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- 1 Summary
- 2 Historical setting
- 3 Discussion
- 4 Outline
- 5 Points to ponder
- 6 I have a question
- 7 Resources
- 8 Notes
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Relationship to Old Testament. Habakkuk is one of the "Minor Prophets" of the Old Testament. The relationship of Habakkuk to the Old Testament as a whole, and to the other minor prophets in particular, is discussed at Old Testament: Organization.
Story. There is broad scholarly consensus that Habakkuk consists of two sections made up of chapters 1-2 and chapter 3. It may be easier, however, to follow what is going on in Habakkuk if it as seen as a conversation between Habakkuk and the Lord in seven parts, Habakkuk reacting to what he knows, and the Lord then teaching him with additional information.
- Judgment on Judah
- Judgment on Babylon
- Israel's ultimate redemption
Message. Themes, symbols, and doctrinal points emphasized in Habakkuk include:
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A broader treatment of the history of ancient Israel, including Habakkuk, is found at Old Testament: Historical Overview.
This heading is for more detailed discussions of all or part of a passage. Discussion may include the meaning of a particular word, how a doctrinal point is developed throughout the passage, insights to be developed in the future, and other items. Contributions may range from polished paragraphs down to a single bullet point. The focus, however, should always be on understanding the scriptural text consistent with LDS doctrine. Click the link above and to the right to edit or add content to this heading. →
- Hab. Habakkuk addresses the issue of a just God presiding over a world where injustice is common. God even executes judgment upon wicked nations by employing other wicked nations as his tools. For example, Babylon will be used to punish Judah. Habakkuk asks why. The answer is not an explanation, but rather an assurance that God is in charge and will tolerate injustice only for a finite time. Ultimately the Lord will appear in glory, conquer all enemies, and bring salvation. Habakkuk can thus be seen as an abbreviated version of the visions in Daniel 2, 7-9. In the meanwhile individuals are to remain faithful. Habakkuk also emphasizes the twin characteristics of God: judgment and salvation, or justice and mercy. These are not new ideas, but keeping them in mind will make it easier to follow Habakkuk.
- Hab: Habakkuk. The King James Version (KJV) translation of Habakkuk is hard to understand. The text is much clearer in the New International Version (NIV) translation, also available here. Some statements here will not make sense without consulting the NIV.
- Hab 1:1: Burden. Habakkuk calls his prophecy, according to the KJV, a burden. The word undeniably means burden (despite some other translations), in its secular usage referring, for example, to a burden placed on the back of an animal. Habakkuk's usage here is not unique: the visions of the prophets are often called such in scripture. However, whereas most often the burden is attached linguistically to the condemned people ("the burden of Babylon," "the burden of Ninevah," etc.), here the burden is, as it were, absolutized, drawn, at least, away from any such immediate contextualization. The burden simply is, regardless of what nation it might concern: the prophecy is marked with a sort of universality, an all-applicability, that seems to connect it in the end to the universality of ritual (there is, it will become obvious, reason to connect the words of Habakkuk to the liturgy of the temple). In this last connection, it is important to note two further linguistic points from this first verse. First, Habakkuk's name means something like "the embracing one," obviously suggesting ties to temple ritual. Second, the burden Habakkuk mentions he qualifies particularly by sight, by seeing, suggesting further ties to the temple rites (the climax of which, of course, was to see God enthroned on the ark). All in all, this simple introductory verse already provides a sort of liturgical setting for all of the following.
