Beth Elohim Messianic Synagogue
Study of the Prophets: Habakkuk (Cont.)
This week we begin with the first chapter of the book. Understanding verses 1-4 is not difficult, especially if we compare what was happening in Judah at the time of this prophecy, and what is happening in our own country, America today. I submit that there are times when true believers at least ponder the same question asked of G-d by Habakkuk, “How long, O HaShem, will I cry out and you not hear me; [how long] will I cry out to You [regarding] injustice and You not save? Why do you allow me to see iniquity and You look at evil deeds, with robbery and injustice before me, while the one who carries strife and contention still remains? That is why the Torah is weakened and justice never emerges. Since the wicked surround the righteous, therefore justice emerges distorted.”
Habakkuk is not asking out of a sense of superiority or pride. He is hurting for justice and is sincerely asking why G-d does not vindicate Himself and “stand up” for His Torah. Do we as true believers not ask the same question today?
The Hebrew word used for prophecy in verse 1 is most often used to introduce a prophecy that is directed to the nations of the world. However, Abarbanel maintains that the term masa (burden) is being directed to one person or a single nation. In this case it would be Judah. It’s use in this book introduces a fateful and foreboding prophecy determined by the specific word used for “prophecy” of which there are ten expressions.
Verse 1 also mentions that Habakkuk saw the prophecy. This concept denotes one of spiritually understanding, such as gaining wisdom and knowledge from above. Habakkuk was given both as he was used by G-d as a prophet. Habakkuk was more concerned about the upcoming victory and prosperity of the Babylonians more than the unrighteousness of Judah. He was extremely distraught over the fact that there would be righteous people who would suffer by Nebuchadnezzar’s rule. This is a reality we must understand in our time and in the future. Although G-d knows where each “kernel” (true believer) is and that none will be lost, there is no promise that there are true believers that will be killed before Messiah’s return. This is where trust in YHVH/Yahshua comes in. This profound type of trust/perseverance is mentioned in the book of Revelation in the context of resisting the beast and not taking his mark (Rev. 14:12). Habakkuk could not understand how G-d would let a people more evil than the sinning Judah succeed. He is also concerned about the injustices done to Israel without any apparent intervention by G-d. Expressed in today’s vernacular we might say “G-d, why are You letting bad things happen to good people and allowing the bad people to prosper?”
Verse 4 is a at first glance a little more complex to understand. Radak and Metzudos explain that Habakkuk complained that since G-d allows wickedness to prevail and the righteous to suffer, Israel’s (in reality all true believers), commitment to the Torah slackens, and weakens their resolve. This opens the door for assimilation and more idolatry as Nebuchadnezzar moves in and demands that people prostrate themselves before the image in Bikath Dura as mentioned in Daniel Chapter 3 (Rashi). It is easy for us to understand how easily but subtly this happens. As those who do not remain diligent in their Torah studies, prayer, and behaviors pleasing to G-d distance themselves from the assembly and other believers, they begin to distort and make their own rules about what is permissible in G-d’s eyes. This is the process of rationalization, minimization, and justification that comes from human wisdom, not from G-d. This is what Habakkuk feared and what happened in many cases. It is no different today. “… and justice never emerges.” Both the philosophical beliefs and commandments between man and G-d (Torah), and the civil laws that govern the relationships between men will cease to be observed due to the success of the wicked and the suffering of the Jews, correctly defined by Yahshua in Romans Chapters 2-3 and John Chapter 14.
“Since the wicked surround the righteous…” We gain a thorough understanding of this verse only by going back to the Hebrew. A root word used in this phrase is Keter which means “crown” (Ibn Ezra). The wicked Nebuchadnezzar surrounds the righteous Israel as the crown encircles the head (Metzudos). He surrounds them to he can continuously oppress them (Radak). Although the kingdom of Judah was certainly deserving of the punishment during this time, Scripture refers to them as “the righteous” when compared to Nebuchadnezzar (Metzudos).
“… therefore justice emerges distorted.” Since Israel doesn’t see the wicked punished for their sinful behavior, they begin to think there is no heavenly judgment. This is similar to what many believers and unbelievers express today. It is human to wonder why G-d allows so much injustice in our world, especially in the case of the innocent. We must remember that our ways are not His ways and we do not know the depth of G-d’s attributes. This include His righteousness, justice, mercy, and anger. We do not know exactly when the cup of sinful behavior of humans will reach the brim and His wrath will be loosed. Even more, we do not understand the day-to-day plans of G-d as our world continues on the path toward the Tribulation and the Day of the L-rd. In His mercy and compassion for mankind, He gave these prophets to tell us what happens to those who rebel against Him, even His chosen people and that such magnitude of punishment will happen again in the context of modern warfare, technology, diseases and famines.
Verse 5: “Look among the nations and observe, and be utterly astounded; for [G-d] is bringing about an occurrence in your days that you will not believe when it is related.”
Habakkuk is addressing Israel and explains the reason for his anxiety. Look and realize the extent of the destruction that Nebuchadnezzar will inflict on the nations of the world. They will realize that Nebuchadnezzar, an evil king, was sent by G-d (Malbim; Radak). It was difficult for them as it will be for those of us who witness the future devastation and destruction to imagine that G-d actually orchestrated such events. It is extremely difficult to wrap our minds around such a dichotomy. Yet, for those who study and follow G-d’s Torah out of love for Him, realize all the prophecy throughout the Torah is a forewarning. The Israelites back then as we today could and cannot comprehend the depth of devastation/destruction, but it should not come as a surprise. G-d told of such curses for those who do not follow G-d’s commands, laws, and rulings in the Old Testament, and Yahshua reiterated these teachings in the B’rit Chadashah (“New Testament”). It is completely illogical to believe that the “rules” of G-d were “nailed to the cross” when Yahshua upheld and followed them.
