What Sorrow Awaits

Shall not all these take up their taunt against him, with scoffing and riddles for him, and say,

“Woe to him who heaps up what is not his own—
    for how long?—
    and loads himself with pledges!”
Will not your debtors suddenly arise,
    and those awake who will make you tremble?
    Then you will be spoil for them.
Because you have plundered many nations,
    all the remnant of the peoples shall plunder you,
for the blood of man and violence to the earth,
    to cities and all who dwell in them.

“Woe to him who gets evil gain for his house,
    to set his nest on high,
    to be safe from the reach of harm!
10 You have devised shame for your house
    by cutting off many peoples;
    you have forfeited your life.
11 For the stone will cry out from the wall,
     and the beam from the woodwork respond.” – Habakkuk 2:6-11 ESV

God continues His response to Habakkuk’s critique of the divine plan to bring judgment upon Judah through the means of the wicked Babylonians. God has not denied the fact that the Babylonians are puffed up with pride, greedy, arrogant, and unrighteous. But neither has He apologized for planning to use this wicked nation as His preferred method for bringing judgment upon His disobedient children. God had shown no remorse in having used King Sennacherib and the Assyrians to punish the northern kingdom of Israel. And He was not about to alter His plans for Judah just because Habakkuk had a problem with them.

What Habakkuk failed to see was the bigger picture of God’s plan. The prophet, while a spokesman for God, did not have all the facts to make an informed decision. He was not privy to the full scope of what God had in store for Judah or the Babylonians. And in His response to Habakkuk, God graciously begins to reveal the hidden aspects of His divine plan. He was going to use the Babylonians to accomplish His sovereign will, but that did not mean the Babylonians would escape His justice and judgment. In fact, in this section, God pronounces five “woes” or expressions of lament against the Babylonians. In the New Living Translation, these five statements of woe begin with the phrase: “What sorrow awaits….”

While God’s answer is directed at Habakkuk, He has a much larger audience in mind. He has already told His prophet to “Write my answer plainly on tablets, so that a runner can carry the correct message to others” (Habakkuk 2:2 NLT). God wanted the entire nation of Judah to know what He had in store, not only for them but for the nation of Babylon. That is why He had emphasized their need for faith. They were going to have to trust that God would do the right thing. He would keep His covenant commitment to the nation of Judah. But part of that commitment had included His promise to bring curses upon them for their disobedience and unfaithfulness. He would keep His word. But He would also keep His promise to never fully abandon them. They would suffer punishment for their apostasy, but they would also enjoy future restoration because of His unfailing love and faithfulness.

But as for Babylon, God had plans for them as well. He warns that the day will come when He turns the pride of the Babylonians into humiliation and their global domination into defeat and despair. All the nations conquered by the Babylonians will rise up and taunt them. They will relish watching the meteoric fall of the once-powerful Babylonian empire and mock as their former conquerors become the conquered and the captives.

The first woe deals with the Babylonian’s penchant for enriching themselves by plundering then taxing their conquered foes into financial destitution. Their greed and avarice were insatiable. The book of 2 Kings describes in great detail the fall of Jerusalem and the pillaging that took place by the Babylonians.

Nebuchadnezzar carried away all the treasures from the Lord’s Temple and the royal palace. He stripped away all the gold objects that King Solomon of Israel had placed in the Temple. King Nebuchadnezzar took all of Jerusalem captive, including all the commanders and the best of the soldiers, craftsmen, and artisans—10,000 in all. Only the poorest people were left in the land. – 2 Kings 24:13-14 NLT

After leaving its conquered enemies defeated and demoralized, the Babylonians would demand exorbitant tribute payments, essentially taxing them into further submission. But the first woe explains that this practice would not go on forever.

“What sorrow awaits you thieves!
    Now you will get what you deserve!
You’ve become rich by extortion,
    but how much longer can this go on?” – Habakkuk 2:6 NLT

God would turn the tables on the Babylonians, bringing an abrupt end to their period of world domination. Just as quickly as they rose to power, they will suddenly find themselves on the receiving end of God’s wrath and having to deal with the rebellion and retribution of all their enemies.

“Suddenly, your debtors will take action.
    They will turn on you and take all you have,
    while you stand trembling and helpless.” – Habakkuk 2:7 NLT

Just as the Babylonians had replaced the Assyrians as the 800-pound gorilla on the world stage, the Babylonians would eventually fall to the Medes and the Persians in 539 B.C. And all of this was under the sovereign control of God Almighty. As the prophet, Daniel wrote, “He controls the course of world events; he removes kings and sets up other kings” (Daniel 2:21 NLT).

The Babylonians would reap what they had sowed. They would experience what it was like to have their cities plundered and pillaged, and their people indiscriminately murdered.

“Because you have plundered many nations,
    now all the survivors will plunder you.
You committed murder throughout the countryside
    and filled the towns with violence.” – Habakkuk 2:8 NLT

Now, while these woes are directed at the nation of Babylon, it should not be overlooked that much of what is being said applied to Judah as well. And it is likely that Habakkuk did not miss the somewhat subtle indictment that God was bringing against His own people. If you recall, Habakkuk had begun his book with a dark description of the state of affairs in Judah.

Wherever I look,
    I see destruction and violence.
I am surrounded by people
    who love to argue and fight.
The law has become paralyzed,
    and there is no justice in the courts.
The wicked far outnumber the righteous,
    so that justice has become perverted. – Habakkuk 1:3-4 NLT

The people of Judah were just as guilty of violence, injustice, greed, and unrighteousness. And the next woe is even more reflective of the attitude shared by many of those in Judah who lived in open rebellion against God while enjoying the many blessings He had poured out on them.

“What sorrow awaits you who build big houses
    with money gained dishonestly!
You believe your wealth will buy security,
    putting your family’s nest beyond the reach of danger. – Habakkuk 2:9 NLT

The Babylonians used all their plunder and ill-gained booty to enrich their lives and to secure their futures. They enjoyed unparalleled success and all the benefits that came with it. But God’s people were just as guilty. In fact, the prophet, Amos, provides a stinging indictment from God against the nation of Israel.

You trample the poor,
    stealing their grain through taxes and unfair rent.
Therefore, though you build beautiful stone houses,
    you will never live in them.
Though you plant lush vineyards,
    you will never drink wine from them.
For I know the vast number of your sins
    and the depth of your rebellions.
You oppress good people by taking bribes
    and deprive the poor of justice in the courts. – Amos 5:11-12 NLT

This kind of behavior was to be expected from the pagan Babylonians, but it should have been unheard of among the people of God. Yet sadly, it had become the norm. Injustice, greed, selfishness, and an unbridled passion for pleasure and possessions made become commonplace among the people of God. And in pronouncing woes upon the guilty Babylonians, God was condemning the sins of His own chosen people.

“But by the murders you committed,
    you have shamed your name and forfeited your lives.
The very stones in the walls cry out against you,
    and the beams in the ceilings echo the complaint.” – Habakkuk 2:10-11 NLT

What was true for the Babylonians was true of the nation of Judah as well. And God would deal with both nations, according to His justice, holiness, and righteousness. They would not get away with their wicked behavior or escape His divine wrath. As the apostle Paul makes clear in his letter to the Romans, “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth” (Romans 1:18 ESV). Your country of origin does not matter. Your status on the pecking order of world powers makes no difference. Whether you are the conqueror or the conquered, God will hold you accountable to His just and righteous requirements.

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

Living By Faith, Not Sight

1 I will take my stand at my watchpost
    and station myself on the tower,
and look out to see what he will say to me,
    and what I will answer concerning my complaint.

And the Lord answered me:

“Write the vision;
    make it plain on tablets,
    so he may run who reads it.
For still the vision awaits its appointed time;
    it hastens to the end—it will not lie.
If it seems slow, wait for it;
    it will surely come; it will not delay.

“Behold, his soul is puffed up; it is not upright within him,
    but the righteous shall live by his faith.

“Moreover, wine is a traitor,
    an arrogant man who is never at rest.
His greed is as wide as Sheol;
    like death he has never enough.
He gathers for himself all nations
    and collects as his own all peoples.” Habakkuk 2:1-5 ESV

With the opening of chapter two, there can be little doubt as to whether Habakkuk is unhappy with conditions in Judah and far from pleased that God’s solution was to bring judgment on Judah through the use of the Babylonians. Continuing his dialogue with the Almighty, Habakkuk declares that he is going to stand his ground, like a watchman on a tower, waiting to hear what God has to say to his latest round of questions.

Habakkuk was confident that God would respond and he fully expected it to come in the form of a rebuke. The Hebrew word he used is towkechah and it conveys the idea of a verbal reproof or correction. He saw himself in the middle of an argument with God and was already thinking about how he was going to respond when God was done defending His actions.

The various translations of the Bible have taken slightly different tacts when interpreting the exact thought expressed by Habakkuk in verse one. The ESV translates it as follows:

I will take my stand at my watchpost and station myself on the tower, and look out to see what he will say to me, and what I will answer concerning my complaint.

The New Living Translation puts the emphasis on God, not Habakkuk. The prophet was expecting an answer to his second round of complaints.

I will climb up to my watchtower and stand at my guardpost. There I will wait to see what the LORD says and how he will answer my complaint.

The New American Standard Version takes a similar approach, portraying Habakkuk as waiting to be rebuked by God and already formulating his response.

I will stand on my guard post And station myself on the rampart; And I will keep watch to see what He will speak to me, And how I may reply when I am reproved.

