Living by Faith in Fearful Times
Robert B. Strimple
One book on which I have been meditating once again was written millennia ago, probably in the last quarter of the 7th century B.C. This book, Habakkuk, has always spoken to the church with special power and blessing in times of distress and fearful prospect, with "people fainting with fear and foreboding of what is coming on the world" (Luke 21:26 ESV). And anyone who reads a newspaper or watches television news these days finds much to cause fear about what may be our future.
It was only a year or two ago, it seems, that all the attention was focused upon the nuclear arsenal now in the hands of North Korea's unpredictable dictator, who may well have missiles capable of delivering the bomb as far as the Pacific Northwest, with communist China, of all nations, the "ally" to which we must look to keep him in line! But now the concern has shifted to Iran, whose nuclear plants have not yet produced nuclear weapons, but which now has a president who, like Hitler, announces to the world clearly and explicitly what his goals are and dares the world to stop him ("Israel must cease to exist; it will be destroyed in one firestorm" and "America must be brought to its knees"). While keeping an eye on Iran, of course, our leaders cannot ignore another possibility that none of them really cares to contemplate: that the current president of Pakistan will be overthrown by the radical Muslims sympathetic to Al-Qaeda and its aims. And the nuclear threat from such sources is not limited to long-range missiles, not when so-called "suitcase bombs" can be hidden in crates unloaded at one of our porous ports or smuggled across our borders by terrorists.
When this growing nuclear threat is combined with the very real possibilities of a global bird flu pandemic along the lines of the 1918 Spanish flu, global climate change, nation after nation in neighboring Latin America recently falling like dominoes to socialist or even Marxist anti-American regimes threatening to cut off the oil and natural gas supplies so vital to our U.S. economy--Venezuela, Brazil, Bolivia, Mexico next?--and our own nation straying farther and farther from the biblical foundations on which a just and stable must be founded, it seems only rational to view the future with fear.
In such a time the shepherds of Christ's flock must faithfully bring the comfort and encouragement of the Gospel to God's people. Sadly, however, too many preachers today have fallen for the lie that what the church needs to be "relevant" is more "practical" sermons. That insistence is by no means new, of course. Back almost half a century ago (!) in the early days of my teaching ministry, I supplied the pulpit for a Presbyterian pastor friend during his month-long summer vacation. I can still see the leading woman in that small congregation sitting in the front pew each Lord's Day and giving me the same scolding at the door after the service each week: "You're always pointing us to all our 'spiritual blessings in Christ in the heavenly places' (Ephesians 1:3), to the fact that our hope in Christ is not 'for this life only' (1 Corinthians 15:19). Can't you give us something more practical?" Or in her phrase that I have never forgotten: "Something that will help me when I'm doing my work in the kitchen?"
Recently I have had the pleasure of hearing four of our nearby alumni pastors preach. I rejoice in their faithful Gospel preaching, and I'm confident that their preaching is typical of what congregations in so many places are receiving from our graduates. And I simply want to remind you now that one of the Scriptures that brings that "good news" message home so eloquently and so powerfully is the Old Testament book of Habakkuk. Let me ask you to turn to it now in your Bible. I shall be using primarily the English Standard Version, which I believe is for the most part the most accurate and most clear here. (The old RSV is also good.)
The prophet Habakkuk lived in a day when, to all appearances, God seemed to be dead. At least a God of righteousness, holiness, and love did not seem to be manifesting the reality of his existence, or the reality of his sovereign rule over the affairs of men. Habakkuk's brief prophecy (just 3 chapters in our Bible) is a very unified message with a very simple structure. Basically it is divided into two main parts. In the first (chapters 1 and 2), the prophet boldly, emotionally, confronts God with two disturbing, burning questions--questions asked by one who is a believer, but who feels that events are challenging, are calling into question, that which he believes.
