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Stuart Chase - 14 Nov 2021

Faith Questions (Habakkuk 1:12–2:20)

After God told Habakkuk what he was going to do to judge Judah for its sins (1:5–11), Habakkuk responded with a second prayer, in which he expressed confusion that God would use a nation even more wicked than Judah to judge Judah. There are questions in vv. 12, 13, and 17. When he struggled to understand what God was doing, he did exactly what he should have done: He questioned God.

Scripture References: Habakkuk 1:12-17, Habakkuk 2:1-20

From Series: "Habakkuk"

A sermon series by Stuart Chase in the Old Testament book of Habakkuk.

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There is an episode of the British sitcom The IT Crowd in which department manager Jen walks into the IT office, which is strewn about with all sorts of litter, and asks, “How can you two live like this?” Moss, one of the IT technicians, immediately begins googling, “How can you two live like this?” while the other technician, Roy, yells in frustration, “Don’t google the question, Moss!”

It’s funny because it’s so relatable. Google is our best friend these days. The Internet is a repository of information and if we don’t know the answer to a question, we google it. Sometimes, the answer shows as a search result; sometimes, Google directs us to other sites. One site to which Google frequently directs people is Quora.com. The website describes its mission as follows:

Quora’s mission is to share and grow the world’s knowledge. Not all knowledge can be written down, but much of that which can be, still isn’t. It remains in people’s heads or only accessible if you know the right people. We want to connect the people who have knowledge to the people who need it, to bring together people with different perspectives so they can understand each other better, and to empower everyone to share their knowledge for the benefit of the rest of the world.

The premise of the website is simple. If you have a question, post it, and other users will chime in with their answers to help you understand. No question is off limits. Users ask for legal opinion on animal attacks, advice on how to pursue particular careers, and about the most uncomfortable scenes actors ever had to shoot. Religious questions are also commonplace.

While no question is off limits, neither is any answer. When you post a question, don’t expect an answer from someone respectful or even understanding of your position. For example, consider the following question and the answers it invited: “Why are we told to never question God?” Toby Wilson, an ex-theist and now an atheist, answered, “Because the results of testing God draw a big, fat blank, and require you to go against your indoctrination, which is a threat to the income of preachers. If you start thinking for yourself, you’re more difficult to fleece.” Peter Marreck, a psych major and religious and philosophical discussion enthusiast, chimed in: “Because the people who tell you that want to maintain control over your worldview by continuing to explain to you what God wants (which often conveniently aligns with what they want). It’s basically an appeal to anonymous authority fallacy.” Jon Jermey, who describes himself simply as a musician, adds, “Because it really embarrasses the people who would prefer you to keep quiet and nod, and at least pretend to understand and believe the nonsense they are feeding you.”

Perhaps the answers are so unhelpful because the question begins with a faulty premise. “Why are we told to never question God?” Perhaps the question is, who told you to never question God? Certainly, the Bible doesn’t. While the Bible does not promise answers to all your questions, and while it warns against arrogantly challenging what God has done (Daniel 4:34–35; Romans 9:20; Job 38:2), it nowhere forbids God’s people from asking questions. Indeed, questioning God can be a manifestation of, or lead to increased, faith. We see this in the second major section of Habakkuk.

After God told Habakkuk how he was going to judge Judah for its sins (1:5–11), Habakkuk responded with a second prayer, in which he expressed confusion that God would use a nation even more wicked than Judah to judge Judah. There are questions—strongly worded questions—in vv. 12, 13, and 17. When he struggled to understand what God was doing, he did exactly what he should have done: He questioned God. God then delivered a lengthy answer (2:2–20). This interplay between the prophet and his God helps us to see how to healthily question God.

Questioning God

Having no access to Google or Quora, Habakkuk turned to God with his questions. In 1:12–17, we find the prophet questioning God.

Are you not from eternity, LORD my God? My Holy One, you will not die. LORD, you appointed them to execute judgement; my Rock, you destined them to punish us. Your eyes are too pure to look on evil, and you cannot tolerate wrongdoing. So why do you tolerate those who are treacherous? Why are you silent while one who is wicked swallows up one who is more righteous than himself? You have made mankind like the fish of the sea, like marine creatures that have no ruler. The Chaldeans pull them all up with a hook, catch them in their dragnet, and gather them in their fishing net; that is why they are glad and rejoice. That is why they sacrifice to their dragnet and burn incense to their fishing net, for by these things their portion is rich and their food plentiful. Will they therefore empty their net and continually slaughter nations without mercy?

