How do you respond to God’s strange and even unfavourable providences? How do you process when life throws you the proverbial curve ball and your best laid plans are dashed to the ground?
Bethany Hamilton grew up with one dream: to become a professional surfer. From almost as soon as she could walk, her parents taught her how to surf. Surfing was her life.
When she was thirteen years old, she went surfing with some friends. As she lay belly down on her surfboard, her left arm dangling in the water, a 4.3m tiger shark emerged and bit her arm clean off just below the shoulder. Her friends got her to shore and rushed her to the closest hospital where her father, who had been admitted that morning for knee surgery, gave his theatre time to ensure that her life could be saved.
Most of us would have accepted that our surfing career was over. Bethany was back on the surfboard within a month, teaching herself how to surf with one arm. Six weeks later, she entered her first major surfing competition. The next year, she placed first in the NSSA National Competition in Australia. She continues to surf on the professional circuit today. Her most successful year was 2020.
You may have seen the adapted story of her life in the 2011 feature film Soul Surfer, which addresses her faith, even if generically. Her self-authored memoir of the attack and her return to surfing is more explicit about her faith in Jesus Christ.
Initially, her father tried to shield her from media attention, not wanting to overwhelm his teenaged daughter. Before long, she told him that she wanted to grant interviews but that she would only do so if she was guaranteed freedom to speak about her faith in Christ. She made this condition known before appearing on any interview and soon appeared on international talk shows like The Oprah Winfrey Show, The Ellen DeGeneres Show, and The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, each time agreeing to appear only if she was granted freedom to talk about her faith.
At one point in her memoir, she admits that she sometimes wonders why God allowed the attack to happen. She immediately explains that she does not mean “why” as if she thinks she deserved better than what happened to her, but why would God use her to speak on his behalf? Surely there were far better candidates than a thirteen-year-old surfer girl?
When you read that sort of attitude from someone whose life dream was virtually dashed at age 13, you stand in admiration and wish that you could display faith like hers. Most of us, I think, would respond more like Habakkuk.
Over the last two studies, we have considered Habakkuk’s journey of faith. It began as he wrestled with God regarding his seeming silence at the wickedness of Judah. It then moved to him questioning God when God provided an answer that he did not like. While God answered his second complaint, he ultimately told him that, having taken his opportunity to wrestle and to question, it was time to worship. “The LORD is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him” (2:20). As we saw previously, keeping silence in the prophetic books refers to receiving and waiting for God’s judgement. Chapter 3 shows Habakkuk’s faith at rest. It brings his journey to an end, though it reveals some surprising things as it does so.
The question before us in this study is, how did Habakkuk come to rest in faith? As we study the text carefully, we see that he took at least four major steps to bring himself to the point of rest. First, he rehearsed God’s worth (vv. 1–2). Second, he recounted God’s works (vv. 3–16). Third, he received God’s wrath (v. 16). Finally, he rejoiced in God’s wisdom (vv. 17–19).
Habakkuk Rehearsed God’s Worth
Habakkuk knew that if he was going to rest, he needed to rest in the Lord. He therefore wrote, “A prayer of Habakkuk the prophet, according to Shigionoth. O LORD, I have heard the report of you, and your work, O LORD, do I fear. In the midst of the years revive it; in the midst of the years make it known; in wrath remember mercy” (vv. 1–2).
I’ll be honest: I don’t know what a Shigionoth is (or, possibly, what Shigionoth are). But I’m in good company, because no one else knows either. The word is used only twice in the Old Testament: here and in the inscription of Psalm 7. Most likely, it is a musical genre, since this poem was to be accompanied by “stringed instruments.”
It is likely that Habakkuk composed this as a song for ease of memorisation. Last month, Christianity Todaypublished an article, written by Jen Wilken, titled, “Churchgoers May Remember Song Lyrics Over Sermon Quotes.” To say that that is stating the obvious is an understatement. We know by experience that song lyrics are easier to recall than most other forms of memorisation. I can rarely read the words of vv. 17–19 without breaking into Afrikaans song. The same is true of 1 John 4:7–8, though there it is English song that I break into.
Habakkuk’s song, however, was not fluff. This was no “Baby Shark” or even “How Did Moses Cross the Red Sea?” He was careful to write lyrics that deepened the singer’s understanding of God’s character. “O LORD, I have heard the report of you, and your work, O LORD, do I fear. In the midst of the years make it known; in wrath remember mercy” (v. 2). He wanted his readers to know that, despite everything they had heard as he wrestled and questioned, God remained worthy of praise.
