Have you ever asked God questions and felt you haven't received a good answer? I heard about a little boy once who said to his father, "How many people in the world, Dad?" He said, "I don't know Son." He said, "How many stars in the sky?" He said, "I don't know, Son." "How many fish in the sea?" "Don't know, Son." "Dad, you don't mind me asking you all these questions, do you?" "No, Son. How are you going to learn if you don't ask questions?"
Maybe you've been that sort of parent. But have you ever asked God question after question and sort of got a shrug of the shoulders from heaven? You're not getting anything back. Habakkuk was a man who is introduced to us with a lot of questions. And we get the idea that he's not getting the answers. Eventually he got an answer that he didn't expect and that he particularly didn't want.
Habakkuk's name means "to embrace," and I want to talk about embracing things we don't want to embrace or accepting things we cannot change. There's a fine line to walk there, because we don't want to accept things we can or should change, but I don't hear too many people addressing the human dilemma of accepting something you cannot change. And that's Habakkuk's story.
I also believe that's where an awful lot of people are that we minister to in our churches. They live in a place where they have to be a Habakkuk, to embrace a situation that is far from ideal—to live in a marriage that is less than perfect and to exist in an environment that needs an awful lot of help. How to embrace that—that's the thing I want to talk about.
Our circumstances can cause us to question God's presence in our lives
He begins by asking a lot of questions. For example, Is God there? "How long, Lord, must I call for help, but you do not listen? Or cry out to you, 'Violence!' but you do not save?" Have you ever said that?
I talked to a lady just this week who has grown children. One of her children is living out of marriage with her boyfriend and has produced two children. One of those children is being abused by the father. That grandmother was put in the position of turning in her own children to the authorities. She said to me in tears, "How is it, Jill? I prayed. I did everything I could. I hammered on the doors of heaven, and everybody knew this was going on and that little three-year-old was abused. Why didn't God answer?"
So Habakkuk was saying, "Is God there? Does he care?" Now, the background to the book is very interesting. Josiah, the good king, had been killed in battle. Jehoiakim was on the throne. He was the bad guy. Habakkuk said, "Come on, God! How come the good guy gets killed and the bad guy is sitting on the throne?" Do you ever ask that sort of question?
Another friend of mine has ended up in a mental ward in a hospital because as a little girl of six, terrible things were done to her, and the only way a little girl of six could cope with it was to forget it. So she decided to forget it, and the human mind, being the wonderful machine that it is, was able to do that. So all those memories were pushed out of her mind for years. Then she got married and went into full-time, effective Christian service—wonderful girl. But in the joy of the birth of her second child, when all those mechanics are going on in the human body, and the hormones are being released that trigger all these things in our bodies and our brains, all those memories began to surface. She's been nine months now under therapy.
I called her the other day as she was about to be released and said, "I want to ask you one question: What is your picture of God at this point? How can I pray for you, because I want to know that?" She said, "My picture of God, Jill, at this moment is he's standing there with his hands in his pockets. That's my picture of God." I wonder sometimes how we answer people like that. So the problem of unanswered prayer is high on the prophet's heart.
Are prophets allowed to have such questions? God begins to answer in Habakkuk 1:5-9, and they're the sort of answers Habakkuk could have done without. Have you ever asked God something and then been sorry you asked? Now Habakkuk's in that position, because God leans out of heaven and says, "Look at the nations. Be utterly amazed. I am going to do something in your days that you would not believe even if you were told. Wait for it. I'm going to raise up the Babylonians." He describes them for the rest of the chapter as a ruthless people who will come "like the wicked foe pulling all of you up with hooks, catching you in his net, gathering you in his dragnet, rejoicing and glad, sacrificing to his net, burning incense to his dragnet."
Habakkuk is left absolutely stunned, and he says to God, "First I asked you if you were even there. Then I asked if you didn't care. Now I'm asking you, 'Is this fair?' How can you use the unholy to punish the holy?" He loses hope in the goodness and justice of God. When you do that when you're in trouble; you've lost everything. Where are you going to go when you lose hope in the character of God?
Now Habakkuk really has a problem on his hands. What do you do when the intellect is faced with a moral problem in the divine government of the universe to which it can find no solution? These are questions people are asking.