(Habakkuk 1:12–17)

Let’s consider together the questions that Habakkuk asked before we see the lessons we can learn from Yahweh’s answer. In essence, Habakkuk offered three questioning objections to the Lord’s use of Babylon as his instrument of judgement.

What’s the Rush?

The first question that Habakkuk asked was, essentially, what’s the rush? We see this in v. 12: “Are you not from eternity, LORD my God? My Holy One, you will not die. LORD, you appointed them to execute judgement, my Rock, you destined them to punish us.”

There is a slight translation issue here that we must notice. There is an obvious difference in translation between the ESV and the CSB in the second part of this verse. The ESV reads, “We shall not die,” while the CSB reads, “You will not die.” The reason for this is that there are differences in the available Hebrew texts that are used for translation. The ESV has opted for one reading; the CSB has opted for another. Having spent time considering the context, I think that the CSB offers the preferable reading here. Let me explain.

Habakkuk begins, “Are you not from eternity, LORD my God?” Why does he bring in Yahweh’s eternality at this point? I think he’s arguing here that, if God is indeed eternal, surely there is no rush to judge. That is why I think “you will not die” is the preferred reading here. In essence, he is saying, “Lord, you have all the time in the world. You’re not going to die. Is it necessary to rush to judgement?” This may sound odd since Habakkuk’s very first question was “how long?” (1:2), but when we are in the midst of lament, we often don’t think straight. Habakkuk desperately wanted God to act in judgement because the evil of Judah so grieved him, but if that judgement would come via Babylon, perhaps it would be better to wait. After all, the judgement was not happenstance; Yahweh himself had “appointed” and “destined” this punishment. Surely he could delay it a little until a more suitable instrument of judgement availed itself.

How is That Fair?

In v. 13, Habakkuk questions God on the basis of justice: “Your eyes are too pure to look on evil, and you cannot tolerate wrongdoing. So why do you tolerate those who are treacherous? Why are you silent while one who is wicked swallows up one who is more righteous than himself?”

Habakkuk struggled because his theology did not align with his experience. His theology told him that God does not tolerate wrongdoing, but his experience told him that that is exactly what God was going to do. The Babylonians were so wicked that it seemed simply unfair to use them to judge a more righteous people, even if Judah had problems of its own.

Who’s Fault is it Anyway?

The third objection is found in vv. 14–17:

You have made mankind like the fish of the sea, like marine creatures that have no ruler. The Chaldeans pull them all up with a hook, catch them in their dragnet, and gather them in their fishing net; that is why they are glad and rejoice. That is why they sacrifice to their dragnet and burn incense to their fishing net, for by these things their portion is rich and their food plentiful. Will they therefore empty their net and continually slaughter nations without mercy?

Habakkuk seems to be complaining here that, really, Yahweh needed to take some responsibility. “You have made mankind like the fish of the sea, like marine creatures that have no ruler” (v. 14). In other words, it was because God allowed the nations to run unrestrained that things were as bad as they were to begin with. If God would simply put an end to wickedness, the Babylonian judgement would be unnecessary. It was becauseGod allowed such rampant wickedness that the Babylonians had come as an instrument of judgement. And consider how viciously they would judge.

In vv. 15–16, Habakkuk describes the kind of judgement that the Babylonians would exact: violence. Their violence would be indiscriminate (v. 15a), gleeful (v. 15b), idolatrous (v. 16a), and prosperous (v. 16b). It just didn’t seem right? “Will they therefore empty their net and continually slaughter nations without mercy?” (v. 17). Is that really the kind of judgement of which God approved?

Answering Habakkuk

Having delivered his threefold complaint, Habakkuk decided to wait for an answer. The opening verse of chapter 2 reveals that there were others who had the same questions he did. “I will stand at my guard post and station myself on the lookout tower.” He anticipated an answer, which would be both for him (“I will watch to see what he will say to me”) and for others (“and what I should reply about my complaint”). It seems that there was a remnant of faithful Jews who had the same questions that he had, and they were looking to him for answers. Having spoken on their behalf, he would now wait for an answer, both for his benefit and for the benefit of those looking to him for an answer.

