Study of the Prophets: Habakkuk (Introduction)

Beth Elohim Messianic Synagogue

Study of the Prophets: Habakkuk (Introduction)

We continue our study with the seventh-century prophets, this time Habakkuk which translates to “embrace.” This name is exquisitely appropriate, the explanation becoming clear as we study his book.

The time of his ministry must be based upon the internal evidence taken from his book. He does not mention the name of any king. The available evidence points to the rule of Jehoiakim (609-598 B.C.E.) as the period in which he wrote his book, perhaps more pointedly to the approximate time of Nebuchadnezzar’s first invasion of Jerusalem in 605 B.C.E. First, in chapter 1: 6-10, the invasion of the Babylonians is predicted, made in the context that it is not too far off in the future. It actually occurred in three attacks; 605, 597, and 586 B.C.E. Next, there is no reference made to Assyria as an enemy or an object of destruction as prophesied by Nahum and Zephaniah, whom we will study after Habakkuk. This suggests that Nineveh was already destroyed which happened in 612 B.C.E. Third, Chapter 1:2-4 implies that there was severe sin among the people in Judah during this time, and the strong language used is inconsistent with the reforms Josiah had implemented. Rather, such language is consistent with the wickedness of Jehoiakim. Fourth, that the time likely preceded Nebuchadnezzar’s first invasion which follows the same manner in which reference to the invasion was made. Habakkuk asked G-d how long it would be before He punished Judah for her sinful behaviors. G-d responds telling Habakkuk that it will happen in his days (1:5) through an attack and destruction by the Babylonians. The language of this narrative indicates that the punishment was to be a future event.

Some scholars favor a time at the end of Manasseh’s rule, citing II Kings 21:10-16 that asserts that the prophets in Manasseh’s time predicted the type of severe destruction that resulted as consequence of the Babylonians. Habakkuk is thought to have been one of these prophets. Further support comes from the fact that there was great wickedness during Manasseh’s day, which could account for Habakkuk’s concerns and his prophecy. Nevertheless, Jehoiakim’s day seems more likely because there is no mention of Assyria and because of the implication that the Babylonian invasion was not far away.

Historical backdrop

Jehoiakim was twenty- five when placed on the throne under less than honorable circumstances. He was an evil king in the sight of G-d and was not an efficient ruler. At one time he squandered state funds to build a new palace. Because of this, Jeremiah disdained him and prophesied that Jehoiakim would be “buried with the burial of an ass” (22:13-19). Jehoiakim foolishly cut up and burned Jeremiah’s book, perhaps thinking that he could negate Jeremiah’s prophecy (36:23).

In 605 B.C.E., Babylon achieved supremacy as a clear Middle Eastern power. As the conqueror moved from city to city, Nebuchadnezzar wanted/demanded submission of each conquered city to him and the procurement of able-bodied young men who could be relocated to Babylon as prospective government personnel. This is where Daniel and his three friends come into play. While engaged in this endeavor, Nebuchadnezzar’s father died and he had to return to Babylon to assume the crown as Nebuchadnezzar II.

The importance of this historical background is to set the stage for Habakkuk’s prophecies. It was a period of much stress and anxiety during the time of Jehoiakim. The peace provided by Josiah’s reforms were gone and wickedness abounded once again.

Habakkuk does not provide any personal history and he is not mentioned in other places in the Torah. Considering the historical backdrop, we may make some logical deductions. He would have been an active participant in counteracting Jehoiakim’s wicked practices, lamenting over the lost peace and reforms of Josiah. He would have been aware of Nahum’s and Zephaniah’s influence on Josiah in bringing about reforms, desiring and attempting to accomplish the same thing with Jehoiakim. Although Nahum and Zephaniah were probably dead by this time, Jeremiah continued and Habakkuk may have teamed up with him to affect as much food as possible.

There is nothing other than fanciful tales that mention anything about Habakkuk or even his genealogy. But we may safely conclude he was a man who loved G-d. The crux of his book is that G-d’s holiness be properly recognized in his day. To Habakkuk, G-d should do more about guarding His own holiness, considering the widespread sinful practices of the day. Habakkuk’s prayer is recorded in the third chapter describes a heart completely devoted to G-d’s will and best interest. Interestingly, Habakkuk may have also been a Levitic singer in the temple. This statement is based on the closing statement of his book, “To the chief singer on my stringed instruments” (3:19). This statement implies that he was a singer and that he could play more than one instrument. Also, in the apocryphal book Bel and the Dragon, there is a statement “Habakkuk, the son of Joshua of the tribe of Levi.” Again, we cannot “prove” that Habakkuk was the son of Joshua by this statement, but the two aforementioned statements are not unique to this prophet. Several of the prophets were Levites who simply doubled their opportunities for ministry.

The book of Habakkuk presents a unique form compared to the other prophetical books. Instead of a cascade of prophetic statements or warnings against sin and impending punishment, Habakkuk presents the first two chapters as a dialogue between him and G-d. He first shows his concern that all the sin and wickedness seem to be going unnoticed by G-d. Then he speaks of G-d’s response to his prayers for action by G-d to protect His honor by stating that there will be punishment for the wickedness and sin; that it will come in the form of the Babylonian invasion.

This results in a question that we may all ask before we understand some of the historical encounters of G-d using nations to inflict punishment on His people, only to destroy these nations after His purpose has been accomplished. Also, how can a “more wicked” nation be used to inflict punishment on a “lesser wicked” nation? (see 1:13). G-d answers Habakkuk and us “Behold, his soul which is lifted up is not upright in him: but the just shall live by his faith” (2:4). The point is that those who are proud (Babylonians in this case), have no faith and therefore will stand condemned in the end before G-d. Those who continue to live during this time are those who have faith and who live by it. The punishment G-d will bring at the hands of the Babylonians will be temporary. Eventually, they will experience their own punishment and it will far beyond that inflicted upon Judah.

The third chapter of Habakkuk is a prayer offered to G-d showing Habakkuk’s settled faith in G-d and an intellectual and heart-felt knowledge that all is well when G-d is in charge. We all need to internalize this truth and allow G-d to take charge of our lives.

The outline of Habakkuk is as follows:

  1. A divine human dialogue between Habakkuk and G-d (1:1-2:20).
  2.  A. First question: Israel’s sin and G-d’s silence (1:1-4).
  3.  B. G-d’s response: the Babylonian invasion (1:5-11).
  4.  C. Second question: Babylonian cruelty and G-d’s seeming silence (1:12-2;1
  5.  D. G-d’s response: eventual destruction of the Babylonians (2:2-20).
  6. Habakkuk’s prayer of faith (3:1-19).

Next week we will begin a specific study of each chapter and verse of the book.


Rabbi Tamah Davis