9.1 The Date (of the prophet’s ministry and work)
The superscription of Habakkuk does not include the familiar monarchical dating formula and the prophet Habakkuk is not mentioned by name elsewhere in the Bible, therefore any dating schema must arise from indirect internal evidence. The extant clues lead conservative scholars to date the prophecy from the late seventh century to the early sixth century B.C. The lack of any reference to the Assyrian empire and its capital at Nineveh, which fell to the Babylonian war machine in 612 B.C., argues for a date range from sometime after 612 up until a few years before the first Babylonian invasion of Judah in 605 B.C. This would place Habakkuk’s prophecy during the reign of Jehoiakim (609-598 B.C.). Wood further argues that the severe sin that Habakkuk confronted offers a better match with the wicked reign of Jehoiakim than an earlier period of religious reform in the days of Josiah. Dillard and Longman demonstrate that the question of dating is largely tied to the identity of the “wicked” in 1:4 and 1:13.
In 1:4 the wicked appear to be the evil inhabitants of Judah and Jerusalem; however, some scholars identified them as the Assyrians, the oppressor of Israel defeated by the Chaldeans. Yet it is unlikely that wicked Assyrians would be described in terms of their “paralyzing the law” (1:4), an idiom more appropriate for internal corruption within Judah. In 1:13 the wicked appear to be the Chaldeans.
9.2 Background History (historical setting of the prophet)
Habakkuk lived during a period of intense spiritual turmoil, shifting political allegiances, and a keen sense of injustice on the part of God. The prophet saw one enemy to the north (Assyria) grow weaker and finally destroyed by another nation (Babylon) that would become an even greater threat. The people lived with a newfound hope of peace and prosperity in the wake of Assyria’s demise, but this optimistic mood was short-lived as the neo-Babylonian Empire (the Chaldeans) soon threatened the peace of Judah, who found this new turn of events difficult to swallow. Perhaps Habakkuk’s bitter complaint against the Lord (1:2-4) for using a “wicked” nation to enact judgment on Judah reflected the prevailing national sentiment. Van Gemeren describes the radical changes in Judah’s national life.
Habakkuk witnessed significant shifts as the death of Josiah brought an end to the era of reform and Judah rapidly lost her independence. She could only dance to the piping of the international powers around her. Jehoiakim, a selfish, tyrannical, and godless king, took over following the brief reign of Jehoahaz (609 B.C.).
The Davidic monarchy was also in shambles. Wood summarizes its state of affairs that led shortly to the downfall of the dynasty.
On his death, the second son of Josiah, Jehoahaz, was put on the throne, the people by-passing his eldest son, Eliakim. Jehoahaz had reigned only three months, however, when Pharaoh Necho, now in authority over Judah since the defeat of Josiah, ordered his replacement by the older brother, whose name was now changed to Jehoiakim. It may be that Necho believed Jehoahaz would not cooperate with him and thought the older son would do so in greater degree. He took Jehoahaz prisoner to Egypt where the man died as predicted by Jeremiah (22:11, 12).
On the international scene, the puppet king of Judah was foolishly vacillating international allegiance between Egypt and Babylon. After the battle of Carchemish in 605 B.C., where Babylon won clear Near Eastern supremacy, Babylon began to assert its military might. Nebuchadnezzar became the king of Babylon in 604 B.C. He busied himself with conquering the remnant Assyrian strongholds until 598 when he marched south into the region of Palestine and carried Judah’s king Jehoiachin, much of the royal family, and many of its choice citizens into the Babylonian exile (2 Kgs. 24:8-17; 2 Chr. 36:9-10).
9.3 Work and Person (character and ministry of the prophet)
Based on dating alone, we know that Habakkuk was a contemporary of the prophets Jeremiah, Nahum, and Zephaniah. Other than this, little is known of Habakkuk the man or his ministry. He was certainly recognized as a prophet according to the prophetic designation in the superscription (1:1). “Habakkuk cried out against the violence he witnessed (1:2). He spoke God’s word in a crisis situation arising from increasing lawlessness and injustice in Judah (1:2-5) after Josiah’s sudden death (609 B.C.) and the rise of Babylon.” Wood conjectures that the stark contrast of the righteous reign of Josiah and the wicked Jehoiakim would have informed Habakkuk’s message and served as motivation to continue prophesying and praying for national repentance. Surely the experiences of Nahum and Zephaniah would have provided him hope for success. “Though Nahum and Zephaniah were likely now dead, Jeremiah still continued, and it may well be that Habakkuk teamed up with Jeremiah to bring about the best conditions possible.”
