“The terrible thing is that a perfectly good God is in this matter hardly less formidable than a Cosmic Sadist. The more we believe that God hurts only to heal, the less we can believe that there is any use in begging for tenderness. A cruel man might be bribed—might grow tired of his vile sport—might have a temporary fit of mercy, as alcoholics have fits of sobriety. But suppose that what you are up against is a surgeon whose intentions are wholly good. The kinder and more conscientious he is, the more inexorably he will go on cutting. If he yielded to your entreaties, if he stopped before the operation was complete, all the pain up to that point would have been useless. But is it credible that such extremities of torture should be necessary for us? Well, take your choice. The tortures occur. If they are unnecessary, then there is no God or a bad one. If there is a good God, then these tortures are necessary. For no even moderately good Being could possibly inflict or permit them if they weren’t.
Either way, we’re for it.
What do people mean when they say ‘I’m not afraid of God because I know He Is good’? Have they never even been to a dentist?” —C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed (HarperOne, 2001) pp. 5, 6.
“Meanwhile, where is God? This is one of the most disquieting symptoms. When you are happy, so happy that you have no sense of needing Him, so happy that you are tempted to feel His claims upon you as an interruption, if you remember yourself and turn to Him with gratitude and praise, you will be—or so it feels—welcomed with open arms. But go to Him when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that, silence. You may as well turn away. The longer you wait, the more emphatic the silence will be come. There are no lights in the windows. It might be an empty house. Was it ever inhabited? It seemed so once. And that seeming was as strong as this. What can this mean? Why is He so present a commander in our time of prosperity and so very absent a help in time of trouble?
…Not that I am (I think) in much danger of ceasing to believe in God. The real danger is of coming to believe such dreadful things about Him. The conclusion I dread is not ‘So there’s no God after all,’ but ‘So this is what God’s really like. Deceive yourself no longer.’
…Of course it’s easy enough to say that God seems absent at our greatest need because He is absent—non-existent. But then why does He seem so present when, to put it quite frankly, we don’t ask for Him?” —C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed (HarperOne, 2001) pp. 5, 6.
This post was originally published on January 12th, 2015. It was lightly revised and republished on April 19th, 2020.
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; frequently used 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 transitions from frills to necessities. 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 now an alternative to mutton, but that their tractors have been stolen. Now there is not only no food, there is 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 blooms. Habakkuk is saying that though 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. 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 receiving 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 and stripped gardens, with tattered clothes they sing and dance with joy. When there is not one tangible sign of the kingdom come, when all you have is the Scripture’s declaration of Christ’s victory, 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) 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.
This post was originally published on January 5th, 2015. It was lightly revised on April 13th, 2020.
Habakkuk begins with lament and ends with a prayer praise. Habakkuk is unique among the prophets, because instead of speaking for God to the people, he speaks to God for the people. In the last chapter the uniqueness is ratcheted up.
“A prayer of Habakkuk the prophet, according to Shigionoth.”
This isn’t just a prayer of Habakkuk; this is to be a prayer and song of praise for the people of God. “Prayer” here is a liturgical term to introduce this”psalm”, just as it is used in Psalms 17, 86, 90, 102, 142. As for “Shigionoth,” well, we haven’t the slightest, other than that this puts Habakkuk’s song in the same league as Psalm 7. “Selah,” occurs here three times; the only instances of the word in the Scriptures outside of the Old Testament psalter. Finally, Habakkuk ends the song with the subscript “To the choirmaster: with stringed instruments.”
Because Habakkuk has cried, the people can sing. Because Habakkuk has lamented, and God has spoken, the people of God, His remnant, may prepare for exile with a song of faith on their lips. Habakkuk has lamented for the people; now he leads them to sing.
This is a song of joy born out of a lament of confusion. The fruit of joy grew out of the soil of confusion, watered by the tears of sorrow. This is always God’s way. On a hill called Golgotha, meaning “place of a skull,” and watered with blood, God grew the tree of life. This is a song for the darkness; a pure and holy light for the darkest of caves. This isn’t a song for the naive, the gullible, or the delusional. This is a song you can sing when a child dies, when cancer is diagnosed, and when riots plague your city. This is a song of rooted unshakable joy. This isn’t “If You’re Happy and You Know It.” This isn’t Pharrell’s “Happy.” It is William Cowper’s “God Moves in a Mysterious Way.”
