Book of Habakkuk
|Books of the|
Torah | Nevi'im | Ketuvim
Books of Nevi'im
|8. 12 minor prophets|
The Book of Habakkuk represents the visionary output of Habakkuk, one of the twelve minor prophets whose works were canonized in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament). Though little is known about its author, the earliest stratum of text can be (fairly) accurately dated to 608-598 B.C.E., as it describes the Kingdom of Judah being gradually eclipsed by the rising power of the Babylonians. Theologically, it is most intriguing for its existential grappling with the issues of theodicy, as its author struggles to balance the unpleasant realities of life with faith in God's goodness. Finally, it was used as one of Saint Paul's proof texts for justifying the central importance of faith, though philological scholarship suggests that his conclusions may rest on uncertain linguistic grounds.
Authorship and Historical Context
The prophet Habakkuk is a largely enigmatic figure, discernible only through the oblique hints offered by the text itself. The evidence, as manifested by correspondences between prophetic laments and known historical occurrences, allow the text (and thereby the prophet) to be dated to "Judah in the first part of the Babylonian crisis, from around 608 to 598 B.C.E."
In terms of Habakkuk's station, many scholars suggest that he was a temple prophet, a representative of the organized Hebrew cult of the day. Koch summarizes the evidence for this position:
- Habakkuk is one of the few literary prophets who is actually introduced as nabi [prophet] in the book's title. This probably means that he was an institutionalized cultic prophet. This fits in with remarks scattered throughout the book—for example that Habakkuk went up to a watchtower (in the temple?) in order to keep a look-out for a vision, and that Yahweh answered him there (2.1); or that his whole body trembled during his ecstatic reception of the word (3.16). In addition, the essential components even of his social criticism suggest that this belonged within a liturgical framework (cf. 1.2-11).
In addition, the prophet Habakkuk is also a secondary character in the story of Bel and the Dragon, a deuterocanonical postscript to the Book of Daniel. In it, God utilizes the prophet as an instrument of his will, miraculously commanding him to offer sustenance to the book's beleaguered titular character:
- Now there was in Judea a prophet called Habacuc [Habakkuk], and he had boiled pottage, and had broken bread in a bowl: and was going into the field, to carry it to the reapers.
- And the angel of the Lord said to Habacuc: Carry the dinner which thou hast into Babylon to Daniel, who is in the lions' den.
- And Habacuc said: Lord, I never saw Babylon, nor do I know the den.
- And the angel of the Lord took him by the top of his head, and carried him by the hair of his head, and set him in Babylon over the den in the force of his spirit.
- And Habacuc cried, saying: O Daniel, thou servant of God, take the dinner that God hath sent thee.
- And Daniel said: Thou hast remembered me, O God, and thou hast not forsaken them that love thee.
- And Daniel arose and ate. And the angel of the Lord presently set Habacuc again in his own place (Daniel 14: 32-38).
In the superscription of the Septuagint version of this account, Habakkuk is called "the son of Yeshua [Joshua/Jesus] of the tribe of Levi." However, given the relatively late composition of this apocryphal tale, there is no reason to assume the veracity of any biographical information contained in it.
Within the context of the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament), the Book of Habakkuk in one of the twelve minor prophets—prophetic texts characterized by both their brevity and their diversity of styles. Within that subsection of the Bible, it follows Nahum and precedes Zephaniah, texts that can also be dated to the kingdom of Judah in the early part of the Babylonian period (ca. 650-598 B.C.E.).
The book itself can be subdivided into sections based on its use of three disparate styles: Divine/human dialogue (1:2-2:5), oracle(s) of woe (2:6-2:20), and psalm of celebration (3:1-3:19). In slightly more detail, one could summarize the structure as follows:
- Title (1:1)
- Habakkuk's first lament: the problem of unpunished wickedness (1:2 – 4)
- God's first response (1:5 – 11)
- Habakkuk's second lament: the problem of excessive punishment (1:12 – 17)
- Habakkuk awaiting an answer from the Divine (2:1)
- God’s second response (2:2 – 4)
- The oracles of woe (directed at particular sinners) (2:6 – 20)
- The pillager (2:6 - 8)
- The plotter (2:9 – 11)
- The promoter of violence (2:12 - 14)
- The debaucher (2:15 - 17)
- The pagan idolater (2:18 - 20)
- Habakkuk’s Psalm of Praise (3:1 - 19)
- Musical notes (3:1)
- Petition (3:2)
- God’s powerful presence in history (3:3 – 15)
- Fear and faith (3:16 – 19)
In one way, the Book of Habakkuk parallels the Book of Job—both feature (seemingly) moral protagonists driven to existential despair by their first-hand observations of evil in the world. How can an individual, even when employed as a prophet of JHVH (as was seemingly the case with Habakkuk), fail to question their faith when God's tolerance of evil in the world seems unjustifiable. More specifically, the Judean prophet finds his faith shaken twice: first, by the fact that the leadership of Judah fail to follow the law (and oppress the righteous); and, second, because God reveals to him that He intends to use the (sinful) Babylonians [Chaldeans] as a means of wreaking His vengeance upon his Chosen People (1:6-11).
