Scripture Reading: Habakkuk 3:16-19
Written By: Stan Mast
I wish that everyone cared as much as Habakkuk did. Today we witness so much suffering on TV and the movies that we become numb to it. In fact, we are so accustomed to the grim facts of life that some people actually think that TV reality shows full of violence and suffering are entertainment. To use a phrase from one of Charles Colson’s books, they have been “Donahue-ized.” Do you remember Phil Donahue, one of the original talk show hosts who regularly featured suffering people as entertainment? He’s gone, but dozens more have taken his place. As a result, many people are simply unmoved by human suffering. It seems that every week there is some article in the paper about people who simply walk by when they see someone lying wounded on the sidewalk. They look, but like the priest and the Levite in Jesus famous parable of the Good Samaritan, they pass by on the other side. They just don’t care.
That was not Habakkuk. When he looked at the suffering of the human race, he was deeply moved. He agonized over it. We’ve heard him call out to God about this terrible thing he sees in the world-the righteous suffering and the wicked prospering. We’ve heard him ask God “why” and “how long.” And we’ve heard God answer him. God explained in some detail that he was, in fact, acting in the world in unexpected ways, and that he would bring complete justice in the end.
If you have been following these messages on Habakkuk, you know that God did not answer all of Habakkuk’s questions, any more than he is going to answer all of ours. But God did satisfy the deepest yearnings of the prophet’s spirit, not by explaining all of his purposes for humanity with clear propositions, but by appearing to Habakkuk in person in an overwhelming way that silenced his questions. Habakkuk didn’t see all of God, to be sure. The Bible insists that no one can see all of God, because he is so awesome that a face to face encounter would kill us, in much the same way that staring directly into the sun will blind us. But God came to Habakkuk in a way that revealed enough of his glory and his power, enough of his fury and his love, that Habakkuk was moved to a faith that was able to look the facts of life squarely in the eye and keep on believing anyway, the kind of faith you and I need to live the Christian life in this kind of world.
Habakkuk expresses his faith in these last verses of the third chapter, in three simple phrases, two of them right on the page, the third between the lines. I don’t think you will find his faith difficult to understand. The challenge of Habakkuk’s faith is not to understand it, but to have it.
He begins, “I will wait patiently.” That is his stronger faith. “I will wait patiently.” He has just seen God, and he talks about what it did to him there in verse 16. “I heard, my heart pounded, my lips quivered, decay crept into my bones, and my legs trembled.” God is so awesome that when Habakkuk saw what amounted to the fringes on the hem of God’s garment, it nearly destroyed him. That should make us remember all of those places in the Old Testament where the people of God said, “Don’t let us see God, because if we see him, we will die.” These folks had a much deeper sense of God’s majesty than we modern folks do. They knew that God was so awesome that to see him is to risk being undone. But Habakkuk doesn’t shatter to pieces. He merely collapses.
In what comes next, he picks himself up off the ground, pulls himself together, and professes this stronger faith. Again, God has not answered his “whys.” He won’t answer all of ours. But when Habakkuk sees God, he says, “It is all right, I don’t need all the answers anymore. I will wait. I will wait for the day of calamity to come on the nation invading us.” God had told him that the Babylonians were coming, that God was going to punish Israel with the Babylonians. Then God was going to destroy the Babylonians. Now Habakkuk says, “Okay, I will wait for God to act. I will wait for God to keep his promise.”
That is the kind of faith that you need if you are going to keep going in a world like this, the kind of faith that says, “I don’t have the answers, but I am going to wait for God to keep his promise. He said it. I believe it. That settles it. So I am going to wait, and wait as long as it takes. I will wait patiently.”
All of you know there are at least two ways to wait. You can wait the way I waited for the birth of our first son. They chased me out of the delivery room quite early because I wasn’t helpful. Then put me in what was supposed to be “a waiting room.” I wasn’t very good at it. I waited by jumping up and sitting down, pacing back and forth, going to the door and sitting down and drinking water, as nervous as a cat on a hot tin roof. That is one way to wait. And then there is waiting the way a fisherman does on a quiet inland lake as the sun comes up over the horizon, steam rising from the water, birds singing in the trees, drinking his second cup of coffee, waiting for the fish to bite, and maybe hoping they don’t. Two ways to wait. Habakkuk says, “I will wait patiently.” No need to fret anymore. No need to talk about it all the time. No need to keep coming back to it the way a terrier does with a cornered rat. “I have seen God, and I will wait patiently for him to act.”
