Habakkuk 1
Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges
The burden which Habakkuk the prophet did see.
1. The burden] the oracle. Comp. Habakkuk 2:6 “take up” a proverb. Numbers 23:7; Isaiah 14:4. See Nahum 1:1.

did see] Comp. Isaiah 2:1the word that Isaiah saw”; Isaiah 13:1 “the oracle which Isaiah did see.” Amos 1:1; Micah 1:1. In the early times of prophecy the ecstasy or exalted condition of mind was more usual and the things revealed to the prophet were seen by him. Thus Micaiah ben Jimlah said: “I saw all Israel scattered upon the hills, as sheep that have not a shepherd” 1 Kings 22:17; 1 Kings 22:19. In later times these terms “see,” “vision” and the like, which had been formed in the early period, continued to be retained, and any revelation was called a “vision,” and “see” was employed of the act of receiving a revelation, even when it was a word (Isaiah 2:1). On the name Habakkuk see Introduction.

O LORD, how long shall I cry, and thou wilt not hear! even cry out unto thee of violence, and thou wilt not save!
2–4. The Prophet’s complaint that he has long cried out against evils unheard

2. how long shall I cry] lit. shall I have cried? Exodus 10:3; Exodus 16:28; Psalm 80:4. The prophet’s cry extends back into the past. But though he has been long crying he has received no answer from Heaven; the evil proceeds unchecked, even unregarded of God (Habakkuk 1:3).

wilt not hear] dost not hear.

even cry out unto thee of violence] I cry out unto thee of violence (or, Violence! this being the word which forms his cry). Job 19:7; Jeremiah 20:8. The term “violence” is equivalent to wrong, injury, whether accompanied with force or not, Genesis 16:5.

wilt not save] dost not save, or, give deliverance, Psalm 18:41 (Heb. 42). The cry of wrong and injury though long continued has evoked no interposition of God, nor been met with any help. The prophet seems certainly to complain not only of injury which he sees around him, but which he suffers (Job 19:7; Jeremiah 20:8). But it may be a question when he says “I” whether he does not make himself one with some class in Israel, namely, the godly, who are wronged by the wicked, or with Israel as a people, which suffers injury at the hands of a foreign oppressor.

Why dost thou shew me iniquity, and cause me to behold grievance? for spoiling and violence are before me: and there are that raise up strife and contention.
3. shew me iniquity] cause me to see iniquity. God by His interposition might have checked the iniquity; by His refraining the continuance of it is virtually due to Him. One thing pains the prophet—that he has to behold iniquity; and another perplexes him—that God, the Righteous One, brings him into such a trial, or leaves him in it. The Hebrew mind was the more profoundly agitated by the moral anomalies in the world, because it could not help ascribing them directly to God, Who was the immediate cause of all things. The feeling is often expressed in Job, e.g. Job 23:16-17.

The term “iniquity” is used both of physical evil, “affliction” (Jeremiah 4:14; Job 5:6), and moral evil, “wickedness”; here of the latter, as generally, e.g. in the common phrase “workers of iniquity.”

cause me to behold grievance] and dost look upon trouble. The term grievance or trouble (Habakkuk 1:13 R.V. perverseness), properly “labour,” toil, has also the double sense of misery, pain, sorrow, travail (Isaiah 53:11), or mischief, wrongdoing (Psalm 7:15; Psalm 94:20; Isaiah 59:4). The latter half of the verse “spoiling and violence” is in favour of understanding all the terms not so much of evils suffered as of evils inflicted. The prophet is perplexed because God looks on unconcerned when men perpetrate wrong.

spoiling and violence are before me] The words again combined, Jeremiah 6:7; Jeremiah 20:8; Ezekiel 45:9; Amos 3:10. The term “spoiling” means violent mishandling when used of a person, destruction or devastation when said of a thing. Isaiah 13:6; Job 5:21-22; Hosea 7:13; Psalm 12:6. With “before me” comp. Jeremiah 6:7.

there are that raise up strife] Rather as R.V.: and there is strife, and contention riseth up (for Heb. constr. cf. Psalm 89:9). This is the condition of things that has come about and prevails. The terms “strife” and “contention” certainly suggest animosities between members of the same community rather than injuries inflicted on a subject people by their conquerors. The conquerors of Israel did not mix among the inhabitants or interfere with individual persons, they merely demanded political subjection and tribute, and the latter they collected not from the people but from their rulers. Comp. the use of the two words in Jeremiah 15:10.

