Habakkuk had some significant questions for God. And God’s answers were hard to hear. But he told Habakkuk to write it all down, since future generations would need to hear it. We need to hear it. And those we teach need to as well.
In this episode of Help Me Teach the Bible, David Helm—lead pastor of the Hyde Park congregation of Holy Trinity Church in Chicago and chairman of the board of the Charles Simeon Trust—walks listeners through the short three-chapter book of Habakkuk, helping us to trace its argument, feel its poetic pathos, and sing its song. We spend time on how to handle Habakkuk’s important statement, “The righteous will live by faith.” We also talk about Habakkuk’s faith-filled determination to trust God in the disaster about to descend as God determines to use the Babylonians to deliver his judgment.
Listen to this episode of Help Me Teach the Bible.
Recommended Print Resources:
- Habakkuk: A Wrestler with God by Walter J. Chantry
- Nahum, Habakkuk, and Zephaniah: The New International Commentary of the Old Testament by O. Palmer Robertson
- Lamentations, Habakkuk, and Zephaniah: A 12-Week Study by Camden Bucey
Recommended Audio Resources:
- Sermon series on Habakkuk from Holy Trinity Church
- Sermon series on Habakkuk by Alistair Begg
- Message on Habakkuk by Colin Smith
David Helm: Is Habakkuk a character that we can warm to immediately? Yes. I don’t know where he was born. I don’t know precisely when he lived, but I am brought right at the opening to know that here’s a man whose heart is breaking. It breaks in prayer and it breaks with this weighty word concerning the absence of God’s word among His people, the forfeiture of God’s ways among our lives and the distortion of His righteousness, which the people are perverting.
Nancy Guthrie: Welcome to “Help Me Teach the Bible.” I’m Nancy Guthrie. “Help Me Teach the Bible” is a production of The Gospel Coalition sponsored by Crossway, a not-for-profit publisher of the ESV Bible, Christian books and tracks. Learn more at crossway.org. Today, I am in Jacksonville, Florida, and I am sitting across from one of my favorite Bible teachers, David Helm, David.
Helm: Nancy, good to be here.
Guthrie: Thank you for coming back again.
Helm: I’m happy to be here.
Guthrie: Well, I am happy to be here with you. Before we get started, we’ve got to talk about a few things. We’re going to talk about the prophet Habakkuk, which we’re both really excited to talk about. Here’s this prophet who was told to write these things down.
Helm: That’s correct.
Guthrie: And he’s written them down for the people of his day and still for the people of our day, including these two people, you and me.
Helm: Yeah. It’s going to be a wonderful conversation as we are feeding really on the Lord’s Word today.
Guthrie: Well, I want to just hear a little bit about what all is going on. So, you are one of the pastors at Holy Trinity Church in Chicago?
Helm: Yes. So, we started the church, Jon Dennis, my brother-in-law, he and I married sisters and we got going with 37 people, some 22 years ago and we’ve got 4 congregations in the city today. And the Lord continues to have His hand graciously upon what the future holds. And so, we’re…
Guthrie: Do you still have a ton of interns at your church?
Helm: We still have a lot of things going on with an internship program. I was just there yesterday, 10 or 11 fresh start to the new year. We also with the Simeon Trust, we have a new venture going on just five miles away from our internship program, the Chicago Course on Preaching. And we’ve got 15 incoming students from 5 countries. So, there’s really a multiplying taking place in regard to the work of training.
Guthrie: And the Simeon Trust, it has seemed to me that you’re moving into more and more countries over the last couple of years. Is that true?
Helm: Yeah, we are…I don’t actually know the exact number, but dozens of countries, we run I think 78 3-day workshops this year and the online courses…A year ago we had about 1300 to 1400 people taking online courses. This year, that’s jumped up to over 4,000.
Guthrie: I meet women all over that tell me that they’re in a small group and they’re working their way through the first principles.
Helm: Praise God. Yeah. The Lord is helping the church as we try to just help people handle the Bible a little better.
Guthrie: Well, I had a great time going to Dubai this last year to help with that Simeon Trust Women’s Workshop and I’m actually coming to Chicago in the spring…
Guthrie: …in March. Looking forward to that. And I hear you’re starting some women’s ones in some other places in the world. I got to call Colleen and get in on some of that.
Helm: They’re moving. It is the Lord’s blessing and we just got to keep our feet on the right path and the Lord is strengthening His church and it’s fun to be a part of it. Just a small part.
Guthrie: Well, I want to mention two things I’ve learned from you that have been very significant to me. One is something you said and I heard it at a pivotal time in my own life, but I quote you on it all the time, and I think it is so significant.
Helm: I probably stole it from somebody else.
Guthrie: You can tell me the real source then. You said, “The word of God does the work of God in the world.”
Helm: Yeah. So, God’s word does his work in his world right from the very beginning. And the Lord God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. And then of course, once that word is inscripturated, He continues to bring life to people who are born again by the living word. And so, if you’re going to carve out just a limited shelf space for things that are important in life, the word of God is what creates God’s community. It’s what sustains us. It’s what energizes us. And we’re so grateful for all the work you do to make sure that we’re all making improvement in it as well.
Guthrie: Well, that’s the thing. I mean, that’s an important word for Bible teachers, is it not? It says that as you give out God’s word, all that time you spend studying, all the effort you go to, to handle God’s word well, that that’s actually the way God is working in the world. I think one reason that statement means a lot to me is because at the time, I felt like it was in a situation where I was hearing a lot like, it’s up to you, it’s up to me to do God’s work in the world. And so, what you’re saying there is a whole different way of understanding how God works in the world and accomplishes His purposes.
