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, yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will take joy in the God of my salvation. (Habakkuk 3:17–18)
From Protest to Praise
We know very little about an ancient Hebrew named Habakkuk, a man who prophesied some six hundred years before Christ. He ministered in harrowing days in the generation leading up to the three successive Babylonian invasions of his nation, Judah, the southern kingdom of God’s people. The northern kingdom (called Israel) had been conquered by the world power Assyria almost a century later. By Habakkuk’s time, the Assyrian empire was waning, and Babylon was on the rise.
First, the Babylonians conquered Nineveh, the Assyrian capital. Then, Judah’s young, promising king, named Josiah, was killed in battle against Egypt. Finally, the Babylonians finished their full conquest of Assyria, and soon marched to Jerusalem for the first of what would be three invasions of the holy city, each time taking a wave of exiles.
But before all this happened, God revealed ahead of time to Habakkuk what he was going to do, and the prophet recorded the surprising divine encounter in the short Old Testament book that bears his name.
Complaint and Surprise
The episode begins when Habakkuk, like Job, questions God’s justice. The prophet complains about the wickedness he observes around him in Judah, and God makes it the occasion for revealing his plans for judgment to his prophet. The book consists of the dialogue between Habakkuk and God, and unlike the other prophets, the book never addresses the people.
An amazing progression occurs in the three short chapters. The book begins with the prophet protesting that God seems to be standing idly by while his people plummet into rampant evil and injustice (1:2–4). God responds that their evil is not going unnoticed, and to Habakkuk’s surprise, God is already attending to it, by raising up the wicked Babylonians, “that bitter and hasty nation,” to punish Judah (1:5–11).
Habakkuk protests the justice of punishing a wicked people with a people even more wicked (1:12–2:1). The prophet appears confident that he has God cornered and does not expect God will be able to answer him sufficiently on this score. He will “look out to see what [God] will say to me, and what I will answer concerning my complaint” (2:1). The prophet expects he has a rebuttal for whatever answer God gives.
However, when God answers, Habakkuk is again floored: God will punish the Babylonians (Chaldeans) in due course and bring destruction to their home in Babylon (2:2–20). He assures the prophet, “The Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him” (2:20). That includes Habakkuk and his plans for rebuttal.
Submission and Joy
Habakkuk marvels at the plans and justice of God, and he consents that he has been duly silenced: “I will quietly wait for the day of trouble to come upon people who invade us” (3:16). Only he pleads that God will “in wrath remember mercy” for his people (3:2).
Habakkuk now joyfully submits to the sovereign hand and plan of God. His protests have melted into surrender and the somber but assured invitation for God to take over. One commentator calls these closing verses (3:17–18) “the most beautiful spirit of submission found anywhere in Scripture”:
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,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord,
I will take joy in the God of my salvation.
The book’s final line reads, “To the choirmaster: with stringed instruments.” At first glance it seem like such an odd way to end the drama. Why finish with musical instructions?
The answer is that Habakkuk has ended in song. He has caught a glimpse of the unimaginably great glory of the justice of God, and despite the certain suffering that looms on the horizon, he knows that this God will be enough for him. In his perfect timing, he will go out for the salvation of his people (3:13).
Surrender to His Justice
Today, some two millennia after Christ, we still desperately need to learn Habakkuk’s lesson. As we see evil and outright rebellion against God writ large in the surrounding society and in our fallen world, we have the tendency to suspect our human sense of justice can adequately assess the situation. We’re prone to be suspicious of God, and perhaps even challenge him. We protest his sense of justice. We accuse him of standing idly by. But we only show our arrogance and folly if we suspect that our sense of justice rises anywhere near the perfect, unimpeachable justice of God.
Rather than accuse or challenge him for our pain and what we find hard to stomach in this fallen world, the better prayer is the one of submission, the humble admission that his ways are higher than our ways, and the submissive plea that he take over — not just our world and society, but even ourselves.