Apart from the apocryphal legends that have arisen to fill in the gaps of our knowledge of Habakkuk the man, we can assume he was a godly, faithful man. The prophet’s prayer (3:1-19) reveals “a heart fully devoted to the interest and will of God.” He was a man consumed with the holiness of God and concerned that it was not being properly recognized in his day. Wood also notes in passing that the closing statement of the book (3:19b), “to the Chief Musician, with my stringed instruments,” may indicate that Habakkuk was a Levitic temple singer and could play one or more musical instruments. Thus the man may have doubled in his ministry as a prophet and musician.
9.4 The Book (abbreviated outline and brief summary)
I. Title (1:1)
II. First Complaint and Response (1:2-11)
A. Habakkuk’s Complaint About Judah (1:2-4)
B. Divine Response of Babylonian Judgment (1:5-11)
III. Second Complaint and Response (1:12-2:20)
A. Habakkuk’s Complaint About the Babylonians (1:12-2:1)
B. Divine Response of Judgment for Wicked (2:2-20)
1. A Crucial Distinction (2:2-5)
2. Woes Against the Wicked (2:6-20)
IV. Closing Prayer of Resolve and Faith (3:1-19)
A. Superscription (3:1)
B. Invocation (3:2)
C. Divine Theophany (3:3-15)
D. Faith’s Expectation (3:16-19a)
E. Postscript (3:19b)
Habakkuk’s book is wonderfully honest in light of every man’s tendency to complain to his maker for justification, which makes it very applicable to the believer’s life of faith in the new covenant. The prophet begins his book by crying out to God against the wickedness of his people. Specifically, the land is full of plundering and violence (1:3), strife and contention (1:3), powerless law and injustice (1:4). This complaint is followed by a divine response that Habakkuk dislikes – the covenant people will be punished in the same manner as the northern kingdom. Exile at the hand of the Babylonians is the Lord’s prescribed judgment. Habakkuk replies with a second complaint that this method of punishment is beneath God since the Babylonians incur greater guilt than the nation of Judah. “Why do You look on those who deal treacherously, and hold Your tongue when the wicked devours a person more righteous than he” (1:13)? Robertson sums up the prophet’s tension.
Now the prophet has a more serious problem. The Covenant LORD is the holy one, the rock who can do no wrong. But how can he remain silent when the wicked swallow up those more righteous than themselves (1:13)? Granted, the sinfulness of his own people is great, as he himself had argued. But will the Almighty allow an even more wicked nation to be his instrument for devastating his own people?
This time the Lord profoundly responses with a surprise, and prefaces his answer by telling Habakkuk that what is coming next is truly worth the wait (2:2-3). “Behold the proud, his soul is not upright in him; but the just shall live by his faith” (2:4). Robertson continues by explaining the significance of the Lord’s answer.
…they shall survive God’s judgments that bring about the collapse of one nation after another. Nations will crumble. God’s own people will experience the severest chastening. After the Babylonians have fulfilled their divine commission, they in turn will undergo their own devastation by the hand of the Lord. Yet throughout this whole period of the shaking of empires, a word of hope rises above the rubble. The person who has been declared just by his trust in God alone shall continue to live through his steadfast trust. As a member of the faithful remnant who shall witness these cataclysmic events for himself, the prophet must continue to trust in the Lord through it all. The Lord will maintain his presence in his holy temple even in a time of the breaking up of nations. So all the earth must keep reverential silence before him (2:20).
The Apostle Paul built his defense of the gospel around this passage in Habakkuk. The remnant in the Old Testament would make their homes in the land of exile by faithfully anticipating their redemption and restoration to the land of their Sabbath rest. So also are New Testament Christians living as pilgrims in this world that is not their home. By faith God’s covenant people today anticipate their redemption and restoration to the land of Sabbath rest prepared for them by Christ (Heb. 11:13-16; Rev. 21).
103. This date approximation (612-605 B.C.) is from Wood, Prophets of Israel, p. 323.
104. Dillard and Longman, Introduction to the Old Testament, p. 411.
105. Van Gemeren, Interpreting the Prophetic Word, p. 168.
106. Wood, Prophets of Israel, p. 324.
107. Van Gemeren, Interpreting the Prophetic Word, p. 168.
108. Wood, Prophets of Israel, p. 325.
109. Ibid., p. 326.
111. “Habakkuk,” in Spirit of the Reformation Study Bible, p. 1488.
112. Robertson, Christ of the Prophets, pp. 261-62.
113. Ibid., p. 262.