“I am going to do something in your days that you would not believe even if you were told. I am raising up the Babylonians” Hab. 1:5-6
“Does he who disciplines nations not punish?” Ps 94:10
Habakkuk, the prophet, was a godly man who had a deep hatred for violence and injustice (Hab. 1:1-3). But unhappily, he saw both violence and injustice all round him in his own nation of Judah. Distressed he was driven to cry out to God for help for his nation (intercession is the primary function of the prophet!). He wanted to see wickedness, law breaking and strife removed. He understood the fact that God hated evil and would judge it, and he was longing that the evil-doers in the nation might be judged and removed so that life might be peaceful and godly. That’s what he was praying. There are many such people in our own nation, for whom we should be profoundly grateful.
However, God did not answer in the way he wanted. His prayers were heard, of course, and God spoke to him because he was praying. But what Habakkuk heard was something that he found incredibly difficult to accept or understand. Indeed God began to speak to him by telling him to “watch the nations” and saying, “I am going to do something in your days that you would not believe, even if it were told you”. God went on to reveal to Habakkuk that He was raising up the terrifying nation of Babylon (1:5ff). Furthermore, though Habakkuk already knew what the Babylonians were like, God actually spelt out just what a terrifying power they were; “They are a feared and dreaded people ….. They all come intent on violence …. They mock kings and scoff at rulers … They laugh at all fortified cities …. Guilty people whose own strength is their God”. It is not clear whether God himself actually said Babylon was going to be a judgement on Judah, but, in a sense He did not need to. Habakkuk himself instantly recognised that the intention was that Babylon would be an instrument of judgement and purging, and, worse, that Judah would be in the line of fire; he said to God, “You, LORD, Have appointed them to execute judgement; you, my Rock, have ordained them to punish”.
Even as he spoke it out, however, Habakkuk immediately protested to God at such a thought; how could it possibly be right that such a nation as Judah should be so afflicted? Even if it was full of faults it was nothing as remotely as evil and violent as Babylon. (vv12-13). If God had said he was going to use Babylon against nations other than Judah probably Habakkuk might have grimly accepted God’s word. But Judah was a different matter!
There are really three or four issues raised by this prophetic conversation. The first is fairly simple, but not always appreciated in modern thinking, even in modern Christian biblical thinking, and that is that God punishes nations. He watches them, he blesses and protects them, but he also judges and punishes them in disciplinary fashion. The latter fact is very adeptly summarised by the psalmist, “Does he who disciplines nations not punish?” (Ps 94:10). God is deeply interested in what nations, and their leaders, do, and he responds to what he sees. Habakkuk had no problem with understanding this. For many of us, however, so saturated in the modern liberal historical rationality, this sort of thinking can be quite a leap. But there can be no proper estimate of the direction of world affairs without this essential biblical perspective. The scripture that stands out so pertinently in this respect and demands our attention is “Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a reproach to any people”.
The second issue raised by Habakkuk relates to the severity of the judgement that God meats out to the nations. Habakkuk found this a problem. He was very much aware of the nature of the Babylonian “war machine”, its uncompromising cruelty towards the people it attacked, its complete annihilation of cities, its devastation of the countryside, and its ruthless deportations. If this were loosed on Judah nothing would be left. How could God do such a thing? War of this kind was probably the worst kind of judgement. Habakkuk could not believe God could do such a thing or be responsible for it. The natural horror of such a happening seemed to blind him to the fact that Judah’s sister nation, Israel, had been overwhelmed by an equally cruel Assyria in precisely this manner a few decades previously and it still lay for the most part devastated and deserted. Perhaps Habakkuk had accepted that conquest as a judgement because he had never realised the sheer horror of the event, nor did it directly affect him. But now he did realise how horrific was the idea of Babylonians coming to Judah. The sheer thought of it was more than he could handle. That is precisely the problem that we ourselves find so difficult when we come to contemplate the judgements of God. How can God allow such appalling distress and suffering? At such times we need to recollect that God is always “slow to judge” and reluctant to punish, that he speaks judgement through tears because he knows the pain it will bring; and even more that in judgement he frequently offers restoration. But the main lesson needs to be learned; God’s judgements can be very severe indeed. And from a disciplinary point of view they are necessary to remove the rot, in this case the idolatry of Judah. The history of every nation bears very adequate testimony to such severity of judgement. God is very severe on unrighteousness, and the discipline required needs to be very hard. It is probably one of the most difficult lessons we have to learn, and we wrestle to receive it. Such was the experience later of Jeremiah when he sat among the ruins of Jerusalem after the Babylonians had actually laid it and its people waste.
The third issue (and the most difficult for Habakkuk) is that an outright evil nation (Babylon) could become the scourge of a nation (Judah) that was much less evil. God gave Habakkuk some re-assurance on this matter by showing him that Babylon would in its turn be judged and that unlike Judah would never be restored. Habakkuk was able to hang on to the eventual restoration of his nation. The total destruction of nations is not frequent but neither is it unknown biblically. It has happened, but for the greater part the judgements on nations for all their severity remain disciplinary.
To say that Habakkuk “hung on to the restoration of Judah” is actually to belittle his eventual position after all his wrestling. At the very end of his prophetic writing he accepts the judgements and God’s purposes, and says that, whatever devastations and shortages may come with the judgements, “I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my saviour” (3:17-19). If he did in fact live to see the destruction of Jerusalem no doubt that resolution would have been severely tested, but looking at the dark future before his own generation he was determined to live in the joy and strength of his God. There can be no better or more positive determination than that, and no more well-founded and realistic determination than that. “God is our refuge and strength”. When we look round the world and the nations at the present time we can make no greater resolution than Habakkuk’s.