Helm: And it takes everything from us. There’s so many distractions that would get in the way of our commitment to it, but, you know, to do your best, to rightly handle it, to devote yourselves to these things, the apostolic call for the church going forward in a post-apostolic age is to stay centered in the word of God that we’ll find our way home from there.
Guthrie: The other thing that you push teachers at Simeon Trust to do that has really proved fruitful in my own ministry is that you really push the teachers who teach at Simeon Trust to not just give a lecture but to be very back and forth.
Helm: Yeah. So pedagogically, I mean, maybe it’s part of our disposition as an organization that truth is imparted through a variety of mediums, best visual, certainly the format, the lecturing, the interaction. I guess what happened to me was I began to make progress as a Bible student and then teacher when the penny dropped, when I had an element of self-discovery rather than just looking back at someone’s notes on what they had discovered. So, all of our work, I think is best done through the method of this interactive Socratic attempt anyway, to allow the person who’s learning to discover the things for themselves.
Guthrie: By the way, when I first got that I had to use the Socratic method I had to look that up to see what that meant.
Helm: You’re like, “Do I really want to do this? I want to just lecture.”
Guthrie: And in some ways we do because, you know, that’s very controllable.
Helm: But you’re a wonderful teacher.
Guthrie: Well, I’m getting better, I’m getting better and I’ll spend the rest of my lifetime trying to get better. But I’m really…am using…so right now, I just launched this last weekend was the first one, this series of biblical theology workshops for women around the country and they’re workshops. And that means there’s so much back and forth. Now, this is in rooms. A lot of them, you know, this weekend it was with a room of 450 people. So, it’s a little bit challenging. But I think you are exactly right. And I think this is important for teachers to think about. We might tend toward wanting the more controllable that we have our lecture, we give it, but there is something about that back and forth that really helps people learn and retain it.
Helm: Yeah. So, if the goal is persuasion, we’re trying to convince our people of something from the scriptures. They have to be involved in that. The reasoning, the thinking. And we have to leave space in our teaching for these truths to be self-identified, seeing for themselves, settling for themselves or real persuasion doesn’t take place.
Guthrie: Yeah. All right. Well, let’s move on to the prophet Habakkuk, what we’re here to talk about today. Perhaps we should start with you just telling us a little bit about the time and place and what brings Habakkuk to have this message for us.
Helm: So, it’s a great little book and it’s worth starting where he decides to start because there’s some interesting observations. You mentioned the time and the place. That’s one of the real surprises of Habakkuk. You’re not given any historical marker at the opening, nor do you learn anything about his own home life. Whereas a lot of the prophets start out, you hear about the time in which they lived, the kings under which they served, or you’ll hear something about they’re the son of this person, or he was a shepherd in Tekoa, or even Daniel was among the cherished youths who were unblemished. And so, you’re learning biographical and historical material. Habakkuk, like Obadiah and Malachi alone starts with this surprising fast, no reference to his history, no reference to his home. The opening line is simply, “The oracle that Habakkuk the prophet saw,” and the brevity of that ought to say something to us as Bible teachers.
Guthrie: What do you mean?
Helm: Well, we are to learn then that he was not concerned, or God was not concerned through him to bring us into the historical setting, that Habakkuk is a book, I think we can argue for a historical setting and we will when you actually see how it goes forward. But it’s allowed to emerge. The burden of the Bible teacher at this point isn’t historical setting, which is what we normally do when we open a book. The burden at this point is that word oracle. Oracle can be translated burden or a word. So, literally, in the Old Testament a burden, this word would have been used as things that you put on the backs of animals and camels or it was also used of the big bags and the tenting material that the Levites carried the tabernacle itself were the burdens upon their back.
But so what you have here is this word that’s figurative. Not like that, but it’s a weight. It’s a weight. So, you’re impressed opening up the book of Habakkuk with wow, there is a weighty word. There is a burden that Habakkuk the prophet sees. And if you know anything about prophetic literature, which a number of your listeners do, that’s often when you see something, they hear something. So, the prophet was to stand in the presence of God, hear the Word of God, and then go deliver that Word to the people. So, you can imagine now Habakkuk is an individual who has stood in God’s presence and heard a weighty, weighty word that you could almost call a burden. And now he comes with urgency. So, this is a book with urgency. This is a book with weight. This is a book that I’m not as concerned about the prophet as I am about the preaching message.
Guthrie: In terms of the structure of the book, like I’m looking at Chapter 1 right now and it kind of helps us I think to get the structure of the book just to look at the headings that maybe our Bible has put in for us. So, I see it begins with a complaint and then we’re going to hear the Lord’s answer. And then already again in Chapter 1, he’s going to make a second complaint and then we see in 2:2 the Lord is going to answer him again. So, we hear the Lord speak, and then Chapter 3 is then Habakkuk’s peripheral response to it. Would that capture the structure or would you alter that?
Helm: Oh yeah, that’s great. So, I think the editors have really helped us because I remember when I was translating my way through this book, the grammar is hidden in regard to who is speaking when. So, obviously Habakkuk’s complaint 2 to 4 is his prayer, but it gives way in verse 5 this word look among the nations or see, wonder, be astonished. That’s all second person plural, which leads us to think, oh, the voice has now changed. Habakkuk is no longer speaking. The Lord is speaking to the people. So, and then that goes all the way through verse 12. Are you not from everlasting in the Hebrew? You go back to the second person singular. And so, the editors have really helped us. I like to think of Habakkuk in terms of just the three simple units. You have something going on with the Lord’s theocracy, the people of Israel in Chapter 1, which gives way to this question of Habakkuk about theodicy or how is it that you can be good and yet this persistent evil is going to do something against us.
