The Oracle of Habakkuk (1:1)

1The oracle that Habakkuk the prophet received.

1:1 Prophetic books usually contain a superscription or title verse with the essential information needed by the person hearing or reading the prophecy. In general the larger books contain more detailed information than the smaller books.

The Book of Habakkuk contains only the most essential information. From the title verse the reader knows only that the message comes from a prophet named Habakkuk, who is otherwise unknown in the Old Testament. Neither the prophet’s hometown (see Nah 1:1) nor his lineage (see Zeph 1:1) is known. Information about dating the prophet also is missing, as is information about his audience (cp. Amos 1:1; Mic 1:1; Isa 1:1; and Nah 1:1).

The reader knows only that the book contains the burden (oracle) that Habakkuk the prophet saw. “Oracle” or “burden” (maśśā) is a common way to describe prophetic material, especially material that deals with prophecy against foreign nations. It is the least understood of the words describing the content of the prophetic books. The word obviously describes prophetic utterances that primarily speak of foreign nations, but the word carries the idea of a load or burden, as if the prophet was burdened with the message he received from the Lord. It has “negative, ominous tones” but in Habakkuk has “a broader meaning. … It refers to all of the divine word received by the prophet, regardless of its nature … (and) is synonymous with ‘divine revelation.’”

Weis has described a process producing such an oracle. A person, or persons, in the prophet’s community asks a question about God’s intervention or lack of it in some experience of the community. God gives the prophet the oracle as the response. An oracle is thus based on revelation concerning a forthcoming divine action. The oracle may give either insight into the future or directions for the audience’s present actions.

The title verse finds a structural parallel in 3:1. This raises the exegetical question: is 1:1 an introduction to the first two chapters of the book or to the book as a whole? The same phenomenon is found in Isa 1:1; 2:1; 13:1; 14:28; 15:1; 17:1; 21:1, 11, 13; 22:1; 23:1. Chapter 3 contains its own introduction, calling the chapter a prayer of Habakkuk. It is most probable that both Habakkuk and Isaiah intend the original superscription to cover the entire canonical book, the following superscriptions being limited to the section or chapter they introduce.

Habakkuk’s message burdened the prophet, and it burdened the righteous in Judah. How could righteous Josiah die at the hands of a pagan king? How could Jehoiakim ever reign in the place of Josiah on the throne of Judah? Habakkuk, burdened with the apparent success of the wicked, sought to unload his burden on the Lord. Through Habakkuk’s questions, God spoke an eventual message of hope and deliverance to the people of Judah.

Although the name of a prophet often seemed to have significance in the Old Testament, Habakkuk’s name appears to have been an exception. The name means “to embrace” or “to caress.” An additional suggestion takes the name to have been a word for an Assyrian garden flow possibly used as a nickname. In Bel and the Dragon the prophet is called “Habakkuk, son of Jesus of the tribe of Levi,” a tradition linking Habakkuk to the priesthood.

The title verse identifies Habakkuk as “the prophet,” an unusual designation for the title verse of a prophetic book. Only Habakkuk, Haggai, and Zechariah are identified in this way in title verses. The Hebrew word for “prophet” (nābî’) has traditionally been interpreted as coming from a Hebrew root meaning “to bubble up,” apparently indicating the overflowing message of the prophet. More recently Semitists have related nābî’ to an Akkadian term meaning “to call,” but the question remains whether this is active, one who calls (i.e., a speaker or preacher) or one who is called out by God. Most often contemporary scholars prefer the passive interpretation with the emphasis on the divine calling. The prophet is God’s “authorized spokesman” (Exod 6:28–7:2; Num 12:1–8; Deut 18:9–22) who according to Deuteronomy 13 and 18 must be an Israelite, must speak in God’s name, must have supernatural knowledge about the future authenticated by God’s fulfillment, must perform signs, and must have his words conform to those of Moses and other prophets. These speakers for God had a job description: “The prophets were preachers who communicated God’s words in order to transform their audience’s thinking and social behavior. … They were persuading people to look at life in a radically different way (Jer 3:6–13).”

