Kenneth Copeland is a prosperity gospel preacher who insists that faith always maintains a sunny disposition. A few years ago, he published a devotion on his website titled “Be of Good Cheer.” He writes,
What do you do when you’re in a really perilous situation?
If you’re like I used to be, you cry out to God in desperation. One afternoon when I was squalling to God about something, he interrupted me and said, “Kenneth, did you know I don’t hear the cry of my children when they cry out in desperation?”
“What?” I said. “I thought you did.”
He said, “No, I hear the desperation cry of a sinner because that’s all he can cry about. But once you get born again, son, you ought to be crying out of faith. I hear the faith cry.”
If you’re like me, your next question is, what exactly is a “faith cry”? Copeland explains. “It’s what the Bible means when it says, ‘Let the weak say, I am strong’ (Joel 3:10).” He counsels,
Cry out to God in faith and say, “Lord, I’m not going to panic. I’m not going to despair. I’m going to be of good cheer because your word says you’ll deliver me from this situation” (Psalm 34:19).
Then start being cheerful. It may take more determination than anything you’ve ever done before, but God will give you the strength to do it. He’ll give you the power to be cheerful in the middle of the most ungodly darkness the devil can bring up.
Instead of crying out in desperation, take a faith stand. Sing and rejoice and praise God for your deliverance. Be of good cheer and you can be sure God will bring you through the storm just fine!
I want you to notice that Copeland contrasts faith with desperation. If you cry in desperation, you have automatically forsaken faith. The two cannot be reconciled. It’s all very motivational. Unfortunately, it is not biblical. The prophet Habakkuk helps us to discern this.
Habakkuk is a book about faith. Its central theme—“the righteous one will live by his faith” (2:4)—is quoted three times in the New Testament (Romans 1:17; Galatians 3:11; Hebrews 10:38). Habakkuk takes us on a journey of faith. Each of the three major sections highlights faith in a different disposition. As we journey through the book, we learn that faith wrestles (1:1–11), faith questions (1:12–2:20), and faith rests (3:1–19). To reach its resting place, faith must begin with the first two steps.
Over the next three studies, I want to consider Habakkuk’s prophecy and trace its journey of faith from wrestling to resting. I trust that we will learn a great deal about faith as we do so.
Faith Wrestles with Yahweh’s Unfathomable Disinterest
We see, first of all, that Habakkuk’s faith began by wrestling with Yahweh’s unfathomable disinterest. We see this in the opening four verses:
The pronouncement that the prophet Habakkuk saw.
How long, LORD, must I call for help and you do not listen or cry out to you about violence and you do not save? Why do you force me to look at injustice? Why do you tolerate wrongdoing? Oppression and violence are right in front of me. Strife is ongoing, and conflict escalates. This is why the law is ineffective and justice never emerges. For the wicked restrict the righteous; therefore, justice comes out perverted.
The prophecy introduces itself as “the pronouncement that the prophet Habakkuk saw” (v. 1). The word translated “pronouncement” (or “oracle” in the ESV) literally means “burden.” The message that Habakkuk delivered burdened him tremendously until he could hold it in no longer and he had to speak.
In essence, Habakkuk’s burden was Yahweh’s indifference to the wickedness around him. The prophet seems to have lived and ministered around the time that Babylon was flexing its military muscles. Assyria had perhaps already conquered Israel, but Assyria had fallen, or was soon to fall, to Babylonian might.
If this time frame is correct, it means that Habakkuk lived at a time when Israel had given itself wholly to godlessness. Even the external reforms of King Josiah had proven ineffective in changing hearts. Josiah had restored the temple and reimplemented its worship but, as Zephaniah shows, the hearts of the people were far from God. Habakkuk was deeply burdened that Judah was swimming deeper into the waters of rebellion while God seemingly just watched. As far as he could tell, God was indifferent to the sin of his people. This indifference was manifested in at least three ways.
First, Habakkuk wrestled with Yahweh’s seeming indifference in ignoring prayer: “How long, LORD, must I call for help and you do not listen or cry out to you about violence and you do not save?” (v. 2).