Therefore the law is slacked, and judgment doth never go forth: for the wicked doth compass about the righteous; therefore wrong judgment proceedeth.
4. law is slacked] lit. numbed, rigid, i.e. motionless, paralysed and ineffectual. The term “law” (torah) means properly divine instruction given orally at the mouth of the priest (Jeremiah 18:18; Malachi 2:6-7); then also that given orally by the prophet (Isaiah 1:10), and more generally any oral instruction (Proverbs 1:8; Proverbs 6:20). In a wider sense it is divine instruction regarding any subject, particularly matters of ritual; then specially of the law of Moses in Deuteronomy, and finally of the whole Pentateuch. In some cases the word seems generalized to mean the revelation as a whole communicated to Israel, particularly as being essentially the true knowledge of the true God, which it is the mission of Israel the servant of the Lord to impart to the nations, Isaiah 42:4; cf. Isaiah 49:6, Isaiah 51:4. Parallel to the word in this use is the term “judgment,” e.g. Isaiah 42:3-4 “till he have set judgment in the earth, and the isles shall look unto his torah.” See next clause.

judgment doth never go forth] The word “never” does not seem anywhere to mean “at no time,” “on no occasion,” it appears always to refer to the future, e.g. Psalm 10:11; Isaiah 13:20; Amos 8:7. The words must therefore be rendered: and judgment shall never go forth—a sense unsuitable to the connexion.

It is probable that the word has here some modified meaning, and that the sense is akin to Isaiah 42:3 “judgment unto truth,” or, according to truth, paraphrased “unto victory” Matthew 12:20. “Law” here hardly means the specific decision of the priest on particular questions, nor “judgment” the sentence of the magistrate in particular causes; rather the sense is: law, i.e. moral (social) law (Amos 2:4; Hosea 4:6) is paralysed and cannot assert its validity, and judgment, i.e. “right,” comes not forth in its fulness, but is seen maimed. Others, as Wellhausen, take law and judgment in the sense they have in Isaiah 40 seq., of the true religion of Jehovah, and consider the prophet’s complaint to be that the predominance of the heathen powers represses the true religion and prevents its expansion and effectiveness. This sense is less in harmony with the other statements of the passage.

the wicked doth compass about the righteous] Unlike its use in Psalm 142:7 “compass” is employed here in a hostile sense, to hem in, so as to impair one’s liberties and just rights (Job 3:23). Both “righteous” and “wicked” are collective terms, referring to classes. The antithesis was used not only of two classes in Israel (Isaiah 3:10-11; Isaiah 5:23; Isaiah 11:4; Zephaniah 1:3), but particularly in later times “wicked” was used of the heathen nations and “righteous” of Israel. The antithesis is taken in the latter sense here by those who consider Habakkuk 1:1-4 to refer to heathen oppressions, cf. Habakkuk 1:13.

wrong judgment proceedeth] As R.V.: therefore judgment goeth forth perverted, i.e. “right,” the good cause of the righteous, fails to prevail.

Behold ye among the heathen, and regard, and wonder marvellously: for I will work a work in your days, which ye will not believe, though it be told you.
5. behold ye among the heathen] among the nations. For “among the nations” Sept. read “ye despisers” (bgdm for bgym), and part of the phrase “wonder marvellously” they translated “and perish.” With this translation the “despisers” addressed are the wrongdoers of Habakkuk 1:1-4.

