Habakkuk 1:1 – 2:4
1This is the oracle that the prophet Habakkuk saw. 2O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? or cry to you “Violence!” and you will not save? 3Why do you make me see wrong-doing and look at trouble? Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise, 4so the law becomes slack and justice never prevails. The wicked surround the righteous. Therefore judgment comes forth perverted.
5Look at the nations, and see! Be astonished! Be astounded! For a work is being done in your days that you would not believe if you were told. 6For I am rousing the Chaldeans, that fierce and impetuous nation, who march through the breadth of the earth to seize dwellings not their own. 7Dread and fearsome are they; their justice and dignity proceed from themselves. 8Their horses are swifter than leopards, more menacing than wolves at dusk; their horses charge. Their horsemen come from far away; they fly like an eagle swift to devour. 9They all come for violence, with faces pressing forward; they gather captives like sand. 10At kings they scoff, and of rulers they make sport. They laugh at every fortress, and heap up earth to take it. 11Then they sweep by like the wind; they transgress and become guilty; their own might is their god!
12Are you not from of old, O Lord my God, my Holy One? You shall not die. O Lord, you have marked them for judgment; and you, O Rock, have established them for punishment. 13Your eyes are too pure to behold evil, and you cannot look on wrongdoing; why do you look on the treacherous, and are silent when the wicked swallow those more righteous than they? 14You have made people like the fish of the sea, like crawling things that have no ruler. 15The enemy brings all of them up with a hook; he drags them out with his net, he gathers them in his seine; so he rejoices and exults. 16Therefore he sacrifices to his net and makes offerings to his seine; for by them his portion is lavish, and his food is rich. 17Is he then to keep on emptying his net, and destroying nations without mercy?
1I will stand at my watch post, and station myself on the rampart; I will keep watch to see what He will say to me, and what He will answer concerning my complaint. 2Then the Lord answered me and said: “Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so that a runner may read it. 3For there is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and does not lie. If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay. 4Look at the proud! Their spirit is not right in them, but the righteous live by their faith.”
Text © New Revised Standard Version alt, used with permission.
The actual text set for Pentecost 24 in Year C of the Revised Common Lectionary (30th October 2016) is only the first four verses of each of chapters 1 and 2 of Habbakuk, but it is instructive to look at the verses omitted in the light of what is happening on the world stage at present.
How often have we heard cries such as “how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen?” Among those who are borderline or below in their faith it’s a common cry that you can cry out to God and there will be no answer. In many cases people wonder if there really is a God at all. Neither is that call restricted to non-church goers. When prayers for healing have gone unheeded, so we think, it’s easy to say that prayer doesn’t make any difference. We still have a need for help, and we feel abandoned. Day after day there are examples of women, especially, being subjected to violence and God seems oblivious. Much as it might seem that way, however, the truth is that God is with us in our turmoil and our pain, and is feeling every bit as frustrated with human beings going off the rails because we were given free will. How He must regret ever giving us such a gift! Still, though, the sense of desolation and deprivation are real. It doesn’t take much to see violence and destruction every day. On the way home from church on Sunday we witnessed a police chase for an escaped criminal who drove a stolen car at police trying to stop him, and endangered the lives of many before he was caught. Every day we see war-torn areas under siege with building and lives destroyed, and God appears not to act. When matters settle down, only a few of those behind atrocities are ever brought to justice in the human sphere. We might wonder why God hasn’t acted to bring an end to the senseless violence. The second half of chapter 1 verse 4 takes a dramatic turn. If the wicked surround the righteous, and judgement comes out perverted, isn’t Habakkuk suggesting that the wicked are infiltrating positions of power within the temple leadership? You can’t surround yourself with criminals and come out smelling of roses.
The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has heard many horror stories about violence and other abuse of minors, often, though far from all the time, at the hands of clergy and church leaders. The very people you should be able to expect to trust to show us God’s loving care for everyone have not only been infiltrated by people of a less worthy background, but the institutional responses have been shown time and again to be lacking too. Jesus told us to “Keep watch, for you do not know when the thief will come” and yet we struggle to understand how people who should know better fail to act properly. These stories are of violence on our own turf, and against our own people. If we are the hands, the eyes, the feet, and the mouth of God then surely it is up to us to listen to what God has to say about a situation and not depend on Him taking unilateral action, or depend on those who are empowered to be our spiritual guides, and who have been shown, at times, to be asleep on their watch.
In the West today we live with wars on various fronts, with terrorist activity, with human suffering on an enormous scale, but we are leaving ourselves open to far worse because of our lack of focus on God and what we should be doing. Habakkuk speaks of a work which we would not believe if we were told about it. Focussing on ourselves and things in our part of the world exposes us to actions we would prefer not to contemplate. How many of the things Habakkuk mentions in verses 7 to 11 are happening now, in various parts of the world? How many are happening in Australia, or under the eye of Australians?
The lament continues, with the unnamed evil power rejoicing as victims are brought into his net. There is no mercy. This sounds far too familiar. Large powerful nations manoeuvring to grab land and sea; others looking to support régimes condemned by most; nations deciding they know best for other nations, without asking; senseless murder of people who oppose the ruling élite.
Habakkuk declares he is doing what we must also do: stand on the watch post and keep listening for God’s word to us. The prophet is told to write the oracle so clearly that even a runner can read it. We should listen, and act, rather than wait for those in charge to take action on our behalf. When we look at the proud, whoever they may be, we will see that things are not right for them – there is something amiss – but those who are focussed on God and doing the right thing are alive because of their faith.