And then in Chapter 3, the failure of Israel as a theocracy, the problem of continuing presence of evil and the issue of theodicy gives way to this incredible theophany in Chapter 3, which is the coming of the Lord by which the failure of Israel is met and the problem of evil is solved and the justice of God is retained, and the problems and the questions that we have of God find all their answer in that wonderful third chapter.
Guthrie: Well, you mentioned questions we have of God. And it’s really kind of how the chapter begins or the book begins, isn’t it?
Guthrie: Habakkuk has some questions for God.
Helm: Yeah. He’s got three in number. So, that’s really a wonderful observation. So, how long and you won’t hear, we cry to you violence, which is literally in the Hebrew, chamas, we cry to you chamas and you don’t save. And why are you asking me to look on things and you don’t actually handle them yourself? And so with these three questions, what we see then you are… you are getting to know Habakkuk in a different way. He’s a man of prayer. That’s the first thing we know about him. “Oh, Lord. How long?” And isn’t that just wonderful? And notice the concern of his heart. Here’s a man who’s heart breaks with those three questions, really over three issues. He’s concerned that the Lord’s word is numb among the people, he mentions there the law is paralyzed. So, here’s a man who’s crying out to God three times over. And what’s at stake for him? “God, what happened to your word among the people?” And then secondly, justice never goes forth. “What happened to your ways?” And then the third thing, the wicked are surrounding and justice is perverted.
The righteous things are actually being twisted. So, is Habakkuk a character that we can warm to immediately? Yes. I don’t know where he was born. I don’t know precisely when he lived, but I am brought right at the opening to know that here’s a man whose heart is breaking. It breaks in prayer and it breaks with this weighty word concerning the absence of God’s word among His people, the forfeiture of God’s ways among our lives and the distortion of His righteousness, which the people are perverting.
Guthrie: I heard one teacher at this point, I think in the book say something like, he’s opening up the Jerusalem Daily News every day and it is filled with stories of people not getting justice in the courts. And, you know, they’re not hearing God’s word from the priests. And justice goes forth, perverted. It’s just like he reads story after story in the newspaper about justice being perverted.
Helm: And what’s interesting here, and this to me was one of the most difficult decisions to make as a Bible teacher in the book. It was easy for me to think of those things in regard to the culture in which I live. God’s word doesn’t exist. God’s ways are not honored. Truth is perverted in the culture of the world. But Habakkuk is saying among your own people, within the church, within the church, your word is failing to rise up and work, within God’s people, our own ways are further and further away from our calling. The justice that we ought to be bringing. So, if that’s the indication of the book, then this is a book that has incredible meaning for us today in evangelicalism because we are presently seeing the winnowing of God within his own family and the judgment of God coming against his own family as it will come against Israel in this book.
Because we have been the ones who have left His word and His ways. It is a wrenching truth that this book deals with the heart and soul of the Christian community.
Guthrie: So, Habakkuk’s first complaint is “God, there is, you know, your people, they don’t have your word or your ways and why aren’t you doing something about it?” And then he’s about to hear the Lord speak to him, telling him what he is going to do. And Habakkuk can hardly believe it.
Helm: Well, and it’s stunning. This to me is one of the most…this is the signature verse of the book. One of them, Verse 5. Look, now that’s you plural. God is now saying, “Look.” Now remember Habakkuk has already said, “How come you don’t look?” God says, “No. No. Look and see.” Habakkuk has already said, “How come I’m the one who sees things and you don’t?”
And so God is now saying, “look, see, wonder, be astounded.” All imperatives, all to the people of God. And the incredible verse that’s really tricky for any Bible teacher is to figure out what do you make of that little phrase “among the nations?” When I looked at it at first, I thought you’re looking at the outside, you’re looking at the non-believing community. But interestingly, you got time for this one?
Helm: It’s very important. There’s a textual variant that is actually, it could have been translated “the treacherous ones”. It’s the difference between the bagoyim, which is the people, the nations, or bagodim, one single…. one letter different, which would mean the treacherous ones. Now, there’s good reason to think that the treacherous ones would be a better translation. That’s actually the way the Septuagint put it. That’s actually the way Paul uses it and quotes it in Acts Chapter 13.
And if that’s the case, the treacherous ones here appear again in verse 13 of the same chapter. They’re called traitors and they appear in verse 2 of Chapter 2 where the traitors are there as well. And in every instance, those refer to the people among God’s people. So, and Paul views it that way. So, this is something that’s worth the attention of someone who’s trying to think about teaching it. Could Habakkuk be saying that the Lord says, “Look among the treacherous within my own household, look among the ones who are perverting my ways and not delivering my word. I’m going to do something among my own household that would astound you and you would not believe. I’m going to do to Israel. I’m going to take someone that’s actually worse, the Chaldeans, and I’m going to use a further evil to remedy the evil within my own house.”
