This sermon is part of the sermon series "Finding God in a Cold and Dark Season". See series.
Do you know who TIME magazine's Person of the Year was for 2011? The Protester. Protesters were the big story in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Mexico, Greece, America, Russia. The article said, "The word protest has appeared in newspapers and online exponentially more this past year than at any other time in history." People are fed up with the violence and injustice. I wonder if anything much will change. Sometimes it seems that the world is so messed up there's no hope.
Habakkuk was a protester in the Bible. He was a prophet in Jerusalem about 625 years before Christ. Biblical prophets were known for taking it to the streets—protesting against the hypocrisy and abuses of society. Habakkuk was frustrated that as wicked as his people—God's people—had become God wasn't doing anything to stop it. Habakkuk is stunned that God would fix the problem of Judah's wickedness by sending a people even more wicked to conquer them.
God's response to Habakkuk in chapter two is extraordinary. God says, "Here's my answer. Write it down and count on it. Mark my words!" Then in verses four through five God says to the watching Habakkuk, "I do know how wicked the Babylonians are, and I'm going to show you not only the terrible things they will do, but what is to become of them." In the vision God shows Habakkuk, God summons the nations who will be crushed by Babylon to press charges. They bring, five indictments. Five woes in verses six, nine, twelve, fifteen, and nineteen. In the midst of all these charges God shows Habakkuk where he, the LORD, is when it seems like the world around us is going to hell in a hand basket.
Babylon did sweep over Judah and Jerusalem only a few years later, destroying the city and the temple in 586 B.C. Virtually all the Jews were slaughtered or exiled under the ruthless scepter of Nebuchadnezzar. In the Bible, Babylon has a very long and notorious life. It begins with the great-grandson of Noah, Nimrod, whom the Bible says, "grew to be a mighty warrior on the earth." A conqueror, in other words. Nimrod's people decided to build the Tower of Babel to reach to the heavens. Their reason: "so that we may make a name for ourselves," a threat to his sovereignty that God stopped by confusing their languages. But Babylon never went away.
In Habakkuk and Jeremiah's day, Babylon became a juggernaut. Their vast capital was seemingly impenetrable and lavish—including one of the Seven Wonders of the World, Nebuchadnezzar's hanging gardens. Babylon's heyday did not last long. They were suddenly crushed by the Persians less than 100 years later.
But Babylon never went away. In the Bible, Babylon isn't just a country. Babylon is a kind of perpetual shadow kingdom. Babylon shows up again in John's Revelation, where he sees Babylon the Great, seated like a great queen who is also a prostitute, seducing all the nations of the earth to their doom. Her method is not so much warfare as the marketplace. Just as ancient Babylon plundered and looted wherever they went, so Babylon the Great loots the world. What's more, she is bent on destroying the people of God. Babylon the Great is a powerhouse in our world. She is not a country, but infects the world with that same proud, ruthless, insatiable DNA as that ancient kingdom. At the heart of Babylon the Great is a bloodthirsty violence bent on plundering the wealth and life of all people on earth, especially the people of God. All her violence and injustice are solely intended to satisfy the ruthless arrogance of Satan and all others who refuse God.
Suddenly we see that we have a lot more in common with Habakkuk than we realized. He faced the merciless might of Babylon and so do believers today. The DNA of Babylon the Great is in our governments and economies, our schools and companies, arts and culture. You see it every day. It is a terrifying fact of life. We suffer under it, as do our neighbors. The message God gave to Habakkuk is our only hope as we wait for God's salvation. When it seems that the wicked are winning and the world is out of control, God gives us the same four assurances he gave to Habakkuk.
God assures his people that we only live by trusting him
You see the characteristics of Babylon in verses four through five. Why are people like that? Simple: the wicked think that they will live by being arrogant, twisted, restless, and "as greedy as the grave." Look in any direction, at any level in our world, and we see this spirit. It seems to work. "Nice guys finish last." "The person with the most toys wins." "All's fair in love and war." But they are dead wrong. Because God reigns, there is only one kind of person who will actually live: "But the righteous will live by his faith." Believe this: only the righteous live, and they live by putting their faith in God alone. You don't live through this world by being tough, mean, or rich. You live by trusting God. No other way!
Many believe this is the most important line in the Old Testament! It is quoted three times in the New Testament as the backbone for the doctrine that we are justified before God by faith alone. Here's the point: When it seems that all is lost, that the wicked are winning, that you are an outcast, God's truth is that only those who trust him for salvation and walk with him faithfully will live, and thanks to God's grace, we will live forever.
So part of God's answer to believers facing harrowing times is that our faith gives us life right now and forever. But the other part of God's answer to us, as to Habakkuk, is to trust God for the future. Some of you think studying the end times is a waste of time. Well, there are some things about the future you had better be sure of if you want to stand against Babylon the Great.