I will work a work] R.V. marg. one worketh a work, a construction equivalent to the pass., a work is wrought; Isaiah 21:11 “one calleth unto me out of Seir.” This is not very natural. Though the omission of pron. “I” is perhaps without parallel, A.V. is more probable. So Sept. The rendering he worketh would be more according to usage, but the connexion with Habakkuk 1:6 is then broken.

ye will not believe] Perhaps: ye would not believe though it were told you, i.e. in other circumstances—unless you saw it.

5–11. The answer of God to the Prophet’s complaint

The wrongs complained of will bring their punishment. The Lord raiseth up the Chaldeans, a bitter and hasty nation. They are irresistible; they laugh at kings, and fortresses they heap up dust and take.

For, lo, I raise up the Chaldeans, that bitter and hasty nation, which shall march through the breadth of the land, to possess the dwellingplaces that are not theirs.
6. raise up the Chaldeans] The reference in “raise up” can hardly be to the first entrance of the Chaldeans upon the stage of history; it is rather to their advance against Israel. Some MSS. of Sept. add “against you.” On Chaldeans see after Habakkuk 1:11.

bitter and hasty nation] Spoken of temper or disposition “bitter” is vehement and passionate, Jdg 18:25; 2 Samuel 17:8; and “hasty” is sudden in action, driven headlong by violent impulse.

shall march … the land] which marcheth through the breadth of the earth. His operations extend over the world, and his object is conquest, to seize for a possession the dwelling-places of other peoples. Job 18:21; Jeremiah 9:19; Jeremiah 30:18; Isaiah 32:18. The phrase “that are not his” again ch. Habakkuk 2:6; cf. Deuteronomy 6:10-11.

They are terrible and dreadful: their judgment and their dignity shall proceed of themselves.
7. terrible and dreadful] The first word occurs again only Song of Solomon 6:4; Song of Solomon 6:10 “terrible as an army with banners.” The noun is frequently used of the terror inspired by the sight of an object, Job 39:20; Job 41:14; of the terror caused by the manifestation of the Almighty, Job 9:34; Job 13:21, and of the terrors of death, Psalm 55:4. The second word is that usually rendered “terrible” in A.V., meaning, to be feared.

Their judgment and their dignity] from himself proceedeth his Judgment and his dignity. The words carry on the idea of “terrible and dreadful,” and describe the Chaldean’s manner of bearing himself among the nations, though it may be uncertain whether “his judgment” be that which regulates his own conduct or that which he imposes on the nations. The former sense is the more vigorous. The Chaldean’s own sense of himself corresponds to the dread he inspires. He is imperious and autocratic, allows no considerations from without to modify his action, his own haughty mind alone determines his procedure. Similarly his “dignity” or majesty is the supremacy and sovereignty which he assumes and exercises.

Their horses also are swifter than the leopards, and are more fierce than the evening wolves: and their horsemen shall spread themselves, and their horsemen shall come from far; they shall fly as the eagle that hasteth to eat.
8. swifter than the leopards] Jeremiah 4:13 says, “his horses are swifter than eagles.”

more fierce than the evening wolves] lit. more sharp. Being parallel to “swift” the term “fierce” probably means keen in attack, eager in flinging themselves on the foe. Gesenius quotes Virg. Georg. 3. 264, genus acre luporum, and Æn. 4. 156, acri gaudet equo. The wolf attacks at night when his hunger is keen. For, “evening wolves,” Sept. reads “wolves of Arabia,” supplying different vowels.

their horsemen shall spread themselves] and his horsemen bound, or, gallop. The word is used of the springing or bounding of cattle, Malachi 4:2 (Heb. 3:20); Jeremiah 50:11.

horsemen shall come from far] his horsemen come. But the repetition of “horsemen” is unnatural (Sept. omits), and the clause introduces an unequal number of members into the verse. Possibly the words are a marginal explanation of the somewhat uncommon term “gallop.”

They shall fly as the eagle] they fly. The word eagle refers possibly to some kind of vulture; cf. Micah 1:16 “enlarge thy baldness like the eagle.”

that hasteth to eat] i.e. that swoops upon the prey or carcase.

