Who Was Habakkuk?
Habakkuk gives us a little more information about himself than other prophets, though he does so indirectly.
His knowledge of music (3:1) and his familiarity with temple worship (3:19) are strong clues to Habakkuks identity. His use of the pronoun "my" in 3:19 shows that he was "officially qualified to take part in the liturgical singing of the temple, and therefore belonged to one of the Levitical families, who were charged with the maintenance of the temple music, and, like the prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel, who sprang from priestly households, belonged to the tribe of Levi."1
The claim of Levitical descent for Habakkuk seems reasonable and not problematic. One must, however, consider that "neither David nor Hezekiah were Levites, and yet they sang in the temple with their stringed instruments (Isaiah 38:20)"2. Whether or not he was a Levite, he was without question a musician with access to the Temple.
Habakkuks introduction to his psalm in chapter three states the kind of song it is: it is a Shigionoth. This is a "reeling song, i.e., a song delivered in the greatest excitement, or with a rapid change of emotion... after the manner of a stormy, martial, and triumphal ode"2.
He uses the same kind of musical-liturgical introduction to his psalm as other song- and psalm-writers used he specifies the type of melody, or style, in which it is to be sung (see Psalm 6:1; 12:1; 22:1; 56:1; 67:1). From these passages one also can see that the primary instrument to be played is also prescribed.
Assuming Habakkuk was a Levitical musician serving in the Temple in Jerusalem, Habakkuk was in a unique position to observe the general religious attitude of Judah. He is touched deeply by apathy toward God and how it is demonstrated in violence and injustice (1:2-4).
The Background for Habakkuk
Habakkuk ministered at the same time as Nahum, Zephaniah, and Jeremiah. The notes on Nahum give details as to the political and spiritual atmosphere at this time. To summarize, the political scene was one of transition in power within the Assyrian Empire and then the transition in world dominance from Assyria to Babylonia. In Nahums time, Assyria was still strong though having problems maintaining order in its distant provinces. In Habakkuks time, Nineveh had fallen and Nabopolassar was on the Babylonian throne.
Spiritually, Judah experienced as many ups and downs internally as the political world experienced shifts of power. King Josiahs reign produced the most thorough-going reform in Israels history, and it is most likely that Habakkuk preached either at the end of Josiahs reign, or during his son Jehoiakims reign (his other son Jehoahaz reigned only three months!). Between Josiahs latter years and the reign of Jehoiakim there was a swift falling away from following the Lord.
Some scholars have difficulty dating Habakkuk within the reign of Josiah because of the prophets description of the social conditions of his day (violence, wickedness, etc.). Josiahs reforms, however, did not endure beyond his own life (see 2 Chronicles 35, 36; 2 Kings 23:28-24:9). As Bruce says,
As we read in Scripture, as soon as Josiah was gone, Judah reverted back to their old ways. The phrase "all that his fathers had done" (2 Kings 23:37) usually refers to idolatry of all sorts. Habakkuk, however, does not address the issue of idolatry in Judah. He does address the sin of idolatry in Babylon, but the righteous indignation of the prophet mentions nothing of idolatry, which is inconceivable if he ministered during Jehoakims reign, given the message and tone of his book.
It is most likely, therefore, that Habakkuk did write his message during the latter reign of King Josiah. Idolatry was not a present problem, but the true nature of Jerusalem residents was shining through. Habakukks contemporary Nahum had just given the divine pronouncement of wrath against Israels most obstinate foe, Assyria. Habakkuk now addresses the same questions of evil and justice among Gods own people. If God promised devastating judgment on Assyria for their wickedness, shall He not also bring righteous judgment to Judah?
The Babylonian Empire is probably the second best known of Israels oppressors after Egypt. Though Assyria maintained a direct threat to Israel for several centuries, ending in the destruction of the northern kingdom, Babylonia seems to get more "press". This might be due to their fierce reputation as described in Habakkuk, Jeremiah, and other prophets, but most likely from Daniels writings. The Babylonian period of Israels history, though, lasted only as long as the appointed time for Judahs captivity 70 years. Chronologically, their dominance of Judah was about the briefest in duration.
This is not to say, however, that Babylon rose and fell within a single century. Babylon was part of the great "cradle of civilization" which existed in the Euphrates Valley for thousands of years (at least 5000 B.C.). Actually, Babylonia as a political city-state (kind of a "mini-kingdom") colonized the area of Nineveh and populated it with their own people Assyria and Babylon were of the same race, language, and culture for the entire history of both nations.
At first the relations between Assyria and Babylon were typical of most colonizing ventures: fairly stable with little tests of power now and again. Eventually Assyria exercised its strength to the point of reversing the balance of powers and taking the dominant position in Mesopotamia for several centuries.
Both cultures continued to develop; Assyria earning the reputation of fierceness in war and ruthlessness in suppressing any and all opposition. Babylon, on the other hand (while also fierce in battle) took greater pride in peace, culture, and progress. Great cultural and civil advances occurred under the reigns of such kings as Hammurabi (c. 2100 B.C.) and Nebuchadnezzar I (c. 1130 B.C.).
