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Unfathomable

Date: Jul. 18, 2021

Author: Dan Bockenfeld

Habakkuk 1-3

Key Verse: Habakkuk 2:4

See, the enemy is puffed up; his desires are not upright—but the righteous person will live by his faithfulness—

It’s been a little while, but summers have historically been the time of big movie blockbusters. From May to July, some of the biggest movies of the year would premiere on the big screen. August, although a part of the summer, was usually delegated for less than stellar movies and not the biggest movies of the year. In August of 1999, however, there was a movie that defied that categorization. I’m talking about the movie The Sixth Sense. The movie is best known for the huge twist at the end. If you were watching the movie for the first time, it would be unfathomable to come up with the ending, but clues were sprinkled along the way. We’re going to enter spoiler territory, here. So if you haven’t seen the movie yet and don’t want it spoiled, too bad, it was nearly twenty-two years ago. So the movie is about a child psychiatrist, Malcolm, in Philadelphia. For most of the movie, he’s working with a boy who seems to be having several issues. Eventually the boy, Cole, confides in Malcolm and tells him that he can see dead people walking around like the living, not knowing that they are dead. It takes a while, but Malcolm eventually believes him and tells Cole that he should try to help them. Eventually, Cole agrees and sees tremendous improvement in his life. Cole, then tries to help Malcolm. Malcolm has been having trouble with his wife for some time. She’s cold and distant and doesn’t listen, so Cole tells Malcolm to try talking to her while she is asleep. When Malcolm gets home, he finds his wife asleep, so he tries talking to her. He talks and she responds. Then she drops something. It’s Malcolm’s wedding ring. Then and there we find out that Malcolm was dead all along. It was the twist of all twists for a generation. Best of all, all the clues were there all along. Every interaction with his wife ended abruptly, Malcolm just never saw the truth. If you watch it again, you see the clues, but it is unfathomable at first. God, in many ways, works like that. We can be so caught up in something, that we can’t even begin to understand what he is doing. Our passage today will help us recognize just how unfathomable God is and show us what it means to live by faith.

So, today we are in the book of Habakkuk, and you might have had a little trouble finding it. It is a small book with only three chapters, and we are going to go through all three chapters today. It is an interesting book, and I had the honor of leading a three-part Bible study on this book over eleven years ago. Since then, I have been looking for an opportunity to deliver a message or series on the book. This wedding weekend just provided the best opportunity to do to share a message from Habakkuk. For the past few weeks, we have been going through the book of Exodus and we are just before the beginning of the plagues. The book of Habakkuk will serve as a great preparation for what God is going to do next in Exodus. What he is going to do will require much faith to trust what God is doing and the same thing is happening in Habakkuk. The book of Habakkuk is unique in the Old Testament. It is a prophetic book, but it is not a narrative or God pronouncing judgement on a people. Instead, the book of Habakkuk is primarily a conversation between God and the prophet Habakkuk.

The book starts out, “The prophecy that Habakkuk the prophet received.” (1:1) As you can see from that verse, the book is a prophecy that Habakkuk received. Now, not much is known about the prophet Habakkuk. He isn’t mentioned anywhere else in the Bible. We don’t know where he is from nor his lineage nor what date the book was written nor the audience. Those are all pieces that appear in the other prophetic books. Habakkuk was probably a contemporary of Jeremiah, Nahum and Zephaniah. The book was probably written in 605 BC, during the reign of King Jehoiakim.

Now, unlike some of the other prophetic books, Habakkuk does not begin with a bit of narrative or God sharing his grievances. Instead, Habakkuk is unique in that it starts with the prophet’s complaint directed towards God. That complaint reads, “How long, Lord, must I call for help, but you do not listen? Or cry out to you, ‘Violence!’ but you do not save? Why do you make me look at injustice? Why do you tolerate wrongdoing? Destruction and violence are before me; there is strife, and conflict abounds. Therefore the law is paralyzed, and justice never prevails. The wicked hem in the righteous, so that justice is perverted.” (1:2-4) Habakkuk is complaining about crying out to God, but not really getting a response. It appears, to Habakkuk, that God is absent for all that he is seeing. Now, to understand what Habakkuk is complaining about, we must understand some of the history surrounding the time. Habakkuk was around when Josiah was king of Judah. Now, Josiah was a good king who really wanted to follow the Lord. He removed all the pagan worship that was going on in Judah. While he was having the temple repaired, the Book of Law was found, and he reinstated all the rules and traditions that were specified in the book. In a battle with the Assyrians and the Egyptians, Judah was killed. The people installed Josiah’s second son Jehoahaz as king instead of the firstborn Eliakim. After three months, Jehoahaz was called to Syria, to where the Egyptian king was set up. There, Jehoahaz was captured and Eliakim was made king by Pharaoh. Eliakim’s name was changed to Jehoiakim to signify his capitulation to the Egyptians, and he dutifully became a servant of Egypt.

