 12-14
Key Verses: Habakkuk 1:13b
- Summarize Habakkuk’s two complaints.
- Explain the specific issue of justice with which Habakkuk was wrestling.
- Watch and pray to see how God is working in different situations this week.
Years ago, the noted jazz musician Louis Armstrong popularized a song entitled “What a Wonderful World.” With his trademark raspy voice, Armstrong sang of the beauty of creation. Most would agree with Mr. Armstrong’s sentiments – there is much about this world that makes it wonderful indeed. Here, of course, I’m speaking of our family, friends, purpose, accomplishments, various sights, and sounds that all add so much to our lives on a daily basis.
At the same time, there is also much in this world that causes us great sorrow and pain. Some things are just not wonderful at all. However, as Christians and readers of God’s Word, we recognize all this heartache as the result of the curse brought about by humanity’s sin. But knowing that still does not ease the hurt we feel. It can even cause us to question God and his purpose regarding the difficult circumstances we or those we love endure. Our faith can be in retreat.
Consequently, in Habakkuk we see the prophet looking to God for an answer to the anguished question of how long God’s people must suffer violence.
You will remember that Habakkuk is another of the 12 books at the end of our Old Testament which we call the Minor Prophets. Minor designates only the length of the book, not its importance. Unlike the prophet Amos, Habakkuk mentions no kings of either Israel or Judah in his book. A benefit of this decision is to make the book more universal. Rather than being obviously tied to a particular situation concerning this or that king, the book can be more generally applied to any similar situation.
Perhaps the best way to place the book historically is to read Habakkuk 1:6. There we read of God’s promises to raise up Babylon to inflict judgment on the wayward nation of Judah (the southern kingdom). The Babylonians are described as cruel and vicious people who allow nothing to stand in their way as they swallow up peoples and territories (this is described in Habakkuk 1:6-11 though it is not included in our text for this lesson today). Since the northern kingdom of Israel had been conquered by Assyria in 722 BC, Habakkuk’s complaint and God’s response must concern the southern kingdom of Judah.
We are told that the Babylonians had replaced the Assyrians in the stage of world history by first gaining independence from the Assyrians in 626 BC and then eventually dismantling Assyria’s remaining control in a series of battles from 615 to 612 BC. Thus, Habakkuk’s prophecy most likely is dated within the latter years of the seventh century BC as the Babylonians growing dominance of the ancient near East becomes clear.
Note that this puts Habakkuk’s ministry in the same time frame as Jeremiah’s. Both prophets interpreted the Babylonian’s rising power as ordained by God, to be used to judge Judah for its wickedness (compare Jeremiah 22:25).
“The oracle that Habakkuk the prophet received,” verse 1. Oracle is defined as an introductory formula to a divinely inspired message. Habakkuk’s messages (complaints) may be seen as burdensome – weighing heavily on the prophet’s mind. He must speak them in order to relieve himself of the burden he feels.
The Hebrew word behind the translation “received,” also translated “saw,” is frequently used to describe the prophetic experience (Isaiah 1:1; Amos 1:1, etc.). The word can indicate that visions are seen or imply that a message is received from the Lord. It identifies the prophet as a person of unique spiritual vision or insight; he sees with vision that is empowered by the direction of the Holy Spirit (compare 2 Peter 1:20, 21).
In Habakkuk, as I mentioned earlier, we see the prophet looking to God for an answer to the anguished question of how long God’s people must suffer violence. Consequently (in verse 2), Habakkuk wastes no time in getting to the heart of his concern or complaint. Here is a prophet who is deeply troubled and believes that God has ignored his concerns. The phrase “how long ... must I call for help” indicates that Habakkuk has voiced these concerns to the Lord repeatedly (compare Psalm 6:3; 13:1,2).
Important to note! The prophet fears that the only explanation for God’s apparent lack of concern is that he is choosing “not to listen” to Habakkuk.
Verse 2b adds, “or cry out to you, Violence! but you do not save?” Now, Habakkuk rightly assumes that the just and righteous God cares deeply when “violence” goes unchecked (read Genesis 6:1-13). In addition, God is known as a God who will “save” his people when they call on him (2 Chronicles 20:9).
As we continue reading verses 3 and 4, we see big time the world’s iniquity. Habakkuk asks, “Why do you make me look at injustice? Why do you tolerate wrongdoing?”
So as Habakkuk looks around he sees nothing but chaos everywhere. Chaos stands in opposition to the order that God created in the world (see Genesis1,2; John I: 1-5). For this reason, the existence of chaos, especially in the land God promised his people, is deeply problematic for Habakkuk.
One other thing, like Job before him, Habakukk asks questions of the Lord that presupposes God’s character (Habakkuk 1:13).
Important to note! Habakkuk’s questions are not primarily about why he sees “injustice” and his reasons to be grieved, though it may seem to be his focus. As we are told, the answer to that question is quite simple: people are sinful, and so Habakkuk sees sin around him. The sub-text of this question, rather, is why the Lord has not put an end to these things.
Therefore, the questions are based on the assumption that God is holy and good. And given this fact, it makes no sense to Habakkuk that God is not acting to right the horrible wrongs that the prophet witnesses.
With destruction, violence, strife and conflict before him, Habakkuk longs for the order that the Creator has graced upon the world. However, in the environment Habakkuk describes, there is clearly no respect whatsoever for authority of “law.” We are told that the law is “paralyzed.” Elsewhere the Hebrew word for “paralyzed” means “being made feeble,” and that is the sense here. So the law is inactive and eventually lifeless. And by making this point, Habakkuk hopes to see God moved to action.
Next we see that conditions are so terrible that “justice never prevails,” “the wicked hem in the righteous so that “justice is perverted.”