Secondly, Habakkuk says, “I will rejoice in the Lord.” (verse 18.) Even though everything goes wrong, I will rejoice in the Lord. Verse 17 describes total crop failure and the death of all livestock. “Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stall, yet I will rejoice in the Lord.” Farmers all over the world can relate to Habakkuk’s words. A flood can do that to a farm. So can a drought, or disease, or insects, or a hail storm. I will never forget my father describing the devastation of his family farm in South Dakota by the dust storms of the Great Depression. He said that his father, a deeply devout man, looked up into the approaching clouds and said, “God, what are you doing to us?”
Habakkuk was not thinking about a natural disaster. He remembered what God had just told him. The Babylonians are coming. In those days, when they didn’t have trucks, supply lines were difficult to maintain. So when a conquering army ran out of their own food, they simply wasted the country they were conquering. They ate all the crops, and all the livestock, so that starvation was the lot of the conquered nation. Habakkuk says, “Even if that happens, I will rejoice. Even if we starve, I will rejoice.”
It is very important to get hold of the way Habakkuk puts it. He does not rejoice because God says it is going to get better. God doesn’t tell him that, any more than he tells us that all the time. God doesn’t always promise that this problem is going to go away. He doesn’t promise that this suffering will end soon. God doesn’t say to us, “It’s going to be just fine.” Habakkuk is basically anticipating what Romans 8:28 would say about God and our lives, many centuries later, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who are called according to his purpose.” But he doesn’t tell us what shape that good will take or when that might happen.
It is a simple fact of life that life is sometimes a very nasty thing. Sometimes life doesn’t turn out the way we want it. Sometimes things just get worse. Sometimes disaster happens. Sometimes everything is all wrong. That is a fact. And Habakkuk says, “Even though everything is wrong, I will rejoice.” How does somebody do that? How do you rejoice when your business is in trouble, or you have lost your job? How do you rejoice when your children are sick or your marriage is breaking apart? How do you rejoice when you are so sick you wish you could die, or when the doctor tells you that you are going to die? How do you rejoice when the facts of life are rough and tough?
Listen to the prophet. “I will rejoice in the Lord.” The Hebrew word he uses here is the word “Yahweh,” the covenant name of God, the name God uses whenever he reaches from the heights of heaven and takes a man or woman or child’s hand and makes covenant with them. It is a name that God uses when he wants to remind us that he loves us, that he has made promises to us, and that he will always be faithful to those promises. Habakkuk says, “I will rejoice in the fact that God loves me, has promised to save me, and will keep his promises.”
And then he adds, “I will be joyful in God, my Savior.” When the facts of life are overwhelming, you need to remind yourself of the facts of salvation. They are as real, as true as the facts of life, but when you are stuck in suffering and pain, the facts of life tend to overwhelm the facts of salvation. So, says Habakkuk, what you need to do is remind yourself of the facts of salvation. Remind yourself of what God did to save his people in the Old Testament. Remember the stories of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, of Moses and David and Daniel, the stories of the exodus and the conquest and the monarchy and the exile. Remind yourself of the facts of salvation in the New Testament, the Apostles and the early church. Remind yourself of the facts of salvation in Jesus Christ, his life and suffering and miracles and teachings and death and resurrection. To be able to rejoice when everything is wrong, you need to focus upon salvation, “God, my Savior.” Focus on what he has done, and is doing, and will do for your salvation. And so, says Habakkuk, “even though I lose it all, I will rejoice in the Lord, the God who is my Savior.”
And then we come to that third expression of his faith, tucked between the lines. “I will keep trusting,” is essentially what verse 19 is about. Verse 19 tells us what he trusts God for. He says, “The sovereign Lord is my strength.” That’s quite a statement. To see what a statement it is, try to say it when things go wrong. “The Sovereign Lord is my strength,” not my country, not its military, not its government, not its resources, not my family, not my money, not my job, not my health, not my talents. Those things are all important and give strength to our lives. But they are not sovereign; they aren’t in control. God is and “the sovereign Lord is my strength.”
