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Habakkuk: When God Seems Unfair – Part 1

Habakkuk 1:1-17

 

This morning, we begin a new study that will take us through the next couple of weeks.  If you have your Bibles, turn with me to the book of Habakkuk.  This may be a book that you aren’t very familiar with, so, by way of introduction, let me share with you this short video to show you what chapter 1 is all about.

Over the years, I’ve been asked a lot of Bible questions.  I’ve been asked everything from, “Where did Cain get his wife?” to “What does the number 666 mean?”  But I can say without any hesitation that the hardest questions I’ve ever been asked have all boiled down to one word – Why?

  • Why is it that evil people seem to prosper, but the good people, all these bad things happen to them?  Why?
  • Why is it that I work hard at work and I’m honest, and then the jerk over there who’s lazy and cheating, that person gets promoted?   Why?
  • Why is it that the person who gets into all sorts of bad stuff lives to the age of 102, but a great Christian father gets cancer and dies at the age of 42?  Why?
  • I prayed and prayed to find a wife, and after all these years I still haven’t found her.  Why?
  • How come I’ve got these headaches that don’t go away?  Or, how come I’m battling with depression?  Or, how come someone I love is going through this?  And God, it seems like you could do something about it, but you don’t.  Why?
  • I planned on having children and I’ve prayed to you over and over to give me a child, but it just isn’t happening.  Why?

You know, there are times when even the most faithful Christian looks to the heavens and cries out to God, “Why?  Why me?  Why now?  Why this?”  It’s a question that’s been asked over the centuries.  That’s the question that Job raised – “Why, God?  Why am I suffering the way that I am?”  It’s the question the apostles had when they came to Jesus and they wanted to know, “Why was this man born blind?”  Why?  We even hear Jesus ask this question as he hung on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  Why?

And that’s the question that Habakkuk raises.   Habakkuk has a lot to say about the fact that things in life don’t seem to be going the way that we think they ought to go.

Habakkuk is one of the 12 minor prophets, but the term “minor” has nothing to do with the importance of his message, but rather its length.  Because while he is a “minor” prophet, there is nothing minor about his message.  He writes about a topic that’s important to all of us.  And if you have ever had any questions for God, this is the book for you.

But before we get to his message, first I want to take a look at some background to the book.

The name “Habakkuk” is a rather unusual Hebrew name which can either mean “one who wrestles” or “one who embraces”.  And either meaning would be appropriate for Habakkuk because he’s going to spend the first two chapters wrestling with his questions, but then, at the very end, he chooses to embrace and hold tightly to God regardless of what happens around him.

We don’t know a lot about Habakkuk.  We don’t find him mentioned in any of the other books of the Bible.  We don’t know anything about his family or where he was from.

We do know, however, when Habakkuk lived.  We know that Babylonia was currently the world power, but the Babylonians had not yet invaded Judah.  Which means that Habakkuk probably did his preaching around 600 B.C., during the last days of the nation of Judah.

This was a time that was very corrupt.  There was violence in the land.  There was a lot of ungodliness, and, in fact, you could say that it was a lot like the world we live in today.  There were bad people doing bad things to good people, and even the good people weren’t all that good.

God sent prophets like Jeremiah to Judah, trying to get them to repent.  But the book of Habakkuk is different from all of the other prophets in one very important way.  All of the other prophets carried God’s message to the people.  Obadiah preached to the people.  Nahum preached to the people.  But Habakkuk carried his message to God.

In fact, Habakkuk actually begins with a complaint.  Habakkuk goes to God because he’s having trouble understanding why God does the things that he does in this world, or in this case, why he sometimes doesn’t seem to be doing anything at all.

Habakkuk looked around at the nation of Judah, and he saw all these sins that the other prophets spoke against.  And he knew that his fellow Jews had developed a hard heart because, despite God’s threats, things really hadn’t changed over the past several hundred years.

So, Habakkuk goes to God and he wants to know why God hasn’t done anything to punish his people.  How long is he going to let things continue like this before he actually does something about it? 

Look at chapter 1, beginning with verse 2: “LORD, how long must I ask for help and you ignore me?  I cry out to you about violence, but you do not save us!  Why do you make me see wrong things and make me look at trouble?  People are destroying things and hurting others in front of me; they are arguing and fighting.  So the teachings are weak, and justice never comes.  Evil people gain while good people lose; the judges no longer make fair decisions.” (Habakkuk 1:2-4, NCV).

Habakkuk has several problems with God. 

The first one is this – he says, “God, basically, you don’t seem to care.  You’re letting all these things go on in the world that aren’t right.  And it just doesn’t even seem like you even care.”