In the Old Testament the term “prophet” could refer to the counterfeit as well as the genuine. In Jeremiah 28 both Jeremiah and the false prophet Hananiah are designated in the same way. The prophet proclaimed the message of the Lord and served as a spokesman for God, as Exod 4:14–16; 7:1 indicates. Prophets proclaimed a message that impacted the future and often made predictions, but the nature of the prophetic message primarily involved the contemporary society. Prophets were eyeball-to-eyeball preachers. They called contemporary people to repentance, and they expected the hearers to act on the word from the Lord. They preached to people of their own day, but the message continues to modern society.

How can a message over twenty-six hundred years old impact our contemporary world? (1) The prophetic message continues to speak to us because it is the message of God. Because it comes from God, it continues to communicate the ways of God to modern people. (2) The prophets forged their message in historical circumstances. The message of God came to real people in the everyday experiences of life as well as in times of crisis. (3) Though society has changed, human nature has not changed. People still need to know that God is at work in the historical situation. People continue to face the problem of sin and the necessity for repentance.

Habakkuk “received” (Hb. ḥ āzāh, “saw”) the oracle of the Lord. By translating “received,” the NIV emphasizes the nature of the revelation. The prophet received the message from the Lord, possibly while in a prophetic trance or a related condition. The title verse of Nahum has a related word to describe “the book of the vision of Nahum.” Use of the verb “to see” to describe the means of God’s revelation is common in the prophets (Isa 1:1; Amos 1:1; Mic 1:1). At times a prophet is called a h ōzeh, a “seer” (Amos 7:12; Mic 3:7; Isa 29:10; 2 Kgs 17:13; 1 Sam 9:9). The content of much of Habakkuk’s message points to the emphasis here on reception rather than the visionary experience, for a prophecy dominated by lament and dialogue does not appear appropriately called a vision. Patterson thinks “Habakkuk’s stress seems to be on his own participation in the revelatory process.”

The superscription then authorizes all that follows as powerful divine words even if their form and content would lead us to emphasize the human element of lament, complaint, questioning. God used the process of human questioning to enable the prophet to receive his word for his people.

I. Questions and Answers (1:2–2:5)

The Book of Habakkuk has a strange beginning for a prophetic book. Isaiah begins with God’s complaint against his people. Jeremiah begins mysteriously with God’s description of a prenatal call experience to which the prophet raises a lament. Ezekiel starts off with an eerie theophanic experience; Amos, with a more normal theophany followed by oracles against foreign nations including Israel and Judah. Hosea begins with God’s invitation to marry a harlot. Joel begins by asking the people questions about the causes of current conditions. Obadiah opens with God’s call to battle against Edom, introduced uniquely by plural voices. Micah announces a theophany. Nahum begins with a confession of faith in a jealous and avenging God of wrath. Zephaniah starts straightforwardly with an oracle of judgment. Haggai begins with God’s condemning quotation of a complacent people’s refusal to do his work. Zechariah introduces a call to repentance immediately. Malachi begins with God’s confession of love for a people who do not believe him. God—his word, his actions, his coming, his call—opens prophetic books. But in Habakkuk the prophet’s cry of complaint sounds forth hauntingly: “The prophet is weary—weary with the world as it is.” It warns the reader to expect something different here, to read closely between the lines. We must first determine why the prophet complains and ask what answer he expects.