It seems that the prophet fully expected his dialogue or debate with God to continue in some form or fashion. He was not going to relent or give up easily. And he was willing to wait, describing himself as a watchman on the wall of a city, scanning the horizon for any glimpse of a possible adversary. Habakkuk saw himself in a war of words with God. But his motive was not anger. He was sincerely concerned for the well-being of his people and was asking for clarification. What he had heard so far had left him confused and struggling to understand how this plan of God was in keeping with His covenant commitment to the people of Judah.

This whole exchange is similar to the one Abraham had with God concerning the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah. When God had announced that He was bringing destruction to those two wicked cities, Abraham had intervened, realizing that his nephew, Lot, and his family were living in Sodom. Abraham had presented God with a question.

“Will you sweep away both the righteous and the wicked? Suppose you find fifty righteous people living there in the city—will you still sweep it away and not spare it for their sakes? Surely you wouldn’t do such a thing, destroying the righteous along with the wicked. Why, you would be treating the righteous and the wicked exactly the same! Surely you wouldn’t do that! Should not the Judge of all the earth do what is right?”  – Genesis 18:23-25 NLT

In response to Abraham’s plea, God agreed to spare the city if He could find 50 righteous people residing within it. And this led Abraham to boldly counter with a slight change to his initial request:

“Since I have begun, let me speak further to my Lord, even though I am but dust and ashes. Suppose there are only forty-five righteous people rather than fifty? Will you destroy the whole city for lack of five?” – Genesis 18:27-28 NLT

And again, God agreed to the new conditions. But Abraham was not done. The passage said, “Abraham pressed his request further” (Genesis 18:29 NLT). He continued to lower the requisite number of righteous residents in the hope that he could somehow assure the rescue of Lot and his family. Abraham even begged God to forgive his rather presumptuous and argumentative methodology.  “Lord, please don’t be angry with me if I speak one more time” (Genesis 18:32 NLT). But despite Abraham’s pestering persistence, God continued to acquiesce to his requests. And all of this was motivated by Abraham’s desire for God to spare Lot and his family.

As was the case with Abraham, Habakkuk was not arrogantly attempting to pick a fight with God. He was not arguing for argument’s sake. He had a legitimate concern for the people of Judah. His original petition to God concerned the dire conditions of those in Judah who found themselves surrounded by wickedness. Like Abraham, Habakkuk was concerned for the faithful remnant of God – those righteous few who were suffering in the Sodom-like conditions of Judah.

And Habakkuk, the self-ascribed “watchman on the wall,” got the answer he was looking for. He matter-of-factly states: “And the Lord answered me” (Habakkuk 2:2 ESV).

The first thing God told Habakkuk was to write down what he was about to hear. He was to make a permanent record of God’s response so that it could be disseminated among the people of Judah.

“Write my answer plainly on tablets,
    so that a runner can carry the correct message to others.
This vision is for a future time.
    It describes the end, and it will be fulfilled.
If it seems slow in coming, wait patiently,
    for it will surely take place.
    It will not be delayed.” – Habakkuk 2:2-3 NLT

And God informs Habakkuk that the content of this vision or message was concerning future events. God was answering Habakkuk’s questions, but the prophet needed to understand that the fulfillment of God’s plan was going to be long-term in nature. Habakkuk needed to know that there would not be a quick-fix to Judah’s problem. A solution was on its way, but it would be a long time in coming. And Habakkuk and the people of Judah were going to have to prepare themselves for a lengthy delay.

And God makes it clear that the delay was going to require faith on the part of the people of God. They were going to have to trust Yahweh, ignoring the conditions that clouded their view and keeping their eyes focused on the faithfulness of their God. Unlike the proud, who “trust in themselves, and their lives are crooked” (Habakkuk 2:4 NLT), the people of Judah were to trust in God.

“…the righteous will live by their faithfulness to God.” – Habakkuk 2:4 NLT

Things were going to get worse before they got better. The situation in Judah would not improve any time soon. In fact, the Babylonians would eventually arrive on the scene, destroying the city of Jerusalem and transporting its citizens as captives back to Babylon. They would remain there for 70 long years, suffering the humiliation of slavery and subjugation to their pagan overlords. But God encouraged the righteous to have faith. Even when all looked lost, He was not yet done. His plan was not yet complete.

This theme of faith in the face of adversity was picked up by the New Testament authors and used to encourage the righteous remnant in their day to remain faithful to the end. Paul told the beleaguered Christians in Rome:

For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.” – Romans 1:16-17 ESV

He wrote to the believers in Galatia, reminding them that salvation was not based on human effort or through some form of self-righteousness achieved through adherence to the law of God. Instead, it was based on faith.

Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for “The righteous shall live by faith.” – Galatians 3:11 ESV

Their right standing with God was based on their belief in the redemptive work of Christ. And yet, they were constantly being bombarded with lies that suggested their salvation required effort on their part. False teachers were claiming that faith alone in Christ alone was not enough. But Paul kept going back to the reality of the message of God: The righteous shall live by faith.

And the author of Hebrews picked up on God’s promise to Habakkuk, utilizing His call to faith, even in the midst of difficulty

“And my righteous ones will live by faith.
    But I will take no pleasure in anyone who turns away.”

But we are not like those who turn away from God to their own destruction. We are the faithful ones, whose souls will be saved. – Hebrews 10:38-29 NLT

The context in Hebrews is that of believers who are facing difficulty but who must keep their faith focused on the promise of God.

So do not throw away this confident trust in the Lord. Remember the great reward it brings you! Patient endurance is what you need now, so that you will continue to do God’s will. – Hebrews 10:35-26 NLT

For Habakkuk, the immediate future looked bleak and foreboding. God’s pronouncement that He was sending the Babylonians as His instruments of judgment had left Habakkuk stunned. But God was calling His prophet to remain faithful, trusting that the divine plan would have a happy ending.

But God knew that Habakkuk was having a difficult time getting his mind off of the thought that the Babylonians were going to come out as victors over God’s people. That was more than he could handle. Which is why God assured him:

Wealth is treacherous,
    and the arrogant are never at rest.
They open their mouths as wide as the grave,
    and like death, they are never satisfied.
In their greed they have gathered up many nations
    and swallowed many peoples. – Habakkuk 2:5 NLT

Things are not always as they seem. The success of the wicked, while difficult to understand and even harder to witness, is not the final chapter in the story. The Babylonians would become wealthy and powerful. They would conquer many nations and enrich themselves with the spoils of war. But God wanted Habakkuk to know that He had already written the final chapter of their story. And in the following verses, God will provide Habakkuk with a glimpse into Babylon’s fate.

As bad as things appeared to be, all was not lost. God had a plan. And the futures of Babylon and Judah were part of that plan. But when the coming days became filled with darkness and despair, the righteous would need to live by faith, not fear.

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

When God’s Ways Escape Us

12 Are you not from everlasting,
    O Lord my God, my Holy One?
    We shall not die.
O Lord, you have ordained them as a judgment,
    and you, O Rock, have established them for reproof.
13 You who are of purer eyes than to see evil
    and cannot look at wrong,
why do you idly look at traitors
    and remain silent when the wicked swallows up
    the man more righteous than he?
14 You make mankind like the fish of the sea,
    like crawling things that have no ruler.
15 He brings all of them up with a hook;
    he drags them out with his net;
he gathers them in his dragnet;
    so he rejoices and is glad.
16 Therefore he sacrifices to his net
    and makes offerings to his dragnet;
for by them he lives in luxury,
    and his food is rich.
17 Is he then to keep on emptying his net
    and mercilessly killing nations forever? Habakkuk 1:12-17 ESV

Habakkuk questioned God and the Almighty responded. But the answer Habakkuk received was not what he had hoped for, and in these verses, you can see he is desperately trying to reconcile the divine pronouncement with what he understood about God.

After hearing God announce that the Babylonians worship strength as their deity of choice, Habakkuk declares “Are you not from everlasting, O Lord my God, my Holy One” (Habakkuk 1:12 ESV). This statement seems to be partially a confident assertion of Yahweh’s unique status as the one true, eternal God of the universe, and an attempt by Habakkuk to shame God into doing something about Judah’s predicament. After declaring God’s holiness and eternality, the prophet states: “We shall not die.” 

While this appears as a statement in the English Standard Version, I believe the New Living Translation provides a more accurate rendering of the original intent behind Habakkuk’s words.

O Lord my God, my Holy One, you who are eternal—
    surely you do not plan to wipe us out? – Habakkuk 1:12 NLT

Habakkuk had been seeking God’s intervention but had been expecting Him to deal with the wicked who were causing all the trouble in Judah. He never dreamed that God would use a pagan nation and its godless king as His chosen instrument of judgment. And God had warned Habakkuk that what He had planned for Judah would be a shock to the senses.

“I am doing something in your own day,
    something you wouldn’t believe
    even if someone told you about it.” – Habakkuk 1:5 NLT

Now that Habakkuk knew God’s plans, he was concerned as to the extent of the judgment. Would it be complete, bringing an end to the nation of Judah. He had seen what had happened to the northern kingdom of Israel when it fell to the Assyrians. They ceased to exist as a nation. Their land was devastated, their cities and towns were destroyed, and the people were taken into captivity or left to live in abject poverty. Was that God’s plan for Judah?

Habakkuk could handle the thought of God sending the Babylonians as a form of reprimand and reproof.

