Living by Faith When God Seems Invisible, Part 1

Note: Dr. Sam Horn is host of The Word for Life radio program.

by Dr. Sam Horn

Theological Perspectives from Habakkuk

The life of faith may seem relatively easy to accomplish in the context of worship and religious activity. In the beauty and wonder of religious ceremony, God seems unusually close, and it is not difficult to see and sense His presence and be reminded of His goodness and blessing. In these kinds of times, it is easy to praise, worship, and live faithfully before Him. However, frequently God’s people struggle to live faithfully when God seems distant or even absent. To make matters worse, often God’s ways do not seem compatible with what we know about His character. If God is all-powerful and all-loving, then why does He allow His children to suffer? Why does He allow His program to seemingly be thwarted by wicked men? Perhaps the hardest question of all is the age-old question—“If God is who He says He is, then why do the wicked prosper?” Asaph, the songwriter of ancient Israel, asked this question candidly and forthrightly in Psalm 73. He began by acknowledging what he knew to be true about God—“Truly God is good to Israel, to such as are pure in heart.” But he went on to admit that the contradiction between this theological truth and his personal experience nearly destroyed him—“But as for me, my feet had almost stumbled; my steps had nearly slipped.” What was it that caused this near spiritual disaster? His observation that the wicked seem to prosper and the godly seem to suffer!

This question was not unique to Asaph. God’s people in every generation and under every conceivable set of circumstances have wrestled with the issue of why the wicked prosper. How are righteous people to respond when evil triumphs and wicked men prosper? What are we to do when life seems unfair or when we are surrounded by troubles and difficulties and God seems conspicuously absent? The best answer to all of this is found in the short but powerful prophecy. Habakkuk articulates our own question: “Why do God’s actions at times seem contrary to His nature? What is the godly man to do when evil triumphs and God seems absent?” Habakkuk reveals God’s answer: “He is to live by faith!” His book contains the secret to developing a “Faith for Bad Times.”

Author and Date

“Habakkuk” means ardent embrace or one who embraces (1:1; 3:1). It is interesting to note that he began by questioning God and ended by embracing God in a song of praise, even though God had not chosen to change or alter his difficult circumstance. Almost nothing is known about Habakkuk other than his name and his office—that of a prophet. He prophesied to Judah sometime before the Babylonians carried them away into captivity in 586 B.C. It seems best to date Habakkuk in this period—612–605 B.C.


Times were not good for Judah in Habakkuk’s day. It had been approximately 100 years since God had brought His devastating judgment upon the 10 Northern tribes of Israel. The Assyrian nation had eventually come up against Judah—in fact, one of their kings, Sennacherib, had even surrounded Jerusalem and laid siege to King Hezekiah’s army. Who has not heard the story of his commanding general’s taunting of Hezekiah and his army? That night, over 180,000 Assyrian soldiers perished, and Sennacherib retreated to Nineveh. Of course, to hear him recount the story in the annals of history—his version was slightly different. According to him, his army had shut Hezekiah up in Jerusalem like a bird in a cage. Amazingly, there is no mention of the deaths of his troops. Nor does he give a reason why he did not finish Hezekiah and destroy Jerusalem. However, all of Judah knew the real story. Behind Sennacherib’s defeat was the powerful intervention of God! Those days were long gone and with them the brief revival and renewal that had come through Hezekiah’s efforts. Now, almost a century later, God’s people were just as wicked if not more so than they had been before Hezekiah’s famous repentance! In short order, Judah was back to her old ways—wickedness, idolatry, and injustice were once again the order of the day! Against this backdrop of wickedness running wild in Judah, one righteous man stood and asked God a question—“Lord, how long are you going to let this wickedness among your people go on unchecked and unjudged?”

Structure and Outline

Habakkuk carefully constructed his prophecy into eight specific divisions as follows:

  1. First Complaint to God - 1:2-4
  2. God’s First Response - 1:5-11
  3. Second Complaint to God - 1:12-17
  4. Prophet’s Decision to Wait for God’s Answer - 2:1
  5. God’s Second Response - 2:2-5
  6. God’s Five Woes Against Babylon - 2:6-20
  7. Habakkuk’s Prayer - 3:1-15
  8. Habakkuk’s Decision to Rejoice in the Lord - 3:16-19

The following represents a simple outline of the book:

The Structure and Outline of Habakkuk

A Burden

A Vision

A Prayer

Habakkuk Complains

Habakkuk Listens

Habakkuk Prays

Punishment of Judah

Punishment of Babylon

Power of God

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Faith Faces a Problem
(Faith out of Focus)

Faith Finds a Solution
(Faith in Corrected Focus)

Faith Full of Assurance
(20/20 Faith)

Habakkuk’s Message

As one reads Habakkuk, it is clear that he was not speaking as a casual observer with an interesting theological perplexity. His questions rose out of the pressure of life! What he saw and felt created in him questions about what he knew and believed to be true about God. His theology did not match up with his experience—and in the crucible of crisis, God was about to strengthen Habakkuk’s ability to believe in the unseen and live accordingly—by faith and not by sight!