I’m afraid that just as many “church members” don’t know the joy of salvation because they’ve never known the sorrows of repentance, likewise, many saints don’t know rooted joy because they rarely lament sin and its devastation. They’ve ignored the sorrows meant to drive them into the depths of God. To often we are like Nebuchadnezzar, confident in the city of glory we’ve built for ourselves. If that is you, and you are God’s, prepare for suffering. And, I would admonish you, embrace it as a great mercy. God breaks our mute idols that we might worship the living God. He removes His rays of blessings that we might not be infatuated with them and turn our heads to the Sun of all glory. If you are God’s child know this: His taking is always a giving. You may leave the shallow joy of an imaginative children’s song behind, but you will find an eternal symphony of solid joy that you’ll never tire of. That symphony is the redemption of our Triune God.
This post was originally published on December 22, 2014 and was lightly revised on March 30, 2020.
Habakkuk: “We shall not die.”
Yahweh: “The righteous shall live by his faith.”
—Habakkuk 1:12; 2:4
Habakkuk laments. God responds. Yet, God’s response seems to rattle more than settle Habakkuk. God’s answer to evil appears only to be greater evil. Habakkuk is flabbergasted as to how God can use the more evil Babylonians for reproof such that the wicked swallows up the man more righteous than he.
But before Habakkuk launches into further lament, expressing his greater confusion, he takes comfort in recalling who God is. He reasons, “Are you not from everlasting? We shall not die.” How does God’s being from everlasting result in the conclusion that they shall not die? God is from everlasting, and what he does is from everlasting (2 Kings 19:25; Isaiah 46:9–10). Also, God is from everlasting, therefore, what He does is everlasting. He makes a covenant with Abraham that is an everlasting covenant (Genesis 17:7). God’s covenant love for his people is from everlasting, and is everlasting. When Habakkuk cries out “my God, my Holy One” he is speaking the language of covenant, just as when a husband says “my wife.” Habakkuk’s addressing God as “the LORD,” or Yahweh is not insignificant or unrelated. Yahweh is the covenant name of God, given by Him to His people for them to remember Him by throughout all their generations (Exodus 3:15). Habakkuk knows God as holy, righteous, good, and faithful because of who God has revealed Himself to be for His people. He calls Yahweh his Rock (cf. Psalm 62:6–7). Habakkuk comes before God, on the basis of God. In the midst of confusion, Habakkuk finds comfort in who God is, and yet, it is who God is that is the reason for his confusion. His theology and his reality don’t seem to jibe.
When God answers Habakkuk a second time, he explains how he will judge the Babylonians but that is all. He makes no explicit promises of salvation, discloses nothing of His plan to make it right in the end, offers no explanation of how everything will work out, and states not how He can remain righteous in all of this. God simply contrasts the proud man with the man who lives by faith. The man of faith lives, and he lives by his faith. By implication, and as it is spelled out in the rest of chapter 2 concerning the Babylonians, the proud man dies. With this, God is calling for Habakkuk to go deeper into what Habakkuk has already expressed he believes about God—that He is the everlasting, holy God of covenant, and that He is a sure and steady Rock of salvation.
In the midst of injustice, tragedy, and suffering, you don’t need to understand the situation; you need to believe in who God has revealed Himself to be. We don’t need situation specific answers; we need to lean into the revelation of who God is, what He has done, and what He promises to do.
This post was originally published on December 15, 2014 and was lightly revised on March 23rd, 2020.
Habakkuk: “Why do you make me see iniquity, and why do you idly look at wrong?”
Yahweh: “Look among the nations, and see; wonder and be astounded. For I am doing a work in your days that you would not believe if told.”
—Habakkuk 1:3, 5
Habakkuk begins in lament and ends in praise, yet, nothing has changed. As far as the circumstances on the ground are concerned, violence abounds. Habakkuk begins in lament and ends in praise because nothing has changed. God is still God.
Habakkuk laments because of the violence and injustice committed by the leaders of Judah. God answers by telling Habakkuk to zoom out and see the bigger picture. God sees on vastly larger scale than we do and in His revelation, He gives us a glimpse of His perspective. Imagine someone who has only seen an ugly part of Yosemite and when asked about the park replies he finds it repulsive; or the person who has only read or seen the darkest part of an epic tale saying it’s horrid. Zoom out. God is calling for Habakkuk to read on to the next chapter and beyond.
Frodo and Sam queried what kind of tale they had fallen into. They knew, that as in all good tales, they they couldn’t truly know the ending, yet, when they began to think of their tale in light of the bigger one it was wrapped up in, they took hope.
Yes, that’s so,’ said Sam. ‘And we shouldn’t be here at all, if we’d known more about it before we started. But I suppose it’s often that way. The brave things in the old tales and songs, Mr. Frodo: adventures, as I used to call them. I used to think that they were things the wonderful folk of the stories went out and looked for, because they wanted them, because they were exciting and life was a bit dull, a kind of a sport, as you might say. But that’s not the way of it with the tales that really mattered, or the ones that stay in the mind. Folk seem to have been just landed in them, usually—their paths were laid that way, as you put it. But I expect they had lots of chances, like us, of turning back, only they didn’t. And if they had, we shouldn’t know, because they’d have been forgotten. We hear about those as just went on—and not all to a good end, mind you; at least not to what folk inside a story and not outside it call a good end. You know, coming home, and finding things all right, though not quite the same—like old Mr Bilbo. But those aren’t always the best tales to hear, though they may be the best tales to get landed in! I wonder what sort of a tale we’ve fallen into?’
