How Long?

The oracle that Habakkuk the prophet saw.

O Lord, how long shall I cry for help,
    and you will not hear?
Or cry to you “Violence!”
    and you will not save?
Why do you make me see iniquity,
    and why do you idly look at wrong?
Destruction and violence are before me;
    strife and contention arise.
So the law is paralyzed,
    and justice never goes forth.
For the wicked surround the righteous;
    so justice goes forth perverted. 
Habakkuk 1:1-4 ESV

Habakkuk was a contemporary of Nahum and Zephaniah, two other prophets of God. Like his counterparts, Habakkuk was a pre-exilic prophet, who was sent by God to the deliver His message regarding their coming fall at the hands of the Babylonians. Like all the prophets of God, He was to call the people to return to God or face the consequences of God’s just and righteous wrath. The northern kingdom of Israel had fallen to the Assyrians in 722 B.C., but their demise had done nothing to persuade the people of Judah to change their ways. In fact, God had some serious charges that He leveled against them:

“Have you seen what fickle Israel has done? Like a wife who commits adultery, Israel has worshiped other gods on every hill and under every green tree. I thought, ‘After she has done all this, she will return to me.’ But she did not return, and her faithless sister Judah saw this. She saw that I divorced faithless Israel because of her adultery. But that treacherous sister Judah had no fear, and now she, too, has left me and given herself to prostitution. Israel treated it all so lightly—she thought nothing of committing adultery by worshiping idols made of wood and stone. So now the land has been polluted. But despite all this, her faithless sister Judah has never sincerely returned to me. She has only pretended to be sorry. I, the Lord, have spoken!” – Jeremiah 3:6-10 ESV

Israel had refused to return to the Lord and had been delivered into the hands of the Babylonians by God. Now, Judah and the royal city of Jerusalem was facing a similar fate if they did not repent of their sins and return to God. More than likely, Habakkuk ministered during the reign of King Jehoiakim. During that time, the people of Judah knew that they were facing the threat of attack by Babylon because they had made their presence known throughout the region. But rather than return to God and place their faith in Him, the people had decided to place their trust in other nations, seeking the help of Assyria and Egypt.

Habakkuk provides us with an unparalleled glimpse into the heart of a prophet of God. Like the other prophets, his ministry had met with little success. The people were stubbornly refusing to listen to his message. They remained obstinate and stuck in their sinful ways. And Habakkuk was frustrated and angry. So, he took his concerns to God in the form of a very blunt and heart-felt prayer.

What is especially revealing about this man’s prayer is its boldness. He pull no punches, even though He is addressing God Almighty. In essence, he accuses God of apathy and indifference. He asks God, “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not hear?” (Habakkuk 1:2 ESV). This was not Habakkuk’s first prayer to God. He had expressed his need for help on more than one occasion, but he had not received what he was looking for. He felt like God was ignoring his pleas for help. From his perspective, God was deaf to his cries for help or didn’t fully understand how bad things really were. So, Habakkuk attempted to bring God up to speed. He lets God know that violence is everywhere. Judah has become a wicked place where sin is rampant and the people. The Hebrew word for “violence” that Habakkuk used is hamas and it refers to cruelty, injustice and oppression. Habakkuk will use this word six times in this book. What he saw taking place in Judah was a rampant disregard for the laws of God. The people saw no repercussions for their sins. They were practicing all kinds of injustice and immorality. They were oppressing the needy and the weak. From Habakkuk’s perspective, there was an overwhelming flood of injustice taking place in Judah, and as far as he could tell, God was doing nothing about it. He has reached the breaking point.

Why do you make me see iniquity,
    and why do you idly look at wrong?
Destruction and violence are before me;
    strife and contention arise. – Habakkuk 1:3 ESV

It’s all more than he can bear. He wants to see change. He longs to see God do something. God’s law is powerless to stop the people. They simply ignore it. Justice is nowhere to be found. The wicked get away with murder, both figuratively and literally. The wicked outnumber the righteous and any kind of justice that does occur is a twisted, ungodly version that leaves the righteous on the wrong side of the ledger.

Habakkuk’s prayer is not unique. His cry is not an isolated one and his questions for God are not unprecedented. Even King David had expressed similar complaints to God.

How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?
    How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I take counsel in my soul
    and have sorrow in my heart all the day?
How long shall my enemy be exalted over me? – Psalm 13:1-2 ESV

Abraham and Sarah struggled with how long was going to wait until He fulfilled His promise to give them a son and an heir. Moses struggled with how long he was going to have to put up with the people of Israel as they bickered, whined and complained their way through the wilderness. The other prophets of God wrestled with the seeming futility of their roles, wondering when God would do something deliver His people. We all struggle with what appears to be God’s indifference and invisibility at times. We call out and He doesn’t seem to hear us. We share our hurts, needs and concerns, and it feels like He is ignoring us. The wicked seem to prosper while the righteous appear to be in the minority and on the receiving end of all the injustice. And God sits idly by.

But one of the things that Habakkuk will learn is that God has a different perspective on things. He has a different viewpoint on what is going on, because He has a divine awareness of the outcome to which Habakkuk is oblivious. There is a method to God’s seeming madness. There is a purpose behind His apparent delay. He knows what He is doing. But Habakkuk was stuck on a horizontal plane, seeing things from his limited, earth-bound perspective. He could not see what God saw. He did not know what God knew. It reminds me of the prophet Elijah when he faced wicked King Ahaz and his queen, Jezebel. He had to go up against these two evil individuals and face off with their false prophets. And when he did, Elijah complained, “I am the only prophet of the Lord who is left, but Baal has 450 prophets” (1 Kings 18:22 NLT). God gave Elijah victory that day and he defeated the prophets of Baal, but then, out of fear of Jezebel’s revenge, he ran for his life. And when God confronted him, Elijah said to God, “I have zealously served the Lord God Almighty. But the people of Israel have broken their covenant with you, torn down your altars, and killed every one of your prophets. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me, too” (1 Kings 19:10 NLT). From Elijah’s perspective, he was all alone. He was the last righteous man left standing. But God let him know that he was wrong. He told Elijah to go and anoint his replacement: Elisha. Not only that, God told him, “Yet I will preserve 7,000 others in Israel who have never bowed down to Baal or kissed him!” (1 Kings 19:18 NLT). He had not been alone. There had been others all along.

Habakkuk was frustrated. He was confused. And he was more than a little angry with God over His seeming indifference to all that was going on. But perception is not always reality, especially when it comes to God and His ways. Habakkuk was going to learn an invaluable lesson regarding God and His faithfulness. What appeared to be a delay from Habakkuk’s perspective was all part of God’s sovereign plan. God’s awareness of what was going on in Judah was comprehensive and complete. And His plans regarding them were flawless and right on time. Peter provides us with a timely reminder regarding the ways of God and our frustration over what appear to be His delays or indifference.

But you must not forget this one thing, dear friends: A day is like a thousand years to the Lord, and a thousand years is like a day. The Lord isn’t really being slow about his promise, as some people think. No, he is being patient for your sake. He does not want anyone to be destroyed, but wants everyone to repent. – 2 Peter 3:8-9 NLT 

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson