Wrestling, Round 2, Part 1
In the previous two articles, we looked at the book of Habakkuk, the story of one prophet’s encounter with God and the startling answer he received to his prayer. [i]
In the first article, we saw that Habakkuk was in an argument with God about the rebellion and wickedness of Judah. Habakkuk demanded to know when and how God would respond to their wickedness. In the second article, we heard God’s response – that He would use the nation of the Chaldeans (Babylonians) to judge the nation.
Habakkuk’s response to God’s pronouncement was shock and disbelief, causing him to question God on His means and motives. Habakkuk’s second argument is recorded in verses 12-17 of chapter one continuing through verse one of chapter two.
Though firm in his faith and trust in the Lord Jehovah, as expressed in verse 12, Habakkuk cannot make the correlation between the holiness of God and His use of such treacherous, devouring, and unrighteous means to accomplish His ends. This is especially true when applied against God’s own chosen people.
The lesson that Habakkuk struggled to understand was the same one that most of us struggle with when we deal with the sovereignty of God over our lives and our salvation: He could not see how God could use such tyranny and evil in judgment without condoning it at the same time.
Habakkuk seems to have had no problem accepting the fact that God intervenes in the lives of and directly controls the steps of those whom He created. He just doesn’t understand God’s choice of these particular people who are among the most wicked on earth.
In verse 12, Habakkuk speaks back to God (paraphrase):
Jehovah, my God, you are righteous and holy and eternal. You are the same God who delivered your people from slavery in Egypt. You have made a covenant with your people that assures that “we will not die.”
I have pled with you in prayer with the expectation that the chastening of your people would be redemptive, not destructive. I have prayed for restoration of justice and fairness, not judgment and rejection.
These Babylonians are an evil people. Certainly you have not chosen such people to be your instrument of divine judgment. How can you, who cannot even look on evil, allow these people to be the instruments of our hands?
If you allow these Chaldeans to successfully destroy this nation, they will experience the same pleasure as the fisherman who, with his seine net, destroys all of the fish in the river and revels in his accomplishment to the point that his net becomes his object of worship.
It seems to me that, by allowing this wicked people to continue in their successful overthrow of nations, you are enabling them to continue in their wickedness, which will certainly not lead them to worship you.
At this point, Habakkuk is still angry with God and willing to argue in a foolish attempt to change God’s plan. Then, in chapter two verse one, Habakkuk seems to have come to his senses and realized that he had been speaking to God rashly – or better, irrationally.
So he determined to stand still upon his watch, to be faithful to his calling as a prophet to the nation, to wait for an answer to see what God would speak within his heart, and to decide how he would respond to the reproof he expected from God.
Habakkuk probably did not literally go up into a watchtower nor climb to the top of some mountain to get closer to God. “Set me upon a tower” is a reference to a place of siege and a walled-in, narrow place. This is very much the way the Habakkuk felt – besieged by the evil of the world and especially of these his people. He was in a tight spot, but he planted his feet firmly in place and determined not to move until God answered his complaint.
To free his mind from the cares and struggles of the affairs of men, Habakkuk went to a place that would be like a high watchtower – a place away from the bustling crowds and the noise and distractions of the world.
He stayed at his post as prophet and may have even delved into the written word of God (the Law and the writings of Moses that were the scriptures in his day) and meditated on that word, praying for God to answer.
And God did answer once again. We will look at that answer more closely in the next lesson.
For now, there are several lessons to learn from this story.
1. God is sovereign in the affairs of men and He uses whom He chooses, when He chooses, and how He chooses to carry out His perfect will.
2. The justice of God is certain and sure and while it may seem that He is silent, He is working out His plan and those who are lost in sin will be judged and disciplined according to His righteous standard.
3. God is tolerant of our misunderstanding of His ways and purposes. He knows our minds and our hearts better than we ourselves. He is patient and willing to let us temporarily rebel as we question him about the circumstances of life. And He is willing to forgive and to continue in His steadfast love when we realize our position with God and continue faithful in our trust and our faith. This becomes the theme in the next chapter.