O Lord, our Rock, you have sent these Babylonians to correct us,
    to punish us for our many sins.
– Habakkuk 1:12 NLT

He knew that he and his people deserved God’s punishment and he understood that God had chosen to deliver it by means of the Babylonians. But his concept of God made it difficult for him to accept the logic behind God’s plan.

But you are pure and cannot stand the sight of evil.
    Will you wink at their treachery?
Should you be silent while the wicked
    swallow up people more righteous than they? – Habakkuk 1:13 NLT

To Habakkuk’s way of thinking, this was only making matters worse. If you recall, in his opening statement to God, Habakkuk had described the sorry state of affairs in Judah, declaring, “The wicked far outnumber the righteous, so that justice has become perverted” (Habakkuk 1:4 NLT). As far as Habakkuk was concerned, Judah had more wicked people than they knew what to do with. He had been asking God to do something about the wicked living in his own country. Now God had announced that He was going to use the wicked Babylonians as His instruments of judgment. That made no sense. It was like throwing gasoline on a fire in a vain attempt to douse the flames.

To Habakkuk, God’s plan seemed like an overreaction to the problem – a literal form of overkill. And the prophet is not shy in sharing his concerns with God.

Are we only fish to be caught and killed?
    Are we only sea creatures that have no leader?
Must we be strung up on their hooks
    and caught in their nets while they rejoice and celebrate? – Habakkuk 1:14-15 NLT

Submitting to the righteous judgment of God was one thing. But having to endure that judgment at the hands of pagan Babylonians was something different altogether, and the thought of it left Habakkuk in a state of confusion and consternation. And just in case God didn’t understand the problem with His plan, Habakkuk attempted to inform Him. Knowing that Yahweh hated idolatry in any form, Habakkuk warns that any victory by the Babylonians over the chosen people of God will be followed by worship of their false gods. It will rob God of glory and give the appearance that He has been defeated by the gods of Babylon.

Then they will worship their nets
    and burn incense in front of them.
“These nets are the gods who have made us rich!”
    they will claim. – Habakkuk 1:16 NLT

This was too much for Habakkuk to comprehend. If this was the divine plan, Habakkuk wanted to know how long God was going to let it go on. Would the Babylonians destroy God’s people and enjoy uninterrupted rule over that part of the world?

Will you let them get away with this forever?
    Will they succeed forever in their heartless conquests? – Habakkuk 1:17 NLT

As usual, Habakkuk was operating with a limited perspective. As a mere human, he had no capacity to understand the mind of God. He couldn’t look into the future and see the outcome of God’s divine strategy for Judah’s rebuke and eventual restoration. He had no way of knowing how God would eventually punish the Babylonians for their part in Judah’s demise.

Habakkuk was a prophet of God, but that did not mean he understood the will and the ways of God. Like any other man, he was dependent upon Yahweh to provide him with divine insights and even the words to speak. The extent of his knowledge was solely dependent upon what the Almighty determined to share.  And in most cases, the prophets were all required to operate on limited data, restricted to sharing only that which God had chosen to reveal. But in time, God would divulge the rest of His plan, providing His prophets with a clearer understanding of His strategy in its entirety.

Concerning the Babylonians and Habakkuk’s worry that their global domination would be permanent, God revealed His plans for them to the prophet Jeremiah.

“You rejoice and are glad,
    you who plundered my chosen people.
You frisk about like a calf in a meadow
    and neigh like a stallion.
But your homeland will be overwhelmed
    with shame and disgrace.
You will become the least of nations—
    a wilderness, a dry and desolate land.
Because of the Lord’s anger,
    Babylon will become a deserted wasteland.
All who pass by will be horrified
    and will gasp at the destruction they see there.” – Jeremiah 50:11-13 NLT

God had plans for the Babylonians. Yes, those plans included their role as God’s agents of judgment upon the people of Judah. But those plans also included the ultimate destruction of the Babylonians for their willful participation in Judah’s subjugation and suffering. God would eventually repay Babylon for its wickedness and wanton destruction. And Habakkuk is going to learn of God’s plan for Babylon in the very next chapter.

Because you have plundered many nations,
    now all the survivors will plunder you.
You committed murder throughout the countryside
    and filled the towns with violence. – Habakkuk 2:8 NLT

One of the benefits of reading Scripture is that we get a glimpse into God’s sovereignty and man’s constant attempt to make sense of the Almighty’s ways. Even the prophets of God wrestled with the ways of God. The Pharisees and religious leaders of Jesus’ day found it impossible to understand what God was doing in their midst. He had sent His Son as their Messiah but these learned men failed to recognize Jesus as who He truly was. Jesus even accused them of missing the forest for the trees.

“You search the Scriptures because you think they give you eternal life. But the Scriptures point to me! Yet you refuse to come to me to receive this life.” – John 5:39-40 NLT

They were knowledgeable of God’s Word but remained ignorant of God’s will. They enjoyed an encyclopedic understanding of God’s law but failed to understand that the law could not provide them with salvation. It could convict of sin but had no capacity to provide escape from the condemnation of sin. Only Jesus could do that.

Habakkuk was operating on limited information. And each time God revealed another aspect of His divine plan, the prophet found himself trying to reconcile God’s version of reality with his own. But part of being a child of God is learning to trust our heavenly Father’s ways. Habakkuk had been right when he said, “Are you not from everlasting, O Lord my God, my Holy One” (Habakkuk 1:12 ESV). He recognized God’s holiness and transcendence, but now he was having to come to grips with God’s sovereign will over all things, including Judah’s judgment and the Babylonian’s role in it.

Learning to trust God is a big part of choosing to follow Him. We don’t always know where He is leading us. We won’t always understand what He is doing around us. The circumstances of life will not always appear just and fair. There will be times when He appears distant or disinterested in what is happening in our lives. But God is always there and His plan for us is perfect and unstoppable. We may not always understand His ways, but we can always trust in His will. And, in the meantime, we can express the words of the apostle Paul.

Oh, how great are God’s riches and wisdom and knowledge! How impossible it is for us to understand his decisions and his ways! – Romans 11:33 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

Not What You Expected

“Look among the nations, and see;
    wonder and be astounded.
For I am doing a work in your days
    that you would not believe if told.
For behold, I am raising up the Chaldeans,
    that bitter and hasty nation,
who march through the breadth of the earth,
    to seize dwellings not their own.
They are dreaded and fearsome;
    their justice and dignity go forth from themselves.
Their horses are swifter than leopards,
    more fierce than the evening wolves;
    their horsemen press proudly on.
Their horsemen come from afar;
    they fly like an eagle swift to devour.
They all come for violence,
    all their faces forward.
    They gather captives like sand.
10 At kings they scoff,
    and at rulers they laugh.
They laugh at every fortress,
    for they pile up earth and take it.
11 Then they sweep by like the wind and go on,
    guilty men, whose own might is their god!” Habakkuk 1:5-11 ESV

Habakkuk had two questions for God: How long and why? But from Habakkuk’s earth-bound perspective, it appeared that God was unresponsive uncaring. The prophet found himself surrounded by destruction, violence, injustice, and iniquity. The law of God was treated with total disregard and the wicked among the people of Judah seemed to outnumber the righteous. In essence, Habakkuk was demanding to know what God was going to do about it all.

And in verses 5-11, he records the long-awaited response from God. Yet, the answer he received from the Almighty must have left him a bit surprised and disappointed. It’s safe to say that what Habakkuk heard God say was not what he had been expecting. When Habakkuk had uttered his opening prayer to God, it had been in the form of a lament, a desperate cry of help to God asking that He intervene and provide salvation.

But instead, God delivers a promise of coming judgment. While Habakkuk had been under the impression that God had not heard his cries or heeded his pleas for help, the truth was that God already had a plan in place. But God warned Habakkuk that the nature of His plan would be inconceivable and implausible to Habakkuk.

“Look among the nations, and see;
    wonder and be astounded.
For I am doing a work in your days
    that you would not believe if told.” – Habakkuk 1:5 ESV

While Habakkuk’s opening prayer had focused on the state of affairs in Judah, God revealed that He had a much bigger agenda in mind that would include foreign powers and pagan nations as His instruments of judgment.

“For behold, I am raising up the Chaldeans,
    that bitter and hasty nation,
who march through the breadth of the earth,
    to seize dwellings not their own.” – Habakkuk 1:6 ESV

The term, “Chaldean” was a reference to the Babylonian Empire. God was telling Habakkuk that the solution to Judah’s problem was going to come in the form of a pagan nation that would rise to power and dominate the Middle East. And don’t miss God’s declaration that He would be the one who raised up this new superpower. Their ascension to world dominance would be the work of God, not men. And yet, God describes them as bitter, hasty, dreaded, and fearsome. They are violent and fierce, devouring everything in their path and “are notorious for their cruelty and do whatever they like” (Habakkuk 1:7 NLT).

This alarming news must have left Habakkuk in a state of shock. How could this be the answer to Judah’s problem? What possible good could come from God raising up a godless and bloodthirsty nation to set their greedy sights on the land of promise? None of this would have made sense to Habakkuk. And yet, God warned that He was “doing a work” in their day that would be unprecedented and unparalleled. The entire region was going to feel the wrath of God as He brought judgment upon them for their pride, arrogance, and failure to recognize Him as the one true God. He had warned the King of Tyre that judgment was coming.

“Therefore, this is what the Sovereign Lord says:
Because you think you are as wise as a god,
   I will now bring against you a foreign army,
    the terror of the nations.
They will draw their swords against your marvelous wisdom
    and defile your splendor!” – Ezekiel 28:6-7 NLT

Even the great nation of Egypt would suffer the judgment of God in the form of Babylonian aggression.

