2 O Lord, how long shall I cry for help,
and you will not hear?
Or cry to you “Violence!”
and you will not save?
3 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.
4 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.
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.