Gleanings from the Bible: Habakkuk

It seems ironic that people often blame God for all the things that go wrong in the world (“Why does God allow so much injustice and suffering?”) and then blame him again when his steps in to exact justice. Perhaps we don’t always recognise God’s judgement in the world and we are too quick to say, “No, that couldn’t be God. He just doesn’t act in that way. My God is all loving and wouldn’t hurt anyone.” We do of course have to be very careful about linking suffering with acts of judgement (see my earlier blog on Job for example). But this is where the prophets come in. They interpret world events theologically, as they affect God’s People. They have revelation from God and speak accordingly.

Nevertheless, in this case, Habakkuk presents the same questions that we might ask. “Why aren’t you listening? Why don’t you save me? Why do you put up with wrongdoing? Why do you allow justice to be perverted?” And God’s answer is that he is sending the Babylonians to sort out the evil that pervades Judah.

This is hardly a satisfactory answer for Habakkuk. “Why would you use them! A ruthless law unto to themselves! How can you associate with them and replace one evil with and even worse one?!” And God’s reply is, in essence, “Have faith.”

See, the enemy is puffed up;
his desires are not upright –
but the righteous person will live by his faithfulness. (2:4)

…the nations exhaust themselves for nothing… (2:13)

For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD
as the waters cover the sea. (2:14)

In fact Babylon would not escape justice any more than Judah did. God may use Babylon for his ends, to bring justice and punishment from evil, but Babylon would still be held accountable their cruelty and oppression.

We know from history and the book of Daniel (see my earlier blog on Daniel) that Persia would replace Babylon, Greece would conquer Persia, and Rome would conquer the divided Greek Empire, but out of the Roman Era would come a Saviour, who would usher in God’s everlasting Kingdom.

Habakkuk lived in turbulent times but as he worked through the issues he could finish his prophecy with…

Yet I will rejoice in the LORD
I will be joyful in God my Saviour.
The sovereign LORD is my strength;
he makes my feet like the feet of a deer,
he enables me to tread on the heights.

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Gleanings from the Bible: Nahum

Here it is again. A prophecy against the capital city of Assyria – Nineveh. Notable because Jonah had already taken the warning of destruction to them – and they repented!

Assuming (with some good reason) that Jonah ministered around 800 to 750BC then Nahum’s message chips in after the fall of Thebes to Assyria (mentioned in 3:8) in 663BC and before the eventual fall of Nineveh in 612BC. Assyria had already destroyed Samaria in 722-721BC and now had its sights set on Judah.

Reading simple accounts of the rise and fall of great powers sometimes sounds so clean cut, so academic. They fail to convey the cruelty, the loss of life, family and home, the sheer bloodiness, pain and grotesqueness of it all! Nahum finishes his prophecy with the comment about Assyria – “for who has not felt your endless cruelty.”

The Medes’ and Chaldeans’ (Babylon’s) sacking of  Ninevah and the establishment of the Babylonian Empire is described in a way that matched the conquests of Assyria itself. “Charging cavalry, flashing swords and glittering spears! Many casualties, piles of dead, bodies without number, people stumbling over the corpses” (3:3). And this, Nahum tells us, was the vengeance of God, his anger and his wrath.

Some would want to jump in at this point with, “Aha! You see! God is a vengeful and bloodthirsty monster. Christ tells us to turn the other cheek but this God is something else!”

A number of points should dissuade us from this view. The first is to take Nahum in the context of Scripture and remember the point made to Jonah after he had wanted the city destroyed, “And should I not have concern for Nineveh,”. We are assured throughout the Bible that God only resorts to judgement after long years of patience and mercy.

The second point is that a god who never acts with justice is no god at all, but Yahweh (the LORD) will not leave the guilty unpunished (1:3). God will forgive, of course, where there is repentance (Jonah’s Nineveh was evidence of that) even while sin still has its consequences, but he will act angrily against unrepentant violence.

A third point is that anger is not always a bad thing. We should be angry about injustice, oppression and the horrific violence perpetrated against people who are just trying to get on with their life. Not the wild, out of control anger that beats the air without achieving anything effective, nor the violent anger that strikes out indiscriminately and uninformed. God is not like that. His anger is passionate but controlled, directed, effective and just. It comes after many warnings. Hence in this case, we have the prophets Jonah and Nahum.

A fourth point is that as Creator, God does have a right to deal with us as he wants since he knows the end from the beginning – but we do not! It means that, though we in western society value our individuality so much, we do not have the individual right to administer our own justice, except with those over whom we have been given legitimate authority and then within legitimate boundaries.

The latter point could lead us into a long ramble through the hills and valleys of what ‘legitimate’ might mean in the context of a harsh dictatorship, what constitutes a legitimate authority, questions concerning a just war and the defence of others, and so on. But the bottom line is, when it comes to God, he is the ultimate authority. He will do what is right and we are encouraged to trust him for what we do not understand.

The LORD is good.
a refuge in times of trouble.
He cares for those who trust in him,
but with an overwhelming flood
he will make an end to Nineveh;
he will pursue his foes into the realm of darkness.

The destruction of Nineveh was but temporary relief for wayward Judah, for a few years later God would act against them too, as the conquering Babylonians carried them off into Exile. But for Judah there would be a return, a purified remnant. God’s plan was still unfolding. Through that remnant a Saviour would come for all the nations.