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Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4,

Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4,
Literary Background to the Book:

The book is very small, only three chapters in all and has had an extraordinary amount of attention given to it by scholars. It is structured:

Hab 1:1-4 = lament with the superscription stating that Habbakuk is a prophet;

Hab 1:5-11 = the response from God;

Hab 1:12-17 = Habakkuk's voice acknowledging God's actions and asking why?

Hab 2 = God's response

Hab 3 = Prayer of the prophet

These few chapters contain a number of different literary forms, for example, lament (1:2-4, 12-14), woe texts (2:6b-19), prophetic oracles, prayers of thanksgiving, praise, petition and finishes with an individual confession of trust (Hab 3). As is the case with most of the prophetic books we have the final form and scholars suggest that the early oracles of Habbakuk were against the upper classes which a later author applied to Babylon (eg. 1:6b-19). The name of the prophet is present in the Septuagint in the story of Bel and the Dragon, but as this is quite fanciful it does not help much (Mason:81). There is no family name or place associated with the opening superscription, as there is with many prophets. If one looks at the genesis of the name itself it is associated with "a common Israelite name type in which plant names are used" (Roberts:86).


The clues in the book suggest we are looking close to, if not in the exilic period (605-577 BCE) when it refers to the "Chaldeans". This was a name given to the Neo-Babylonians who began the overthrow of Assyria in the late 7th century. Because Hab 3 makes use of hymnic forms, some scholars think that the prophet came from within the temple setting. However, there is not enough evidence to support this idea.
Context of Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4
In Hab 1 the prophet addresses Yahweh twice (1:2-4 & 1:12-17) and Yahweh twice replies (1:5-11 & 2:1-4). These dialogues incorporate both readings from the Lectionary and help us to get a sense of why the prophet begins with his lament. Habakkuk raises the issues of violence and wrongs which Yahweh is seemingly intent on ignoring (1:2-4). God's response invites Habakkuk to see that it was God's doing to raise up this army which swept everything before it (1:5-11). Habakkuk responds with more questions raising concerns about the injustices and wrongs the Babylonians have committed. After Habakkuk takes on the role of sentinel watching for the Lord, he hears God answer him. While God is presented as responsible for the invading Babylonians, God is not responsible for their wrong behaviour which is governed by greed and arrogance (2:1-5). The "woes" in 2:6b-19 spell out details of how humans go against that which is right behaviour to fellow humans. The prayer of Habakkuk seeks for God to be like the Creator who is Lord of the universe and can bring victory from the present disaster. The final affirmation of trust brings back memories for me of a few lines which I believe were written by Jews sheltered in a church in France during the occupation. They spoke of the certainty of the sun rising and the sun setting and likening their God to the certainty who is present even when God appears to be absent.
Insights/Message of Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4
Literary structure:

The statement in v.1 declares that what follows is an oracle of God. It is strange that the prophet "saw" the lament which follows, but here it has the general meaning that Habakkuk was the recipient of this revelation from God. The verb "to see" using different Hebrew forms is woven through these chapters. The prophet sees the revelation of God (v.1), sees wrong (v.3), commanded to look among the nations and see (v.5), take my stand and watch ... to see (2:1) and others. "How long" is the typical lament opening question, either of the people to God or conversely by God of the people. Time is experienced as important, as though the suffering cannot be endured for much longer. It contains the feeling of personal anguish. There is anger in the question "Why", because the sense of the verb has God as the cause of the prophet's ability to see the trouble and wickedness. The use of the word "so" (twice) in v.4 gives the reason for what is stated in vv.2-3. "Torah" in v.4 is best translated as teaching which includes laws, but encompasses much more than our narrow definition of law.

