Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4
1The oracle that the prophet Habakkuk saw.
2 O Lord, how long shall I cry for help,
and you will not listen?
Or cry to you ‘Violence!’
and you will not save?
3 Why do you make me see wrongdoing
and look at trouble?
Destruction and violence are before me;
strife and contention arise.
4 So the law becomes slack
and justice never prevails.
The wicked surround the righteous—
therefore judgment comes forth perverted.
2 I will stand at my watch-post,
and station myself on the rampart;
I will keep watch to see what he will say to me,
and what he* will answer concerning my complaint.
2 Then the Lord answered me and said:
Write the vision;
make it plain on tablets,
so that a runner may read it.
3 For there is still a vision for the appointed time;
it speaks of the end, and does not lie.
If it seems to tarry, wait for it;
it will surely come, it will not delay.
4 Look at the proud!
Their spirit is not right in them,
but the righteous live by their faith.*
In 1942, on BBC radio, a voice came on and began a series of talks. These talks, occurring during the greatest and most destructive war in human history, had a singular purpose, and a fairly difficult one that—to defend belief in God. These talks had a tremendous following in years since, so much so that they were collected in three books: The Case for Christianity, Christian Behavior, and Beyond Personality. These three books eventually were bound together under a common title—Mere Christianity. With that, C. S. Lewis cemented himself as an essential and popular voice in the Christian community.
He began his talks with a basic premise, one used for countless ages but he seems to make it relevant to us. That premise is the idea that everyone, everywhere, seemingly has an innate sense of right and wrong, fair and unfair. Everyone from the grumpiest of geriatrics to the most rambunctious of toddlers can be heard to say from time to time, “That’s not fair,” or “would you like him to do to you what you did to him?” or even “Leave her alone, she’s not doing any harm.” This innate sense of right or wrong, this built-in morality, is the jumping off point for Lewis. Because everyone seems to have a shared notion of justice and injustice, fair and unfair, he wonders how that could have been put in our heads. He calls this sensibility the Natural Law. Everyone knows what it is, and everyone breaks it from time to time.
Eventually, he gets around to attributing this Natural Law to the one behind the universe more like a mind than anything else; it is conscious, has purposes, and prefers one thing to another. If we have this notion of justice, and everyone knows it yet breaks it all the time, there must be someone that holds up the standard equally across the board. Now, this is miles away from Christian theology, but it’s a step in the right direction. Eventually, one might see how it might make sense that one can go from the “something behind the universe” to the God of Christianity. The point that I want to highlight for you all is the idea that, in the Christian tradition, and earlier in the Jewish tradition, God is behind our entire notion of justice, injustice, right and wrong.
This is all fine, well, and good, until we start to think about it for a bit. If God is behind all justice in the world, and if God is all-knowing, omnipresent, and all-powerful, how is there injustice in the world? Why is it that when bad things do happen, God seems absent? It’s a troubling notion, that’s for sure, and I know that many of you struggle with it yourselves. You aren’t alone. It was a central question in the Jewish community, as well as many in the Christian community, during WWII and the Holocaust; how could God allow such horror to occur to the chosen people? It was unthinkable. And yet, C.S. Lewis decided that in his talk designed to defend belief in God during the blitz in World War II, he goes with the argument that God is just, that God designed the universe to be just. He was a voice in the midst of chaos, presenting a vision of a future in which God’s justice prevails.
Many figures in the biblical narrative struggle with the apparent silence of God as well, in the midst of crisis, disaster, or injustice. The clearest example of this is in the book of Job, and while it is a fantastic and worthwhile read, it is far from the only text in the Bible to tackle injustice and God’s silence. Habakkuk, today’s reading, is another, and has a clear and valuable take on the subject.
The passage we read is just a short portion of the whole conversation. Habakkuk is a very small book, only three chapters, but it is a voice in the midst of enormous change and crisis. The crisis comes on two fronts: First, and most pressing, is the threat of oncoming invaders, the Chaldeans, part of the Babylonian empire. They are described as bloodthirsty, ruthless, and without mercy. In the face of such a threat, Israel is no match. In verse 14, Habakkuk describes the situation like this: “You have made people like the fish of the sea, like crawling things that have no ruler. The enemy brings all of them up with a hook, he drags them out with his net, he gathers them in his seine, so he rejoices and exults.” The Israelites are nothing more than fish to the invaders. Habakkuk cries “violence!” and God does not appear to hear him.