And when you think of the way Paul uses that verse, this quotation or how it appears in Hebrews, not Paul, but in Hebrews. You actually have… or in Acts 13, Paul does use it. He is warning Israel, “Don’t let what happened to Habakkuk’s day happen to your day.” If you reject as the teachers within the family what I’m telling you about Jesus, God will do another wonder of judgment among you. So, if that’s the case, then this whole book now opens up in a very different way. What’s happening in this book is we are to look within our own camp, among the treacherous ones who have neglected God’s word because God is bringing judgment against his own people. And that’s the stunning reality then of verse 6. How does God bring judgment against his own people?
Guthrie: Habakkuk writes in verse 6, “For behold I am raising up the Chaldeans that bitter and hasty nation who match through the breadth of the earth to seize dwellings, not their own. They are dreaded and fearsome, their justice and dignity go forth from themselves.” Goes on to tell him. So basically, God is telling him, “You think I’m not doing anything.” But actually over there east of you, I’m at work in this godless people, the Chaldeans, and they are going to come and do my judgment work among these treacherous ones.
Helm: Within my own family, which is what happens in history. That’s actually, you know, we’d asked at the beginning like tell us a little bit about the time period of the book. That’s our biggest clue right there. The word Chaldeans, their term there would, of course, really been the early ruling class of the Babylonian empire. So, that you’re exactly right. God has responded to Habakkuk’s opening prayer in two ways. Verse 5, “I am going to respond to it.” And then verses 6 through 11, “I want to show you how I’m going to resolve it.” And so, this is wonderful. God does care about His own people. He cares about the holiness, the purity, the righteousness among ourselves. He cares about the delivery of His word. And He, in this instance, is going to meet that need where Habakkuk thought God was deaf, God was blind and God didn’t speak. And he says, “No, I’m going to do it and I’m going to do it from the outside.” That’s the great surprise of the book.
Guthrie: But Habakkuk can hardly believe his ears. This really doesn’t make sense to him. I’m looking in verse 13, he says back to God, “You who are of purer eyes than to see evil and cannot look at wrong?” And he basically says, you know, “how are you going to use this even more evil nation to judge your evil people?”
Helm: Yeah. And I know I’m using a couple of big words here, but that’s where the change goes from theocracy to theodicy. Habakkuk shows you a failed Israel. And the problem with a failed Israel is that God will not only take their evil, but he will allow further evil to not only persist but to persevere over his own people. So, how is God going to deal with sin within his own family? The answer in verses 6 to 11 is from an outside ungodly source. That’s the way I’m going to do it. That is one way of saying, “I will act for my household by any and all means necessary to bring them back to myself in repentance.” Think about what’s going on today and in our camp. God is using every means available to Him, entities that we would “abhor” to actually be the instruments of judgment within, because He is concerned with this burden word that we would live rightly before Him.
Guthrie: So, if you’re teaching this, Dave, how would you apply this idea of God using evil for good in the lives of His people? I mean, as soon as I say it out loud, I think I’ve heard this before.
Helm: So, as a Bible teacher, I’ll try to answer it to a Bible teacher because you have so many of them looking at this kind of thing. The genre is helpful here. God uses poetry to communicate what’s happening. Why? Why is this verses 6 to 11? I mean, look at the metaphors. This marching through the breadth of the earth, this swifter than leopards, more fierce than wolves, like horsemen from afar, with eagles swift to devour.
Guthrie: I feel something when you read that.
Helm: Yeah. God used…He could’ve said it in prose, but he uses poetry, and much of the prophetic literature is poetic. And I’ve really wrestled with this. So, the irony is you have this horrific judgment, but you have the most elevated and stylized form of language available to us. Evidently, poetry is a medium for judgment that not only does God see what’s going on in our family, but he’s up in heaven and he’s behind a desk and he has a pen in hand and he’s doing the painstaking work of a poet to write lines that are meant to stun the reader with metaphors that might make us come back to repentance. Poetry has the advantage of feeling. I’m not going to say God wants us to feel what he feels, but I do want to say God chooses language here to say in the strongest terms possible, although I am bringing an outside power to judge my own family, let me tell you how I feel.
I feel like one who is a lover, I feel like the one I loved left me. I feel in some sense jilted, I feel as though all the emotion of seeing that betrayal take place and the only words I can find to demonstrate the wrath that’s coming come in the most elevated form of poetry. So, how do I handle that problem? I think there’s a lot we can say about how much God must really love us. Whereas the tendency for the Bible teacher is to indicate how much wrath God is getting ready to throw down upon us. So, now you’re back to Habakkuk. So, Habakkuk, when he hears this, he’s in that new state of disbelief. You’re the one that’s holy. You’re going to bring that kind of judgment. You, you who only look on pure things and then, note, I guess I’ll just say the way he states his disbelief there in Chapter 2, verse 1, “I’ll take my stand at my watch post. I’ll station myself on the tower. I’ll look to see what he will say to me and what I will answer concerning my complaint.”
Guthrie: What is his tone there?
Helm: I think he’s in disbelief. He’s almost looking at God who’s presented himself as a judge and he’s saying, “How can you possibly be just in executing judgment upon your people through the wicked? What God do you have to say to the presence and the persistence of evil and your use of it upon your own people?”
Guthrie: Pretty bold to say, “I’m going to stand here and you’re going to answer me, God, and I’m going to listen to what you have to say.” But the Lord does answer him. Beginning in Chapter 2 verse 2. And the Lord answers him and He makes it clear that he’s going to give him an answer that’s not just for him, right? “The vision,” the Lord tells him, “make it plain on tablets so he may run, who reads it. But still the vision awaits its appointed time. It hastens to the end. It will not lie. And if it seems slow, wait for it. It will surely come. It will not delay.”
