God's Idle Look
Twice the prophet Habakkuk charged God with standing by, watching but doing nothing about evil. Here is the first instance.
"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? Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise." (Habakkuk 1:2-3)
The second is similar.
"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?" Habakkuk 1:13
In the wake of the Boston bombing, nuclear threats from North Korea and Iran, Assad gassing his people and our own societal upheavals, many of us dare to ask Habakkuk's question. "God, what's with the idle look?" Some will say it in anger, others in anguish. Either way, the question forces itself into sensitive minds and hearts.
In Habakkuk's day the world super-power was the Assyrian Empire. The Assyrians made a habit of controlling their vassals, Israel among them, by resettling whole populations in other conquered territories. This had the effect of disorienting the conquered peoples and encouraged their assimilation into each other's culture. That practice is, no doubt, behind Habakkuk's cry, "For the wicked surround the righteous; so justice goes forth perverted." (1:4)
God answered Habakkuk's call for divine intervention by tell him that a plan was in the works. He will raise up the Babylonians to conquer the Assyrians. Sure enough. In 586 B.C. the Assyrian capital, Nineveh fell to Nabopolassar, King of Babylon.
Still not satisfied
But God's answer created a bigger problem.
"O 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..." (1:12-13)
The "them" which I have underlined refers to the Babylonians who, by all counts, were just as evil and ferocious as the Assyrians. So Habakkuk is confounded that a holy God should stoop to use a heathen nation as his instrument. He's forgotten that a heathen Egyptian Pharaoh saved Joseph's whole family from starvation.
"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." (2:1)
Does the prophet think he has God on the ropes? God ignores Habakkuk's uppity attitude and commands that he pay close attention and write what he learns on large tablets so that it can be published to all.
A five-fold final answer
- Be patient. "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." (2:3) God's plan is certain, his timing perfect.
- Trust me. "The righteous shall live by his faith." (2:4) In Habakkuk's time God's people must look with confidence to the future deliverance. This text is quoted three times in the New Testament to teach us to live our lives confident in God's promise of salvation through faith in Jesus.
- Don't be distracted by the apparent success of wickedness. "The cup in the Lord's right hand will come around to you, and utter shame will come upon your glory!" (2:16) That's God speaking to the heathen.
- Righteousness will indeed prevail. "For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea." (2:14)
- Finally, Relax and hold your tongue. "For the Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him.” (2:20)
Habakkuk is deeply touched by God's assertions. It wasn't what he expected, but he humbles himself and renews his pledge to faithfulness.
"I hear, and my body trembles; my lips quiver at the sound; rottenness enters into my bones; my legs tremble beneath me. Yet I will quietly wait for the day of trouble to come upon people who invade us.
Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will take joy in the God of my salvation.
God, the Lord, is my strength; he makes my feet like the deer's; he makes me tread on my high places." (3:16-19)
There is nothing grudging here. It is an honest expression of anguish, acceptance and adoration. Anguish over personal suffering he expects, acceptance of God's perfect plan and adoration in spite it all.
Let's put Habakkuk's final words into our modern context.
"Indeed Lord, we’ve heard you loud and clear and our hearts have turned to water, our nerves shattered. Yet, we’ll wait patiently to see how you will pull this off.
Though terrorist threaten our cities and the stock market dips 500 points; though the government traffics in deception, concerned only with it’s own survival; though prices rise and our retirement funds fall and there seems to be no earthly solution to human misery;
Yet we will find joy in knowing God and seek daily evidence of your presence among us. We’ll draw strength from your Word, you Spirit and your people.. such that burdens are lifted and we soar as never before."