November 15, 2020
Brian Liechty (North Campus) | Habakkuk 2:2-20
And the Lord answered me:
“Write the vision;
make it plain on tablets,
so he may run who reads it.
For still the vision awaits its appointed time;
it hastens to the end—it will not lie.
If it seems slow, wait for it;
it will surely come; it will not delay.
“Behold, his soul is puffed up; it is not upright within him,
but the righteous shall live by his faith.
“Moreover, wine is a traitor,
an arrogant man who is never at rest.
His greed is as wide as Sheol;
like death he has never enough.
He gathers for himself all nations
and collects as his own all peoples.”
Shall not all these take up their taunt against him, with scoffing and riddles for him, and say,
“Woe to him who heaps up what is not his own—
for how long?—
and loads himself with pledges!”
Will not your debtors suddenly arise,
and those awake who will make you tremble?
Then you will be spoil for them.
Because you have plundered many nations,
all the remnant of the peoples shall plunder you,
for the blood of man and violence to the earth,
to cities and all who dwell in them.
“Woe to him who gets evil gain for his house,
to set his nest on high,
to be safe from the reach of harm!
You have devised shame for your house
by cutting off many peoples;
you have forfeited your life.
For the stone will cry out from the wall,
and the beam from the woodwork respond.
“Woe to him who builds a town with blood
and founds a city on iniquity!
Behold, is it not from the Lord of hosts
that peoples labor merely for fire,
and nations weary themselves for nothing?
For the earth will be filled
with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea.
“Woe to him who makes his neighbors drink—
you pour out your wrath and make them drunk,
in order to gaze at their nakedness!
You will have your fill of shame instead of glory.
Drink, yourself, and show your uncircumcision!
The cup in the Lord's right hand
will come around to you,
and utter shame will come upon your glory!
The violence done to Lebanon will overwhelm you,
as will the destruction of the beasts that terrified them,
for the blood of man and violence to the earth,
to cities and all who dwell in them.
“What profit is an idol
when its maker has shaped it,
a metal image, a teacher of lies?
For its maker trusts in his own creation
when he makes speechless idols!
Woe to him who says to a wooden thing, Awake;
to a silent stone, Arise!
Can this teach?
Behold, it is overlaid with gold and silver,
and there is no breath at all in it.
But the Lord is in his holy temple;
let all the earth keep silence before him.”—Habakkuk 2:2–20
For those who were with us last week, you know we started a short series through the book of Habakkuk—a book that likely dates back to around 605 B.C. And last week as we looked at chapter 1, we saw this amazing dialogue between the prophet and God. Chapter 1 started with Habakkuk asking God why he wasn’t doing anything about sin and violence that was happening among God’s people in Judah. And of course, God responded by saying, “I am doing something. I’m raising up the Babylonians. In fact, I’m going to use them as my instruments to judge the sin that’s happening in Judah.”
As we saw, God’s answer was extremely troubling for Habakkuk. You see, Habakkuk knew that Judah’s sin was an affront to God. And Habakkuk knew that because God is a holy God, he must punish their sin. But what he didn’t understand was how God could allow his people to be judged by the Babylonians. After all, the Babylonians were far more wicked and sinful than the people of Judah. So essentially, Habakkuk was struggling to reconcile God’s character with his actions. He couldn’t reconcile how such a just God could allow such injustice. That’s why in verse 13 he says, “You who are of purer eyes than to see evil and cannot look at wrong, why do you idly look at traitors and remain silent when the wicked swallows up the man more righteous than he?” Again, Habakkuk wanted to know how such a just and holy God could allow such injustice.
And in many ways that’s a question we all wrestle with at times, isn’t it? Some of us wrestle with this question because of what we see happening in the world. After all, we live in a world where human trafficking and racism and oppression are rampant. We live in a world where genocidal dictators and corrupt politicians and sexual predators often go unpunished. Others of us wrestle with this question because of the sin and injustices that we’ve experienced. For instance, some of you have lost a job with no explanation after years and years of faithful service. You may be thinking: “How could this happen? This just isn’t right.” Others of you were assaulted or taken advantage of when you were younger. You may be wondering, “Will I ever get back those years that were lost?” or “Will they ever have to pay for what they did?” And yet others of you have been victims of domestic abuse. And you may be thinking: “Are they going to get away with this? Even though the cops won’t intervene, can’t someone hold them accountable?”