Hab 1:2-11: Judgment on Judah
- Hab 1:2-11: Overview. Habakkuk wrote his book during the last years of Judah’s independence before it was conquered by Babylon in 597 BC. At that time he witnessed great social injustice in Judah. The wicked exercised violence upon the righteous, and judgment was perverted. The book begins with the question of how long Habakkuk must witness this situation before God intervenes (1:2-4). The Lord answers that Habakkuk will have trouble believing this, but the Lord is raising up the Babylonians to sweep over the earth. They are proud, make their own rules, laugh at kings, and conquer the breadth of the land. At the end of this section the Lord states that the Babylonians will nevertheless be held guilty because (depending on the translation) they attribute their strength to their idols, or their own strength becomes their god (1:5-11)
- Hab 1:2: Habakkuk as a frustrated servant. Though Habakkuk's book begins by uniting his prophetic effort with that of the other prophets (by using the common "burden," though perhaps in an uncommon manner), the first verse of the prophecy proper immediately cancels this apparent unity. Whereas the prophets generally speak to the people in the name of the LORD, even as the LORD, Habakkuk speaks here to the LORD. The prophecy is, in other words, a prayer (and more than just that, as will become clear within a few verses). What this accomplishes for Habakkuk's prophecy cannot be overlooked: the overwhelming figure of the authorized servant is foregone, as is the still more overwhelming (though in a different way) figure of the unwillingly inspired slave, and what takes the place of these two alternate profiles is the man who in his prayer is visibly frustrated with the LORD but who all the same receives (as shall be seen) very real, and very specific answers. In other words, replacing the prophet as figure of the LORD's regard is the prophet as frustrated man (without figure) of faith. Habakkuk: a David or a Job rather than an Isaiah or an Ezekiel.
- Subjected to a more careful study of the OT prophetic phenomenon, however, this first characterization must be restated--better: recontextualized. If the prophetic experience might be read as two moments (the prophetic experience versus the prophetic publication, manifestation versus proclamation), then Habakkuk does not appear to be so radically different from other prophets. His prophetic experience does not appear to have been so fundamentally different from that of the others, only the manner of proclaiming his experience: whereas the moment of proclamation radically reworks the prophetic experience--apparently--for most prophets, Habakkuk seems to have rendered his experience more literally in his own proclamation. Or rather, whether or not the write-up does some "poetic violence" to the "original experience," Habakkuk's book of prophecy attempts to publish the experience of the prophet perhaps more than it attempts to publish the message of that experience. It thus functions as a sort of invitation to readers to stand as prophet in the first prophetic moment (hence, in the Holy of Holies), rather than to stand as a member of the crowd that hears the prophet speak in the second prophetic moment (hence, gathered outside the temple). Habakkuk's text might be called more "existential" (read: ritual, liturgical, experiential) than the texts of other prophets.
- All this said, the actual content of the prayer might be approached. This very verse already makes the nature of Habakkuk's prayer very clear: he is upset with the LORD. The text clearly falls under the category of "complaint literature." The first verse is, of course, a parallelism, setting "cry" (the Hebrew verb here implies intensity and desperation) parallel to "cry out unto thee of violence" (a different Hebrew verb here, far less intense, but intesified by the complaint of "violence," which is, incidentally, a rather weak translation: the "violence" the Hebrew calls for is the violence of the deliberately wicked, as in Noah's day), and "thou wilt not hear" parallel to "thou wilt not save." The double cry of desperation is to be read at its most intense moment, due to the "how long" at the beginning of the verse: not only does the prophet/servant now seek help, but he has apparently done so for quite a while. But--is this a mark of humility or a hedge for safety?--in order to register his complaint, he does not point out explicitly the LORD's neglect, but asks instead a (rhetorical) question: how long? The implicit indictment is softened by the open-endedness of the question. That the prayer begins with a question is perhaps emphasized by the order of the words in the Hebrew text: the "how long" actually precedes the name of the LORD (yhwh), so that the name splits the question in two. The prayer emphatically begins, then, as a question, not as an accusation. But these opening two words are quite descriptive: the Hebrew means literally "until where?" suggesting exasperation in a physical hardship more than frustration with an unanswered prayer. There is the implication of a sort of aimless roving on the prophet's part, a wandering in a wilderness that seems never to end (like Io, always wandering, always crying for peace).
