End of Tyranny (Habakkuk 2:6-14)
Published in Mennonite Weekly Review (July 2, 2007)
The short prophecy of Habakkuk near the end of the nation-state of Judah (around 604 B.C.), witnesses to the enduring concerns of the biblical prophets–and the tragedy of the disregard of those concerns.
About 150 years separate Habakkuk from the first of the “writing” prophets, Amos. Even after the demise of the northern Jewish kingdom, Israel (predicted by Amos), and even after the reforms of Judah’s king Josiah, who sought to reinstitute the directives of the rediscovered law book (see II Kings 22–23), the problems remain.
This is how Habakkuk describes the Judah of his day: “Destruction and violence are before me; there is strife, and conflict abounds. Therefore the law is paralyzed, and justice never prevails. The wicked hem in the righteous, so that justice is perverted” (1:3-4). The rich and powerful violate the vulnerable ones in Judean society–a direct and profoundly corrupting violation of the heart of Torah.
The tone of Habakkuk’s critique hints that we are near the end of Judah. The prophet begins in his own voice, a voice of lament. He speaks to God instead of speaking for God. This change in tone signals a new sensibility in prophetic proclamation. The emphasis now becomes one of struggling to sustain a connection with God in light of the impending demise of the standard bases for relating with God (the Temple and the Jewish nation-state).
Punishment, and a call to faithfulness
God responds to Habakkuk’s lament by promising that through the terrible deeds of the “fierce and impetuous” Babylonians (1:6), Judah will reap the consequences of all its injustice and violence. For Habakkuk, though, unleashing the ruthless Babylonians was not exactly what he hoped for from God. They also embody injustice and violence (1:17). So where is God in all of this (1:13)? Is the only response to injustice and violence more injustice and violence?
God’s responds with the most famous words from Habakkuk: “The just shall live by faithfulness” (2:4). Basically, God calls people of faith to live out of loyalty to the way of Torah even in the face of injustice and violence to the right and to the left.
Hab. 2:6-14 justifies such a commitment. As deserving of judgment as Judah was, Babylon was even worse. These verses describe Babylon’s own corruption and ultimate fall. “Alas for you who build a town by bloodshed, and found a city on iniquity!” (2:12). Just as God holds unjust Judah accountable, so too will God hold even more unjust Babylon accountable.
However, the chaos meeting chaos of Babylon as a tool of judgment on Judah is not the final word. That is why the call to “live by faithfulness” can and must be followed. “The earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea” (2:14).
Blessing the whole Earth
Habakkuk, then, believes that the promise to Abraham (of God’s people blessing all the families of the Earth, Gen 12:1-3) and the vision given to Isaiah and Micah (of the nations coming to Zion to learn the ways of peace) remain in effect.
As we will see more clearly in the prophecies of Jeremiah, the channel for this blessing of the whole Earth will not be through a nation-state. Those who “live by faithfulness” are called to do so as a counter-culture in relation both to the failed nation-state of Judah and to the oppressive empire, Babylon.
This challenge in Habakkuk remains present for all of God’s people. How do we find our way to bless all the families of the Earth and witness to the ways of peace for the nations while avoiding trusting in kings and emperors and being snared by nation-states?