Habakkuk and the Middle East

“Look among the nations, and see; wonder and be astounded. For I am doing a work in your days that you would not believe if told. (Habakkuk 1:5)

Habakkuk 1:5 is an incredible paradox. It is one of the most misquoted verses in the Bible and at the same time it is a verse that gives us tremendous hope when we look at the Middle East. Habakkuk 1:5, and the entire book, is particularly relevant to the Middle East. While the verse is frequently quoted as a statement of God’s desire to do great things in the nations, when we consider the context of the verse it becomes even more significant and enables us to look at what is currently happening in the Middle East through eyes of faith.

Habakkuk 1 opens with Habakkuk’s complaint against God:

O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not hear? Or cry to you “Violence!” and you will not save? (Habakkuk 1:2)

In the passage, Habakkuk is troubled by the geopolitical events that Israel is facing. Israel is in compromise and Habakkuk is greatly burdened by the sin of his nation. At the same time, Babylon is rising in the region and Habakkuk knows it is a matter of time before the wicked empire sets its sights on Israel. Israel’s compromise and the threat of Babylon drove Habakkuk to intercession, but he did not see the result he hoped for. His frustration over a prayer that seemed to be unanswered caused him to release his complaint against God that begins in Habakkuk 1:2.

God answered Habakkuk’s complaint with a staggering phrase:

“Look among the nations, and see; wonder and be astounded. For I am doing a work in your days that you would not believe if told. (Habakkuk 1:5)

Habakkuk’s first complaint against God was that God had not heard or responded to his prayers. In other words, Habakkuk was a frustrated intercessor. He felt his prayers were not having an effect. God’s answer to Habakkuk was that his prayers were having an effect, but that effect was completely different than what Habakkuk would have expected. God’s activity in Habakkuk’s generation was so shocking that Habakkuk would not believe it if anyone else told him about it.

In verse 6, God makes a statement to Habakkuk was unbelievably shocking:

For behold, I am raising up the Chaldeans [Babylon], that bitter and hasty nation, who march through the breadth of the earth, to seize dwellings not their own. (Habakkuk 1:6)

God’s response to Habakkuk was that He was using the wicked nation Babylon for His divine purposes. Habakkuk could hardly believe his ears. Babylon was the thing that Habakkuk most feared and yet God’s answer to Habakkuk’s complaint was that He was raising up Babylon for His own purposes. It is hard to imagine how shocking that statement was for Habakkuk.

God’s statement is so shocking, that Habakkuk makes a second complaint to the Lord. The Lord answers that one graciously and tells Habakkuk that He will judge Babylon for their sin, but the fact remains that God is going to use Babylon in Habakkuk’s generation to accomplish His purposes. God’s final statement to Habakkuk has a clear message – God is in firm control of the nations:

But the Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him.” (Habakkuk 2:20)

In the middle of His response to Habakkuk, God gives Habakkuk instructions on how he should respond to God’s shocking statements:

“Behold, his soul is puffed up; it is not upright within him, but the righteous shall live by his faith. (Habakkuk 2:4)

God’s answer to Habakkuk’s crisis was that he should live by faith. No matter how discouraging events seemed, Habakkuk was to strengthen himself with confidence that God would accomplish His work and fulfill His promises even when those events did not make any human sense.

Habakkuk’s final response to the Lord is a song of praise. Habakkuk is an example for us on how to relate to the Lord when the events in the earth seem to be the very opposite of what we hoped for. Habakkuk intercedes for the protection of His people in the midst of Babylon’s destruction:

O Lord, I have heard the report of you, and your work, O Lord, do I fear. In the midst of the years revive it; in the midst of the years make it known; in wrath remember mercy. (Habakkuk 3:2)

Habakkuk reminds us that God’s activity is ultimately for the salvation of His people and that a day is coming when God will judge wickedness:

You went out for the salvation of your people, for the salvation of your anointed. You crushed the head of the house of the wicked, laying him bare from thigh to neck. Selah (Habakkuk 3:13)

Finally, Habakkuk finishes with a song of praise:

Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will take joy in the God of my salvation. God, the Lord, is my strength; he makes my feet like the deer’s; he makes me tread on my high places. To the choirmaster: with stringed instruments. (Habakkuk 3:17–19)

As a result of his interaction with God, Habakkuk could rejoice even when he did not see reasons to rejoice. Even if there was no visible provision because the harvest has failed and the livestock had died, Habakkuk was so convinced of God’s goodness that he could rejoice. Habakkuk could take joy because God is ultimately the God of salvation and His work in every generation is ultimately for the salvation of His people.

Habakkuk’s little book contains a challenging message about God’s sovereignty, and because of this it is a tremendous source of hope for us when we look at what is happening in the Middle East. God’s interaction with Habakkuk has several key messages for us that help us when we are tempted to feel hopeless or have trouble recognizing God’s work in the middle of crisis.

