In order to put the judgment of God and the return of Christ into context, it is useful to look at the book of Habakkuk, which provides a picture of what God does when His people are wicked, and then what He does to those who are sent to judge His own wayward people but who are even more wicked themselves. By understanding how God works and the order of His judgment and mercy, we can better understand our times and our situation.
Judging His Own Wicked People
In looking at the book of Habakkuk, let us see the pattern of the prophet’s questions and God’s answers and then apply that pattern to our own lives and our own current situation. Habakkuk 1:1-4 gives the prophet’s first question to God. Let us turn there to begin. Habakkuk 1:1-4 reads as follows: “The burden which the prophet Habakkuk saw. O Lord, how long shall I cry, and You will not hear? Even now cry out to You, “Violence!” And You will not save. Why do You show me iniquity, and cause me to see trouble? For plundering and violence are before me; there is strife, and contention arises. Therefore the law is powerless, and justice never goes forth. For the wicked surround the righteous; therefore perverse judgment proceeds.”
Let us understand something as we begin. Being a prophet is not so much about telling the future, but about crying out to God and to others about the sins of our wicked societies, and then bringing whatever wisdom God has provided to the people about how they are to turn from their ways to escape God’s certain judgment. In addition, let us note how common Habakkuk’s lament would be today. Do we all complain about how we cry out to God because of injustice, because of oppressive and wicked rulers, because of the sins we see all around us? I know I pray to God, like Habakkuk often about these matters, calling on Him to respond about the constant strife and contention and wickedness and oppression that are all around in this world that I have seen with my own eyes.
We read of God’s response to the wickedness of the Jews of Habakkuk’s day in Habakkuk 1:5-11. Habakkuk 1:5-11 reads as follows: “Look among the nations and watch—be utterly astounded! For I will work a work in your days which you would not believe, though it were told you. For indeed I am raising up the Chaldeans, a bitter and hasty nation which marches through the breath of the earth, to possess dwelling places that are not theirs. They are terrible and dreadful; their judgment and their dignity proceed from themselves. Their horses also are swifter than leopards, and more fierce than evening wolves. Their chargers charge ahead; their cavalry comes from afar; they fly as the eagle that hastens to eat. They all come for violence; their faces are set like the east wind. They gather captives like sand. They scoff at kings, and princes are scorned by them. They deride every stronghold, for they heap up earthen mounds and seize it. Then his mind changes, and he transgresses; he commits offense, ascribing this power to his god.”
So, what was God’s response to the plea of Habakkuk for justice? Did He say that He would come down and straighten out matters Himself? No, far from it. Instead, God says that He is sending a people who are wicked and mighty and proud to punish the wickedness of Israel. Here we see the first step in God’s judgment, and that is to begin judgment by punishing His own wayward and disobedient people by bringing against them a mighty and even more wicked nation as the instrument of God’s wrath. He brought the Assyrians against Israel, the Babylonians against Judah shortly after Habakkuk’s time, and the Greeks and Romans against Judah after their return to the promised land. Who knows who He will bring against our own wicked peoples if they refuse to repent of their sins and depart from their unjust ways?
The Just Shall Live By His Faith
As can be imagined, Habakkuk was not pleased that his own wicked nation would be punished by an even more wicked empire. And so he asked a second question of God, a question we would probably ask if we saw our own societies judged by an even more wicked and corrupt nation. We find Habakkuk’s second question of God in Habakkuk 1:12 through Habakkuk 2:1. Habakkuk 1:12-2:1 reads as follows: “Are You not from everlasting, O Lord my God, my Holy One? We shall not die. O Lord, You have appointed them for judgment; o Rock, you have marked them for correction. You are of purer eyes than to behold evil, and cannot look on wickedness. Why do You look on those who deal treacherously, and hold Your tongue when the wicked devours a person more righteous than he? Why do you make men like fish of the sea, like creeping things that have no ruler over them? They take up all of them with a hook, they catch them in their net, and gather them in their dragnet. Therefore they rejoice and are glad. Therefore they sacrifice to their net, and burn incense to their dragnet; because by them their share is sumptuous and their food plentiful. Shall they therefore empty their net, and continue to slay nations without pity? I will stand my watch and set myself on the rampart, and watch to see what He will say to me, and what I will answer when I am corrected.”
