When God Seems Idle

I’ve been teaching the book of Habakkuk to several different groups of women since the fall of 2020 and I’ve been immersed in the book since the spring before that. One of the themes we’ve seen in the book has to do with the reciprocal judgment of God. What is that? It has to do with God’s equitable judgment, the assurance that, in the end, God will judge between what’s right and what’s wrong and hold everyone accountable for their deeds. At the end of chapter 1, Habakkuk laments that the Babylonians, whom God has chosen to discipline his own people, will get away with all their evil behavior. Yes, God’s people need to be disciplined, but the Babylonians as God’s instrument of judgment?

Really God? Aren’t they much more wicked than Judah?

As the prophet wrestles with this question and continues to detail their idolatry and pride, he can’t see them ever being defeated.  But God has the last word and the vision that He unfolds to Habakkuk in chapter 2 begins to reveal the answer to all his questions and laments. Yes! God has been paying attention. No! They will not get away with it. God will hold them accountable. Evil will not have the last word.

This isn’t the only time in Scripture where we read of someone wrestling with God over their perception of how he is dealing with, or more frustratingly, not dealing with evil. In fact, there are many times when the people of God seem overwhelmed and utterly confused by the evil that seems to be steamrolling through history. I think of Psalm 73:

“Behold, these are the wicked; always at ease, they increase in riches. All in vain have I kept my heart clean and washed my hands in innocence…But when I thought how to understand this, it seemed to me a wearisome task…Psalm 73:12-13, 16

Looking at the whole scope of redemptive history, beginning from Genesis 3, it seems like evil has had the upper hand. For 400 years, the Israelites groaned under the heavy weight of their bondage in Egypt. Would it ever end? In Judges, things went from bad to worse until there seemed to be no one who knew the ways of God.  Everyone just did what was right in their own eyes. Was God paying attention? During the 55 year reign of Manasseh, he did more evil than the wicked and pagan nations that neighbored the people of God. Why did God allow that to continue for so long? And if we’re honest, right now at the beginning of 2022, we question and lament the evil around us. Cancer, car accidents, natural disasters, evil governments who persecute and starve their people. Doesn’t God care? Doesn’t he see?

In the middle of those times, when evil seems so overwhelming and God seems to be doing nothing, we need to go back to those stories in Scripture. They’re written for our benefit so we can learn like our fathers of old how to anchor ourselves in who God is and what he has promised.

So what did God reveal to Habakkuk in chapter 2 that can act as a pattern and example for us and allow us, like him, to emerge with a psalm of praise?

God’s Promise is True

God responds to Habakkuk with a description of the vision. Pay close attention to how he describes it:

“Write the vision, make it plain on tablets, so he may run who reads it. For still the vision awaits its appointed time; it hastens to the end, it will not lie. If it seems slow, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay.” Habakkuk 2:2-3

By my count there are 11 references to the vision in these verses. What is the point of this repetition? The point is this – God doesn’t lie. His word is true. What he promises to do will happen. Habakkuk was tempted to interpret God through his circumstances, that the success of the Babylonians meant God wasn’t just and he wasn’t going to act. God repeats himself so many times to emphasize to Habakkuk and the people of God the rock solid truth of his word and his character. Notice also the language of the appointed time and the repetition of how the vision will surely come and not delay. God has a time for all things. The problem is, it’s never when we expect or desire it to happen. But the fact that God has an appointed time for this vision to unfold should give us confidence that God really is in control. He always knows what he’s doing.

Faith Looks at God

Habakkuk 2:4 is the hinge of the whole book. “Behold, his soul is puffed up; it is not upright within him, but the righteous shall live by his faith.”

God has been paying attention! He sees the bloated pride of the Babylonians. But what Habakkuk needed to do was not look at the Babylonians but at God. This verse is the beginning of God’s turning Habakkuk’s attention toward him and his promises. And this is the pattern of faith throughout the Scriptures. Faith isn’t untethered; it isn’t mindless. It’s steadfastly directed to its object. Abraham demonstrated this faith as it says in Romans 4: “No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised.” Romans 4:20-21 Abraham’s faith wasn’t directed toward his decaying body but to his God who was more than able. His faith grew stronger as he considered who God was, not what his circumstances were.

The Judge of All Will Do Right

Starting in Habakkuk 2:6 until the end of the chapter, God further unfolds the vision with a taunt song that is sung by those whom the Babylonians had defeated. There are five occurrences of the word ‘Woe’ that are directed toward them and if you have spent a lot of time in other parts of the Bible, you’ll see a pattern that repeats itself in redemptive history, the pattern I talked about earlier called reciprocal judgment. The evil the Babylonians did will come back upon their own heads. They will not get away with it. We see the same pattern in Proverbs:

“The upright will inhabit the land, and those with integrity will remain in it, but the wicked will be cut off from the land, and the treacherous will be rooted out of it.” Proverbs 2:21-22

“The Lord’s curse is on the house of the wicked, but he blesses the dwelling of the righteous.” Proverbs 3:33

And going back to Psalm 73, we see Asaph gain perspective as he ponders the way of the wicked in the light of God’s coming judgment:

But when I thought how to understand this,
    it seemed to me a wearisome task,
 until I went into the sanctuary of God;
    then I discerned their end.

 Truly you set them in slippery places;
    you make them fall to ruin.
 How they are destroyed in a moment,
    swept away utterly by terrors!”

So Habakkuk now knows that judgment will surely come upon the Babylonians who are about to invade Judah. And maybe he thought that that would satisfy all his questions. Many of us think that payback is what will ultimately satisfy us – the bad guys finally getting what’s coming to them. But God points us further up and further in. Seeing this pattern of reciprocal judgment is good. It’s good that evil will be defeated in the end. But that isn’t what will ultimately satisfy our hearts and it’s not ultimately the end of the story. Pay attention to what God tucks into the middle of these five woes in chapter 2.

Glory is the Goal

“For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.” Habakkuk 2:14

From the beginning to the end of redemptive history, justice hasn’t been the ultimate goal. It’s part of the goal, and it helps get us to the goal, but it isn’t the goal.

Glory is the goal.

That isn’t just a Sunday School answer. It is the goal toward which God is moving all of history. And one day we will see it. The glory of the Lord will be so bright in the age to come that we will not need the sun! He wants the whole of his creation to be filled with the effulgence of his majesty. And he wants all of us to know it and see it because he knows that this is what will ultimately satisfy us – to be with him, to see him as he is and to be transformed into his likeness. “When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.” Colossians 3:4

We want judgment, but what our hearts really need is glory. They need God.

So when you’re discouraged by the evil around us, and the evil still within your own heart, when you feel like God is idle and blind, not paying attention at all, remind yourself of the truths God laid out for Habakkuk:

God’s promises are true.

Faith anchors itself in God, not circumstances.

The Judge of all will do right.

Seeing the glory of God is the goal.

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