This is part one of a series of meditations on the Book of the Prophet Habakkuk. Habakkuk is one of the shorter books in the Bible and can easily be read in one sitting. I encourage you to read it today or sometime this week. You can do so here. For a very helpful overview of the Book of Habakkuk, check out this video from the Bible Project.
The prophet Habakkuk may not be well known, but he ought to become so, because his message, I believe, speaks directly to our present situation during this pandemic.
The meaning of his name is uncertain, but it is quite possibly related to the Hebrew word חבק ‘embraced;’ thus his name may mean ‘Embraced by God.’ In a previous post, my sermon for Mothering Sunday, I spoke of how God embraces us now as a mother does her children (Isa. 66:12-13). Habakkuk shows us more about the security of this divine embrace in an otherwise insecure time.
The Book of Habakkuk is a back-and-forth conversation between the prophet and God, structured around the prophet’s questions and complaints. Habakkuk wanted to know, just as we do, what God is doing and why. We are to imagine Habakkuk - and ourselves - raising these questions and voicing these complaints while being lovingly embraced by God, even if we cannot always sense this embrace.
And so Habakkuk asks: O LORD, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not hear? (1:2). I can think of no better expression for our current anxiety and frustration. How long will this pandemic last? Why are so many suffering from sickness or loss of employment? O LORD, how long?
God responds by saying: “Look among the nations, and see; wonder and be astounded. For I am doing a work in your days that you would not believe if told (1:5). In Habakkuk’s days, the LORD’s hard-to-believe action amidst the apparent chaos was to raise up the fierce Babylonians to conquer His people and take them into exile as judgment for their idolatry and injustice.
What might God be doing in our days, in the time of this pandemic? As I said in a previous post, any attempt to answer this question can only be incomplete and must be put forward in a spirit of humility. For we know in part and we prophesy in part (1 Cor. 13:9). I might suggest for consideration that our comfortable modern assumption that God’s dealings with the world are only benign is being challenged. What is certainly being upended is our human illusion of absolute control - and this should drive us back into God's embrace with a renewed trust and dependence.
Although we, like Habakkuk, may not fully understand God’s ways, in the course of the prophet’s back-and-forth dialogue with the LORD, he learns to rely completely on the wisdom and justice of God to fulfill His purposes in ways we could never imagine. God’s ways of preserving and purifying us are mysterious to the believer; and yet the LORD calls His suffering people to show faith that His ultimately good purposes for the world will prevail in the end.
As Bishop Stephen Andrews wrote recently, ‘Christians have always understood that we live in a disordered natural world, a world that mirrors our own resistance to God’s good purposes. And yet, we are confident that these good purposes will ultimately triumph, for we have seen them at work in the raising of Jesus from the dead.’ The righteous shall live by this faith (2:4).
To be sure, this faith is now being tested, but it will thereby be fortified. In the words of Peter, now for a little while you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith – more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire – may be found to result in praise and glory and honour at the revelation of Jesus Christ (1 Pet. 1:6-7).
As we shall see, by the end of this book, Habakkuk is a changed person—he learns to wait and trust in God, who works out all things for His glory. May we be transformed in the same way through this present tribulation as we trust in God’s saving embrace.
Part II of this meditation on Habakkuk will be posted on this blog later this week.
Icon: 18th-century Russian icon of the prophet Habakkuk (Iconostasis of Transfiguration Church, Kizhi monastery, Karelia, Russia).