God Answers Prayer

Habakkuk’s primary complaint was that God had not answered his prayers. Habakkuk believed that God was ignoring his prayers and ignoring the situation brewing in the Middle East. God’s answer to Habakkuk was that He was fully involved in the situation. He was answering Habakkuk’s prayers. He was at work. His work was going to happen through circumstances that Habakkuk could have never imagined and could not understand, but God’s answer to Habakkuk communicated that He was responding to Habakkuk’s prayers.

God is Sovereign

When Habakkuk looked at the brewing crisis in the Middle East he was concerned that God was not involved and the situation was completely out of control. God’s answer to Habakkuk was firm. He was sovereign over the situation, and He was involved in the situation. When we look at the carnage that wicked men release in the earth, it is difficult to believe that God is at work, but God’s response to Habakkuk was firm. Wicked men create carnage in the earth, but God remains actively at work. The terror of wicked men, in the end, will accomplish God’s work. This is simply no way for us to comprehend this, particularly when we experience crisis and calamity, but it is true. God has given men free will and when they exercise that the results can be terrifying, but God assures us that even that will accomplish His work. Just as wicked men chose to execute Jesus, but that set the stage for God’s plan of redemption[1], so also the trials of this age set the stage for God’s work to advance. However, like Jeremiah we must also stand with and weep with those who suffer[2].

God Accomplishes His Work in Ways that Seem Strange to Us

Habakkuk had an expectation of how God’s work would be accomplished in his generation. God’s response to Habakkuk was that His work was going forward in a way that was shocking to Habakkuk. It is easy to become offended with God when He does not do what we expect Him to do, or He accomplishes His work in a way we would not expect. The Bible does not answer all our questions about God’s wisdom, but it does assure us that He will bring all His promises to fulfillment in spite of the rage of wicked men and powers and principalities that oppose His work.

We Live by Faith in God’s Character

When we look across the nations there is so much that simply does not make sense to us. Sometimes it is hard to imagine how God is going to bring good out of situations that seem only dark and evil. Habakkuk has a simple lesson for us: we live by faith in God’s character. Habakkuk was strengthened in His book because he encountered God’s presence. He felt God’s goodness even though He couldn’t understand God’s activity. In the same way we escape hopelessness by living with faith in God’s character. We trust that God is at work for good even when we cannot see it. The cross of Jesus is ultimately what gives us confidence when we look at the nations. If God was willing to humble Himself and suffer and die on our behalf when we were His enemies[3], then we can trust Him. His intentions are good and kind. Because He willingly gave Himself for us, we can trust Him when what is happening in the nations does not make any sense to us.

God Will Judge Wickedness

God assured Habakkuk that He would judge the wicked. God used Babylon for His purposes, but Babylon did not escape His judgment. God assures us that He will ultimately judge. Wickedness will not continue forever. He will put an end to it. Wicked men will end up serving God’s purpose in the short term, but God will bring them all to an end.

God is the God of Salvation

When Habakkuk sang his song, he sang to the God of salvation. God assured Habakkuk that He would ultimately bring salvation for His people. Though we do not always understand God’s work in the nations, that end of that work is salvation. Destruction is not the end of the nations. God is going to bring a glorious people to salvation. Those people will pass through tests and trials, some of which may seem quite severe, but God will ultimately save His people. He has a good purpose in mind and He is working through that purpose even when we cannot immediately see it.

Habakkuk’s Challenge

Habakkuk’s book is a challenge to us to find our hope in the character of God. It teaches us that we can rejoice even when we don’t see visible fruit because we are confident that God is at work even in the middle of the most difficult situations.

While Habakkuk 1:5 is frequently taken out of context, it paradoxically is a great source of hope for the church when we look at it in context. When we look at what is happening in the Middle East, and many other conflict zones in the earth, Habakkuk 1:5 gives us confidence that God’s work is advancing. Habakkuk was fearful because of what was happening, and God challenged Habakkuk with a shocking statement:

“Look among the nations, and see; wonder and be astounded. For I am doing a work in your days that you would not believe if told. (Habakkuk 1:5)

God’s answer was direct. He was in control. Habakkuk should not be gripped by fear. God was going to accomplish His purposes. There will be real pain and heartache. Wicked men will do great damage. At times it will seem as if God’s purposes are not going forward. At times it will seem God has ignored our prayers. However, God’s message to Habakkuk gives us hope. God is far more involved than we reality and far more committed to accomplishing His purposes than we can imagine.

[1] See Acts 2:23; 4:28.

[2] See Jeremiah 9:1; Hebrews 13:3.

[3] See Romans 5:8.

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