They shall come all for violence: their faces shall sup up as the east wind, and they shall gather the captivity as the sand.
9. they shall come] they come all of them for violence. To rob and harry is their object.

Their faces shall sup up] R.V. paraphrastically: their faces are set eagerly as the east wind. The clause is obscure in sense, and in all likelihood the text is faulty. Two tentative senses have been suggested: (1) the word rendered in A.V. “sup up” has been connected with the term used of the war-horse, Job 39:24, he swalloweth the ground, i.e. appears to do so in his eagerness and swiftness; cf. Genesis 14:17, “Let me drink” (the same word). From this sense of swallowing or gulping up might come the more general one of straining or striving after (as in Neo-Heb.), giving some such sense as the striving of their faces is &c. Such a meaning is rather indefinite and flat, and the form of word is not easy to connect with that used in Job 39:24. (2) Others, as Gesen., would connect with the Arab. word signifying a crowd, assemblage, and render: the mass, crowd, of their faces.

as the east wind] The term properly means eastward, but as the spectator when reckoning the quarters of the heavens faced the east, it is supposed that eastwards became equivalent to forwards or onwards. The whole clause would mean: the striving (or, the crowd) of their faces is forwards; the impetuosity and rapidity of their movement being indicated. Such a sense is rather lame, even if it could be legitimately reached.

shall gather the captivity] and they gather captives like the sand. The sand is innumerable, Genesis 22:17; Genesis 41:49; 2 Samuel 17:11.

And they shall scoff at the kings, and the princes shall be a scorn unto them: they shall deride every strong hold; for they shall heap dust, and take it.
10. shall scoff at the kings] he scoffeth at kings. The Chaldean is referred to. All the verbs in the verse should be in the present: are a scorn, he derideth, he heapeth up.

shall heap dust] he heapeth up. The phrase refers to the dykes or “mounts” which the besiegers cast up in order to be on a level with the walls of the besieged fortress and command them, 2 Samuel 20:15; Jeremiah 32:24. The ease and rapidity of the Chaldean operations is forcibly expressed. Nothing can withstand their impetuosity. Kings with their armies who might oppose them, and fortresses which might arrest their progress, they laugh at.

Then shall his mind change, and he shall pass over, and offend, imputing this his power unto his god.
11. Then shall his mind change] then he sweepeth onward as the wind (or, a blast), and passeth through. The two words “sweep on” and “pass through” occur again Isaiah 8:8, being said of the Assyrian armies under the figure of an overwhelming flood. But both words are used of wind-storms, the first Isaiah 21:1, and the second Proverbs 10:25. Arrested for a moment by the fortress, as soon as it is fallen he sweeps onwards, and overruns what lies still before him. The “wind” and “spirit” being the same word in Heb., A.V. rendered mind.

and offend] and becometh guilty. The rhythm of the verse would place this word in the second clause, but the sense is against this position.

Imputing this his power] Rather, this his might becometh his god. The Heb. word “this” is as in Psalm 12:7; the form is oftener a relative, and so R.V., even he whose might is his god. The clause perhaps explains how he “becomes guilty” or offends. His success intoxicates him, and in his pride of heart he deifies his own might. Comp. the words of the Assyrian king Isaiah 10:7 ff., Isaiah 10:13 ff., and those of Nebuchadnezzar, Daniel 4:30. For “offends” Wellh. suggests tentatively a form of the verb to set or make: and maketh this his might to be his god. This restores the rhythm, but the order of words is strange. The text is not above suspicion.