- Two final notes might finish off consideration of this particular verse. First, the LORD's passivity is marked by two unaccomplished actions: hearing and saving. The gap between the two is obvious, though Habakkuk's two cries are rather close in nature. Looking more closely at the situation, however, one recognizes a sort of pride on the prophet's part: who is he to say that the LORD does not hear? But this itself draws out the point: the Hebrew verb "to hear" implies response or action. To hear and to save are near equivalents. Second, it is vital to recognize the first person "I" uttered by Habakkuk as prophet. Since only the one prophet is offering the prayer of complaint, the violence he complains of remains ambiguous: it might be Israelite violence against himself, it might be the violence of another nation against Israel, and it might be something entirely unexpected. The "I," however, provides a locus for the complaint: it must be understood entirely from within the prophetic subject, from within the self created by the call issued to the prophet as prophet. Regardless of who receives the violence, of who ultimately ought to be crying out, only the prophet offers the authentic complaint, one pure enough and bold enough to be answered.
- Hab 1:3. Again Habakkuk phrases his complaint as a question, but now in a question of a different manner. The accusation is more explicit in this double question, but he prefaces the whole with "why," offering the LORD an opportunity to respond and explain. In other words, though it is clear that the LORD has offended by doing exactly what Habakkuk mentions, the prophet leaves open to the LORD the opportunity to explain the purpose of such offense. (It ought to be noted that the English "for" following the question reflects no Hebrew equivalent, and so the second half of the verse should not be read as a justification of the first half.) The accusation in this verse grows not only more specific, but also seems to impute more ill will to the LORD. Both verbs in the question are causative in Hebrew: "Why dost thou make me see iniquity, and cause me to regard grievance?" The violence of the previous verse is now not understood as something the LORD merely does not take away, but as something the LORD--by not taking it away--causes the prophet to behold. The second verb is especially interesting: "to behold" or "to regard," it implies an active looking or considering on the prophet's part, but by using the causative, Habakkuk has shifted the activity to the more powerful LORD. In other words, the LORD Himself forces the prophet to stare at, to consider, to regard constantly the wickedness about him. And what the prophet therefore regards and sees is of interest as well: "trouble" would be a better translation than "iniquity" and "toil" than "grievance." The latter word is the term used to describe the work to be done outside of Eden, and the former is used most generally to describe physical difficulties that arise from sin. Habakkuk's complaint seems to be that he is constantly forced to think the Fall, rather than to praise because of the Atonement. He is forced to regard fallen man, when he would rather be regarded by a graceful God. Considering the violence of verse 2, the prophet seems primarily to be frustrated by the fallen order and growing impatient while waiting for the new creation.
- The English "for" translated the Hebrew w, "and": there is no particular reason to see a causal or logical relation between the two halves of the verse, as the English implies. Rather, with a view to the next verse, it appears that this is to be understood as a separate statement from the first half (particularly in light of the reappearance of "violence," harking back to the first verse. At any rate, this second part of the verse looks forward, not immediately backward to the last question.
Hab 1:12-2:20: Judgment on Babylon
- Hab 1:12-17. Habakkuk finds this cure just as difficult to understand as his original question. How can the Lord, whose eyes are too pure to witness injustice, employ the wicked Babylonians as his tool for executing judgment upon Judah, especially since Babylon is even more wicked than Judah? Will idolatrous Babylon continue endlessly to catch people as with a fishnet and to conquer the nations? (1:12-17).
- Hab 2:1-20. The Lord tells Habakkuk to write down a vision, but clarifies that it will not happen until the Lord’s appointed time (2:2-3). Meanwhile, “the just shall live by his faith” (or faithfulness, see Heb.) (2:4). Babylon, in contrast, is drunken, proud, and insatiable (2:4-5). Then follows a series of five taunts or woes in two sets of ten lines each (#1-3, #4-5). These woes state the reasons why Babylon will not endure but will in its own turn suffer judgment by falling to the nations:
- 1. Those who survive plundering and extortion by Babylon will revolt and plunder Babylon; it will also suffer for the violence it has done to the land and mankind (2:6b-8).