God assures his people that in good time his glory alone will flood the earth
In verses 6-14 God summons the nations victimized by Babylon to step up and condemn their oppressor. We have the three woes that ultimately point to our hope. Woe to the wicked who think they can take what isn't theirs and hurt or kill anyone in their way. That debt must be paid! Woe to the wicked who think they can hide from their crimes. The very bloodstained stones and beams of their safe house will pronounce their death sentence. Woe to the wicked who build with blood what will only be burned. The vast, impenetrable, mighty city has no defense against the Lord Almighty.
The New Testament counterpart to this text, Rev. 18, begins, "Fallen! Fallen is Babylon the Great!" Then verse four says, "Come out of her, my people, so that you will not share in her sins, so that you will not receive any of her plagues." The danger of this world is not the wicked might hurt us. "If God is for us, who can be against us?" The danger is how seductive it is in this world to use people, to try to be king of the mountain, to be always greedy for more, to manufacture gods who serve us instead of bowing humbly before the LORD. We live in the midst of all this. Don't be seduced!
In God's good time, "the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD as the waters cover the sea." The ashes of Babylon the Great will be swept from memory. Just as the flood in Noah's day destroyed everything, so there is coming a deluge of the glory of God that will recreate a new heaven and new earth where God reigns alone and supreme, where every citizen of his kingdom is redeemed and Christ-like, where nature groans no more and the lion lies down with the lamb, where the best of the nations is brought into the Holy City, where every acre, every endeavor, and every soul bows gladly to the Lord Jesus Christ, for he is "the glory of the LORD." We will not sell our souls to Babylon. We will wait; through suffering if need be, till the earth is flooded with the knowledge of the glory of God.
God assures his people that in good time he will disgrace and destroy the wicked
There is another image and a fourth woe in verses 15-16a. Woe to the wicked who think they can shame and seduce weaker people and destroy creation itself to satisfy their delusions of grandeur. The picture here is of Babylon forcing all the nations they conquered to get drunk till they lay naked in a senseless stupor, utterly vulnerable to the lust and rape of Babylon. Rev. 18:3 says that Babylon the Great—this wicked, godless, godforsaken system—has intoxicated the world: "For all the nations have drunk the maddening wine of her adulteries." Babylon draws every nation away from their vows of righteousness, justice, and peace into the lure of plundering and victimizing their people and others.
Verse 17a speaks of how ancient Babylon ruined creation—they clear-cut the majestic cedars of Lebanon and slaughtered all the wildlife. That destruction will also come back upon them. We see all this in our own day. Nations swallowed up. Peoples enslaved and abused. Creation destroyed to satisfy the lust for more. People die. Cultures are poisoned. Countries lie drunken and naked. God will not allow them to get away with it! Verse five says, "indeed, wine betrays him." Babylon literally went down drinking.
God will humiliate the proud and pitiless powers of this world. Revelation 18:6 says, "Pour her a double portion from her own cup. Give her as much torment and grief as the glory and luxury she gave herself." That's what we believe. That is why we do not despair. That is why we wait patiently for the Lord.
God assures his people that the Lord reigns and soon all the earth will know it
The catalog of Babylon's sin comes now to a climax in verses 18-20. Woe to the wicked who think man-made gods have life and power to help them. They ignore and insult the true and living God. They are simply stupid to believe such things. And they open the door to Satan and his demons to embody those lifeless, gilded gods. God won't allow it to continue. "You shall have no other gods before me!" he commands. Isaiah also saw Babylon's future in Isaiah 21:9, "Babylon has fallen, has fallen! All the images of its gods lie shattered on the ground!"
There are no other gods. Only this: "The LORD is in his holy temple." He has always been there and always will be. No matter how chaotic the world might seem to be, "the Lord is in his holy temple." No matter how the righteous suffer and the wicked seem to prosper, "the Lord is in his holy temple." He is surrounded by the hosts of heaven and celebrated by the saints he has saved. "Let all the earth be silent before him." Let the wicked catch their breath in terror. Let everything in all creation fall to their knees before the Lord Jesus Christ. Babylon's shouts of triumph are stilled and their drunken celebrating has gone as silent as the grave. "The Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him." Since that is true, the only safe place to be is among those who love and worship the LORD in his temple.
Babylon the Great still sits gloating on her throne, trading in the souls of people. But rest assured that we live by trusting God, no matter what happens. In God's good time, only the knowledge of the glory of the LORD will flood the earth and God will disgrace and destroy the wicked. Finally, rest assured that the LORD reigns right now from his holy temple and soon all the world will know it.
Lee Eclov recently retired after 40 years of local pastoral ministry and now focuses on ministry among pastors. He writes a weekly devotional for preachers on Preaching Today.