Although there were many victorious nations throughout history, there is no comparison to that of Nebuchadnezzar, whose success was achieved in an unnatural manner. He was not of royal lineage and was not supported by others. Yet, he conquered the entire civilized world of the time without opposition (Abarbanel; Malbim).
Verse 6: “For behold, I am establishing the Chaldeans, that bitter and impetuous nation that will go across the breadth of the earth to possess dwelling places that are not its own.”
Although Habakkuk uses the first person singular (I am establishing…) these are the words he heard from G-d (Radak; Abarbanel). Chaldea is synonymous with Babylon (Isaiah 47:1,5). The Chaldeans were considered the lowest and most worthless of the nations (Isaiah 23:13). The Chaldeans were a nation with an embittered spirit, cruel, and impulsive (Metzudos). Ellicott’s commentary on Isaiah 23:13 is as follows: (13) Behold, the land of the Chaldeans. —Heb., land of Kasdim. The prophet points to the destruction of one power that had resisted Assyria as an example of what Tyre might expect. The Assyrian inscriptions record the conquests referred to. Sargon relates his victory over the “perverse and rebellious Chaldæans,” who had rebelled under Merôdach-baladan (Records of the Past, vii. 41, 45). Towns were pillaged, 80,570 men carried away captive from a single city. Sennacherib (ibid., p. 59) boasts of having plundered Babylon itself, and all the “strong cities and castles of the land of the Chaldæans”; and again, of having crushed another revolt under Suzab the Babylonian (ibid., i. 47-49). The words that follow on this survey are better rendered: This people is no more: Asshur appointeth it for the desert beasts. They set up their towers, they destroy its palaces. The “towers are those of the Assyrian besiegers attacking Babylon; the palaces, those of the attacked. Scripture uses the Hebrew word meaning to raise up, to indicate that G-d will now raise the Chaldeans from their low status to serve His purpose (Metzudos). The Chaldeans will travel the world over to conquer inhabited places that are not theirs (Metzudos).
Verse 7-9: “It is awesome and terrifying; its judgment and its burden go forth from it. Its horses are swifter than leopards and fiercer than wolves of the evening, and its horseman are fleet. Its horsemen will come from afar; they will fly like an eagle hastening to eat. It comes entirely for plunder; the eagerness of their faces is like the east wind; and it will gather captives in the sand.”
Notice the use of “its” in these verses. The word awesome refers to fear inspired by the mere size of an object, person, or force. The word terrifying describes the fear of the evil and destructive potential of the object (Malbim). An illustration of this concept is how a swimmer might feel at the initial sight of a Great White shark in the same body of water. A few seconds later, the mind comprehends the potential destruction and possible death the shark may cause. This verse describes the intellectual process that takes place; the initial physical seeing something, then considering the possibilities of what that “something” can do.
“… its judgment and its burden go forth from it.” Judges and rulers who impose judgments and burdens and instill fear among the people will come solely from the unassisted Chaldean nation (Rashi). Alternatively, the judgment and majesty of the Chaldeans comes from G-d and not the Chaldeans, for it is G-d Who appointed them to conquer and destroy other kingdoms (Abarbanel).
“Its horses are swifter than leopards…” Habakkuk now compares the Chaldeans to fierce animals and birds of prey (Metzudos; Abarbanel).
“and fiercer than wolves in the evening.” Wolves who have not eaten by evening are fiercer than wolves who are just beginning to stalk prey in the morning (Mahari Kara).
“and its horsemen are fleet.” This is interpreted as an increasing number of horsemen as troops join the battle while none are lost (Mahari Kara), or as horsemen spreading out in their fearless attack (Ibn Ezra).
“Its horsemen will come from afar; they will fly like an eagle hastening to eat.”
Although the Chaldean horsemen come from afar, they do not get tired from their journey; but like the eagle that swoops down on its prey, they race after their enemies and attack immediately (Metzudos; Abarbanel; Malbim). Habakkuk mentions the eagle because it flies higher than other birds and very swiftly. Interestingly Ezekiel referred to Nebuchadnezzar as the Great Eagle, an appropriate simile for one who conquered the world (Ezekiel 17:3).
“It comes entirely for plunder.” Unlike the Romans, who went into battle for honor and glory, the Chaldeans’ objective is simply to rob and plunder. The devastation would be much worse than an invader whose agenda included annexation of conquered land (Metzudos).
“…the eagerness of their faces is like the east wind;” Rashi explains that the east wind is the harshest of all winds. If this is true, Scripture is them describing the strength and haste of the Chaldeans through this metaphor. Alternatively, Abarbanel and Malbim translate this scripture as the direction of their faces is eastward. Although Babylonia is east of the Land of Israel and a Chaldean going toward Israel would be going west, the intent of the Chaldeans was not to settle the captured land, but to destroy, plunder, and bring back the spoils back east to Babylonia. Therefore, if this translation is correct, Scripture describes that the direction of their faces is eastward to described their intent.
“And it will gather captives like the sand.” The Chaldeans will take many captives and leave over no one (Metzudos). The captives are the Israelites. The Torah often uses the sand and the sea to describe exceedingly large numbers.
Next week we will continue at verse 10.
Shalu Shalom Yerushalayim,
Rabbi Tamah Davis