- 2. Babylon has sought security in destroying other peoples and in preserving its ill-gotten gain, but the rich buildings of Babylon will cry out in witness of that shameful conduct (2:9-11).
- 3. Babylon is built on bloodshed and crime, but in time the nations will not endure and the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord (2:12-14). This central woe points not only to the passing of Babylon, but to the passing away of all nations, to be succeeded by an era of general righteousness. This passing away of the nations is also the theme of chapter 3.
- 4. Babylon, having made its neighbors drunken to their shame, will in turn drink and be shamed; it will also be overwhelmed by the violence it has done to the land, animals and mankind (2:15-17).
- 5. Dumb [unable to speak] idols are not alive and cannot help those who made them. But God is in his temple, so let all the earth give him reverence (2:18-20).
- Hab 2:4: Lifted up. The Hebrew word which is translated here as "which is lifted up" is unclear. Although most translations concur with the KJV (based on the root `afal (to swell), the RSV and NET make an emendation and translate this as "shall fail" and "will faint from exhaustion" respectively.
- Hab 2:5: Wine metaphor. The wine metaphor here seems to suggest that the oppressor is like a drunkard who is restless and unsatisfied, who does not stay at home and always wants more wine. If the RSV or NET translation for the phrase "which is lifted up" in verse 4 is taken to imply failing or fainting, then the wine metaphor implies an eventual drunken collapse. Notice the wine metaphor is revived in verses 15-16.
- Hab 2:15-16: Making sense of Noah reference. This seems like an obvious reference to Gen 9:22, but I really don't know how to make sense of this. Is wine symoblic of blood, ambition, and/or wrath, and by oppressing others violence thus begets violence so-to-speak (cf. D&C 121:13, "love to have others suffer"). What is nakedness symbolizing and what does it have to do with drunkenness?
- The TWOT 1692 entry is interesting on nakedness being shameful. Perhaps Habakkuk is simply drawing on the link between drunkenness and nakedness in Gen 9:22 to illustrate how the oppressor will become full with shame whereas he could not become full/satiated with bloodthirst (thus wine becomes symbolic of blood). It's the "giveth his neighbor drink, that puttest thy bottle to him" in v. 15 that seems hard for me to make sense of from this view, unless we the bloodthirst begets bloodthirst approach is taken.
- The RSV suggests a slightly different approach: "Woe to him that makes his neighbors drink of the cup of his wrath, and makes them drunk, to gaze on their shame!" Here the wine is only symbolic of the oppressor's bloodthirst and the oppressed is being forced to drink it so that the oppressor can shame the oppressed. This makes 3:9 more poetic: the Lord does to the oppressor what the oppressor was trying to do.
- Maybe there's justification for a misery-loves-company type of reading. That is, the drunkard in 2:5 does not stay at home b/c he effectively wants to go out drinking with his friends—which here is equated to making the oppressed drink "of the cup of his wrath." Or maybe this isn't referring to the oppressed at all, but simply all those who are oppressors and their buddies/neighbors who also oppress. This would change the meaning of the nakedness as referring to that of the oppressors who become shameful in their oppressing. The "buildeth a town with blood" in v. 12 would further this notion since those that oppress are drinking the blood of the oppressed.
Hab 3:1-19: Israel's ultimate redemption
- Hab 3: Psalm. Chapter 3 is a psalm.
- Hab 3:1-2: Request to remember mercy. To this point the book has emphasized harsh justice upon the unmerciful. But Habakkuk now prays to the Lord expressing fear (or perhaps awe) and asking that the Lord renew his work and, while executing wrathful judgment, that the Lord also “remember mercy” (3:1-2).
- Hab 3:3-7: Vision of the Lord's sovereignty. In response Habakkuk is shown a second vision, in which the Lord asserts direct sovereignty over the earth. In verses 3-7 Habakkuk describes the Lord’s approach in the third person. First he compares the Lord to the rising sun. Teman refers to the south country, often specifically to Edom (descended from Jacob’s brother Esau), which is southeast of Jerusalem and thus associated with the rising sun. Mount Paran (the home of Isaac’s brother Ishmael) is located west of Edom and is associated in Deuteronomy 33:2 with both Edom’s capitol Mount Seir and the rising sun. In verse 6 the nations tremble at the Lord’s approach. Mountains often represent kingdoms (or temples, but not here).
- Hab 3:3: the 'holy one." Who is this "holy one" who comes from mount Paran (verse 3)? The word translated as Holy One in verse 3 is the Hebrew noun qadowsh, which is often translated as holy one or saint, and can refer to anything or anyone who has been sanctified or set apart. Some Muslims see the holy one in verse 3 as a referring to the prophet Mohammad, who was born in Paran.
- Hab 3:8-15: the Lord's salvation. In verses 8-15 Habakkuk addresses the Lord in the second person. He describes the Lord going forth in salvation of his people, defeating both the heathen nations and angry waters. In the ancient world open uncontrolled bodies of water often represent death, evil, or chaos, which stand in opposition to gods who in goodness create and organize the world, including God.
- Hab 3:16-19: Habakkuk's patience. Following this vision Habakkuk is no longer merely afraid or awed (as in 3:2), he now trembles and quivers (3:16, as in 3:6). But he will wait patiently for the calamitous day when Judah is invaded by Babylon. And though the world should cease to yield its fruit, Habakkuk will still rejoice in the Lord of his salvation and strength (3:17-19).
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● Judgment on Judah (1:2-11)
- • Habakkuk’s first question: Why does the Lord not intervene to end injustice in Judah? (1:2-4)
- • The Lord’s answer: He will raise up Babylon in judgment upon Judah (1:5-11)
● Judgment on Babylon (1:12-2:20)
- • Habakkuk’s second question: How can the righteous Lord employ wicked Babylon? (1:12-17)
- • Answer-first vision: Babylon will also suffer judgment in the Lord’s time ()
● Israel’s Ultimate Redemption (3:1-19)
- • Habakkuk’s request: That the Lord continue his work in mercy (3:1-2)
- • Second vision: The glory of the Lord’s coming in judgment and salvation (3:3-15)
- • Habakkuk’s final reaction: He trembles at the Lord’s judgment but rejoices at his salvation (3:16-19)
Points to ponder
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I have a question
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This heading is for listing links and print resources, including those cited in the notes. A short comment about the particular strengths of a resource can be helpful. Click the link above and to the right to edit or add content to this heading. →
- Amplified • The Amplified Bible, 1987 update
- NASB • New American Standard Bible, 1995 update
- NIV • New International Version
- RSV • Revised Standard Version
Joseph Smith Translation
The Joseph Smith Translation made no changes to the book of Habakkuk.
- Wayment, Thomas A., ed. The Complete Joseph Smith Translation of the Old Testament, p. 218-19. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 2009. (ISBN 1606411314) BX8630.A2 2009
- Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. "Habakkuk: A Question Is Asked of the Lord." In Old Testament: First Kings to Malachi (Institute Manual), vol. 2, third ed. (PDF version), ch. 22, p. 227-28. Salt Lake City, Utah: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2003.
Footnotes are not required but are encouraged for factual assertions that average readers cannot easily evaluate for themselves, such as the date of King Solomon’s death or the nuanced definition of a Greek word. In contrast, insights rarely benefit from footnoting, and the focus of this page should always remain on the scriptures themselves rather than what someone has said about them. Links are actively encouraged on all sections of this page, and links to authoritative sources are preferable to footnotes.
- Wayment, The Complete Joseph Smith Translation of the Old Testament, p. 218-19.
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