I remember the surprise I had when I first witnessed the prayer of my Swedish hosts over the food. It was unexpectedly short, sang, and apparently not devotional at all. Coming from a tradition where each meal was celebrated as a feast and was taken as a renewed opportunity to proclaim our faith, the new experience was altogether surreal. In time, I learned to hear at the heart of people and do not judge them according to appearances. It should not surprise us that when our foods reaches easily our tables, we tend to forget how much we owe to God for them. Poverty can be seen as God’s endowment to guarantee our dependence on him. That is the context Romanians came from. This illustration is the context of today’s meditation from Habakkuk’s prophecy as well.
We have seen that God is not surprised by our requests, not even when our prayers are sharp, straight to the point and unselfish, because He always has a plan prepared and ready to be revealed at the right time. Moreover, God’s plan is stable, it cannot be changed, but it always provides mercy for some, those seen as living in faithfulness.
In the face of social injustice and, for that reason, social insecurity, the prophet asks from God to intervene. The divine solution envisages the massive intervention of the cruel polytheist and militarist people of Babylon who will wipe out all the nations of the Ancient Near East, Israel included. Habakkuk continues by pondering whether such a solution is immoral and receives a second and final answer: God will judge the Babylonians themselves for their excess of zeal and will provide an escape for his loyal people. The prophet understands that the Babylonian slaughter will not end the history; at least not for Israel. The final scene is glorious, with God’s nation restored from shreds and the proclamation of God’s sovereignty as an act of worship generalized to the whole world. The final words of chapter 2 announced the entrance of His Majesty the King.
The third chapter of this short book contents the last contribution Habakkuk has in his dialogue with God. Contrary to the book of Jonah, here it is not God who has the final word, but the prophet. Although he cannot hide the complaining tone of this hymn, Habakkuk recalls a favourite theme among the prophets, that of God’s self-revelation in a chariot-like vehicle accompanied by storm, disease and earthquake. Witnessing such a spectacle has two effects: the total destruction of the enemies and the awe of the faithful ones. In the end, building on the knowledge of past interventions in history, the prophet expresses his confidence in God’s ability and willingness to defend his people and bring harmony where there is only disaster.
The teaching of this final chapter of Habakkuk’s prophecy can be envisaged as the answer to the more specific question ‘What happens when God’s answer to your prayer does not fit your expectation?’ Since the person in discussion is assumed to be religious, there is no need for a revolutionary acquisition of some new knowledge or experience, but finer tuning in the knowledge and experience already acquired. Get ready for a new E.R.A.! Mind this acronym.
1. Enhance your understanding of God’s character (vv. 3-6)
There are many people who assert that they believe in God but their God is rather a caricature, resembling the human likeness. Habakkuk’s recovers an understanding of God that has a long history going to the very roots of monotheism. God is the Holy One, entirely different and apart from every creature, perfect in his attributes, having the source of his own existence in Himself, and sustaining Himself through His own power alone. His incandescent presence consumes, shakes, disintegrates. God is a sovereign that has no equal. At his approach everything trembles, crumbles, and collapses.
Some people who got too close to God, like Moses for example, thought that they might peek at God’s inner radiance and see His very nature. In his sincerity, and ignorance at the same time, Moses believed that such a thing is indeed possible. Apparently God granted him his opportunity, but when the time came for Moses to contemplate what was interdicted to generations of people, when he heard the out loud shout of God’s herald, he crumbled on the floor. At the sound of “The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation” (Exod 34.6-7), Moses collapsed at the ground in worship.
Other people, like Hagar or Manoah, were so terrified by the angel they have seen that they imagined that God himself revealed to them. As John the apostle said, though, we know that nobody had seen God, except His own Son (John 1.18). As Christians we have the advantage of having the witness of Jesus recorded for us, the One who had seen God and told us about Him. The revolutionary understanding that Lord Jesus brought to us is that God is not be the source of terror anymore, at least not to those who are His people. His Majesty gave them the right to become his children with all the statutory rights that this position encompasses. We can approach God as FATHER, we can address Him as such, and we can expect from Him every honour and responsibility that such a title bestows upon the privileged ones.
