Life Isn't Fair
A Study in the Minor Propehts: Habakkuk
August 1, 2002 - This article continues our Bible study on the Minor Prophets. Top Bible scholars explain the major themes of these books—and show how the prophets’ messages affect us today.
by David M. Howard Jr.
How do you feel when you see people getting away with things that they shouldn’t? Do you feel that at times life just isn’t fair?
When my brother Steve and I were children, we were positive that we were always getting the raw end of the deal in our family. For example, Steve and I used to keep track of how many more times our sister, Beth, got to sit in the front seat of the car than we did. And in school teachers always seemed to favor other kids who we thought were much less deserving than we were.
Such impressions are not necessarily limited to childhood. In our workplace it seems that people who cheat, lie and backstab often make it up the organizational ladder faster than those who are honest and straightforward.
Scenarios like these can be troubling, and they troubled the Prophet Habakkuk too. He didn’t like to see people getting away with things that they shouldn’t be doing, and he confronted God about it. Habakkuk’s questions were on a much grander scale than the questions we ask, for Habakkuk was troubled not that he personally was getting a raw deal but that justice in general was being trampled and evil was running rampant.
Habakkuk is a personal book. The prophet begins with an impassioned plea to God—"How long?"(1)—because God seems to be silent and inactive in the face of horrible violence and injustice. To make matters worse, God makes Habakkuk watch unspeakable things. The evil that Habakkuk contemplates is found within the supposedly godly society(2) in which he lives—he does not have to look far to see it: "Destruction and violence are before me."(3)
So the book of Habakkuk poses some difficult questions and paints a bleak picture at the outset.(4) The situation is so desperate that we may not want to keep reading. Surely the problems are too great and God will not have any solutions, we might think. Let’s skip this part of the Bible and get back to those triumphal passages that tell of God’s glorious victories and the wonderful life that believers will have. Habakkuk’s questions are too tough.
But God does have answers. He informs the prophet that He will indeed punish evil. God is just, and He will restore justice as Habakkuk had wanted.
God tells Habakkuk to watch and be utterly amazed, because He will do something astonishing.(5) What God does will be so astounding that the people won’t believe it.
What news to Habakkuk! Here comes God’s answer to the problem of evil that so often seems to triumph over good.
But the answer—while it truly is an astounding one—slowly is revealed to be a profoundly troubling one. The way that God intends to punish His people for their sins is to use the mighty and brutal Chaldeans (or Babylonians) to do it.(6) The text spares no sordid details in telling us how terrible these people are: They are fierce and impetuous; they sweep across the earth and confiscate property not their own(7); they are dreaded and feared and know no authority but their own(8); their military is terrible and swift(9); they are violent, quick and take everyone in their path prisoners(10); they make a mockery of kings and the fortifications that are supposed to protect them(11); and they sweep through the land and pass on to the next.(12) The description is much like Hitler’s Blitzkrieg in World War II, a deadly combination of surprise, speed and terror.
Unfortunately, this terrifying picture was not likely to bring much comfort to Habakkuk. The cruel Chaldeans were much worse than anything Habakkuk had observed in his own land. They certainly didn’t have the relationship with God that the people in Judah did, and so God’s solution seems terribly unfair. Habakkuk now has a problem that is much more serious than the one he started with.
So, Habakkuk asks a second question, which proceeds from the first. If God will punish the sins of Judah that Habakkuk first asked about, why will He use a nation more corrupt even than Judah?(13)
Just as God had a response to Habakkuk’s first question, so He does for his second question. This time it is not startling or terrifying. It’s actually comforting. It’s also such an important response that Habakkuk is to write it down, since its significance will not be fully realized until the appointed time.(14)
The essence of God’s response is that the Chaldeans will reap what they sow, that they too will be punished, and that the righteous will live by their faith.(15) God puts it all into perspective, affirming that His time is not human time. He says, "Though it linger, wait for it; it will certainly come and will not delay."(16) God ends His response with a comforting word for Habakkuk, stating that He is in control of all things: "The Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth be silent before him."(17)
Habakkuk did remain silent and wait, and he had a glorious vision of God: in that vision we find the key to the book of Habakkuk. The vision is told in a prayer that reads like a psalm.(18)
In this vision Habakkuk sees God Himself. The language describes God’s awesome glory and radiance as He comes forth to destroy His enemies.(19) This vision is even more awesome than the picture that Habakkuk had of the Chaldeans. Listen to some of the language: "You split the earth with rivers; the mountains saw you and writhed."(20) "Sun and moon stood still in the heavens at the glint of your flying arrows, at the lightning of your flashing spear."(21)
Think about this: God split the earth with rivers, and the sun and moon were awed by God’s light—much more impressive than anything the Chaldeans or any army could achieve. God’s presence guarantees the salvation of His people. What comforting words!
After what Habakkuk learned in his vision,(23) he now arrives at a new and profoundly different perspective on the world. His attitude is now one of confident waiting on God. Habakkuk hears and waits patiently now for the promised day of trouble to come upon the oppressor. Yet, he will joyfully exult in what he knows God will do. Even if he lives through bad times, he still will worship God, and he recognizes that God is indeed his strength.(24)
The book ends, then, with Habakkuk—who had been full of questions early on—rejoicing in the Lord God and affirming Him. However, this affirmation is not a blind one: it comes after a life-changing encounter with God. Habakkuk has "seen" God in his vision, and it has changed his perspective.
So, what are we to do when life seems unfair at every turn? When cheaters, liars and backstabbers get ahead? Habakkuk’s message is that evil will get its due—in the proper time. Perhaps God’s timing is not our timing, but He will see that justice ultimately is done. In the meantime, our job is to be concerned with our own encounter with God. Have we experienced God in a life-changing manner as Habakkuk did? If not, God wants to show Himself to us in this way. He will, if we look to Him in faith.