Here we see Habakkuk’s second question. He knows that his people, because of their refusal to repent, have been placed in judgment by God. He knows that he, because of his faithfulness, will live again and not perish eternally as do the wicked. But he cannot understand why a nation that is more wicked than Judah would be used to judge Judah. It does not seem fair. He is concerned about anarchy, as well as about the idolatrous way in which people worship their good fortune and fail to worship the God that gave it to them, when they did not deserve it. He also questions how it is just for a God who cannot bear to see evil to use an evil nation to correct a less evil one. Doing so, in using Babylon to judge Judah, makes men like fish to be caught in nets and makes the world seem anarchical, lacking the enforcement of God’s law across all nations. But he knows as well that God will correct him, and so he seeks that correction and does his job as a watchman, standing on the wall as was his job as a prophet.
And what was God’s reply? God’s reply was in two parts. Let’s look at the first part first in Habakkuk 2:2-4. Habakkuk 2:2-4 reads as follows: “Then the Lord answered me and said: “Write the vision and make it plain on tablets, that he may run who reads it. For the vision is yet for an appointed time; but at the end it will speak and it will not lie. Though it tarries, wait for it; because it will surely come, it will not tarry. Behold the proud, his soul is not upright in him; but the just shall by his faith.”
This particular passage contains the well-known phrase, “The just shall live by his faith,” which is quoted in Romans 1:17 and Hebrews 10:38. But the rest of the passage is not as well known. God is saying that the fulfillment of this passage is far off in the future—it has been about 2600 years since this prophecy was given, but that its fulfillment would be sure. God is talking about the granting of eternal life to the just, and that as far as it seems to delay, it will come to pass, as it ultimately will at the return of Jesus Christ. This gives us an understanding that this prophecy of Habakkuk has to do not only with the judgment on Judah, but also with the judgment of the earth before the return of Jesus Christ.
Then God makes a very long prophetic warning against evildoers, reminding them of the reality of God’s judgment. We read this warning in Habakkuk 2:5-20: “Indeed, because he transgresses by wine, he is a proud man, and he does not stay at home. Because he enlarges his desire as hell, and he is like death, and cannot be satisfied, he gathers to himself all nations and heaps up for himself all peoples. Will not all these take up a proverb against him, and a taunting riddle against him, and say, ‘Woe to him who increases what is not his—how long? And to him who loads himself with many pledges?’ Will not your creditors rise up suddenly? Will they not awaken those who oppress you? And you will become their booty. Because you have plundered many nations, all the remnant of the people shall plunder you, because of men’s blood and the violence of the land and the city, and all who dwell in it. Woe to him who covets evil gain for his house, that he may set his nest on high, that he may be delivered from the power of disaster! You give shameful counsel to your house, cutting off many peoples, and sin against your soul. For the stone will cry out from the wall, and the beam from the timbers will answer it. Woe to him who builds a town with bloodshed, who establishes a city by iniquity! Behold, is it not the Lord of Hosts that the people labor to feed the fire, and nations weary themselves in vain? For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. Woe to him to gives drink to his neighbor, pressing him to your bottle, even to make him drunk, that you may look on his nakedness! You are filled with shame instead of glory. You also—drink! And be exposed as uncircumcised! The cup of the Lord’s right hand will be turned againist you, and utter shame will be on your glory. For the violence done to Lebanon will cover you, and the plunder of beasts which made them afraid, because of men’s blood and the violence of the land and the city, and of all who dwell in it. What profit is the image, that its maker should carve it, the molded image, a teacher of lies, that the maker of its mold should trust in it, to make mute idols? Woe to him who says to wood, ‘Awake!’ To silent stone, ‘Arise! It shall teach!’ Behold, it is overlaid with gold and silver, yet in it there is no breath at all. But the Lord is in His holy temple. Let all the earth keep silence before Him.”
As someone who has a fairly long list of creditors, this passage speaks very eloquently of the plight of someone who has a few too many pledges and faces the inevitable and fierce hostility of those whom one owes and cannot repay. Take it from me, it’s not a place you want to be. Additionally, this passage also speaks often, and eloquently, about God’s hostility to those who engage in drunken carousing and partying. God does not view highly those who are proud or angry drunks, or those who get other people drunk to see their nakedness, as happens in many parties around the world. Also, God condemns those who seek to build up their house by coveting the property and wealth of others, as well as those who trust in idols of their own creation because they see themselves as the authorities of their own lives and behavior. All of these sins were sins of the ancient Chaldean Empire, which fell some 2500 years ago. But they are also sins of the Babylonian system of culture and religion that is still alive and well and that will not fall until the return of Jesus Christ. And this chapter shares some connections with Revelation 18, which describes the fall of Babylon, its drunkenness on the wrath of God, and its relationship with the merchants of this world.
