Sermons

November 8, 2020

The Wrestling of Faith

Jon Nowlin (North Campus) | Habakkuk 1:1-2:1

The oracle that Habakkuk the prophet saw.

Lord, how long shall I cry for help,
    and you will not hear?
Or cry to you “Violence!”
    and you will not save?
Why do you make me see iniquity,
    and why do you idly look at wrong?
Destruction and violence are before me;
    strife and contention arise.
So the law is paralyzed,
    and justice never goes forth.
For the wicked surround the righteous;
    so justice goes forth perverted.

“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.
For behold, I am raising up the Chaldeans,
    that bitter and hasty nation,
who march through the breadth of the earth,
    to seize dwellings not their own.
They are dreaded and fearsome;
    their justice and dignity go forth from themselves.
Their horses are swifter than leopards,
    more fierce than the evening wolves;
    their horsemen press proudly on.
Their horsemen come from afar;
    they fly like an eagle swift to devour.
They all come for violence,
    all their faces forward.
    They gather captives like sand.
At kings they scoff,
    and at rulers they laugh.
They laugh at every fortress,
    for they pile up earth and take it.
Then they sweep by like the wind and go on,
    guilty men, whose own might is their god!”

Are you not from everlasting,
    Lord my God, my Holy One?
    We shall not die.
Lord, you have ordained them as a judgment,
    and you, O Rock, have established them for reproof.
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?
You make mankind like the fish of the sea,
    like crawling things that have no ruler.
He brings all of them up with a hook;
    he drags them out with his net;
he gathers them in his dragnet;
    so he rejoices and is glad.
Therefore he sacrifices to his net
    and makes offerings to his dragnet;
for by them he lives in luxury,
    and his food is rich.
Is he then to keep on emptying his net
    and mercilessly killing nations forever?

I will take my stand at my watchpost
    and station myself on the tower,
and look out to see what he will say to me,
    and what I will answer concerning my complaint.—Habakkuk 1:1–2:1

Outline

Introduction

  1. Habakkuk’s Historical Setting
  2. Habakkuk’s First Complaint (Habakkuk 1:1–4)
  3. The Lord’s Answer (Habakkuk 1:5–11)
  4. Habakkuk’s Declaration & Complaint (Habakkuk 1:12–17)
  5. Habakkuk’s Final Stance (Habakkuk 2:1)

Conclusion

Introduction

We’re beginning a series today entitled God’s Goodness in Chaos, and as we read the opening of Habakkuk, it is easy to see that these are weighty words. So my question for you is this: what is the chaos in your life right now? Where are you feeling weight? Where are you sensing struggle? What are the things that are hard for you nationally, in your area, in your family, in your workplace? Where are the weights in your life right now? What are you seeking to call God’s attention to and saying, “Based on your sovereignty over all things, this doesn’t make sense”? What things are you crying out to the Lord about for help? What things are you seeking direction to navigate because it’s confusing and you don’t know which direction to go?

The beauty of this book and the reason that this is God’s goodness in chaos to us is not just that it’s the theme of the book, but that’s what the effect of the book can be because it’s God’s word for us. Habakkuk is a little further along the journey than us. He’s walked the road and this is God’s distillation of the insights and the words that he wants for us. So our task today is to understand first what it meant for him, and then what it means for us.

So here’s where we’re headed. We’re going to look at the historical background that this book fits into, then we will look at Habakkuk’s first complaint in verses 2–4, then the Lord’s gentle answer, followed by Habakkuk’s second dialogue/complaint with the Lord, and end in 2:1 with a pause. We will not answer all the questions that this book raises, and we certainly won’t give you all the help that you need to navigate the chaos in our world. But throughout this book, there is language of eyes, vision, seeing, and beholding. What God wants to do in this book is to rivet our eyes on him, on his truth, and on his word, and that’s what we need most.

What is so special about this book is that it’s not like many of the other prophets who have a word for this group of people and that group of people, but rather this is a word between the Lord and his prophet, the Lord and his nation. And we get to look in at it. We get to read Habakkuk’s thoughts written down, as well as the answers that God gives him.