Helm: Yeah. So, that’s the first overt moment where we find, “And the Lord answered me.” I mean, now we’re all clear as readers on who’s speaking to whom, when. But what a thing to say. I’ll just tell you a little story. My grandfather in central Illinois was one of the youngest judges in Illinois. And I’ve seen the courtroom of course, where he served before he passed away. And there’s a mural behind the elevated high bench on the wall with two children and the sign is in Latin. But I’ve had the thing translated. And what stood behind my grandfather who was a judge, much like the Lord is here and Habakkuk is seated in the audience waiting to hear from his decision. The actual translation of what’s behind him is simply this idea of judgment. Justice will be done or the heavens will be destroyed.
And that’s what happens here in Chapter 2. God somehow is going to execute justice without bringing down the veracity of a heavenly righteous rule. And so, what he does there in verses 2 to 5 is he says, you know, “you got to get this down. You want an answer? Well, let’s get it in black and white.” And that little phrase is cool. I mean, you’ve mentioned it a few times today, “write it and make it plain so that he who runs may read it.” So, there’s two possibilities here. Either Habakkuk’s supposed to write this down so that you can envision him running through all the churches with his sermon, and he needs to have the thing written plain and large so that he can read it or the people need to be able to read it. It’s not just a message for him, but for us all as though it’s posted for all time. Clearly this is what Paul does with it in Romans 1:17 about the righteous then is we’re going to move living by faith. This idea that God is saying, “It may not come fast, but it’s coming and I will retain justice and heaven will not be overthrown and I can do both things in one act.”
Guthrie: That’s a word we still need today, isn’t it?
Guthrie: As we long for justice in this world to know that we might need to wait for it, but it is coming. Well, you mentioned that we’re about to come upon this phrase in Habakkuk that gets used I think three times in the New Testament and in kind of different ways. And I’m speaking of Habakkuk 2:4 where it says, “Behold, his soul is puffed up. It is not upright within him, but the righteous shall live by his faith.” So, it causes us, if we’re Bible teachers, when we read those words, I think I’ve heard this somewhere else before. It might also make us think about Genesis 15:6 when it says about Abraham that he believed God and he was considered righteous. So, it seems like as a Bible teacher, we’ve got to stop and do something with this little phrase. So, what do you suggest we do with it?
Helm: Well, you’re right. I don’t know that there’s a more potent fragment of a sentence in the Old Testament that has given birth to greater, weightier, theological works than this phrase. “The righteous shall live by his faith.” And that’s not even the full whole sentence, you know. “But..” So it’s in contrast to Babylon has no idea what’s coming to it, “but the righteous will live by faith.” I mean, Luther picks up on this. This is where the doctrine of the justification by faith comes. You’ve already mentioned the precursors and the promises back into Abraham. Paul will pick up on this in Galatians and the writer to the Hebrews interestingly will pick up on this in Chapter 10 right before the hall of faith chapter with all of those people. Let’s take that one first. What does this mean? The righteous will live by faith. The writer to the Hebrews basically embeds it in the idea of enduring.
So, twice he talks about you have need of endurance, you have need of endurance. And then after that long list of people, that famous list in Chapter 11, he comes back to, “And Christ endured. And so you endure.” So, for the writer to the Hebrews, he takes this phrase and says, what it means to live by faith is to patiently endure, which is perfect sense with what happens before “it’s going to come. It will not be slow, wait for it.” So, the call for the Christian in the midst of a season when the word of God is still not receiving its rightful place within the community, when the people of God, us, we’re still not living rightly under this word, is continue to wait, continue to endure, continue to be patient. God will accomplish His full and abiding work.
Guthrie: So, in that context, in Hebrews, in the middle of that where it’s also, what is faith? Faith is being confident in what you haven’t seen yet. And so…
Helm: And what you’re hoping for.
Guthrie: So, it’s calling us…that’s what you’re enduring for, you’re waiting for what he’s going to do. And, you know, here, if we read that back into Habakkuk, we would say, you know, to live by faith, by faith that God is going to do right.
Helm: Yeah. So, the righteous person in the church continues to endure in faith against all visible signs that God will make it right. Think about that. Think about abuse in the church.
Guthrie: That’s a big call.
Helm: Think about the people that…it is a big call. It’s a difficult call. So, there’s something about this verse that on its semantic range deals with our fidelity. God wants our ongoing fidelity when we know it doesn’t make sense. Luther, of course, took it in Romans 1:17, and people have translated Luther. I mean, Paul took it.
But Luther really has this sense of it means justified by faith. So, the word is something you just believe. But think of pistis, faith. It can be something you believe in, you give ascent to, it can be something you trust in. That’s like, we’re sitting in these chairs. We were actually trusting them. We’re not just believing, we’re trusting, but it can also be our faithfulness. And so, I think what’s really happening in the Bible, and I think those of us who love the reformation are shortsighted a little on this. For the righteous to live by faith, faith has a range, has a fullness of meaning. That is what do you believe? And it also within that, show me how you’re trusting? And also within that, are you enduring? The righteous live by faith. They actually embrace the fullness of that. And I think that’s what’s in play here.
Guthrie: Let me try out something on this little phrase, because I remember when I was writing on Habakkuk, I was really trying to get an answer to this question. And one thing I thought about was this little phrase, “The righteous shall live by his faith.” A way to kind of ask the text some questions as to what’s being said is to think about the contrast to each of the words that have weight here. So, you’ve got, “but the righteous shall live by faith.” And think about… contrast that to those who are not righteous. What’s going to happen to them? And the righteous shall live saying they’re not going to die.
