Hello Sunday school teachers, preachers, and students! Welcome to SundaySchoolPreacher.com. In this week’s lesson the prophet Habakkuk questions God on the way to a prayer for justice. Habakkuk doesn’t understand how God can justify using the evil and wicked Babylonians to punish Judah, God’s own people. Habakkuk is hurt, he is probably disillusioned and discouraged. Then he comes to the realization that God did this! This is God’s work, this is God’s plan, and this is God ordained. God is responsible for what Habakkuk believes is unjust suffering, violence, and pain. Habakkuk had been praying, asking, and pleading with God for some time and still all he sees is this pain and violence. Habakkuk sees iniquity, injustice, wrongdoing, wickedness, and immorality. And (at least at this point) as far as he can tell God is doing nothing about it. Habakkuk is hurt. He is not happy with how God has allowed this to happen and he questions God. When God graciously answers Habakkuk, he’s not satisfied and he questions God again. In this unusual dialog with God Habakkuk lays this violence and injustice at the feet of God. Habakkuk thinks God has been indifferent and silent to the violence and suffering in Judah. It is God who allows evil to go unpunished in Judah and it is God who will use the evil Babylonians to punish Judah. This brings the notion of theodicy into view. How can God be good and just when evil exists the way it does. Some key ideas surrounding this week’s text includes the terms:
Justification by Faith
The book of Habakkuk is the eighth book of the twelve books we call the minor prophets. As I explained last week these books are called minor only because they are shorter in length and they come behind the five major prophets in the Old Testament. Nelson’s Bible handbook notes that “since the book speaks of the coming destruction of Judah, it had to be written some time before Jerusalem was destroyed by the Babylonians in 587 B.C.” You may recall that 587 B.C was when the first Jewish Temple was destroyed. That was the temple King Solomon built for the Ark of the Covenant of the Lord. So, King David was on the scene about 1,000 B.C. King David’s United Monarchy (or the united kingdom) divided about sixty nine years later in 931 B.C. and the fall of Jerusalem occurred about 344 years later in 587 B.C. Nelson’s notes that the most likely time for Habakkuk’s composition is probably 600 B.C. It also explains “Habakkuk’s first dialog with God takes place in 1:1-11.” Nelson’s continues, “In 1:1-4 the prophet asks God how long will God allow the wickedness of Judah to go unpunished. The people of Judah sin with impunity, and justice is perverted”. So Nelson’s Bible Handbook notes verses 1-4 as referring to the wickedness of Judah. The New Interpreter’s Study Bible explains these verses refer to the Babylonians. The NISB notes
“Although many see the slackening of “law” or the failure of “justice” as an indication that those being referred to as “the wicked” are Judeans, subsequent passages clearly identify them as the Babylonians.”
At any rate, verses one through four are Habakkuk’s complaint to God. Whether the wickedness and violence refers to the Judeans themselves or the Babylonians, Habakkuk knows and understands the pain and hurt of violence and wickedness. Habakkuk complains and questions God in verses one through four and God answers Habakkuk’s complaint and question in verses five through eleven. God’s answer obviously does not satisfy Habakkuk because he questions God again in verses 12-17.
Habakkuk’s job is to warn the nation of Judah that destruction is coming. The New Interpreter’s Study Bible notes
“although Babylon and Judah had been close allies for well over a century, Jehoiakim’s pro-Egyptian sentiments apparently prompted the Babylonians to treat Judah as a conquered enemy rather than an ally. The result was a Judean revolt against Babylon in 598 BCE”.
In three chapters consisting of fifty-six verses Habakkuk sets forth his warning to Judah while also bringing forward the significant theological concept of theodicy and setting the precedent for the Apostle Paul’s doctrine of justification by faith. The New Interpreter’s Study Bible notes
“Paul cites Hab. 2:4 as a major textual witness to support his doctrine of justification by faith. In modern times, Habakkuk’s address to the LORD raises the question of divine absence in relation to the Shoah (Holocaust) and other atrocities”.
The NISB also notes “the book of Habakkuk addresses the question of unjust suffering and evil by presenting the prophet’s appeal to the LORD’s together with God’s answer to the Babylonian betrayal of Judah”. So while Habakkuk may be small in size, it plays a large role in both Jewish and Christian theology.
The Lexham Bible Dictionary notes that “Habakkuk is the fourth shortest book in the Old Testament. Only Obadiah, Nahum and Haggai are shorter”. Lexham also notes that “the prophet grapples with two mysteries
- Why God allows evil to go unpunished in his homeland of Judah.
- How a righteous God could use Babylon – a wicked nation – to judge sin in Judah”.
Lexham also notes that “Habakkuk’s form, a dialog with God and a concluding hymn, is unique in Old Testament prophetic books”. Habakkuk is also unique in that the prophet is in conversation with God for the people; whereas other prophets spoke to the people from God.