‘I wonder,’ said Frodo. ‘But I don’t know. And that’s the way of a real tale. Take any one that you’re fond of. You may know, or guess, what kind of a tale it is, happy-ending or sad-ending, but the people in it don’t know. And you don’t want them to.’
‘No, sir, of course not. Beren now, he never thought he was going to get that Silmaril from the Iron Crown in Thangorodrim, and yet he did, and that was a worse place and a blacker danger than ours. But that’s a long tale, of course, and goes on past the happiness and into grief and beyond it—and the Silmaril went on and came to Eärendil. And why, sir, I never thought of that before! We’ve got—you’ve got some of the light of it in that star-glass that the Lady gave you! Why, to think of it, we’re in the same tale still! It’s going on. Don’t the great tales never end?’
‘No, they never end as tales,’ said Frodo. ‘But the people in them come, and go when their part’s ended. Our part will end later—or sooner.
‘And then we can have some rest and some sleep,’ said Sam. He laughed grimly. ‘And I mean just that, Mr. Frodo. I mean plain ordinary rest, and sleep, and waking up to a morning’s work in the garden. I’m afraid that’s all I’m hoping for all the time. All the big important plans are not for my sort. Still, I wonder if we shall ever be put into songs or tales. We’re in one, of course; but I mean: put into words, you know, told by the fireside, or read out of a great big book with red and black letters, years and years afterwards. And people will say: ‘‘Let’s hear about Frodo and the Ring!’’ And they’ll say: ‘‘Yes, that’s one of my favourite stories. Frodo was very brave, wasn’t he, dad?’’ ‘‘Yes, my boy, the famousest of the hobbits, and that’s saying a lot.’’’
‘It’s saying a lot too much,’ said Frodo, and he laughed, a long clear laugh from his heart. Such a sound had not been heard in those places since Sauron came to Middle-earth. To Sam suddenly it seemed as if all the stones were listening and the tall rocks leaning over them. But Frodo did not heed them; he laughed again. ‘Why, Sam,’ he said, ‘to hear you somehow makes me as merry as if the story was already written. But you’ve left out one of the “chief characters: Samwise the stouthearted. ‘‘I want to hear more about Sam, dad. Why didn’t they put in more of his talk, dad? That’s what I like, it makes me laugh. And Frodo wouldn’t have got far without Sam, would he, dad?’’ ’
‘Now, Mr. Frodo,’ said Sam, ‘you shouldn’t make fun. I was serious.’
‘So was I,’ said Frodo, ‘and so I am. We’re going on a bit too fast. You and I, Sam, are still stuck in the worst places of the story, and it is all too likely that some will say at this point: ‘‘Shut the book now, dad; we don’t want to read any more.’’’
‘Maybe,’ said Sam, ‘but I wouldn’t be one to say that. Things done and over and made into part of the great tales are different.’ *
Habakkuk finds himself in a dark part of the tale and God’s answer is that the next chapter is even darker. God’s answer to violence is greater violence, but, it is used violence. This is not the last chapter, nor is it even the darkest. We’re not at the end of the story yet, but we’ve seen the climax and if you look at the tale that has been told thus far, you may be confident that the Author isn’t going to botch the ending. He wrote Himself into the very darkest chapter and burst through the other side with life and light and eternal bliss for His people. The greatest injustice ever was that of the cross and it was an injustice ordained by God for His glory and His people’s good (Acts 2:22–24). God has answered in bold red the question, “Why do the wicked prosper?” For His glory and His people’s good, and nothing more.
*Tolkien, J. R. R. (2004). The Return of the King. London: The Folio Society LTD.