Helm: Yeah. Sure.
Guthrie: And how are they going to live? They’re going to live by faith.
Helm: Yeah, but your faith, my faith is something we believe in, but it requires…it’s also not devoid of that which we continue to rest in and that which I will endure in. That’s what the Lord has said is going to happen. While we don’t think His judgment is coming as quickly as it should, keep living by faith, keep trusting in His word.
Guthrie: And I do…I think also that the New Testament and even the context you gave this in Hebrews helps us as you pointed out, it ends up that whole passage in Hebrews ends up with Jesus who endured, who for the joy set before him endured the cross. And if we teach this passage, so you got to have faith, David Helm. You got to work up faith. It’s going to be all up to you and don’t let your faith fail. We want to bring in the good news of the gospel, which is, my faith is going to fail. So, I’m going to set my eyes on Jesus, the one whose faith did not fail.
Helm: That’s wonderful. So, our faithfulness has an object that we are continuing to trust in the fulfillment of his Word. And that’s what they needed before Christ. We need to endure in that belief as we know it to be the promised Christ. So, we endure by continuing to hold that word, which according to the epistles was made manifest in the flesh, Jesus.
Guthrie: We see Jesus. All right. Well, let’s keep going.
Helm: Yeah. So, in 2:6-20 though, having said I’m going to get this done, 6 to 20, he gives you 5 reasons of why he’s going to do it. So, in Chapter 2 verse 6 to 20, if God is going to execute justice and heaven isn’t going to be overturned by doing it, he starts laying out a rationale, a case for why his judgment is going to come.
Guthrie: And this has a form to it.
Helm: Yeah. It really does. Doesn’t it? Yeah. What do you see?
Guthrie: Well, I see, woe, woe, woe. We think about Jesus giving his woes, or we think about it also as the opposite rather than blessed, blessed, blessed. Instead, this would mean kind of the opposite, woe. But I think, you know, like I see here, my Bible has the subheading Woe to the Chaldeans. So, I guess, you know, it’s going to go through all of the wrong these people that are doing. Is this the wrong with the Chaldeans or is this the wrong of the people of Judah?
Helm: No. So, this would be the Chaldeans. And so, He’s saying that, “Yes, you want to know how I can use a more evil people than you are to judge you? Well, because in due time they will receive my judgment.” And here He’s indicating, let me tell you for what reasons. So, the five woes, actually a Bible teacher shouldn’t skip over this section because there is a particularity to the woes. The first one there in verse 6, it’s the person who is loading himself with pledges, who has debtors, who in a sense have… he’s plundered. So, the first woe is a woe for those who in their financial lending, their financial borrowing, have rigged the system to make money on the backs of the poor. For that injustice, God’s judgment must and will one day come. You know, a lot of people wonder, do we ever speak about social justice in the pulpit?
I mean, here it is. This is the reasons for God’s coming wrath and people need to know that. Or the second woe begins in verse 9, but it’s different than the first. It’s the one who is gaining everything for his own house, thinking he’s safe from everyone. So, this is the world of privatized wealth for self-preservation and protection. Woe to you who only make money for what you can do with it on your own. God’s judgment will come. The third woe in 12, you’re building towns. I mean, this is the city center folks. These are the ones who are the urban dwellers who actually think that if we can just construct all the great cities of the world, we’ll be in good shape. But actually, these are the public servants, the civil leaders whose enterprise for the city is their own glory. And God’s intent is not for the city, but for citizens that would love Him. And since they’ve perverted it, God’s judgment will come
Guthrie: Well, in the middle of these woes comes verse 14 in Chapter 2 of Habakkuk. And this may be one of just a handful. Oh my goodness. Yeah. I have it. A big square around it in my Bible because it’s so significant. So, you’ve just said it in context. It’s talking about the cities who they build for their own glory, but then it’s kind of this declaration “for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord…”
Guthrie: “…as the waters cover the sea.” I mean, wow. You know, I use that verse teaching many things because, you know, to me, here’s Habakkuk the prophet, he’s not just looking a few years ahead. To me, this is a picture of the great consummation and this sets before us a hope that we are still longing for. I mean, because if we want to look at this in biblical-theological context, we know that the day is going to come, you know, maybe 400 or 500 years after this when the skies are going to be filled with the glory of the Lord on the day that Jesus is born and comes into this earth.
But that’s still, well, still not to this yet. And this is that the day is coming when the whole of the earth just as Eden was filled with God’s glory. But the day is coming when the whole earth is going to be this new Eden and how far is the glory going to go? You know, all of the wilderness will have been eradicated.
Helm: As the waters cover the sea.
Guthrie: As the waters cover the sea.
Helm: And it’s already begun. So, this is the old already and not yet. So, we’re already drinking in the knowledge of the glory of the Lord. I mean, the glory that we have, we see in the face of Christ through faith. This is already in play and it’s going to cascade to absolute cosmic fulfillment.
Guthrie: If Habakkuk wrote down this vision and made it plain on tablets for you and me, here’s one thing that we can take hold of that will help us to do what he’s calling us to do here, which is to wait. And how are we going to do that? We’re going to just like Jesus, for the joy set before him endured the cross. So this joy, this future where the glory of the Lord fills the earth, like the waters cover the sea. We set our hearts on that. And for that joy, we’re able to endure a lot of very difficult things here, which is what Habakkuk is facing.