“I have heard the report of you” suggests that Habakkuk had reached the point where he was ready to “keep silence” before the Lord (2:20). He had heard and accepted that what God promised was going to happen. Escape from punishment was no longer an option. Nevertheless, he pleaded with the Lord that the judgement would not be final. He pleaded that God’s work through Judah would be revived. “In wrath remember mercy.” He pleaded that the judgement would not prove irreversible. God still had a messianic promise to fulfil and Habakkuk did not want that to fall to the ground. God’s worth would be maligned if Judah was irrevocably destroyed.
It may be worth pausing to observe that few things magnify God’s worth than the way he, in the gospel, blends wrath and mercy. It is an incredible thought that the very act that most vividly displayed his wrath—the death of Christ on the cross—at the same time made the offer of mercy available to all who will believe in Christ. God poured out his unmitigated wrath on Jesus Christ at Calvary so that he could remember mercy to all who will believe in Christ crucified and risen from the dead. Our only hope for mercy is that wrath has been satisfied in Christ.
Habakkuk Recounted God’s Works
There are many places in the Bible where we are told to recount God’s great works of the past (e.g. Psalms 105:1–3; 145:4–6) as a means to encouraging ourselves in his present and future providence. To come to rest in God’s will, Habakkuk composed a song recounting God’s great works.
Since Habakkuk was wrestling with God’s providential judgement, he composed a song that recalled the manifestation, the motivation, and the culmination of God’s wrath.
The Manifestation of Wrath
The song begins by recalling the manifestation of God’s wrath:
God came from Teman, and the Holy One from Mount Paran. Selah. His splendour covered the heavens, and the earth was full of his praise. His brightness was like the light; rays flashed from his hand; and there he veiled his power. Before him went pestilence, and plague followed at his heels. He stood and measured the earth; he looked and shook the nations; then the eternal mountains were scattered; the everlasting hills sank low. His were the everlasting ways. I saw the tents of Cushan in affliction; the curtains of the land of Midian did tremble. Was your wrath against the rivers, O LORD? Was your anger against the rivers, or your indignation against the sea, when you rode on your horses, on your chariot of salvation?
In highly poetic fashion, and not at all in any form of historical narrative, Habakkuk draws on various manifestations of wrath in Israel’s history to reflect on God’s past work. “Mount Paran” is associated in Deuteronomy 33:2 with Sinai, where God established his covenant with Israel. The imagery of vv. 3b–5 reminds us of his appearance at Sinai, which was the culmination of his judgement on Egypt at the exodus. At Sinai, wrath (against Egypt) and mercy (for Israel) were married.
Habakkuk goes on to reference additional acts of judgement from which Israel benefited. In ancient thought, the mountains were part of the earth’s foundations so that the scattering of “the eternal mountains” and the “[sinking] low” of “the everlasting hills” were signs of judgement. Earthquakes in Scripture are frequently a sign of God’s presence (Exodus 19:18; Psalm 18:7; Isaiah 24:1–3; Jeremiah 4:24–26; 10:10; Micah 1:3–4; Nahum 1:5). Cushan and Midian (v. 7) were tribes who experienced God’s judgement for opposing Israel, while the references to “the rivers” and “the sea” perhaps remind us of his acts of judgement at the Nile and the Red Sea.
The focus, then, is clearly on God’s judgement against the nations. As terrible as these acts of judgement were, God brought Israel through them. In his wrath, he remembered mercy to his people. Habakkuk reminds himself of these past acts of judgement so that he could remember that God does indeed show mercy even in his wrath.
When we struggle to understand what God is doing in our lives, it can be helpful to consider how he has worked in the lives of saints of old and shown his faithfulness. Perhaps you are struggling with infertility or with a spouse who is openly critical of your faith. Perhaps you have lost a loved one or have been diagnosed with a dread disease. Perhaps you have lost out on employment opportunities because of your faith or are facing mistreatment from another church member. Rehearse God’s faithfulness to others—in the Bible, in church history, in your own immediate family or friend circle—as a means to encourage yourself that God is faithful to his people. It may not remove the pain, but it will help you to remember God’s faithfulness in your pain.
The Motivation for Wrath
In vv. 9–13a, Habakkuk continues to recall some of God’s acts of wrath in the past but here he draws specific attention to God’s motivation in showing wrath:
You stripped the sheath from your bow, calling for many arrows. Selah. You split the earth with rivers. The mountains saw you and writhed; the raging waters swept on; the deep gave forth its voice; it lifted its hands on high. The sun and moon stood still in their place at the light of your arrows as they sped, at the flash of your glittering spear. You marched through the earth in fury; you threshed the nations in anger. You went out for the salvation of your people, for the salvation of your anointed.