1) Habakkuk’s Historical Setting 

There is no designation in this book that says it’s during this day or this king’s reign, but as we look at the clues and scholars put things together, they believe that it fell in a three year period from about 608–605 B.C. So what was going on during this period of time? Let’s back up a little bit to see that Habakkuk lived among a people, the nation of Israel, that had been divided many years ago, during the reign of their fourth king. Judah (where Habakkuk lived) was separated from the rest of the tribes of Israel. 

Israel set up syncretistic worship and their journey was a downward spiral of rebellion, until the words of Deuteronomy 28 were for them and the Lord raised up the nation of Assyria to defeat them, carry them into exile, and repopulate them. 

So these were very challenging days, and Israel was a warning to the people of Judah who had more of a roller-coaster history. Sometimes they were up and sometimes they were down, depending on their ruler. They saw this happen to Israel, and they even saw Assyria on their doorstep, but the Lord intervened. 

In Habakkuk’s day, it’s very probable that he either knew of or knew personally the days of Manasseh, who was one of the Judean kings. This is what the Bible has to say about the downward slamming of the roller coaster in Manasseh’s day. “Manasseh did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, according to the despicable practices of the nations whom the LORD drove out before the people of Israel” (2 Kings 21:2). He even burned one of his sons on an altar. “He did much evil in the sight of the Lord, provoking him to anger” (2 Kings 21:6). And yet, an 8-year-old named Josiah came to the throne and there was revival in the land, and hopes were stirred. Much good happened, and yet, when this book was written, there were two kings who were evil and quickly led the nation back into a very dark place, so dark that we read about it right here.

2) Habakkuk’s First Complaint (Habakkuk 1:1–4)

The book opens “the oracle that Habakkuk the prophet saw.” All we know, other than we know that he’s going to continue this theme of seeing, is that he’s an authoritative prophet of the Lord. We don’t hear about his relationships, we move right into the word.

O LORD, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not hear? Or cry to you “Violence!” and you will not save? Why do you make me see iniquity, and why do you idly look at wrong?

In the Hebrew, this verse is front-ended with “how long” so really it could be translated “HOW LONG, O Lord!” Notice that each of these are pairs that fit together. Then Habakkuk asks some why questions. “Why is this before my face and it seems like your eyes are glazed over? Lord God, I want to bring your attention to this!” 

Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise.

Then he says what he sees, and gives four descriptors. Do you not see those in our day? Destruction, violence, strife, and contention—these are very applicable words for us. 

So the law is paralyzed, and justice never goes forth.

Your word is falling on hard hearts, God! It’s going forth as a paralyzed man, and that means it doesn’t go forth. It doesn’t accomplish what it should. God, why?

For the wicked surround the righteous; so justice goes forth perverted.

It’s like they are ganging up on the righteous. This is not good. Lord, I am crying out to you about these things. 

How does this apply to us?

I think we could easily look at Twitter, at the news, maybe at conversations around us, but really this word is for the church. Why do I say that? This was written to Judah; remember, they were meant to be a kingdom of priests, a holy nation. Who is the church? Review back to 1 Peter: a holy nation. We are the priests. We have been adopted in as Gentiles to this wonderful mission of the Lord and given a specific place to display the Lord God. And this covenant people of God is not doing that. So we need to first begin by asking ourselves, “Where is the church not doing that?” We need to ask ourselves several questions:

  • Are we taking advantage of the weak in any way? Let me give you one small example. Consider the statistics on pornography between those in the world and those in the church. If you want an example of something that brings destruction, where the weak are being oppressed by the strong, that’s one example.
  • Is the law going forth paralyzed among his church? Are we hard hearted? Why did James say “receive the word with meekness” to the church? Because they needed to be told that. Are we hard hearted? Is the word going in one ear and out the other and not affecting our lives? Are we looking at ourselves in the mirror and then walking away and doing nothing about it? Church, is this true of you? Is our life displaying God’s word or is it twisted by our actions? 
  • Are strife and contention arising among us? I’m not asking whether we can see it in the world around us, but is it arising among us as the church?