“For this is what the Sovereign Lord says:
By the power of King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon,
    I will destroy the hordes of Egypt.
He and his armies—the most ruthless of all—
    will be sent to demolish the land.
They will make war against Egypt
    until slaughtered Egyptians cover the ground.” – Ezekiel 30:10-11 NLT

God was letting Habakkuk know that He was sovereign over all the nations. All kings and countries answered to Him. They were at His beck and call, serving at His whim and completely subservient to His sovereign will. Years later, the prophet Daniel, living in captivity in Babylon and serving in the court of King Nebuchadnezzar himself, would pray a prayer of thanksgiving to God. Faced with a possible death sentence if he failed to interpret the king’s dream, Daniel had received its meaning directly from God in a dream. And he expressed his gratitude to God for His sovereign power and protection.

“Praise the name of God forever and ever,
    for he has all wisdom and power.
He controls the course of world events;
    he removes kings and sets up other kings.
He gives wisdom to the wise
    and knowledge to the scholars.
He reveals deep and mysterious things
    and knows what lies hidden in darkness,
    though he is surrounded by light.
– Daniel 2:20-22 NLT

The thought that God would use a Gentile nation to punish His own people was inconceivable to Habakkuk and the people of Judah. To the prophets’ warning that God was bringing judgment against them, the people of Judah had responded with scorn and ridicule.

“He won’t bother us!
No disasters will come upon us.
    There will be no war or famine.
God’s prophets are all windbags
    who don’t really speak for him.
    Let their predictions of disaster fall on themselves!” – Jeremiah 5:12-13 NLT

The leaders of Judah vehemently denied the prophetic warnings, declaring them to be lies. False prophets countered the message of God’s spokesmen, promising peace rather than judgment.

“From prophets to priests,
    they are all frauds.
They offer superficial treatments
    for my people’s mortal wound.
They give assurances of peace
    when there is no peace.” – Jeremiah 6:13-14 NLT

The people of Judah were convinced that their status as God’s chosen people and the presence of the temple of God were protections against any pending judgment. As long as they kept offering sacrifices as God had commanded, they would be safe. Or so they thought.

“Do you really think you can steal, murder, commit adultery, lie, and burn incense to Baal and all those other new gods of yours, and then come here and stand before me in my Temple and chant, ‘We are safe!’—only to go right back to all those evils again?” – Jeremiah 7:9-10 NLT

God had warned the people of Israel that there would be consequences for their failure to keep their covenant agreement with Him. Long before they ever set foot in the land of promise, Moses had delivered to them God’s ultimatum regarding blessings and curses. If they chose to be unfaithful, they would suffer the consequences.

“You will watch as your sons and daughters are taken away as slaves…A foreign nation you have never heard about will eat the crops you worked so hard to grow…The Lord will exile you and your king to a nation unknown to you and your ancestors. There in exile you will worship gods of wood and stone! You will become an object of horror, ridicule, and mockery among all the nations to which the Lord sends you.” – Deuteronomy 28:32, 33, 36- 37 NLT

Now, after centuries marked by disobedience and disregard for the laws of God, the nation of Judah was facing the same fate as their brothers and sisters to the north. The ten tribes that formed the northern kingdom of Israel had fallen to the Assyrians years earlier. They had been taken captive and their cities and towns had been left destroyed and their land, devastated. But the southern kingdom of Judah had learned nothing from watching the demise of their northern neighbors. They still thought they were immune and under divine protection.

But God warns that the Babylonians would destroy everything in their path. There would be no walls high enough and no armies strong enough to halt their advance or prevent their God-ordained destruction of the land of Judah.

“They scoff at kings and princes
    and scorn all their fortresses.
They simply pile ramps of earth
    against their walls and capture them!” – Habakkuk 1:10 NLT

Yet, in spite of their apparent success, God would hold the Babylonians accountable for their actions. Yes, He would use them to accomplish His divine will, but that would not absolve them from their guilt. They would be operating under the impression that they were in full control of their actions, answerable to no one but themselves.

“They sweep past like the wind
    and are gone.
But they are deeply guilty,
    for their own strength is their god.” – Habakkuk 1:11 NLT

Oblivious to the sovereign hand of God, Nebuchadnezzar and his forces would view their victories as having been man-made, not God-ordained. But after having successfully fulfilled the will of God concerning the people of Judah, God would judge Babylon for its role in their demise.

When Habakkuk had asked God, “How long?” and “Why?” this was not the answer he expected or wanted. But God’s ways are not our ways. His plans rarely line up with our preconceived ideas. But He is always faithful, right, and just in all that He does. His ways are righteous. His plans are perfect. As King David expressed in his psalm: “The LORD is righteous in everything he does” (Psalm 145:17 NLT). We may not understand or even like His ways. We may have a difficult time believing His will for us is best for us. But in time, we will see that God’s ways, while hard to understand, are motivated by His love, mercy, and grace.

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

Our Limited Perspective Can’t Limit God

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 1:2-4 ESV

Habakkuk refers to his message as an “oracle.” The Hebrew word is massa’ and it means “burden” or “that which is carried.” It was often used to refer to the carrying of a tribute or gift to be presented to a king or other high official. What makes Habakkuk’s book unique among all the other prophetic writings is that he is delivering a message to God, rather than speaking on behalf of God to the people of Judah. In the case of many of the other prophets, they struggled with their task of delivering God’s message of judgment, desiring instead to see their people repent and be restored. The prophet Jeremiah wept over the fate of his people.

If only my head were a pool of water
    and my eyes a fountain of tears,
I would weep day and night
    for all my people who have been slaughtered. – Jeremiah 9:1 NLT

But in the case of Habakkuk, he opens his “oracle” by carrying his burden to the throne of God and delivering his message of confusion and consternation concerning the Almighty’s failure to bring judgment upon the people of Judah. He complains to God that his cries have gone unheard and unanswered. He accuses God of refusing to do something about all the violence and wickedness taking place in Judah. Habakkuk paints himself as a suffering servant of God, having to put up with all the “destruction and violence” and “strife and contention” taking place around him (Habakkuk 1:3 ESV).

So, this is not your average, run-of-the-mill prophetic book.

“Habakkuk is a unique book. Unlike other prophets who declared God’s message to people this prophet dialogued with God about people. Most Old Testament prophets proclaimed divine judgment. Habakkuk pleaded for divine judgment. In contrast with the typical indictment, this little book records an intriguing interchange between a perplexed prophet and his Maker.” – Ronald J. Blue, “Habakkuk.” In The Bible Knowledge Commentary: Old Testament

Habakkuk’s opening prayer is a lament and echoes the sentiments found in many of the psalms.

O Lord, why do you stand so far away?
    Why do you hide when I am in trouble?
The wicked arrogantly hunt down the poor.
    Let them be caught in the evil they plan for others. – Psalm 10:1-2 NLT

Arise, O Lord!
    Punish the wicked, O God!
    Do not ignore the helpless!
Why do the wicked get away with despising God? – Psalm 10:12-13 NLT

O Lord, how long will you forget me? Forever?
    How long will you look the other way?
How long must I struggle with anguish in my soul,
    with sorrow in my heart every day?
    How long will my enemy have the upper hand? – Psalm 13:1-2 NLT

And while Habakkuk was unique among the prophets, he was not the only one who wondered how long God would delay before He dealt a decisive blow to the wicked.

How long must this land mourn?
    Even the grass in the fields has withered.
The wild animals and birds have disappeared
    because of the evil in the land.
For the people have said,
    “The Lord doesn’t see what’s ahead for us!” – Jeremiah 12:4 NLT

Upon hearing this, the angel of the Lord prayed this prayer: “O Lord of Heaven’s Armies, for seventy years now you have been angry with Jerusalem and the towns of Judah. How long until you again show mercy to them?” – Zechariah 1:12 NLT

From Habakkuk’s perspective, God had been irritatingly silent and non-responsive. The prophet had repeatedly cried out to God, informing Him of the violence and injustice taking place among the people of Judah. Conflict and strife were everywhere. The law had become impotent and incapable of delivering justice when needed. The courts and the judges were not doing their jobs. And Habakkuk complained that “The wicked far outnumber the righteous, so that justice has become perverted” (Habakkuk 1:4 NLT).

The problem was getting worse, not better. And Habakkuk not-so-subtly accuses God of inaction and apparent indifference. His question, “How long?” was essentially the same as asking God, “When are you going to do something about all this?” Habakkuk was demanding action. He wanted to see results. He was fed up with the current state of affairs in Judah and was expecting God to do something about it.

This opening prayer reflects Habakkuk’s distress and despair over the spiritual condition of his nation. Things were not as they were supposed to be. Six different times in his book, Habakkuk will refer to the violence taking place in Judah. This is not just a reference to the physical harm committed by one person against another. The Hebrew word is chamac and has a much broader meaning. It includes physical violence, but also injustice, oppression, and cruelty. Someone committing chamac was guilty of violating the moral law. They were willingly breaking established ethical standards.

Habakkuk’s frustration seems to be based on the lack of divine intervention. Because it appeared that God was doing nothing about these moral indiscretions and abuses of the Mosaic Law, the people were getting bolder and more blatant in their disregard for God’s standards. From Habakkuk’s limited earthly perspective, it appeared that God’s silence was encouraging further violence among the people. They were getting cocky and arrogant, emboldened by their assumption that God was not going to do anything about their actions. The psalmist took his concerns to God as well, sharing a similar frustration with how God’s inaction was causing the wicked to become increasingly bolder and blatant in their sinful actions.