Brothers and sisters, at some point we all wrestle with Habakkuk’s question. We all wrestle with how such a just God could allow such injustice. And thankfully, God has an answer not just for Habakkuk but for all of us. In fact, that’s what we find as we turn our attention to chapter 2 this morning. In verses 2–20 God answers Habakkuk by doing three things. First, God tells Habakkuk to write down an important vision he is about to give. Second, God encourages the righteous to live by faith until this vision is fulfilled. And third, God shares his vision with Habakkuk.
Now the word for vision here often refers to a prophetic message or revelation. In other words, God has something important he wants to share with Habakkuk. In fact, it’s so important that God wants him to write it down and make it plain on tablets. He wants this message to be legible and clear.
And God says the reason he wants this message to be written down clearly is so that “he may run who reads it.” Now that phase, “he may run who reads it” could be understood in a couple of different ways. The person who is running here could be a messenger who goes from town to town with these tablets so they can be read to others. If that’s the case, it would be like a modern-day politician who goes to various cities to hold and hold rallies and share his message. It’s also possible that the person who is running here is actually the one reading the message. If that’s the case, the idea is similar to what happens when you drive by someone who is advertising by wearing a sandwich board. Even though you’re driving by, their message is so big and clear that you can read it. So which is it, the politician or the person going past the sandwich board? To be honest, I don’t know. But either way, God’s point is the same.
God wants Habakkuk to write down this vision and make it plain because he wants this message to be shared with others! He wants it to go public. He wants Habakkuk and his contemporaries—and yes, even us—to read and receive this message.
But there’s something else important that God wants Habakkuk to know about this vision before he writes it down. Look at verse 3. God says, “For still the vision awaits its appointed time; it hastens to the end—it will not lie. If it seems slow, wait for it; it will surely come; it will not delay.” In other words, this prophetic message that God is about to give is for a future time. So it’s not going to happen right away. It’s not going to be fulfilled immediately. But that said, it will happen. So God promises that this vision will in fact take place. It will take place according to the timetable he has set. But that brings up an important question: What are Habakkuk and the righteous supposed to do while they wait for this vision to be fulfilled? That leads us to our next point.
Look with me again at verse 4–5: “Behold, his soul is puffed up; it is not upright within him, but the righteous shall live by his faith. Moreover, wine is a traitor, an arrogant man who is never at rest. His greed is as wide as Sheol; like death he has never enough. He gathers for himself all nations and collects as his own all peoples.” So who is this one whose soul is puffed up, whose greed is as wide as Sheol, and who gathers for himself all nations? Given the context, this certainly refers to Babylon. After all, we know from chapter 1 that God is going to raise up the Babylonians to judge his people. And in time that’s exactly what happened. But I think these verses also address people or nations that are like Babylon—people or nations who are rebelling against God and among the wicked. That’s one of the reasons why God uses general pronouns in these verses rather than addressing Babylon directly. God uses the language of “he” and “him” and “his” because these verses actually apply to anyone who is wicked.
And what about this righteous person who is mentioned in verse 4? Who is that referring to? Is that referring to Habakkuk? Is that referring to others within Judah who shared Habakkuk’s concerns? Is that referring to Christians in our day? I would say, yes. I would say it refers to anyone that God has declared to be righteous. Again, that’s why God uses general language here. And as we know, God doesn’t declare people righteous because of how good they are or how many works they do. He declares them righteous because he’s being gracious. He declares them righteous because in spite of their sin, he’s chosen to have a relationship with them. So in many ways we could say that verses 4 and 5 are addressing two categories of people: the wicked and the righteous. “The wicked” includes the Babylonians and those who are like them. The righteous include Habakkuk and all those whom God graciously declares as righteous. But there’s something else you need to see in these verses. Not only do verses 4 and 5 address the wicked and the righteous: they actually contrast the way they live.
Notice that the wicked are characterized by pride. That’s why it talks about their soul being puffed up. In other words, they’re full of arrogance. They overrate their own importance. Their agenda is all about themselves. In the case of the Babylonians they were puffed up with pride in their achievements and possessions and military power. And not only are the wickeds’ souls puffed up, they’re also not upright. In other words, their souls are not in right relation to God. Sadly, they delight in things God hates. And ultimately they trust in themselves instead of God.