Part One: Waiting For God’s Intervention (1:1–2:1)

This first section consists of two complaints by Habakkuk and God’s first answer. His first complaint is articulated in terms of what God had caused him to see going on in the nation of Judah. God had “showed him iniquity and caused him to see trouble.” (1:3). Strife and plundering were a constant sight before his eyes. As a result, the law was powerless, and injustice and wickedness prevailed. He used the same word here to describe the violence of the land that Moses used in Genesis to describe the moral condition of the earth before the flood! At the heart of his complaint was a frustration with God’s seeming toleration of the wicked ways of His people. This section reveals Habakkuk’s responses to that frustration—responses are often found in our lives.

Distress Over Surrounding Immoral Conditions (1:2-4)

Habakkuk used six different terms to describe the depravity going on around him—violence, injustice, wrong, destruction, strife, and conflict. Society had sunk to despicable lows. What made this even more painful was that just 12 years earlier, these same people had witnessed God’s gracious intervention in the revival He sent under King Josiah in 621 B.C. (2 Kings 22:8-20). Habakkuk was understandably troubled by what he saw going on around him—and God was strangely silent. So, he lifted up his voice and cried out to God to express his spiritual distress at what he perceived.

Distress Seen in Sensitivity to Wrong (1:2-3). Nowhere in the book does Habakkuk ever express doubt in God’s ability to help. He knew God can judge and deliver. The issue for Habakkuk was why God had chosen not to act up to this point. Why had God tolerated this wickedness for so long? His sensitivity to the evil pervasive in Judah produced great anguish—so deep was his distress over what he saw that he literally “shouts” or “roars” out his frustration to God when he considered the violence going on among God’s people (1:2). Five times we are reminded of how violent the nation had become (1:2, 3, 9; 2:8, 17). This word is the same word used in Genesis 6:11 to describe the world that God judged in Noah’s day. The implicit question is this: “Lord, if you didn’t tolerate this in Noah’s day but sent a flood; why do you tolerate it now?”

Distress Seen in Helplessness in the Pervasive Presence of Wrong (1:3). Not only was Habakkuk sensitive to what was going on around him—he observed that he was completely powerless in the face of such pervasive wickedness—he couldn’t do anything to stem the tide! He used terminology associated with sight to indicate his distress! “God, you are showing me iniquity and forcing me to see trouble. Strife, contention, plundering, and violence are always present before me—everywhere I turn, I see this going on. Not only does it go on in every place, but it goes on all the time!”

Distress Seen in the Loss of Law and Justice (1:4). So powerful was evil in the land that the law had become paralyzed and powerless! True justice of any kind had vanished from the land, and the righteous were being oppressed on every side! Habakkuk’s distress drove him to God in prayer! Often when we see the kinds of things that Habakkuk saw, we are tempted to abandon God and His ways. Not so for Habakkuk—what he saw frustrated him, but he took his frustrations and his questions to the proper place—to the presence of God in prayer! This is the way of faith—this is the life of a faithful man even when the fabric of society around him has come apart at the seams.

Amazement Over God’s Decisive Intervention (1:5-11)

God chose to answer Habakkuk’s complaint. In so doing, He took up Habakkuk’s image of “sight.” Habakkuk was frustrated because he believed that by not acting, God was showing him violence and making him see trouble on every side. God instructed Habakkuk (and the entire nation—note the second-person plurals) to “Look! Watch!—and be utterly astounded/amazed!” (1:5). Far from being distant, uninvolved, and inactive, God was about to announce a work that would amaze all who heard. And He would bring it to pass before their eyes!

Amazed by God’s Unbelievable Work (1:5). God instructed him to “watch” and “look!” God was about to do a work so great and so unexpected that no one who heard it would ever have anticipated God would do this thing! He was about to address the pervasive injustice and the violence in such a way as to leave no questions about His character.

Amazed by God’s Use of Wicked Instruments (1:6-11). God revealed that He would judge the evil of His people—but in a shocking way! He would bring up a wicked nation—the Chaldeans (Babylonians)—to do this work of judgment. They would be rough and savage—killing, ravaging, and destroying everything in their path to power. They would be utterly “lawless” (1:6-11). There is some poetic justice here—violent and lawless Judah would be herself judged and violated by a nation that was known for violence and lawlessness. They who had troubled others would now be troubled by “troublers!”

