|Lahneck Castle, Lahnstein, Germany|
Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
1:1 The oracle that the prophet Habakkuk saw.
2 O Lord, how long shall I cry for help,
and you will not listen?
Or cry to you “Violence!”
and you will not save?
3 Why do you make me see wrongdoing
and look at trouble?
Destruction and violence are before me;
strife and contention arise.
4 So the law becomes slack
and justice never prevails.
The wicked surround the righteous—
therefore judgment comes forth perverted.
2:1 I will stand at my watchpost,
and station myself on the rampart;
I will keep watch to see what he will say to me,
and what he will answer concerning my complaint.
2 Then the Lord answered me and said:
Write the vision;
make it plain on tablets,
so that a runner may read it.
3 For there is still a vision for the appointed time;
it speaks of the end, and does not lie.
If it seems to tarry, wait for it;
it will surely come, it will not delay.
4 Look at the proud!
Their spirit is not right in them,
but the righteous live by their faith.
Why does evil seem to prevail? If God is the Creator, the Redeemer, the Sustainer, then why do the wicked thrive? These are age-old questions, that have elicited a multitude of answers. Some seem credible and others do not. The big question has to do with God’s responsibility for these matters. After all, if God is all-powerful, as some suggest, then surely God can do something, at least you would expect God to do something if what Scripture says is true, and God is love (1 John 4:7,16). One alternative answer is that God might be mighty, but if love is uncontrolling and non-coercive, then God can’t simply sweep in and overcome the way things are. I find this answer attractive, and yet I also struggle with it. I speak to this dilemma in an essay titled “What Use Is God?” in a volume that responds to Tom Oord’s book The Uncontrolling Love of God.
Many congregations will be observing All Saints Day on the 21st Sunday after Pentecost. While the first reading for All Saints day comes from Daniel 7, a passage worth exploring, perhaps this is also a passage worth considering on the Sunday following All Saints Day. It does take up the cause of those we call saints, those who are righteous. How do the saints live? Do they not live by faith?
The first reading for the 21st Sunday after Pentecost comes from the words of the prophet Habakkuk, who asks the pertinent question: “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen?” Habakkuk wants to know why violence continues to plague the land and God doesn’t respond. How come justice never prevails and the wicked surround the righteous? Yes, these are the questions raised down through the ages. If God can do something about the injustices and iniquities of this life, why doesn’t God act? Perhaps Tom Oord is correct, God Can’t. That answer may seem to get God off the hook, but does it? If God cannot prevent evil, then what does it mean for us?
The initial answer to Habakkuk’s question suggests that the people of Judah are getting their just deserts. In the section that is not designated for Sunday, God suggests that the Chaldeans (Neo-Babylonian Empire) are an instrument of God’s discipline to the nation of Judah. It’s a common theme in Scripture—God often uses what might be perceived as enemy nations to get Israel/Judah’s attention—but apparently the answer doesn’t satisfy Habakkuk’s questions about justice. So, in verse 1 of chapter 2, we hear Habakkuk declare that he will stand on the ramparts and keep watch until an acceptable answer comes. That’s his job as a prophet of God.
The answer that comes to him invites him and the people to wait, to tarry, because things will change in due time. Just be patient, for the righteous will live by faith. The word given in 2 Peter 3:9 echoes the word given to Habakkuk: “The Lord isn’t slow to keep his promise, as some think of slowness, but he is patient toward you, not wanting anyone to perish but all to change their hearts and lives” (CEB). There is a time for waiting, of course, but also a time to act. Knowing when and where and what that involves requires discernment. Here patience is connected with faithfulness and persistence.
The word here concerning the righteous living by faith inspired Paul, who wrote in his letter to the Romans:
16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. 17 For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, “The one who is righteous will live by faith.” (Rom. 1:16-17).
Then in the Galatian letter, he wrote: “Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law; for ‘The one who is righteous will live by faith.’” (Gal. 3:11). These are words that stirred Martin Luther’s affirmation that justification is by faith, a key principle undergirding the Reformation.
Paul drew from Habakkuk and Luther from Paul, but what did Habakkuk have in mind? Is it merely belief in Jesus? Or is their more? The Hebrew word rendered here as faith, emuna, speaks of qualities such as loyalty, perseverance, and reliability. This leads Lydia Hernandez-Marcial to suggest that what the prophet has in mind here is faithfulness. That’s a bit more active than mere faith as belief. Thus, she writes: “In this light, Habakkuk affirms that while the proud Chaldeans (cf. 2:5) do not act correctly, the violence will not last forever. The duty of those committed to justice is to wait faithfully for the fulfillment of Habakkuk’s more just vision of the future.” [Connections, p. 444].
The question that is always present has to do with the role that the righteous have in achieving God’s justice. Do we wait passively, or actively? The vision of the prophet has eschatological implications. The assumption here is that evil/wickedness/injustice will not prevail forever. While I would assume we have a role in all of this, the answer give to Habakkuk is that God will take care of things. As Lauren Winner points out, in Habakkuk the word is that “it is God’s action that the passage stresses. In the ‘appointed time’, at ‘the end,’ God—not we—will set things right. Though this healing seems to be rather slow in coming, nevertheless we are encouraged to wait. Redemption is absolutely, unequivocally coming.” [Connections, p. 446].
I’m not sure what to do with this word from Habakkuk. I want to do something about the presence of evil in the world. I want to take a stand against injustice. I don’t want to just stand on the ramparts and watch until God does something. Yet, if God is God then the answer can’t simply lie in our own hands. Perhaps we don’t have to make a choice between passivity and activism.
Might we see in Habakkuk’s message a call to remain faithful to the ways of God? Might living by faith involve staying loyal to God despite the realities we face? If so, then this faith, this sense of trust, is not passive. This righteousness is simply living according to the ways of God, as revealed in Torah. This is what Habakkuk had in mind—remaining true to Torah. This then is the key to redemption. Now, it needs to be said, with Karl Barth, our faithfulness is rooted in the faithfulness of God: “Where the faithfulness of God encounters the fidelity of men, there is manifested His righteousness. There shall the righteous man live” [Barth, Romans, p. 42].
Knowing that God is faithful, we are enabled to persevere even when things look bad, knowing that justice will prevail. It is something we must take by faith and not by sight, but we are not left without some evidence of God’s faithfulness. It is with this confidence in God’s faithfulness that we can pursue justice and mercy in this world. We can, as Barth suggests, move from being a prisoner to one who stands at watch. In this, we become “the guard at the threshold of divine reality” [Romans, p. 41]. This is a word to take to heart even now, understanding, as I do, that the work of justice requires something of us as we respond to the love that is God. So:
Be still, my soul: for God is on your side;
Bear patiently the cross of grief or pain.
Trust in your God, your savior and your guide,
Who through all changes faithful will remain.
Be still my soul: your best, your heavenly friend
Through thorny ways leads to a peaceful end.
Katharina Von Schlegel 1752 (Tune: Finlandia)