The language here shifts from God’s judgement against the nations to his wrath manifested in displays of nature. The “many arrows” of v. 9 are likely a reference to lightning strikes during an electrical storm. Splitting the earth (v. 9) likewise refers poetically to God cutting through desert landscapes with floodwaters. Verse 10 bears many linguistic similarities of Psalm 77, which highlights God’s display of power at the Red Sea. Habakkuk is again pointing to this event as an example of nature obeying God in an act of divine power. Verse 11 does the same by recalling God’s supernatural lengthening of the daylight to allow Israel to achieve victory at Gibeah (Joshua 10:12–13). In all these events, God was on the march ahead of his people into battle (v. 12). And his motivation was plain: “You went out for the salvation of your people, for the salvation of your anointed” (v. 13).
Habakkuk here recognises that God is always at work (cf. 1:5) and that his interest usually lies in the deliverance of his people. God is interested in working on behalf of his people. His ultimate motivation is his glory, but the welfare and holiness of his people are never far from his heart.
As you wrestle with your pain and wonder what God is doing in it all, it may be helpful to remember that your ultimate good is never far from his heart. His definition of your good may not be the same as yours. He may not be as committed to your comfort as you are. But he is deeply interested in your ultimate good, which is Christlikeness. And every circumstance that he allows in your life is in some way working toward that goal (Romans 8:28–30).
The Culmination of Wrath
Verses 13b–15 brings Habakkuk’s recounting of God’s works to an end by highlighting the culmination of his wrath:
You crushed the head of the house of the wicked, laying him bare from thigh to neck. Selah. You pierced with his own arrows the heads of his warriors, who came like a whirlwind to scatter me, rejoicing as if to devour the poor in secret. You trampled the sea with your horses, the surging of mighty waters.
“The head of the house of the wicked” might refer to Pharoah or to the Canaanite leaders or generically to any leader of God’s opponents. Regardless of the precise identity, the point is that the Lord lays his opponents “bare from thigh to neck.” The precise meaning of this Hebrew idiom is obscure, but its thrust is clear: God’s opponents suffer complete humiliation. His victory over them is comprehensive. Verses 14–15 emphasise this point by showing that God has utterly defeated every enemy who opposed him, using, perhaps, the Red Sea once again as a prime example of this (v. 15).
The language and the idioms may be obscure but the point is plain: God has never lost to his enemies. Even as he brought the Babylonian judgement on Judah, no one should think that he was at the mercy of Nebuchadnezzar. He would triumph over every enemy who opposed him.
Even though your suffering may not be evidence of God’s wrath as it was for Judah in Habakkuk’s day, it helps to recall times in history where God’s people suffered and he brought them through it. God always completes the work he starts. God chose Israel as his vessel to bring the Messiah into the world and he would not fail. Jesus would come from the line of Judah and no threat—not even the bloodthirsty and violent Babylonians—would put an end to that.
The Bible makes this point time and again. If God has begun his work in you through Christ, he will bring it to completion (Philippians 1:6). If God saved you, he will make you completely like Christ. No enemy will prevent him from doing that. Even our ultimate enemy—death—will bow before Jesus Christ at the final judgement as he crushes it beneath his feet and gives unending life to all those who believe in him. Death and Hades will be cast into the lake of fire where they will be utterly destroyed with every other enemy cast therein. God’s work will not be stopped.
Habakkuk Received God’s Wrath
As he rehearsed God’s worth and recounted God’s works, Habakkuk was encouraged that God was at work. He was learning to keep silence before him. No longer was he objecting to God’s judgement at the hand of Babylon. But that didn’t mean that he liked it: “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” (v. 16).
“I hear,” said Habakkuk. What did he hear? He heard God’s promise of judgement. He heard that the Babylonian invasion would be swift, violent, and comprehensive. And that is exactly what it was. The Chronicler recounts the event:
Therefore he brought up against them the king of the Chaldeans, who killed their young men with the sword in the house of their sanctuary and had no compassion on young man or virgin, old man or aged. He gave them all into his hand. And all the vessels of the house of God, great and small, and the treasures of the house of the LORD, and the treasures of the king and of his princes, all these he brought to Babylon. And they burned the house of God and broke down the wall of Jerusalem and burned all its palaces with fire and destroyed all its precious vessels. He took into exile in Babylon those who had escaped from the sword, and they became servants to him and to his sons until the establishment of the kingdom of Persia, to fulfil the word of the LORD by the mouth of Jeremiah, until the land had enjoyed its Sabbaths. All the days that it lay desolate it kept Sabbath, to fulfil seventy years.