Children are asking them today in their own way. A friend of mine is a schoolteacher in the Milwaukee school system. Just at the beginning of last semester, she was passing in the corridor by the lockers, and she came upon two nine-year-old children talking. One of them said to the other, "What sort of vacation did you have?" The little boy said, "Well it was sort of tough. My dad trashed me." "Oh," said his new little acquaintance, "that is tough. I know what it feels like, because my dad trashed me last year. Why don't we be friends?"
As they stood looking at each other—nine years of age—describing their experience as children of divorce, of "being trashed," the teacher was able to approach and put her arms around those two kids and say, "Let me tell you about someone who will never trash you." She told them about God, taking that opportunity to be the Christian she was in that particular situation.
As she talked with the kids, they asked all of Habakkuk's questions: "Is God there? Does he care? He's standing there with his hands in his pockets. He didn't do anything." One of the little boys said, "I prayed my daddy wouldn't leave me. I prayed every night. I prayed so hard. And he did anyway." So it isn't just the grownups who have these questions.
Then we face the hard question of how to embrace that, how to accept something you cannot change. One of them said, "My dad's marrying again. That's why he left my mother." The other one said "My dad did get married again." It's something they couldn't change. It wasn't going to get any better. Could they learn to be a Habakkuk?
We must trust God until we can see things from his perspective
We come into chapter 2, and we find Habakkuk feeling a bit guilty asking all these questions. "I will stand at my watch and station myself on the ramparts. I will look to see what he will say to me and what answer I am to give to this complaint." This is where we come to the mountaintop. He actually uses the picture of a high tower at this point, but the picture is the same. When we've added guilt to doubt and we end up feeling miserable and we can't even pray because we feel so bad about our attitude toward God, the only thing we can do is to wait until we see it from his perspective.
That's what Habakkuk wisely does. "I will wait till I see it from your viewpoint. I'll wait till you get my perspective in order." "Be still and know that he is God" is what it's all about. We do this so badly. The longer we know Jesus, the worse we are at standing on our high tower. If we're in Christian work, we're the worst at having a quiet time, because there are so many holy substitutes.
I suppose sometimes it's a little bit like saying to God, "Well, here I am on the high tower. What have you got to say?" God leans out of heaven and says something we don't want to hear, and like Elijah we shut our ears and put our cloak over them to shut out the still, small voice. We cannot shut out God's voice, however, and Habakkuk didn't. God said to Habakkuk, "The answer to your questions is a who. It's me. I am the answer. I am working out my purposes."
In chapters 2 through 5, he explains that he is indeed working out his purposes. "Write down the revelation. The revelation waits an appointed time. It speaks of the end. It will not prove false. Though it linger, wait for it. It will certainly come and will not delay." What is God saying? He's saying, "The wicked will be punished in the end, and the earth will be full of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea."
The wicked will be punished in the end. God is just, and he lays out a whole lot of woes in this chapter. In 2:6-8 he says, "The enemy will come. Babylon will be here. He will amass your wealth. He'll rape you of all your money. But sin is like a boomerang. You throw sin, but be sure: your sins will find you out. It will come back to you, and though the Babylonians will rape you of all your wealth, they will lose it in the end." He explains that in verses 9-11. So God tells him, "Yes, this is going to happen, Habakkuk, in your day and in your time. There is no escape. The Chaldeans are coming. Be sure this is going to happen. You're going to be living by faith in the middle of it."
This wonderful verse, "The just shall live by faith," is right here. How do we cope with an answer we don't want to hear? How do we embrace a situation that's tough? "The just shall live by faith." Those who trust in him who is faithful will become like him. "Trust produces endurance, and that's what's going to happen to you, Habakkuk, and to the people you serve." The man who shows his trust in God by his faithfulness to God will find God faithful in keeping him.
Henrietta Mears, shortly before she died, said this: "I wish I had trusted him more." I don't want to die and on my deathbed say, "I wish I trusted him more." I'm sure I will, however, because I find trust very difficult. I find obedience very easy, but that's my temperament. As my husband says, I'm a check-check-check-tick-tick-tick sort of person. Those sort of people who are very organized and detail-conscious find obedience easy. The laid-back people like my husband find trust easy. So you have to work at what you're not good at temperamentally.