Habakkuk seems to have reached breaking point. His cry—“How long?”—suggests that he had been crying out for a long time for God to answer his prayer. His persistent prayers, however, as he pleaded for help and objected to violence, were ignored. God “[did] not listen” and “[did] not save.” It burdened Habakkuk deeply that the God who is powerful to answer prayer had seemingly turned a deaf ear to prayer that he knew to be God-honouring.
Second, Habakkuk wrestled with Yahweh’s seeming indifference in condoning evil: “Why do you force me to look at injustice? Why do you tolerate wrongdoing? Oppression and violence are right in front of me. Strife is ongoing, and conflict escalates” (v. 3). Here, the prophet highlights some of the specific evils that plagued Judah. He essentially highlights three couplets of evils.
First, the prophet complained about “injustice” and “wrongdoing.” “Injustice” describes the activity of oppressors and “wrongdoing” the suffering of victims. As in most societies, there were privileged and underprivileged people. The privileged among God’s people were afflicting the underprivileged, who were suffering greatly, yet God seemed not to care. In fact, God not only forced Habakkuk to look on helplessly at the evil around him, but Yahweh himself “tolerate[d]” this evil. The word translated “tolerate” means “to look with pleasure or approval.” From Habakkuk’s standpoint, Yahweh was not only disinterestedly failing to do anything but was actively approving of the oppression that he witnessed.
Second, the prophet complained about “oppression and violence.” God had promised Israel great peace and prosperity if they obeyed his covenant stipulations. Habakkuk was seeing the furthest thing from peace. Violent and destructive turmoil reigned where there ought to have been peace. This was not carried out in back alleys and dark corners but “right in front of me.” People openly and brazenly flouted Yahweh’s law, and he seemed to do nothing about it.
Third, the prophet complained about “strife” and “conflict.” These are legal terms, which suggest that Habakkuk was troubled by the litigiousness of the society around him. Rather than settling matters as brothers and sisters, Yahweh’s people were taking each other to court over trivial matters and thereby making a mockery of God’s justice system. Not only was this “ongoing” but it was in fact “escalat[ing].”
Third, Habakkuk wrestled with Yahweh’s seeming indifference in perverting justice: “This is why the law is ineffective and justice never emerges. For the wicked restrict the righteous; therefore, justice comes out perverted” (v. 4).
Habakkuk complained that “the law is ineffective.” How could God’s law be ineffective? Paul said that “the law is good, provided one uses it legitimately” (1 Timothy 1:8). By implication, the law is not good, and may be ineffective, if it is used illegitimately. It is helpful, then, to ask what legitimate use of the law is.
The Reformers taught that there are three uses of God’s law: first, to show our sin; second, to reveal God’s character; and, third, to govern civil law. If the Jews were using the law to reveal their sin, to understand Yahweh’s righteous character, and to govern their civil behaviour, it would have been effective. As Habakkuk surveyed the ethical landscape of his day, however, he saw that it had proven “ineffective” in accomplishing these goals. The reason for this is that they were using the law illegitimately. They were using the law to earn favour with God and show their superiority to their neighbouring nations. Since they were using the law illegitimately, it was proving ineffective and the justice Habakkuk longed for did not emerge.
Habakkuk was one of a righteous remnant, who longed to serve God faithfully. But “the wicked restrict[ed] the righteous” and prevented them from living in a godly manner. And so, rather than achieving its intended goal of producing justice, God’s law had proven ineffective; “therefore, justice comes out perverted.”
Before we move on to consider how Yahweh answered Habakkuk, let’s pause for a moment to consider a couple of points of application.
The Burden of Wickedness
First, wickedness—particularly among God’s people—should burden us. Habakkuk delivered this pronouncement because he was too deeply burdened to keep it in any longer. He could not maintain his silence at what he saw around him.
Habakkuk complained about the privileged oppressing the underprivileged, about increasing violent crime, and about an overly litigious society. Does this sound familiar? If you live in South Africa, it should! Christians should be burdened when they see society headed in this direction. Specifically, however, Christians should be bothered about these things in the church.