Helm: Yeah. And we also set our heart on the cross where we gained knowledge of the glory of the Lord. Jesus says, you know, the hour has come to glorify me and this wonderful Christ-exalting image of Jesus as the glory of God. And the fact that we now know him and the fact that we are part of his work that will one day have cosmic fulfillment is such a treasure and ought to encourage the most wretched person and the person in the most heart-wrenching circumstances.
Guthrie: So, there are several more woes, but maybe let’s…
Helm: Yeah. You’ve got two. But look at the way it ends.
Guthrie: Okay. Yes.
Helm: Verse 20 “the Lord is in his Holy temple, let all the earth keep silence.”
Guthrie: I mean, that makes me want to put a zipper on my mouth.
Helm: Isn’t it great? Because Habakkuk, remember how Chapter 1 ended? Habakkuk’s like I’m going to sit here until you come out of your chambers and tell us how you’re going to answer the problem. Well, by the end of Chapter 2, God’s come out, He’s told him what He’s going do. He’s told him the reason He’s going to do it. And not only is Habakkuk now got to be quiet, the whole earth is stunned in silence.
Guthrie: Stunned in silence at God’s sovereign plan over the universe to accomplish justice in His way and in His timing and through the means by which He chooses.
Helm: Exactly. And the means by which He chooses is Chapter 3 this theophany, I mean, an incredible vision. In the midst of the years, the Lord reviving things. And look at verse 3, God came, the Holy one, His splendor covered the heavens. The earth was full of His praise. His brightness was like the light. It’s this massive eschatological figure of a victorious warrior that we know comes in Christ through the irony of his sufferings who actually brings mercy, executes wrath. I mean, all of these phrases are incredible. The way it talks about the sun standing still in their place. These things that the apostles pick up on in reference to Christ’s first coming, on the day, verse 13, when you go out for the salvation of your people, Christ has already done that. Or verse 14, you pierced with his own arrows, the heads of his warriors. I mean, the Lord…everyone thought the Lord Jesus Christ was being trampled, and yet he was entering into this victory. Chapter 3 is this stunning, glorious picture of the Lord’s deliverance by sending Himself, He comes, God came.
Guthrie: I guess when I first read it, I had this sense that very much He’s looking back at a previous deliverance. Isn’t he? I have the sense that He’s looking back at the Exodus. Where do I have that?
Helm: Well, there are these wonderful moments in the scriptures where God does come and God does deliver. But when it talks about this idea of God’s saving everyone, it’s not merely a look back here. This is a prophetic prayer based on the way he has worked with Israel, but that which he has accomplished in the Exodus. There will be a new Exodus, the ones that were thrown in the waters and the riding on the horses, there’s going to be a greater one. Revelation picks up on this too. He comes on a great horse and there’s the irony of the cross. The cross fits in back to the thing on biblical theology. You have this picture here of a triumphant warrior on a horse, which we’re going to get in Revelation 19. But in Christ’s first coming, he’s on a colt and the salvation that he brings is through the death of his own life. And that’s the way he comes in, marches in his justice so that at the cross, you find both God’s justice and mercy perfectly met.
Guthrie: In verse 13 there are a couple of terms that perhaps catch our attention and especially if we are teaching Habakkuk and we want to get to Christ. And I think we can agree whenever we teach Habakkuk, we want to get to Christ. And this might be a place that we could do this. Maybe in a couple of ways. Maybe you can bring those out. So, in verse 13, you went out for the salvation of your people. So in a sense, maybe he’s thinking about the Exodus, but as you mentioned, even more, this greater Exodus to come. I mean, Jesus meets on the transfiguration and he says they’re talking about his Exodus when he is actually going to go out for the salvation of his people. And then he says, “For the salvation of your anointed,” that phrase kind of catches our attention. And then even the next phrase, “You crushed the head.” And if we started reading the Bible beginning in Genesis, that phrase might catch our attention too. So, talk to us about, what would you do with this verse?
Helm: Well, you’re already into the rich theological layering of prophetic discourse. Sometimes people have asked me, you know, “Why are you still a Christian?” And I don’t always just merely have to answer it by saying, “Because Jesus rose from the dead.” I’m actually capable at times of saying, “Because the spirit has given me an understanding of his Word, where the coherence of the Word from beginning to end, Genesis to Revelation, where the repetition of these ideas are carried forward through the centuries, where the head of the wicked is done and then all the way into Ephesians will be promised again unto us at the end of the age. God’s word is completely trustworthy. He has brought salvation to His people. He has done it through his anointed. He has crushed the head of the evil one. He will bring us into our eternal rest. And therefore, the way… what I do with it is as I think what happens to Habakkuk at the end, verse 16, look at what happens to him when he sees the full, complete, majestic rich layering work of redemption. He says, “My body trembles, my lips, quiver, my bones in a sense fail, my legs tremble. I’ll wait quietly for the day of trouble to come upon the people that invade us, that I will wait for you to do it all.” It’s almost like an act of worship.
Guthrie: Yes. I think about Habakkuk being a very real person right here. You know, he has gotten this incredible revelation of this coming salvation. But you used the term earlier, now and not yet. And the thing is we’re in the now. He’s in the now. And the now for him, tomorrow for him means that when the army sweeps in, it’s going to crush his family.
Helm: It’s going to get worse.