The opening complaint finds a response rather than an answer, obviously but not explicitly from God (1:5–11). “How long will God spare Israel? No longer than it takes to send the Babylonians against Jerusalem.” God’s response expects amazement and disbelief from the prophet without explicitly involving Judah. The prophet responds as expected in amazement, having to check his own theological confession of faith before proceeding to question God (1:12–17). The prophet, not God, talks of punishment and judgment for Judah. Such punishment by such people the prophet cannot understand as the work of such a God as he worships. He must receive an answer, so he waits on God. The Lord explicitly replies (2:2–5), commissioning the prophet to write the revelation, a revelation centering on righteousness and faithfulness. Here the first major section of the book concludes with a description of the enemy’s evil but not with a promise of victory. The section thus gives a sense of incompleteness, a sense of looking forward, while leaving an emotional aura of a disturbed world ruled by the wrong people. All the prophet and we find to hold on to is the mysterious call to righteousness and faithfulness.

The section is tied together literarily. “The two perplexities of the prophet are begun with a question (1:2, 12), and each of the answers starts with an imperative (1:5; 2:2).”

Human nature tends to be filled with complaints, but human beings typically complain in the wrong directions. For example, we tend to talk about God rather than to talk to him; we tend to complain about God rather than complaining to him. Habakkuk took his complaints directly to God. He questioned how God could remain silent while the wicked prospered (Hab 1:2–4). When God answered Habakkuk’s first complaint with the revelation that God would raise the Babylonians to punish wicked Judah (1:5–11), Habakkuk became even more perplexed. How could God use such a wicked instrument to punish the people of God (1:12–17)?

The very fact that Habakkuk took his complaints to God can help believers to be honest in prayer, taking all our burdens to the Lord. Habakkuk’s experience shows that God is willing to hear our needs and to help us deal with our problems, even when he does not answer in the way that we expect or in the way that we ask.

1. Habakkuk’s First Question: How Long Must I Call for Help? (1:2–4)

2How long, O Lord, must I call for help,

but you do not listen?

Or cry out to you, “Violence!”

but you do not save?

3Why do you make me look at injustice?

Why do you tolerate wrong?

Destruction and violence are before me;

there is strife, and conflict abounds.

4Therefore the law is paralyzed,

and justice never prevails.

The wicked hem in the righteous,

so that justice is perverted.

1:2 A unique meter marks this opening prophetic cry, these verses representing the only instance of 3 + 2 meter in the book. Habakkuk includes the invocation, “O Lord, ” and the complaint (vv. 2–3). There the formal elements end. Rudolph notes that we cannot explain why except to say that Habakkuk refused to bind himself slavishly to a literary or liturgical scheme. This is the traditional meter for the individual lament, the precise form of these verses. Verse 4 thus stands outside the lament pattern and also outside the metrical pattern, showing a 3 + 3 meter. Verse 4b may incorporate a proverb from wisdom circles. The content of v. 4, however, comes from the courtroom.

Verse 2 falls into two parallel parts, each asking the same kind of question in slightly different terms. This kind of synonymous parallelism characterized much of the poetry of the Old Testament.

The opening “tension of unanswered prayer” sets the tone for the entire book. “Habakkuk here faces the dilemma that has confronted faithful people in every age—the dilemma of seemingly unanswered prayer for the healing of society. The prophet is one with all those persons who fervently pray for peace in our world and who experience only war, who pray for God’s good to come on earth and who find only human evil. But he is also one with every soul who has prayed for healing beside a sickbed only to be confronted with death; with every spouse who has prayed for love to come into a home and then found only hatred and anger; with every anxious person who has prayed for serenity but then been further disturbed and agitated.”

The central theme is justice, the word appearing twice in v. 4 and signifying “that world order ordained by God for the society of the covenant people. … Habakkuk’s complaint is that the people of Judah … have abandoned the righteous order intended by God for their society, despite the fact that they renewed their covenant with the Lord and underwent a sweeping religious reform only twelve years earlier in the time of King Josiah.” The prophet’s first complaint states such evils as violence, injustice, wrong, destruction, strife, and conflict. Such descriptions can be summarized simply: “The law is paralyzed, and justice never prevails” (v. 4). The picture is a courtroom scene where the guilty party brings so many false witnesses to court that the judge eventually gives a false verdict. This happens in the earthly courtroom all too often. The situation calls for intervention from the divine Judge, who is always just and guarantees justice for his people and his world. The problem is that such divine intervention does not come. So the cry, How long?