There are far too many segments of the church in which sins like these are evident. Think about the prosperity gospel in South Africa and, indeed, throughout Africa. In many churches, pastors prosper while the people they supposedly serve suffer. Pastors dress in designer clothes, drive expensive cars, and earn outrageous salaries while the people they “serve” grow poorer and poorer. I believe that a church should take care of its pastors, but pastors should not prosper while their people suffer. This is “injustice” and “wrongdoing” and it should burden us to the point where we are willing to speak up.
Far too many churches tolerate “oppression and violence” in their midst. There was a time when the Protestant Church condescendingly looked at the Catholic Church because of the way that it swept accusations of sexual abuse under the carpet. We are willingly ignorant today if we think that this is a peculiarly Catholic problem. Sexual abuse, and mismanagement of sexual abuse, has proven in recent years to be as rife in evangelical churches as in the Catholic Church. This, too, should bother us to the point where we are willing to speak up.
Too many Christians are eager to litigate against one another without first seeking to resolve disputes in a godly way. Even as I write these words, there is a high profile case in the Southern Baptist Convention in the United States of a brother suing another brother on extremely spurious grounds. The world, meanwhile, shakes its head in bewilderment. I am not suggesting that Christians never have reason to litigate against other Christians. I don’t think that’s the point of 1 Corinthians 6:1–11. I think Paul’s point in 1 Corinthians 6 is twofold. First, we should be careful of taking brothers and sisters to court when the court system is openly biased against Christians, as was the case in first-century Rome. Second, we should be careful of taking brothers and sisters to court over trivial matters that can be resolved within the church by appealing to God’s word. For far too many Christians, litigation is the first recourse against fellow Christians. This should bother us. And we should speak against it.
So let me ask, does evil in the church (and the above are merely examples) bother you? Are you willing to speak up? The church loses credibility in the world when it is selective about the sins it confronts. If we are all about condemning “the homosexual lifestyle” (a profoundly unhelpful phrase, incidentally) but turn a blind eye to fornication and no fault divorce, why would the world take us seriously? If we take a stand that we will not attend a same sex wedding because to do so is to approve sin, why would we celebrate the marriage of a believing friend to an unbeliever of the opposite sex? Does God not forbid both? Sin should bother us, and we should speak out—consistently—against it.
The Cry of Desperation
Second, contrary to the counsel of Kenneth Copeland, God does hear his children when they cry out in desperation. Habakkuk was desperate. He had been praying about this burden for too long and he could not fathom why God was not answering. He therefore went precisely where he should have went: to his prayer closet.
Do you share Habakkuk’s burden? Do injustices among God’s people burden you, as they burdened him? If they do, how should you respond? Should you, per Kenneth Copeland, “cry out to God in faith and say, ‘Lord, … I’m not going to despair. I’m going to be of good cheer because your word says you’ll deliver me from this situation’”? Or should you, like Habakkuk, cry out to God in desperation? I’d suggest that Habakkuk offers us a better model than Kenneth Copeland.
South African Christianity has lost a healthy theology of lament. We have stripped lament from our worship. We sing songs of victory, praise, and adoration but our singing is largely devoid of lament. So unaccustomed have we grown to lament that we don’t even know what to do with sections of Scripture that highlight lament.
Consider, for example, Habakkuk’s burden before us. Can you, even for a moment, imagine accusing God, not only of overlooking evil, but of actually approving it? Our first response when we hear God being accused of wrongdoing is to jump to his defence. I do not mean to suggest that that is always wrong, but the reaction does train us to always want to have the answers, when sometimes the healthiest thing we can do is cry out in desperation and admit our confusion.
Some time ago, my pastor made a passing comment during a sermon that has really stuck with me. Defining biblical lament, he said, “Lament is taking your complaint to someone who can do something about it.” Lament is complaining to God rather than about God. And there is a world of difference between those two.
Kenneth Copeland wants you to believe that crying out in desperation is the opposite of faith. Habakkuk wants you to believe that crying out in desperation is a manifestation of faith.
We can apply this principle of the desperation cry in many other areas. “How long?” asked Habakkuk. Do you know the feeling? Have you prayed for years for a God-fearing spouse, or for children, or for the salvation of loved ones, or for victory over a particular sin struggle, and yet God seems to not listen and does not save? Have you reached the point of desperation where you are wondering, “How long?” How much longer before God answers? How much longer can you take it? I don’t have the answers, I probably can’t do anything about it, but I can encourage you to keep taking your cry of desperation to the one who can go something about it.