A little over a year ago my wife started working in a grocery store. And one of the things she’s noticed more and more—especially in the past few months—is that people are wearing masks with messages on them. And some of those messages are really fun. Some of them say things like “Oof-dah” or “You Betcha,” or my personal favorite, “Dr. Fauci Fan Club.” Others, though, are a little bit snarky. They say things like “OK Boomer” or “I may be wrong, but I doubt it.” But some of these masks that people wear have messages that are really sad and disturbing. For instance, the other day my wife saw a woman wearing a mask that said, “My body, my choice.” Now whether this woman knows it or not, she’s not just making a political statement or even a personal statement. She’s making a prideful statement—one that greatly offends God. It’s as if she’s shaking her fist at God and saying: “You’re not in charge of me. I can do whatever I think is best. The only person I answer to is me.” Now I’ve never met this woman. I don’t know her. And it’s possible she doesn’t understand the message she’s communicating. But I do know what our text says. And it’s a warning to every single one of us. The souls of the wicked are puffed up. They are not right before God. Sadly, they are characterized by pride.
All right, so we know the wicked are characterized by pride, but what about the righteous? Well, according to verse 4, the “righteous shall live by his faith.” Now when most of you hear that phrase, you immediately think about passages like Romans 1:17 or Galatians 3:11 where Paul quotes this verse. But it’s important to understand that when Paul quotes this verse, he’s using it to explain how a person is declared righteous before God. So he’s using it to articulate the doctrine of justification—that in spite of our great sin, we can be declared righteous through faith in Christ. Here in Habakkuk, the emphasis isn’t so much on how someone is declared righteous but on how a person who has been declared righteous lives. So in verse 4, God’s instructing the person who has already been declared righteous by faith to keep living by faith. He’s saying, “Keep trusting in me regardless of what you see happening around you.” He’s saying, “Continue to have confidence that I will stay true to my character.” He’s saying, “Keep relying on my Word and on every promise I make.”
And of course, that fits with the context here, doesn’t it? Remember, Habakkuk was crying out to God on behalf of the righteous. He was wrestling with how such a just God could allow such injustice. And God told him that an answer was coming; he told him to write down a vision that would take place in the future. And so what are Habakkuk and the righteous supposed to do while they wait for this vision to be fulfilled? Well, they’re to keep trusting God. They’re to keep relying on his word. Unlike the wicked who pridefully trust in themselves, the righteous are to live by faith.
In many ways, our entire passage has been building up to this. God began by telling Habakkuk to write down an important vision he was about to give. Then he encouraged the righteous to live by faith until that vision was fulfilled. And now, in verses 6–20, God shares his vision. He shares a prophetic message that he wants to be read and shared for generations to come. And his vision is a vision of coming judgment.
So let’s start by looking at verse 6. It says: “Shall not all these take up their taunt against him, with scoffing and riddles for him.” The idea here is that a day is coming when various nations and peoples who’ve been oppressed by Babylon are going to join together to mock them. And the way they are going to do that is by declaring five woes of judgment. And each woe of judgment is going to address a particular transgression or sin that the Babylonians have committed. Now, even though these woes address Babylon, they also apply those like Babylon—those who are among the wicked and marked by pride. That’s why, similar to what we saw earlier, God continues to use general pronouns in this section. That’s why he leaves the various parties unidentified. So as we read these woes, they should be read as a warning. They’re a warning to all who follow in the footsteps of Babylon—to all who walk in pride and rebellion against God—that a day is coming when they will face judgment for their sin. And so with that in mind, let’s look briefly at each of these woes.
First, in verses 6–8, we see a woe of judgment against the greedy. Essentially, God is addressing those who continually acquire wealth and try to build their own kingdom. And of course, that’s exactly what the Babylonians did. As they invaded various countries and began to conquer nations, they plundered helpless people. They hoarded stolen goods. But in this woe, God makes it clear that a day of judgment is coming when that’s going to end. In fact, a day is coming when the nations that remain will rise up to condemn Babylon and take back what belongs to them. So sort of like creditors coming to collect, they’re going to plunder the Babylonians who plundered them. In other words, justice will happen. The greedy will reap what they sow.
