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Habakkuk: The third chapter

Habakkuk is called one of the twelve ‘minor’ prophets, not because of any perceived unimportance to their books, but because of the length of the text. Compare Habakkuk’s three chapters to the sixty-six of Isaiah or fifty-two of Jeremiah, for example. Even in such a short book, questions about the authorship and origin arise, fueled even further by what little is known of the writer in question.

For many biblical scholars, Habakkuk is actually two books. The first is verses1:1 to 2:5, and the second is the remainder of chapter two. Both books feature a back and forth exchange between the prophet and God. Then there is the question about who wrote chapter three.

Because of the structure and certain historical inferences, many believe the third chapter was written perhaps as much as one hundred years after the first two and by someone other than Habakkuk. There are words in the first two that have given translators fits for centuries. It is clear that some of the original phrasing included references to musical terms, but their definite meaning still eludes students. In the USA, modern sheet music most often features Italian words to instruct the musician, which obviously came much later than Habakkuk, who used Semitic words that no longer exist. The third chapter is a lyrical expression, perhaps a poem or liturgical music. It is very similar in style to the psalms that were sung in the Temple.

The composer begins by calling chapter three a prayer of Habakkuk the prophet, set to a specific tune. The verses are a testimony to the awesome power of God throughout history and in difficult times. The artist tells the Lord that he has heard the story of his word and has been made afraid, or more precisely awe-stricken, by all that God has done. He asks that the Lord return to those ways and renew the earth. He cries out that God came to the chosen people in the desert of Sinai, and the sung response to that acclamation, “Selah,” is an unknown musical term, most likely a call similar to asking the people to sing “Amen.” It appears three times throughout the chapter.

The lyrics continue to describe an omnipresent God whose great power before the Jews in the desert was known but never fully revealed or understood. Messengers of his judgment went before him with pestilence and disease. In his coming, even the mountains shook. This way of expressing the presence of the Lord, especially in difficult times, was not an uncommon tool of the prophets. The Lord would only make an appearance to deliver them. The author speaks of an ancient time when the sun and the moon stood still, which is a reference to the conquest of Canaan by Joshua in the days following the Exodus.

The lyrics describe a God who takes vengeance on the wicked even to the point of reshaping the land and sea. His wrath is frightening to all but the Israelites who see it only as the redemption of his people reminiscent of the flight from bondage in Egypt. Even though the composer admits his body trembled and his lips quivered and he felt death to the marrow, he also looked forward to resting, or rather basking, in the land the Lord freed. He encouraged the faithful to persevere and not be anxious in waiting for God.

The final verses of chapter three describe a dead planet with wilted vegetation and no livestock, a desolate scene similar to many apocalyptic movies these days. However, the poet sees in all this, “joy in the God of my salvation.” His strength is in the Lord, who makes him as confidant in step as a deer, and he lifts the faithful to his kingdom. The writer adds a little instruction at the bottom: “to the chief musician with stringed instruments.”

The Book of Habakkuk was written in a very different time than our own and involved circumstances which modern people may not readily relate to. When the prophet began, Judea was a pawn in a war between superpowers. Jerusalem, including the Temple, was eventually destroyed and burned by the Babylonians. The Hebrew people were scattered in other lands, and polytheistic immigrants and slaves from other nations were placed in their stead.

Several prophets lamented the end of the Hebrew nation and called on God to rescue his people. They provided reassurances for those who were caught in what became known as the Babylonian Captivity. It seems a strange twist of fate, that it was a Persian (Iranian) king who rescued the captives. Long before Cyrus was born, Isaiah called him by name as the liberator of the Hebrews. (Isaiah 44:28) Some scholars believe it was Daniel who showed the king Isaiah’s words, leading to a royal declaration that the enslaved should be returned to their homeland. Even though Israel didn’t exist as a nation again until 1948, the captives returned to Jerusalem. This is where and when the common use of the word ‘Jew’ began, a reference to Judea or Judah.

For modern Bible readers the call to end violence, for fair and honest justice, and for an end to all the atrocities people perpetrate on one another may sound all too familiar. Evil, debauchery, superstition, and false beliefs are as rampant today as they were in Habakkuk’s time. Instead of leaning towards God, too many people have turned away from him. Just as our ancestors cried out, we may also wail, “Where is God; does he care?” But the lesson has always been to remain faithful to the Spirit, to avoid the pangs of earthly wickedness and sin, and to persevere without anxiety…to trust that God knows what he’s doing even when we don’t get it.

The Judeans were held in Babylon, and when they returned home fifty years later they were immigrants with little to offer but hope. Jeremiah and the other prophets had foretold of that day, and the captives gathered on the border of Judea, eyeing the promise of freedom and a better life than the one they had been subjected to, just like sad faces that gather on the southern border of the United States today. Habakkuk remains a lesson for all times: persevere in the Lord, for he is the God over all things..

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