This brings us to the second major section of the text before us. In vv. 1–4, Habakkuk speaks. In vv. 5–11, Yahweh speaks.
Faith Wrestles with Yahweh’s Unbelievable Design
Yahweh did not remain silent. Even as Habakkuk complained about his indifference and inactivity, Yahweh powerfully responded, “I am doing something” (v. 5). From Habakkuk’s perspective, God was doing nothing. He needed to understand that God is always doing something, even when he could not understand it. He needed to wrestle with God’s unbelievable design.
Look at the nations and observe—be utterly astounded! For I am doing something in your days that you will not believe when you hear about it. Look! I am raising up the Chaldeans, that bitter, impetuous nation that marches across the earth’s open spaces to seize territories not its own. They are fierce and terrifying; their views of justice and sovereignty stem from themselves. Their horses are swifter than leopards and more fierce than wolves of the night. Their horsemen charge ahead; their horsemen come from distant lands. They fly like eagles, swooping to devour. All of them come to do violence; their faces are set in determination. They gather prisoners like sand. They mock kings, and rulers are a joke to them. They laugh at every fortress and build siege ramps to capture it. Then they sweep by like the wind and pass through. They are guilty; their strength is their god.
Yahweh’s response has been well summarised by famed social commentators Bachman-Turner Overdrive: “You ain’t seen nothing yet!” “Be utterly astounded” (v. 5). Whereas Habakkuk complained that Yahweh had forced him to “look” and injustice in Israel (v. 3), Yahweh tells him to “look at the nations and observe” (v. 5) and to look at him (v. 6). The nations were far worse than Israel in terms of flaunting their sin. Yahweh did not say this to excuse Judah’s sin but to prepare him for what was to come next.
Habakkuk had complained about God’s indifference and inactivity—that he was doing nothing about the rampant wickedness in Judah. In response, Yahweh declared, “I am doing something” (v. 5). But it was something for which Habakkuk was ill prepared—something that he would “not believe when [he] hear[d] about it” (v. 5). Let’s walk through these verses together briefly to learn about Yahweh’s unbelievable design.
“Look!” cries Yahweh again, “I am raising up the Chaldeans” (v. 6). “Chaldeans” is another name for the Babylonians. Babylonia had never been a serious player on the politico-military stage. But around 1100 BC—roughly the same time that Samson was judging Israel—a Babylonian king by the name of Nebuchadnezzar had achieved a degree of military success by driving out foreign powers and achieving short-lived independence. Though he had hardly shaken the world (and had had no impact in Israel’s history), Nebuchadnezzar’s feats were nonetheless somewhat legendary in Babylonia. That is perhaps why King Nabopolassar, who dreamed of international conquest, had named his son Nebuchadnezzar. The Nebuchadnezzar we know from the Bible—Nebuchadnezzar II—was achieving military conquests while Habakkuk ministered.
We are so familiar with the story of the Old Testament that we view Nebuchadnezzar with far less dread than Habakkuk did. We know the end of Nebuchadnezzar’s story and tend to view him as rather friendly toward Judah. Yahweh here paints a very different picture—one with which Habakkuk would have been far more familiar.
The Chaldeans were a “bitter, impetuous nation that marches across the earth’s open spaces to seize territories not its own” (v. 6). They were intent on a single goal: conquest. They seized land wherever they went. They were “fierce and terrifying” and “their views of justice and sovereignty stem from themselves” (v. 7). They were not ruled by any law. The Jews at least paid lip-service to God’s law, which gave rules for warfare, even if they did not obey it from the heart. The Babylonians made up the rules as they went along. There was no such thing as just warfare in Babylonian thinking. If they felt like raping, pillaging, and murdering, they did exactly as they pleased.
Even more frighteningly, they had the military might to back their desires. “Their horses are swifter than leopards and more fierce than wolves of the night” (v. 8). In a pre-industrial era, a nation’s cavalry was its strongest asset. The Babylonian cavalry was superior to its opponents in every way: strength, speed, and stamina. And the actual warriors were as well-trained as their arsenal was fierce: “Their horsemen charge ahead; their horsemen come from distant lands. They fly like eagles, swooping to devour” (v. 8). Their intent to “devour” was matched by their training to do so.