Habakkuk’s problem lay in what he knew about the Lord rather than in what he did not know. He knew that the Lord is holy and righteous. In the words of the great Old Testament text, Habakkuk knew the Lord to be a “compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion, and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation” (Exod 34:6–7). This passage gives the fullest description in the Old Testament of the holy God. How could this holy, pure (v. 13) God leave the guilty in Judah and Jerusalem unpunished? How could God continue to turn a deaf ear to the prophet’s complaints? “The sorrow he felt on account of what he had seen had not been alleviated by any evidence of God’s care or concern.”

Although Habakkuk asked a question to which he expected an answer, the question is primarily a complaint. The “how long” implies that the question had been troubling the prophet for a long time. The prophet cried to God for help, but God had not heard his cry. In the Old Testament, “hearing,” like most mental functions, implied more than simple hearing. It meant to hear and to respond. God had heard Habakkuk’s cry, but he had not responded to the prophet’s questioning complaint. The very sense of the question implies that Habakkuk expected that God would answer at some time in the future.

The second half of the verse continues the thought of the first half. Habakkuk used a different but similar Hebrew verb meaning “to cry.” The second verb means “to cry out in distress or horror.” The prophet called out to God about the violence in the land. The wicked oppressed the righteous, and God seemed not to care.

Violence (Hb. ḥāmās) is a key term punctuating the message of Habakkuk (1:2–3, 9; 2:8, 17a, 17b). It “denotes flagrant violation of moral law by which man injures primarily his fellowman (e.g., Gen 6:11). Its underlying meaning is one of ethical wrong, of which physical brutality is only one possible expression (e.g., Judg 9:24).”

When did such violence and oppression occur? Since God revealed the coming power of Babylon and its control of Judah, the latest possible date would have to be the Battle of Carchemish of approximately 605 B.C. After that battle every discerning person would know that the balance of power had shifted in the Near East. Babylon, not Egypt nor Assyria, would dictate the future of states such as Judah.

The earliest possible date for Habakkuk’s outcry appears to have been the death of Josiah in 609 B.C. at the hands of Pharaoh Necho at the Battle of Megiddo (2 Kgs 23:29). Before his untimely death Josiah led the nation to a time of reform, removing the places of idolatrous worship and concentrating worship in Jerusalem, which apparently satisfied the teaching of the Book of Deuteronomy. In the appraisal of the writer of the Kings material, Josiah reigned as a good king because of his attempts at reformation (2 Kgs 22:2). Since going back prior to the ascension of Josiah (639 B.C.) appears too early for Habakkuk’s complaints, the book must have originated between 609 and 605 B.C., most likely earlier rather than later in this period. Jeremiah knew Jehoiakim (who came to the throne in 609 B.C.) as a ruthless and merciless ruler. He cut up the scroll Jeremiah prepared and threatened the lives of Jeremiah and his scribe Baruch (Jer 36:20–26).

The background of Jehoiakim’s reign supports the anguish of Habakkuk. Of all Judah’s evil kings, only of Jehoiakim is it said that he killed a prophet. Manasseh had shed much “innocent blood,” but only Jehoiakim had a prophet killed who is specifically named in the Old Testament (Jer 26:20–23). No wonder Habakkuk cried “violence” and wondered when God would act on behalf on his people.

1:3 Habakkuk’s additional question continued the thought of the passage. How could God allow the prophet to see such trouble? The question implies that God’s inactivity had allowed wicked people to dominate Judah. Such wickedness had come upon the whole land, including the prophet himself. The language picks up themes from Num 23:21 with similar verbs and objects.

