This Sunday I will be teaching through the book of Habakkuk in a class on the Minor Prophets at Cary Alliance Church. Over the past month or so, I have taught through Jonah, Micah, Nahum, and now Habakkuk. After this Sunday, the torch will be passed to my co-laborers Nathaniel Cooley and Ben Marsh. As for me, the experience has been both thrilling and testing. As I reflect on the themes of these books and the impressions their messages have left on me, I cannot help but notice in myself a bit of dissatisfaction.
In Jonah, we find a compassionate God who is slow to anger and ready to forgive. Depending on whether you are a Jew or Gentile reader, this message might be good or bad. As a Jewish reader at the time of Jonah, it meant eventual destruction. If you were a Ninevite, or a modern Christian, it means that God’s salvation extends to all who take refuge in him through belief and repentance.
In Nahum, however, we find that God’s patience has worn thin. The sin of the Assyrians has reached its threshold. God’s wrath has come full-term. It is time for judgment, and it will not be pretty. The execution of God’s judgment against Assyria is described as ruthless and violent. I, as a reader and a teacher, was left moderately disturbed. Where is God amidst the violence?
Finally, in Habakkuk we find a prophet who is at his breaking point. He cries out for justice. How long, O Lord, will you allow sin to persist? How long will you endure poverty? How long will you allow the rich to trample the poor? How long will you endure the sufferings of your people, the evil, the violence, and the bloodshed? How can you be silent when evil reigns in your world? How can you use a wicked nation to judge those who are more righteous than they? Is this not a greater evil? Where is God amidst the evil?
At the end of each of these books, I am dissatisfied. When I see God as judge, I object that he has forsaken his compassion and lovingkindness. When I find that he is gracious, I object that he has allowed the wicked to go free. If his judgment tarries, I wonder if he has checked out. God does not reign, evil does.
Readers of the Twelve are forced to come face to face with these weighty matters. They are not questions of a bygone era. They are questions that plague every generation: Why does God forgive the wicked? Is God’s judgment of sinners in itself evil? Where is God when evil has its grips in the hearts of men? Though much can be said about theodicy (the defense of God’s goodness in light of the presence of evil in the world), at some level I resonate with and simply rest in the conclusion of Habakkuk’s prayer of confession:
Yet I will quietly wait for the day of trouble
to come upon people who invade us.
Though the fig tree should not blossom,
nor fruit be on the vines,
the produce of the olive fail
and the fields yield no food,
the flock be cut off from the fold
and there be no herd in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord;
I will take joy in the God of my salvation (3:16-18; ESV)
In the end, I believe that God will be faithful. He will act in accordance with his will and his good purposes. He will vindicate; he will judge justly.