Sunday, February 24, 2008

Habbakuk's Faith and Our Times - Lent III

The Prophet Habbakuk, by Donatello
Image: http://www.flickr.com/photos/atomicmaestro/11768926/

The wisest man that ever lived once wrote: "There is nothing new under the sun" (nihil sub sole novum). We live in troubled times, but so has every generation in this fallen world. When I think back to the peaceful days of the 1950’s living in the rural South, I remember that I had a sense of our country being good and wholesome. Those were days when no one locked their doors, kids romped through the neighbourhood at will with no one worrying about them, and divorce was rare. Schools were safe, everyone went to Church, and people got along. Yet, there were people alive at that time whose parents had told them awful stories about Sherman’s march through our country. Those people themselves had lived through World War One, and, of course, all the adults had lived through World War Two. And even though we felt basically secure and prosperous, the Cold War was well underway and the fear of a nuclear war was at the edge of our minds.

For some reason I have always been one of those people with a sense of history and have always cared about the condition of our country. At times it is a real burden. When I look at our country today, sometimes I’m overwhelmed by the injustice, foolishness, wickedness and oblivion to the dangers we face. It depresses me deeply. I find that I sympathise much with the prophet Habbakuk. Habbakuk was like Job, in that he struggled with the problem of evil, except that, whereas Job struggled with evil in his personal life, Habbakuk struggled with evil among the nations. At the beginning of his prophecy, he cries out to God and says,

2: O LORD, how long shall I cry, and thou wilt not hear! even cry out unto thee of violence, and thou wilt not save! 3: Why dost thou shew me iniquity, and cause me to behold grievance? for spoiling and violence are before me: and there are [people] that raise up strife and contention. 4: Therefore the law is slacked, and judgment doth never go forth: for the wicked doth compass about the righteous; therefore wrong judgment proceedeth.

Sounds like the U.S. today.

The LORD’s answer to Habbakuk, instead of helping things look better, made things even more confusing for him. God said, “I will work a work in your days, which ye will not believe, though it be told you.” That verse is quoted in Christian devotion literature usually as some way of encouraging people to expect God to do wonderful things for us, but the wonderful thing God was actually talking about was not the kind of thing that either Habbakuk or we would ever wish for anyone. The work He was going to do was bring the Chaldeans to destroy his homeland of Judah. That was the thing He was going to do that no one would believe. Instead of things getting better, they were going to get worse.

Habbakuk’s reaction was like Peter’s reaction to Jesus when Jesus told the disciples things were going to get worse and that the Jews were going to kill Him. Peter tried to argue with Jesus about it. Habbakuk basically told the LORD that surely He wasn’t going to use the Chaldeans to deal with the evils in Judah. Why those people were notorious idolators! He reminds God with the words “Thou art of purer eyes than to behold evil, and canst not look on iniquity,” meaning, “Surely, Lord, you will have nothing to do with a nation like that! They are not the kind of people to do your will.”

But Habbakuk was a spiritual man and knew that he could not argue with God, even though God didn’t seem to be making sense. And so, he sets himself to wait on the LORD to give him a vision that will help him to understand what God was saying and doing. In chapter 2, verse 2, the LORD comes and gives him that vision. He first informs Habbakuk that the thing is quite well determined: “3: For the vision is yet for an appointed time, but at the end it shall speak, and not lie: though it tarry, wait for it; because it will surely come, it will not tarry.” He then says, 4: Behold, his soul which is lifted up is not upright in him: but the just shall live by his faith.” God goes on to describe further in his own words what is wrong with the Chaldeans – He knows they are evil people - but He inserts this clause to instruct Habbakuk in how he should be responding to all of this. It is a verse often quoted in the New Testament referring to our salvation in Christ and how we may stand righteous before Him on the great final day of judgment, but the original context here is of how we are to live by faith as we face the judgment of God upon our society in this age. The just are to live in the midst of a world under judgment by faith.