That is Biblical realism. That is the kind of strong stuff you read throughout the Bible. God never says, “I will keep you up out of trouble.” He says, “I will be with you through it, and I will give you the strength to get through it.” Think of those lovely words of Isaiah 43. “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name; you are mine. When you pass through the waters [of trial], I will be with you; and when you pass the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire [of suffering], you will not be burned, the flames will not set you ablaze.” Think of Jesus’ words in John 16:33. “In the world you will have trouble, but be of good cheer, for I have overcome the world.” Think of Romans 8. “I will make you more than conquerors,” says God. “There will be tribulation, distress, persecution, nakedness, famine, peril, sword.” That’s realism! “But in all of these things, we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.”
Or think of 2 Corinthians 12, where Paul talks about a very painful physical problem that made his life miserable for a long time. He calls it his thorn in the flesh. Here’s what he says, “I was given a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away.” Instead, the Lord said, “My grace is sufficient for you.” Thorns may come. The thorn may stay no matter how hard we pray to have it removed. But God says, “My grace is sufficient, and my power is made perfect in your weakness.” Because of his encounter with God, Habakkuk knew that although God may not remove the trouble, he will give us the strength to get through it.
Here is what God will do if we look to him for strength, says the prophet. “He makes my feet like the feet of a deer. He enables me to go on the heights.” That doesn’t make a lot of sense to us until you remember that in those days, armies took the high ground when they had won the victory. That was the sign that they had won the victory. Habakkuk is saying, “I am not going to slog along through the valley of trouble all my life. I am not always going to be down in the pit, mired in the mud of misery, because my God who gives me strength is going to put me up on the mount of victory. And my feet are going to be as light and nimble as those of a deer. I will trust my God to give me strength and to give me victory,”
That is Habakkuk’s faith. The kind of faith that can look the facts of life straight in the eye and keep on believing, the kind of faith you and I need to be solid Christians in our kind of world. I said it wasn’t hard to understand, and now you know what I mean. My question for you is not, “Does that make sense?” but, “Do you have that kind of faith?”
Do you have that kind of faith? I am not sure that I always do. If you feel the same way, you might want to know where to get it. You get it from God. Just ask. It is a gift. But if you just ask and don’t give God something to work with, you won’t get more faith. You have to give him this book, the Bible. He will give you faith as you study the Bible. Faith grows as we bring the facts of life to the facts of the Bible and let the Holy Spirit weave all of those facts together into Habakkuk’s kind of faith.
But you have to look for Jesus Christ in this book, because he alone shows us God in a way that enables us to truly trust even when life is filled with injustice and suffering. I must emphasize that. If you don’t have this kind of faith, you have to keep your eyes on Jesus. He is the proof of God’s love. He is the demonstration of God’s concern. He is the guarantee of God’s promises. He is the great center of God’s salvation plan. He is the word of God when God is silent. He is the presence of God when God seems absent. He’s the love of God when God seems hard and even cruel. He is not only necessary for salvation; he is enough for life and death and everything else in between.
Some of us might say it, not the way Habakkuk did, but the way we learned in our church classes, using the first question and answer of the Heidelberg Catechism, one of the oldest Reformation confessions: “What is your only comfort in life and in death? That I am not my own, but belong, body and soul, in life and in death, to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ.” That is the kind of faith that can look the facts of life squarely in the face and keep waiting, keep rejoicing, keep trusting. May God give you such a faith. Amen.
Stan Mast has been the Minister of Preaching at the LaGrave Avenue Christian Reformed Church in downtown Grand Rapids, MI for the last 18 years. He graduated from Calvin Theological Seminary in 1971 and has served four churches in the West and Midwest regions of the United States. He also served a 3 year stint as Coordinator of Field Education at Calvin Seminary. He has earned a BA degree from Calvin College and a Bachelor of Divinity and a Master of Theology from Calvin and a Doctor of Ministry from Denver Seminary.