The first thing that we should do is look carefully, lay our heart before the Lord, and repent. And then we should also examine our prayer lives. If you looked at a transcript of your prayer life, as I’ve looked at mine and been convicted by this, are you crying out to the Lord for the things around you? Am I making time, or am I just too weary about the challenges to try and translate those challenges into prayer to the Lord? May it be said of us that we were the people who cried out to the Lord for a long time. How long, O Lord, when?

3) The Lord’s Answer (Habakkuk 1:5–11)

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.
For behold, I am raising up the Chaldeans ...

We need to pause and see something that is there in the original language. This was not something just written to Habakkuk. There are four plurals in this verse. “Look” and “wonder” are plural commands; “your days” is written to a plural people, “that you would not believe if told” is a plural you. Why is that significant? How many of us in these weighty days feel alone? How many of us feel, “Am I the only one who is seeing this?” Take heart, church, you are not alone. You are not the only one bringing these things before the Lord. May he help you find others so you can bring it to the Lord together. But even more, you are never alone. “I am with you always,” Jesus Christ says, “to the end of the age.” And we have a great high priest who is seated and who is interceding for us. Take heart: You are not alone.

But we also need to wrestle with the command here. We are supposed to look and wonder. This is not just saying that something bad is coming for this people, but also that God is raising them up. Just like his word was paralyzed, he is causing this nation to stand. This nation that came out of nowhere if you were looking at the history books. One commentator said, “They became the world rulers over Babylonia, Assyria, Syria, Palestine, and Egypt when twenty years previously they were hardly known to exist” (Robertson, p. 149). Here’s a historical example of the sovereignty of our God. We should be astounded that God would raise up this nation. Just look at what it says about them in verse 6.

For behold, I am raising up the Chaldeans,
    that bitter and hasty nation,
who march through the breadth of the earth,
     to seize dwellings not their own.

They are hasty. They’re not going to give thought or be gentle. They’re going to make fast decisions and leave the results as they lie. 

They are dreaded and fearsome;
     their justice and dignity go forth from themselves.

Where Judah’s justice goes forth perverted, the Chaldeans are a law unto themselves. Judah is being warned. What the Chaldeans call “good” Judah would not, but that is their law. 

Their horses are swifter than leopards,
     more fierce than the evening wolves;
     their horsemen press proudly on.
Their horsemen come from afar;
     they fly like an eagle swift to devour.
They all come for violence,
     all their faces forward.
     They gather captives like sand.

These verses stir up images in our mind. Habakkuk had said, “How long, O Lord?” and the scary, astounding answer he’s given is that it’s coming swiftly. Habakkuk had cried out “violence!” and this is the Chaldeans’ mission statement. 

At kings they scoff,
     and at rulers they laugh.
They laugh at every fortress,
     for they pile up earth and take it.
Then they sweep by like the wind and go on,
     guilty men, whose own might is their god!”

Israel’s history was that sometimes, by bribery or by the Lord’s kindness, they trusted other nations, were rescued by other nations, and banded together with other nations. No such story here. Other nations would be mowed down as the Chaldeans come for Judah. Notice, as they’re destroying other nations they don’t stop and pause, but they just keep coming to dominate and rule the world. 

How does this apply to us?

Our good God is raising up this people, empowering this people, as his tool. What are we supposed to do with that? This is a good analogy of the problem of evil, which we’ll try to wrestle with in this series. We see ugliness in front of our faces and we’re trying to figure out how to hold God’s goodness and sovereignty and all these things together. We won’t answer all of your questions, but wrestle with that. 

We also need to wonder about the seriousness of sin. Would God really go to those extremes because of our rebellion? Yes. For those of us on this side of the cross, it can help us see how serious it was that Jesus took the wrath of God on the cross. Sin is serious—do you see it? Praise the Lord our sin is paid for on the cross, and it’s serious. Run from it. Be God’s holy people, by his empowering. 

