The book of Habakkuk presents the thinking of a man who was responding to the impact of the international crisis on the people of Judah. The prophet openly challenged the concept of divine justice that had been developed by recent Deuteronomic reform. This “doctrine of the two ways” held that obedience to Yahweh’s will would lead to material well-being and that defection from this will would lead to disaster.
Habakkuk objected that this doctrine was simplistic. Consequently, he focused on the difficult issue of “theodicy,” that is, if those who follow the law must suffer adversity, how can the justice of God be upheld.
Habakkuk, The Man
Habakkuk’s name is probably not a Hebrew name. If the name is a Hebrew name, the name comes from the Hebrew word .hābaq which means “Embrace.” It is possible that the name of the prophet is derived from an Akkadian word hambaquqqu. The word hambaquqqu is the name of a house plant.
Twice in the book, Habakkuk is called a “prophet” (Habakkuk 1:1; 3:1). This means that Habakkuk was called by God to proclaim a message to the people of Judah. The words of Habakkuk are introduced by the Hebrew word maśśā’ (Habakkuk 1:1). This Hebrew word is generally translated as “oracle” (NRSV) or as “burden” (KJV). In a prophetic context, the word refers to a prophetic utterance, often in the context of a divine threat.
Habakkuk’s prayer in 3:19 mentions “the director of music” and “On my stringed instruments.” These notations on his prayer may indicate that Habakkuk was a singer of songs. It is also possible that Habakkuk was an individual associated with the temple singers. However, there is no indication that Habakkuk was a Levite.
The Date of Habakkuk’s Ministry
The date of Habakkuk’s ministry in Judah is uncertain. The reference to the Chaldeans in Habakkuk 1:6 makes him a contemporary of the prophet Jeremiah. The earliest date for Habakkuk would be 625 BCE, the date when Nabopolassar ascended to the throne of Babylon and established the Neo-Babylonian empire.
The latest date for Habakkuk’s ministry would be 598 BCE, a few months prior to Nebuchadnezzar’s attack on Judah. A possible date would be 605 BCE, which would coincide with the defeat of Egypt by Babylon.
According to the book of Daniel, 605 BCE was the year Daniel and his friends were taken to Babylon: “In the third year of the reign of King Jehoiakim of Judah, King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon came to Jerusalem and besieged it” (Daniel 1:1). This deportation of Israelites to Babylon would explain Habakkuk’s concern about the problems such deportation caused in the social and political life of Judah.
An Outline of the Book of Habakkuk
The book of Habakkuk consists of two dialogues of the prophet with God in which he expresses his concern about the violence and the injustices in Judean society. It also includes a series of five woe oracles against Babylon. The book concludes with the prayer of Habakkuk and his declaration of trust in Yahweh. The content of the book can be outlined as follows:
a. Habakkuk’s First Dialogue with God, Habakkuk 1:1–11
b. Habakkuk’s Second Dialogue with God, Habakkuk 1:12–2:4
c. The Five Woes of Habakkuk, Habakkuk 2:5–20
d. The Prayer of Habakkuk, Habakkuk 3:1–19
Purpose of the Book of Habakkuk
The prophet is concerned with the prevalence of violence and lawlessness in Judah. In his dialogue with God, Habakkuk speaks of the “wicked” (Habakkuk 1:4) and the “righteous” (Habakkuk 2:4). The identity of the “wicked” is debated. Some scholars identify the wicked with people who lived in Jerusalem who are oppressing their fellow Israelites. Others identify the wicked with the Babylonians because of the brutality they use in the treatment of the people they conquer.
Habakkuk’s main concern was the disruption of social behavior in Judah. Habakkuk says that “Violence is everywhere!” He sees “destruction and violence.” He says that “there is no justice in the courts.” Habakkuk is “surrounded by people who love to argue and fight.”
Habakkuk’s words clearly suggest that the wicked people are members of the Judean society who are oppressing their fellow Israelites. As a result, Habakkuk says that “The law has become paralyzed, and there is no justice in the courts.”
Habakkuk’s Problem with God
Habakkuk’s problem with God was the fact that God was silent in the midst of the lawlessness in Judah. Habakkuk said, “How long, O LORD, must I call for help? But you do not listen.” The “how long” of Habakkuk indicates that the prophet has been praying for some time.
