The precise interpretation of the book of Habakkuk presents unusual difficulties; but, brief and difficult as it is, it is clear that Habakkuk was a great prophet, of earnest, candid soul, and he has left us one of the noblest and most penetrating words in the history of religion, ii.4b. The prophecy may be placed about the year 600 B.C. The Assyrian empire had fallen, and by the battle of Carchemish in 605 B.C., Babylonian supremacy was practically established over Western Asia. Josiah's reformation, whose effects had been transient and superficial, lay more than twenty years behind. The reckless Jehoiakim was upon the throne of Judah, a king who regarded neither the claims of justice (Jer. xxii.13-19) nor the words of the prophet (Jer. xxxvi.23), and his rebellion drew upon him and his land the terrible vengeance of Babylon, first in 601 B.C., then in 597.

The prophet begins by asking his God how long the lamentable disorder and wrong are to continue, i.1-4. For answer, he is assured that the Chaldeans are to be raised up in chastisement, who, with their terrible army, will mockingly defy every attempt to check their advance, i.5-11, But in i.12-17 the prophet appears to be confounded by their impiety; they have been guilty of barbarous cruelty -- how can Jehovah reconcile this with His own holiness and purity? The prophet finds the answer to his question when he climbs his tower of faith; there he learns that the proud shall perish and the righteous live. The solution may be long delayed, but faith sees and grasps it already: "The just shall live by his faithfulness," ii.1-4. Then follows a series of woes, ii.5-20, which expand the thought of ii.4a -- the sure destruction of the proud. Woes are denounced upon the cruel rapacity of the conquerors, their unjust accumulation of treasure, their futile ambitions, their unfeeling treatment of the land, beasts and people, and finally their idolatry. In contrast to the stupid and impotent gods worshipped by the oppressor is the great God of Israel, whose temple is in the heavens, and before whom the earth is summoned to silence, ii.20. For He is on His way to take vengeance upon the enemies of His people, as He did in the ancient days of the exodus, when He came in the terrors of the storm and overthrew the Egyptians. His coming is described in terms of older theophanies (Jud. v., Deut. xxxiii.); and this "prayer," as it is called in the superscription, concludes with an expression of unbounded confidence and joy in Jehovah, even when all customary and visible signs of His love fail (iii.).

Simple and coherent as this sequence seems to be, it is, in reality, on closer inspection, very perplexing. Ch. i.1-4 reveals a picture of confusion within Judah, but it is impossible to say whether it is foreigners who are oppressing Judah as a whole, or powerful classes within Judah itself that are oppressing the poor. Perhaps the latter is the more natural interpretation. In that case, the Chaldeans are raised up to chastise the native oppressor, i.5-11. This section, however, has fresh difficulties of its own; vv.5, 6 suggest that the Chaldeans are not yet known to be a formidable power, they are only about to be raised up, v.6, and what they will do is as yet incredible, v.5. The minute description which follows, however, looks as if their military appearance and methods were thoroughly familiar. Assuming that i.12-17 is the continuation of i.5-ll -- and the descriptions are very similar -- the Chaldeans, whose coming was the answer to the prophet's prayer, now constitute a fresh problem; they swallow up those who are more righteous than themselves, v.13, i.e. Judah. It cannot be denied that such a characterization of Judah sounds strange after the charge levelled at her in i.1-4, unless we assume an interval of time between the sections, or at least that in i.12-17, Judah is regarded as relatively righteous, i.e. in comparison with the Chaldeans.

The situation is further complicated by the very close resemblance that prevails between i.1-4 and i.12-17. The very same words for righteous and wicked occur in i.13 as in i.4; do they or do they not designate the same persons? If they do, then, as in i.12-17, the wicked oppressor is almost certainly the Chaldean and the righteous is Judah, and we shall have to interpret the confusion pictured in i.2-4 as due to the Chaldean suzerainty, and perhaps to assign the section to a period after the first capture of Jerusalem in 597 B.C. In that case, as it is obvious that the Chaldeans could not be raised up to execute divine judgment upon themselves, the section, i.5-11, would have to be regarded as an independent piece, whether Habakkuk's or not, announcing the rise of the Chaldeans, and not inappropriately placed here, considering that the sections on both sides of it have the Chaldeans for their theme. On the other hand, however, it may be urged that the identification of the righteous and wicked in i.13 with i.4, though natural,[1] is not necessary; and by denying it the prophecy becomes distinctly more coherent. The wrong done by Judah, i.1-4, is avenged by the coming of the Chaldeans, i.5-11; they, however, having overstepped the limits of their divine commission, only aggravate the prophet's problem, i.12-17, and he finally finds the solution on his watch-tower, in the assurance that somehow, despite all seeming delay, the purpose of God is hastening on to its fulfilment, and that the moral constitution of the world is such as to spell the ultimate ruin of cruelty and pride and the ultimate triumph of righteousness, ii.1-4. His faith was historically justified by the fall of the Babylonian empire in 538 B.C.
[Footnote 1: Some scholars feel so strongly that the historical background of i.1-4 and i.12-17 is the same, that they regard the latter section as the direct continuation of the former. Budde, followed by Cornill, ingeniously supposes that the oppressor in these two sections is the Assyrian (about 615 B.C.), and it is this power that the Chaldeans, i.5-11, are raised up to chastise. These scholars put i.5-11 after ii.4 as a historical amplification of its moral and more indefinite statement. But the strength of Habakkuk rather seems to lie in this, that he abandons the immediate historical solution, i.5, and is content with the moral one, ii.4, though no doubt he believes that the moral solution will realize itself in history.]

The authenticity[1] of some of the woes in ch. ii. may be contested, e.g. vv. 12-14, which appears to be a partial reproduction of Jer. li.58, Isa. xi.9. It is very improbable that ch. iii. is Habakkuk's: it is not even certain that the poem is a unity. The situation in vv. 17-19 (especially v. 17) seems different from that in the rest of the chapter: there an enemy was feared, here rather infertility. Again the general temper of the ode is hardly that of ii.3, 4. There the vision was to be delayed, here the interposition seems to be impatiently awaited and expected soon. If "thine anointed" in iii.13 refers to the people -- and the parallelism makes this almost certain -- then the days of the monarchy are over and the poem cannot be earlier than the exile. Probably, as the superscription, subscription, and threefold Selah suggest, we have here a post-exilic psalm. The psalm, however, is fittingly enough associated with the prophecy of Habakkuk. Its belief in the accomplishment of the divine purpose and its emphasis on a faith independent of the things of sight, are akin in spirit, though not in form to ii.4.
[Footnote 1: Marti explains the book thus: (a) i.2-4, 12a, 13, ii.1-4, a psalm, belonging to the fifth or perhaps the second century, giving the divine answer to the plaint that judgment is delayed; (b) i.5-11, 12b, 14-17, a prophecy about 605 B.C. dealing with the effect of the battle of Carchemish; (c) ii.5-19, the woes: about 540, when the Chaldean empire is nearing its end; (d) iii., a post-exilic psalm.]

Patience and faith are the watch-words of Habakkuk, ii.3, 4. There was a time when he had expected an adequate historical solution to his doubts in his own day, i.5; but, as he contemplates the immoral progress of the Chaldeans, he recognizes his difficulty to be only aggravated by this solution, and he is content to commit the future to God. He is comforted and strengthened by a larger vision of the divine purpose and its inevitable triumph -- if not now, then hereafter. "Though it tarry, wait for it, for it is sure to come, it will not lag behind." That purpose wills the triumph of justice, and though the righteous may seem to perish, in reality he lives, and shall continue to live, by his faithfulness.

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