Habakkuk's theological concerns are evidenced from the first verses of the text, which begins with an explicit existential complaint:
- How long, O Lord, must I call for help,
- but you do not listen?
- Or cry out to you, "Violence!"
- but you do not save? (1:2 (NIV))
While many scholars simply interpret this passage as a "psalm of lament," it lacks some important structural features of the latter category. Most importantly, "a psalm of lament proceeds [following its complaint] with some combination of additional elements—a confession of trust in God, a petition to God to intervene (expressed with imperative verb forms), and a concluding vow of praise anticipating God's intervention." In contrast, Habakkuk simply leaves his complaint open and unadorned, a stark representation of his crisis of faith.
As mentioned above, his malaise is not settled by God's first response. In fact, it leads him to new heights of despair, from which, instead of merely questioning God's inaction, he is forced to contend with the possibility that his deity is acting immorally. This crisis is attested to in the final part of the first chapter, where the prophet expresses his shock at God's choice of instrument for His judgment:
- O Lord, are you not from everlasting?
- My God, my Holy One, we will not die.
- O Lord, you have appointed them to execute judgment;
- O Rock, you have ordained them to punish.
- Your eyes are too pure to look on evil;
- you cannot tolerate wrong.
- Why then do you tolerate the treacherous?
- Why are you silent while the wicked
- swallow up those more righteous than themselves? (1:12-13 (NIV)).
In the second chapter, the bulk of the author's attention is spent delivering (one or more) "oracles of woe," which essentially describe the hypothetical future judgment of an oppressor (while concentrating on their sins in the present). Thus, while less overt than the first-person critiques of the Divine described above, they still stand as catalogs of the sufferings of God's people. A representative sample can be found in verses 9-12:
- Woe to him who builds his realm by unjust gain
- to set his nest on high,
- to escape the clutches of ruin!
- You have plotted the ruin of many peoples,
- shaming your own house and forfeiting your life.
- The stones of the wall will cry out,
- and the beams of the woodwork will echo it.
- Woe to him who builds a city with bloodshed
- and establishes a town by crime! (2:9-12 (NIV)).
In a dramatic reversal of tone of the previous sections, the third (and final) chapter of the text consists of a long and joyful psalm of praise, expressing faith that God will deliver his chosen people from the clutches of their oppressors. A brief quotation is sufficient to represent the theological focus (and overall tenor) of this chapter:
- Though the fig tree does not bud
- and there are no grapes on the vines,
- though the olive crop fails
- and the fields produce no food,
- though there are no sheep in the pen
- and no cattle in the stalls,
- yet I will rejoice in the Lord,
- I will be joyful in God my Savior.
- The Sovereign Lord is my strength;
- he makes my feet like the feet of a deer,
- he enables me to go on the heights.
- For the director of music. On my stringed instruments (3:17-19 (NIV)).
For Peckham, who is convinced that the text is a composite work from multiple periods, the hymn can be seen as the theological capstone to the book. In his view, it was appended following the destruction of the Babylonian kingdom—a position from which a retrospective faith in God's judgment would have been a logical response. "The theory of divine retribution that the commentary [i.e. the later inclusions] developed mad the law completely effective and universally valid by ensuring the inevitability of punishment for every affront to the law. But it also meant, against the monolithic theory of sin and guilt proposed by the Deuteronomist, that those who had suffered unjustly in the Babylonian captivity were finally vindicated by the decline of the Babylonian empire." Whether one accepts Peckham's diachronic thesis or not, the inclusion of this chapter transforms the text into a life (and faith)-affirming, "self-contained, anti-Babylonian liturgy."
In terms of style and structure, the presence of this chapter radically alters the nature and function of the book as a whole. By concluding with a song of faith and praise, the book, when viewed as a unit, becomes an orthodox example of a "psalm of lament," with the first two chapters representing the complaint and petition, and the third as the resolution of these doubts through reverence and faith.
