The book of the prophet Habakkuk is a small book. It contains only three chapters. However, the book of Habakkuk is different from the books classified as the Minor Prophets because of the way the prophet presented his message. The book of Habakkuk reveals the agony and the burden the prophet carried as he contemplated the social unrest in Judah.
Habakkuk questions God about his justice in dealing with violence and injustice in Judah. Habakkuk asks God the reason for his silence. He also asks for a clarification of his work in order to prepare the people for God’s imminent judgment on the nation.
Habakkuk’s message is focused on the issue of divine justice, but he also addresses the issues of faith and trust in God.
The Prophet Habakkuk, Habakkuk 1:1
The book of Habakkuk begins with a brief introduction to the prophet and his work: “The oracle that the prophet Habakkuk saw” (Habakkuk 1:1).
In the first superscription of the book, Habakkuk is introduced as a prophet. The Hebrew word for prophet is nabi’. This word means “one who is called.” Habakkuk was called by God to address the evil that was destroying Judean society after the death of Josiah and at the time the Babylonians were emerging as the new power in the ancient Near East.
The meaning of the prophet’s name is debatable. The book of Habakkuk begins by introducing the prophet and his message. The name Habakkuk comes from the Akkadian word habaqququ, which is the name of a house plant. It is unknown why the prophet was named after a plant.
If Habakkuk’s name is a Hebrew name, then his name is derived from the Hebrew word hābaq. His name then would mean “Embrace.”
Habakkuk’s message is introduced as “an oracle.” The Hebrew word massā’ has been translated in different ways by the English versions: “oracle” (NRSV), “pronouncement” (TNK), “burden” (KJV), “charge” (NJB), “prophecy” (NIV).
These different translations reflect the content of Habakkuk’s message. The prophet was burdened by the conditions he found in Judah and he came to God to express his dismay at what he believed to be the silence of God in the midst of so much evil in his society.
Habakkuk’s Concern, Habakkuk 1:2–4
2 “O LORD, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? Or cry to you ‘Violence!’ and you will not save? 3 Why do you make me see wrongdoing and look at trouble? Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise.”
Habakkuk speaks on behalf of people who are oppressed by denouncing those who oppress them. Habakkuk is speaking to God about the evil situation in Judah. His lament reflects his concern for God’s silence in the presence of so much evil. To the prophet, the silence of God would indicate that God was allowing the violence and cruelty to continue unabated.
The prophet says to God, “O LORD, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen?” The expression “How long” indicates that the problem Habakkuk was facing has been going on in Judah for a long time. He had cried out before and he cried again. If some of these problems began with the death of Josiah in 609 BCE and continued into the reign of Jehoiakim, then this lawlessness had continued for a few years.
The prophet prays, “[I] cry to you ‘Violence!’ and you will not save?” According to the prophet, Judean society is in disarray: there is violence, there is injustice, there is destruction, strife, contention. The prophet prays to God and there is no answer to his prayer.
What makes the prophet so perplexed in the midst of God’s silence is that Yahweh has done nothing to address the violence and the injustices that were affecting the people of Judah and destroying the moral fabric of Judean society.
Some versions emphasize what the prophet sees:
“Why do you make me see wrongdoing and look at trouble?” (Habakkuk 1:3 NRSV).
“Why dost thou shew me iniquity, and cause me to behold grievance?” (Habakkuk 1:3 KJV).
The NIV correctly says that it is God who looks at evil: “Why do you tolerate wrong?” (Habakkuk 1:3 NIV). According to Habakkuk, God sees evil and those who do wrong and leaves them unpunished.
The prophet is boldly challenging the way God establishes justice in the world. As a result of so much violence and wrongdoing in Judah, “the law becomes slack and justice never prevails.”
Since powerful and rich people could bribe judges and influence decisions, the law was paralyzed and justice never prevailed. Micah said that corrupt “rulers give judgment for a bribe” (Micah 3:11).
The rich get what they want, “Officials and judges alike demand bribes. The people with influence get what they want, and together they scheme to twist justice” (Micah 7:3 NLT).
God’s law is the source of all right, but God’s law is silenced by the power of the wicked and by the sins of the judges. Human rights are violated when there is no commitment to act according to God’s law. “The wicked surround the righteous – therefore judgment comes forth perverted” (Habakkuk 1:4).
God’s Answer to Habakkuk, Habakkuk 1:5–11
Yahweh responded to Habakkuk’s concern. Yahweh said to Habakkuk: “Look at the nations, and see! Be astonished! Be astounded! For a work is being done in your days that you would not believe if you were told. For I am rousing the Chaldeans, that fierce and impetuous nation, who march through the breadth of the earth to seize dwellings not their own. Dread and fearsome are they; their justice and dignity proceed from themselves. Their horses are swifter than leopards, more menacing than wolves at dusk; their horses charge. Their horsemen come from far away; they fly like an eagle swift to devour. They all come for violence, with faces pressing forward; they gather captives like sand. At kings they scoff, and of rulers they make sport. They laugh at every fortress, and heap up earth to take it. Then they sweep by like the wind; they transgress and become guilty; their own might is their god!” (Habakkuk 1:5–11).
God speaks to the prophet and to the people. The Lord answers the prophet’s question but at the same time he speaks to the whole nation because in Hebrew, the verbs are in the plural.
In his response to Habakkuk’s question about God’s silence, God says that he is at work, but what he is doing will be very difficult for people to understand, “Look at the nations, and see! Be astonished! Be astounded! For a work is being done in your days that you would not believe if you were told.”
What is hard to believe is that God was about to deliver the people of Judah into the hands of the Babylonians, a wicked people who were more wicked than the people of Judah.
The Coming of the Chaldeans
“For I am rousing the Chaldeans” (Habakkuk 1:6).
The Babylonians became an empire with their conquest of the Assyrians in 605 BCE. At that time, “King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon came to Jerusalem and besieged it” (Daniel 1:1).
The Babylonians were a violent and brutal nation. The description of the Babylonians’ tactics and brutalities are described in detail:
The Babylonians are cruel and violent people.
They will march across the world and conquer other lands.
They are notorious for their cruelty and do whatever they like.
In their wars of conquest, they use horses and chariots.
When they invade a nation, they come, all bent on violence.
When they march against a nation, they advance like a desert wind, sweeping captives ahead of them like sand.
They scoff at kings and princes and scorn at all their fortresses.
When they besiege a city, they simply pile ramps of earth against their walls and capture them. (Habakkuk 1:6–10 NLT).
The Babylonians believed that their army was strong enough to subdues and conquer many nations in order to build their empire, “their own might is their god” (Habakkuk 1:11).
The violence and the cruelty of the Babylonians were terrifying and fearsome. When they fought against other nations, they carried out their own kind of justice and honor, “their own might is their god.”
“Babylon’s reputation makes one tremble in both fear and admiration” (Nogalski 2011: 661). But the cruelty and brutality of the Babylonians will not go unpunished. Because the Babylonians used excess violence, “they transgress and become guilty” (Habakkuk 1:11) and their transgression will bring divine judgment upon their nation.
As Nogalski writes, “God will not only use Babylon to punish Judah but will ultimately bring about Babylon’s defeat as well, punishing it for the evil it has perpetrated” (Nogalski 2011: 662).
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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Nogalski, James D. The Book of the Twelve: Micah–Malachi. Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary. Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2011.