2. Remember God’s works (vv. 7-15)
Does anyone know what makes a good surgeon famous? Is it his degrees? Maybe his articles published in scientific journals? Probably his titles? I have the feeling that his career as a surgeon is built on the successful surgeries he performed. It does not help me to be cut by a heavy diploma loaded surgeon with an imprecise hand. Theoretically only such a surgeon can advance, being given to him all the honours I have just mentioned. In real life, though, there are many who abuse the system to their own advantage and to the expense of public safety.
What makes a god famous? If we are to consider the Greek mythology, the answer must be his deeds. All these legends about gods and goddesses and their deeds had the main purpose to inspire awe and hope into the human subjects, and stimulate their devotion. Therefore, we can notice that it comes natural to humans to evaluate somebody in relation to his/her own deeds. The Lord God had an impressive impact on the Israelites because He had made Himself a name by getting involved in their history, as a family, as a tribe, and then as a nation. The Canaanites were in shock when they heard that this God of Israel has brought his people from Egypt down to Jordan, breaking every single military resistance on the way and even opening the waters of the Red Sea for them and then even the Jordan (Joshua 2.10-11, 5.1).
When we have problems in understanding God’s dealings with humanity and/or with us a clearer understanding of God as sovereign helps to put things in order. The theme of the lordship of God and of the divinity of Christ is recurrent in Paul’s epistles. It stays as the basis of all his instructions, rebuking, and counsel. Take, for example, 1 Corinthians. Here Paul writes “to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be holy, together with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ – their Lord and ours” (1.2). In the Epistle to the Hebrews, the author makes it clear that the very approaching to God is conditioned by the preliminary understanding of God’s nature: self-sufficiency and righteousness (Heb 11.6).
3. Adjust your faith to God’s character (vv. 16-19)
Eventually, Habakkuk admits God’s right to discipline his nation His own way, demonstrates composure and declares his trust in God despite all appearances and the unfavourable temporary climate. Given the agrarian society in which he lived, Habakkuk’s final words are deeply moving, promising a faith that goes beyond the basic expectations of God fulfilling his daily needs plunging into the thick darkness of having a resilient faith that does not move about, but stays firm in the trust of God who can turn all things into a better end. The same faith echoes in Jesus’ final words: “Yet not as I will, but as you will” (Mat 26.39).
There is one passage in particular where Paul the apostle looks into the benefits of Christian prayer in the context of God’s sovereignty (Rom 8.23-30).
Not only so, but we ourselves [as the whole nature does], who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies (this is the object of our prayer). For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what he already has? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently (this is the quality needed).
There is a problem, though; something that makes our patient waiting painful.
In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God’s will.
But we have the knowledge to back up God’s support.
And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.
What do we have to do when the answer’s to our prayers does not seem to fit our expectations? We have to build on the knowledge and the experience that is firmly grounded in God’s character and involvement in our life and wait patiently his timely and perfect answer.
E Enhance our understanding of God’s character
R Remember God’s deeds
A Adjust our faith to God’s character
I am perfectly aware that I cannot provide the best illustrations for matters of faith if God would have not blessed me with the support of so many people to be of help to me. I remember an incident, though, that took place seven years ago. At the time, shortly after being accepted as a doctoral student at a theological college in London, and having promised the funding necessary, I left for Jerusalem to deepen my knowledge of Hebrew. Five months later the ‘firm’ funding promise was gone, because the trust went bankrupt. All future plans seemed completely ruined and I blamed the man who irresponsibly promised help when he knew it will be difficult to deliver. I felt like the door closed in front of me smashing my face. For a while I was completely paralysed. When the agony passed I found myself writing letters to dozens of trusts and missionary societies for funding, but each one was just another cul-de-sac. At God’s own time, after almost two more agonising years, all things came into place and I have enjoyed the peace of research freed from financial preasure. God was preparing me for another experience, the toughest of my life that far. But here I am, celebrating the end of that process that at one point I thought is in peril of never starting again. God is indeed good and His plan is perfect.