The Chaldeans (Heb. Kasdîm), in the Assyrian inscriptions Kaldu, were properly neither Assyrians nor Babylonians, though no doubt like them a Shemitic people. Their seats were in the southmost parts of the Babylonian plain, towards and on the Persian Gulf. Here they formed a number of small states, one of which was Bît Yakin, the kingdom of Merodach Baladan, which lay on the coast and is called in inscriptions “the land of the sea.” If the Shemites penetrated into the plains of the two rivers from the north, the Chaldeans must have formed the vanguard of the immigration and been thrown into the furthest south by the successive waves of population that followed them; if they entered from the south or south-west the Chaldeans would be the latest to arrive. This is most probable, for the movement appears always to have been northward, and the steady aim of the Chaldeans was to gain possession of the country lying to the north of their abode and seat themselves upon the throne of Babylon. This their princes succeeded in doing more than once. Merodach Baladan, who gave trouble to three Assyrian monarchs, Tiglath-Pileser, Sargon and Sennacherib, appears to have occupied the throne of Babylon from b.c. 721 to 709, when after a war with Sargon he was dispossessed. The indefatigable veteran renewed the struggle for the crown of Babylon in the time of Sennacherib, but without success, and disappears from history, though his descendants are spoken of in the annals of the succeeding Assyrian kings. The Chaldean states allied themselves with Shamash-shumukin, the Babylonian viceroy, in his revolt against his brother Assurbanipal, but were severely chastised by the Assyrian king and overrun by his armies (see Introd. to Nahum, § 2). Finally, on the death of Assurbanipal (cir. 626), the Chaldean Nabopolassar, taking advantage of the weakness of Assyria, succeeded, by what steps is unknown, in placing the crown of Babylon on his head, and transmitting it to his descendants. The Chaldean empire of Babylon dates from the usurpation of Nabopolassar (b. c. 625), though it was his son Nebuchadnezzar (605), the greatest ruler of the East, to whom its splendour was due. Nebuchadnezzar was succeeded by several princes of feeble character, the last of whom was Nabonidus (Nabuna’id), in whose reign the empire fell before the attack of the Medes and Persians under Cyrus (b.c. 538), having lasted less than a century, and with its fall the empire of the East passed from the Shemites to a people of the Aryan race.

Art thou not from everlasting, O LORD my God, mine Holy One? we shall not die. O LORD, thou hast ordained them for judgment; and, O mighty God, thou hast established them for correction.
12–17. Remonstrance of the Prophet with God, the righteous Ruler of the world, over the cruelties and inhumanity of the Chaldeans

12. The words down to “die” must form two lines and cannot be divided at “Holy One.” Most naturally thus:

Art not thou from everlasting, O Jehovah!

My God, mine Holy One, we shall not die!

Others make the division at “my God.” The word “everlasting” again Deuteronomy 33:27. The eternity of their God is often a ground of confidence to Israel; Isaiah 40:28, “an everlasting God is Jehovah, he fainteth not neither is weary.” Cf. Psalm 90:2, “from everlasting to everlasting thou art God.”

we shall not die] This is said half in supplication, half in assurance; Psalm 118:17; cf. 1 Samuel 20:14. Comp. the assurance “shall live” ch. Habakkuk 2:4. The accumulation of divine names shews the earnestness and importunity of the prophet. According to Jewish tradition “we shall not die” is a tiḳḳun (emendation) of the “scribes” for thou shall not die (diest not). Opinions differ as to who the “scribes” are. Some consider that the original authors are meant, in which case the tiḳḳun would be a second thought of the writer. What occurred to him to say first was “thou diest not,” but reverence restrained him from bringing the ideas of death and God together, and he said “we shall not die.” We are not informed how this interesting process in the prophet’s mind became known to after-times. Obviously this is not the real account of the matter, which is not easy to give. No doubt, however, these so-called emendations—there are eighteen of them—were either (1) real corrections by the scribes, i.e. copyists or editors of the sacred books; or (2) they are no emendations at all, but the original text; the supposed readings which they are said to have supplanted being mere fancies of Jewish scholars as to what might have been written. Possibly they are partly of the one class and partly of the other. In the present passage Sept. agrees with Heb., but in another, Job 7:20, it exhibits the supposed original reading: “I am become a burden unto Thee” (Heb. unto myself).

ordained them for judgment] lit. him, i.e. the Chaldean. The prophet proceeds in the same tone of half prayer, half confidence, struck in “we shall not die,” explaining to himself and venturing to suggest before God what must be the meaning of the Chaldean’s supremacy and oppression—he is not meant to cause Israel to perish, only to execute God’s temporary judgment upon it. Ewald takes the other possible view, viz. that it is the Chaldean himself who is appointed to be judged and receive punishment. This view is less natural in the connexion.