God’s answer to Habakkuk’s first question—“How long?”— was, “Not very long!” He had appointed a nation to judge Judah, and they were on their way! However, instead of producing quietness and rest, God’s answer actually created additional distress for the prophet.

Distress Over God’s Use of the Wicked (1:12 – 2:1)

Habakkuk carefully raised another concern. “Now that I know what You are planning to do and when You are planning to do it—I have a bigger question. Knowing what I know about Your holiness (1:12) and unchangeable character (1:12), I am convinced that You will not abandon us or forget Your promises and plans for us as a nation—’we shall not die’ (1:12). However, I am shocked! Given who You are (holy and just), how can You use this wicked nation to do Your righteous work?”

Distressed because God’s action was so contrary to His name (1:12). Habakkuk begins his second question by asking a rhetorical question—“Are you not from everlasting?” This is followed by two names/titles for God—“Holy One” and “Rock” (1:12)—names that addressed God’s holy and unchangeable character. God’s determination to use the pagan Babylonians seemed to directly contradict everything that God was and represented.

Distressed because God’s action was so contrary to His nature (1:12-13). Now Habakkuk called attention to God’s purity by describing God as being of “pure eyes” (1:13). Habakkuk was “reminding God” that He was supposed to be unwilling to look favorably on sin or to treat wickedness casually. Given this aspect of God’s nature—why would He look with apparent favor on such a wicked and vile nation? Why would He hold His righteous tongue and keep silent when a wicked nation would destroy and devour another nation more righteous then them?

Distressed because God’s action was contrary to His justice (1:14-17). The nation God had determined to raise up against Judah was far more wicked than Israel! They were good at doing bad! They took violence to new levels. They viewed men and nations as little more than fish that they could gather in their nets and drag away with their hooks. In fact, they worshiped the very things by which they brought about so much violence. Rather than attribute their success to God—they believed they had gathered and conquered because of their own might and through the power of their own gods! In fact, they were so hungry for more wealth, more victories, and more prisoners that as soon as they filled their nets, they emptied them and rushed back out to fill them up again with more prisoners taken by violence. And in light of this, Habakkuk questions, “God, if You are going to bring righteous judgment upon Your people Judah for their violence and wickedness—why would You use a nation that is even more wicked and violent (Babylon) to do this? When it comes to violence and wickedness, Babylon makes Judah look like a Sunday School class!”

However, even as Habakkuk made his second complaint, he was absolutely convinced that no matter what evidence to the contrary, God is righteous! Like a Rock, His purposes for and promises to His people are unchanging and dependable! With this in mind, Habakkuk reaches two important conclusions. First, “We will not die! God will not abandon us nor forget His righteous plan and promise to us. Come what may around us—even judgment from God’s own hand, we will not be completely cut off!” (1:12). Second, “I will wait for God and ask Him to adjust my perspective” (2:1). Like a watchman climbing up his watchtower, waiting to receive the news of the hour, Habakkuk determined to patiently and expectantly wait for God to explain His works. Habakkuk’s example provides important instruction in how we are to respond when we have similar questions. So often we charge God foolishly, and then when God’s answer does not conform to our thinking—we judge God!

Habakkuk teaches us that the man who lives by faith will constantly and faithfully wait for God to set all things right—including his own personal thinking about the matter! And when we sit upon our “watch-tower” waiting for God to answer, there are at least three important things to remember. First, we are to remember that righteousness is not optional for us no matter what the circumstances around us may be or how confusing God’s actions (or lack of action) may be to us at the moment. We are called to obey, even when we don’t understand. Second, we are to remember that all of history is really more about God and not about men. We must view history from God’s perspective and not our own. Consistently, God’s actions will eventually reveal the truth that righteousness exalts a nation (or an individual), and sin is a reproach to a people (Prov. 14:34). Finally, we are to rest patiently on God’s character. He is the Holy One. He is the Rock! There is enough purity and stability in Him to fulfill all we need in times of crisis!
Dr. Sam Horn is pastor/teacher at Brookside Baptist Church (Brookfield, WI). He received a B.A. in Bible, M.A. in Bible, and Ph.D. in New Testament Interpretation from Bob Jones University (Greenville, SC). In 1996, Dr. Horn joined the administration of Northland Baptist Bible College (Dunbar, WI) as vice president for academic affairs. In 2000, he assumed the position of executive vice president. While at BJU, he served as faculty member and director of extended education. He is an experienced pastor, conference speaker, and board member of several Christian organizations. He and his wife, Beth, have two children. This article is reprinted by permission of Brookside Baptist Church.

557 reads

Help keep SI’s server humming. A few bucks makes a difference.