In the Bible, 2 Kings 24:4 describes him as someone who shed innocent blood. The prophet Jeremiah described the king as unjust and a despot who was only interested in enhancing and enlarging his palace (Jeremiah 22:13-19). He was concerned about his own comfort and legacy that he trampled others to get what he wanted. He extorted people and made them slaves to make himself rich. Jehoiakim also had secret police to arrest people that opposed him, like many autocrats and authoritarians have. During Jehoiakim’s rule, the judges were easily bribed and there was idol worship in the temple (Ezekiel 8:5-17). Habakkuk’s lament is about corruption everywhere. The people who were supposed to lead the people were only concerned about serving themselves. There was a divide between rich and poor that was growing wider and wider. There was no justice if you could not afford it. Worship was reduced to idolatry and if you could not afford it, you weren’t allowed to do it.

Habakkuk saw all this, and he rightfully took it to God. He didn’t complain to everyone around him. He took his complaint to God. He could not reconcile what was going in with the good and all-powerful God. He and countless others cried out to God for help, but God seemed silent because there was no answer. The wicked had all the power, but those who were trying to do good were powerless. Honestly, this all sounds very familiar. Everything that Habakkuk was seeing sounds like it could be happening even now, like nothing has changed in over twenty-six hundred years. We see corruption and politicians only out for themselves. There people in great need and are starving. We are still in the middle of a pandemic, although some people act like it is gone, but people are still dying. There have been unimaginable heat waves, drought, and intense flooding. There are over 100 dead in Germany because of flooding and hundreds died in western Canada because it was hotter than 120 degrees. The weather seems wacko. We can see all these things happening and despair. Many people become fearful and depressed because of all the issues that are going on. They say, “What is going on?”, but they do so to complain and grumble. It is not in our nature to bring it to God, but Habakkuk did. He brought his anxiety to God and it began a process that we will continue to see.

After Habakkuk brings his complaint to God, the Lord answers it. The Lord starts out, “Look at the nations and watch—and be utterly amazed. For I am going to do something in your days that you would not believe, even if you were told.” (1:5) This is where we get the title of our message today, Unfathomable. God tells Habakkuk to look and watch and be utterly amazed. He is going to do something that neither Habakkuk nor anyone else would even dream of. If they were told what God was going to do, they would think you were pulling a fast one on them. I once owned a Volkswagen Passat wagon. It was a nice car, some of the car was way over engineered. The battery for the car is usually under the hood, but not in that car. The engine bay was so tight that they relocated the battery to the trunk. Similarly, there were somethings that you would not believe were required. Step one to changing a headlight was removing the car’s front end. In fact, there was quite a bit of maintenance that required the front end to come off. You wouldn’t believe anyone would design a car that way, but someone did. In a similar way, no one would believe that God would do what he had planned next, and he was preparing Habakkuk for such an instance.

The Lord, next, tells Habakkuk his unbelievable plan, “I am raising up the Babylonians, that ruthless and impetuous people, who sweep across the whole earth to seize dwellings not their own.” (1:6) God told Habakkuk that he was raising up the Babylonians to take care of the problems Habakkuk saw. Then God goes on to describe the Babylonians. He calls them ruthless and impetuous, which means acting quickly without thought or care. They swept in quickly and conquered with unheard of deftness. God continues to describe the Babylonians and we know much about them. They had no god but were confident in their own strength. The laid siege to cities which led to starvation inside them and in some cases, led to cannibalism inside the city walls, but they didn’t care. They were cruel and committed genocide and mass relocation of conquered people. They uprooted those they conquered and scattered them around the empire to destroy their national identity and blended them into Babylonian culture. The Assyrians were a fearsome people, who conquered the northern kingdom of Israel, but the Babylonians were the ones who conquered the Assyrians and crushed the Egyptians. They were ruthless and unwavering like a force of nature and God said he was the one who was raising them up.