Getting a good look at the "Chaldeans" in my life and having faith that God will keep me when they've overrun me is very hard for me. I wrote a little book called Harrow Sparrow. I wanted to write for children and tell them that God does not promise a sparrow will not fall, but he does promise it will not fall without the Father. We cannot promise our children they will not get hurt. We cannot kiss every hurt better, nor can God in this life. But he promises to be there when the sparrow falls, and that's realism.
You add realism to revelation and you're in for a mountain-top experience. What God does for Habakkuk at this point, in 3:3-11, is give him a vision of the holy one coming from Edom. His glory fills the world, and all nature is convulsed before him—and the prophet, too. "I heard and my heart pounded, my lips quivered at the sound; decay crept into my bones, and my legs trembled" (3:16). What's he talking about? Has he seen the Chaldeans? Oh no, he's seen the Lord. That's what he's talking about, and that's what happens when you get a vision of God. That's what happened to Isaiah when he got into God's perspective and he saw the world in the rotten mess it was, and he said, "I'm undone. I'm unraveled." That's the word—like a ball of wool. I need God to put me back again, because I've seen the mess everything's in. But he was able to see it from God's perspective and say, "Here am I, send me. Let's go and do something about this mess." Habakkuk likewise, once he had seen God, instead of waiting in his ivory tower forever, was ready to do something about it. He was resolved to be faithful forever. "Yet I will wait patiently for the day of calamity to come on the nation invading us." In other words, he knew he couldn't escape the invading army, but he also knew God would eventually judge the Chaldeans as well.
When we can't escape our circumstances we must trust God's ultimate plan
What are our prayers like when we see the Chaldeans on our horizon? Don't you pray to escape them? Don't you say, "God let them go on to that person next to me. Don't let them overrun me." Of course you do, if you're natural at all. That's my first prayer when I see the Chaldeans approaching. But what do we do when God says "You can't escape it"? What do we do when we return from the hospital and the doctor has said, "It's not going to get any better"? Well, we pray on for healing. But are we willing when the healing doesn't come to accept something we cannot change? He resolves to be faithful, joyful, and watchful—whatever. Encouraged by God, you can do anything. Habakkuk leaves the "Will he do it for me?" to him and gets on with business. It's God who is the answer to all this big stuff in the end.
I have a dear friend in heaven. Joanie was her name, a wonderful lady. She had a terrible battle with leukemia and other forms of cancer. But I think it was one of the most triumphant deaths I've ever experienced. Joanie was a very brave lady. The day she died, she called me. I could hardly hear the voice, because she was about to go to heaven and see Jesus. She said, "Jill, it's Joanie. I've just called to say good-by." It was as if she were going on a trip somewhere. I said, "Oh," rather taken aback, and I listened. This very faint voice said to one, "It's true, Jill. It's all true. Tell them it's all true. I'll see you in heaven."
I remember that, because Joanie was somebody who had gone through this whole thing that I've explained to you in principle, asking her questions. She realized the Chaldeans were trampling all over her life and that God had said, "This is how it's got to be." I had seen her embrace God's answer. God had given her a vision of himself.
We've got to get all that in place before the Chaldeans come knocking at the door. It's very hard to learn all that in a hurry or in crisis, so while we are celebrating, before they ever appear, how is our relationship with God doing? It'll tell once they're on the doorstep. So we need to be in the Bible. We need to be praying regularly. We need to be growing, learning all we can, learning how to minister before it happens.
As Ruth Graham's little poem so succinctly puts it:
I will lay my whys before your cross and worship, kneeling,
My mind too numb for thought, my heart beyond all feeling,
And worshiping realize that I,
In knowing you, don't need a why.
It's that mountaintop of faith we all need to know how to climb, where we lay our whys before his throne in worship. Habakkuk saw himself in perspective, and that's what you do on the mountaintop. It's part of the plan and purpose of God.
Then he comes into this triumphant statement at the end of the book of Habakkuk, his mountaintop statement: "Though the fig tree doesn't bud, though there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails, though the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen, though there are no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord. I will be joyful in God my Savior."
