From the Editor’s Notebook: Minor Prophets, Habakkuk

From the Editor’s Notebook

W. Ross Rainey

Outline Studies of the Minor Prophets

Habakkuk: The Book of Faith’s Problems

Key Word: Justice.

Message: “God’s consistency with Himself in view of permitted evil” (Robert Lee)1. Or, as Eric W. Hayden has highlighted Habakkuk’s message: “Living the Life of Faith.”2

Key Verse: 2:4 — “Behold, his soul which is lifted up is not upright in him: but the just shall live by his faith.”


Virtually nothing is known of Habakkuk himself, although his life’s testimony is reflected in the meaning of his name, “clinging” or “embracing,” as illustrated in Genesis 33:4 where Esau embraced his brother Jacob after twenty years of separation. He has been called “the doubting Thomas of the Old Testament,” “the grandfather of the Reformation,” “the prophet of faith,” and “the free-thinker among the prophets.” Had they known each other, there is no question but what Habakkuk and Job would have been bosom friends. It’s evident that he lived in the period of the rise of the neo-Babylonian Empire (c. 625 B.C.), for the Chaldean invasion of Judah was threatening (1:5-6) and the iniquity of Judah was increasing. He was contemporary with Jeremiah at home and with Daniel abroad, having undoubtedly prophesied in the reigns of Jehoahaz and Jehoiakim. The state of things recorded in 1:2-4 coincides with the conditions in Jehoiakim’s time, and the threatened invasion of the Chaldeans (i.e., the Babylonians) answers to the facts recorded in 2 Kings 24 and 25.

It has been suggested that Habakkuk seems more concerned with solving a problem than with delivering a message. Nevertheless, we can learn a valuable lesson from him, for when he was faced with a seemingly unsolvable problem, he took it to God instead of forsaking his faith as some would do and have done.

Habakkuk’s problem centres on the same theme taken up by the psalmist in Psalm 73, and that is, why a just, holy and omnipotent God at times permits the wicked to flourish and the righteous to suffer at their hands. In other words, the theological question at stake is how God’s patience with evil can square with his righteousness. With Job the problem was personal; with Habakkuk it was national. Having learned that the Chaldean nation was merely a tool employed by God to chasten Judah for its own shameful cruelties and the idolatry of the days of the wicked kings, Manasseh and Amon, the prophet’s perplexity was only intensified. How could God punish a nation by a less righteous nation? It is well to remember that war is God’s scourge, and with it He chastens rebellious nations. Habakkuk’s problem is perennial and it is as pertinent today as it was in his day. The answer to his problem is disclosed in the key text of 2:4, the main thrust of this brief prophecy showing how God’s troubled prophet took his doubts and difficulties to the Lord and how he found his answer.

J. Vernon McGee says of Habakkuk that “he had a question mark for a brain.”3 It’s certainly true that the prophet begins his book with a question mark (1:3), but he closes it with an exclamation mark (3:18-19).

While Jonah related his personal experience in prose, Habakkuk related his in poetry. Dr. Merrill F. Unger has written: “Habakkuk, like Nahum and Isaiah, is couched in sublime poetry, reflecting the classical era of Heb. prophecy. The magnificent lyric ode of ch. 3 contains one of the greatest descriptions of the theophany in relation to the coming of the Lord which has been given by the Holy Spirit, awaiting fulfillment in the day of the Lord (cf. 2 Thess. 1:7-10) .”4


1. Faith Tried (1)

2. Faith Taught (2)

3. Faith Triumphant (3)

Another simple way of outlining this brief book is:

1. Habakukk’s Perplexity (1)

2. Habakukk’s Perception (2)

3. Habakkuk’s Prayer (3)

Martin Luther has given a very striking definition of Habakkuk’s name, which can hardly be improved on. “Habakkuk signifies an embracer, or one who embraces another, takes him into his arms. He embraces his people, and takes them to his arms, i.e., he comforts them and holds them up, as one embraces a weeping child, to quiet it with the assurance that if God wills it shall soon be better.”

What Habakkuk writes concerning himself, which is very little, explains the resemblance of his prophecy to the book of Psalms. He was not only a prophet (1:1), but also one of the Levitical choristers in the temple (3:19). His description of the majesty and self-revelation of God in chapter 3 stands supreme, and the fact that the whole of the book is written in a strongly lyrical character makes its structure nearer to the Psalms than any other of the prophetical writings.

The book of Habakkuk is unique in that two-thirds of it is conversation between the prophet and his Lord.

Habakkuk’s prophecy must have been among the Apostle Paul’s favourite Old Testament books, for in the New Testament he quotes from it three times, that is, if Paul was indeed the human author of the Letter to the Hebrews (cf. Rom. 1:17; Gal. 3:11; Heb. 10:38). To this might be added the fact that in Romans 1:17 the emphasis is on the word “just”; in Galatians 3:11 it is on “faith”; while in Hebrews 10:38 it is on “live.”

W. Graham Scroggie has said of Habakkuk that “His first complaint is because of the apostasy of Judah, and his second is that the Lord could and would use as the instrument of chastisement such a wicked people as the Chaldeans. The Divine reply to the latter complaint is the heart of the Book (ii. 4). It announces the Divine principle of righteousness which, in effect, is ‘The unjust shall die: the just shall live.’ This principle is applied, first to the Chaldeans (ii. 5-20), and then to Judah (ch. iii.). In the first application a five-fold ‘Woe’ is pronounced against the Chaldeans, and the second application is a sublime Theophany and its effect. The text of the effect (ii. 16-19) is one of the finest things in the Bible.”5

Habakkuk begins his prophecy with a sob, but ends with a song; he opens in gloom, but ends in glory.

Since there has never been a darker hour in the history of the world, God’s people need to read Habakkuk’s message in these confused, complex, crisis times in which we live today. He reminds us that God is still on the throne, and that no matter what the outward appearances may be, His sovereign, all-wise and loving purposes cannot be thwarted.

Deep in unfathomable mines
Of never-failing skill,
He treasures up His bright designs
And works His sovereign will.

In the book of Habakkuk the LORD JESUS CHRIST is revealed as THE GOD OF MY SALVATION.

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Kind and interested friends, plus missionaries and home workers, have frequently expressed to me that they do not want to see the magazine cease publication, believing that it has a vital even if small role in assembly witness, and this, for the past 32 years. As a committee we are dedicated to continuing this avenue of written ministry, at the same time praying earnestly that our Lord through His people will see fit to provide our needs to that end.

—The Editor

1 Robert Lee, The Outlined Bible.

2 Eric W. Hayden, Preaching through the Bible, p. 155.

3 J. Vernon McGee, Briefing the Bible, p. 59.

4 Merrill F. Unger, Unger’s Bible Handbook, p. 425.

5 W. Graham Scroggie, Know Your Bible, I, pp. 195-96.