Picture Calvin from Calvin and Hobbes. He's swinging on a swing in the school playground. Picture a bully named Mo, twice as big as Calvin. He wants the swing and says, "Get off the swing, Twinky." Calvin responds, "Forget it Mo. Wait your turn." The next frame has no words. It just shows a huge roundhouse punch that that sends Calvin spinning. The last frame has Calvin on the ground with a black eye, musing, "Sometimes it's hard to be religious when certain people are never incinerated by bolts of lightning."
Ain't it the truth? Calvin has captured with humor, somewhat dark humor, what the theologians call "The Problem of Evil." Habakkuk, whose name means "wrestler" or "embracer," captured the same message with no humor. Habakkuk looked around at his Israelite society, and what did he see?
O Lord, how long shall I cry for help,
and you will not hear?
Or cry to you "Violence!"
and you will not save?
Why do you make me see iniquity,
and why do you idly look at wrong?
Destruction and violence are before me;
strife and contention arise (Habakkuk 1:2-3).
We lament at the problem of evil and suffering.
If you love and fear God, then you feel the same way about the world as Habakkuk did. Turn on the evening news. Listen to that story about the convicted sex offender, who's loose again, back on the prowl. Something in your heart says, "How long, O Lord? Why do you make me see iniquity?"
A few months ago, I was meeting with my small group in my house on a Sunday evening. One of the couples had brought a friend with them, a pastor from India who overseers other pastors. During the evening he received a phone call. We could tell that he was receiving troubling news, and later he told us that one of the pastors he oversees was just beat up by militant Hindus. The Church triumphant is getting beat up in many places around the world. Why does God allow it?
Like Habakkuk, we lament, question, and complain to God about suffering and evil. But remember what happens next in the book? God answers Habakkuk, but it's not a very satisfying answer. God answers: Yes, I know all about the violence and iniquity, and you bet I'm going to do something about it, but hang on to your hat, because my plan is to use the Babylonians to discipline my people. The Babylonians? The pagan, idol worshiping, rapacious, and power hungry Babylonians?
Sometimes we lament even more after hearing God's plan.
God was going to use the Babylonians! Habakkuk says to God, "Huh?" This is like us back in the 1980s complaining to God about the televangelist scandals: "God, how can you stand it? Why do you permit it? Those guys are harming the testimony of the whole Church! Don't you see what they're doing?" And God says, "Yes, I do, and yes, I care. Here's what I'm going to do—I'm going to allow the Mafia to slip into their houses at night to slit their throats. That should take care of the problem!" Then we say, "Hang on, Lord. That's not the program I had in mind. You're going to use evil to discipline your children?"
Look at Habakkuk's response to God's plan: "I hear, and my body trembles; my lips quiver at the sound; rottenness enters into my bones; my legs tremble beneath me" (Habakkuk 3:16). The phrase "body trembled" is a genteel translation. Literally, he says my "guts trembled." Habakkuk is describing an anxiety attack. He wilts when he hears of God's plan to discipline his covenant people.
Then we read these words of Habakkuk:
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 ….
These six phrases of beautiful poetry have an edge. In roughly ascending order, Habakkuk describes the severity of what will soon happen to Israel. Figs were a delicacy. If the fig trees did not blossom, you would miss them, but this would not be real privation. Grapes were used primarily for wine, so once again, you could survive without grapes. It wouldn't be the end of the world. Olives were used mostly for olive oil, and olive oil was used constantly for cooking and for light. With this phrase, Habakkuk is describing a real inconvenience, even privation. But then notice what happens: the fields no longer produce the two staples—barley and wheat. Here he's talking about genuine suffering, even starvation. Sheep were used for wool and occasionally for food. They were foundational in the economy. If your own crops failed, then your herds of sheep would enable you to trade with other nations. They wouldn't be able to do this after the Babylonians came. Cattle were not often eaten. They were used for heavy farm work. Habakkuk is saying, "After the Babylonians get done, we will not be able to recover the next year. We won't have the means to start over. We won't be able to farm our land."
