For the revelation awaits an appointed time; it speaks of the end and will not prove false. Though it linger, wait for it; it will certainly come and will not delay. (Habakkuk 2.3)
Letting the Teller Tell the Tale
Much to my chagrin, as I get older, I find myself responding to certain “younger” traits very similarly to how my parents reacted to mine. Being a bit of a language nut, I’m not overly fond of new slang and euphemisms. They just sound silly and shallow to me. “BFF,” for example, “best friend forever”—that’s a big deal in my estimation, and not something to be dashed off with an acronym or blithely tossed around. On the other hand, there are many new phrases and conventions I find delightful, including one that today’s reading from Habakkuk brings to mind.
I’m often fortunate to hang around articulate, witty younger people who really know how to pull off anecdotes. When stories start flying around, the listeners sense where they're headed and jump in to beat the tellers to the punch. A confident, master storyteller will keep them at bay by saying, “Wait for it!” Everyone settles down to hear the end of the tale. The teller’s insistence implies more than “Let me finish.” It promises the conclusion will be bigger and better than expected. With the flip of a switch, the listeners shut down impatience to prove how clever they are in eager anticipation to find out where the story leads. Once the punch is delivered, a chorus of “I thought you were going to say” and “See, I didn’t get that part” follows. Letting the teller tell the tale is always worth it.
We know less about Habakkuk than any named biblical author. He confides no personal information and his historical allusions are too broad to date his writing accurately. The free-verse style suggests he may belong to a caste of Temple prophets who frame their messages in musical settings. The vocational tone in his chapter 2 opening—“I will stand at my watch and station myself on the ramparts; I will look to see what he will say to me, and what answer I am to give to this complaint.” (v1)—and the third chapter’s oblique music cues back this up. Indeed, the book’s very first verse, “The oracle that Habakkuk the prophet received,” reads more like a memo than urgently needed prophecy. The book’s subdued format and its author’s modesty are misleading, however. Habakkuk and Israel are greatly distressed. Change is in the air and it doesn’t look good.
The oracle addresses Habakkuk’s exasperation in chapter 1. He complains of feeling abandoned at time when his country’s stalled and anger is on the rise. “Why do you make me look at injustice? Why do you tolerate wrong?” he beseeches God. “Destruction and violence are before me; there is strife, and conflict abounds.” (v3) He says, “the law is paralyzed” and “the wicked hem in the righteous, so that justice is perverted.” (v4) God provides no consolation. In fact, it’s worse than the prophet or his nation suspects. Setbacks due to internal conflicts have weakened Israel. And this time, God’s displeasure with the world is so intense it provokes Him to side against His people. “What I’m about to do is so unlike Me you wouldn’t believe it if anyone else told you,” He says, explaining in 6: “I am raising up the Babylonians, that ruthless and impetuous people, who sweep across the whole earth to seize dwelling places not their own.”
Even hearing it first-hand, Habakkuk can’t believe his ears. “You hate evil,” he reminds God. “How can You favor it? Why sanction actions that will destroy Your work and people?” He reaches out for hope and gets slapped down with inevitability. He’s so disheartened his decision to “stand my watch and station myself at the ramparts” admits he wants no part of this news. God understands the reluctance. He returns with the same message, but He raises Habakkuk’s perspective to gain a more holistic view of what He’s doing. Before doling out details, He stresses a bigger, better story’s unfolding here: “For the revelation awaits an appointed time; it speaks of the end and will not prove false. Though it linger, wait for it; it will certainly come and will not delay.” (2.3) If we stripped away the biblical varnish to recast verse 3 in current vernacular, it would read, “Don’t get ahead of Me, Habakkuk. It’s going to take a while to play this out. Just remember I’m telling this story. Wait for it.”
Reliving Habakkuk’s Time
Once Habakkuk sets aside his Doomsday clock and takes a deep breath, he learns God’s dual purpose in favoring Babylon. On the home front, divisiveness caused by perversion of justice, political strife, and haughty self-regard has to be remedied. Since Israel refuses to end its internal wars, God intends to unite it against an enemy that will subject the entire nation to injustice, impotence, and humiliation. Meanwhile, He sides with Babylon to teach it (and, by example, the world) He will not tolerate any nation’s violence and greed. “You have plotted the ruin of many peoples,” God charges, “shaming your own house and forfeiting your life.” (v10) He ends by declaring: you’re in My house and you will behave! “But the LORD is in his holy temple; let all the earth be silent before him.” (v20)
Here in the US, we’re in the closing hours of the most malicious midterm elections any American can recall. Civil war rages in Iraq. France is a cauldron of discontent. Israel and its neighbors teeter on disaster. Terror threats plague the planet. Crimes against humanity occur around the clock. Cities are battlefields. Hatred and prejudice rend the Body of Christ. Social justice stalls in courts. Financial setbacks and intolerance disintegrate families. Human rights and welfare are lost ideals. Violence and greed rule the day. We plead with God to do something, never pausing to consider He’s already at work.
We’ve brought suffering on ourselves. Though it’s not what we want, refusal to self-correct makes it necessary. We’re reliving Habakkuk’s time. We can benefit from his experience. As Jon Stewart put it at yesterday’s Rally to Restore Sanity, “These aren’t end times. They’re hard times.” When God works, things end up bigger and better than before. Because this is His house, He’ll do what’s needed to see we behave. In our weariness and despondency, let’s not get ahead of God. Let’s let the Teller tell the tale. “The revelation awaits,” He says. It “will not prove false. Though it linger, wait for it; it will certainly come and will not delay.”
But the Lord is in His holy temple. Let all the earth keep silence before Him.
(Clockwise from upper left: a US midterm ad; a car bombing in Iraq; French strikers; an Israeli-Palestinian face-off; a Ugandan evangelical campaign for antigay laws; a street shooting in Monterrey, Mexico; Sudanese children; US Christians espousing hate; a Canadian poster for homeless teens.)