Habakkuk is one of those short little prophetic books that’s an under-appreciated goldmine. In three brief chapters it explores the relationships between Psalmic lament and prophetic lawsuit-oracle; presents one of the most stark confessions of divine providence that one will find in the Old Testament; and dwells truthfully on the paradox of Israel’s role in the history of the nations. And with all of those elements in motion, Habakkuk provides a particular occasion to dwell on the nature of prayer.
(Sunday’s sermon will engage with Habakkuk 1:1-13 rather than skipping all those intermediate verses and bringing in the beginning of chapter 2. The structure of the first chapter is too interesting to follow the RCL’s move of excising the back-and-forth verse of chapter 1.)
The opening verses of Habakkuk’s oracle read more like a lament-Psalm than like a prophetic oracle. The prophet speaks not with the voice of God to the faithful but as the faithful towards God, calling on YHWH to honor the history between Heaven and Zion, to hear their cries and to send justice forth in the land. The corruption of the powerful, for a prophet like Habakkuk or a poet like the Psalmists, is never to be dismissed with a jaded wave of the hand; the justice that comes from God, when delayed, must hear the cries of the righteous. The opening call from prophet to God is all about the internal wickedness of Israel, and the poetry seems to assume that YHWH’s job is to put an end to the crime, by whatever means.
When YHWH responds, the coming judgment turns out to be far more terrible than the corruption that spurred Habakkuk’s call. The city has become so rotten, YHWH’s response implies, that the only response proper to the moment is an empire so vile, so wicked, that Israel will cease to be a nation at all. YHWH seems impressed with the sheer force of will that the Babylonians bring to the picture: they scoff at kings and use earthen ramps to overcome any fortress. It’s from the mouth of God, the same God who sends these ruthless conquerors, that their god is their own might. For a terrifying moment, YHWH grants openly that a truly godless force is on the horizon, and they only arrive at the behest of God.
Thus Habakkuk’s response, with which this week’s sermon will end, is somewhat ambiguous. Is Habakkuk once again calling out because of the wicked among Israel, or does the second lament regard the very conquerors that YHWH has sent? Either way, some startling and uncomfortable realities about prayer surface in the course of Habakkuk 1. For folks raised in a certain kind of piety, in which complaining against God is a sign of faithlessness, the prophet’s repeated calls to remember and to speak and to stop being so passive might come across as entirely too strident, yet there they are in the holy text. For those who confess a doctrine of divine providence in which the faithful never come to harm, God’s response to the violence of Israel, one that will ultimately sweep up the righteous and the wicked in the Chaldean wave, seems disproportionate and even indiscriminate. When Habakkuk says that “You have ordained them,” the line between praise and censure is a thin one indeed. And perhaps most troubling, when Habakkuk names YHWH as the one whose pure eyes cannot see evil in 1:13, I for one can’t decide whether the praise for God’s purity or the blame for God’s blindness is more prevalent. These moments in Habakkuk’s opening chapter are not for those who think they’ve got prayer, prophecy, or the God who makes such things possible under wraps: these moments render the life of prayer a risky place, an existence in which silence and uncertainty are the air into which the one praying confesses the goodness of God.
Yet for what my reading is worth, such indelicate texts also confirm that God does not get offended when we name such experiences truthfully, assuming that the same Spirit who led Philippians into the canon welcomed as well the troubling book of Habakkuk. As with all the prophets of the exile, Habakkuk confronts us with a reality that’s unsettling but also wonderful: God wants truth, even if that means pulling into the holy Scriptures texts that call God’s own self into question. There’s something spiritually satisfying about the God who welcomes lament, and we the faithful would do well to meditate as long on Habakkuk as we do on any gift that we find in the Scriptures.
May our prayers name the troubles of prayer truthfully and without reserve, and may our hope always reach out beyond what our eyes can see and our words name.