In 2:2–20, Yahweh answers Habakkuk’s second complaint. His answer, in essence, is that Babylon would not escape unscathed. Habakkuk had asked whether Babylon would prove unstoppable. Would they “continually slaughter nations without mercy” (1:17) or would they also be forced to answer for their violence? Yahweh’s answer is that they would answer. In fact, a time would come when their victims would “take up a taunt against” them “with mockery and riddles.” Yahweh delivers a fivefold taunt in 2:6b–19, highlighting Babylon’s sin and the punishment that would come upon it because of that sin.

Babylon was guilty of extortion (2:6b–8), covetousness (2:9–11), bloodshed and exploitation (2:12–14), drunkenness and violence (2:15–17), and idolatry (2:18–19). They would face the consequence for each of these sins. The peoples whom they destroyed would have opportunity to see God’s judgement upon Babylon for each of these sins. Babylon, in short, would not escape without punishment. Yes, God would use the Chaldeans to punish Judah but he would also judge the Chaldeans for their arrogant sins against God’s people. In the end, justice would be done.

We lack the space to be able to fully unpack these five woes in this study, but there are some important principles that I want to draw from Yahweh’s answer that instruct us about how we should lament. I have tried to make the point that questioning God can be an expression, rather than a violation, of faith. But it is only an expression of faith if it is done in the right way. There are four things that we can highlight in chapter 2 that show the right way to question God.

Look to Yahweh as You Question

First, when we question God, we should look to him for answers. “I will stand at my guard post and station myself on the lookout tower. I will watch to see what he will say to me and what I should reply about my complaint” (2:1).

You may have noticed, at the beginning of this study, that the answers provided on Quora to the question about why we should not question God were arrogant and, frankly, blasphemous. That is because the answerers acted on the assumption that there is no God to provide answers in the first place. Sometimes, we fall into a similar trap.

There is nothing wrong with questioning God—with seeking clarity and understanding—but, when you do so, you must look to God for the answers. Habakkuk had asked his questions and now he waited to hear from God. He knew that God had the answers to his questions and he was not looking anywhere else for answers.

Faith is not afraid to ask questions, but it does so with the understanding that the God whom it questions has answers to the questions it asks. It does no good to complain to God if you are not willing to look to God for the answers to your complaints. God is not obliged to answer your questions, nor is he obliged, even if he does answer, to give you an answer that will make you happy, but reverent questioning nonetheless looks to him for the answers to the questions that it asks. The posture of the question is more important than the promise of an answer.

As you struggle to understand why God has done what he has done or allowed what he has allowed, or why he has not done what you have asked, it is right to go to him with your questions. But you should do so with the humility to recognise that he has the answer and will provide the answer—if he chooses to do so—as and when he sees fit. We must not look to other sources of wisdom to answer questions that only God can.

There are questions that you can look elsewhere to answer. If you want to understand why your pet is sick, ask a vet. If you want to understand whether your legal claim has merits, ask a lawyer. If you want to understand the tax implications of your salary increase, ask an accountant. If you want to know the answer to life’s ultimate questions, ask God.

Listen to Yahweh as You Question

Second, when we question God, we should listen for the answers that he provides. “The LORD answered me: Write down this vision; clearly inscribe it on tablets so one may easily read it” (2:2). Habakkuk had asked for answers both for his own benefit and for the benefit of the faithful remnant that was asking the same questions (2:1). Yahweh instructed him to write the answers down so that those who were asking similar questions could easily find the answers. If they knew where to look, they would find the answers they needed.

If we will have any hope of finding the answers for which we are searching, we must know where to look for them. We must know the resource that God has given to provide answers to our questions and consult that resource prayerfully, asking to hear from God as we do so.

What is the resource that God has given to us? He has given us his written word. Habakkuk needed to write down what God told him so that both he and others could benefit from it. Authors of 65 other books did the same. As we look to God for answers, we must do so by listening to the Scriptures to hear his voice.