(2 Chronicles 36:17–21)
Habakkuk did not learn to rejoice in the circumstances that God brought upon Judah. The circumstances filled him with dread. When he thought of the circumstances, which he now knew were inevitable, his body trembled, his lips quivered, and rottenness entered his bones. Do you know the feeling?
Suffering Christian, God does not call you to rejoice in your adverse circumstances. We sometimes read James 1:2 and stop as if it is the end of the exhortation. James 1:2 reads, “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds.” But James tells us why we should count it joy: “for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing” (vv. 3–4). James was not telling his readers to rejoice in the circumstances but to rejoice in what the circumstances would produce in them. Every adverse circumstance was working steadfastness in them, and steadfastness was working Christlikeness in them. That was cause for rejoicing.
Your pain is nothing to rejoice in. Another negative pregnancy test is no reason for rejoicing. Another lonely Christmas while you desperately long for companionship is no cause for rejoicing. There is nothing joyful about the death of your spouse, which has left you a single parent. The positive diagnosis of the dread disease is no cause for rejoicing. Your loss of income, and the severing of relationship, and the hurtful words cast at you because of your faithfulness to Christ are not matters of joy. When you consider your circumstances, it may well be perfectly understandable for your body to tremble, your lips to quiver, and rottenness to enter your bones.
Habakkuk received the reality of God’s wrath but found hope in looking beyond the wrath. “Yet I will quietly wait for the day of trouble to come upon the people who invade us.” As terrifying as the Babylonian judgement was, he found hope in the promise that Babylon would itself fall under judgement, which would lead to Judah’s restoration. He found hope in the promise that God would remember mercy in his wrath.
If we are going to find hope in this life, we have to look beyond our present sufferings to the promise of a glorious future. What is our only hope in life and death? That we are not our own but belong, body and soul, both in life and death, to God and to our Saviour Jesus Christ.
Jesus endured the cross, not because he delighted in the suffering, but for the joy set before him. He went to the cross in faith because of the promise of what lay beyond the cross. We endure suffering in this world because we know that the suffering is temporary and purposeful. Sometimes, earthly circumstances suck but, if you’re a Christian, you have hope beyond your earthly circumstances. You may suffer now, but there is a promise of resurrection. In the resurrection, there will be no more suffering or pain. There will only be eternal bliss in perfect fellowship with God through Jesus Christ. For now, learn to rest as you quietly wait for that day to come.
Habakkuk Rejoiced in God’s Wisdom
Habakkuk has now come full circle. His journey has come to an end. He has reached the point of rest after his wrestling and questioning.
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. To the choirmaster: with stringed instruments.
Habakkuk knew the reality of what was coming. Verse 17 describes complete economic meltdown. In an agrarian culture, barren crops and empty animal folds spelled disaster. Habakkuk realised that Judah was about to be downgraded to junk status and become the next economic Zimbabwe. And he took no joy in those circumstances. Those circumstances produced in him a trembling body, quivering lips, and rotten bones. But he was able to look past the circumstances: “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.” He found joy in the Lord because even when circumstances changed, God did not!
When circumstances go south, God does not. When circumstances improve, God does not. He remains the same yesterday, today, and forever. When your body trembles and your lips quiver and rottenness enters your bones, you can rejoice in the Lord because he remains the same. He is always “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin” (Exodus 34:6).
For those who come to God in Christ that is a source of great comfort. No matter your circumstances, God is merciful and gracious in Christ, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness. As Jesus himself said, “Come to me, all who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Mathew 11:28–30).
If you are un unbeliever, burdened about the depths of your sin, wondering where you will ever find forgiveness and rest, look to Christ. He is gentle and lowly and will give rest for your soul if you will trust in him.
Believer, are you wrestling with God’s action (or inaction) in your life and wanting to know where to look for rest? Look to Christ, who is gentle and lowly, and promises you rest for your soul if you will trust in him.
But the same God who is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love an faithfulness, “will by no means clear the guilty” (Exodus 34:6). For the non-Christian who stubbornly resists God’s call to repentance, that should be a source of terror. A day is coming in which Jesus is coming back to judge the living and the dead. Paul describes that day as the day
when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might, when he comes on that day to be glorified in his saints, and to be marvelled at among all who have believed, because our testimony to you was believed.
(2 Thessalonians 1:7–10)
His wrath against Judah was but a foreshadowing of his final wrath on the day of judgement. And Christ is the only shelter that will survive that storm of wrath.
The God who blended wrath with mercy for Habakkuk blends wrath and mercy in Christ today. Turn to Christ and, in wrath, experience his eternal mercy.