Background and Notes on Habakkuk



I will take my stand to watch, and station myself on the tower, and look forth to see what he will say to me~Hab 2:1

PHOTO: A reconstructed agricultural or shepherd’s watchtower at Nazareth. Such towers were common (Isa 5:2; Matt 21:33; Gen 35:21).

Habakkuk’s prophetic activity seems to date from shortly after the final demise of the once mighty Assyrian Empire which met its final end against Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, at the battle of Carchemish in 605 BC; but before the first conquest of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar in 597 BC. He was, therefore, a contemporary of the Prophet Jeremiah who ministered circa 628-585 BC. His ministry slightly post-dates that of Nahum (circa 612 BC); and slightly pre-dates the beginning of Ezekiel’s prophesying (circa 593 BC).

The book opens with the prophet uttering a complaint to God about the wickedness of the people of Judah, and about the seeming slowness of God to respond to it. (Hab 1:2-4). God answers that His response to the situation is already brewing. The rise of the Babylonians (Chaldeans) is His doing, even though they are a violent and greedy nation, determining for themselves what constitutes justice, and worshiping their own might as if it were a god (Hab 1:5-11). Although it is not stated explicitly, the implication is that their rise is for the sake of chastising the evildoers in Judah.

Needless to say, the response causes the prophet confusion and gives rise to a second complaint. The people need to be chastised, but how is it that God, the Immortal Holy One can bring a nation more faithless than Judah to do it? Will this situation last forever?  (Hab 1:12-17). The prophet then notes that he will, like a sentinel, keep a patient and faithful watch for God’s response (Hab 2:1). In doing so he is unknowingly already doing what God will say is necessary, exhibiting faith and patience (Hab 2:3-4, see next paragraph).
In response God shows the prophet a vision of his workings and tells him to write it down. He has a plan and it works out on His timetable, a point already hinted at in his first response about the rise of Babylon. One must, sentinel like, wait patiently, it will come to fruition (Hab 2:2-3). Then it will be seen that he whose soul is not upright in him shall fail, but the righteous shall live by his faith (Hab 2:4).

The word “soul” (Hebrew nephesh) in the first half of 2:4 has a broad range of meaning, and can designate the seat of the appetites, the meaning I take for it here: “He whose appetite is not upright in him shall fail.” This is a dig against the rapacious greed for land, captives, power, and luxury and false gods, exhibited by the Babylonians (Hab 1:6-11; Hab 1:15-17). It prepares for the imprecations against idolatry and unjust acquisitions through greed and power in Hab 2:5-19.

The second half of 2:4, the righteous shall live by his faith, prepares for Hab 3:1-19. This prayer of the prophet opens with Habakkuk, sentinel-like, looking and waiting for the day when God will act with mercy on behalf of his people (Hab 3:2). The focus is upon God who “dominates solemnly the world scene…For the sacred author, the Lord’s entry into the world has a precise meaning. He wills to enter into human history in the course of the years as repeated twice in verse 2, to judge and make its affairs better which we conduct in such a confused and at times perverse way.” (Pope John Paul II’s Commentary on Hab. 3 ). In other words, the psalm builds upon issues that concerned the prophet earlier in the book.  It ends on a note of patient waiting, and confident, faithful trust in God (Hab 3:16-19), returning to the them of the second part of Hab 2:4.

Photo: It is believed that this sentinel’s tower is on the sight of the famous watchtower of Jezreel (see 2 Kings 9:17).

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One Response to Background and Notes on Habakkuk

  1. Pingback: Commentaries for the Twenty-Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C | stjoeofoblog

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