The first chapter of Habakkuk deals with the prophets’ complaint, God’s answer, and is the beginning of his unusual dialog with God. This chapter introduces the notion of theodicy as it “identifies the LORD as the party responsible for bringing evil upon Judah. (NISB)” Judgement is coming and Habakkuk’s job is to warn Judah. Some important terms to consider about this text include:
Justification by faith
Review of Last Week and How it Connects to This Week:
In last week’s lesson the prophet Amos spoke truth to power. He issued a call to accountability to the kingdom of Israel. Amos was from the southern kingdom of Judah but went into the northern Kingdom of Israel to declare its utter destruction. Israel had rejected justice and righteousness. They went to worship services and did religious things but their heart was far from God because of the way they treated people. I noted how God has always been more concerned with how people are treated than God is concerned with us following the rules and regulations of the Law. Israel had utterly failed, they had rejected the ways of God, and God would reject them. Amos wanted Israel to know that they were facing disaster, calamity, and affliction. The day of the LORD would not be a day of victory. It would be harsh, stark, and painful. There would be darkness and gloom with no brightness, no reason to celebrate, no reason to look forward, and no reason for hope in the future. God literally hated what Israel had become. Instead of Israel hating evil they hated the advocates for righteousness. As a result, God hated their presumptuous worship. God was not interested in the Israelites festivals, their worship, nor their fellowship. This week we continue in the theme of justice with the prophet Habakkuk. In this week’s text, Habakkuk questions God’s justice. He seems to ask the question, if God is really just when there is so much injustice in his homeland of Judah. Townsend, Boyd’s, and Standard Lesson Commentaries title this week’s lesson “A Prayer for Justice” The scripture text comes from Habakkuk 1:1-4, 12-14. Verses five through eleven are God’s response to Habakkuk’s first complaint. Habakkuk is evidently dissatisfied with God’s answer and questions God again beginning with verse twelve.
Listen closely to how Habakkuk questions God. He is not afraid to confront God about the evil and injustice that he sees in his world. Habakkuk knows what injustice and suffering is and he wants God to do something about it.
What Takes Place in This Passage:
The lesson opens in verse one with the inscription “the oracle that the prophet Habakkuk saw.” This inscription explains who we are dealing with. In other words, this inscription explains that these are the words of God from the prophet Habakkuk. The New Revised Standard Version uses the word oracle, the King James Version uses the word burden, and the New International Version uses prophecy. “The oracle that the prophet Habakkuk saw.” The idea is that this is a message from God. This isn’t just something that Habakkuk feels passionate about. This isn’t his idea. This is from God. Lexham Bible Dictionary defines oracle as “a divine message communicated through a human mediator to one or more human recipients.” Habakkuk is the mediator but in this case he is speaking to God for the people. The Pulpit Commentary notes that “the title prophet which is added in the inscriptions only to the names of Haggai, Zechariah, and curiously to Jerimiah implies that Habakkuk exercised the practical office of prophet and was well known.”
Verse two begins the prophet’s complaint to God. When Habakkuk asks the question “how long shall I cry for help?” it indicates he didn’t just now, start crying out. He has been crying out for some time. The Pulpit Commentary notes “The Hebrew is taken to imply that the prophet had long been complaining of the moral depravity of Judah, and calling for help against it.” It seems to me that Habakkuk is saying – I’ve been asking, I’ve been praying, I’ve been pleading God, and still this pain this violence continues. Habakkuk says “Violence! And you will not save.” This is painful. He sees, knows, and understands the hurt, the pain, the harm and the suffering of violence. The violence is difficult to watch and probably triggering. Habakkuk is laying this at the feet of God.
Verse three begins with another question, “why do you make me see wrongdoing and look at trouble?” The NRSV uses the word wrongdoing, the KJV uses iniquity, and the NIV uses injustice. Again, the meaning is the same regardless of which word is used. Iniquity, injustice, wrongdoing all have similar meanings. Other words that make the same point could be wickedness, immorality, or abomination. The point is, this is painful for Habakkuk to see. This also helps us understand that God can handle our questions. Habakkuk is hurt. He is not pleased with how God has allowed this to happen and he questions God. Listen, if your God is too small to be questioned; you serve a small God. It’s not as if God doesn’t already know. God knows the end before our beginning. When we run up on things we can’t understand, things that are painful, hurtful, and even in our view harmful, you aren’t going to hurt God’s feelings if you ask why. You’re not going to make God angry by asking why. God knows our pain and is with us in our pain. Despite what our circumstances may be. God still loves us. Despite our pain, God still loves us. Despite the hurt we may feel, God still loves us, cares for us, and is with us through it all. God loves us even when it’s hard to see the love through our tears.
