Although the Old Testament Book of Habakkuk is read during the Sunday Mass only once in the three year liturgical cycle, its message is as relevant today as it was when it was written, more than 2500 years ago. It is a stern reminder that humans do not visualize what happens in the world the same way God does.
Habakkuk was a prophet who lived in a time when the Ancient Hebrew kingdom was crumbling before his eyes. It had been a hundred years since the Assyrians conquered the ten lost tribes and disbanded them, spreading the Jewish people throughout the Middle East. The state of Israel was gone and did not reappear until 1948. The last two tribes of Judah and Ben occupied a different state known as Judea, based around Jerusalem where the Temple of Solomon stood. Both kingdoms belonged to a region known as Palestine, which was never a country of its own but rather a geographical area that included parts of modern Israel, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon.
Little is known of Habakkuk the man except that he was likely a leader of music ministry in the Holy City, quite possibly at the Temple. It was there that he wrote verses essentially depicting a conversation between himself and God.
In the late Seventh Century BC, Babylon had become the power of the earth. They had defeated the Assyrians and their precious capital at Nineveh, and had swept over the Egyptian forces. Judea was surrounded on all sides, and the attack by Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar was eminent. To further complicate the situation for the Jews, they seemed to have lost their faith.
When Josiah was king of Judea, he pushed for a return to the faith of the fathers, Abraham and Moses. He denied the existence of multiple gods who the Hebrew people had been worshipping right alongside THE God, Elohim (Yahweh). Josiah died in 609BC and the religious reformation died with him. Everywhere in the world, it appeared as though the ‘good guys,’ if there were such things, were losing. The entire Middle East was in a state of moral decay. It was in speaking out against war, violence, and all criminal injustice in the world, that Habakkuk brought his petition to the Lord, the name by which he addressed him, as had always been done by the diligent followers of Moses.
The prophet began questioning God’s existence from the start, asking how long he was supposed to cry out without a response before he gave up on the Lord. Did he even care what happens to humankind? He decried the overwhelming violence and crimes against people including war and poverty. He said the law was powerless and justice usually denied. The law given to Moses had long been ignored, and the rich and famous were the holders of power through corruption and deceit. Just as now, lying was the most common offence from one person against another.
God answered the prophet and told him that he should step back and look at the broader picture. Not only did he admit to raising up the Babylonians, he described their ferocity, comparing them to wild beasts, and exclaiming that, while violence was abhorrent to Habakkuk, it was the way of the Babylonians. Their rule was undisputable law.
The Lord added that it was because they refused to worship the one God and gave credit for every victory to their self-absorbed selves, that the Babylonians, too, would one day fall. It was Nebuchadnezzar who, in the Book of Daniel, threw Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego into a fiery furnace because they would not bow down to a golden idol of him. Of course, God intervened and brought the trio forth from the fire without a mark or ash upon them.
Habakkuk wasn’t done yet. He informed God that he should have had a better way to punish Judea than to use evil Babylon. He proclaimed that the Lord’s eyes cannot even fall on evil, and yet he chose the wicked over the righteous. He even asked God why he allowed humans to roam like fish in the sea with no ruler over them all. Ouch!
The prophet said he would wait eagerly for the Lord’s response. When he did speak to Habakkuk, God told him to write down what he had to say, which in itself was very unusual for the ancient prophets. Normally, they preached the word of God first, and sometimes it was someone else who wrote it down later. He told Habakkuk his reason was so all would be able to read it and run out to tell others. God assured the prophet that the just will be drawn by true faith when they hear the word. He said one has to maintain the faith and to share it always, to persevere because redemption would come as planned, precisely on the Lord’s schedule, not on man’s.
Habakkuk speaks of a people who are ambitious to climb to the greatest heights even if it means stepping on others along the way. He talks about those who live a fast life and want everything right now, including God, who is cast out because he doesn’t move fast enough for their liking. He essentially asked three questions: why evil goes unpunished, why God would use the wicked against anyone, and what was he doing about the corruption in the world?
In a sense, God agreed with Habakkuk’s assessment. He said those who capture nations and enslave people have no integrity and have built around them a world that is ‘hell,’ a word that is actually used in some translations of the scripture. God told the prophet that the system was corrupt including covetousness, the enslavement of unfair credit practices, and of those who establish themselves on iniquity and the blood of others. The Lord even spoke about the environment and the destruction and misuse of resources including the wild beasts. He condemned all these offenses and said that anyone who leads another to corruption was guilty of a great misdeed. God lashed out at those who worship images and false idols rather than the true and holy God who remains as near as the temple of the heart. The Lord oversees all that is good and evil, and all will be held accountable…in God’s time.
(To be continued)