How long, O Lord?
    How long will the wicked be allowed to gloat?
How long will they speak with arrogance?
    How long will these evil people boast?
They crush your people, Lord,
    hurting those you claim as your own.
They kill widows and foreigners
    and murder orphans.
“The Lord isn’t looking,” they say,
    “and besides, the God of Israel doesn’t care.”  – Psalm 94:3-7 NLT

It’s all about perspective. The psalmist and Habakkuk were both limited by their earth-bound viewpoint. They could not see into heaven and, therefore, had no idea what God was doing. They could only judge by what they saw taking place around them. Not only that, but these men were also incapable of seeing into the future. They had no way of looking beyond the immediate conditions in which they lived. The present was all they knew because they were temporal, time-bound creatures who had no capacity to see what God had planned.

Habakkuk was demanding answers and action. He wanted to see results – right here, right now. You can sense the frustration he felt and his impatience with God is evident in the tone of his prayer.

“…you will not save!”

“…you will not hear!”

“…you make me see iniquity!”

“…do you idly look at wrong!”

Those are strong words and the apostle Paul would lovingly warn Habakkuk, “Who are you, a mere human being, to argue with God?” (Romans 9:20 NLT). Habakkuk was guilty of questioning the integrity and intentions of God. It wasn’t that he lacked faith in God or that he felt God was incapable of doing anything about the situation in Judah. He wasn’t questioning whether God could do something but was simply wanting to know when He would.

But Habakkuk was going to learn that God was not obligated to operate according to his timeline. The Almighty was not answerable to Habakkuk, but God was going to respond to His disgruntled prophet. Yet, what He had to say would convey a message of coming judgment, not salvation. God was going to respond to the injustice in Judah with His own brand of justice. He was going to deal with the violence and moral corruption of His people by bringing His righteous wrath to bear.

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

The Ways of God

1 The oracle that Habakkuk the prophet saw. Habakkuk 1:1 ESV

This rather obscure little Old Testament book has an equally obscure author. We know very little about Habakkuk, other than his role as a prophet to the southern kingdom of Judah during the days before the nation was judged by God, defeated by the Babylonians, and sent into exile. Thus, he is what is known as a pre-exilic prophet. His primary job was to warn God’s people of His pending judgment and to call them to repentance.

The book is comprised of a unique combination of poetry and prose, revealing Habakkuk as a poet as well as a prophet. And, like all the other prophets of God, Habakkuk was not intended to be the focus of the book that bears his name. He was a spokesman for God Almighty, tasked with delivering His divine warning of imminent judgment against God’s chosen people for their sins against Him.

It seems likely that Habakkuk prophesied during the reign of King Jehoiakim (609-598 B.C.). His prophetic ministry covered a period of time when Judah was in a steep spiritual decline following the death of Josiah, the great reformer king. Josiah was one of the few kings of either Israel or Judah who proved faithful to God. When he had ascended to the throne of Judah, he inherited a spiritually bankrupt legacy passed down by his father Manasseh.

Manasseh…did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, according to the despicable practices of the nations whom the Lord drove out before the people of Israel. – 2 Kings 21:1-2 ESV

He did much evil in the sight of the Lord, provoking him to anger. – 2 Kings 21:6 ESV

Manasseh turned the people of Judah against God, erecting shrines and high places to false gods all throughout the nation. He even placed “the carved image of Asherah that he had made he set in the house of which the Lord” (2 Kings 21:7 ESV). On top of that, Manasseh followed the practices of the pagan nations, instituting child sacrifice as a part of their worship. He was so wicked that the author of 2 Kings states, “Manasseh led them astray to do more evil than the nations had done whom the Lord destroyed before the people of Israel” (2 Kings 21:9 ESV).

And God pronounced His judgment against Manasseh, warning that his behavior was going to have dire consequences.

Because Manasseh king of Judah has committed these abominations and has done things more evil than all that the Amorites did, who were before him, and has made Judah also to sin with his idols, therefore thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: Behold, I am bringing upon Jerusalem and Judah such disaster that the ears of everyone who hears of it will tingle. And I will stretch over Jerusalem the measuring line of Samaria, and the plumb line of the house of Ahab, and I will wipe Jerusalem as one wipes a dish, wiping it and turning it upside down. And I will forsake the remnant of my heritage and give them into the hand of their enemies, and they shall become a prey and a spoil to all their enemies, because they have done what is evil in my sight and have provoked me to anger, since the day their fathers came out of Egypt, even to this day.” – 2 Kings 21:11-15 ESV

Eventually, Manasseh died and his son, Amon took his place on the throne. He followed in his father’s footsteps, continuing his legacy of idolatry and apostasy. But his reign was shortlived, lasting only two years before he was assassinated by his own servants. He was succeeded by his son Josiah who, at the age of eight, was given the responsibility of leading a nation who had turned its back on God. But for the next 31 years, Josiah would prove to be a royal anomaly, leading the nation of Judah in a period of unprecedented spiritual renewal and revival.

…he did what was right in the eyes of the Lord and walked in all the way of David his father, and he did not turn aside to the right or to the left. – 2 Kings 22:2 ESV

Josiah instituted a series of reforms designed to restore the nation’s allegiance to Yahweh. He ordered repairs to the much-neglected temple. He recommitted the nation to keep the law of God. He razed all the high places and pagan shrines dedicated to the false gods of the Canaanites. And finally, he reinstituted the annual celebration of Passover. These initiatives set Josiah apart from all his predecessors, establishing him as an example of faithfulness and righteousness.

Before him there was no king like him, who turned to the Lord with all his heart and with all his soul and with all his might, according to all the Law of Moses, nor did any like him arise after him. – 2 Kings 23:25 ESV

But despite all of his efforts, Josiah’s reforms made little impact on the hearts of the people of Judah. God knew that nothing had really changed and His plans for dealing with the sins of Manasseh remained unaltered because the people remained unfaithful.

Still the Lord did not turn from the burning of his great wrath, by which his anger was kindled against Judah, because of all the provocations with which Manasseh had provoked him. – 2 Kings 23:26 ESV

Josiah was eventually killed in combat by Egyptian forces and replaced as king by his son Jehoahaz. But his reign would last only three months before Neco, the Pharaoh of Egypt, removed him from power and replaced him with his brother, Jehoiakim. For the next 11 years, Jehoiakim would rule over Judah, emulating his father’s evil ways and continuing the nation’s downward spiritual spiral. All the reforms of Josiah would be neglected and the idolatrous practices of Manasseh would be restored.

he did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, according to all that his fathers had done. – 2 Kings 23:37 ESV

And it was during this dark period of Judah’s history that Habakkuk received his prophetic call from God. It was accompanied by the rise of the nation of Babylon, a powerful pagan people who were slowly replacing the Assyrians as the force to be reckoned with in the region. While the Assyrians had already conquered the northern kingdom of Israel and taken a large contingent of their people into captivity, they would soon find their 15-minutes of fame coming to an abrupt end. In 605 B.C., the Babylonians defeated a combined army of Egyptians and Assyrians at the battle of Carchemish, establishing themselves as the major power in the ancient Near East. The book of 2 Kings reveals that the Babylonians soon relegated Judah’s status in the region as that of a vassal state.

In his days, Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon came up, and Jehoiakim became his servant for three years. Then he turned and rebelled against him. And the Lord sent against him bands of the Chaldeans and bands of the Syrians and bands of the Moabites and bands of the Ammonites, and sent them against Judah to destroy it, according to the word of the Lord that he spoke by his servants the prophets. Surely this came upon Judah at the command of the Lord, to remove them out of his sight, for the sins of Manasseh, according to all that he had done… – 2 Kings 24:1-3 ESV

Jehoiakim’s reign would last 11 years, with the final three years marked by subservience to the Babylonians. But long before the Babylonians came to prominence and power, God would use Habakkuk to warn of their coming.

For I am doing something in your own day,
    something you wouldn’t believe
    even if someone told you about it.
I am raising up the Babylonians,
    a cruel and violent people.
They will march across the world
    and conquer other lands. – Habakkuk 1:5-6 NLT

While Jehoiakim and the people of Judah were busy turning their backs on God, He was planning their judgment. And what God was going to do would come as a complete surprise to the people of Judah. They had no way of knowing about Babylon’s rise to power. In their minds, it was the Assyrians who were the major threat to their well-being. But God had something else in store. While they continued to place their hope and trust in false gods, Yahweh was planning His righteous retribution for their blatant violation of their covenant commitment to Him.

One of the things that the book of Habakkuk will reveal is the prophet’s struggle with God’s ways. He was commissioned to speak on God’s behalf, but he didn’t fully comprehend what it was that God was doing. Even as a prophet, he was confused as to why God would choose to use a pagan nation to punish the chosen people of God. To Habakkuk, the plans God had for Judah’s demise seemed unfair and uncharacteristic of His covenant commitment to them. While Habakkuk was fully aware of Judah’s wickedness, his national pride made it difficult for him to understand what God was doing. So, part of the book contains his questions to God. In fact, verse two opens up with the words, “O Lord, how long?”

But God wanted Habakkuk to know what Isaiah the prophet had come to understand.

Seek the Lord while you can find him.
    Call on him now while he is near.
Let the wicked change their ways
    and banish the very thought of doing wrong.
Let them turn to the Lord that he may have mercy on them.
    Yes, turn to our God, for he will forgive generously.