Verse four begins “So the law becomes slack and justice never prevails.” At this point Habakkuk has no confidence in the law. He has lost trust and confidence in what the law is supposed to do and what it’s supposed to stand for. The Pulpit Commentary explains “the law is slacked” as meaning the law “is chilled, benumbed, no longer of any force or efficacy, or has become a dead letter.” The law is supposed to be the guide for justice and righteousness. Habakkuk believes there is supposed to be justice but instead, he sees injustice, wrongdoing, and iniquity. When the writer says “The wicked surround the righteous, therefore judgement comes forth perverted.” I’m reminded of 2 Corinthians 4:8-10 which reads 8 We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; 9 persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; 10 always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies. In both of these cases the pain is real. The suffering is real. The big difference in Corinthians is that Paul has hope in Jesus Christ whereas Habakkuk, at least at this point, shows no hope. All Habakkuk sees at this point is injustice and wrongdoing on every side.
Our text now skips to verse twelve. Verses one through four deal with Habakkuk’s first complaint to God. Verses five through eleven is God’s response.
Verse twelve begins with a rhetorical question. Habakkuk asks, “Are you not from of old, O Lord my God, my Holy One?” Habakkuk may have lost trust and confidence in the law in verse four, but in this verse he knows God is the God from everlasting to everlasting. The law may have lost its power but he knows God is still the able God. You may also notice that the KJV says “we shall not die” whereas the NIV and the NRSV says “you will never die”. The Pulpit Commentary explains “the original text reads “thou” (or you) will not die” and that the KJV was altered for reverence’ sake.” Verse twelve continues “O Lord, you have marked them for judgement; and you, O Rock, have established them for punishment.” Here, Habakkuk is saying God caused this. God did this. God made, God created, God caused this pain and hurt. It was God who established or ordained the Babylonians for Judah’s punishment. I imagine that it’s hard for Habakkuk to believe that this is true. That it was God’s doing to cause the Babylonian’s to inflict them like this. It’s true, God did do this and I just imagine that it’s crushing Habakkuk to come to this realization.
This raises the notion of theodicy. Theodicy asks the question, how can God uphold God’s justice and goodness when we have all this suffering and evil. The Lexham Bible Dictionary defines theodicy as “the attempt to defend God’s omnipotence and goodness in the face of the problem of evil in the world.” I imagine that’s what Habakkuk is feeling. Habakkuk wants to know why bad things happen to good people. After all, these are God’s people that are suffering violence. Lexham continues “theodicy is based on the belief in an orderly universe which is created by a beneficent God. It seeks to answer how a benevolent, omnipotent, omniscient God allows suffering and pain in God’s creation.” I think many of us can identify with that question – why do bad things happen to good people. It’s a genuine and honest question. And if you’ve lived longer than a few days you’ve probably had to ask that question yourself.
Verse thirteen begins “Your eyes are too pure to behold evil, and you cannot look on wrongdoing;” In the first part of this verse Habakkuk knows God is still able to deliver. He has a confidence in who God is. Habakkuk may have lost confidence in the law in verse four. But at least in the first part of this verse he knows God is still a righteous God. Habakkuk understands and knows the nature and character of God.
In part b of this verse he still doesn’t understand. He knows who God is but that doesn’t mean he knows what God is doing. He is still hurt and confused about this pain, this violence, and suffering. Habakkuk asks God a rhetorical question as if to urge God on to do something about this situation. He asks “why do you look on the treacherous, and are silent when the wicked swallow those more righteous than they? He is asking, why was God allowing these Chaldeans, these Babylonians to inflict this evil upon Judah?
Verse fourteen closes the lesson with what the UBS Handbook on Habakkuk calls the “the beginning of a figurative description of how the Babylonians treat their enemies.” The point in verse fourteen is that Judah is like the fish of the sea and crawling things that have no ruler, no king, or master to guide them.
You may have heard someone say “the only dumb question is the one you don’t ask.” I don’t think that’s completely true, but the idea is that you shouldn’t be afraid to ask a genuine question. I think it also helps us to know that you have to ask the question if you want an answer. Habakkuk wanted an answer from God and he questioned God not once but twice. Genuine questions brought before God out of a sincere heart will never anger, disappoint, or frustrate God. When we come before God just as we are, God receives us just as we are.
Theodicy – The justification of a diety’s justice and goodness in light of suffering and evil.
Justification by Faith (Protestantism) – The theological principle, emphasized in Protestantism, that salvation comes to an individual by God’s grace through faith, so that to be “declared righteous,” or “justified,” or “saved” is on the (sole) basis of one’s faith in Jesus Christ apart from any works or merit (Rom. 1:17; 3:28; 5:1).
Themes, Topics, Discussion, or Sermon Preparation Ideas:
1. When bad things happen to good people.
2. Seeing God’s love through our tears.
Why is it okay to question God from a genuine and sincere heart?
Preview of Next Week’s Lesson:
Next week’s lesson continues in the book of Habakkuk. The lesson comes from the 2:6-14. The lesson for March 15, 2020 is titled “Consequences for Injustice.”
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