(Delivered Thanksgiving Sunday, November 18, 2007 at Bethany Bible Church. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references are taken from The Holy Bible, New King James Version; copyright 1982, Thomas Nelson, Inc.)
This morning, I ask that you turn with me to the very end of the Old Testament book of Habakkuk; and to what I believe is a wonderful passage for us to consider as we approach Thanksgiving Day. I suspect that many of you will share my opinion that it truly is one of the most beautiful passages in all of scripture.
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Before I read these words, let me share a story I recently read about them. Benjamin Franklin once served in France as a representative of the United States; and while there, he had met and conversed with a group of atheists. Though he didn't profess to be a believer himself, Mr. Franklin nevertheless had a great respect for the Bible. As it happened, these atheists were ridiculing him for his confessed admiration for the scriptures. They couldn't understand how someone so intelligent could admire such a crude book as the Bible.
Franklin suspected that these critics really didn't know much about the book that they were mocking. And so one evening, he came into their group with a manuscript that contained the words of a extraordinarily beautiful poem that he said had greatly impressed him. They asked him to share it with them; and so, he took out the manuscript and read these words:
Everyone in the group joined him in his admiration of those stately words; and exclaimed that it truly was a magnificent piece of work. They all wanted to know where they could get a copy. And so he told them that they could find it in the Bible that they had been so ignorantly mocking—in the last three verses of the book of Habakkuk.1
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These words can rightly be thought of as the thanksgiving resolve of the prophet Habakkuk. In them, he expressed his commitment to rejoice in the Lord and take joy in Him. They are truly beautiful words; and many of us have drawn comfort from them from time to time.
But unless we understand the circumstances that stood behind this beautiful passage, we'll never really appreciate just how bold and practical an affirmation it truly is. The circumstances in which these words were first uttered were not beautiful at all. They were horribly grim. And understanding the context in which they were spoken changes them from beautiful words of poetry into a powerful battle-cry--a battle-cry that I believe many of us in this room today very much need to make our own!
This morning, I ask you to join me in a brief walk through the Old Testament book of Habakkuk this morning. You may never have read it before. In fact, it could even be that you had a hard time finding it! And yet, there are few books of the Bible that are as relevant to our day and age as this one is!
Let's grow to understand its broader message; and in doing so, let's understand why it concludes with this bold resolve to give thanks to God.
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First of all, you may be interested to know that the name that is given to us of the human author of this little book--Habakkuk--means "to embrace" or "to cling". That is, it seems to me, a very fitting name, Throughout this little book, Habakkuk fights hard to "cling" to his faith in God in the face of trying circumstances.
Scholars are not absolutely certain just when it was that Habakkuk wrote this book; but the best scholarship suggests a time shortly before the year 605 B.C. The evidence within the book itself implies that Habakkuk lived in Jerusalem; and that he served in a capacity of official worship in the temple during the spiritually dismal days of the reign of King Jehoiachim.
Jehoiachim was a weak, fearful and self-indulgent king. The Lord once spoke to him through the prophet Jeremiah in such a way as to characterize the times. He spoke of how the king should have learned the spiritual lessons of repentance and reverence toward God that his royal father had learned; "Yet your eyes and your heart are for nothing but your covetousness, for shedding innocent blood, and practicing oppression and violence" (Jeremiah 22:17).
And what's more, the Jewish people of that time were--sadly--behaving just as wickedly as their king. When this good godly man Habakkuk looked upon it all, it broke his pure heart. And so, he began his book with a plaintive prayer--asking how long the righteous God of Israel would allow the sinfulness of his people to go on unanswered and unchecked. He wrote,
By the way; I wonder if you have ever felt like Habakkuk felt. Those words can just as aptly be applied to our day, can't they? And have you ever looked at the world around you--seen all the sinfulness, the pride, the self-indulgence, the cold-heartedness, the violence and murder and war that so characterizes our times--and been driven to grief and despair over it all? Have you ever cried out to God, “O LORD, how long--?”
Many people today see the same evils prevailing in the world, and come to a horrible conclusion: “If this is the way that the world is, then I can't believe that there's a God in heaven. Or if there is a God, He must be uncaring or powerless. How could a good God allow all of the suffering in the world?”
Habakkuk didn't come to such a conclusion, though. His name means "to cling"; and true to his name, he clung faithfully to the belief that God is still the same God that He has always been. But Habakkuk was also bold enough to express his confusion and frustration to God. "If you are a holy God, then why, O Lord, do You continually stand by and allow Your people to carry on so wickedly? Why aren't You doing something about it? O LORD, how long--?"
