Habakkuk Overview: Human Complaints and Divine Responses

9th Century Prophets 8th Century Prophets 7th Century Prophets Exilic Prophets Post-exilic Prophets


1. Name

This book is named after its prophetic author, Habakkuk, whose name means “to embrace” or “to cling.”

2. Theme

Trusting God with the mystery of providence.

3. Purpose

To guide Israel toward faith in God during the trials of the Babylonian conquest and exile by displaying the prophet’s personal struggle and resolution.[footnote]Spirit of the Reformation Study Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), 1487[/footnote]

4. Key verses

Behold, his soul which is lifted up is not upright in him: but the just shall live by his faith (Hab. 2:4).

5. Key truths

• God will not tolerate severe sinfulness among his people forever.
• God may use wicked unbelievers to chastise his people.
• Believers should honestly acknowledge before God the various difficulties they face.
• Believers should learn to trust God, even when circumstances are difficult.[footnote]Spirit of the Reformation Study Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), 1487[/footnote]

I. Author

We have very little information about Habakkuk. We know nothing of his ancestry or hometown. We don’t even have a superscription referring to the kings in whose reigns he ministered.
Based on Habakkuk’s use of the lament genre and the musical terms in Habakkuk 3 (Hab. 3:1,3,9a,13), some have concluded that Habakkuk was a “cult prophet,” meaning a prophet who drew his maintenance from Temple revenue and who performed his prophetic duty as part of Temple liturgy. However, there is insufficient evidence to be certain. It is likely that his ministry regularly brought him into the Temple area, as he was deeply concerned with Jerusalem’s spiritual state and danger.

Habakkuk has been called “the prophet of faith,” “the optimist,” “the philosopher,” “philosophic prophet,” and “the prophet of persistent faith.” The character of this prophet and the nature of his prophecy are sadly misrepresented in such designations as “the father of speculation,” “the skeptic,” “the father of modern religious doubt,” or “the freethinker among the prophets.” Without question the assessment of Pusey is correct: “Habakkuk is eminently the prophet of reverential and awe-filled faith.”[footnote]J E Smith, The Minor Prophets (Chicago: Moody Press, 1992), Electronic Edition[/footnote]


II. Date

We are given three clues to the date of Habakkuk’s ministry. Firstly, there is no reference to the Assyrians which would indicate a time after 612 BC when Nineveh fell to the Chaldeans. Secondly, Habakkuk predicts the Babylonian invasion and his language suggests it is near (Hab. 1:6-10). This may refer to the first invasion in 605 BC or the second in 597 BC. It is more likely to be before the first invasion, as Habakkuk asks what God will do to Judah for her sins, and His answer is that He will bring the Chaldeans (1:5). This implies He had not done so yet. Thirdly, the sins of Judah (Hab. 1:2-4) would fit a time after Josiah’s godly reign which ended in 609 BC. Judah’s sins would fit the reign of Josiah’s wicked successor, Jehoiakim (608-597). This period of time is described in 2 Chr.36:14-16. Habakkuk was one of those messengers sent by God. He was probably a contemporary of the prophets Nahum, Jeremiah and Zephaniah.
Earliest Date: 611 BC
Latest Date: 586 BC
Most likely date: 609-605 BC

III. Historical Analysis

1. Chronology

Date Event
625 BC Assyria begins to decline
612 BC Fall of Nineveh to Chaldeans
609 BC Death of Josiah
608-597 Reign of Jehoiakim
605 BC Battle of Carchemish when Babylon defeated Egypt to become world power
605 BC Nebuchadnezzar’s first invasion of Palestine
597 Nebuchadnezzar’s second invasion of Palestine
586 Nechuchadnezzar’s third invasion of Palestine

Although both Isaiah and Malachi foresaw the transition from Assyrian to Babylonian domination (Isa.39:5-7; Mic.4:10), Habakkuk concentrated his attention upon this transition and questioned why God would use such a wicked instrument to chastise His people.

2. Fulfillment of prophecy

There are five principal prophecies in this book

a. The expansion of the Babylonian empire through the ancient Near East (Hab. 1:5–11).
b. The Babylonian attack on Judah and the fall of Jerusalem in 586 B.C. (Hab. 1:12; 3:16b).
c. The fall of Babylon in 539 B.C. (Hab. 2:6–13,15–19; 3:16a).
d. The new heavens and new earth (Hab. 2:14).
e. Satan would be pierced through with his own staves (Hab. 3:13–14)

The immediate purpose of the Book of Habakkuk is to foretell Judah’s punishment and pronounce doom on the Chaldeans. The ultimate purpose of the book is to teach the grand truths that the just shall live by faith and that the wicked shall not go unpunished.


