The piercing message of Habakkuk takes on the critical issues facing the people of Judah as they were headed toward exile, and also speaks to the deep societal infirmities we face today.
The structure of the first two of the three chapters of Habakkuk takes the form of complaint/response between the prophet and the Lord. This week’s lectionary passage, grouping the first four verses of chapter one with the first four verses of chapter two, is odd. Habakkuk 1:1-4, is obviously the first complaint the prophet brings to the Lord. Habakkuk 2:1-4 is not the Lord’s immediate reply to this complaint, but rather the response to Habakkuk’s second complaint articulated at the end of chapter one. It would be easier for us if 2:1-4 was indeed the direct response of the complaint of 1:1-4, but the verses in between these short passages add more difficulty to the people of Judah as well as to us.
Habakkuk’s first complaint (1:1-4) centers on the following;
—the Lord seems to be distant and indifferent, unable or unwilling to intervene in the problems of his people.
—society is marred with an abundance of violence, destruction, and endless conflict causing innocent people to suffer.
—politicians and the laws they propose are impotent to make a difference in the lives of the people in misery.
—and ultimately, the wicked triumph, and justice is evasive.
Society is stuck in a downward cycle of violence, nothing seems to make a difference. God seems so far away. Where is this heading, what will come next? How long can people bare this? And will better days ever come?
We certainly can identify with this sentiment in our day. How many times recently have we felt what Habakkuk describes? The senseless violence of mass shootings seem to be a regular occurrence. In their aftermath, we expect our politicians to say the right things with the proper mix of outrage and hope for change. They offer external, political solutions and promise to pass the laws that will make these shootings stop. But just as in the days of Habakkuk, the words of the politicians fall empty and their promised laws wither limp. Nothing changes. Violence continues. And we wonder if this will ever be different.
The Lord’s response (1:5-11) in the following verses of chapter one starts out so promising. God is ready to take on this problem and the people are promised to be completely and utterly amazed at his action. Such news is received like a balm to the deep, lingering ache in the souls of the people of Judah. No longer will they have to endure such agony because God is beginning to respond and it is going to be awesome. Change is near!
But then comes the realization that the solution is even more unbearably painful than the problem itself. The Lord’s response to Habakkuk’s complaint is to enlist the ruthless and impetuous Babylonians to sweep in and rule over them and ultimately carry them into exile. How can this be? This is a horrible nightmare increasing further the pain and suffering of the people.
Habakuk then lodges his second complaint before the Lord (1:12-2:1). How can the Lord tolerate the wicked Babylonians to punish those more righteous? Aren’t the Lord’s eyes too pure to look on the evil of the Babylonians? How can the Lord tolerate their wrongdoing?
The Lord’s response to the second complaint (2:2-4) is that there will be an end and it will not linger too long. The enemy will be seen as puffed up and not upright. The righteous will live by faithfulness.
How are we to receive the message of Habakkuk today? We eagerly usher violence into our homes and willingly invite it to entertain us. We pay money for video games and movies that depict the worst forms of violence. We cheer on athletes to fight and mercilessly crush their opponents. And then when violence rears its ugly head again in another form in our society we cry out for mercy.
If Habakuk could speak to us today, I think his prophetic complaint against us would be; “America, there is a hole in your soul, a cancer that is eating you from the inside. Expecting external, politics and new laws to remedy the situation is like prescribing aspirin for your malignant tumor. You need divine healing on the inside.”
Although good politics and passing new laws is an admiral endeavor, it but will always fall far short of healing the mortal, internal wound of our societal soul. Only divine intervention will save us.
But God has given us a pathway for healing earlier in the history of the people of Israel. II Chronicles 7:14 is the Lord’s response to Solomon’s prayer of dedication of his newly rebuilt temple. Rather than an external solution, the remedy is internal, beginning with the people of God. The Lord’s people are called to;
—seek the Lord’s face
—and turn from their wicked ways
This verse is a conditional (if/then) statement whereupon the Lord’s people completing the above conditions, heaven responds and the Lord brings forgiveness and healing to the land. While this verse is not an automatic, mechanical recipe, it is a promise of God to his people. As we become the people he asks us to be, God will indeed bring healing and forgiveness to our land.
Humble, praying people who seek God’s face and turn from their wicked ways become a healing balm like salt, which God rubs into the wounds of the world to bring forgiveness and healing.
If we do not follow God’s pathway of healing, where is our society going? How much more will we have to endure? What awaits us that will be even more intolerable? Will the Lord’s response be more unbearable than the problem? The message of Habbakuk for Judah and for us is to put our absolute trust in the Lord. We do not need to stay mired in violence, God will intervene when we, his people, truly become salt.
Questions for Reflection and Sermon Preparation
How can we lead our people into meaningful lament for the violence that persists in our society?
How can we challenge our people to commit to God’s solution for healing in our land?
Including the willing invitation of violence in our lives, what wicked ways do we need to turn from?
How can we lead our people in seeking the face of God through prayer?
What would it look like for us to be healing salt in the wounds society today? What sacrifices would it mean for us? Where can we begin?