“My thoughts are nothing like your thoughts,” says the Lord.
    “And my ways are far beyond anything you could imagine.
For just as the heavens are higher than the earth,
    so my ways are higher than your ways
    and my thoughts higher than your thoughts.” – Isaiah 55:6-9 NLT

Habakkuk may not have understood what God was doing, but he would eventually to learn to trust His ways.

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

Don’t Grow Weary

11 For we hear that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies. 12 Now such persons we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living.

13 As for you, brothers, do not grow weary in doing good. 14 If anyone does not obey what we say in this letter, take note of that person, and have nothing to do with him, that he may be ashamed. 15 Do not regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother.

16 Now may the Lord of peace himself give you peace at all times in every way. The Lord be with you all.

17 I, Paul, write this greeting with my own hand. This is the sign of genuineness in every letter of mine; it is the way I write. 18 The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. 2 Thessalonians 3:11-17 ESV

Because of his authorship of the book of Romans, Paul is sometimes pigeon-holed for his theological acumen, but as this letter clearly shows, he could be highly practical as well. In these closing verses of 2 Thessalonians, he addresses what, to some, may appear to be a rather pedestrian problem: Laziness or idleness within the church. Paul had received news that there were those in the congregation in Thessalonica who were living undisciplined lives. This small contingent of individuals were refusing to work and expecting the rest of the church body to provide them with food. At first glance, it may seem that Paul is guilty of making a mountain out of a molehill. He is giving far too much attention to something that is essentially a non-issue.

But Paul saw the danger lying beneath the surface. He knew that, while the actions of these individuals may appear somewhat innocent and innocuous, they were actually quite dangerous. In the letter that bears his name, Jude warned of false teachers who had infiltrated the church and whose presence and teaching were posing a threat to the well-being of the fellowship. His description of them provides some insight into how Paul viewed those who were “walking in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us” (2 Thessalonians 3:6 ESV).

…they are like dangerous reefs that can shipwreck you. They are like shameless shepherds who care only for themselves. They are like clouds blowing over the land without giving any rain. They are like trees in autumn that are doubly dead, for they bear no fruit and have been pulled up by the roots. They are like wild waves of the sea, churning up the foam of their shameful deeds. They are like wandering stars, doomed forever to blackest darkness.  – Jude 1:12-13 NLT

Those within the body of Christ who chose to live undisciplined lives, whether through the teaching of false doctrine or by refusing to work, were doing irreparable harm through their self-centered actions. They cared only for themselves. They appeared to be active members of the congregation, but there was no benefit to their presence. They were like clouds that promised much-needed rain but never delivered. They were like fruit trees that failed to provide any harvest because they were dead. Like the waves of the sea, their presence within the body of Christ produced nothing of value, simply stirring up the foam of their shameful deeds. And like “wandering stars” or planets that move across the night sky, they proved to be unreliable sources for navigation. In other words, they provided nothing of value for the faith community.

And it wasn’t just that they refused to work. It was that their idleness would lead to a lifestyle of undisciplined behavior that would become like cancer in the body of Christ. Paul describes how their idle lives, characterized by a refusal to work, left them with too much time on their hands, which they used to meddle in other people’s business. Rather than being busy about work, they became busybodies, stirring up contention and strife among the fellowship.

Paul was a firm believer in the concept of the body of Christ and was adamant that each and every member of the body should be a contributor to its corporate well-being. Because of the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit, everyone had something to give back to the body of Christ. And it didn’t matter how bad your pre-conversion state may have been. He wrote to the church in Ephesus, encouraging its members to put aside their past and live new lives of usefulness and godliness.

If you are a thief, quit stealing. Instead, use your hands for good hard work, and then give generously to others in need. – Ephesians 4:28 NLT

There was no reason for any member of the body of Christ to be fruitless or to fail to be a contributor to the corporate needs of the community. That’s why Paul warned the Ephesians: “do not bring sorrow to God’s Holy Spirit by the way you live” (Ephesians 4:30 NLT). Someone who willingly chose to live an undisciplined or idle life grieved the Spirit of God because it evidenced their refusal to live in keeping with His will. Rather than using the gifts given to them by the Spirit of God for the benefit of the body of Christ, they were living self-centered lives with no regard for anyone else.

And, for the first time in his letter, Paul addresses these individuals directly, commanding and encouraging them “to do their work quietly and to earn their own living” (2 Thessalonians 3:12 ESV). They knew who they were and they knew what they needed to do. No more freeloading. No more living off the generosity of others. They were to get busy and do their part, contributing to the needs of the body of Christ and displaying the transforming nature of the gospel through the way they lived their lives.

To the rest of the congregation, Paul provides a simple, yet profound piece of pastoral counsel: “do not grow weary in doing good” (2 Thessalonians 3:13 ESV). He knew that living the Christian life was not easy and there would be times when the Thessalonian believers would be tempted to throw in the towel. Not only were they having to deal with persecution from without, but they were also having to battle the presence of false teachers and lazy fellow parishioners. But Paul called them to a life of perseverance. He wanted them to keep their eye on the objective, what he elsewhere referred to as “the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:14 ESV). This life would be filled with difficult people and trying day, but the end of the race would come with a reward that would make all the effort they expended more than worth it.

In the meantime, they were to distance themselves from the disobedient and undisciplined among them. Paul makes it clear that they were not to treat these people as enemies but they were to “admonish them as a brother” (2 Thessalonians 3:15 ESV). James encouraged the same kind of brotherly love toward those who had wandered from the faith.

…if someone among you wanders away from the truth and is brought back, you can be sure that whoever brings the sinner back from wandering will save that person from death and bring about the forgiveness of many sins. – James 5:19-20 NLT

Restoration and reconciliation were to be the ultimate objectives. Maintaining unity within the body of Christ had to be of the highest priority. Calling out the unruly and undisciplined was non-optional. It wouldn’t fun but it had to be done or, like yeast, the sin of the few would spread throughout the body, destroying its vitality and diminishing its influence in the world.

And with that thought in mind, Paul closes his letter with a prayer for the presence and peace of God to be evident among the Thessalonian Christians.

Now may the Lord of peace himself give you his peace at all times and in every situation. The Lord be with you all. – 2 Thessalonians 3:16 NLT

As Paul had told the believers in Philippi, God’s peace, “exceeds anything we can understand.” Not only that, “His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7 NLT). Even in the midst of turmoil, trials, and difficulties of all sorts, God’s peace would always be available and viable. They could count on it.

And the Thessalonians could count on the fact that this letter was actually from Paul because he had personally signed it. While there may have been those who claimed to have letters from Paul that contained false teaching, this one was legitimate. He had included his own signature as proof.

Paul closes out his letter with his favorite benediction: “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all” (2 Thessalonians 3:18 ESV). He wanted them to remember that the grace of God – His unmerited, undeserved favor – was the key to their salvation, sanctification, and ultimate glorification. Grace was the God-given power to live the lives they had been called to live. They had been saved by grace. They could experience the peace of God because of His grace. And they would be preserved and protected according to abundant, never-ending grace.

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

Disorderly Conduct

6 Now we command you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is walking in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us. For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us, because we were not idle when we were with you, nor did we eat anyone’s bread without paying for it, but with toil and labor we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you. It was not because we do not have that right, but to give you in ourselves an example to imitate. 10 For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat. 2 Thessalonians 3:6-10 ESV

After making a personal request for their prayers on his behalf and expressing his desire that their hearts be directed “to the love of God and to the steadfastness of Christ” (2 Thessalonians 3:5 ESV), Paul shifts into apostle mode. He has one last issue he must address with the church in Thessalonica and it involves disorderly conduct. The Greek word Paul used is ataktōs and it could be used to refer to a soldier who was marching “out of ranks,” or out of step with his fellow soldiers and therefore, violating established military protocol.

But the word was also used to describe anyone who deviated from the prescribed order or rule of society. This could include immoral behavior, but it could also refer to any actions that were out of step with the societal norms of a community or group. In this case, Paul feels compelled to address a particular ataktōs taking place within the Thessalonian church, and it involves a “brother who is walking in idleness” (2 Thessalonians 3: 6 ESV). It seems likely that Paul is not referring to a particular individual, but to the spirit of idleness that must have become prevalent in the church. And rather than addressing the guilty offenders, Paul focuses his attention on the rest of the members of the church. He commands them, in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, to avoid anyone who lives an undisciplined or disorderly life. Paul saw these people as a serious threat to the spiritual health of the body of Christ.

But why? What was it that these idle or undisciplined people were doing that was so dangerous that it required the rest of the church to avoid them like the plague? Part of the problem was that the actions of these people were “out of step” with the teachings of Paul and his companions. Paul accuses them of living their lives “not in accord with the tradition that you received from us” (2 Thessalonians 3:6 ESV). The word “tradition” is paradosis in the Greek and means “to give up” or “give over.” Paul and his fellow missionaries had “given over” clear instructions regarding the gospel and the Christian life, by word of mouth and in writing. They had taught the Thessalonians how to conduct their lives as followers of Christ, and these idle individuals were out of step with that instruction. They had heard it but were refusing to conduct to their lives according to it.

And Paul reminds the Thessalonians that he had not only taught them what to do, he had also modeled it in front of them.