It is unfathomable that this would be God’s plan for the nation of Judah. Never in a million years would Habakkuk expect that this was God’s plan for all the evil in Judah. So, Habakkuk responds with a second complaint. He starts out, “Lord, are you not from everlasting? My God, my Holy One, you will never die. You, Lord, have appointed them to execute judgment; you, my Rock, have ordained them to punish. Your eyes are too pure to look on evil; you cannot tolerate wrongdoing. Why then do you tolerate the treacherous? Why are you silent while the wicked swallow up those more righteous than themselves?” (1:12-13) Habakkuk recognizes God’s plan to use the Babylonians to punish Judah, but he is so confused as to why. They were worse than the people of Judah. They were far more wicked, why would God use them as a tool to punish ones who were more righteous? It would be like using a serial killer to punish a Christian who was cheating on his taxes. It seems like overkill.

But there is an error to Habakkuk’s understanding of God. He says the God’s eyes are too pure to look on evil and he cannot tolerate wrongdoing. These are both very wrong. If God was too pure to look on evil, that would be a limitation on God. It would be something that he cannot do, but he sees all the evil in this world. The same thing holds for not tolerating wrongdoing. Of course, he tolerates it. If he did not, then as soon as the smallest infraction happens, the perpetrator would be wiped out and there would be no one left in the world. God is infinitely gracious to us and is willing to bend over backward to show his grace to us. These errors are part of why God’s plan is unfathomable to us. When we think wrongly about God, his real plans tend to not make sense to us, because we expect God to behave differently.

At the end of the second complaint, Habakkuk ends with, “I will stand at my watch and station myself on the ramparts; I will look to see what he will say to me, and what answer I am to give to this complaint.” (2:1) Habakkuk seems almost smug here. He gave his complaint and then he says that he is just going to sit and see how God is going to respond. It’s like Habakkuk and God are in this epic rap battle. They are going back and forth for a bit. On Habakkuk’s second turn, he drops, what he thinks, is the best set of rhymes that cannot be matched, and now, he is just waiting to see how God is going to respond. Maybe, I am stretching it a bit, but I really feel like Habakkuk is smugly almost taunting God to respond. And does God respond! He responds with a mic drop.

The Lord’s mic drop rhyme begins, “Write down the revelation and make it plain on tablets so that a herald may run with it. For the revelation awaits an appointed time; it speaks of the end and will not prove false. Though it linger, wait for it; it will certainly come and will not delay.” (2:2-3) God tells Habakkuk that what he is about to say should be written down. It is something that should be shared. He tells Habakkuk that it will happen at the appointed time. It wouldn’t happen immediately, but it would certainly happen. He is preparing Habakkuk for the revelation that he is going to share. God is essentially telling Habakkuk, “Hold on a sec. Get ready to write this down so you don’t forget. It will all make sense soon.”

Next, the Lord gives a bit of context to this revelation, and it also helps Habakkuk understand his own place in the story. God says, “See, the enemy is puffed up; his desires are not upright—but the righteous person will live by his faithfulness—” (2:4) Here, the Lord shows Habakkuk two sides of an argument. There are two types of people: the wicked and the righteous. The wicked, or as it is said here, the enemy, is puffed up. The wicked are proud and their desires are not upright. The wicked are not honorable or altruistic. Their desires are intended to serve only themselves. The righteous, on the other hand, will live by their faithfulness, or faith. The righteous hold themselves to God and trust in him, but the wicked trust only in themselves.

Let’s look at the wicked first. One of the first things the Lord says of the wicked is that they are as greedy as the grave and never satisfied. (2:5) Death never stops killing people. It is never satisfied, and the grave will always swallow one more. The wicked are very much the same. Since the Lord is referring specifically to the Babylonians, here, he is saying that the Babylonians will never stop their conquest. They will continue to attack other nations and never be satisfied with what they have. They have an insatiable thirst for blood, just like the grave. Because of this, there is a pronouncement of woes on those wicked, specifically the Babylonians. Now, woes are a pronouncement of sin and their consequence.