His second complaint is this: “God, why won’t you fix this?  You aren’t doing anything about it even though you could.”  Now, Habakkuk has enough respect for God to say, “God, I know you could do something about it if you wanted to.  You’re all powerful.  I believe you have the ability.  You could change everything if you wanted to.  But I don’t understand why you won’t.  You don’t seem to care.  You aren’t doing anything about it even though you could.”

And number three, “God, why are you unfair?  What you’re doing isn’t right.”  In other words, Habakkuk was saying, “God, if I were in your shoes, if I were God, I would do things different.”

Let’s be honest for a moment.  How many of you ever thought something like that?  How many of you have ever thought or said, “God, I don’t like the way you’re doing this.”  Which, when you get right down to it, is a pretty arrogant thing to say.  “If I were God, I could do a much better job of being God than God is doing.”

Part of the problem is our limited perspective.  God is up here and he sees everything.  He sees how what happens over here affects what happens over here.  Meanwhile, we’re stuck in just a tiny piece of this big picture.  And all we can see is what’s happening around us.

As so, from our perspective, what God is doing can be confusing at times.  And you see this so often in the Psalms.  Approximately one-third of the Psalms are composed of people crying out to God, “What is going on here?  Why are these things happening?  God, why aren’t you doing anything?”

So, here, we’ve got Habakkuk, who is struggling with his faith because he looked around and he saw men who were flagrantly violating God’s laws and distorting justice on every level, without any fear of divine intervention.  It just seemed to be a mockery of God, as if people were saying, “Well, what’s God going to do about it?  He hasn’t done anything to anybody else.  We’re not worried one little bit.”

And that just didn’t seem right to Habakkuk.  And we can understand his concern.  Because we read in the scriptures about the power of God, and how God accomplishes his purposes in this world, and then we look around at all the wickedness and injustice and there are times when it just seems like God isn’t doing anything.

So, Habakkuk says to God, “How long?  How long are you going to let this go on?  How long before you punish these people the way they need to be punished?”

And he starts with this question in verse 2, “LORD, how long must I ask for help and you ignore me?”  (Habakkuk 1:2)

If you are a subscriber to any kind of social media online, then you know there is a lot of panic and despair among many people who are struggling to deal with the current coronavirus crisis affecting our world and our country these past few weeks.  I have intentionally tried to not read too much of what’s being hyped up in the news media about the virus because it’s frankly too depressing and not always accurate.

But people, particularly those struggling with isolation, have come out of the woodwork these past few weeks to share their thoughts and emotions online.  I want to share with you the thoughts that one woman posted on her Facebook page a few days ago that caught my attention.  She wrote…

“Today I feel lonely even if I am not alone.  Today I feel deprived and dissatisfied and frustrated.  I just want to go to a corner and roll myself into a ball position and cry until I feel better.  I want to scream for help for someone to rescue me from these feelings of hopelessness.

Just for today I was hoping that God would show up and sit me down gently and just talk to me like friends do or like a father and daughter do.  Just for today I wish that He would come down to my level because I don’t have the capacity to go up to His and He would just talk to me and explain the scars in my heart and the broken heart I am trying to hold together.

Just for today I was hoping that it would be special, and He would show up just for me – His daughter.  I love the Bible, but just for today I want Him to speak directly to me because I feel like I am at the verge of falling apart.  Is that presumptuous?  I am tired of praying for the same things over and over and over again and not making any progress.”

Anybody here this morning who can relate to that?  I mean, there are times when we look at how things are in our lives, and we cry out to God, “Why don’t you do something about it?  How long can you let this go on?”  “How long must I ask for help and you ignore me?”   And we begin to question God’s apparent inactivity.  Where’s God when we need him?

  • A godly mother prays for her wayward son. He was raised in the church, he went to Sunday school, he knows the Bible—but when he left home, he left it all behind.  For many years, his mother has prayed for him, but to this day he remains a prodigal son.  God, where are you?
  • A wife prays for her husband, who left her after twenty-three years of marriage for a younger woman. He seems utterly unreachable, and the marriage is swiftly headed for divorce.  God, where are you?
  • A husband prays for his wife, who has terminal cancer.  She has six, maybe seven months to live.  None of the treatments can stop the tumors.  The elders pray over her in the name of the Lord, but she dies a few months later.  God, where are you?

And so, we cry out with the psalmist, “O Lord, why do you stand so far away?  Why do you hide when I am in trouble?” (Psalm 10:1 NLT).

And it’s not just in our own personal lives.  We look around at the world and we watch the news and we see the injustices and we ask the same question, “God, where are you?  Why don’t you do something about this?”

