Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4
1:1 The oracle that Habakkuk the prophet saw. 2 LORD, how long will I call for help and you not listen? I cry out to you, “Violence!” but you don’t deliver us. 3 Why do you show me injustice and look at anguish so that devastation and violence are before me? There is strife, and conflict abounds. 4 The Instruction is ineffective. Justice does not endure because the wicked surround the righteous. Justice becomes warped.
2:1 I will take my post; I will position myself on the fortress. I will keep watch to see what the Lord says to me and how he will respond to my complaint. 2 Then the LORD answered me and said, Write a vision, and make it plain upon a tablet so that a runner can read it. 3 There is still a vision for the appointed time; it testifies to the end; it does not deceive. If it delays, wait for it; for it is surely coming; it will not be late. 4 Some people’s desires are truly audacious; they don’t do the right thing. But the righteous person will live honestly. (CEB)
There Is Still a Vision
I’m sure we could all make a list of those terrible moments when we cried out to God for some desperate need but felt abandoned, forsaken, or alone. And we have been left questioning whether God is there or if God cares, or not. When a loved one is dying of cancer, we pray for miracles from the God who should be able to heal anything. When a loved-one dies in a tragic accident, we cry out to the God who should have been able to protect but didn’t. When war breaks out and entire populations are ravaged, when their people suffer indescribable violence and brutality that can only take our breath away and leave us speechless, we demand to know why the God of love allowed such evil to happen.
Sometimes our prayers escape us in such a raw, unfiltered, form that we recoil from their perceived impertinence. One of the wonderful things about the Old Testament is that we learn how to pray with a certain degree of impertinence, and understand that such prayers are not merely allowable, but necessary. In fact, lament is almost an art form that is best taught by prophets and Psalmists. Even a cursory reading of either will provide plenty of examples of people crying out to God about injustice and violence to the point that they confront God about the fact that it seems they are being ignored.
The beauty and paradox about prayers of lament is that there is no lament without the presence of faith. Faith is the very foundation of lament. Experiencing grief, sorrow, abandonment, despair, forlornness, and the like can make us feel like we lack faith, but the reality is that the argumentative nature of a lament assumes the God of the Universe is listening to us. We wouldn’t bother to argue with God in a lament if we didn’t believe God was available and listening. We wouldn’t offer a prayer of lament if we didn’t believe that, on some level, God is present and perhaps even active in a way we simply can’t see yet.
A lament is a cry of hope that God is, indeed, moving before us in ways we cannot yet see. If we can see the injustice, if we can see the violence, then surely God sees it too, and we wonder things like why? Why is God letting this happen? How long will God let this go on? We want an answer from the silence. We want action from the one who can put a stop to the nightmare.
In his book, Night, Elie Wiesel recounts one of the hangings he witnessed while a prisoner at Buchenwald concentration camp of two adults and a child. He says, “But the third rope was still moving: the child, too light, was still breathing… And so he remained for more than half an hour, lingering between life and death, writhing before our eyes. And we were forced to look at him at close range. He was still alive when I passed him. His tongue was still red, his eyes not yet extinguished. Behind me, I heard the same man asking: ‘For God’s sake, where is God?’ And from within me, I heard a voice answer: ‘Where is he? This is where—hanging here from this gallows…’” (Night, Wiesel, 65).
We ask the same questions as the man who stood behind Mr. Wiesel in moments when we’re faced with evil beyond our imagining or tragedies and sorrows we simply cannot understand.
I have asked that question when hearing of the Yazidi women and girls who were taken as sex slaves in Iraq. I’ve asked that question when I heard about a student who was murdered on a college campus. When children are kidnapped and torn from the arms of their parents. When friends suffer and die from diseases leaving a broken-hearted family and friends behind. When kids struggle with daily life from disorders they were born with and adults display nothing but disgruntled contempt. When people go hungry. It’s in those moments when my prayers become impertinent; when I demand to know, Lord, how long?
These impertinent prayers are familiar to God. God has heard them and even prayed them. When Jesus was nailed to the cross, dying slowly in unimaginable pain, he cried out in lament, “My God, my God, why have you left me?” (Matthew 27:46, CEB). He, too, felt abandoned and alone. He, too, wondered why the Father would allow him to suffer so much pain even though he knew the plan. He knew he would come out in glory on the other side of death. But he still cried out in the midst of his suffering. When we’re hurting, it’s easy to question, it’s easy to forget that God has spoken of a victory in the end and God meant what God said.
