The prophet Habakkuk has been variously dated by Christian interpreters. Ancient writers like Clement of Alexandra dated it to the 6th century BCE, or in the case of Jerome to the time of the Babylonian Exile. Yet others placed it in the 8th century BCE. The time of the Babylonian Exile is the least likely, given the lack of any appropriate reference to that event in the text. In addition, in Hab 1:2-4 and 6 the writer refers to events before the Babylonian Exile. It is, therefore, most probable that the context is the end of the 7th century, i.e. to about 605-600 BCE, in the decade(s) immediately preceding the invasion of Judah by the Babylonians.
The portion of Habakkuk set for today is part of a dramatic dialogue between God and the prophet. Habakkuk laments the amount of protracted wickedness in the land. The wicked continually oppress the just, and there is neither law nor justice in Judah. The despairing Habakkuk asks God how much longer the wicked will prosper. God's reply is decisive, if shocking. In order to punish the wicked of Judah, God is raising up the military might of the Babylonians. The idea of God's use of foreign invading armies as punishment of the wicked for their sins is classic Hebrew thought from the period (cf. Isa 5:25-30). The rest of Habakkuk 1 contains a description of the subsequent atrocities committed by the Babylonians on the people of Judah.
As our reading begins again at chapter 2, Habakkuk is still objecting strenuously to God about the treatment of the Judeans. He elects to ‘stand at my watchpost’ until he receives God's response. God's answer comes in the form of a short oracle (v. 4), which Habakkuk is ordered to write down. It is to be written clearly, and apparently in large characters, so that ‘a runner may read it’ – that is, a messenger in a hurry running by can still read it and understand it!
The oracle itself is preceded by God's reassurance. The time will come when God's vision for a righteous Judah will be fulfilled. Even if it is a long time coming, it will eventuate. Verse 4 then describes the Babylonians, whose pride will be their ultimate downfall. The focus is on the ‘spirit’ of the proud, who have pride in their strength. On the other hand, the ‘righteous’ do not live by their own strength, but rely on their faith in God.
The reading from Habakkuk is paired with the story of Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10), whose own wicked actions in 'ripping off' his fellow Jews have served to make him a rich man. He has relied on his own strength, and the strength of the riches that support his lifestyle. Nonetheless, Jesus's story portrays him as someone isolated, and weakened by his lack of acceptance in his own community. In the end he understands how trust in the forgiveness and strength of God will enable him to be redeemed through his remorse, and by his own righteous actions. As he repays those he has wronged, he is re-accepted in his own community. It is through Zacchaeus' redeemed and restored 'inner condition', and his renewed faith in the God of Jesus, that he has been made 'righteous'.
Through Habakkuk's beautifully written dialogue with God we learn that the wicked carry within themselves the seeds of their own destruction. On the other hand, the believers contain the seeds of close relationship with God. This teaching is to be applied in a wider context than that of Judah and the Babylonians. It speaks to all nations opposed to the people through whom God is building the divine kingdom on earth (Hab 2:5-13). These ideas (see particularly 2:4b) are carried into a messianic context in the New Testament in Rom 1:17 where ‘the one who is righteous will live by faith’. See also Gal 3:11 and Heb 10:38.
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