For you know that you ought to imitate us. We were not idle when we were with you. We never accepted food from anyone without paying for it. We worked hard day and night so we would not be a burden to any of you. – 2 Thessalonians 3:7-8 NLT

With this statement, Paul seems to get to the heart of the matter. These idle members of the fellowship were freeloading off of the rest of the congregation, refusing to work, and expecting others to provide them with food to eat. They had become social parasites, depending upon the goodwill of their fellow church members, rather than using their God-given abilities to do their part. They were lazy. And Paul was not alone in his condemnation of such behavior. He was a student of the Hebrew Scriptures and knew what God’s Word had to say about the dangers of such a lifestyle.

Fools fold their idle hands, leading them to ruin. – Ecclesiastes 4:5 NLT

The hand of the diligent will rule, while the slothful will be put to forced labor. – Proverbs 12:24 ESV

Lazy people sleep soundly, but idleness leaves them hungry.– Proverbs 19:15 NLT

Those too lazy to plow in the right season will have no food at the harvest.– Proverbs 20:4 NLT

Paul understood that laziness was not just a personal problem. It was a drain on the community. But Paul was not suggesting that the church avoid the needs of the less fortunate or destitute. This was all about able-bodied individuals who were refusing to work with their hands and putting an unnecessary burden on the rest of the members of the faith community. As far as Paul was concerned, the idleness of these people was nothing less than godlessness, and according to the Scriptures, God has no intention of meeting the needs of the wicked.

The Lord will not let the godly go hungry, but he refuses to satisfy the craving of the wicked. Lazy people are soon poor – Proverbs 10:3-4 NLT

Even as a minister of the gospel, Paul had every right to expect and even demand payment for his services. In his first letter to the church in Corinth, Paul had defended his right to compensation as a minister of the gospel.

Don’t we have the right to live in your homes and share your meals?Or is it only Barnabas and I who have to work to support ourselves? What soldier has to pay his own expenses? What farmer plants a vineyard and doesn’t have the right to eat some of its fruit? What shepherd cares for a flock of sheep and isn’t allowed to drink some of the milk? – 1 Corinthians 9:4, 6-7 NLT

Paul went on to accuse the Corinthians of having a double standard because they were caring for the needs of some ministers, but not those of he and Barnabas.

If you support others who preach to you, shouldn’t we have an even greater right to be supported? But we have never used this right. We would rather put up with anything than be an obstacle to the Good News about Christ. – 1 Corinthians 9:12 NLT

For Paul, it was always about the integrity of the gospel message. He was not going to let anything stand in the way of spreading the good news concerning Jesus Christ. And he would rather pay his own way rather than run the risk of being accused of being in the ministry for personal gain.

And, he reminds the Thessalonians that when he was among them, he never accepted a meal without paying for it.

We never accepted food from anyone without paying for it. We worked hard day and night so we would not be a burden to any of you. – 2 Thessalonians 3:8 NLT

He certainly had a right to demand payment for services rendered, but he had refused to do so. And his example was meant to be followed. So, there was no excuse for the church to tolerate the damaging influence of the willingly idle and disorderly. In fact, when Paul had been in Thessalonica, he had warned them not to provide food for those who refused to work.

…we gave you this command: “Those unwilling to work will not get to eat.” – 2 Thessalonians 3:10 NLT

The body of Christ is meant to be an organism, a living community of like-minded individuals who each contribute to the well-being of the whole. There is no place for laziness or self-centeredness. And Paul wrote often about this communal aspect of the body of Christ, encouraging believers to do their God-given part to contribute to the spiritual and physical well-being of the whole faith community.

Just as our bodies have many parts and each part has a special function, so it is with Christ’s body. We are many parts of one body, and we all belong to each other. – Romans 12:4-5 NLT

And Paul made it clear that God placed every member in the body with a particular gift designed to minister to the rest of the members.

In his grace, God has given us different gifts for doing certain things well. So if God has given you the ability to prophesy, speak out with as much faith as God has given you. If your gift is serving others, serve them well. If you are a teacher, teach well. If your gift is to encourage others, be encouraging. If it is giving, give generously. If God has given you leadership ability, take the responsibility seriously. And if you have a gift for showing kindness to others, do it gladly. – Romans 12:6-8 NLT

As Paul told the believers in Corinth, “A spiritual gift is given to each of us so we can help each other” (1 Corinthians 12:7 NLT). So, there was no place for idleness or laziness in the body of Christ. These lazy, self-absorbed individuals were living out of step with God’s plans for the church. Rather than acting as Spirit-empowered contributors to the flock, they were acting as self-centered drains on the limited resources and patience of their fellow members. And Paul would not allow it to continue.

This was not new information for the Thessalonians. They were not hearing this teaching for the first time. Paul had addressed the issue of diligence and hard work in his first letter to them.

Make it your goal to live a quiet life, minding your own business and working with your hands, just as we instructed you before. Then people who are not believers will respect the way you live, and you will not need to depend on others. – 1 Thessalonians 4:11-12 NLT

There is no place for disorderly conduct within the body of Christ. And those who are guilty of it should be treated as social pariahs. Because the danger they pose to the faith community is real and the discredit their actions bring to the cause of Christ is undeniable. The church has no place for the lazy and disorderly. While the needy and lost are always welcome, those who come to faith in Christ but who refuse to live in keeping with the teachings of Christ are to be avoided at all costs. Because not to do so could cause irreparable damage to the body of Christ and the integrity of the gospel.

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

The Lord Is Faithful

1 Finally, brothers, pray for us, that the word of the Lord may speed ahead and be honored, as happened among you, and that we may be delivered from wicked and evil men. For not all have faith. But the Lord is faithful. He will establish you and guard you against the evil one. And we have confidence in the Lord about you, that you are doing and will do the things that we command. May the Lord direct your hearts to the love of God and to the steadfastness of Christ. 2 Thessalonians 3:1-5 ESV

Paul was a powerful proponent of prayer and was not shy in requesting others to pray on his behalf. He knew he was engaged in a spiritual battle that required spiritual weapons. He told the Corinthians believers:

We are human, but we don’t wage war as humans do. We use God’s mighty weapons, not worldly weapons, to knock down the strongholds of human reasoning and to destroy false arguments. We destroy every proud obstacle that keeps people from knowing God. We capture their rebellious thoughts and teach them to obey Christ. – 2 Corinthians 10:3-5 NLT

And as he told Timothy, one of the primary weapons in our warfare with evil is prayer.

I urge you, first of all, to pray for all people. Ask God to help them; intercede on their behalf, and give thanks for them. Pray this way for kings and all who are in authority so that we can live peaceful and quiet lives marked by godliness and dignity. – 1 Timothy 2:1-2 NLT

His belief in the power and efficacy of prayer was supported by James, who wrote, “The earnest prayer of a righteous person has great power and produces wonderful results” (James 5:16 NLT). And, in his first letter to the Thessalonians, Paul had challenged them to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17 ESV). And, as Paul told Timothy, this was his desire for every congregation to which he had ministered.

In every place of worship, I want men to pray with holy hands lifted up to God, free from anger and controversy. – 1 Timothy 2:8 NLT

Paul didn’t view prayer as an optional. It was not some kind of spiritual accessory you put on when it was convenient or when you determined it was necessary. It was to be a permanent and vital part of the believer’s life, a sentiment Paul expressed to the church in Ephesus.

Pray in the Spirit at all times and on every occasion. Stay alert and be persistent in your prayers for all believers everywhere. – Ephesians 6:18 NLT

And this call to persistent and perpetual prayer was because of the very real nature of the spiritual battle in which we are engaged. Just a few verses earlier, Paul had warned the Ephesian believers of the epic spiritual war taking place around them and their role in it.

Be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on all of God’s armor so that you will be able to stand firm against all strategies of the devil. For we are not fighting against flesh-and-blood enemies, but against evil rulers and authorities of the unseen world, against mighty powers in this dark world, and against evil spirits in the heavenly places. – Ephesians 6:10-12 NLT

Paul was a man of prayer and he coveted the prayers of others. But notice that Paul’s prayer request, while personal in nature, was not focused on himself. He was asking them to pray that his ministry would continue to be successful – “that the Lord’s message may spread quickly and be honored” (2 Thessalonians 3:1 NLT). He didn’t provide the Thessalonians with a long list of personal prayer requests that focused on his health, finances, or relational concerns. It wasn’t that Paul didn’t have problems or personal issues, but that his focus was always on the bigger cause of spreading the gospel.

Paul didn’t need better clothes, a bigger house, improved health, or a trouble-free life. And while he appreciated any concern that others had for his well-being, he wanted them to know that he really had no needs, except the strength and determination to continue doing what he had been called to do.

How I praise the Lord that you are concerned about me again. I know you have always been concerned for me, but you didn’t have the chance to help me. Not that I was ever in need, for I have learned how to be content with whatever I have. I know how to live on almost nothing or with everything. I have learned the secret of living in every situation, whether it is with a full stomach or empty, with plenty or little. – Philippians 4:10-12 NLT

And Paul made it clear that all he really needed was provided for him by Christ.

For I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength. – Philippians 4:13 NLT

As Paul’s letter has made clear, there were those who opposed his teaching and were always trying to add to or alter the gospel message. Not only that, but he also faced physical threats to his life because of his work on behalf of Christ. Paul provides a detailed list of his physical sufferings in his second letter to the church in Corinth. He describes how he had “been put in prison more often, been whipped times without number, and faced death again and again” (2 Corinthians 11:23 NLT). Then he gave them specific instances of his abuse. “Five different times the Jewish leaders gave me thirty-nine lashes. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned” (2 Corinthians 11:24-25 NLT).