Habakkuk said, “how long must . . . I cry, but you do not come to save.” The expression “I cry” means to cry for help. Habakkuk was asking God to intervene, but he only encountered divine silence in the midst of the violence that was destroying his nation.
Habakkuk’s biggest problem with God was his belief that God was allowing such a violent situation to occur. Habakkuk said to God, “Why do you tolerate wrong?” (Habakkuk 1:3 NIV). Habakkuk was perplexed that God allowed wrongdoing and violence to continue unabated. A society with unabated violence leads to injustice and the oppression of innocent people.
Habakkuk is honestly confronting the profoundly disturbing problem of why God is “silent when the wicked swallows up a man more righteous than he” (Habakkuk 1:3).
Another problem Habakkuk faced with God was God’s proposed solution to the problem. God said to Habakkuk, “I am raising up the Babylonians” (Habakkuk 1:6). God was using the Babylonians as his agents to deal with the violence prevalent in Judean society.
God’s solution to the problem of violence in Judah was disturbing to Habakkuk. To Habakkuk, the problem with the Babylonians was that they were a cruel and violent people. Habakkuk believed that God was a righteous God, a God who did not tolerate evil; a God who did not condone wrongdoing (Habakkuk 1:13). If God did not tolerate evil and violence, why was God using a violent nation to deal with violence in Judah?
God’s mysterious action in allowing the Babylonians to punish Judah created a crisis of faith in Habakkuk’s life. Habakkuk objected to the suffering of God’s people, but the Babylonians would cause more suffering.
Habakkuk questioned the justice of a God who permitted the people to suffer so much under the hands of the Babylonians. Habakkuk was bothered by God’s answers to the problem posed by the evil and suffering in Judah and whether Babylon was the answer to the problems Judah was facing.
A Brief Historical Background To Habakkuk’s Time
Habakkuk is generally thought of as a prophet associated with a transition time between the decline of the Assyrian empire and the rise of the Babylonian empire.
Habakkuk’s prophetic ministry occurred between 605 and 597 BCE. This time frame indicates that he and his contemporaries, Jeremiah, Nahum, and Zephaniah, were all familiar with and probably favored the Deuteronomic reforms of Josiah.
After the death of Josiah, the Egyptians kidnapped his son Jehoahaz and appointed a weak king, Jehoiakim, over Judah. In 605 Nebuchadnezzar probably took a group of people to exile in Babylon. Among them were Daniel and his friends.
Jehoiakim reversed the religious reforms of Josiah. He was an evil king who promoted and allowed religious apostasy in Judah. Jeremiah and Habakkuk watched in great sorrow as their beloved Kingdom of Judah experienced rampant unfaithfulness as people disconnected from the Torah and reverted to pagan worship.
They were also witnesses to the increasing turbulent external pressures caused by the Assyrian and Egyptian armies who continued fighting over Judah, while the Babylonians took on a new identity as a growing world power in the east.
It seems ironic that these same prophets, whose messages proclaimed that God’s terrible, imminent judgement would soon come, were also required to convince people to accept God’s message of hope beyond all of this destruction.
It was under these stressful circumstances that Judah’s tested faith would once more have to prove strong enough to save her momentarily as the drama of Yahweh’s judgement unfolded in history.
Studies on the Book of Habakkuk
Introduction to the Book of Habakkuk
Habakkuk’s First Dialogue with God, Habakkuk 1:1–11
Habakkuk’s Second Dialogue with God, Habakkuk 1:12–2:4
The Five Woes of Habakkuk, Habakkuk 2:5–20
The Prayer of Habakkuk, Habakkuk 3:1–19
Translating the Bible: Dealing with the Tiqqune Sopherim
Who Will Never Die: God or Us?
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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Clifford, R. J. “The Use of hôy in the Prophets.” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 28 no 4 (1966): 458–464.
Fretheim, Terence E. “‘I was only a little angry’: Divine Violence in the Prophets.” Interpretation 58 no 4 (2004): 365–375.
Nogalski, James D. “Habakkuk.” The Book of the Twelve: Micah–Malachi. Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary. Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2011.
Robertson, O. Palmer. The Books of Nahum, Habakkuk, and Zephaniah. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990.