As it turns out, Habakkuk didn't have to cry out long; because it's then that God answers him. God makes it clear that He was fully aware of what was going on, and that He was about do something about it. But afterwards, Habakkuk became more confused and startled by the answer than he was over the question!
In answer, God said to him,
The name “Chaldeans” is another way of identifying the dreaded Babylonian empire. At that time, the Babylonians were only beginning to enter into the height of their power as a world empire; but already, they had swept across much of the landscape and brought many nations under their brutal rule. And as if to underscore the startling character of God's answer to Habakkuk's question, He went on to describe—in horrifying detail—the extreme brutality of the Babylonians, their heartless cruelty, their utter arrogance, and their shameful ungodliness (1:7-11).
This was NOT the answer that Habakkuk expected! He was stunned! It's true that God's chosen people—the Jews—where behaving wickedly, and that they deserved to be punished. But how could a righteous God use a people immeasurably more wicked—the Babylonians—to administer the punishment? It left him in a state of cognitive dissonance; and so, once again—in his confusion--he spoke.
First, he affirmed what he knew to be true of God, of His people, and of God's plan to use the Babylonians:
I suspect that Habakkuk even recognized the sovereignty of God in what God Himself said He would do. In verse 6, God didn't simply say that the Chaldeans would arise; nor did He even say that He would simply allow them to rise up. Rather, He says clearly, “For indeed I am raising up the Chaldeans . . .” (emphasis added). It was God Himself who was going to do it.
But this led Habakkuk to go on to ask his next great question of God:
It was as if he affirmed the things he knew: “Okay, Lord; I know that You are sovereign, and that it is You who raises up the Babylonians to punish Your wicked people. And I also know that You are righteous and holy, and will not allow the sins of Your people to go undealt with.” But when he put it all together, it still didn't make sense: “Even though these things are true, how can You use such a wicked empire as the Chaldeans to punish a people far better than they?”
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Now; those are the tumultuous times in which we find that beautiful affirmation at the end of this book. And those are the questions that God's man—Habakkuk—struggled with before making it.
I don't have to tell you that many people have looked at the unfolding of similar events of history and have asked the same sort of thing. And what's more, many such people have looked at their own personal times of suffering and trial in life, and have likewise cried out in frustration that it didn't make sense for God to act this way. Perhaps you yourself are one of them.
But this is where Habakkuk's character as one named “to cling” truly shines. Look carefully at what he said in the first verse of the second chapter. In the face of the bewildering mystery of God's ways—in the face of the fact that God's answers only seemed to raise more questions—Habakkuk made this personal declaration:
He doesn't blame God or find fault with Him. He doesn't throw away his trust in God simply because God's ways didn't make sense to him. He clung to what he knew about God; and then patiently waited to be instructed in what he didn't yet know.
What a wise and restrained response that was! And what's more, God honored that response. As we read on, we see that Habakkuk wrote;
God's answer was something that He called Habakkuk to write down and record in a permanent way for His people. He meant for it to be a cause of hope to them. And the answer that God gives gives Habakkuk caused him to sing that wonderful hymn of confident praise to God that we find at the end of this book.
Before we look at God's answer, though, let me stress to you what I believe is the great point God is seeking to make to His people. It's found in the fourth verse of chapter two. Quite frankly, it says it all. God declared,
It doesn't matter whether we're talking about tumultuous world events, or the upheaval we may feel from trials in our own personal lives; to demand an answer from God that will satisfy all our standards of reasoning in the face of suffering is an expression of pride. To demand that God's ways make absolute sense to us before we'll trust Him—and to immediately cast off our faith in Him when they don't—is the expression of a heart that is not 'upright'. It is revealing that we do not have faith in Him. But God makes the affirmation that “the just shall live by his faith”. Such a person will be like Habakkuk—clinging faithfully to God, even when His ways don't make complete sense to them.
And there's a sense in which this truly has been written for us plainly, “on tablets of stone”. That bold affirmation—that the just shall live by faith—is not only recorded for us in the Old Testament book that we're reading today; it is also repeated three times in the New Testament. The apostles, under the guiding hand of the Holy Spirit, clearly affirmed it to be the key-note of the gospel of Jesus Christ. At the beginning of the book of Romans, at the very start of his systematic declaration of the message of the gospel, Paul wrote, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, 'The just shall live by faith'” (Romans 1:16-17). When defending the gospel from those who argued that we must 'earn' favor with God, Paul wrote, “But that no one is justified by the law in the sight of God is evident, for 'the just shall live by faith'” (Galatians 3:11). And the writer of Hebrews urges his Jewish readers not to cast off their faith in Jesus Christ—even in the face of persecution; because, “'the just shall live by faith'” (Hebrews 10:38).
