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January 1977 · Vol. 6 No. 1 · pp. 36–39 

Hearing the Word

The Problem of Evil: A Study of Habakkuk

Al Enns

One of the most pressing and persistent religious questions of our time is the problem which confronted Habakkuk. More urgent than the credibility of miracles or the reconciliation of science and the scriptures is the enigma of evil. Why does God allow suffering and injustice? Why are babies born blind? Why are promising young lives snuffed out? Why are wars allowed to mutilate the earth and its occupants? No simple solutions are given, but God answers Habakkuk in a remarkable way.

Politically, the Chaldeans were becoming a “world power.” They had defeated the Assyrians (who had taken the ten northern tribes captive), and even Egypt had fallen as their prey. Meanwhile, Judah, with the threat of an Assyrian invasion removed, was suffering from internal decay under the Godless king Jehoiakim. This situation prompted Habakkuk to voice his complaint before God in the first chapter.

HABAKKUK SIGHS BEFORE GOD: Chap. 1

He raises two questions. The first is; “God, why? Why the violence? What is wrong with the world?” With Habakkuk we also look at the pain, the evil, and the perverted justice and ask, “God, are you still in charge? Why do you not speak to us?”

Then God answers the prophet (vs. 5-11), but the problem only becomes more acute when the answer is given. “I will raise up the Chaldeans” (Godless pagans) to punish you and bring you to your senses! They are a very bitter and hostile nation, dreadful and terrible. Warmongers they are, with their own idea of justice (v. 7). They worship their own might and deify their weapons (v. 11).

Much preaching today suggests that we are exempt from the “wrath of God.” Surely the sinister advance of communism will be stopped before it overshadows North America! God is on our side, isn’t he? But who is in a position to say that God will keep us from being purged and sifted? Or who can say what is ultimately best for us?

God’s first answer to Habakkuk is, “I will punish you more than you {37} bargained for.” But at the same time he assured him that the instruments of discipline would also be punished in turn.

The prophet then raises his second complaint (vs. 12-17). But God, are you going to let an evil foe overrun people more righteous than themselves? Can a holy God help the more wicked to triumph? Is it not his nature to reward those who are better?

But God’s dealing with man cannot be expressed in simple formulas. Divine logic is far above and beyond human knowledge and perception. Luther exclaimed, “The profound and sublime wisdom of God lies hidden; for he is strange in his dealings both with his saints and with his foes. All this surpasses the understanding and experience of the human mind.” And Paul noted God’s unsearchable judgments and inscrutable ways (Rom. 11:33). “Surely you won’t let us die,” says Habakkuk. And he tries to impress God with the grasping tyranny of the Chaldeans. God’s answer to Habakkuk’s second complaint comes in the next chapter, where we see

HABAKKUK SILENT BEFORE GOD: Chap. 2

He is going to take himself to a secluded place—an elevated place—to listen for the voice of God. Unlike most of us, who ask and then let our attention move to other things, he was sure that God would answer, and he gave him the chance to do so.

God answered Habakkuk. In fact, he asked him to record the message—for immediate and future reference. What did he say? The core of it is found in verse 4. “Behold, he whose soul is not upright in him shall fail, but the righteous shall live by his faith.”

There are two aspects to this answer. The first is that evil is self-destructive. Man chooses to sin, and sin brings evil. But what about the righteous person? Why should he suffer? God did not say why. Instead, he said that the righteous sufferer would live by faith.

It is true that Jesus often alleviated suffering. But he did not consider that his main mission. Nor did he want people to be too surprised if they were called to suffer. In fact, he told his disciples that their faith would be a cause of suffering. James says, “Consider yourselves fortunate when all kinds of trials come your way . . .”

We live in a pain-avoiding and death-denying society. Somehow that kind of thinking has also made inroads into the church. Perhaps it is time that we restudy a theology of suffering. Let us not forget that Christ was the great sufferer, that he met the cost of evil by his suffering, and that we are “to complete” Christ’s suffering.

Suffering, however, is not only for the righteous, but even more for the unrighteous; for much suffering is the direct result of evil choices {38} by men. This principle is illustrated in the remaining portion of Chapter 2, where Habakkuk records five woes against oppressors. The summarizing principle comes in the final verse of the chapter: “But the Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him.”

Throughout the ages, and perhaps especially today, it has been a great test of faith to believe that God is good. There is so much which suggests the contrary. Helmut Thielicke points out that fabric viewed through a magnifying glass is clear in the middle and blurred at the edges. But we know that the edges are clear because of what we see in the center. Life, he says, is like the fabric. There are many blurred edges which we do not understand, but they are to be interpreted by the clarity we see in the centre—the cross of Christ.

God does not ask us to understand everything. But he promises us peace if we will believe and trust in him. He is still in charge. Let all the earth refrain from criticizing him! “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isa. 55:9) Habakkuk apparently got the message, for in the next chapter we find that

HABAKKUK SINGS BEFORE GOD: Chap. 3

This section begins with a new title. He calls it a prayer, but it is really a Psalm—a prayer set to music (as indicated by the word “Shigionoth”). He is singing because he is convinced that God is really in control after all.

This chapter falls naturally into three parts. The first section (v. 2) consists of a request for a new appearance of God. He knows that God was active in the past, but he needs reassurance that God is active now.

One solution, while waiting, is to review the former appearances of God (3-15). Remember the experiences in the wilderness? The glory and the brightness of God were tangible. It often helps to look back and remember how God was there when special grace and wisdom were needed.

But Habakkuk remembers also that God’s presence not only revealed glory but that it also resulted in grief (5-12). Sometimes God had to speak with great severity before his people responded. Will that be necessary again? God’s going forth, however, was always for the salvation of his people (13-15). His punishment was grace, that is, redemptive.

In the final section of the book we see a response to the coming appearances of God (16-19). He looks ahead and trembles in the anticipation of God’s next move (the coming of the Chaldeans). He sees God acting in the approaching disaster, and so he can conclude with a {39} note of triumph! “Yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will joy in the God of my salvation” (v. 18).

Throughout the ages, Christians under pressure have turned to Habakkuk and received strength and courage. Regardless of how bleak the situation may look, we may be assured that God is still in his holy temple and the just shall live by faith! Let all the earth keep silence and awe and respect before him!

Al Enns is a member of the faculty of Bethany Bible Institute, Hepburn, Saskatchewan.

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