The Lord God Is My Strength
After God’s words of judgment, Habakkuk closes his book with a psalm that speaks of his own faith in God despite the trials that may result. This psalm takes up Habakkuk 3:1-19, which reads as follows: “A prayer of Habakkuk, the prophet, on Shigionoth. O Lord, I have heard your speech and was afraid; O Lord, revive Your work in the midst of the years! In the midst of the years make it known; in wrath remember mercy. God came from Teman, the Holy One from Mount Paran, Selah. His glory covered the heavens, and the earth was full of His praise. His brightness was like the light; He had rays flashing from His hand, and there His power was hidden. Before Him went pestilence, and fever followed at His feet. He stood and measured the earth; He looked and startled the nations. And the everlasting mountains were scattered, the perpetual hills bowed. His ways are everlasting. I saw the tents of Cushan in affliction; the curtains of the land of Midian trembled. O Lord, were You displeased with the rivers, was Your anger against the rivers, was Your wrath against the sea, that You ride on Your horses, Your chariots of salvation? Your bow was made quite ready; oaths were sworn over Your arrows, Selah. You divided the earth with rivers. The mountains saw You and trembled; the overflowing of the water passed by. The deep uttered its voice, and lifted its hands on high. The sun and moon stood still in their habitation; at the light of Your arrows they went, at the shining of Your glittering spear. You marched through the land in indignation; You trampled the nations in anger. You went forth for the salvation of Your people, for salvation with Your Anointed. You struck the head from the house of the wicked, by laying bare from foundation to neck, Selah. You thrust through with his own arrows the head of his villages. They came out like a whirlwind to scatter me; their rejoicing was like feasting on the poor in secret. You walked through the sea with Your horses, through the heap of great waters. When I heard, my body trembled; my lips quivered at the voice; rottenness entered my bones; and I trembled in myself, that I might rest in the day of trouble. When he comes up to the people, he will invade them with his troops. Through the fig tree may not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines; through the labor of the olive may fall, and the fields yield no food; though the flock may be cut off from the fold, and there be no herd in the stalls—yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will joy in the God of my salvation. The Lord God is my strength; He will make my feet like deer’s feet, and He will make me walk on my high hills. To the Chief Musician, with my stringed instruments.”
Here, in Habakkuk’s closing, we are reminded of the return of Christ, when Daniel 2 tells us the kingdoms of the earth will be shattered by the chief cornerstone of Christ, and when Revelation 11 tells us that the kingdoms of this world will become the kingdoms of our God and of His Christ forever. Habakkuk 3 is therefore, like the rest of the book, not only looking at the fall of Judah to Babylon, but also to a later time of trouble when Judah and Israel will be troubled by a later Babylonian system, judged for their sins, have their wealth, food, and people taken away from them, and are ultimately delivered through God’s mighty power from captivity when Jesus Christ takes control of the whole world. Then the righteous will rejoice, for the exploitation of peoples by the wicked and powerful will be no more. Then the righteous will walk on the high hills and dance and sing for joy, for God’s rule will be established over the whole world.
Let us close by commenting a little on the organization of Habakkuk and what it says about the end times before the return of Christ. There is an order for God’s action on the earth preceding the return of Christ. First, God’s rebellious people, both those who claim a physical ancestry from Israel as well as those who claim to be Christians, will be judged for their wickedness and their hostility to God’s ways by God through the power of those even more wicked than themselves. This is expressed in Habakkuk 1. Then Jesus Christ will return, crush the wicked kingdoms of the Babylonian religious system that have exploited the world and behaved wickedly, discussed in Habakkuk 2, and a righteous remnant will be brought into Jesus Christ’s Millennial rule where the saints shall reign, discussed in Habakkuk 3. So we see from Habakkuk a specific order of God’s work—first He judges his own people, then He judges the world and restores a righteous and purified remnant to places of honor and respect so that they can praise God for His salvation and enjoy the fruits of His mercy, and live in peace and in righteous obedience to His law. Since we see the wickedness of our own societies in this world around us, let us pray that we are found worthy to be that righteous remnant saved from or through the trials and tribulations and judgment that God promises will come to those wicked societies that reject His laws and refuse to follow His ways. And let God remember to be merciful to us, even in His wrath.