Second, in verses 9–11 we see a woe of judgment against those with selfish ambition. And the picture here is of oppressors, like the Babylonians, who took land that wasn’t theirs in order to build houses and empires for themselves. And much like a bird that builds a nest out of the reach of its enemies, these oppressors tried to build houses that were secure and out of reach.
But as we know, it doesn’t matter how strong you build your house, if it’s not built on the Rock, it’s not going to stand. That’s why God says they’ve actually devised shame for themselves. So rather than living out their days in safety and security, they are going to face God’s judgment. Their fate is so clear that even the materials they used to build these houses testify against them. Again, a day of reckoning and judgment is coming for those with selfish ambition.
Third, in verses 12–14 we see a woe of judgment against those who are violent. Notice how verse 12 says, “Woe to him who builds a town with blood and founds a city on iniquity!” Here the problem is not so much the building of these towns and cities but how they were built. They were built sinfully through violence and injustice. And in the case of the Babylonians, that happened in a really horrific way. They actually used prisoners of war and slave labor to build their cities—often under horrible conditions. But once again, God will not stand for this. As he says in verse 13: “Behold, is it not from the Lord of hosts that peoples labor merely for fire, and nations weary themselves for nothing?” God is saying it’s just a matter of time before he raises up another superpower to conquer the Babylonians. It’s just a matter of time before he raises up another nation who will set fire to their buildings just like they did to so many others before them. So in the end, all of their labors, all of their efforts to build these cities, will be in vain. As our text says, they weary themselves for “nothing.” Not only that, but as verse 14 shares, a day is coming when “the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.” In other words, when these woes of judgment are fulfilled, something amazing is going to happen. The knowledge of God’s glory is going to be spread throughout the earth. And God’s glory here refers to a display of his character. In some ways it’s similar to what Moses experienced when God passed before him and announced himself to be merciful and gracious and just. So God is saying that a day is coming when his character will be known to everyone. As these woes of judgment are fulfilled, the knowledge of God’s holiness and righteousness will be evident to all.
But there’s more here. In verses 15–17 we see another woe—and this time it’s a woe against those who exploit others and take advantage of them. That’s what the text is referring to when it talks about oppressors making people drunk and gazing at the nakedness. The Babylonians and those like them were acting like someone who gets a person drunk at a bar so they can take advantage of them. Sadly, they took joy in demeaning others and shaming their victims. But once again, the Babylonians and those like them will get what they deserve because God is a holy God. Just as God told Moses when He passed before him, he will by no means let the guilty go unpunished. And so what does God do? He promises to shame them in the same way they shamed others. In fact, in the same way they gave their victims a cup to drink from, God is going to give them a cup to drink from. Only this cup is not going to be filled with wine. It’s going to be filled with God’s wrath—his righteous anger against sin. Friends, make no mistake, these sins committed by Babylon and the wicked don’t just offend their victims—they offend God. The reality is that God hates all sin because it violates his character and undermines his law. That’s why God is going to judge every form of wickedness, including those who exploit others and take advantage of them. Again, God will judge those who exploit others and take advantage of them.
And then finally, in verses 18–20 we see a fifth woe of judgment against idolaters. And in many ways, this woe gets at the heart of Babylon’s sin and really all of our sin. The reason any of us go down a path of greed or selfish ambition or violence or exploitation is because we turn from the living God and pursue idols instead. And as most of us know from our own sinful experience, an idol doesn’t have to be image crafted from metal or stone or wood. It can be things like comfort or achievement or pleasure or anything else we’re more devoted to than God. But as God points out, at the end of the day, an idol is lifeless. It doesn’t help. It can’t satisfy. And it certainly won’t save. God on the other hand, is very much alive. In fact, verse 20 says, “the LORD is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him.” In other words, God is ruling and reigning from his heavenly dwelling. So he and he alone deserves our worship and allegiance. And at the end of the day, when these woes come to pass, every single person will recognize that reality. God’s righteous rule and just reign will be so evident that all the earth will be silent before him.
So think about our question from earlier—the one that Habakkuk asked and that we often ask: “How can such a just God allow such injustice?” Well, in verses 6–20, God has given his answer.