I don’t want to go through all of these woes, but I will go through a few so we can get a feel. The first woe is stated, “‘Woe to him who piles up stolen goods and makes himself wealthy by extortion! How long must this go on?’ Will not your creditors suddenly arise? Will they not wake up and make you tremble? Then you will become their prey. Because you have plundered many nations, the peoples who are left will plunder you. For you have shed human blood; you have destroyed lands and cities and everyone in them.” (2:6-8) The Babylonians conquered many nations and took their wealth as spoils of war. They plundered the nations they conquered, and the woe pronounced flips the script so that the plunderer would become the plundered. The very sin they committed would be their own fate.

The second to last woe is, “Woe to him who gives drink to his neighbors, pouring it from the wineskin till they are drunk, so that he can gaze on their naked bodies! You will be filled with shame instead of glory. Now it is your turn! Drink and let your nakedness be exposed! The cup from the Lord’s right hand is coming around to you, and disgrace will cover your glory. The violence you have done to Lebanon will overwhelm you, and your destruction of animals will terrify you. For you have shed human blood; you have destroyed lands and cities and everyone in them.” (2:15-17) This woe is about shame. Babylon would lure nations into a false sense of friendship like having a party for their neighbors, but the intent wasn’t friendship, but to shame the other nations by getting them drunk and naked. There seems to be an inverse relation to the amount of alcohol a person has and the amount of clothes they have. The more drunk you are, the less clothes there are. Babylon was taking advantage of that thought to expose those they would conquer and view their nakedness and shame. But the woe is that what they did would be done to them. The Babylonians would get drunk and have their nakedness exposed.

In all these woes, the sin that as committed would be punished in the likewise manner. Habakkuk was dumbfounded as to why the Lord would use the wicked nation of Babylon as his instrument of punishment for the nation of Judah. But the Lord’s response was that the Babylonians were very wicked, and the Lord could use that for his purposes. Once he was done with them, they would get their punishment for their wickedness. The Lord wanted to teach his people something about himself. The nation of Judah forgot so much about who the Lord was and through the Babylonians, they would learn the power and holiness of God. It is very similar to what God is doing in our study of Exodus. We are just before the plagues. God is getting ready to free his people from the slavery in Egypt, but before that happens, God will harden Pharaoh’s heart and make things worse for his people. We saw it once, already. Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh to ask for time to worship the Lord, but instead Pharaoh called them lazy and made them work harder by not providing straw for the bricks they were to make. Things like that will go on for a while, but it was all to make sure that the Israelites would know that it was the Lord who was freeing them. There would be no doubt that it was the Lord. And the same holds here. It would be the Lord that would punish and exile his people. His unfathomable plan is quite logical once the Lord explains it. Being the Lord’s instrument does not mean you are held in high honor. There are fine instruments and disposable ones. The Babylonians were disposable because of their own wickedness.

Here we get to the mic drop of this rap battle. “The Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth be silent before him.” (2:20) The time for questions and doubt is over. The time for faith has come. Back in chapter two verse four, the Lord mentions ever so slightly that he righteous will live by their faithfulness. This half verse is one of the most important verses in the entire Bible. The Bible has many mentions of faith and righteousness. Abraham believed the Lord and it was credited to him as righteousness. (Genesis 15:6) In Ezekiel 18:9, it says, “He follows my decrees and faithfully keeps my laws. That man is righteous; he will surely live, declares the Sovereign Lord.” Not long ago, we studied the book of Ephesians and there, it states, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—“. We are made right before God; we are saved through faith.

But the significance of chapter 2 verse 4 is the fact that it is quoted twice by Paul, once in Romans 1:17 and again in Galatians 3:11. Plus is it is also quoted in Hebrews 10:38. This tiny little verse is the foundation for so much of our belief. Over the centuries, many people have stumbled across the verse, “the righteous will live by faith”, most notably Martin Luther. In Luther’s time, the Church was basically trying to sell salvation through indulgences and by paying to look at icons. A person would pay a certain sum to look at an icon for a period of time. That period of time would translate to certain number of years knocked off their stay in purgatory. Luther was burdened by his sinful nature but found release in the life of a monk. All the actions and duties he did, could not absolve his soul from the burden of sin. Then he came across Galatians 3:11 and he went from a soul-sick person to the great reformer.  His fear and dread of a vengeful God was changed to peace because of what Jesus did. He became the father of the Reformation movement, the faith movement. These are things that we are still following today.