Guthrie: It’s going to crush his family. He’s going to lose everything that he has likely, maybe, you know, even his own life, his own children, whatever. And so, when I read verse 16, I hear and my body trembles. I think it’s, you know, it’s both this sense of awe at God’s majesty. Yet I will wait quietly for the day of trouble to come upon people who invade us. But it’s like, “Okay, I’m counting on you God, that you really are going to follow through on your justice for them because it’s going to be incredibly difficult for us in the meantime.”
Helm: And you’re back to the very first verse, the oracle, the burden, the burden, which is upon Habakkuk is this burden.
Guthrie: But then the book ends with this incredible testimony of faith. And by the way, I told you before we started, you and I were having lunch with Ligon Duncan before we came up here. And I mentioned to you that whenever Ligon records with me, he sings.
Helm: Yeah, don’t get me to start singing now. Although I’m getting kind of excited about Habakkuk, I just might!
Guthrie: Okay. Good. You just might break out in song. I mean, you did kind of skip over the fact that Chapter 3 begins a prayer of Habakkuk the prophet. And then what are the next three words? According to shigionoth. So he’s giving us a tune.
Guthrie: So, you know, I remember when I taught this, you know, one question I asked was what do you think that tune sounds like?
Helm: That’s great.
Guthrie: Because you were talking earlier about poetry and that poetry is intended to make us feel. And so, you and I don’t know what this tune sounds like, but I think we can imagine throughout this whole chapter, we can try to imagine what it sounds like.
Helm: The movements.
Guthrie: You know, here’s how I thought the beginning sounded, I thought it sounded. “Oh Lord, I have heard the report of you. And your work, oh Lord, do I fear. In the midst of the years revive it, in the midst of the years make it known. In wrath remember mercy.” That’s my made-up tune to shigionoth.
Helm: You know what I love about that? You’re embodying the kind of literature here and it’s evoking all of those emotive contemplative awesome moments and it follows perfectly what you’ve just done on that thing “But the Lord is in his Holy temple, let all the earth keep silence.” And it is as though we’ve finally now come to a point in the book when we’re at rest and then suddenly a choral piece begins. And Chapter 3 is a piece of many movements.
Guthrie: Because it changes from there.
Helm: It does.
Guthrie: Then we’ve got what sounds almost like a battle hymn as we keep moving. But then we were just about to talk about 17 through 19 which is kind of a resolution to the book, but it also seems like a personal resolve…
Helm: I think that’s right.
Guthrie: …of Habakkuk because he says,
Helm: He’s ready.
Guthrie: “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.” And of course, there we must remember this is an agrarian culture. So basically, this means even if I lose everything…
Helm: When it all comes down.
Guthrie: …when I lose everything yet I will rejoice in the Lord. I will take joy in the God of my salvation. What an incredible statement. He told us earlier, the Lord told him, the righteous will live by faith. And it’s like we’re seeing a picture here of what faith looks like.
Helm: Yeah. And so the book opens with this burdensome prayer, three times the question, where are you? Why don’t you see? Why don’t..? But it ends in praise. I mean, it’s really a…but the praise is a costly praise. The praise isn’t a praise that, oh, it all got better and so now I’m ready to praise.
Guthrie: It’s about to get worse.
Helm: He’s saying, “I’m now able to praise you in the midst of the situation. Whereas when I first started speaking to you, all I had was the anguish of my soul and the unanswered prayers.” So, yeah, there’s a resolution here, but it’s a sober.. it’s a gloriously sober approach to what it means here to be the righteous who are living by faith. If you are the righteous today, listen and you want to be living by faith, those final three verses are for you. That’s where he found his resolution.
Guthrie: His final words are, “God, the Lord is my strength, he makes my feet like the deer’s, he makes me tread on my high places.” And He knows that army is about to sweep in and yet he knows that ultimately his security, his source of security is the Lord himself, and it’s not wholly dependent on the circumstances of this life.
Helm: Yeah. And then the way it really ends back to your thought, to the choirmaster with stringed instruments. In other words, the Lord gave me a song today, but Habakkuk knew this was not just something for his own private devotions. This was something for the church and it needed to be sung. That’s as close to singing as I’ll do for you. What a book!
Guthrie: I’ve heard you sing in a sermon and it was the most…one of the most memorable sermons I ever heard. Can you guess what it was? Because you have sung in a sermon.
Guthrie: It was a sermon on Nehemiah, Nehemiah. And can you remember what you ended singing?
Helm: Oh yeah. Well, that’s quite a book. Quite a song. We sing that one a lot at our church.
Guthrie: All right. Well, when we finish teaching the book of Habakkuk, what do we hope the impact has been on those we’re teaching?
Helm: Wow. Church community where the faithful who are lamenting the infidelity within our own family are resolutely and joyfully ready to continue on even though it’s not answered. Where the unfaithful are brought to repentance and faith and they’re righted in the ship and coming back to God through His Son who gives them salvation. We want our community and world to know that this life is serious business and God, while we put Him in the dock as though if there were a God, he wouldn’t have allowed all of this. We want them to know that God does have the last word and He will make good on all His promises. So, what do we want? We want a church strengthened in hard times. We want a wayward Christian returning to the fall. We want those who are enduring suffering to be trusting in His word and in Christ. And we want a world warned that these are weighty matters. God will speak. He does hear. He does see.
Guthrie: Thank you so much, David.
Helm: Loved being with you.
Guthrie: You’ve been listening to “Help Me Teach the Bible” with Nancy Guthrie, a production of the Gospel Coalition sponsored by Crossway. Crossway is a not-for-profit publisher of the ESV Bible, Christian books and tracks. Learn more about Crossway’s gospel-centered resources at crossway.org.