This is what gives solid content to Habakkuk's bold declaration of praise at the end of this book. He doesn't shrug his shoulders, act as if the suffering isn't real, pretend that the ways of God are not mysterious, and simply say, “Oh well; praise God anyway.” Instead, Habakkuk affirms what he knows, trusts in God for what he doesn't understand, and waits confidently for God to prove Himself in the end.
And this is also what gives solid content to our thanks to God—certainly during our celebration of thanks later this week; but especially as a pattern of life. There are times in life when “thanks” to God is nothing less than a bold resolution we make—in spite of the questions we may have. It is a resolve to respond to what we know about God in the face of what we don't understand—a resolve to express our faith in Him by offering our thanks to Him in the face of troubles and perplexities.
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Now; how did God answer Habakkuk's second question? And what led Habakkuk, at last, to the resolve to faithfully praise Him and take joy in Him?
In chapter two, God affirmed that He will judge the wickedness of His chosen people through bringing the Chaldeans upon them. But though He is using the Chaldeans as His instrument of punishment upon His chosen people, the sovereign God promises that He will then turn around and judge the instrument He uses. And in making this affirmation, He is declaring to us today that He will never fail to bring judgment upon wickedness.
He speaks of the Babylonians, who were often characterized by wild drunkenness, and says,
And then follows a series of “woes” pronounced by God upon those who practice wickedness--“woes” that are specific enough to be directed to the Jewish people of Jehoiachim's day who were then being judged, broad enough to then be turned upon the far more wicked Chaldeans who were being used to judge them, and ageless enough to serve as God's promise to judge the sin that prevails even in our own day.
These 'woes' pronounce judgment upon those who plunder others in their time of need (vv. 6b-9), upon those who live luxuriously to the impoverishment of those around them (vv. 9-11), upon those who build their houses through bloodshed (vv. 12-14), upon those who cause others to become drunken in order to expose them to shame (vv. 15-17), and upon those who turn their devotion to idols instead of to the one true God (vv. 18-19). And in all of this, God makes two great and noteworthy promises that His people can cling to. They are as trustworthy today as they were then: “For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD, as the waters cover the sea” (v. 14); and “But the LORD is in His holy temple, let all the earth keep silence before Him” (v. 20).
And look at Habakkuk's response to all of this. He writes a prayer in the form of a formal expression of worship for God's holy people. He says,
In offering this prayer to God, he then fills the next chapter with a wonderful description of God's great acts in delivering His people in the past—coming to them to bring them out of bondage in Egypt; bringing them through the Red Sea, causing the surrounding nations to fear, and even going so far as to cause the very heavens themselves to stand still as He fought for His people (vv. 3-15).
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Now, given this as the context, let's once again consider Habakkuk's closing words. He looks at all the troubles that plagued him, and remembers the confusion that he was under. He doesn't hide from it. He recognizes it. He acknowledges that he still must look upon the troubling times he is in, and wait until God acts to bring judgment upon His people by the instrumentality of the Chaldeans. He writes;
But, after recording God's promised judgment upon the wicked in chapter two, and reviewing God's great acts on behalf of His people in chapter three, he is able to make this bold, affirmation of faith—this bold resolve look to the future, and to thank God for what He will do:
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And if I may, let me close with a final observation. Look at the few words that we read at the very end of this book—after this great affirmation of faith was made. They are just incidental notes of instruction; and you may be tempted to pass them by. But the Holy Spirit saw fit to preserve them at the end of the book for a reason.
Habakkuk, as you remember, was responsible for some aspect of formal worship in the temple. And so, he ends with a word of instruction regarding the words he had just written: “To the Chief Musician. With my stringed instruments.” In other words, those beautiful words of resolve—and apparently all of chapter three with them—was intended to be sung as a hymn of worship to the God. As the threat of the Babylonians approached, what a marvelously bold “battle-cry” of faith this worship song must have been!
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, there may be times when God's ways don't make sense to us. We may not understand why He allows us to experience certain trials or troubles. We may not understand why He is doing what He is doing to us. And even when we cry out to Him in the midst of those troubles, His answers and His ways may not make sense to us at all.
But that's when the quality of our faith is being revealed. As Peter wrote in his first letter—a letter to Jewish Christians who were suffering persecution for their faith;
God tests the faith of His people through trials. And genuine faith is proven by a steadfast resolve—like Habakkuk's—to remember the things that we know to be true of God, and to give thanks to Him for those things in the midst of those trials.
Keep this in mind as you approach the Thanksgiving holiday. And may our faith be proven to be pleasing to God through our resolute thanks to Him!
1Cited in James Montgomery Boice, The Minor Prophets (Grand Rapids: Kregal Publications, 1996), vol. 2, p. 110.
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