Scripture: Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4
Once again, we find ourselves presented with a portion of the scriptures that sounds frighteningly contemporary.
Habakkuk does what many of us struggle to do every day: he looks with open eyes at the world around him. As a human being made in the image of God, Habakkuk possesses the power of reasoning—the power to wield the capabilities of that big brain we all have in the observation and assessment of the world around us. It may be that Habakkuk’s vision is aided by that divine insight that we often call “inspiration,” though what he discovers around him in his world is not anything terribly different or even more insightful than what we see looking at our world today.
His world is riddled with violence and hardship… [1:3-4]
conflict and wrongdoing…
perversion of the law and lack of enforcement of laws that protect people…
He sees those people who use wicked and unjust means coming out on top,
and injustice being perpetuated by the very people that should provide justice.
To this bleak (and all too familiar) picture, we can add further information from later in Habakkuk’s book. The portion of the second chapter beyond our scripture reading today lists five “woes” that offer a warning to those who participate in more specific sins of injustice.
Woe to you!…… “Alas for you who heap up what is not your own!” (Habakkuk 2:6 NRSV). In simple terms, these are people who take what does not belong to them. Biblically, this sin is about much more than mere theft. The following verses hint at injustices around loans and debt collection, the hoarding of resources that others need to survive, and even physical violence or harm being done against those in debt.
These words of woe should shock us and our nation, where the average single credit card balance is over $6,000, where the average student loan debt is over $35,000, and where 12 million Americans per year take out payday loans at an average of 391% interest—and they do it overwhelmingly to pay for rent, food, and credit card debt. These are not made up numbers or guesses—they are studied facts, and I’m happy to share sources with anyone who wants to check for themselves.
“Alas for you who heap up what is not your own!”
The second warning offered in Habakkuk is in 2:9: “Alas for you who get evil gain for your houses, setting your nest on high to be safe from the reach of harm” (Habakkuk 2:9 NRSV). Most commentators seem to agree that this offense is as much national as it is personal. God through Habakkuk here speaks of national gain that is accomplished through injustice. They are willing to use evil means against others to ensure personal security for themselves. And the destruction that awaits them will be so severe that even the inanimate building materials of their houses will cry for mercy.
Next is: “Alas for you who build a town by bloodshed, and found a city on iniquity!” (Habakkuk 2:12 NRSV). As with the last “woe,” this one is aimed at national policies and practices. The condemnation is against those who do violence (even committing murder!) in order to secure or advance their territorial influence. As one biblical commentator offers:
“Those who still engage in nationalistic self–aggrandizement and ‘ethnic cleansing’ must be reminded of God’s unchanging abhorrence of this behaviour (cf. Am. 1:13). Seeking additional territory or resources such as oil or other strategic minerals without care for human life or territorial rights will ultimately prove futile when divine justice rights nationalistic wrongs.” (David W. Baker, New Bible Commentary)
How can we hear these words of God and not think of wars over oil in the Middle East, or the destruction of Palestinian settlements, or the Turkish advance against the Kurds, or pretty much anything done in the name of “America First”?
“Alas for you who build a town by bloodshed, and found a city on iniquity!”
The fourth and penultimate “woe” begins in v.15 of chapter 2: “Alas for you who make your neighbors drink, pouring out your wrath—[or this could mean “your poison”]—until they are drunk, in order to gaze on their nakedness!” (Habakkuk 2:15 NRSV). On the surface, this seems to depict those who would profit by placing others in compromising and potentially addicting circumstances. One can hardly avoid considering our world’s epidemics of drug abuse, sex trafficking, gambling, and pornography—all of which seek to profit through the exploitation of others.
And while I hope we could all agree (at least in principle) that these things need to be rooted out of our world, there are ways that we each profit regularly from such exploitation: sweatshops where virtual slaves make our clothes, migrants paid pennies to harvest our berries, and so on.
Once again, this “woe” flows naturally into the next and final “woe,” found in v.19: “Alas for you who say to the wood, ‘Wake up!’ to silent stone, ‘Rouse yourself!'” (Habakkuk 2:19 NRSV). While obviously a reference to idol worship, that really should be no comfort to us. Idolatry is a big word that references anything we trust in or value more than God. In the previous verse, there is even the statement that “its maker trusts in what has been made” (2:18 NRSV).
Where do we place our trust?
Do we as individuals trust the work of our hands more than God?
Is it your bank account or 401k that gives you a sense of security about the future?
Do we believe our future lies in our own abilities, or in God’s ability to work things for good?
Do we believe as a nation that we are secure from threats because our nation will spend almost $700 billion this year in the name of “defense,” or are we simply following the well-worn rut of ignoring God’s role—to our detriment?
You see, these aren’t just ancient words about a bygone nation. This is the past, today—all over again.
Yet we can take heart—just as Habakkuk urged his hearers. Why? Because “the LORD is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him!” (Habakkuk 2:20 NRSV).
It is within this all-too-familiar world-context that the book of Habakkuk begins. And it begins with a familiar sentiment—even if we today are not so brave in expressing it—”How long are you going to let this go on, God?”
As Central Seminary President Molly Marshall has written:
“Habakkuk does not mince words with the Holy One of Israel. Rather than [submissive] protest, he just puts it out there. ‘Can you not do better than this?’ ‘Why should we continue to trust you?’
“[Habakkuk] believes that rampant injustice will ultimately implode, yet he wonders why God permits it to linger. He struggles to maintain belief in God’s just rule when all he can see is the real-world politics, full of corruption and arrogant power… The prophet ponders whether he could continue to trust in God when all seems chaotic and the forces of evil seem to have the upper hand.”
So while the prophet wonders, he watches and waits [Habakkuk 2:1]. At least metaphorically, he climbs to the highest place he can, and he scans the horizon for God’s response and intervention. And it is there—in this posture of wondering, watching, waiting, expecting—that God answers.
I love the way my friend and colleague Mindi Welton-Mitchell has summed this up:
“God speaks a vision of hope through the prophet. Write the vision: make it plain so that a runner may read it. There is still time. There is still hope. Don’t give up, even if all we see in front of us is hopelessness. Beyond what we can see is where God’s vision is taking us.” (link)
“The righteous live by faith, and trust that God will fulfill the vision.” (link)
Is there anything we need to hear more today than the assurance that God’s vision for us and the world has not been derailed?…… that God’s ancient purposes for your and our wellbeing continue—unabated—by the apparent setbacks we see?
Outro: the Proverbial Poem
Of course, this faithful response is not mere self-delusion—it is the opposite, really. We cannot deny what we see with our eyes and experience with our lives. But we can confess and believe that there are forces in play that we do not always see and experience…… forces whose power will ultimately win not just the day, but all of eternity.
There’s a line by one of my favorite poets (Wendell Berry) that goes like this: “Be joyful though you have considered all the facts.” Berry knows that in life, the facts do not always paint a hopeful or joyful picture. To reference back again to Molly Marshall, she writes (paraphrased in places):
Like Habakkuk, Berry knows that neither personally embodied faith nor corporate worship alone can fix things, but together they can move the faithful to work toward the ‘vision that awaits its time.’ The righteous—those who long and work for justice—will receive strength to go on. They are the ones who possess a larger vision of the way things should be. Indeed, the final verse of the lesson, the just shall live by faith, (Habakkuk 2:4) prompted the Protestant Reformation. And as we know: the church is ever reforming.
“There is still time. There is still hope. Don’t give up, even if all we see in front of us is hopelessness. Beyond what we can see is where God’s vision is taking us.”