I. Is It Proper To Question God As Habakkuk Did?
I believe this question is prompted not so much by scriptural imperatives; “thou shall not question the LORD thy God” but, by a reaction to the impious questions from the unbelieving sector of society. Admittedly, the so-called “problem of suffering and evil” is in fact one of the stronger (yet, not strong enough!) cases against the existence of God; the living, true God who is Self-disclosed in the Old and New Testaments. If God, they say, were (1) all-good (omni-benevolent) and (2) all-powerful (omni-potent) he would both, (1) desire to eliminate suffering and evil and (2) have the necessary ability and power to do so yet, suffering and evil exist in the present reality, therefore (3), the God presented in the Bible cannot exist.
While I am not wishing to address this challenge to the faith at this point, I think it is wise that we recognize that a lion’s share of our fears and inhabitations about questioning the deeper things of the nature of God and his dealings with man flow from our wrongly identifying our own (or Habakkuk’s) “normal” yet, still believing, questions about God with the type of systematic skepticism against God reflected in the above objection to Christianity. The parameters then, in regards to our question’s moral propriety is established by the accent and attitude of the inquirer himself far more than it is by the content of the question. Therefore, Habakkuk’s questions and other like it are not inherently wicked by the mere asking, but, are instead corrupted by the underlying, anti-God presuppositions of antagonistic unbelievers which permeate the whole person’s rationale, thus disqualifying all their thoughts before God, not merely hard questions.
I, for instance, have found that meditating upon hard questions such as the “problem of evil” from a godly perspective can be quite fruitful for my own understanding of who God is, as well as being able to better represent him to those who would challenge the biblical concept of God. Personal reflection upon these tough questions, and seeking biblical answers, enables and emboldens Christians to invite the unbeliever’s “hardest” questions and objections into evangelistic dialogue with the confidence of being ready to offer biblically faithful, Christ honoring rebuttals to their skeptical presuppositions. Unfortunately, because few Christians care to cultivate the intellectual aspect of the Christian life, when attempting to answer the tough objections of unbelievers their response is often tainted with fear and frustration, which sadly makes “speaking the truth in love” nearly impossible. Not only then, does wrestling with questions like those of Habakkuk help to develop a stronger theology but will also have a profound impact upon missions and how we present God in Christ to our neighbors and the nations; both our own and abroad.
I would, however, like to share a couple brief observations about Habakkuk’s experience that I think we would do well to be conscious of and avoid in our own contemplations. They are:
1. Habakkuk improperly concluded that Yahweh’s inactivity in judgment meant Yahweh’s indifference toward wickedness (1:2—4). We ourselves, living in the age of grace, are all the more tempted to deduce similar things. Due to God’s incredible common grace (Mt 5:45) we often can’t help but ask “why do the wicked prosper?” However, we must understand that God’s patience toward us rebels is often intended to be a means to repentance (Rom 2:4), just as is his judgment (Amos 4; Lk 13:1—5). We must remember too that while grace is manifest is its full brilliance this side of the Cross, so too is wrath. The Cross is the most spectacular display of God’s love and mercy toward sinners; it is also the most stunning demonstration of his awful wrath toward sin; wherever it is found. So then, God’s sometimes apparent postponement of justice against evil in our world today is first grounds for rejoicing, as none of us would be here but for his merciful forbearance. Secondly, we too must realize that as God’s grace is clearly seen in his patience, the Cross also teaches us that the stakes of judgment are likewise elevated, making the stakes of both his love and wrath of ultimate concern for sinner and saint alike.
2. Habakkuk errs in thinking that Yahweh is somehow restricted in his available means to execute judgment and purge his people (1:12—13). Yahweh had told Habakkuk that he would not believe, it if he were told him, how it was that Yahweh would restore justice in the land (1:5). Yet, finally Habakkuk makes clear that he understood what it was that Yahweh had determined to do (v.12b), and so raises his second objection in this most frank dialogue between him and his Maker (v.13). Habakkuk’s question, on the face of it, is not altogether unreasonable; how could a holy God use wicked means for his righteous end? Could he not send his Spirit sweeping through the land, raise up a great king or prophet and bring about a national revival? The answer to these questions is, of course, yes; however, that is not what Yahweh had determined to do. Habakkuk had learned to “live by faith” (2:4) in the sovereign Lord of all (2:20).
Today, we are prone to a like mistake. Evangelicalism over the last century has sought so diligently preserve God from charges of being the author of sin that we have erred in another direction by again, overreacting. As offensive to our sensibilities as it may be at times, the God of the scriptures is Lord over all. That includes administering everything from the very hairs of your head to the planting and uprooting of entire kingdoms and dynasties. Nothing is outside his sovereign control. How rarely does one hear today of the trials and sufferings we often face being something from the hand of the Lord God? Instead anything we deem as a challenge to the “good life” is instinctively attributed to the world, the flesh or the Devil; yet never of God. This rationale is so prevalent at times that God is stripped of his right to the title of “Lord of the heavens of the earth” (Mt 11:25); leaving most of what happens in this cursed, fallen world merely up to what God “allows to happen,” and very rarely what he decrees to happen. Hence, at the end of the day, God’s world is really governed by everyone else but him. When, conversely from the scriptures, God’s glory is inextricably bound up in his own counsels, wisdom and decrees concerning his reign over all; and even in his actively judging persons and peoples through base means, whether it was the Babylonians for Habakkuk’s generation or the Muslim terrorist for ours. In the end the answer is the same for all the faithful—live by that faith!!
II. Three Gleanings From Habakkuk’s Experience That Are Worth Repeating.
1. Habakkuk resolved to view the present from the vantage of the future. Regardless of all the short term chastisement or unfair treatment we might receive from the hands of wicked persons, living by faith (not retaliation!) gives us the assurance that a day is coming when God’s perfect justice will be meted out on all (see: 3:16; cf. I Pet 4:17).
2. Habakkuk determined that despite all circumstances surrounding him, he would rejoice in God his Savior all the more (3:17—18).
3. Habakkuk determines to spend his time praising Yahweh during his struggles; not complain about them. All of chapter three is distinct from the frank conversation of chapters one and two; it is a self-contained psalm of praise to Yahweh, his God; the one who makes him to tread, with feet like a deer, over and above the suffering that surrounds him (3:19). This is an all out-call to us from the prophet: suffering can be a sacrifice and certainly grounds of praise (ch.3). These three principles are at the heart of Heb 13:12—16, and are to be internalized and practiced by God’s people throughout their pilgrimage in this age.
I call upon You, Lord, God of Abraham and God of Isaac and God of Jacob and Israel, You who are the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the God who, through the abundance of your mercy, was well-pleased towards us so that we may know You, who made heaven and earth, who rules over all, You who are the one and the true God, above whom there is no other God; You who, by our Lord Jesus Christ gave us the gift of the Holy Spirit, give to every one who reads this writing to know You, that You alone are God, to be strengthened in You, and to avoid every heretical and godless and impious teaching.
St Irenaeus of Lyons, Against the Heresies 3:6:4
St Irenaeus of Lyons, Against the Heresies 3:6:4