Thy afflictions are not so many as thy mercies, nay, they are not to be named in the day wherein thy mercies are spoken of. What are thy crosses to thy comforts, thy miseries to thy mercies, thy days of sickness to thy days of health, thy days of weakness to the days of strength, thy days of scarcity to thy days of plenty? And this is that the wise man would have us seriously to consider: Eccles. 7:14, ‘In the day of adversity consider,’—but what must we consider? – ‘that God hath set the one over against the other.’ As God hath set winter and summer, night and day, fair weather and foul, one over against another, so let us set our present mercies over against our present troubles, and we shall presently find that our mercies exceed our trouble, that they mightily over-balance our present afflictions; therefore let us be silent, let us lay our hands upon our mouths. —Thomas Brooks, The Mute Christian and the Smarting Rod
Thy afflictions are not so many as thy sins, Ps. 40:12. Thy sins are as the stars of heaven, and as the sand upon the sea, that cannot be numbered. There are three things that no Christian can number: 1, his sins; 2, divine favours; 3, the joys end pleasures that be at Christ’s right hand; but there is no Christian so poor an accountant, but that he may quickly sum up the number of his troubles and afflictions in this world. Thy sins, O Christian, are like the Syrians that filled the country, but thy afflictions are like the two little flocks of kids that pitched before them, 1 Kings 20:27; therefore hold thy peace. —Thomas Brooks, The Mute Christian under the Smarting Rod
“God chastises our carcasses to heal our consciences; he afflicts our bodies to save our souls; he gives us gall and wormwood here, that the pleasures that be at his right hand may be more sweet hereafter; here he lays us upon a bed of thorns, that we may look and long more for that easy bed of down,—his bosom in heaven.
As there is a curse wrapped up in the best things he gives the wicked, so there is a blessing wrapped up in the worst things he brings upon his own, Ps. 25:10, Deut. 26:16. As there is a curse wrapped up in a wicked man’s health, so there is a blessing wrapped up in a godly man’s sickness; as there is a curse wrapped up in a wicked man’s strength, so there is a blessing wrapped up in a godly man’s weakness; as there is a curse wrapped up in a wicked man’s wealth, so there is a blessing wrapped up in a godly man’s wants; as there is a curse wrapped up in a wicked man’s honour, so there is a blessing wrapped up in a godly man’s reproach; as there is a curse wrapped up in all a wicked man’s mercies, so there is a blessing wrapped up in all a godly man’s crosses, losses, and changes: and why then should he not sit mute and silent before the Lord?” —Thomas Brooks, The Mute Christian under the Smarting Rod
“And when your people say, ‘Why has the LORD our God done all these things to us?’ you shall say to them, ‘As you have forsaken me and served foreign gods in your land, so you shall serve foreigners in a land that is not yours’ ” (Jeremiah 5:19).
Names have been referred to as “handles” and though I’m not completely certain of all the etymology involved, I’d bet it is largely because names help us to pick things up. It is peculiar how naming a thing can prove so useful in understanding it. This shouldn’t be mystifying, for naming a thing is as old as Adam, and once named, conversation may ensue. So let me give you a handle by which to pick up this chapter: theodicy. This chapter presents a theodicy, that is, it argues to vindicate the goodness of God. A theodicy answers the questions that begin, “How can God be good if… ?” This particular theodicy is a justification of God’s justice; it demonstrates that God’s justice is just. Now we’re talking huh?
The answer given here to the question “Why has the LORD our God done all these things to us?” is not one that is universal but particular. And yet, ultimately, the answer given is the answer, for all suffering is foundationally rooted in sin. The judgment Judah faces here is the one we all deserve.
The real puzzle to turn over in your noodle is not a theodicy, but an anthropodicy. It is not the goodness of God we should question but the goodness of man. We ask “Why do bad things happen to good people?” but we have started with a false premise. The real dilemma is “Why do good things happen to bad people?” B.B. Warfield explains, “Righteous men amid the evils of earth seek a theodicy—they want a justification of God; sinners do not need a theodicy—all too clear to them is the reason of their sufferings—they want a consolation, a justification from God. …we are sinners, and what hope have we save in a God who is gracious rather than merely just?”
So why do good things happen to bad people? We might begin by answering that God is patient, long-suffering, and benevolent, but this answer is not enough. This is a big question and a larger foundation must underly such patience. To see what it is, let’s return to ponder that question we discarded, and see if it might help us now. “Why do bad things happen to good people?” One theologian answered, “That only happened once, and He volunteered.” Peter tells us that “Christ… suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that He might bring us to God” (1 Peter 3:18). The real dilemma of God’s dealing with man was not “How could he judge?”, but “How could he show mercy?” The answer is that grace comes in the Christ who quenched the fury of God’s anger against sin so that we might be declared just.
Sinner, you are not righteous. Shall He not punish (5:7–9)? Do not delude yourself with words of wind, but hear these words of fire against your soul (5:12–14). And yet, know this, there is hope. Instead of expected justice God extends surprising grace. This grace is found in Jesus Christ who was everything we are not—righteous, and was reckoned everything we were—sinful, bearing everything we deserve—the wrath of God.
Repent of your sins, trust in the Lord Jesus Christ, and you shall be saved. Then you will ask, not in agony, but in bliss? “Why has YHWH our God done all these things to us?” “Why has He blessed and loved us so?” And the answer you will love to hear and give again and again for all eternity is this, “Jesus!”