The response of God to the prophet's second complaint in (1:12-17) comes in the second reading set for the lectionary. There is a positive affirmation that God will respond and indeed when it occurs, Habakkuk is instructed to write it clearly so that a runner may read it. One reason given for this instruction was that letters have to be carved deeply into stone for them to be read - so not literally referring to a runner (Roberts: 109). However, it could have to do with a herald who has to run and announce a message, implying that Habakkuk as well as writing the vision is to ensure everyone knows about it (Hiebert:641). Verse 3 simply tells us the vision will delayed, but no content is revealed. Indeed, we are unclear whether the vision is a promise for the future or is indeed part of a divine message. The textual difficulties in v.4 make it hard to understand. The first stanza contains two negative ideas: "is not upright" and "shall fail" (4a) which is contrasted with the person who is righteous (4b). Verse 5 which is outside the Lectionary reading is almost a commentary on v.4 expanding on the sort of person in 4a who is not righteous. The Hebrew word translated as faith in Rom 1:17 is more akin to "faithfulness, steadfastness" (Hiebert:642). The pronominal suffix attached is in the singular ( his faithfulness), but NIV and NRSV translate it as "their faith".

Message / Theology:

It is not hard to imagine, if Habakkuk is looking at the invasion of the Babylonian army and the destruction it has wrought on Jerusalem, why his cry to God is so anguished. One has to say though that Jerusalem brought the second and third invasions on themselves by their continued propensity to rebel when they had no chance of overthrowing the might of Babylon. It is quite acceptable in Old Testament to cry to God when one is distressed either on a personal level, as in the case of Job, or as a nation. It is okay to ask God the "why" questions. In the case of Habakkuk he is willing to wait and listen for God's response (2:1). I couldn't help thinking of our great billboards with their advertising made so that cars speeding by can read them. The idea is the same in that God wants the message given to Habakkuk to be clearly visible to all. The message is meant to be one of encouragement to Habakkuk. God does support the person who is faithful and acts in right ways as opposed to the wicked and greedy. The solace offered in v.5 suggests that those people who have behaved so badly will come to an end. If this is start of their time under Babylonian rule, the words of v.3 have great significance for them. They will have to wait, for the vision chooses its time to come. In the meantime people are to act in the ways God intended. Hab 2:6b-19 reinforces the futility of behaving in ways that are not upright (v.4a).

The last half of v.4b is quoted by Paul in Rom 1:17 as part of his apologetic for the gospel and its implication for the faithful. We in our time, are still called on to maintain our faithfulness to God and to act in the same ways that God acts towards us, in spite of what appears as victory by the unscrupulous. The vision of Christians for peace and justice in the world is greater than the parts and we are called on to remind people of that vision. We can cry in anguish and express our hurt and pain, yet always is the hope centred on the love of God through Jesus Christ.

OT images/motifs used in the New Testament reading: Luke 19:1-10, the reference to Zacchaeus's declaration that he will pay back fourfold reminds us of Exodus 22:1 and 2 Samuel 12:6. His wili8ngness to repay show both and inward change and the consequence is to make amends. Again Luke seems to be picking up the assertion of God in Ezekeie 34:16 that as God as the true shepherd will save the lost sheep so Jesus will do the same for his time.
Resources/Worship for Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4

A response to the Word could be created using a lament style as in Hab 1:1-4, followed by a positive statement of God's vision for the world.


The Old Testament Guides (OTG) by Sheffield Academic Press are an excellent small resource which give many suggestions for readings on particular aspects in the book.

The New Interpreter's Bible is another very helpful resource and published in the late 1990's - 2002 is more up to date than some earlier works.

Achtemeier, Elizabeth. Nahum-Malachi. Interpretation. Atlanta: John Knox, 1986.
Floyd, Michael H. Minor Prophets: Part 2. FOLT. Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans, 2000.
Hiebert, Theodore. 'The Book of Habakkuk', NIB, VII. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996, pp.621-655.
Mason, Rex. Zephaniah, Habakkuk, Joel. OTG. Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1994.
Roberts. J.J.M. Nahum Habakkuk, and Zephaniah. OTL. Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1991.

The Dramatised Bible: ed. Michael Perry. London: Marshall Pickering: Bible Society, 1989

Web sites with helpful lectionary resources:

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