Habakkuk is describing a scorched earth policy, as when Sherman marched from Atlanta to the sea in the Civil War, ripping out the bread basket of the South. Or it's like the Russians retreating before the Germans in WWII, burning their own land to prevent the Germans from living off of Mother Russia. Habakkuk trembles when he thinks of his future under the Babylonians. His guts tremble. His lips quiver. His legs give out.
I have never been that low. I have never experienced the confusing plan that God sanctions at times. But I know that some of you have been that low. You have lived in scorched earth. You might be there now.
My friend has given me permission to quote from an email he sent recently. His wife left him. His ministry was removed. His business is suffering greatly. He can hardly make ends meet. He is trying to be a father to his kids.
Not being able to see any crack of daylight, not being able to even imagine a scenario where things get better, where my life returns to "normal" and the sadness and heaviness are gone—that is dark, dark, dark. I understand that our hope is not all in this life, but trying to mentally overcome my circumstances by thinking about heaven or something—I guess I am not spiritual enough for that …. I am just being honest. Obviously, I believe God can change things in the blink of an eye, but the fact that I have cried out to him for years and he hasn't changed things leads me to believe he isn't interested in doing so—and of course the thought that God is "against me" is a pretty hopeless and fearful belief.
Habakkuk rejoiced, waiting quietly for the day of trouble.
Habakkuk lamented and we lament. But now watch what happens. The prophecy and poetry of Habakkuk hinge at this point. As we read we turn sharply and find ourselves on a different path. The hinge comes with the little word "yet."
Yet I will quietly wait for the day of trouble
to come upon people who invade us ….
yet I will rejoice in the Lord;
I will take joy in the God of my salvation.
Isn't this astounding? Habakkuk can rejoice with lamenting. He can trust in the person of God when he doesn't understand the plan of God. He's quaking, yes, but he also has quietness and joy.
In 1851, missionary Alan Gardiner was shipwrecked on the southern tip of South America. He and some survivors made their way to an uninhabited island, and slowly they starved to death. He was the last one alive, and his last journal entry refers to Psalm 34:10: "'The young lions suffer want and hunger; but those who seek the Lord lack no good thing.' I am overwhelmed with a sense of the goodness of God."
How is this possible? How can one dwell in scorched earth and still rejoice? How can we rest in quietness and rejoice in confidence even while lamenting? Apparently, joy is not just something that happens to us, but it is, at least partly, volitional. We exercise our faith. We pull it out of the closet and put it to work. The righteous ones live by their faith.
Lest you think that this kind of volitional faith is only something that prophets and missionaries experience, let me call to the witness stand my colleague at Gordon Conwell Seminary, Pablo Polischuk. About four years ago, his adult son dove into shallow water and broke his back. He is paralyzed from his shoulders down. It goes without saying that this has been a fiery trial for Pablo's son, but it has been a trial for Pablo and his wife, too. They counseled their son when he was suicidal; they fought with the insurance company; they remodeled their house for hundreds of thousands of dollars to fit their son's needs; and Pablo has had to care for his son, getting up multiple times every night.
A few months after the accident, Pablo was scheduled to preach in chapel, but he was late. We gathered a few minutes early to pray, but Pablo was nowhere to be found. At the last moment, he burst into the room and shook the sleet off his overcoat. The day was raw, and it seemed to me that the elements outside must have matched the circumstances of this man's life. He was late because he had been caring for his son. We prayed and then went on stage to lead worship. When it came time for Pablo to preach, he first reached for his classical guitar and asked if he could play a song. Do you know what he played? "'Tis So Sweet to Trust in Jesus." It was so sweet. That's the kind of faith I want. Joy and quietness even with lament. I want the joy of the Lord to be my strength.
But that raises the question: How? How can we trust God even when the earth is scorched? How did this transformation happen for Habakkuk? How did he end up where he is in verse 19?
God, the Lord, is my strength;
he makes my feet like the deer's;
he makes me tread on my high places"
Repeat and remember the truths of the gospel.