This verse makes us realise that we must be reconciled to living in a world that has always suffered national tragedies, wars, invasions, corruptions and the like. But we are not to allow this suffering to lead us into spiritual deadness. Instead we are to live. We are to thrive in the midst of it. And we are to do so by our faith. As Job refused to curse God but believe that, even though God might kill him, He was still a good God and worthy of his trust, so God reminds Habbakuk, and us as well, that though our homeland be destroyed, He is still worthy of our trust. He is the God in Whom we have trusted, in Whom we are to continue to trust, and Who will remain faithful to us, even until the day when all suffering will end.

As we face the things that trouble us in our land and our world, we must take the long view of history. It is somewhat settling to realise that the things we face are not new, or unusual. They are things the Church has always faced in this world; there is nothing new under the sun. But history is headed for a great climax, the day of resurrection and judgment, when all injustice and evil will receive its due and all things will be put to right. Whatever may happen in this life, it is never the end of the story. The day of gladness and glory in store for the saints through their victorious Lord is the end of the story, and it is happy ending. God is faithful to bring us, beyond the grave, to that ending. That vision, that appointed time promised by God, will surely come and not tarry. Thus, we can live, even here, in this world, by faith; faith in a good and just God who knows everything we care about and everything we will ever need; even the hairs of our head are numbered.

This vision given to Habbakuk leads him to proclaim a condemnation upon the Chaldeans and their like. In five “woes” Habbakuk exposes the sins of the Chaldeans and he declares that, even though they may be serving God’s purpose in His judgment of Judea, nevertheless He is ultimately against them, and all their attempts to build a bloody empire will be utterly in vain, “For,” Habbakuk says, “the earth shall be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD, as the waters cover the sea.” (verse 14). Habbakuk sees the Chaldeans from the perspective of the long view of history. Though they have their day, their day will pass and the day of the LORD will come when all the empires of man will pass away and the reign of God’s truth will cover the world.

Habbakuk ends this section of condemnation in his prophecy with more words often quoted by Christians today; indeed, they are in our liturgy: 20: “But the LORD is in his holy temple: let all the earth keep silence before him.” The next time we hear or read these words, let us remember their origin. In one way, it is a confession of Habbakuk, that all his fretting and complaining and questioning of God’s ways was wrong. The LORD, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of Moses, his God, is on His throne. Nothing is happening by accident. God is working His purposes out in the nations. He knows what He is doing. Who are we to question Him. Let us rather put our hands over our mouths and keep silence before Him.

The words are also a rebuke to the nations. The nations, even our own nation, rise up in rebellion against God, questioning Him, accusing Him, cursing Him. That is the basis for all the wrong-headed agendas we face in our country today that are causing us so much trouble and bringing ruin down upon our heads. How foolish! Who do they think God is? He is the LORD. He still sits on His holy throne in His holy temple. If the rebellious are wise, they will make their peace with Him and shut up all their evil speech against Him. They will take their place before Him and amend their ways. Oh, that the men of our country had this wisdom. But the foolishness of man is nothing new under the sun.

The last of Habbakuk’s prophecy, the third chapter, is that which was read earlier in our service. He begins with a prayer that God, while executing his wrath in history, would also exercise mercy to His people. Then, instead of the longview of history future, Habbakuk looks backward into the history of God’s dealings with His people in the past. With the imagery of the Hebrew language, Habbakuk remembers the wonderful way that God delivered His people from Egypt under Moses and made covenant with them at Sinai. He remembers the times when the LORD brought salvation to His people and how He did so by bringing judgement upon those who were evil. These great historic events on the behalf of the righteous encourage Habbakuk that the LORD will be with His people still. And even though they may find themselves again under the yoke of a Gentile power, as they were in Egypt, and as, indeed they did find themselves under the Chaldeans, the LORD is mindful of His people. He knows how to save them from their enemies.