Can we say, as Habakkuk did, embracing God's purpose and plan for us on the way to his big purpose and plan being worked out, "Though … yet"? For example, though the fig tree doesn't bud. What was the fig tree? Figuratively speaking, if you'll excuse the pun, the fig tree speaks of many things: shade, when the heat's on; peace and prosperity, because it takes a long time to grow a fig tree—years and years. What the prophet was saying was this: When the enemy came in, they would burn everything. They would chop down all the trees. So it spoke of peace and prosperity.
In 1 Kings 4:25 we read, "Judah and Israel dwelt safely, every man under his vine, every man under his fig tree." So it speaks of years of patient labor. It speaks of job security, actually. Could you say, "Though the fig tree doesn't bud—though I lose my job—yet I will praise him, because I live on the mountain top and I'm part of the bigger picture, and God is working his purposes out"? Can you say that?
Secondly, the fig tree spoke of medicine. They'd use a poultice of figs. They'd boil them and put it on whatever was needed. Hezekiah used this. Only a triumph of faith in Jehovah could help one to rejoice in him when the fig tree didn't bud. I have known a little bit of that this year with a back problem that is not going to go away unless God intervenes. But I live with this irritating little handicap, and I had to face this. Though the fig tree doesn't bud—though this isn't going to get any better and possibly is going to get worse—will I praise him? Not do I feel like praising him, because the answer to that is no. But will I praise him? Yes, I will. Though the fig tree doesn't bud, yet I will praise him.
"Though the olive crop fails … thy children like olive plants around thy table …." What happens if the olive crop fails? The olive pictures salt, arresting corruption, light, soap, holiness. Anointing oil always came from the olives. What happens if all these things fail?
Let me paint one little picture: What happens if your children don't make it spiritually? Are you going to praise him? That's a biggie. Can I go on in ministry if my children are playing around? Can I take the leadership position in my church if my kids are a mess? You're going to have to stay in your tower a long time to get God's perspective on this one. But can you come to the point of saying, "Though the olive crop fails—whatever they're doing, they're responsible for their own actions, and I'm responsible for mine—I will yet praise him, whether they get around to doing it or not?"
That to me has been one of the hardest things. All our children are walking with the Lord in ministry today. But in the past, if they've struggled, I've struggled with them. I've had to come to the point of saying, "I refuse to be obsessed with this," because it would obsess me, so I couldn't minister. I couldn't think of anything apart from "Will they make it? The olive crop is failing." I had to struggle out from all of that. And the way I could do that was getting on my high tower and staying there until I got my perspective straight again.
"Though the fields produce no fruit"—though I work and work and get nothing in return, though I put everything I've got into my ministry and it doesn't come off, can I praise him, not for the failure, not that sort of nonsense, but praise him for who he is within what is happening around me? Listen to this verse: "The sovereign Lord is my strength." In his Savior who is sovereign would be his strength. As Alan Redpath used to say, he was not resident in his life, he was president of his life. That's what made the difference. He was seeing it from God's perspective. "He makes my feet like the feet of the deer, he enables me to go on the heights." He gave him a sure-footed ability, a confidence to endure even worse things.
The high places are the low places, folks. Did you know that? In my life, the low places have been the high places, and all I need to learn is that sure-footed ability, a confidence to endure even worse things, because for all of us, even worse things are coming. All of us face death one day, so there is a Chaldean experience for all of us. Before the Chaldeans come, how is our heart set? Are we on our high tower? Are we living on the high places? Can we say, "Though … yet will I praise him"? I wonder.
Let me read you a poem that sums up my feelings: "Give me hind's feet, Lord, like yours. You are the Hind of the Morning. Walk with me on the heights. Help me to jump, to leap over the crevices. You go first. Show me how. Land me safely on sure ground. Give me a high view of Scripture, of the purposes and promises of God. Give me a vision from the heights of the whole panorama of your purposes. Preserve me from the mountain lion that would terrorize me. Give me fleet feet when the lion comes. If he pants and bring me down, help me to bear it well. Meet me on the other side of sorrow, in a new place, in a new race, in a new age on a new page of eternal history. And until then, O heavenly Hind of the Morning, talk to me and tell often about the dawn of the new day. Toughen me now, tenderly, and give me hind's feet. Amen."
For Your Reflection
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Jill Briscoe is executive editor of Just Between Us, serves on the boards of World Relief and Christianity Today International, and is a minister-at-large with her husband at Elmbrook Church in Wisconsin.