The second part of the question refers to God’s inactivity. The prophet was incredulous: how could God look on trouble such as this and do nothing? The NIV has caught the force of the question: “Why do you tolerate wrong?” Though the interpretation seems free from difficulty, the remainder of v. 3 presents several problems for the translator. The passage contains four nouns that indicate the problems in Judah during the reign of Jehoiakim. Jerusalem and Judah under the leadership of Jehoiakim could be described as a city of destruction and violence where contention and strife abound.

1:4 “The result of the abandonment of God’s mishpat (justice) in Judean society is chaos”: the law is numbed, justice does not go out, the wicked surround the righteous, and justice is perverted. No wonder the prophet complained about such a sorry state of affairs. With the breakdown of the social order, the nation lacked the elemental necessities for existence. When law is paralyzed and justice perverted, the righteous become the pawns of the wicked.

Who were the wicked? Although some interpreters have looked to identify the wicked with Babylon, most modern biblical scholars see the wicked as inhabitants in Judah, probably during the reign of Jehoiakim (609–598 B.C.). “There is nothing in this passage that points to a foreign nation. Those who hold such a view do so on other grounds.” As Armerding rightly points out, “Normally where ‘justice’ and social ‘violence’ are opposed, the ‘wicked’ are Israelites unless clearly identified in other terms (e.g., Exod 23:1–9; Isa 5:7–15).” The terms “law” and “justice” would apply to Judah more naturally than to Babylon.

Armerding claims: “The law (tôrāh) may refer to any form of authoritative ‘teaching’ (e.g., Prov 3:1; 4:2); almost invariably it refers to God’s ‘law,’ by which he reveals his will and directs the life of man. When used in the singular without clear definition, as here, ‘law’ signifies God’s covenantal code established with Israel, given through Moses, and set forth particularly in the Book of Deuteronomy (e.g., Deut 1:5; 4:8; 17:18–19; 31:9; 33:4; Josh 8:31–32).” This may be importing too precise a definition from the Pentateuch into prophecy. The “law” can refer to a number of different ideas such as the Ten Commandments, the law of Moses, or specific sets of law material. The most natural meaning is the “instruction” of God without reference to specific passages of Scripture.

God’s instructions had been violated. Habakkuk complained to God that the prophet dwelt in the midst of a people without moral restraints or abiding values. Does God have anything to say when society appears to be disintegrating? Is there a message from God for a wicked age? These became the questions of Habakkuk. Where is God and why is he not doing something? The righteous in every age ask similar questions. One of the helpful lessons to be learned from Habakkuk is that God does know what is happening. He is not oblivious to wickedness in high places. In his time and in his way the Lord brings judgment on those who oppress the weak.

With the law paralyzed (lit., “numbed” or “ineffective”), justice cannot prevail. In the Old Testament justice and righteousness are intertwined. Righteousness meant that a person met the demands of a relationship. Righteousness toward God meant meeting the demands of the relationship with God; righteousness toward a fellow human being meant meeting the demands of the relationship with another. Justice carried righteousness into the legal sphere. The prophets demanded righteousness in the gate, the place where justice was dispensed. In prophetic contexts such as the one under discussion, ethical and legal standards are the same. Justice and righteousness “were the quintessence of the divine will. They embodied the central authority from which the coherence of the social order stemmed.” Law was “paralyzed” most extensively by “corruption of the religious and civil leadership of the nation” and not by foreign powers.

The lack of justice meant that the wicked hemmed in the righteous. Without justice the righteous have little recourse. Not willing to resort to the devices of the wicked, the righteous suffer when justice does not prevail. The final verb (in v. 4) describes what happens when the law is paralyzed and justice is not carried out: the wicked hem in the righteous, and justice is “bent out of shape.” Another meaning of the verb is that justice is made “crooked.” “The Israelites’ rejection of God’s authority mediated through the law merely exposed them to the harsher experience of his authority mediated through an alien people.”

—New American Commentary