Human prayer does not change God’s plan, even when it seems it does but, at the same time, God is never short of mercy; all people fall short of the glory of God and deserve God’s judgement, but He still displays mercy on them.
Unleashing God’s judgement over the wicked, rightful as it might be, begs the question: ‘is it proportionate, though?’ We are all familiar with the perception of guilt that comes in degrees and penalties that should fit the crime. Is God himself going to breach our understanding of law and justice? Atheists would argue that the mere existence of wars and natural disasters responsible for the killing of thousands of innocent people proves that God does not exist. If He exists, He must be with necessity a perfect judge and a loving God. Philosophers, and even theologians, judge God according to their own understanding based on faulty reasons. God became nothing more than an idea, a representation of our own nature, a human construct. The reality seen from the other side is as follows:
For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways,
declares the LORD.
As the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts
Habakkuk, the prophet, continues praying, wondering whether the penalty does not exceeds the crime. It is true that Israel is guilty, but a son is less guilty than a foreigner after all. How could you punish your son by handing him in to the police? You would rather pay the bill and let him run free from jail, wouldn’t you? God punishes the guilty party without any moral judgement over the merits of His tools. The Babylonians in this case are just tools in God’s hands. Ultimately, He is the one who decreed the punishment of nations, the one who unleashed the judgement. Is God the moral author of violence? No, but God can use the most cruel inventions of fallen human nature such as militarism and genocide to achieve His purposes. And that even at the expense of moral judgements.
When I read the words of Habakkuk in chapter 1 vv. 14-17 about describing the way the Babylonians used to treat people like fish, destroy nations without mercy and even worship their nets, I cannot help thinking at the twentieth century death camps. How can we, as believers, answer to all accusations of impropriety and cruelty against God? How can we reconcile His justice with human cruelty and, worse, natural disasters? I reckon this is not going to be an easy answer. The prophet himself needs to recollect himself and find a clear state of mind in order to perceive God’s answer. When the answer comes, it is perfectly right; it is perennial, its universality deriving from the command to have it written down. God’s judgement is perfectly legitimate; He will condemn all sinners, including the tools he has once used. For Him, they are all the same, just sinners. For some, He provided an escape, though: ‘the righteous people will live by their faith’ (Hab. 2:4). Even though there is no escape from God’s judgement, the righteous has the opportunity to validate himself by acting according to his faith.
There are numerous occasions in the Bible where the judgement of God is portrayed as inescapable. Take Amos 2.13-16 for example:
Now then, I will crush you
as a cart crushes when loaded with grain.
The swift will not escape,
the strong will not muster their strength,
and the warrior will not save his life.
The archer will not stand his ground,
the fleet-footed soldier will not get away,
and the horseman will not save his life.
Even the bravest warriors will flee naked on that day,
declares the LORD.
People will flee to the mountains to find a hiding place (Hos 10.8), but there will be no escape:
Then the kings of the earth, the princes, the generals, the rich, the mighty, and every slave and every free man hid in caves and among the rocks of the mountains. They called to the mountains and the rocks, „Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb! For the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?” (Revelation 6:15-16)
The mercy God has on some is not owned to them, because even the tiny seed of faith that makes all the difference (Luke 17:6) is from God (Jude v. 3). The interpretation apostle Paul gives to this passage suggest that faith is a self-generating quality received from God (Rom 1:17). In the Epistle to the Hebrews the same passage from Habakkuk is employed to encourage the brotherhood to persevere (Heb 10:35-39).
God’s judgment is announced against all sinners, even against those once used for his purposes. The remaining of chapter 2 (namely, vv. 6-20) is written as a set of woes. Note the decisiveness of God’s purposes expressed especially by the image of the cup. It is clear that there is no second chance given to these sinners, and God’s purpose is going to be fulfilled. “The earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea” (2.14), not because all sinners will be converted but because all wickedness will be removed. Revelations 20.15 says that “if anyone’s name was not written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire”. There is nothing we can do to change God’s plan, but we should do all we can to fulfill His purpose with us and accomodate our life to His plan.
The prophecy of Habbakuk does not end here. Since prayer does not surprise God, nor changes His plans, then what does it accomplish? The only place where change can take place is within us, but that change builds extensively on the knowledge that God exists, He cares, and He is accomplishing His purposes showing mercy to those He has chosen.