We must be persuaded that the Scriptures are sufficient to answer life’s ultimate questions. Scripture is sufficient for everything we need for life and godliness. That is not to say that there is nothing we can learn outside of the Bible, but everything we need to relate to God is given to us in Scripture.

Today, all sorts of tools are promoted for helping us navigate life: pop psychology, the enneagram, self-help books, social science theories, etc. Some of those things can and may be helpful, but we must realise that the Scriptures, properly interpreted, give us everything we need to know how to live before God. If we ask God questions but then look outside of the resource he has given to answer those questions, we may miss the answers he has for us.

Do you believe that the Bible is sufficient for life and godliness? Do you regularly look to the Scriptures to teach you how to behave? Do you regularly reform your life as the Scriptures convict you of wrongdoing? Is the Bible your final authority for all matters of faith and practice?

Wait for Yahweh as You Question

Third, when we question God, we must wait for him as we listen for the answers. “For the vision is yet for the appointed time; it testifies about the end and will not lie. Though it delays, wait for it, since it will certainly come and not be late” (2:3). “The vision” refers to the five woes that Yahweh was about to pronounce on Babylon (2:6–19). Habakkuk should not expect these to happen yesterday. They would surely come to pass, but they would do so in God’s time, not Judah’s.

Waiting on God is one of the most difficult disciplines we can muster. We live in an instant world in which we demand instant results for every problem. We want Siri to spit out the answers immediately to any question we can think of. God, however, makes no promise of instant answers. He works according to his schedule, not ours. Sometimes it is necessary to wait for the answers he promises to provide.

Because we are unaccustomed to waiting, we need to learn how to wait in the right way. For many of us, waiting is deeply unnatural. As soon as we are required to wait for anything, our phone comes out and we stare at the screen to pass the time. That is not the image that we should conjure up when we think of waiting for the Lord. Waiting, in the Bible, is far more active and intentional than we tend to think. As you consider the biblical texts that refer to waiting for the Lord, at least four elements of waiting emerge.

First, waiting involves trust. The psalmist committed, “I will wait for the Lord more than watchmen for the morning—more than watchmen for the morning. Israel put your hope in the LORD” (Psalm 130:6–7). Notice how waiting and trust (or hope) are paired with one another. To wait on the Lord is not to hopelessly throw your hands in the air but to trust that he will act in his time.

Second, waiting involves obedience. David wrote, “Wait on the LORD and keep his way, and he will exalt you to inherit the land” (Psalm 37:34). Waiting on the Lord involves obeying what he has commanded while you wait for him to answer your questions. Waiting does not decide whether or not it will obey, depending on the answers it receives. Waiting submits to what it understands while it seeks to understand more.

Third, waiting involves prayer. Isaiah confidently asserted, “I will wait for the LORD, who is hiding his face from the house of Jacob. I will wait for him” (Isaiah 8:17). Just two verses later, the Lord said to him, “When they say to you, ‘Enquire of the mediums and the spiritists who chirp and mutter,’ shouldn’t a people enquire of their God?” (v. 19). Waiting on God doesn’t mean that you pray then stop praying until you hear an answer. Waiting means that you pray without ceasing, continuing to ask God until he answers.

Fourth, waiting involves community. Listen to the corporate call to wait in Psalm 33: “We wait for the LORD; he is our help and shield. For our hearts rejoice in him because we trust in his holy name. May your faithful love rest on us, LORD, for we put our hope in you” (vv. 20–22). The temptation when we are questioning God is to isolate ourselves but nothing could be more counterproductive. It is precisely when we are in our deepest questioning that we most need the people of God to help us. Don’t divorce yourself from the community when you need it the most.

Worship Yahweh as You Question

Fourth, when we question God, we must worship him. “But the LORD is in his holy temple; let the whole earth be silent in his presence” (2:20). After listing the sins of which Babylon was guilty and the ways in which they would be judged (2:6–19), Yahweh counsels Habakkuk to worship and to be silent. Silence before God in the prophetic books serves the purposes of recognising God’s sovereign majesty and the awe-inspiring judgement that he will bring. Zephaniah used similar language to make this plain: “Be silent in the presence of the Lord GOD, for the day of the LORD is near. Indeed, the LORD has prepared a sacrifice; he has consecrated his guests. On the day of the LORD’s sacrifice I will punish” (Zephaniah 1:7–8).

