I think anyone can get the general sense of Habakkuk 3:17 from an initial reading. But reading that verse in light of the entire Old Testament, and then seeing what Habakkuk goes on to say, is like hearing the “Hallelujah Chorus,” within the entirety of Handel’s Messiah—it makes it soar.
Figs, grapes, and olives were the choicest produce of the land. They’re iconic; used again and in the prophetic corpus. There seems to be an increasing severity to the images Habakkuk uses. The absence of figs by itself hardly suggests privation. From grapes they received their daily drink, but these wouldn’t be essential for life. From the olive they resourced oil not only to anoint their faces, but to fuel their lamps and cook their food. The fields yielding no food turns one from the lack of joys to starvation. The flocks being cut off not only means the absence of another food source, but also of clothing. Finally, the cattle being absent from the stalls suggests not so much that beef isn’t an alternative to mutton, but that the animal they used to prepare and work the ground is non-existent. Now there is not only no food, but no possibility of food. David Prior paints the canvas well:
Everything has been destroyed. There is no grain, oil or wine. There is no meat or wool. There is no food of any kind—fruit, vegetables, cereals, milk, meat. It is not simply a devastated economy. It is the end of everything that can keep body and soul together. There is nothing, absolutely nothing—and an invading army takes possession of the land, pillaging and raping with indiscriminate violence. It is Bosnia, Vietnam and Rwanda rolled into one. ‘How could life be sustained at all in such conditions?’ Nothing to eat, nothing to drink, nothing to wear. Not just poverty, but the enemy stalking the land. Nowhere to hide.
But this is only the general sense that a good reading of the text itself can give us. There is a much deeper significance. Our story begins in a garden of plenty and peace. It is the story of a kingdom: God’s people in God’s place under God’s rule. Man rebels against God’s rule and is driven from the garden, separated from God—not His people. The earth is cursed. Thorns grow. But God calls Abraham out for Himself. He promises to make from Abraham a people for Himself, to give them a land, and to bless them—to reverse the curse.
Habakkuk gives us a picture of the curse gone full bloom, consuming all so that nothing else blooms. Habakkuk is saying that there is not one tangible evidence to His senses of the covenant God made with His people, yet he will rejoice in Yahweh. When the only part of God’s promises that you have is God Himself, that is all you need. That is all we ever have in this life. Just like Abraham, Habakkuk can’t see the promises, but greets them from afar (Hebrews 11:8–16).
Picture a devastated village within German occupied territory during the second great war having received news that the tide has turned. The war isn’t over, but they believe it will be soon. In the midst of the bombed out buildings, stripped gardens, and with tattered clothes they sing and dance with joy. When there is not one tangible sign of the kingdom come, and all you have is the word of the victory of the Word, this is all faith needs to rejoice because it is all that faith ever has. When faith sings in the midst of darkness it demonstrates that the joy of the kingdom isn’t in the people, the place or the rule (peace and righteousness) by themselves in isolation from God as though that were possible. The joy of the kingdom is that it is God’s people in God’s place under God’s rule.