I remind the reader that my purpose in this series of articles and examples of God’s interactions with people is to demonstrate that, while man certainly has a will, that will is not free. It is bound by the will, the purpose, and the commandments of God.
The leaders and people of Babylon had no concept of the fulfillment of the will of God. As far as they were concerned, they were expressing their own free will by conquering the nations around them. However, as we can see from this story and others yet to come, the willful actions of men simply fulfill the will and the purpose of God. That’s how God gets His will done.
One more thing…
Though not related directly to the lesson of God’s will, I want to make another point from Habakkuk’s encounter with God concerning His use of the Chaldeans as His instrument of judgment.
I believe that, for a majority of church members, most of what we know about the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus we learned from a teacher, a preacher, or a Sunday School book. Few have taken the time to really delve deeply into what actually happened in the story and to trace the roots and searched out the meaning of why things happened as they did.
For generations, we have been taught that there came a moment on the cross when God turned His face away and momentarily abandoned Christ on the cross. This is based on one of Jesus’ final statements on the cross:
Matthew 27:46 And about the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Supposedly, when Jesus took upon himself the sins of the world, God, who cannot look on sin, turned away from Jesus on the cross, basically abandoning Jesus there, at least momentarily. However, there are several arguments one might make that would justify the abandonment of such teaching.
1. John was the only disciple who actually witnessed the crucifixion. He did not quote this saying of Jesus, either because he did not hear it or because he did not attach to the words the significance that subsequent generations did. Since Mark lived in Jerusalem, he may have witnessed the crucifixion and could have heard Jesus’ words, yet neither he nor John nor any of the other biblical writers offered any commentary concerning the meaning of Jesus’ words.
2. These particular words of Jesus are almost a direct quote from Psalm 22:1, the crucifixion psalm. John wrote that, “After this, Jesus, knowing that all was now finished, said (to fulfill the Scripture), ‘I thirst.’” (John 19:28) “I thirst” is a simplification of Psalm 22:15, “My strength is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to my jaws…” Could it be that, instead of crying out to the Father in anguish, Jesus was actually singing or at least quoting from scripture that, as God, He himself had inspired?
3. Where do we get the idea that God cannot look on sin? It comes from the book of Habakkuk in the text for this lesson (Hab. 2:13). However, we must consider context when using particular words to determine doctrine. There is no other verse of Scripture that parallels the idea that God cannot look on sin other than that found in Habakkuk. And consider the context. Habakkuk was extremely angry with God. He made this statement in the midst of an argument – in a wrestling match – with Almighty God! This is not to say that the idea was original to Habakkuk, but that the source of the belief was one of tradition, not of clear biblical doctrine, and expressed in a moment of despair.
Habakkuk seems to contradict himself with this statement, because earlier he cried out to God, “Why do you idly look at wrong?” (verse 3) All that is in the heavens belongs to and is under the control of God – even that which is evil. He did not create evil, but He does use it to the accomplishment of His purpose. (See 1 Sam. 16:14, 18:10, Judges 9:23; Jeremiah 12:1-2; 1 Kings 22:19-23 for examples.) Furthermore, if God could not look on sin, how could He look on any of us to love us and call us to salvation?
4. The relationship within the Trinity is beyond human comprehension. The Lord our God is one, yet He is three. There is no Father without the Son, no Son without the Father, no Spirit without either. For God to abandon Jesus on the cross would mean that God abandoned God. If for only the slightest fraction of time the Trinity should cease to exist, so would the entire Universe as well as the heavens. Jesus was God in the flesh. God did not send an emissary to earth to carry out an assignment. God himself stepped out of eternity and into time, space, and matter to accomplish the victory over sin and death, all of this as part of a plan that originated in eternity and will one day be completed when all creation has passed away.
[i] Picture from Wikimedia.org. This photographic reproduction is considered to be in the public domain in the United States.