So, Paul asked the Thessalonians for prayer in light of the very real nature of his opposition and their relentless desire to put him out of commission.

…pray for us…that we may be delivered from perverse and evil people. For not all have faith. – 2 Thessalonians 3:1, 2 NLT

As the Thessalonians knew from their own firsthand experience, not everyone accepted the message of the gospel. Many of their own friends and family members had denied God’s gracious offer of salvation by faith alone in Christ alone. Not all have faith, Paul states. Not everyone is part of the body of Christ. And wherever believers exist, they will find themselves surrounded by those who despise their message and their very existence. Jesus had warned His disciples: “You will be hated by everyone because of My name” (Matthew 10:22 BSB). And He broadened the scope of this hatred by declaring that the whole world would stand opposed to His followers.

If you were of the world, it would love you as its own. Instead, the world hates you, because you are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. – John 15:19 BSB

But Paul assures his fellow believers in Thessalonica that, while the world was filled with hostile people who did not share their faith, “the Lord is faithful” and “He will establish you and guard you against the evil one” (2 Thessalonians 3:3 ESV). No matter how bleak things appeared to be or how intense the persecution may become, the Lord stood ready to strengthen and protect them. With true pastoral conviction and a loving shepherd’s heart, Paul encouraged his flock to remain faithful to the Lord. He had not and would not abandon them. And Paul complimented the Thessalonians for their past faithfulness and assured them of his confidence that they would remain committed to Christ, no matter what happened.

we are confident about you in the Lord that you are both doing—and will do—what we are commanding. – 2 Thessalonians 3:4 NLT

Finally, Paul offers up a prayer on their behalf, asking that God give them a greater understanding of His love for them and a deeper appreciation for the endurance Christ modeled with His own life. They need to keep the love of God and the steadfastness of Christ on their minds constantly. As Paul told the believers in Ephesus, an understanding of God’s love as expressed through Christ’s sacrifice is the key to experiencing fulness of life and power.

…may you have the power to understand, as all God’s people should, how wide, how long, how high, and how deep his love is. May you experience the love of Christ, though it is too great to understand fully. Then you will be made complete with all the fullness of life and power that comes from God. – Ephesians 3:18-19 NLT

And as the author of Hebrews points out, a constant focus on the faithfulness of Christ will go a long way in providing world-weary Christians with the strength they need to not only survive but thrive in this life.

…let us run with endurance the race God has set before us. We do this by keeping our eyes on Jesus, the champion who initiates and perfects our faith. Because of the joy awaiting him, he endured the cross, disregarding its shame. Now he is seated in the place of honor beside God’s throne. Think of all the hostility he endured from sinful people; then you won’t become weary and give up. – Hebrews 12:1-3 NLT

Because of the unwavering love of God and the faithfulness of Christ, they had everything they needed to say as Paul did, “I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength” (Philippians 4:13 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

Future Glory Versus Present Suffering

13 But we ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers beloved by the Lord, because God chose you as the firstfruits to be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth. 14 To this he called you through our gospel, so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. 15 So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter.

16 Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself, and God our Father, who loved us and gave us eternal comfort and good hope through grace, 17 comfort your hearts and establish them in every good work and word. 2 Thessalonians 2:13-17 ESV

The Thessalonians had been distracted. They had taken their eye off the prize and were focusing on their present circumstances, wondering if, as the false prophets had claimed, that the day of the Lord had begun. Their trials and tribulations seemed to support the idea that the end had begun. So, they began to believe they were living in the last days. But this thought was creating confusion and causing them to doubt the teachings of Paul and his companions.

Paul describes the last days as being filled with apostasy, rebellion, and the judgment of God upon all those who reject the truth concerning His Son. As bad as things may have been for the Thessalonian believers, their conditions were nothing like those that will accompany the final days. And the presence of trials in the life of a believer was not to be confused with the future day of Tribulation. In fact, Paul and the other New Testament authors encouraged believers to welcome trials as a vital part of God’s plan for their ongoing sanctification.

Dear brothers and sisters, when troubles of any kind come your way, consider it an opportunity for great joy. For you know that when your faith is tested, your endurance has a chance to grow. So let it grow, for when your endurance is fully developed, you will be perfect and complete, needing nothing. – James 1:2-4 NLT

So be truly glad. There is wonderful joy ahead, even though you must endure many trials for a little while. These trials will show that your faith is genuine. It is being tested as fire tests and purifies gold—though your faith is far more precious than mere gold. So when your faith remains strong through many trials, it will bring you much praise and glory and honor on the day when Jesus Christ is revealed to the whole world. – 1 Peter 1:6-7 NLT

God’s discipline is always good for us, so that we might share in his holiness. No discipline is enjoyable while it is happening—it’s painful! But afterward there will be a peaceful harvest of right living for those who are trained in this way. – Hebrews 12:10-11 NLT

Suffering and sanctification are inseparable in the life of the believer. Just as Jesus suffered in this life and then experienced the joy of glorification, so will we one day. And Paul reminded the believers in Rome that their status as children of God, made possible through their faith in Christ, also made them co-heirs with Christ. And part of their inheritance was the glory to come. But, as with Jesus, their suffering must precede their glorification.

And since we are his children, we are his heirs. In fact, together with Christ we are heirs of God’s glory. But if we are to share his glory, we must also share his suffering.

Yet what we suffer now is nothing compared to the glory he will reveal to us later. – Romans 8:17-18 NLT

But as Paul states, their present suffering was nothing when compared with their future glorification. And in his letter to the church in Philippi, Paul stressed the example provided by the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus.

6 Though he was God,
    he did not think of equality with God
    as something to cling to.
Instead, he gave up his divine privileges;
    he took the humble position of a slave
    and was born as a human being.
When he appeared in human form,
    he humbled himself in obedience to God
    and died a criminal’s death on a cross.

9 Therefore, God elevated him to the place of highest honor
    and gave him the name above all other names,
10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue declare that Jesus Christ is Lord,
    to the glory of God the Father. – Philippians 2:6-11 NLT

And Paul reminds the Thessalonian believers that they had been chosen by God “to be among the first to experience salvation—a salvation that came through the Spirit who makes you holy and through your belief in the truth” (2 Thessalonians 2:13 NLT). Their experiences of suffering were proof of their salvation and sanctification. They had been given the privilege of suffering on behalf of Christ and Paul reminds them that their suffering has a purpose. It is a God-ordained process for increasing their dependence upon His indwelling Spirit so that their lives might display His power in their weakness.

And Paul had learned this truth from firsthand experience. Three different times he had asked God to remove “the thorn” in his flesh. But each time God had answered: “My grace is all you need. My power works best in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9 NLT). And this eye-opening lesson from God had radically altered Paul’s perspective on the role of suffering and weakness in the life of the believer.

So now I am glad to boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ can work through me. That’s why I take pleasure in my weaknesses, and in the insults, hardships, persecutions, and troubles that I suffer for Christ. For when I am weak, then I am strong. – 2 Corinthians 12:9-10 NLT

Paul stressed to the Thessalonians believers that God’s ultimate goal behind their salvation was not their present happiness, but their future glorification.

To this he called you through our gospel, so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. – 2 Thessalonians 2:14 ESV

Their ultimate glorification would not come in this life, but in the life to come. In the meantime, God was using the presence of suffering and trials to expose their weakness and to encourage increasing dependence upon the Spirit’s presence and power within them. And Paul challenged them to stay the course. Not only were they destined to experience additional suffering in this life, but they would also find themselves bombarded by false teaching that contradicted the words of Jesus and His apostles.

So, Paul called them to “stand firm and keep a strong grip on the teaching we passed on to you both in person and by letter” (2 Thessalonians 2:15 NLT). As he told the believers in Ephesus, his job was “to equip God’s people to do his work and build up the church, the body of Christ” (Ephesians 4:12 NLT). And he was committed to doing just that.

This will continue until we all come to such unity in our faith and knowledge of God’s Son that we will be mature in the Lord, measuring up to the full and complete standard of Christ. – Ephesians 4:13 NLT

His commitment was fueled by his belief in the transformative nature of the gospel message. Salvation was to result in sanctification. Faith in Christ was meant to produce those who bore the image of Christ. Spiritual infancy was to give way to spiritual maturity. And the spiritually mature are far less likely to be deceived and distracted by false teaching.

Then we will no longer be immature like children. We won’t be tossed and blown about by every wind of new teaching. We will not be influenced when people try to trick us with lies so clever they sound like the truth. Instead, we will speak the truth in love, growing in every way more and more like Christ, who is the head of his body, the church. – Ephesians 4:14-15 NLT

Paul closes out this part of his letter with a prayer that takes the form of a blessing. He asks God the Father and Jesus Christ His Son to provide the Thessalonians with comfort and strength in the midst of all their trials. Notice that he does not ask for the removal of their trials. His emphasis is on hope. This is a clear reference to their future salvation and glorification. God and His Son, Paul reminds the Thessalonians, “loved us and gave us eternal comfort and good hope through grace” (2 Thessalonians 2:16 ESV). He stresses eternity and hope. His point is that the Thessalonians needed to quit being distracted by their current circumstances and the misguided teaching of the false prophets and refocus their attention on the finish line. 

If they kept their eyes on the prize, they would realize that “their present sufferings are not comparable to the glory that will be revealed” (Romans 8:18 BSB). And this future hope would provide the comfort and strength necessary to live transformed lives in the present.

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