A bit of Complaining isn't so bad, or a Review of the Book of Habakkuk

How do I say this? I’m new to this. But for years, I’ve liked Prophet Habakkuk, his complaining. I could relate to someone taking issues with God’s silence in the face of personal and public pain. This is a struggle for me, this Christian faith for me, so I had to read it through the eyes of someone who had been there. Someone who had questioned God, just like I do frequently. I can’t say I got all the answers, but I have more clarity than when I started.

For context's sake, I did this between October and December 2020, taking a few verses on some days. This is my reading of the book of the Habakkuk from my faith perspective.

the book of habakkuk

Chapter 1

Verse 1

It says that Habakkuk ‘saw’ the word or the oracle. This connotes the living nature of the word of God. Words ordinarily are heard, not seen. Applying a visual description to the Word of God connotes it is real, tangible, and observable. We are also told that Habakkuk saw it, so the vision of this word is something that is not granted to all men. Only those whom God has granted vision can observe the reality of his Word. It might take it out of context of the entire chapter and book of Habakkuk, but the lesson here in this verse, I believe is that left to our intelligence, we cannot come to a full understanding of the import of God’s word.

We need the help of God himself to open our eyes of understanding so that we can see and gain insight to the reality of his word. That you don’t see it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. It exists, you either have not been granted sight of it, or you have not asked for it. Another portion of the Bible that gives credence to it is where Elisha and his servant where on the field. Elisha was calm because he saw that the army of God was there with them. His servant wasn’t. Until Elisha prayed and the eyes of his servant were opened, did he see what his master had seen all along.

God is always there. That you don’t see him does not mean he’s not there with you.

Verse 2

Fine, God is always there, even though I can't see him, but why does he act so tone-deaf? Why doesn’t he respond when I call? Why abandon me to my fate? For Habakkuk, he saw violence around him. I might not be facing violence in the literal sense of it, but my life is going to shit. I can't go forward, and I can't go back. But the previous verse said that God is always there, then why can't I hear him? Why is he giving me the cold shoulder?

Verse 3

It is within God’s power to ensure that I do not interact with or see ‘evil’, yet he makes me see it. Why I am exposed to so much wickedness? I try to be kind and live my life to the best of godly standards, but the world pays me back with evil, or violence. Yet it lies within God’s power to ensure that this is not the case. Why hasn’t he done anything?

Verse 4

When God is silent on us it's difficult to stand for the truth. When there’s a vacuum of instruction, other voices can fill that void. Hence what is right can be twisted to suit the purpose of whoever does the ‘twisting’. The law is feeble and they do not effect decisions. The law as established by God seems of no effect. He is supposed to be the enforcer, but when he stays silent, with time the law loses its bite, and the sanctions that come with it are not implemented.

So when I study the Bible and see all those parts that talk about hell and punishment for different sins, it seems more like a bark than bite. God has been silent for too long. He’s silent with me, maybe He isn’t with you. But I’m speaking for myself. I don’t see him in my situation. So when you try to point me to this and that in God’s word, I’m sorry, all I see are strong sounding words that don’t really have practical value.

Verse 5

It admonishes us to observe the world. I believe that a small message here is the importance of having a culture of following general knowledge. You might chase heaven, but while you’re on earth, God advises you to follow current affairs. If you cannot do so, you won't grasp the importance of the thing God will do. Only someone with an understanding of history and how the world runs out will know something is out of place when it happens.

God says he will do something that we will not believe when we hear about it? A question I think that is worth asking though really, is what period of history did God plan on doing this wondrous thing? Was it just for the time of Prophet Habakkuk? Was it for a future time? Was it regarding the miracle birth of Jesus Christ? Was it for the modern age? Each age of Christianity can read it and believe that it's for their time. Is that what God wanted us to believe? Did he do something wondrous and unbelievable somewhere in the world in each generation?

I believe the answer is yes. Therefore, the statement in this verse is timeless. It was made regarding the time of Prophet Habakkuk and also every time in which a believer opens the Bible to study.

Verse 6

This verse makes the message from the previous verse more particular by referring to the Babylonians or Chaldeans, depending on the version of the Bible you use. It describes them as ‘fierce, restless, ferocious, bitter, hasty, and impetuous, across several Bible versions. It was said that these Babylonians would move to conquer other parts of the world. There had only been a minor invasion in 605 BC. It wasn’t until 586 BC that the Babylonians moved to completely destroy Judah, the then capital of Jerusalem. What this means is that at the time of writing, they had not done so. And if we go by what verse 5 says, it implies that the idea of the Babylonians moving to conquer others was unbelievable in the time of Habakkuk.