Saint Paul and Habakkuk 2:4
Despite the various theological and existential issues raised by the Book of Habakkuk, it is best known to Christians due to the presence of a single line in verse 2:4: "but the righteous will live by his faith." From this line, Saint Paul crafted his position on the ultimacy of faith for Christian believers, displacing the Law (Gal. 3:11) and providing universal salvation (Rom. 1:17). However, it has been suggested that this interpretation is not entirely in keeping with the meaning of the original text. As Hiebert notes, "the translation 'faith', used by both the NIV and the NSRV, although traditional, is a potentially misleading rendering of the Hebrew because of its connotations of belief in a doctrine or as an inner posture towards God to be contrasted with an outer observance of the law. The term emûnâ actually refers to the quality of firmness, steadiness, steadfastness, or fidelity." Likewise, Koch suggests that this term "points to the kind of trust which Isaiah also demanded at a particular moment in history.... So the statement does not as yet express any kind of general principle of religious behavior." As can be seen, Paul's usage of the text to justify unwavering, single-minded faith is somewhat at odds with the original meaning of the terms in question.
- Bandstra, 366. Offering more specificity, Theodore Hiebert (New Interpreter's Bible) suggests that Habakkuk's prediction of the Babylonian invasion (1:5-11) would have had to predate the actual invasion (597 B.C.E.) but would likely have followed the Babylonian advances against the Assyrians and Egyptians in 604. Thus, he dates the text (or at least this particular section) to "605-604 B.C.E., the fifth year of the reign of Jehoiakim, king of Judah, whose corrupt regime is described in 1:2-4" (626).
- Koch, 82-83. Hiebert offers a cautionary note to those making this assertion, suggesting that "the problem of believing in the ultimate power of justice in an unjust world is such a basic one that it transcends particular social locations and political crises (627).
- Abraham A. Neuman, "Josippon and the Apocrypha," The Jewish Quarterly Review (New Series), Vol. 43, No. 1 (July 1952), 1-26. 10.
- Bandstra, 364-367; New Interpreter's Bible, 593-594, 625-627, 659-662.
- Marks, 218-219; Hiebert, 624-625.
- Marks notes that, thematically-speaking, Habakkuk addressed the same themes as the Hebrew Wisdom Literature (Song of Songs, Book of Proverbs, Book of Ecclesiastes) (218).
- "I am raising up the Babylonians, // that ruthless and impetuous people, // who sweep across the whole earth // to seize dwelling places not their own." (1:6 (NIV)).
- Hiebert, 630.
- Marks, 219; Hiebert, 646-648; Andersen, 233-234.
- Peckham, 420.
- See Hiebert (625) for an affirmation of this perspective, Koch for the opposite view (that the text was composed by one author) (82), and Andersen (19-22) for an overview of the issues involved in this discussion.
- Koch, 82.
- Marks, 220-221. Some concerns with this approach are considered by Andersen, 20-21.
- Hiebert, 623.
- Hiebert, 642.
- Koch, 83. Emphasis added.
ReferencesISBN links support NWE through referral fees
- Andersen, Francis I (trans.). Habakkuk: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary. New York: Doubleday, 2001. ISBN 0385083963
- Bandstra, Barry L. Reading the Old Testament: An Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, 2nd ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1999. ISBN 0534527272
- Barber, Cyril J. Habakkuk and Zephaniah. Chicago: Moody Press, 1988. ISBN 0-02420699
- Clark, David J., and Howard A. Hatton. A Translator’s Handbook on The Books of Nahum, Habakkuk and Zephaniah. New York: United Bible Societies, 1989. ISBN 0826701418.
- Gowan, Donald E. The Triumph of Faith in Habakkuk. Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1976. ISBN 0804201951.
- Hailey, Homer. A Commentary on The Minor Prophets. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1972. ISBN 0801040493
- Hiebert, Theodore. "Habakkuk." The New Interpreter's Bible. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994-2004. ISBN 0687278201
- Koch, Klaus. The Prophets: The Babylonian and Persian Periods. Philidelphia: Fortress Press, 1982. ISBN 0800617568
- Lang, Bernhard. Monotheism and the Prophetic Minority: An Essay in Biblical History and Sociology. Sheffield, England: Almond Press, 1983. ISBN 0907459307
- LaSor, William, David Allen Hubbard, and Frederic Bush. Old Testament Survey. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1996. ISBN 0802837883
- Marks, Herbert. "The Twelve Prophets" in The Literary Guide to the Bible. Edited by Robert Alter and Frank Kermode. Cambridge, MS: The Belknap Press of Oxford University Press, 1987. ISBN 0674875303
- McComiskey, Thomas Edward. The Minor Prophets: An Exegetical and Expository Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1993. ISBN 0801063078
- Nogalski, James D. and Marvin A. Sweeney (eds.). Reading and Hearing the Book of the Twelve. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2000. ISBN 0884140210
- Peckham, Brian. History and Prophecy: The Development of Late Judean Literary Traditions. New York: Doubleday, 1993. ISBN 0385423489.
All links retrieved November 18, 2023.
- Chavakuk - Habakkuk (Judaica Press) translation with Rashi's commentary
- Biblegateway.com Over 20 English language editions of the Bible (including KJV, NIV, NLT)
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