And in part one, God replies to each question. Since Habakkuk's questions are much like questions that Christians cannot help but ask today, we are very much interested in the answers God gave to him, "for whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope" (Romans 15:4)--and therefore these divine answers can reveal to us basic principles and patterns of divine activity that can help us to understand our own situation, what God may be doing in our day, and what our attitudes should be.
That last matter, the proper attitude of the believer, is revealed to us in the second part of the book, in Habakkuk's prayer recorded in chapter 3. There the prophet reflects quite honestly and frankly on his response to the answers he has received. He expresses the feelings that had been aroused in him, and that ought to be aroused in all believers.
Habakkuk begins, then, with a question--or perhaps we might better describe it as a complaint. READ vv. 1:2-4. Habakkuk saw the very foundations of an orderly, righteous, and stable society crumbling before his eyes. Violence had become a way of life. The law had been progressively impotent, paralyzed. Violent, selfish, greedy living was combined with loose living. Some might have liked to talk about a "new morality" having evolved, but it was immorality. And Habakkuk saw it on every hand, and he saw those in authority, because of their own greed or just plain carelessness, not administering the law, not executing justice.
God, if he be God, surely saw all this also. And yet he seemed to be doing nothing about it. Why didn't God do something? Why did he allow such things to go on? In a violent, dog-eat-dog society, it is the innocent and the righteous who suffer. Habakkuk had cried out to God to save and to assert his righteous rule in judgment upon ungodly men--but God seemed to be dead or deaf.
To use the modern phrase, Habakkuk faced a crisis of faith. And it is the same crisis that many have faced and are facing at the beginning of the 21st century. I think of a letter printed in a Christian magazine in which a church member tells his pastor that science is not the area raising the most crucial questions for faith today, and I think he is right. This does not mean that questions regarding the relationship between the biblical revelation and science are no longer important or no longer a problem for some. But nevertheless the key problem for faith today, the heart-rending problem for many today, as it was for Habakkuk in his day, is what we might speak of as the problem of faith and history. It is the age-old problem of evil, but now not asking how evil in general can exist in a world created by a good God, but rather directing attention to specific events in our modern world: the rise of murderous totalitarianisms on a global scale, first nazism, then communism, and now Islamo-fascism. The devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and now the always present and very real threat of worldwide nuclear holocaust.
Where is God in times like this? Surely we can enter sympathetically into Habakkuk's cry: why doesn't God do something? And in vv. 5 through 11 God answers.
The force of that answer was diminished in the old King James Version by translating the verb in v. 5 as future: "I will work a work in your days"; and even the NIV has "I am going to do something." The ESV and RSV more accurately translate: "I am doing a work in your days." Perhaps Habakkuk is startled and incredulous. Why is it that even Calvinist Christians associate only the good and the pleasant events of life with the sovereign, all-controlling power of God? The Lord said to Isaiah: "I form light and create darkness, I make well-being and create calamity, I am the Lord, who does all these things" (Isaiah 45:7). And the Lord says to Habakkuk: "Why do you cry out: 'O God, why don't you do something?' I am doing something. I am allowing the wickedness of this nation, Judah, to come to full fruitage; and when it is ripe for judgment, I shall have a nation, the Chaldeans, ready as the executioners of my righteous wrath."
Now, that wasn't the answer the prophet expected. We sometimes have the experience of praying earnestly to God, and then when the answer comes, it is so different from what we had expected that don't recognize it as the answer. God warns Habakkuk: "For I am doing a work in your days that you would not believe if told. For behold, I am raising up the Chaldeans (the Babylonians), that bitter and hasty nation." What? Would God really bring judgment upon the people bearing his name? And would he ever use such a godless nation as the Chaldeans to work his will of judgment? The Scriptures say that the time sometimes comes "for judgment to begin at the household of God" (1 Peter 4:17); but somehow we find it hard to take that in and really believe it.
Habakkuk certainly recognized the sinfulness of his nation, that was the burden of his cry to God. But still he was not prepared for the answer that came. We recognized the sins of the so-called Christian West, the apostasy and coldness of so much of the professing church of Christ; but do we believe that God can really bring judgment?