But today, we know Babylonian Empire was one of the largest in the ancient world, predating the Roman Empire. This is another portion of the Bible that shows how God precisely told the future before it even happened. There are things that God has said about the future that are seemingly outrageous, but they will come to pass. This verse is just one precedent to show that God’s word is unfailing.

the book of habakkuk the prophet who saw history the minor prophets
the book of habakkuk the prophet who saw history the minor prophets

Verse 7

I am reading this verse on the same day that the Nigerian President delivered what is probably the haughtiest speech of his Presidency so far, dismissing mass murders and demands of young people which is true to his character. In the Bible, this verse follows up from the previous verse that described the Chaldeans. For today, President Buhari is the Chaldean. Using the words as stated in the Good News Bible, he ‘spreads fear and terror, and in his pride, he is a law to himself’.

Verse 8

This verse goes further to describe the forces of the Chaldeans — horses faster than leopards, fiercer than hungry wolves, swooping down like eagles attacking their prey. When you think about it, all this imagery can perfectly describe the force used by Nigerian security forces to crush peaceful protests against police brutality.

Verse 9–10

The story of the Chaldeans continues here. They conquer as they move. Those who have heard of them are terrified when they hear of their approach. Clearly, they have struck fear in the hearts of men. Those that they have captured are said to be as many as the grains of sand. In the book of Genesis, we are told of God’s promise to Abraham that his descendants would be as many as the grains of sand or stars in the sky. Knowing that we are all descendants of Abraham, by lineage or by union with Christ, we can say that the Chaldeans are in control of all descendants of Abraham.

Thinking in terms of modern society, the only comparable force that can be said to control all peoples of the world would be Satan, who rules the world. We are further told that these Chaldeans have no respect for ‘constituted authority’, to borrow the phrase from a Governor of Oyo State, Nigeria. They treat rulers with contempt, scoff at them, make fun of kings and make them a laughing matter. Coming back to modern society, this points to the gradual erosion of authority in the state.

World over, governments are in a state of decay, some faster than others, and are gradually being shown as incompetent and not worthy of existence. The Chaldeans (or Satan) pile up earth against it to capture it, deride every stronghold, heap dust, and take it. These statements all point to one thing. It is the agenda of Satan to gradually erode trust and functionality of governments until the entire world is in a general state of disarray.

Verse 11–12

Considering the climatic description of the power of the evil Chaldeans as described in previous verses, this verse introduces a sharp anti-climax. Suddenly, we are told that it will sweep their power like the wind. Of all the elements, wind is likely the lightest. The same Chaldeans who we were just told made mockery of kings and princes will then pass away like the wind. They believe in their own strength as their god. This shows that the downfall of the evil rulers will be when they are at their peak, when their power seems absolute and they believe it is infinite, then it will fade away like it never existed, just like the wind.

The next verse tells us that the Chaldeans have power because God gives it to them, using them to punish. They might think their power is theirs, but it comes from God ultimately. God has ordained their actions. Since God is only using them, he can strip them of their power when they have carried out the purpose for which he granted them power.

Verse 13–14

But none of this makes sense so far. How can God, who is supposed to be loving and holy, watch his people go through such oppression and just stand aloof? Is he not as powerful as we think? Or doesn’t he care anymore? These are questions we ask today when we look at the condition of the Earth. Thousands of years ago, Habakkuk asked the same question. How can a supposedly loving God endure such iniquity and cannot act? As imperfect as we humans are, in our lives, in whatever way, we’ve tried to improve things.

Why is an all-powerful, perfect God missing in action? The Message version says it more sharply when it says he can’t be serious. How can he be silent while evil men swallow up the righteous? Before going further, a lesson that we should take from this, especially for modern Christians, is that God does not frown on being questioned. Many people like to say God is questionable. I disagree. God is questionable. If he was above question, he would have ensured that no verse of the Bible would depict him being questioned by his prophets.

There are many verses just like this where God is questioned and even engages in debate with his followers. If God did not like being questioned, he would have ensured that such conversations did not make their way into the Bible. These conversations are in the Bible, so we know our concerns are not new and we are allowed to vent our frustrations at God, just like the men of old did. Going back to verse 14, the prophet says that God is treating men like fish or insects with no leader.