The answer is that God won’t let Babylon get away with what they’re doing. He’s going to judge them and all who follow in their footsteps. So even though God uses corrupt nations and people to carry out his purposes, he will ultimately hold them accountable. That means every evil deed, every act of rebellion, and every instance of injustice will be punished. Again, a day is coming when God will fully and finally establish his justice. And when he does the whole world will know it!
So when will that happen? When exactly will these judgments occur? When will this vision come to pass? Like a lot of prophecy, this vision has multiple layers of fulfillment. In some ways it’s like a plant that grows over time. First you see sprouts and then it grows leaves and then it forms buds and then eventually it becomes a mature plant with flowers that are in full bloom. I believe the first layer of fulfillment (or sprout, if you will) happened in 539 B.C. That’s when God raised up the Medes and Persians to overthrow Babylon. And of course, that judgment is what allowed God’s people to return from exile and begin rebuilding the temple. But as you and I both know greed, violence, idolatry, and all sorts of evils have continued to this day. And so what has happened is that at various times in history God has brought additional layers of fulfillment to this vision. So for instance, I believe he brought a layer of fulfillment to this vision when the Roman Empire fell in 476 A.D. I also believe he brought a layer of fulfillment to this vision when the Nazis and the Axis powers were defeated in WWII. And it may be that God is bringing another layer of fulfillment in our day—it may be that he brings judgement to other nations or even ours.
But one thing we know for certain is that at the end of history this vision will reach its ultimate fulfillment. So this plant will eventually see its full bloom. And it’s going to see its full bloom when God’s very own Son, Jesus, comes back to the earth at his second coming. On that day God’s righteous judgment will be revealed. On that day every person will be held accountable for what they’ve done. And on that day all those who’ve been found righteous in Christ will receive eternal life, but all those who remain outside of him will receive eternal punishment.
So friends, how do we respond to this vision that will be fulfilled when Jesus returns? For those of you here this morning who are not Christians—those of you who have yet to turn from your sins and trust in Jesus—this is a very sobering message. It’s sobering to hear how our sin is an affront to God. It’s sobering to hear that God’s holiness requires our sin to be punished. And it’s also sobering to hear that a day of judgment that is coming when we will have to give an account for what we’ve done. But I want you to know there is hope. There’s hope because of what Jesus did when he came to the earth the first time. You see, when Jesus came to the earth some 2,000 years ago, he lived a perfect life. So unlike you and I, he never sinned or did anything unjust. And yet at the end of his life he willingly died on a cross, taking the place of sinners and paying the penalty their sins deserved. And then three days later Jesus rose from the grave demonstrating that he had satisfied God’s justice against their sin. And as we’ve just heard, one day he’s going to return to this earth to bring judgment and establish God’s eternal kingdom. And when he does, all those who have trusted in him—all those who God has declared righteous through faith in him—will receive the gift of eternal life. But for those who reject him—those who remain in their sin, those who continue to rebel—they will receive eternal punishment. So if you’re here today and you’ve been greedy or had selfish ambition or been violent or exploited others or devoted yourself to idols, it’s not too late. You don’t have to experience God’s justice against your sin. You don’t have to face the eternal punishment you deserve. If you trust in Jesus, all your sins will be forgiven. You’ll be declared righteous in God’s sight. And you’ll be able to enjoy eternal life with God. So trust in him! Trust in Jesus for the forgiveness of your sins and the gift of eternal life.
What about for those of you here this morning who have already trusted in Jesus? How should you respond? I want to encourage you with what we talked about earlier: The “righteous shall live by faith.” As you and I know, the Christian life not only starts by faith, it continues by faith. So each and every day we seek to walk by faith and not by sight. Each and every day we look to God to fulfill his promises to us in Christ. And that includes the promises that are found in this vision—that a day of judgment is coming. So if you’re here this morning and you’re wrestling with injustices that are happening in our world or in your own life, know that justice will occur. God is a holy God and he will not let sin go unpunished. He will provide perfect justice for every evil deed, whether at the cross or in hell. So you can trust God to settle every matter in his time. You can have confidence that he will make every wrong right. You can entrust yourself to the One who judges justly. So brother and sisters, until he returns let’s fix our eyes on Jesus. Let’s keep looking to the founder and perfecter of our faith. He will help us. He will help the righteous to live by faith.