We noted previously that Habakkuk is the record of a journey: the journey of Habakkuk’s faith. Habakkuk wanted to come to a place where he could fully rest in faith. But to get there he first needed to wrestle (1:1–11) and question (1:12–2:20). The Lord is essentially saying here, “Habakkuk, you have wrestled and you have questioned. I have answered your questions. Now it is time to trust me.” As we will see next time, Habakkuk remained unsettled by Yahweh’s answer but he came to the point of resting in faith nonetheless. They key to resting was worship.

Habakkuk was not the only servant of God in the Bible to go through this process. Hear these words of Asaph in Psalm 73. Admitting that his feet had almost slipped and his steps had almost gone astray when he saw the prosperity of the wicked (vv. 1–3), he wrote, “When I tried to understand all this, it seemed hopeless until I entered God’s sanctuary. Then I understood their destiny” (vv. 16–17).

Worship helps us to see life more clearly and to therefore rest in him. Worship may not change the reality with which you struggle but it will offer a healthy perspective in which you can rest. The worst thing you can do when you are questioning God is to stay away from worship. You need worship to realign your vision.

Living by Faith

Some will find this horribly unrealistic. They know the pain that they are experiencing and believe it sounds incredibly flippant to suggest that worship is the key to finding rest. Others will heartily affirm the centrality of worship, having experienced Habakkuk’s journey of faith themselves. What is the difference between those two outlooks? Habakkuk answers that question, too, in vv. 4–5, where he highlights two approaches to life.

Of the Babylonian way of life, he writes, “Look, his ego is inflated; he is without integrity” (v. 4). Verses 6–19 show the inflated ego of Babylon, which is perhaps best encapsulated in Nebuchadnezzar’s later boast: “Is this not Babylon the Great that I have built to be a royal residence by my vast power and for my majestic glory?” (Daniel 4:30). Nebuchadnezzar was a self-made man who ruled a self-made people. And self-made people live with an inflated ego.

Self-made people work hard to achieve whatever they have achieve in this life and demand the recognition for it. When they suffer, they arrogantly demand the answers they think they deserve. They will never find the rest that worship invites: “Moreover, wine betrays; an arrogant man is never at rest. He enlarges his appetite like Sheol, and like Death he is never satisfied” (v. 5).

Unless they came to trust in the Lord, Babylon would never find rest. They would never be satisfied. They would always chase more power and greater significance. They would continue to plunder and destroy but find utter meaninglessness in it all.

Too many people are like Babylon today. They have no need of the Lord. They are self-made and successful. But the self-made person never finds rest. There is always something bigger and better to chase. He believes that the next big achievement will bring him satisfaction but when he achieves it he realises that there is more beyond that. Death is never satisfied because every time it claims one victim, two more have been born. Similarly, those who don’t trust in the Lord never find lasting satisfaction. They are never at rest.

By contrast, Habakkuk and his fellow faithfuls are described in the last part of v. 4: “But the righteous one will live by his faith.” The righteous one will find rest. The righteous one will be satisfied. The righteous one will say with Habakkuk: “Though the fig tree does not bud and there is no fruit on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though the flocks disappear from the pen and there are no herds in the stalls, yet I will celebrate in the LORD; I will rejoice in the God of my salvation! The LORD my Lord is my strength; he makes my feet like those of a deer and enables me to walk on mountain heights!” (3:17–19).

How do you get to that point of rest? You must be a “righteous one.” The question is, what does it take to be a “righteous one”? Paul answers this question with absolute clarity when he quotes this verse in Romans 1:16–17: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, first to the Jew, and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith, just as it is written: The righteous will live by faith.”

The key to righteousness is the gospel. The key to being a “righteous one” is knowing that God is holy and you are a sinner, deserving of death. It is trusting that Jesus died for your sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the Scriptures. It is believing that message and responding to its call in faith by repenting of your sins and embracing the forgiveness that Christ offers. In Christ, you can be made a “righteous one” and find the rest for which your soul longs. Will you believe Christ today?

AMEN