IV. Literary Analysis

1. Comparative outlines

Smith Archer Pratt

Habakkuk Complains (Hab. 1)

Habakkuk Listens
(Hab. 2)

Habakkuk Prays
(Hab. 3)

(Hab. 1:1)

Problems of Faith
(Hab. 1:2-2:20)

Doubts All Settled
(Hab. 3:1-19)

(Hab. 1:1)

Lament and Response Concerning Judah
(Hab. 1:2-11)

Lament and Response Concerning Babylon
(Hab. 1:12-2:20)

Prayer, Praise, Submission
(Hab. 3:1-19)


a. First complaint and response (Hab. 1:2-11)[footnote]Spirit of the Reformation Study Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), 1488.[/footnote]

Habakkuk’s complaint about Judah (Hab. 1:2-4)

Divine response of Babylonian judgment (Hab. 1:5-11)

Habakkuk complained that wickedness had grown in Judah with little response from God. God promised to punish Judah’s wickedness by sending the Babylonians.

b. Second complaint and response (Hab. 1:12-2:20)

Habakkuk’s complaint about the Babylonians (Hab. 1:12-2:1)

Divine response of judgment for wicked (Hab. 2:2-20)

Habakkuk complained that the Babylonians were even more wicked than the Judahites. God promised that eventually the Babylonians would be destroyed.

c. Closing prayer of resolve and faith (Hab. 3:1-19)

Prayer for divine intervention (Hab. 3:1-2)

Hymn of ultimate victory (Hab. 3:3-15)

Faith’s Commitment (Hab. 3:16-19)

Habakkuk expressed his trust that God would keep his promise. He pledged to praise him even as the difficult times continued.

2. Genre

Four kinds of material have been identified in the book: complaint, prophetic oracle, prophetic woes, and a psalm. The form is unusual for a prophetic book. The first two chapters are in the form of a dialogue between God and Habakkuk, and the third chapter is a psalm or prayer of praise.

3. Lament

The prophets presents two complaints or laments before God (Hab. 1:5-11; 2:1-4). The form is similar to that of the lament Psalms (Ps.6; 12; 28; 31, etc). Such laments in the psalms are commonly followed by a divine response of assurance that the Lord will hear the writer’s complaint, save and sustain him, and judge his or Israel’s enemies (Ps.6:8-10; 12:5-8; 28:6-9; 31:22-23)

4. Woe oracles

The fact that God would yet judge also the Chaldeans is confirmed in a series of five woe oracles (Hab. 2:6-20).

The plunderer plundered (Hab. 2:6-8)
The conqueror shamed (Hab. 2:9-11)
The builder undone (Hab. 2:12-14)
The shameless shamed (Hab. 2:15-18)
The idolater silenced (Hab. 2:19-20)

The term “woe” ( hoy ) which is used five times in Habakkuk 2 was part of the vocabulary of lamentation in ancient Israel. In prophetic literature it introduces invective utterances. The word hoy is usually followed by a description of the reprehensible conduct of people toward Yahweh. Often that description is followed by a threat. Sometimes, as here in Habakkuk 2 , the invective appears without the accompanying threat. The hoy oracles, however, are ominous. Judgment is always implied. In essence the prophet was singing a funeral chant over those who were at odds with their Creator.


V. Thematic Analysis

1. Complaints against God’s justice

a. The complaint about Judah (Hab. 1:2-4)

Habakkuk complained to the Lord about the violence and injustice in the land, using the same Hebrew word that was used to describe the deplorable conditions which existed on the earth prior to the Flood. Habakkuk often had cried out to Yahweh, but the heavens were silent. Thus Habakkuk cried out, “How long shall I cry, and you will not hear?”

God responds with the promise of Babylonian judgment (Hab. 1:5-11). The answer begins with “behold,” a word which always introduces something unexpected if not shocking. Those who might complain of Yahweh’s inactivity should look “among the nations,” i.e., the Gentiles. God’s agent of chastisement, the Chaldeans would appear on the international horizon. Having identified his special agent, Yahweh next describes this instrument of judgment. Some twenty features are noted, several of them in couplets. The focus is first on the Chaldean infantry, then their cavalry, and finally their leader.

Habakkuk had asked “How long?” and God replied “Not long.” Habakkuk had asked “Where is justice?” and God replied “My vengeance is coming, even on my own people.”

b. The complaint about the Babylonians (Hab. 1:12-2:1)

The divine response to the first complaint does not solve the prophet’s question, but rather moves it to an even higher level. God is going to bring judgment on the wicked, but he will do it with an instrument even more wicked than the evil in Judah. Those who are even more wicked will then prosper the more.

This prompts the prophet’s second complaint (Hab. 1:12-17). How can God in his holiness tolerate the treacherous? How can he allow the wicked to swallow up those more righteous than themselves (Hab. 1:13)?
Habakkuk highlights Chaldean ruthlessness (Hab. 1:14), brutality (Hab. 1:15), sensuality (Hab. 1:16), and relentlessness (Hab. 1:17). So Habakkuk’s puzzlement grows out of two basic concerns: a devastation of Judah which he perceives to be disproportionate to the sin being punished; and God’s employment of an agent who was more wicked than those being chastised.

