Habakkuk: Deep Dive
AT THE MERCY OF GOD'S JUDGEMENT | RUBEN MICHAEL ELS
I’m sure that you would have already seen from the dive how interesting the Book of Habakkuk can be. There is a lot more to this book than immediately catches your attention. One of the interesting things about the book is that it is written as an interaction purely between Habakkuk and God, and no other characters really feature in the book. It’s simply a prayer/complaint that Habakkuk makes to God, one that looks very similar to questions we may ask of God in times of despair and injustice today,.
Sometimes, like Habakkuk we even question how a holy and good God could use such corrupt nations or people as His instruments? We even ask whether or not God is doing something contrary to His nature by using evil nations and men to accomplish His purposes? This is a question that perplexes most of us and brings some to call God’s righteousness into question. This deep dive will be dedicated to shedding some biblical insight so that we can properly frame the question and glorify God as Habakkuk does, when he is confronted by God’s response (1:5-11).
H 1:5-11 Look at the nations and watch—and be utterly amazed. For I am going to do something in your days that you would not believe, even if you were told. I am raising up the Babylonians, that ruthless and impetuous people, who sweep across the whole earth to seize dwellings not their own. They are a feared and dreaded people; they are a law to themselves and promote their own honor. Their horses are swifter than leopards, fiercer than wolves at dusk. Their cavalry gallops headlong; their horsemen come from afar. They fly like an eagle swooping to devour; they all come intent on violence. Their hordes advance like a desert wind and gather prisoners like sand. They mock kings and scoff at rulers. They laugh at all fortified cities; by building earthen ramps they capture them. Then they sweep past like the wind and go on—guilty people, whose own strength is their god.
The question has two main issues: God’s sovereignty over human actions and God’s relationship to sinful actions. Theologian John Frame puts it this way, “If it is hard for us to accept God’s fore-ordination of human decisions in general, it is even harder to accept his fore-ordination specifically of our sinful actions. The former raises questions about human freedom and responsibility; the latter raises questions about God’s own goodness. For how can a Holy God bring about sin?”
Now I won’t be addressing the former in this post, as it is the goodness of a Holy God using wicked instruments (the Chaldeans) of judgement (which will undoubtedly result in them sinning against God) that Habakkuk is questioning. It is God’s goodness that he questions, not His providence, and that is what we will address here.
To answer this question, we need to first draw an important distinction between God controlling/using evil and God creating evil and thus being implicated in sin. Once we have properly understood the difference between the two, we can then move towards an answer. There are two biblical truths that we will have to consider in our answer of this question:
God is not the author of sin
God is able to use sinful men to bring about his purposes
The first is undisputed by mainstream biblical scholarship and the second is sometimes opposed. I won’t be debating the first point but rather operating under the assumption, as I find a more compelling textual argument supporting, that it is correct. You can find some resources at the end of the post if you are interested in researching this topic more. We will focus more of our attention towards the second.
When asking the question, “How God can use sinful men and nations to bring about His purposes?”, the answer that often comes up is that God works all things together for good (Romans 8:28) and that it is God who works all things according to the counsel of His will (Ephesians 1:11), including the good and the bad. The implication is that regardless of what circumstance we find ourselves in, we can trust that God has everything under control. Although this answer is comforting, it often misses the main thrust of the individual’s question, “Why would God use evil men to bring about H plans and purposes?” It is one thing to be assured that the end will ultimately be as God has determined it to be and quite another to understand God’s reasoning behind such actions.
DIGGING A BIT DEEPER
The Bible doesn’t always give you the clear-cut answer that you are looking for–and this is such an instance–but it does provide us with some insights that help us understand God’s reasons, in a very limited capacity. Here are some insights that help us make sense of this question:
God is Sovereign and such events (the use of evil), though we don’t understand the reason for them, are part of His perfect, divine plan. If God could not control, prohibit, restrain and permit such events, then He would not be a completely sovereign God, and that is not the portrait that the Bible paints (Isaiah 46:9, Proverbs 16:4).
God’s underlying motivation behind any of His actions is that His name be glorified (Ezekiel 20:9, 36:22; Isaiah 43:6-7, 48:11; Psalm 106:7). This means that although we do not ultimately understand all His reasons, we can rest assured that whatever God does will always result in the glorification of His name and the upholding of His infinite value.
God is holy. This can often refer to His divine transcendence or uniqueness, but also to His moral uprightness. Hence when we say that God is holy we are speaking of a dimension of God’s moral character. This means that “He is just and totally righteous in all He does”, that He is morally perfect and is Himself the standard for morality.
We operate from a very limited perspective and only see a few threads of the tapestry that is God’s redemptive history; which brings Him the ultimate glory. Like Job and his friends, we have a limited perspective and cannot see beyond the limits of our human perspective. When God responds to Job’s cry, He does not answer Job’s plight with an answer that would be of any satisfaction to most of us today. God’s response is ultimately, “Where were you when I laid the Earth’s foundation and all that there is in the universe? Will you correct me and try to discredit my justice?” (Job 38:4, 40:8).
When we see in full, on the day of God’s Great Judgement, there will no one who will be able to call God’s judgement into question. Instead, we will praise Him for what He has done. Like Job, we will respond by saying that we “spoke of things that we did not understand” (Job 42:3).
God’s response to Habakkuk is similar to His response to Job in the way that He doesn’t directly answer the moral question of how He can use a sinful nation as His instrument. Instead, God says that He will judge all unrighteousness and that the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of God (2:14).
We are then introduced to a hope for the future by Habakkuk’s response in Chapter 3. Here the exodus theme is introduced, the second section of the chapter (v8-15) is a song of victory, which commemorates the conquest itself and points to a future exodus (v13), where God will again deliver His people.
It is no mistake that we find this theme introduced here because if one is to go back to the Exodus narrative, it parallels God raising up Pharaoh and delivering Israel from Egypt to now God raising up the Chaldeans with the future exodus being where Christ is our Deliverer. That is the hope that Habakkuk clung to, and resulted in him to praising God as his Savior and strength. We have seen this future exodus unfold in part and should also praise God even more than Habakkuk as we have something that he did not: the knowledge of God’s saving grace in Christ’s sacrifice. This alone should bring us great joy and peace in the midst of all calamity.
The irony is that the most sinful act that men could ever commit was ultimately the means of not only their salvation but salvation for all who would believe on Christ, and we know that God did not just use this, but purposed it before He even spoke Creation into being.
Systematic Theology, Chapter 8 (The Acts of The Lord: Providence) & Chapter 35 (Human Responsibility and Freedom) by John Frame
Systematic Theology, Chapter 16 (God’s Providence) by Wayne Grudem.
Spectacular Sins by John Piper.
Theology for the Community of God, Chapter 3 (The Relational God) by Stanley J Grenz.
Introduction to Habakkuk, article on Bible Org.
The Sovereignty of God: “I Will Accomplish All My Purpose”, sermon by John Piper.