So God gives Habakkuk an answer, but God tells him in advance that he’s not going to like the answer.  God says, “Look at the nations!  Watch them and be amazed and shocked.  I will do something in your lifetime that you won’t believe even when you are told about it.” (Habakkuk 1:5 NCV)

Now, preachers love to pull this verse out all by itself and talk about how God is going to do some amazing things in your life.  I will do something in your lifetime that you won’t believe.  Trust God, something wonderful is coming!”  And that may well be true.  But that’s not what God is saying here.

God says to Habakkuk, “I will use the Babylonians, those cruel and wild people who march across the earth and take lands that don’t belong to them.  They scare and frighten people.  They do what they want to do and are good only to themselves.” (Habakkuk 1:6-7, NCV).

God tells Habakkuk, “I am well aware of how wicked the Jews are and I have my plans to take care of things.  If I told you what I’m going to do, you wouldn’t believe it.  But I’ll tell you anyway.  I’m going to bring in the Babylonian armies, and they will be my rod of judgment against Judah.”   That was God’s response to Judah’s sins.

And God was right – Habakkuk couldn’t believe it!  Because he knew about the Babylonians.  Everybody knew about the Babylonians.  They were the most hated and the most feared nation on the face of the earth.  Under the leadership of Nebuchadnezzar, their armies plundered the nations around them.  They were cruel and vicious.  If they wanted a city, they took a city.  If they wanted a nation, they took that nation.

And if a conquered city wasn’t obedient enough, the Babylonians might put a pile of skulls in the city to serve as a warning not to rebel against them.  They poked out the eyes of conquered kings and marched the rulers off in chains, sometimes with hooks through their jaws.

The point is, these were nasty people, and God knew how bad they were.  When God decided to punish Judah, he picked the meanest nation there was to do the job for him.

Now, Habakkuk knew that evil needed to be punished, but he couldn’t understand why in the world God would punish the wickedness of his own people by using a nation that was even more wicked.  That just didn’t seem to make sense.

To help you understand why Habakkuk was so upset, let me make the situation a little more current.  Suppose you were to go to God in prayer and you say, “Lord, this country is declining morally every year.  Crime and violence are increasing, people have no sexual morals anymore, there’s no integrity, no honesty.  There’s no justice in the courtroom.

“Lord, why don’t you do something about it?  Why don’t you do something to make people realize that they can’t just thumb their nose at you and get away with wickedness?”

The truth is, some of you may have actually prayed that prayer.

And suppose God were to answer us personally as he did Habakkuk and he said, “I’m well aware of how corrupt the United States has become, so I’ve made some arrangements.  In just a few years, Boko Haram and a group of Muslim terrorists will invade the United States, they will take over and punish all Americans.”

Now I don’t know about you, but my response to that would be, “Wait a minute, Lord.  I’m a little confused here.  Yes, we’ve become an immoral nation, but Boko Haram is even worse.  They are among the most evil people in the world.  They kidnap schoolgirls.  They murder and terrorize.  And that’s who you’re going to use to punish the United States?  That just doesn’t make any sense.”

And that was exactly the response of Habakkuk.  The nation of Babylonia had a reputation.  They were cruel, they were wicked.  It’s true the Jews weren’t worshiping God the way they should have been, but the Babylonians didn’t even believe in God.  They worshiped their heathen idols.

So Habakkuk says, “So how can you put up with those evil people?  How can you be quiet when the wicked swallow up people who are better than they are?” (Habakkuk 1:13b, NCV)

If God cannot tolerate wrongdoing (which is true), how then could he use the Babylonians to punish Judah?  Babylon’s sins were far worse than the sins of Judah.  How does that even begin to make sense?  It’s not fair.  It’s not right.

So, what do you do when you’re in the middle of chapter 1 and you find yourself confused?  You want to believe in God, you want to trust God, but you’ve got so many questions.

We begin by reminding ourselves of who God is.  We recognize that God is God, and we aren’t.  We recognize that God can see the bigger picture, and we can’t.  We recognize that God has all wisdom and knowledge, and we don’t.

We are tempted, in our human frailty, to want a God who will do everything that we think he ought to do.  And to do it the way we want him to do it, when we want him to do it.

But I would suggest to you this morning that we need a God who is bigger than our puny ideas.  And so, I ask you this question — How big is your God?  Because you need to figure out the answer to that question before hard times come.  Having the answer to that question before times like the ones we find ourselves in today makes going through difficult days like these so much more bearable.