O mighty God … correction] and O Rock thou hast appointed him for correction—to be the instrument of chastising Israel. The term Rock is used of God, Deuteronomy 32:4; Deuteronomy 32:18; Deuteronomy 32:30-31; 1 Samuel 2:2, 2 Samuel 22:32; 2 Samuel 23:3; cf. Genesis 49:24.

Thou art of purer eyes than to behold evil, and canst not look on iniquity: wherefore lookest thou upon them that deal treacherously, and holdest thy tongue when the wicked devoureth the man that is more righteous than he?
13. thou art of purer eyes] lit. O thou of pure eyes so as not (to be able) to see evil, and who canst not look upon wrongdoing. Psalm 5:4-5 “evil cannot dwell with thee.”

treacherously] Or, ruthlessly, tyrannically.

holdest thy tongue … devoureth] holdest thy peace … swalloweth up. Isaiah 42:14, “I have long time holden my peace, I have been still and refrained myself; now &c.” Psalm 50:21.

more righteous than he] The “wicked” is the Chaldean conqueror; the “righteous” is generalized to include the other nations, victims of the Chaldean barbarities, though Israel may be specially in the prophet’s mind. But in Habakkuk 1:12-17 the prophet speaks out of the heart of mankind (cf. Nahum, Introd. § 4). The anomaly is that the righteous God, whose nature cannot endure wrong, looks on and is silent over this wrong which is as large as the human race.

And makest men as the fishes of the sea, as the creeping things, that have no ruler over them?
14. And makest men] and hast made men—the condition is one that has supervened. At the last resort it is Jehovah who is the author of all this inhuman violence. Cf. Job 9:24, “if not He, who then is it?” It might be that the Chaldeans were set to chastise, but they exceeded all bounds in their inhumanity (Isaiah 47:6-7; Zechariah 1:14-15). Men under their cruel rapacity ceased to be men, the very humanity in them was disregarded, and the brutal conqueror in his pride treated them like the lower creatures.

no ruler over them] This hardly means that the creeping things have no king to protect them, but rather that, as the lowest creatures that have life, they have no higher instincts, no organization, they are a mere swarming disorder, and to this condition do the conquerors reduce mankind. Proverbs 6:7; Proverbs 30:27.

They take up all of them with the angle, they catch them in their net, and gather them in their drag: therefore they rejoice and are glad.
15. They take up … angle] He taketh up … with the hook; he sweepeth them into (or, with) his net.

they rejoice] he rejoiceth and exulteth. The Chaldean is compared to the fisher, who rejoices over the successful haul of his net. He drags men and nations indiscriminately into his power, and is dead to all their higher sensibilities and all that is human in them.

Therefore they sacrifice unto their net, and burn incense unto their drag; because by them their portion is fat, and their meat plenteous.
16. they sacrifice unto their net] he sacrificeth. The figure of “net” and “drag” was suggested by the idea that men were reduced to the level of fishes and creeping things. The net represents the means and instruments employed by the conqueror, or that by which he subdues men. This might be more generally his prowess (Habakkuk 1:11), or more particularly his weapons. Herod. iv. 62 records that the Scythians offered a yearly sacrifice of sheep and horses to the scimitar as the symbol of Mars. It may be doubted if the prophet had any knowledge of this or if his idea is so precise. The next clause “for by them his portion is fat” might suggest that his weapons were meant; but if so his “sacrificing” to them is probably not to be taken literally. He deifies his weapons, or, if Habakkuk 1:11 be followed, the might that wields them.

Shall they therefore empty their net, and not spare continually to slay the nations?
17. A despairing question and appeal to Heaven.

Shall they … their net] Shall he … his net?

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