At the time of Habakkuk, the rising Babylonia power was under the control of Chaldeans (see Habakkuk 1:6), who had at one time been enemies of the native Babylonians but who proved useful allies in the struggles with Assyria. Nebuchadnezzar II, who destroyed Jerusalem and carried the captives to Babylon, was of Chaldean descent, not Babylonian.
Nebuchadnezzar II was a brilliant military leader, but he also built Babylon into a magnificent capital city. It was his leadership which accomplished the fantastic Hanging Gardens of Babylon, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. It was a strong, advanced, and ancient people who replaced Assyria as the world power in the days of King Josiah.
Outline of Habakkuk
Title: Waylaying Bitterness
Theme: Turning Roots of Bitterness into Praise
The distraction of evil can keep us from seeing that...
1. God sees evil even more clearly than we do (1:1-2:1)
2. God deals with sin more thoroughly than we can (2:1-20)
Focusing on Gods purpose can help our hearts sing...
A Hymn of Praise (Ch. 3)
God is coming
The Message of Habakkuk
Like Nahum, Habakkuk is very concerned with the problem of evil. Nahum focused on the problem of evil in a general sense, showing us that God is, indeed, sovereign even over the sins of people and nations that to us look uncontrollable. Habakkuk focused on the problem of sin among Gods own people, which sometimes seems a grosser obstacle to Gods purposes than the sins of the world.
The way Habakkuk constructs his message shows how by turning ones focus from ones own lack of understanding to Gods perfect understanding can waylay bitterness. Its too easy to let the ungodliness of some ruin the attitude of the righteous.
Habakkuk uses two cycles to show us how to turn our focus back to God in the midst of distracting unrighteousness and injustice. His first cycle (1:2-11) begins with his inability to reconcile Gods holiness with the wickedness of Gods people. Gods answer to Habakkuk confirms the prophets views, but goes beyond his ability to understand the answer. The movement of the cycle is to appeal to God in the face of wickedness, thus taking ones focus off of oneself and others and placing it upon the character of God. Asking how there can be such a drastic disparity between the two (sinful people and a holy God) is a legitimate question.
The second cycle (1:12-2:20) begins with Habakkuks inability to reconcile Gods holiness with His Own actions. His second question is just as legitimate as the first, only he now must wait for the answer (2:1). The way chapters 1 and 2 are written shows that the "present time" for Habakkuk was in 2:1; chapter 1 having occurred in the recent past. In other words, he tells us what brought him to the point of waiting for Gods answer: he had asked about the problem of evil and had received an answer that troubled him, so he asked another question. Now he will wait for the answer.
Understanding whats troubling Habakkuk, we join him in waiting expectantly for the answer. This is the second part of the second cycle. Just like cycle one began with what we dont understand, the second one does also. And just like the response in cycle one was unexpected, we have no idea what to expect now.
God gets our attention by prefacing His response with a word of ominous urgency. What He has to say is so important that runners must not stop to clarify His words; they must run without hesitation. We may not see obvious, external evidence that God is working, but He surely is (2:2,3).
Interestingly, Babylon is not mentioned in chapter 3. God pronounces retributive judgment upon the wicked in terms that are fitting descriptions of the barbaric Babylonians, but that also apply universally to those whose behavior is the same. This shows, as in Nahum, Gods sovereignty over all nations, all people, and all of creation.
Three "woes" are pronounced by God (a fourth is uttered by those taking revenge for themselves in 2:6) as dreadful warnings of impending doom. God will come with vengeance and the purpose of purging evil (3:12) and saving His people (3:13), and the judgment will be thorough and just.
The issue of sin and wickedness in the world and among Gods people is not a matter of tolerance. We saw with Nahum that a primary reason for what looks like a delay in justice is to give a window of opportunity for repentance. God tells us in Habakkuk that there is an appointed time for judgment which is not subject to delay (2:3), but even if it does not come in our day, we are to wait for Him.
Habakkuks hymn of praise in chapter 3 reverses the order of his two cycles of questions and answers. The first two cycles began with a focus on oneself; his hymn begins with a focus on God. He is seen as an awesome God of great power and focused intent, both for judgment as well as for salvation. He ends his hymn with the appropriate response of one who has escaped the temptation of bitterness: he will wait patiently, even through difficulties, because God has given him a reason and a means to wait:
The Lord God is my strength,
We waited with Habakkuk for the answer to his questions; let us wait with him on the high places in the security of Gods perfect justice and holiness. Our fellowship is firstly with Him, and we cannot allow difficulties even among our spiritual family to distract us from rejoicing in Him.
1 Keil and Delitzsch, The Minor Prophets, vol. 2, pg. 51.
2Freeman, Introduction to the Old Testament Prophets, pg. 255.
3Keil and Delitzsch, pg. 93.
4F.F. Bruce, Israel and the Nations, pg. 81.
5Much of the material on Babylonia was adapted from the article "Babylonia" by J.P. Arendzen in the Catholic Encyclopedia, 1913.