Trusting in Deep Distress: Habakkuk’s Journey from Worry to Worship
When we wait
Most prophets addressed the people about God, but Habakkuk spoke to God about the people. He couldn’t understand why God allowed injustice in his country to continue unpunished. Confused by His seeming silence, Habakkuk asked God why He tolerated such evil (Hab. 1:3).
When God responded that He would use the Babylonians to conquer Judah (vv. 5–11), Habakkuk grew even more confused. How could God use a nation more wicked than his own to punish them? That was not the answer Habakkuk wanted. At first he had no answer; then he had what he considered the wrong answer. Having asked, Is God unconcerned? Habakukk then had to ask, Is God unfair?
When we worry
How should we react when God gives us an answer we think isn’t right? Complain? Argue? Reject Him? Habakkuk set the example for us. He said, “I will look to see what he will say to me” (2:1). What a wise move! He “shut up” and waited to see what God said. He was overwhelmed, but not overcome, and he took his problem to the Lord and left it there. Then he waited like a watchman in a watchtower for God’s response.
The Lord, in His remarkable reply, told this minor prophet with a major problem that He would handle the situation—and without delay (v. 3). Sometimes our impatience makes us think God doesn’t care. But like Habakkuk, we need to learn that God does care and that He is always on time.
When God answers
One of the first things God told Habakkuk is that He would deal with the Babylonians because of their pride. In their arrogance they were “not upright.” They trusted in themselves, not God. Their puffed-up hearts stood in stunning contrast to the righteous, who live by faith (v. 4). This verse, easily overlooked in this seldom-read Old Testament book, is so significant that the last sentence is quoted three times in the New Testament—in Romans 1:17; Galatians 3:11; and Hebrews 10:38.
What a great reminder to Habakkuk—and us—that we must trust the Lord even when we can’t understand everything He does. Those who are righteous, that is, redeemed, can enjoy God’s rich blessings of security and protection. On the other hand, the ungodly Babylonians faced God’s judgment.
Their pride led them to drunkenness and greed. Yet the nations they conquered would rise up and pronounce “woe” on them. Five times the word “woe” occurs in chapter 2 in describing the doom Babylon would face.
- Guilty of extortion, they in turn would be plundered (vv. 6–8).
- Guilty of injustice in seeking to elevate themselves, they would “forfeit” their own lives (vv. 9–11).
- Guilty of bloodshed and crime, they would gain nothing from their efforts (vv. 12–14).
- Guilty of getting others drunk so they could gaze on naked bodies, they would in turn be exposed and filled with shame (vv. 15–17).
- Guilty of worshiping idols, they would find that idols are lifeless and useless and that only the sovereign God is alive and worthy of worship (vv. 18–20).
When we worship
How then should we respond to this reminder of God’s sovereignty? By silent worship. “The Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth be silent before him” (v. 20). Since God is in control, we need not worry. Instead of arguing with God, we should stand in awe and worship Him in humble silence.
After God explained to Habakkuk that He would handle the prophet’s situation, the tone of the book shifts from perplexity to praise. In chapter 1 Habakkuk had asked, “God, how long?” In chapter 3 he responded, “God, how great!” Recalling what God had done in the past (“I stand in awe of your deeds, O Lord”), the prophet asked God to show His great power again and in doing so to be merciful to His people (3:2). God’s power and glory had been evident in Israel’s wilderness wanderings (vv. 3–7), in the crossing of the Jordan River (vv. 8–10), in the defeat of the Gibeonites by having the sun stand still (v. 11), and in defeating many of Israel’s enemies (vv. 12–15).
Not surprisingly, Habakkuk was affected physically, emotionally, and spiritually by this remarkable display of God’s invincible deeds. “I heard and my heart pounded, my lips quivered at the sound; decay crept into my bones, and my legs trembled” (v. 16).
We too ought to tremble in God’s presence. Habakkuk had questioned the Lord; now he quivered before Him. And this led him to respond with confidence that the Lord would carry out His plans in His time. The prophet affirmed, “I will wait patiently” (v. 16). And as a result he was full of joy, for he said, “I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Savior” (v. 18). Basic fruits (figs, grapes, olives), might not be available, basic crops (wheat and barley) might fail, and basic flocks (sheep and cattle) might die. Yet Habakkuk would rejoice in God, who was his strength (vv. 17–19).
What made the difference between Habakkuk’s complaint in 1:2, “How long, O Lord?” and his confidence in 3:19, “The sovereign Lord is my strength”? The prophet’s hunger for an answer from God was satisfied because he saw the problem from God’s perspective. He recognized that God is in control. The circumstances didn’t change, but Habakkuk did. What began as a sob ended in a song. What started as a concern shifted to confidence. He moved from worry to worship, from anxiety to adoration, from frustration to fulfillment.
In the eighteenth century William Cowper overcame depression as he reflected on Habakkuk 3:17–19. He wrote these words of consolation:
Though vine nor fig tree neither
Their wonted fruit should bear,
Though all the field should wither,
Nor flocks nor herds be there;
Yet, God the same abiding.
His praise shall tune my voice;
For while in Him confiding,
I cannot but rejoice.
Does God seem to delay His answers to your prayers? Or to give an answer you didn’t want? When impatience overtakes you, turn to Him in faith and straighten your bent-over question mark into an upright exclamation mark.
Dr. Roy B. Zuck (ThM, 1957; ThD, 1961) is editor of Dallas Seminary’s quarterly theological journal, Bibliotheca Sacra, and copy and theological editor for Kindred Spirit. He served on Dallas’s faculty for twenty-three years, including eight years as vice-president for academic affairs.