The other front of the crisis comes from within. In the cities of Israel, injustice is rampant. The rich cheat the poor out of house and home, do wrong by their neighbors, and have a stranglehold on the court system so that justice will not be done. In chapter 2, verse 5, they are described as “opening their throats wide as She’ol, the Pit, like Death they never have enough. They gather all nations for themselves, and collect all peoples as their own.” Greed, violence, and pride have overthrown all that his good, and no justice or fairness is seen. Habakkuk cries out to God, because God appears silent.
Does any of this sound familiar? It’s amazing that in the thousands of years of human existence, we still have the same problems that people did back in the days of Habakkuk, or Jeremiah, or Isaiah, or really, any of the prophets. We still face threats of enemies, be they in the geopolitical realm, in our workplaces, or in our schools. We still face the greed, pride and violence those in power. Though we do have the law that God placed in the creation of the universe, though we have this innate sense of right and wrong, we more often than not ignore it. When that happens, the words of Habakkuk come to mind: “The law becomes slack and justice never prevails. The wicked surround the righteous—therefore judgment comes forth perverted.” This sounds like a prayer that any one of us would pray in the face of disaster, crisis, or injustice. Habakkuk had the courage to write them down, and demand an answer from a God that seems silent.
And then God spoke.
It’s a terrifying and joyful thing when we hear God speak. Fear and awe intermingle in that moment; it is a voice we both love and dread, because when God speaks, God wants us to listen. Often it is not something we like to hear. However, in this case, after Habbakuk’s prayer, God answers and even gives comfort to Habakkuk. Convicting comfort, but comfort nonetheless. “There is a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and does not lie. If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay. Look at the proud! Their spirit is not right in them, but the righteous live by their faith.” It’s comforting in that it gives hope, hope of a time when the injustice will end, the violence will cease, and God will reign supreme again. It’s convicting for those who are the perpetrators of injustice, the ones in power—and frankly, that kind of talk can get someone thrown in jail. Remember, the courts are broken. Habakkuk says this, and he is not comforting to the ones who run the show.
This, however, is the role of the prophet. Despite popular belief, a prophet doesn’t necessarily predict the future—they are not people who look in crystal balls and make prognostications with accurate detail. Prophets are simply people who hear the word of God, and speak on God’s behalf. They tell it to the people, usually in poetic style, and get one of two reactions, the two I mentioned, both comfort and conviction, hope and condemnation. This is the role the prophet plays in the grand scheme of God told over and over again in scripture and in history, the scheme that Jesus came to bring to fruition in his death and resurrection. Things will be turned upside down. The poor will be lifted up, and the rich will be cast down. The mighty will be defeated, and the weak will inherit the earth. Good news for the weak. Terrible news for the powerful.
God tells Habakkuk to write it down on a wall, so large that people running by will get the message—for all intents and purposes, a billboard. We need something with a bit more punch to it than that. There are ways of course, but the simplest and most effective way to give voice to the vision is by the method God gives us in that last line: The righteous live by their faith. What does that mean? It means give legs to your faith. Do things in this world that God would have us do. It means feeding the poor. It means giving help to the helpless. It means welcoming people of every kind into our community, no matter what we might think might separate us. It means caring for our children, and for our neighbor’s children. It means being intentional with how we spend our money, and working to end unethical business practices with our dollars and cents. It means caring for the immigrant and the stranger, and working for a solution to the problems that we face together instead of fighting about it all the time. It means treating one another with not just respect, but love, despite what views we might disagree on. It means being holy. The righteous will live by their faith.
It’s the same message of Jesus Christ, the gospels, and the letters of the New Testament. It’s the message God has given us from the very beginning, and it’s the vision of the future that God has prepared for us. This vision is given to us to give to the world, though the world be filled with injustice, unfairness, evil and suffering. Ours is the vision, and ours is the voice that will share it. Amen.