In this passage, having faith is important to the prophet Habakkuk. He was allowed to have questions. He was sincere in his inability to reconcile what he knew about God and his present situation. Many times, people think having questions is a sign of a lack of faith, but it doesn’t have to be. If the questions are made to poke holes in belief, then it is not faith but pride that drives the person. But, if the questions are sincere in our attempt to understand, then it is a part of faith. Yet, the Lord will go only so far in explaining things out to us. He is far greater than we are. His plans and motivations can very easily go over our heads. At some point in time, we will have to stop asking questions and trust in God that things will work out for his good. And that is what time it is for Habakkuk. It was time for him to be silent and have faith.

All of chapter 3 is a response to that call for faith. It is in the form of a prayer, not unlike one of the Psalms. He starts out, “Lord, I have heard of your fame; I stand in awe of your deeds, Lord. Repeat them in our day, in our time make them known; in wrath remember mercy.” (3:2) Habakkuk begins his prayer with remembering what the Lord had already done. What follows is a poetic reference to the events of the exodus. He speaks of plagues and being angry with rivers and streams. That anger is a direct reference to parting of the Red Sea. The things recalled here are the deliverance of Israel from the Egyptians. He did great and mighty things.

Then we get to one of the most profound declarations of faith in the whole Bible in verses 17 and 18 of chapter 3, “Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Savior.” What Habakkuk is saying here is that, even though things look really bad because there is no food or way to support yourself, he still rejoices in the Lord. He is still joyful because of who the Lord is and he trusts in him. It is a profound difference to the Habakkuk we first meet back in chapter one. There he is demanding God to do something about the violence and corruption in Judah and now he is just going to trust the Lord. Physically, nothing has changed. In fact, now it might be worse because he knows that the Babylonians will come to invade the land. Yet, he now has unfathomable peace. Habakkuk is a wonderful example of one of my favorite passages in the Bible, Philippians 4:6-7, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” Habakkuk was anxious about the situation of Judah, and he brought it to God. And God gave his peace to Habakkuk, and it is a peace that transcends all understanding. It is unfathomable to have such peace in such trying circumstances. Yet, the Lord gives it, nonetheless.

Now, you might be wondering why in the world did I choose to give a message from Habakkuk while we are in the middle of our Exodus study. Well, Habakkuk is about having faith in the Lord. The Israelites of Exodus are just learning to do so. Moses and Aaron are at the beginning of trusting in God to carry out his plans. However, what is about to transpire in Exodus would be the basis for faith for the Israelites for hundreds of years. Even Habakkuk is reminded of what God did through the Exodus. We, too, are to live our lives as Christians in a similar manner. Our salvation from our sins happens because of our faith, not because of any actions we do. We trust that Jesus died for our sins, was resurrected on the third day, and now sits at the Father’s right hand until he will return. We must trust all this by faith. God doesn’t show us everything so that we learn to trust him. We must remember what we already know about God and have faith about the rest. The Lord is unchanging and does not give way to whims. He is steadfast and sure. He is steady and can see us through anything.

Habakkuk ends his prayer with, “The Sovereign Lord is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer, he enables me to tread on the heights.” (3:19) God became Habakkuk’s strength and he learned to rely on him through faith. Sometimes, God doesn’t make sense to us. In fact, it is unfathomable that God would send his son to die on the cross to save me. I’m not worth saving. I’m not worth that, but he did it anyway. His plans don’t make sense to our simple minds, but we need to hold on to what we do understand and have faith about the rest. If we are truly trying to follow God, then we must trust him. It is ok to have questions, but there comes a time, where we need to put them aside and trust in God. When we do so, the unfathomableness of God is replaced with unfathomable peace. We are still living in a tumultuous time, and we can have no idea what God is going to do about it, but the righteous will live by faith.

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