4) Habakkuk’s Declaration & Complaint (Habakkuk 1:12–17)

We get to see how Habakkuk wrestles and wonders on these things and how he can find stability. Perhaps my favorite verse in this section is verse 12. Here’s the analogy I would give for it: Habakkuk is placed in a large ocean-going sailboat. The storm is coming and he sees it on the horizon. What is going to keep him from capsizing? A massive ballast. We don’t see it on the surface, but it’s a massive piece that keeps him from capsizing. What is Habakkuk’s ballast? That is what we need today when we see the chaos around us. 

Are you not from everlasting,
     O Lord my God, my Holy One?
     We shall not die.

This is not a doubting question, but a rhetorical question to say, “Of course God is from everlasting.” This is an Old Testament tag to remind us to think about the story of our great God. Look at what he has done throughout history. Look at what he did in the wilderness, look at what he did through Joseph. And we as the people on this side of the cross can say, “Look at what he did in our history.” He came to earth. He lived a perfect life; he was tempted in every way and yet without sin. He suffered unjustly; he bore our penalty. Look at the story of our great God and consider who he is. 

He personalizes these names for God, and both are rare uses in the Old Testament. “O Lord my God” shows up throughout the Psalms when the psalmist is seeking to cling to the closeness of the Lord and yet wrestle with troubles and hardships. This is the only place in the Old Testament where we see the phrase “my Holy One.” I think Habakkuk loves the attribute of the holiness of God and says, “You are my holy one.” 

What would you say about your God? Who is he to you? Let me pause and say that there are some among us for whom those things are not true. You cannot say, “He is my covenant God.” On the night Jesus was betrayed, he said, “This is the new covenant in my blood.” The covenant where he lived the perfect life, where he pays the sacrifice. Come, drink of his cup. See the seriousness of sin in this book and flee to the Savior. Today is the day of salvation. 

A) Statement of Faith

Habakkuk goes on to say “we shall not die.” What does he mean by that? This a group coming for violence. They are mowing down other peoples. So how can Habakkuk say they will not die? He is saying that they will not utterly be cut off or forsaken. Just as it was said by Paul in Romans 8:31, “If God is for us, who can be against us?” He’s not saying no one can be against us if we’re with Jesus. He’s saying no one can ultimately be against us; no one can take us out of his hand. We shall not die or be cut off because God has made covenant promises of a prophet like Moses, one from the house of David, who will reign forever. Jesus is coming. And we know that he has come and that he will come again.

The first place Habakkuk finds ballast is in fixing his faith on the Lord’s proven character. I encourage you to do that as well. Fix your mind on the Lord’s proven character, his story, and his revealed nature in the Scriptures. 

But also, what happens next in this line of poetry, we see Habakkuk seeking to find a way to navigate his world through the word of God in the midst of his chaotic circumstances. 

O Lord, you have ordained them as a judgment,
     and you, O Rock, have established them for reproof.

Habakkuk is talking about the sovereignty of God and using a nation as judgment. Where does he get that? In Deuteronomy 28, after God lays out the many blessings he wants to lavish on his people, he says, “Many judgments will come upon you if you persist in rebelling against me.” In Deuteronomy 28:49, he says, “The Lord will bring a nation against you from far away, from the end of the earth, swooping down like the eagle, a nation whose language you do not understand, a hard-faced nation who shall not respect the old or show mercy to the young.” Habakkuk knew that the Lord would use other nations to judge his people if his people persisted in rebellion. 

What’s more, his use of the word “the rock” calls back to Deuteronomy 32, where the Lord is called the rock five different times. “The Rock, his work is perfect, for all his ways are justice. A God of faithfulness and without iniquity, just and upright is he” (Deuteronomy 32:4).

What Scripture are you clinging to in these chaotic days? Where are you getting your ballast from God’s word? How are you being reoriented by the Scriptures to know how to live in hard times? Habakkuk was orienting himself around God’s word, and from that orientation, he seeks to wrestle. Before we look at his final wrestling, you need to know that he has not been corrected. The Lord has responded to him in gentleness. He has not offered pushback or said that Habakkuk does not see things rightly. We can wrestle with our God about difficult things, and we must.