Verse 15–17

The analogy of the fish without leader continues here with the Babylonians (Chaldeans) depicted as fishers who catch them, likely due to lack of leadership. The Babylonians are said to do this with joy. They are said to worship their nets, or instruments for giving them sustenance. This points back to people who put their trust in the devices that they made, or maybe their skill. The prophet harks back to God, asking if the Babylonians will always have their way, destroying others.

Chapter 2

Verse 1

In the previous chapter, it was Habakkuk doing all the talking, now its time to listen to God’s side of the story. But to hear God, Habakkuk has to go the watchtower of the lookout tower. This implies that to hear from God, the same mindset used in questioning him cannot be used. Anybody can question God, but to hear from God, we need to move to a higher plane of understanding. It's like when they say some sounds are too low for the human ear to catch, but other animals can catch them.

Even after moving to this higher level, Habakkuk says that he will wait and see what God says. This implies that the response of God does not come immediately. It might in some circumstances, but it's not an absolute rule. Beyond just moving to a higher plane, we must exercise patience and open our hearts to hear from God. In God’s response, he clarifies that his response should be written to serve as a reference for future generations. Also, because it is not yet time for those words to come to pass.

He acknowledges it will be slow, but it is inevitable. This may be a response to Habakkuk’s question on why evil seems to go unpunished. God then says that the evil will not go unpunished, but the righteous will live because of their faithfulness. It then begs the question, what kind of life was God promising Habakkuk and other believers? Modern Christians might want to respond by referring to life in Christ, but let us note Habakkuk came hundreds of years before Jesus.

Even though there were promises of a coming saviour then, it was still vague then. So what was the tangible hope God gave his people about life for them?

Verse 2–11

The sum of these verses is that the tools with which the oppressors built their empires will rise to condemn them. The empire built on exploiting others, each component will stand as accusation against them.

Verse 2: 12–14

It's like the Mafia, built on crime and murder. Wealth built on exploitation and slavery will eventually wear away, as the utility of the slaves fades away, thus diminishing the foundation of such nations and individuals. Nations that gained their wealth by exploiting African human and capital resources may thus find themselves when the vulnerabilities of Africa easily become their vulnerabilities. Contrasting with this dull imagery, we are then told that the earth will be full of God’s glory, like the seas are full of water.

This seems to suggest that God will not let this extreme situation take place as knowledge of him and his works will improve the worst of man’s follies.

Verse 2: 15–16

Here God tells us that the enemy will get the taste of his own medicine in exact measure. The same shame and disgrace meted out on them will be returned to the enemy.

Chapter 3

Verses 1–8

These verses speak of the effect of God’s terror on the people of Cushan and Midian. The tents of Midian refer to people who are nomadic and live in tent. The curtains of Cushan refers to built houses, referring to people who are stationary. It also asks if God’s anger is directed at the trees and seas.

Verses 9–12

Now all those natural elements that shifted from their natural order now move away when God releases his arrow. They know what it is capable of and have no wish of being in its way. God is said to step in anger on the nations, thus depicting the image of wanton destruction. But to what end?

Verses 13–17

Continuing from the previous verses which describe how God directs his anger at those who oppress his people, the Prophet Habakkuk, who we have followed from the beginning, says he will stay silent. Remember that he has voiced our complaints against God for being quiet through our pain. Now he knows that God’s silence does not amount to blindness. The knowledge of what God has in stock for his enemies puts fear in his heart and he stumbles. He this vows to keep silent and patiently wait for God’s time.

This is in sharp contrast to his attitude in previous chapters. It shows the importance of his covenant when he says that even when things go bad; things you invest in bring no fruit, all efforts go to waste like you never did a thing; the things that frustrate and typically make us question God, he will remain silent and wait for God.

Verses 18–19

But through the disappointments, he will remain faithful, primarily because God saved him. From what? Well, if not for God’s salvation, he would face the wrath of God as one of his enemies. Being counted as one of God’s children who is thus exempt from God’s rage is one reason to remain faithful, but it's not all. If all that serving God guarantees is safety from his anger, at best, we might respect him, but it would be out of fear or simply compliance. It would be service just for the sake of saving our skins.

The last verse provides, in very simple words, what is probably the stronger reason for serving God; because God takes his own and puts them in high places.

Analyst/Emerging Tech Lead, Tech Hive Advisory | AI Ethics & Governance Researcher