And so the answer Habakkuk receives to his first complaint only bring on a second. READ vv. 12 and 13. Modern novels are often written in the style called "stream of consciousness," in which a door is opened into the mind of the central character; and we simply follow the flow of his thoughts wherever they might go. Here we can do this with the prophet. First, we see him reminding himself of those divine truths that form the unshakeable bedrock foundation of his faith. God is the eternal, faithful, holy God who has entered into covenant relationship with those who can call him "my Holy One." This covenant people, therefore, will not perish. God has raised up this ungodly nation for his own purposes of judgment and correction upon Israel, the professing church of Habakkuk's day. God is absolutely holy and perfectly righteous. He hates sin and can do nothing wrong.
Of all this the prophet is sure. How then can he reconcile all that he knows to be true of God with this answer he has received? Yes, Judah has backslidden. But can God be unaware of the cruelty and the wickedness of the Chaldeans, which outstrip even Judah's guilt? (READ v. 11.) The children of Israel seem as helpless before his onslaught as fish before the net of the fisherman. READ vv. 14-17.
But after he has uttered his second complaint, the prophet seems to be more patient to wait for God's answer. READ 2:1-3. Although God's answer will not immediately be fulfilled, it is absolutely certain. And what is God's answer? Simply that that wicked, godless people who will serve God's purposes of judgment upon Judah will itself be judged and will be utterly destroyed. Though Chaldea's ruthless cruelty will serve God's holy purpose, that will provide no excuse or extenuation of Chaldea's own guilt.
V. 4 sums up God's answer: "Behold, his soul is puffed up; it is not upright within him, but the righteous shall live by his faith." We have said that this book deals with the prophet's crisis of faith. Faith in God is what Habakkuk's historical situation seemed to threaten. But, says God, it is precisely this faith, trust in God, that the situation requires, and that the faithful God requires of his people. But look at v. 14. Through the judgment upon lawless Judah and upon wicked Chaldea, the righteousness of a holy God will be manifested; and "the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea." And here perhaps the vision is enlarged to take in a view of the final, universal judgment and the final revelation of the glory of God.
Chapter 2 closes with that awesome contrast between the false gods of the Chaldeans and the God of heaven and earth. READ vv. 18-20. While the lifeless idols sit silently in their man-made temples, "the Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him." Perhaps this is God's final answer to Habakkuk. Not in anger, nor as a rebuke, but simply as a necessary reminder that ultimately the creature can only bow silently in the Creator's presence and await his just judgment.
And now we come to the 3rd chapter and the 2nd part of the prophecy. Habakkuk has given voice to his puzzlement in the light of present events, and God has spoken to him and revealed a vision of things to come. Now, in prayer, Habakkuk expresses the feelings that this revelation of divine judgment have aroused in his mind and soul. And here is where we can test ourselves. For the attitudes that characterize the prophet in his situation are, I suggest, the attitudes that are to be ours in our situation today.
There are essentially three aspects of Habakkuk's response. First, he acknowledges that the message of God, the prospect of such terrible judgments to come, fills him with fear. Vv. 2a and 16a--"O Lord, I have heard the report of you, and your work, O Lord do I fear." "I hear, and my body trembles; my lips quiver at the sound; rottenness enters into my bones; my legs tremble beneath me." The prophet takes the word of God too seriously not to fear. We shall immediately see that his fear is coupled with faith, and therefore with joy. But nevertheless he is still a man, and he knows the natural emotion of fear in the face of such cataclysmic events. And he displays an admirable honesty, as well as a genuine courage, in openly confessing: "I am afraid!"
But secondly, in faith, and in humble submission to the will of God, he prays that God's will and word might be fulfilled. V. 2 reads in the King James Version: "O Lord, revive thy work," and it has often been taken as a text for a sermon on revival! But the "work" referred to, of course, is the work that causes Habakkuk a certain fear. It is the work that God first announced back in 1:5, his work of bringing judgment. And here in 3:2 the prophet prays that God will call that work to life, that he will perform it.