Habakkuk sees the injustice happening all around him as his people act in violent ways. He sees the violence coming at the hands of the Babylonians. He dares to raise his voice in one of these impertinent prayers. “Lord, how long will I call for help and you not listen? I cry out to you, ‘Violence!’ but you don’t deliver us. Why do you show me injustice and look at anguish so that devastation and violence are before me? There is strife, and conflict abounds.”
So the prophet demands an answer of the Lord. Habakkuk will take his post and stand in the fortress where he will keep watch and see what answer God will give. And God does answer. Habakkuk is told to write the oracle he receives on a tablet “so that a runner can read it.” Some have suggested this means the words were to be billboard-sized so someone running by could read it. (An unlikely scenario that assumes a lot). Others have suggested it was meant to be written on a small tablet so that it was portable enough for a runner to go from place to place and read the tablet aloud so everyone who could hear. (A more likely scenario).
However, our English translations flip the Hebrew word order, so it could also mean that Habakkuk is to write the oracle on a tablet so that whoever reads it can run. Whether it is hoped the reader will run away in sheer terror, or run in order that the warning of disaster might be spread to others so they can either amend their lives or escape the impending destruction by the Babylonians is uncertain.
God tells Habakkuk, “There is still a vision for the appointed time; it testifies to the end; it does not deceive. If it delays, wait for it; for it is surely coming; it will not be late. Some people’s desires are truly audacious; they don’t do the right thing. But the righteous person will live honestly.” (CEB).
This verse, Habakkuk 2:4, is one of the most difficult verses to translate. At the same time, there’s an incredible amount at stake in it for Christians. Paul uses this verse in Romans 1:17 “God’s righteousness is being revealed in the gospel, from faithfulness for faith, as it is written, The righteous person will live by faith.” (CEB). But the Hebrew word used here has a variety of meanings, including steadfastly, trustworthily, faithfully, loyally, reliably, conscientiously. Or, as the Common English Bible translates it, “honestly.”
Paul and the author of Hebrews use the word to highlight the role of faith for Christians. But, they only focus on one possible meaning of the Hebrew word. Habakkuk isn’t only talking about faith. The prophet uses a word with multiple meanings in order to contrast the righteous from the unrighteous. Habakkuk means all of these things. In fact, what Habakkuk is stressing is not the person so much as the trustworthiness of God and the vision God has given. The righteous person will live in trust of God’s vision, maybe even taking their place at the metaphorical watch-post alongside Habakkuk after crying out to God.
What if we became the people of prayer Habakkuk exemplifies? What if we took our place and yelled at God about the devastation we see? What if we refused to turn away, refused to ignore, refused to stay silent and, instead, waited with determination for God’s reply? What if we prayed with the same determination as the woman who badgered the unjust judge in the parable Jesus told:
“‘In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor respected people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him, asking, ‘Give me justice in this case against my adversary.’ For a while he refused but finally said to himself, I don’t fear God or respect people, but I will give this widow justice because she keeps bothering me. Otherwise, there will be no end to her coming here and embarrassing me.’ The Lord said, ‘Listen to what the unjust judge says. Won’t God provide justice to his chosen people who cry out to him day and night? Will he be slow to help them? I tell you, he will give them justice quickly. But when the Human One comes, will he find faithfulness on earth?’” (Luke 18:2-8, CEB).
When Jesus comes, will he find people standing at the watch-post, expectantly anticipating God’s reply? There is still a vision for the appointed time. Yes, to our finite human selves, it seems to be tarrying, delayed by some unfathomable reason. We want God to fix the horrors of the world that seem insurmountable to us. But that’s why we pray. That’s why we raise our voices in lament. That’s why we demand God to answer us and ask, “How long?”
Habakkuk assures us the vision of God will be fulfilled. Every injustice and act of violence will be accounted for and set right. What we choose is how we live here and now: like the proud and audacious who don’t do what’s right, or like those who trust in God’s vision and cry out for it every day with prayers: even the impertinent prayers of lament.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.