The Babylonians were not coming with an offer of peace. A treaty was not part of the agenda. There would be no negotiation. “All of them come to do violence; their faces are set in determination. They gather prisoners like sand” (v. 9). They were singleminded in their goal to destroy and nothing and no one would stop them. “They mock kings, and rulers are a joke to them. They laugh at every fortress and build siege ramps to capture it” (v. 10). Warfare was child’s play to them. They were supremely confident in their ability to emerge victorious, and their confidence was well-founded. “Then they sweep by like the wind and pass through” (v. 11).
The summary at the end of v. 11 captures it well: “They are guilty; their strength is their god.” They were exactly as bloodthirsty and violent as Habakkuk feared and they could not be reasoned with. The army would not be stopped. It would follow its god, which was its own strength. Whatever it could accomplish by strength it would do. Nothing would restrain it.
As you listen to this description of the Babylonians, you can perhaps better understand Habakkuk’s disbelief. He lamented the wickedness of Judah, but would God really use a nation even more wicked than Judah to judge Judah’s sin? And if so, Babylon? Really? How could it possibly be right for the righteous to suffer at the hand of the godless?
As we wrestle through this question with Habakkuk, take note two more points of application.
God’s Commitment to Our Comfort
First, God is not as committed to our comfort as we are. In South Africa today, we have bought into a subtle form of prosperity gospel whereby we think that the church must always be in a position of power and prominence. We know that we have a commission and we think that we can only fulfil that commission through might. And the moment there is even the slightest hint that we are losing our power, we fear that the kingdom of God is at stake.
South Africa is very much Western-influenced and Christianity has for a couple of centuries enjoyed influence in the Western-influenced world. Freedom of religion and religious worship is enshrined in our constitution. This may be changing, but many of us have grown up in a world in which Christianity has been viewed with a degree of respectability. Even today, politicians know the power of paying lip service to God.
Because we have enjoyed this position of power for so long, we think that it is something that God owes to us. Or, at the very least, it is something that he is deeply committed to preserving. After all, God is even more concerned about the progress of his kingdom as we are, and if the progress of his kingdom depends on Christianity in power, he will surely protect that.
Habakkuk teaches us that God is far more concerned about our holiness than our happiness. He is far more deeply committed to our conformity to his Son than our comfort under the sun. If God must inflict pain in order to produce holiness in us, he will do so. We should therefore take his exhortation to walk in holiness seriously, lest we fall under his chastening hand.
God’s Commitment to His Work
Second, and finally, be encouraged from this text that God is always doing something. I believe it was John Piper who said that, when things seem bleakest, we should remember that God is always doing something in the dark. Habakkuk could not see any evidence of God’s activity, yet God assured him, “I am doing something.” God is always at work, even when we see no evidence of it. This assurance fuels our prayers.
We cannot leave this point without pausing to consider God’s greatest, most unfathomable act of all. As we will see next time, Habakkuk simply could not fathom why God would judge a more righteous nation with a more wicked nation. It didn’t seem right. But it is that same principle that underlies the beauty of the gospel.
You see, in the gospel, God not only judged the righteous one at the hand of the wicked, but actually judged the righteous one for the wicked. Yahweh said of the Chaldeans, “They are guilty; their strength is their god” (v. 11). The same could be said of us. In our sin, we stood guilty before God, sentenced to certain and irrevocable death. We were destined to eternal destruction from the Lord’s presence. But Jesus Christ, the righteous on, stood in our place. He was nailed to the cross and killed by lawless people, not for any guilt of his own but for our guilt. He took our death so that we could receive life in him.
Perhaps that is a truth that seems unbelievable. Perhaps you are “utterly astounded” by that truth and struggle to believe it (v. 5). Perhaps you feel the weight of your sin and wonder, can it really be as free as that? Can it really be as simple as me casting my sins upon Christ, believing that he died for me and rose again, and pleading with him for forgiveness? Let me answer with an unequivocal yes. Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved.