Guest Post by Norman L. Bales
Today’s Prayer Text is Habakkuk 3.
As the Book of Habakkuk opens, the prophet is struggling with God’s passiveness. He believes God to be a God of justice. He’s convinced that God will eventually right all wrongs, but why does he wait?
O Lord, how long shall I cry for help,
and you will not listen? – Habakkuk 1:2 – NRSV
Habakkuk lived in tough times. Kyle M. Yates described it this way.
“The prophet had witnessed the reformation under the dynamic leadership of Josiah, the last good king of Judah. He watched the fading glow of the setting son of Assyria. A great world kingdom was dying before his eyes. Egypt and Babylon were fighting to take the place of the departing lord. In a vain attempt to frustrate the plans of Necho of Egypt Josiah was killed at Megiddo.” – Kyle M. Yates. Preaching for the Prophets. Nashville: Broadman, 1942. p. 150.
Even as Habakkuk complained, Yahweh was already at work in the process of bringing about punitive justice.
For I am rousing the Chaldeans,
that fierce and impetuous nation,
who march through the breadth of the earth
to seize dwellings not their own. – Habakkuk 1:6 – NRSV
The prophet couldn’t believe his answer from God. As a matter of fact, he dared to argue with God.
Habakkuk’s Argument With God’s Concept of Justice
Your eyes are too pure to behold evil,
and you cannot look on wrongdoing; – (Habakkuk 1:13 – NRSV).
In Habakkuk 2, the prophet stations himself at the “rampart” of his “watchpost” (NRSV terminology) and waits for God to answer his protest. God answers in a vision, although the prophet may not have liked the answer. When we grow impatient because it appears that God is passive, we may later discover that we dislike God’s involvement more than we did his silence. However Habakkuk may have felt about it, he heard a clear message from God, not some kind of cryptic coded message that had to be deciphered.
While God will indeed use the Chaldeans to punish his chosen people, they will not ultimately get away with it. Here’s the crux of the message to the Babylonians.
Because you have plundered many nations,
all that survive of the peoples shall plunder you— Habakkuk 2:8 – NRSV
While many unjust things are done every day in our world, the arrogance, and cruelty of the ungodly will not ultimately prevail. In his Retribution, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow eloquently described God’s ultimate response to injustice this way.
Though the mills of God grind slowly,
Yet they grind exceedingly small:
Though with patience He stands waiting,
With exactness grinds He all.
Habakkuk’s Prayer – A Desperate Attempt to Comprehend God’s Justice
Finally we come to the prayer of Habakkuk in which the author wrestles with God trying desperately to understand what God is doing, and making a valiant attempt to understand that particular moment in history the way God does.
On the one hand he wants justice, and he wants it in his “own time.” He’s willing to wait, but he really doesn’t want God to settle the score after he’s dead. He asks, in wrath may you remember mercy. – Habakkuk 3:2 – NRSV. I don’t think he’s requesting that God act mercifully toward the Chaldeans. Maybe he’s not even thinking about God’s chosen nation, the Hebrews. He may be asking God to be merciful toward him. It’s good to remember that mercy occurs when God elects not to give us the punishment we deserve. When it gets personal, then we move closer toward understanding justice from God’s perspective.
Habakkuk has learned his history lessons well, and reminds God of what he has done in the past. I find it strange that in our prayers we sometime think we have to jog God’s memory. I suppose this is probably included more for the benefit of those who would read Habakkuk’s prayer, rather than any attempt to “remind” God of the things he has done.
At the conclusion of his “history lesson,” the prophet drifts into a depressed frame of mind.
I hear, and I tremble within;
my lips quiver at the sound.
Rottenness enters into my bones,
and my steps tremble beneath me.
I wait quietly for the day of calamity
to come upon the people who attack us. – Habakkuk 3:16 NRSV
Two things grab my attention at this point in the prayer. (1) The prophet’s depression descends almost to the point of self-loathing – “Rottenness enters into my bones.” (2) He never moves away from thinking that justice means retribution. “I wait quietly for the day of calamity to come upon the people who attack” us.
I’m convinced the “get-even-with-my-enemy” mentality is still with us. We are convinced that there is no justice in the world unless the person or persons who caused us grief are dealt with in the severest terms. We’ve got to make them pay. It never seems to occur to us that The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance. – 1 Peter 3:9 NRSV. Think of the worst villain that you can imagine. Isn’t it somewhat difficult to accept the fact that the word “all” in this text includes that person? Most of us still have the problem of thinking “justice” means retribution. Of course we don’t think that way with regard to ourselves. Neither did Habakkuk.
In Scot McKnight’s book The Jesus Creed, we are forced to reconsider this one sided view of justice.
“It seems to be little more than recrimination, retribution, and punishment. Any look at the Bible reveals to you that kingdom justice concerns restoring humans to both God and others” (Scot McKnight. The Jesus Creed: Loving God; Loving Others. Brewster, Massachusetts: Paraclete Press. 2004. p. 145).
The prayer ends with an affirmation of trust and the hopeful belief that God will provide relief from his pain.
God, the Lord, is my strength;
he makes my feet like the feet of a deer,
and makes me tread upon the heights. – Habakkuk 3:19
My Personal Prayer for Justice
Father, you are the same God that Habakkuk prayed to. I’ll have to confess that sometimes I struggle with the same set of issues that caused him so much grief. Lord, help me to learn to leave things in your hand. Help me to learn more about how you temper justice with mercy, and help me to see those people, who I regard as evil, as you do. Grant that things make take place in their lives that will cause them to seek you in repentance. In Jesus Name, Amen.
Norman and Ann Bales live in Iowa. They have served churches for many years as Norman has preached and Ann has helped teach. I first became acquainted with Norman and Ann through their All About Families ministry. They moved away from North Louisiana about the time I moved here. Though they both suffer from health issues they maintain a beautiful Christlike spirit. You can read Norman’s writings on his blog HERE. Keep up with him on Facebook HERE. You can write to him and ask to be added to his Sunday Night Update email list where you might learn about folks in Clyde, Texas or intensive bragging on grandchildren.