Remind yourself of the great truths of the gospel. Rehearse the lovingkindness and power of God. That's what Habakkuk did. You see, the stirring conclusion of the book follows Habakkuk's recounting of the Exodus:
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?
Habakkuk repeats and remembers the mighty acts of God in the past and reminds himself that this same God is still working with his covenant people.
British commentator Michael Wilcock says, "The human mind is incurably centrifugal, forever flying off at a tangent. It must be brought back to the great central truths of the gospel over and over. Our minds must be made literally to con-centrate." Repeat and remember. That is how Habakkuk exercises his faith. That is how joy is, at least partly, volitional. Habakkuk concludes: Okay, God is with us. He made a covenant with us, he preserved us in the past, and he has not forgotten us. Although the Chaldeans scorch the earth, God has not forgotten us. Repeat and Remember.
Let me suggest some applications for this practice. First, come to church! You did so today. Good! Come next week. Come the week after that: "Do not neglect to meet together" (Hebrews 10:25). And when you come to church, sing: "Address one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs" (Ephesians 5:19). We usually think of our singing as unto the Lord, and it certainly is, but did you know that we are also singing to each other? We are supporting, encouraging, and admonishing each other. Repeat the great truths of our faith: "Great is thy faithfulness, O God my Father …. Strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow …." Sing: "Be still my soul, the Lord is on thy side." Sing: "Lord, haste the day when the faith shall be sight, the clouds be rolled back as a scroll, the trump shall resound and the Lord shall descend, even so, it is well with my soul." Notice the present tense in that hymn: it is well with my soul—right now. "Let the Word of God dwell in you richly" (Colossians 3:16). Come to church and listen to the Word of God preached and taught. Repeat, remember, rehearse, remind yourself of God's power and kind intentions. Are you part of a small group? Do you have spiritual friendships—folks who will encourage you and support you in the scorched earth? We need friends to repeat the truth of who God is and remind us of God's love.
The apostle Peter said this:
Therefore I intend always to remind you of these qualities, though you know them and are established in the truth that you have. I think it right, as long as I am in this body, to stir you up by way of reminder, since I know that the putting off of my body will be soon, as our Lord Jesus Christ made clear to me. And I will make every effort so that after my departure you may be able at any time to recall these things (2 Peter 1:12-15).
May I say a special word to those of you who are seekers—those of you who are not sure where you stand with the Lord? We're so pleased that you are with us today. We hope that this teaching is helpful to you. What might repeating and remembering looking like for you? It might mean that you continue to seek, ask questions, and consider these truths from Habakkuk about the character and actions of God. You too can repeat and remember that God loves you, that he is watching, and that he invites you to enter a relationship with him by faith. Keep seeking him, and see if he doesn't give you the gift of faith like Habakkuk's faith.
Rejoicing is doubly possible for New Testament believers.
Habakkuk remembered the Exodus, the gospel as he knew it, but we have a leg up on him. We remember God's ultimate deliverance through Jesus at the cross. Moses was a great leader who risked his life for the people, but Jesus is the ultimate Moses who gave his life for the people. Moses slew a lamb, but Jesus is the Lamb. Moses engraved the names of the twelve tribes on precious stones, but now those who belong to Jesus have their individual names engraved in the Lamb's Book of Life. Repeating and remembering is so fundamental to following God that Jesus gave us a ceremony to help us: communion. As often as you celebrate communion, remember him. Remember his great love, his heroic sacrifice, and his power that crushed the head of Satan.
When we repeat and remember the gospel of our Lord, then like Habakkuk, we walk on the high places. He makes our feet like the feet of a deer. In the ancient world, the high places were prime real estate because they were safe. From the high places you could see all around. You could see enemies coming and you were safe from attack. The high places were also hard to get to. They were a little dangerous and precarious. But when we repeat and remember, we find ourselves on the heights, looking around with clear perspective, treading with the sure footedness of a deer.
May God help us exercise our faith by repeating and remembering the victory of God in the past and the victory of God promised in the future, so that in the present we can rejoice, even while we lament.
Jeffrey Arthur is professor of preaching and communication at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.