Truth is, “perverted” justice becomes the norm under such conditions as these. And this is a violation of what God intends for his covenant people to maintain in their courts (Deuteronomy 16:18-20; compare Isaiah 5:20).
In Habakkuk 1:5-11 (not in our text), God responds to Habakkuk’s complaint or concern. God intends to do something that Habakkuk simply cannot believe even if he had known of it in advance (1:5). The Lord informs Habakkuk that he will raise up the violent Babylonians to administer the Lord’s disciplinary measures to his wayward people. Thus, God will respond to the violence in Judah by bringing the violence of the Babylonians against it.
And this brings us to Habakkuk’s second complaint. Verse 12a says, “O Lord, are you not from everlasting? My God, my Holy One, we will not die.”
Habakkuk speaks again, reacting to the Lord’s planned discipline of his people. The prophet focuses on what he knows to be true of the Lord. The phrase “my Holy One” is unique in the Old Testament, occurring only here. Similar phrases emphasize God’s relationship with all Israel, not with one individual (Isaiah 31:1; 37:23). Habakkuk seems to be alone in referring to the Lord as his personal holy God. However, this confidence in his relationship with God probably explains Habakkuk’s frank speech.
Scholars inform us that ancient scribal tradition holds that Ezra changed this verse to read “you will never die.” Originally, it is argued, the text read, “we shall never die.” If the latter reading is taken as original, then there is more at stake than simply acknowledging that God lives forever. It is God’s eternal nature that seems to be the basis of Habakkuk’s assertion that God’s people “will never die.” Because God is “everlasting” and has made everlasting promises, the prophet feels confident that God cannot really intend to destroy his people utterly (compare Psalm 118:17). Yet the situation around Habakkuk suggests that his confidence might be misplaced.
Verse 12b continues, “O Lord, you have appointed them (Babylonians) to execute judgment; O Rock, you have ordained them to punish.” The fact as Habakkuk sees them acknowledges the Babylonians are marked for judgment and punishment, even though they will be the instrument to bring correction to Judah.
Calling the Lord ”my Rock” suggests the security of resting in God’s changeless character. God’s history of interactions with his people has proven his faithfulness and consistency. Therefore, God’s decision to correct his people seems to contradict his character to some degree.
We should note here that Habakkuk has no reservations whatsoever about God’s people deserving to be punished for their numerous transgressions. The way they have broken the Lord’s covenant with them and trampled on his law as already described is unacceptable and cannot be tolerated (Habakkuk 1:2-4). But using the wicked Babylonians to carry out the punishment doesn’t seem fair or just punishment to Habakkuk.
In Verse 13a, Habakkuk’s words point out again his understanding of the holy, righteous character of God. God’s purity in regard to sin does not even allow him “to look on evil,” meaning not that God doesn’t see, but that he doesn’t see without action (for example, Lamentations 3:34-36). So how can God who cannot tolerate the presence of any kind of “wrongdoing” allow the obviously despicable Babylonians to overpower the people of Judah?
True, the people of Judah deserve the Lord’s judgment, but so do the Babylonians. Habakkuk, aware of his own people’s sins, argues that Judah is still “more righteous than” the Babylonians. At least, those in Judah are part of God’s covenant people; the Babylonians are wicked idolaters (people who worship idols). Simply stated, Habakkuk has not hesitated to sound his dismay over the Lord’s inaction toward Judah’s wickedness and now his proposed course of action using Babylon to deal with that wickedness. Yet the Lord seems to remain silent and unmoved by what Habakkuk sees as injustice.
In Verse 14, we see Habakkuk’s bewilderment over God’s dealings with his people. He wonders if the Lord is treating human beings as no more than fish and other creatures that are allowed to be captured and killed at random. Evidently, there is no “ruler” to hold the Babylonians accountable, or at least it seems that way to Habakkuk.
In the concluding verse of the chapter (not in our text), Habakkuk compares the wicked Babylonians to a fisherman who gathers fish in nets and takes great pleasures in doing so. The Babylonians are seen as worshipping their nets; that is, they are congratulating themselves and their ability to overpower whomever they please. They are suited to violence as the fisherman is to fishing.
These observations come from all the resources of this lesson.
- One of the great legacies of the prophet movement, as seen clearly in Habakkuk’s opening critique of Judean society, is its total commitment to social justice.
- Having taken his stand with the victims of injustice, Habakkuk is prepared to defend their cause, even to the point of questioning God on his handling of their situation.
- In identifying the Babylonians, Habakkuk expands the social context of his theological thinking from Judah’s domestic situation to the international scene.
- God is not caught off guard with our questioning or complaints, sometimes he even chooses to engage our questions, though the answers may not be what we hope to hear.
- In all of life’s circumstances, but especially in times of discipline, let us rest in the knowledge that God does not change (James 1:17). He is always working in our world to accomplish his purposes for us and through us.
Resources for this lesson
- In what circumstances should you ask the same kind of “why” question that the prophet asks?
- How can you keep from misinterpreting God’s silence? In other words, how do you know whether He wants you to do something rather than wait on Him or vice versa?
- Have the class discuss the “observations.”
Dr. Hal Brady is a retired pastor who continues to present the Good News of Jesus Christ and offer encouragement in a fresh and vital way though Hal Brady Ministries (halbradyministries.com).
- “2019-2020 Standard Lesson NIV Commentary, Uniform Series, International Bible Lessons for Christan Teaching,” pages 237-244.
- “The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume VII,” pages 628-637.
- “The Abingdon Bible Commentary,” by David G. Downey, J.E. McFadyen, pages 804-806.
- “Old Testaments Prophets for Today” by Carolyn J. Sharp, pages 95-97.