We too can look back and see what God has done for us. We remember the times when another empire held the Church in her grip: the Roman empire, and how God dealt with her and set His people upon a rock of safety. The Lord delivered his people from oppression by the hand of Constantine, just as he delivered them from the oppression of the Chaldeans by Cyrus. It is often mentioned that our empire today, lead by New England and Washington, D.C., and the culture that is bred here looks a lot like the old Roman empire and culture. If the western Church finds herself again under the heal of oppression, we will keep reading the book of Revelation. We will keep remembering how God promised in that book to deal with our Roman oppressors and He is faithful to deal with our oppressors again, if He will, whether in our lifetime or no.

We can especially look back to the Cross of Calvary, where Jesus overcame the world and all its evil; where he established His kingdom, which He took up upon His resurrection and ascension, and hear again His promise: I will build my kingdom, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it. As great as the Exodus was as an object for Habbakuk’s faith, how much greater is the work of our Lord Jesus! Try what the nations could do to stop it, God has set His King on His holy hill. The Lord reigns! Let us rejoice!

Indeed, this is where Habbakuk leaves us: with joy; joy in the face of political, economic, and cultural tragedy. Joy in a kingdom that cannot be corrupted. Joy in a King who is bringing all His purposes to pass. Joy in a God who is our Friend, and keeps our friendship in mind in all His works. Here is an example of a saint who has gone before us that we do well to follow. You recall the words. They are worth repeating again and again:

17: Although the fig tree shall not blossom, neither shall fruit be in the vines; the labour of the olive shall fail, and the fields shall yield no meat; the flock shall be cut off from the fold, and there shall be no herd in the stalls: 18: Yet I will rejoice in the LORD, I will joy in the God of my salvation. 19: The LORD God is my strength, and he will make my feet like hinds' feet, and he will make me to walk upon mine high places.

However the economy fares, whatever the continuing march of social engineering by the progressives does to our society, whatever may transpire in the ongoing, age-old conflict of Islam with the West, whatever may happen to our liberties, the stability of our communities, and the morality of our society, due to our own sin and ignorance, we, the saints, must maintain our sanity and our duty to our Lord, His Church and to mankind, by our faith.

Our faith must thrive to such a degree that our reaction to the evils around us does honour to the Word of our Lord and rebukes the errors and unbelief of the world around us. We, like Noah, though vexed in soul and surely at times feeling lonely, must continue to build the Ark of Christendom and do it with joy.

But how can such a joyous faith thrive? It cannot by a decision for it to do so. No. We need a miracle of divine grace; we need the presence of the divine Encourager, the Holy Spirit. And we have him, thanks to God’s great gift to us in His Son. And the vision of faith is renewed by this same Spirit as we respond to our fears by doing what Habbakuk did: by remembering God in prayer, looking both at His works done in the past and promised in the future. Gathering with God’s people in holy ordinances, meeting with our families under our roofs, taking time alone with Him in our closets, we prayerfully remember that our God is a God of justice reserved for the violent and ungodly and a God of mercy and peace continually poured out upon those He makes righteous in His Son.

Let us kneel beside our old brother Habbakuk, and repeat after him the prayers that his faith was able to make, in the power of the Spirit, and find the same peace and even joy that he found. And so, praying together, we will arrive safely in that world, that is our certain possession, where, no one shall hurt again, where there will never be any grief or fear again, where the knowledge of our LORD will cover the whole earth, even as the waters cover the seas.

Amen.

1 comment:

Vicki said...

Beautifully said. The words of our brother Habbakuk have strengthened me today. Like yours, my soul cries out with sadness at the depravity of this present world. My constant prayer is that the lost will seek Jesus so that they may know Him and His great love for us. Personally, if I didn't know Jesus there's no way that I could make it through each day. Thanks be to God, He lives and He loves me. That concept alone is more than my tiny mind can grasp.
God bless you my brother,
Vicki