B) Question One: Consider the Scales of Justice

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?

The first thing Habakkuk asks is for the Lord to look at the scales of justice. Who is heavier on the scales of justice, the people of Judah or the Chaldeans? Why is the Lord using the Chaldeans to judge Judah? Habakkuk knows God’s works are perfect and ways are just, and he wants to understand and wrestle with what doesn’t make sense.

C) Question Two: Consider the Inhumane Treatment

You make mankind like the fish of the sea,
     like crawling things that have no ruler.
He brings all of them up with a hook;
     he drags them out with his net;
he gathers them in his dragnet;
     so he rejoices and is glad.
Therefore he sacrifices to his net
     and makes offerings to his dragnet;
for by them he lives in luxury,
     and his food is rich.
Is he then to keep on emptying his net
     and mercilessly killing nations forever?

We see extended imagery about fish, where Habakkuk asks about the inhumane way that the Chaldeans treat other nations. To grasp Habakkuk’s illustration, consider people in the nets, being brought up by a hook, and feel Habakkuk’s horror at their treatment. This people is religiously vile as well. They do not honor the Lord but rather their tools of warfare. For these reasons he asks the Lord if he will allow this to persist. 

5) Habakkuk’s Final Stance (Habakkuk 2:1)

Next week, Pastor Brian Liechty will open up the rest of this chapter to see how the Lord responds. But look at Habakkuk’s final stance in 2:1:

I will take my stand at my watchpost
     and station myself on the tower,
and look out to see what he will say to me,
     and what I will answer concerning my complaint.

This is a man who has confidence to boldly approach the throne, to lay out his complaint in very strong language before the Lord. And the Lord engages with him in those things. This is not like Job trying to take the Lord into his own courtroom. We see a man wrestling with his faith, so that we might wrestle with our faith.

Conclusion

What are we to do with this weighty word for our weighty times? First, bring your wrestlings to the Lord. Second, cry out about the wrong among us, the things that are before your eyes. Seek his help—may we be people who cry “How long, O Lord!” because we continue crying out to him. Third, if you see sin in your life, bring it into the light. God gives grace to the humble and opposes the proud. We see a proud people here who kept resisting God. Today is the day of salvation. Today is the day to bring it into the light and receive mercy. Right now, our Lord God Jesus Christ is gentle and lowly and welcoming people to come to him. He will return in judgment, and people will run from him and flee to the hills. Turn to Christ and bring your sin to him. Seek mercy from him while it may be found. Finally, we need to seek God’s help to keep a firm grip on his character found in his word. We must look at his story and read his Scriptures. I was encouraged this week as I read the book of Joshua that our God is the king of all the earth. Find help in his word; look at his character. And seek his help to figure out where in the Scriptures you can find help to navigate the struggles that you’re facing. That’s what Habakkuk did. This is how we move through chaotic times. This is what the Lord has for us, and it is good.

Sermon Discussion Questions

  • The title of our new series is Habakkuk: The Goodness of God in Chaos. Consider your life and the world around you. What things have seemed especially chaotic and weighty in recent days (internationally, nationally, or personally)? In what ways?  
  • Habakkuk is ahead of us on the journey of faith in chaotic times. Who has been ahead of you on your faith journey? How did you learn from them? 
  • In verse 12, Habakkuk seeks to regain his footing after God’s unsettling reply. Where do you see a need for help with stability in your life? Of the things that give ballast to Habakkuk’s faith which has been the most essential for you in your life (i.e., God’s word, God’s story of steadfast love, God’s character). How has it been a ballast for you? 

Small Group-Specific Questions

  • What stood out to you from Habakkuk’s first complaint (1:2-4)? How did you respond when you heard that this is most applicable to the church? Which of his complaints most caught your attention? In what ways can we pray for you in relationship to these areas? For our wider Christian community? For our church? 
  • How did you respond to God’s call to look and wonder in verse 5? How have you wrestled with the problem of evil in the past? How serious is sin in your eyes? How can we help you in one or both of those areas? 
  • In what ways can we pray for you in your journey of faith this week?

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