Here is a most remarkable prayer of faith. Look at the end of v. 16. "Yet"--that is, in spite of my fear expressed again in the first half of this verse--"I will quietly wait for the day of trouble to come"--and here the ESV like most other English translations reads "upon people who invade us." That is what we would naturally expect, that Habakkuk would be looking forward to the day of trouble to fall upon Judah's invaders. But I would suggest that perhaps his statement here is an even more remarkable statement of faith. The Translator's Handbook published by the United Bible Societies says that: "There are some difficulties in deciding the exact meaning of the traditional Hebrew text" at this point, and cites the New Jewish Version as offering another reading: "Yet I wait calmly for the day of distress, for a people to come to attack us." The NASB reads: "I must wait quietly for the day of distress, For the people to arise who will invade us." [See also Calvin; Pusey; Driver/Plummer/Briggs ICC; Ebenezer Henderson.] This may seem a more difficult rendering, but I suggest that it better suits the entire context of Habakkuk's prayer. He waits for the day of trouble to come through the invaders.
Years ago D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones published a brief study of Habakkuk entitled From Fear to Faith. It is a helpful little book. But I submit that the title is misleading and fails to capture the true message of Habakkuk--which is not that the believer facing terrifying historical events can move out of a state of fear into one of faith that will leave fear behind, but rather that the believer is to trust in God and live by faith in spite of the very natural fear that stays with him.
Here then is the prayer of faith: "O Lord, your will be done." And surely it is one that we too must pray: "Dear God, if our social ills, our international threats, are not to get better until they get worse--if you are allowing the cup of the world's iniquity to come full to the brim before judgment, and that perhaps final judgment, is to be poured out--then, Lord, let it be. Only please Lord God, 'in wrath remember mercy' (3:2). Let justice be tempered with mercy, and shorten those days of trial for your elect's sake (Matthew 24:22)."
Yes, here is a prayer of faith. And here we might think that faith indeed has reached its apex, that it should be willing quietly to await and accept the judgments that are coming. But faith does far more than this! READ v. 18: "Yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will take joy in the God of my salvation." And notice what has led up to that declaration, v. 16 again and v. 17: "Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls."
When food, and home, and loved ones, are all taken from him, what will the prophet have left?! Only God. Only God. But that will be enough! Test yourself. What is your life? What does your life and your joy consist of? What resources of fellowship with God will you have to call upon when the day of trouble comes and everything else is stripped away from you?
But perhaps you say: "Such faith is too high for me to attain. What could ever be a sufficient foundation upon which such faith could rest?" Here again, and finally, we can learn from the prophet. He summons up courage and faith to face what God will do in the future from remembering what God has done in the past. If his faith is disturbed by present history, it is stabilized when he remembers what God has done in history past. Specifically, in vv. 3-15 of this 3rd chapter, in highly figurative poetic language reminiscent of Psalm 77, Exodus 15, and Deuteronomy 33, he remembers God's triumphant Exodus deliverance of his people from Egypt. Like God's people throughout the Old Testament, he looks back to the Exodus as the great prototype and promise of divine redemption.
Ah, but we know that that promise came to perfect fulfillment in and through the redemption accomplished in history by Jesus Christ, who through his death, burial, and triumphant resurrection routed the forces, not of Pharaoh but of Satan himself, and set his people free.
Here, you see, is the solid foundation of the Christian's hope. Not merely that all things are in the hand of God, but that all things are in the hand of the God who, in Jesus Christ, has revealed his gracious will and loving purpose for his covenant people. Now we who trust in him can truly sing: "Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also; the body they may kill; God's truth abideth still; his kingdom is forever." Or, as Habakkuk put it: "I will rejoice in the Lord; I will take joy in the God of my salvation."