And these aren’t the only tough times we will have to face in our lives.  Someday we will be on the other side of this pandemic and it will be only a distant thought.  But there will be other tough times to come.  There will be times when you will pray to God and you won’t like the answer you receive.  We all know that we should pray “Thy will be done” — and most of us do that — but it still surprises us when we discover that God has a completely different plan in mind than we do.

So, there will come a time in your life when you will have a dream, you will plan out your future, you pray to the Lord, and when the answer comes, it’s not what you wanted.  And, when that time comes, you’re going to have to decide what you’re going to do with that.

That’s the situation that Habakkuk finds himself in.  He doesn’t like the answer he received from God.  So, what do you do when God doesn’t live up to your expectations?  How do you respond when the Lord’s answer isn’t what you wanted it to be?

Again, you need to remind yourself of who God is.

That’s what Habakkuk does in verse 12.  He says, “Lord, you live forever, my God, my holy God.  We will not die.  LORD, you have chosen the Babylonians to punish people; our Rock, you picked them to punish.  Your eyes are too good to look at evil; you cannot stand to see those who do wrong.”  (Habakkuk 1:12-13a, NCV).

What do you do when God makes no sense?  Either you walk away from your faith or you remind yourself of who God is.  When faced with the news that the Babylonians would soon invade Judah and nothing could stop them, Habakkuk goes back to the basics.  Look again at verses 12 and 13 at what he calls God:

  • He started with the word “Lord,” Yahweh —the personal God of Israel.
  • “You live forever” – because you are everlasting God.
  • “My holy God” —You are a righteous God.
  • “Our Rock” — You are the one who protects us.

These are not small points.  As Habakkuk tries to get his mind around the shocking truth that God is going to use Babylon to punish Judah, he goes back to what he knows to be true about God.  And it’s important that we do the same thing.

  • Because if you forget God’s sovereignty, you will always question his wisdom.
  • If you forget God’s love, you will always question his faithfulness.
  • If you forget God’s majesty, you will always question his power.
  • If you forget God’s holiness, you will always question his fairness.
  • If you forget God’s protection, you will always question his goodness.

You see, the question for us is not, “Do I believe in God?”  The more important question is, “What sort of God do I believe in?”  And that’s an important question we that all need to answer.

Because if I’m being honest, I have to say that I don’t really know why bad things sometimes happen to good people.  And there are things that happen in this world, like this COVID-19 pandemic – there are things that happen in my life that make absolutely no sense to me.  But here’s what I do know:

  • My God is good.  He is holy.  He is just.  He is loving.  My God is always with me.  And I am convinced that all things work together for my good and God’s glory.

But along the way, we still have our questions.  You have to admire Habakkuk for being as honest as he was.  He was a man with doubts, but he didn’t hesitate to share his doubts with God.

So, Habakkuk says to God, in essence, “You’ve got some explaining to do, God.  And I’m going to sit right here and wait until you give me an explanation that I’m satisfied with.”

That’s what he says.  Look at chapter 2, verse 1, “I will stand like a guard to watch and place myself at the tower.  I will wait to see what he will say to me; I will wait to learn how God will answer my complaint.” (Habak­kuk 2:1, NCV).

Habakkuk didn’t know how the Lord would answer or how long he would have to wait.  He just knew that he had shared everything that was on his heart, and now it was time to wait on the Lord.

And for the moment, that’s where we’re going to leave Habakkuk.  Next week, we’ll get into chapter two and see what answer Habakkuk got.

But right now, for some of you, your life is stuck in chapter one.  You’re confused, because it just seems like God doesn’t care.   I’ve got some bad news for you.  Chapter two isn’t going to be much better.  But, in chapter three, we’ll finally get some answers.

Habakkuk struggled with unanswered prayers, with things in life that caused him to doubt, and he began to question: “Does God really care?”  And God answered Habakkuk’s question with an overwhelming “Yes!  I do care.”  And he showed Habakkuk that he does hear our prayers, that he will deliver us from our troubles in his time, and that he will judge all evil in this world.

Maybe you’ve been struggling with doubts just like Habakkuk.  Maybe you’ve been wondering, “What am I supposed to do with all these questions and doubts I have?”  I think we can learn from Habakkuk.  Because far too often, when we’re struggling with doubts in life, we have a tendency to walk away from God.  But Habakkuk did just the opposite.  He came to God with all of his questions and doubts.  And God answered him.  It may not have been the answer he was looking for.  In fact, God’s answer actually prompted a whole new set of questions for Habakkuk which we’ll look at next week.

But the important thing is that Habakkuk kept coming back to God.  And I think that’s the key when you have questions.  Bring your doubts and your questions to God.  And God will listen.  Because he truly does care.

Pastor David Hall

First Church of Christ

April 19, 2020