God responded to this second complaint by promising that he will yet judge evil Babylon (Hab. 2:2-20). Wickedness will not always prosper. The earth will yet be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord (Hab. 2:14) and will stand in silence before him (Hab. 2:20). Even when things appear to go from bad to worse, God still rules and will vindicate himself.

2. Prayer and Praise

Habakkuk prayed for divine intervention (Hab. 3:1-2), sings a hymn of ultimate victory (Hab. 3:3-15) and commits himself in confidence to God (Hab. 3:16-19). He moves from “How long shall I cry?” (Hab. 1:2) to “I will rejoice” (Hab. 3:18). Despite all the terrible things that would happen yet he had confidence in God to judge the oppressor and deliver His oppressed. As He had done in the past he would do again. This was the practical application of Habakkuk 2:4 in Habakkuk’s life.

The revelation of the Lords purposeful guidance of history transformed Habakkuk’s complaint into a hymn of prayer, praise and joy (Hab. 3:2-20). Instead of passively waiting for divine intervention, he began to positively pray that the Lord would again act in accordance with his mighty deeds and with his qualities as displayed in the exodus and at Sinai. In his prayer the future moved into the present. In anticipation he celebrated the Lord’s coming (Hab. 3:3-7) and his conflict against (Hab. 3:8-12) and triumph over all opposition in nature and history (Hab. 3:13-15). Nothing, not even the possibility of the severest calamities, could any longer dampen Habakkuk’s overwhelming joy in the expectation of the coming salvation guaranteed by the Lord’s faithfulness to himself and to his revelation (Hab. 3:17-19).[footnote]Spirit of the Reformation Study Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), 1488.[/footnote]

3. The Theophany

In Habakkuk 3:3-5 Habakkuk describes a theophany. Opinions differ as to whether Habakkuk is describing a theophany which he himself witnessed, or whether he is reminding believers of God’s appearance in the past.

a. Past appearance

This may refer to God’s earlier appearance on Mt Sinai when he gave Israel his law (Deut.33:2)

b. Future appearance

In Deuteronomy 33:2 Moses used the past tense, “The Lord came.” But in Habakkuk, the tense may be translated with a future tense “The Lord will come” or present tense, “The Lord comes.” Habakkuk is therefore not referring to a past event but a future event or a future event he sees fulfilled before his eyes.

Habakkuk is saying that what God did in the past, He will do in a similar way in the future. As He went forth to save by his anointed in the past so he will do in the future with the Anointed Messiah.


VI. New Testament Analysis

1. Shocking Judgment

Habakkuk announces that the Babylonian invasion will be unimagineable (Hab.1:5). The Apostle Paul appropriates these words to warn the Jews of another shocking work of God in their days, viz., the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans. This in turn is a type of the ultimate judgment of God on all nations.

Behold, ye despisers, and wonder, and perish: for I work a work in your days, a work which ye shall in no wise believe, though a man declare it unto you (Acts 13:41).

2. Faith

Habakkuk announced that the righteous will live by faith (Hab.2:4), a saying that has led to him being called the great-grandfather of the Reformation. He is certainly the father of New Testament quotations of this doctrine.

For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, The just shall live by faith (Rom.1:17).

But that no man is justified by the law in the sight of God, it is evident: for, The just shall live by faith (Gal.3:11).

Now the just shall live by faith: but if any man draw back, my soul shall have no pleasure in him (Heb.10:38).

There has always been debate as to the true meaning of these words. The two options are:

a. The one who is righteous by faith shall live.

This seems to match the meaning in Rom.1:17 and Gal.3:11, and means that the way to life and salvation is through faith. By faith the righteousness of Christ is imputed to the sinner and he is declared righteous by God.

b. The one who is righteous will live by his faith

This seems to suit the context of Habakkuk and of Heb.10:38. The difficulties of life will make clear who are proud unrepentant sinners and who are just, repentant sinners who trust in the grace of God. The righteous trust God despite his delayed deliverance

3. Idols

Habakkuk says to avoid lifeless idols (Hab.2:18-19). So does Paul (1Cor.12:2).

4. The end

Habakkuk says God will restore Israel without delay (Hab.2:3). Peter says Christ will return without delay (2Pet.3:9; Heb.10:37-38).

For yet a little while, and he that shall come will come, and will not tarry (Heb.10:37)


VII. The Message of Habakkuk

Original Message: Judahites should trust God through certain Babylonian exile, repent, and rejoice in certain ultimate Babylonian defeat.
Present Message: The Church should trust God through certain judgments, repent, and rejoice in certain defeat of their enemies.