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The Oxford Bible Commentary Line-by-line commentary for the New Revised Standard Version Bible.

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Commentary on Habakkuk

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( 1:1 )

The oracle was a word from God directly spoken to an inspired person. Habakkuk is said to have ‘seen’ it (also Isa 2:1; Am 1:1 ) because it was known that sometimes revelation came to the prophets via visions (cf. Hab 2:2; Isa 1:1; Ob 1:1 ), even though no vision is recorded in this book.

( 1:2–2:5 )

Whereas other prophets announced that God was about to bring judgement upon his people because of the injustice in their society (e.g. Isa 5; Am 5:11–12; 8:4–8 ), Habakkuk complains to God, using the language of the psalms of lament (Westermann 1981: 165–213), that God appears to have done nothing to alleviate the violence he sees around him ( 1:2–4 ). Without introduction a new speaker appears in 1:5–11 . The speaker is clearly God himself, as 1:6 reveals. This is usually taken to be a response to the complaint, with a new message that God intends to use the Chaldeans as his agents of judgement for the sins of his people, the way he had used the Assyrians in the eighth century (Isa 10:1–19; Mic 1 ; etc.). If so, this is a dialogue between the prophet and his God, similar to the complaints of Jeremiah that God answered (Jer 11:18–20, 21–3; 12:1–4, 5–6; 15:10–18, 19–21 ). Isaiah and Micah may have accepted the idea of Assyria as agent of judgement, but Habakkuk knows too much about what an invading army does to conquered people to accept that as evidence for God's justice. His rejoinder in 1:12–17 puts the issue bluntly: how can a righteous God do nothing about wrongdoing, treachery, and wickedness? Rather than a dialogue, 1:2–2:1 may be a single complaint, however, in which Habakkuk quotes an oracle he had received earlier ( 1:5–11 ). If so, this oracle was already the cause of the protest in 1:2–4 .

The MT's ‘we shall not die’ ( 1:12 ) is identified in the rabbinic literature as one of the tiqqûnê hassōphĕrîm (emendations of the scribes), a few very early changes of texts that were offensive for some reason. Rabbinic tradition recalled that the original reading was ‘you shall not die’, a good parallel to ‘Are you not from of old …?’ in 1:12a , and NRSV has adopted that tradition. Apparently the scribes found the very thought of the death of God to be shocking enough to alter the sentence, even though it negated the idea. 1:12–13 represents one of the OT's starkest contrasts between belief in a just and holy God and the realities of this violent world, comparable to some of Job's speeches (Job 21, 24 ). Habakkuk elaborates on the impossibility of accepting the cruelties of an invading army as God's way of establishing justice on earth, likening the enemy to a fisherman and the defeated to his catch ( 1:14–17 ). But like Job, Habakkuk does not give up on God, and insists there must be an answer, using the imagery of the watchman on a tower to represent his persistence ( 2:1 ). NRSV has emended ‘what I will answer’ to ‘what he will answer’, but the MT is understandable as a reference to the way Habakkuk may react to the answer he awaits from God. His reaction is recorded in 3:17–19 .

God's answer ( 2:2–5 ) is brief, and in many respects cryptic. He affirms the need for persistence, assuring Habakkuk that waiting will not be futile (v. 3 ), and speaks of writing a vision (without indicating what its contents will be) on tablets (v. 2 ), one of the few references in the prophetic books to putting their words in written form (cf. Isa 8:1; 30:8; Jer 36 ). ‘So that a runner may read it’ (NRSV and most trs.) suggests a message written large, but the Hebrew literally says ‘so that one who reads it may run’. Royal messengers normally carried a written copy of the text they were to declare, and since the prophets functioned as messengers of God (cf. the frequent occurrence of the ‘messenger formula’: ‘Thus says the Lord’; Westermann 1967: 98–128) this may be an allusion to the delivery of God's message by his prophet.

2:4 is the thematic centre of the book, but the first half of the verse is difficult. NRSV paraphrases, using ‘proud’ to represent a word that occurs only here in the OT, but which seems to be formed from a root meaning ‘to swell’, so others translate it ‘puffed up’. ‘Spirit’ is not the best choice for nepeš, which is better rendered ‘life’. 2:4a must be a contrast of some sort to 2:4b , but every translation proposed so far involves some guesswork. 2:4b is composed of three potent words in Hebrew. According to Habakkuk the righteous have been suffering unjustly ( 1:4, 13 ) and the issue is when and whether God will do something about it. As used in ch. 1 , ‘righteous’ would seem to mean ‘innocent’, as in many other occurrences of the word (ABD v. 724–36 ). Here, God does not say what he intends to do for them, but assures them that life is possible in the meantime, and in Hebrew to be alive means more than merely to exist or survive; it connotes full vitality, health, and even reputation (IDB iii. 124–6; TDOT iv. 324–44). The last word is more appropriately translated ‘faithfulness’ than ‘faith’ since that is its usual meaning in the OT (cf. 2 Chr 19:9; Hos 2:20 ), and the root has the sense of ‘belief’ only in Isa 7:9 (ABD ii. 744–9). Paul thus used the verse in an original way in Gal 3:11 : ‘Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law; for “The one who is righteous will live by faith”’ (cf. Rom 1:17 ). Faith and faithfulness are not to be sharply distinguished, for one can scarcely be faithful without faith, and mere belief without faithful behaviour would be a mockery, as Paul makes clear in Rom 6 and elsewhere. God's brief answer insists the puffed up (proud or presumptuous) will not endure, but offers no explanation for their present success in a world supposedly ruled by a just God. The answer, so far, is an existential one, putting the responsibility on the shoulders of the righteous, but containing the promise that they may live by their faithfulness. The pronoun with ‘faithfulness’ is singular in Hebrew (not ‘their’, NRSV). The usual translation has been ‘his faithfulness’, referring to the righteous, but some prefer ‘its faithfulness’, i.e. the reliability of the vision promised in 2:2 (Janzen 1980: 53–78; Roberts 1991: 104).

( 2:5 )

serves as a transition verse between the first and second major sections of the book. It introduces the theme of 2:6–19 ; the inevitable downfall of the arrogant who (like the Chaldeans) ‘gather all nations for themselves’. It may thus be an elaboration of 2:4a . MT reads ‘wine is treacherous’, which does not seem a natural move from ‘the righteous live by their faith’, and NRSV has preferred the reading ‘wealth’, found in the commentary on Habakkuk at Qumran. The reference to wine in MT may look ahead to 2:15–16 , however. The metaphor of Death as a monster with a gaping mouth was well known in the ancient Near East (Prov 27:20; 30:15–16; Isa 5:14 ; also in the Baal epic found at Ugarit in Syria; ANET 1955: 138).

( 2:6–20 )

Clearly this is a distinct section of the book, with an introduction in 6a and with v. 20 making the transition to ch. 3 . It is a poem of five stanzas, the first four of which are introduced by hôy (‘woe’ or ‘alas’). The same word occurs in the middle of the fifth stanza (v. 19 ). It may be that v. 18 originally followed v. 19 and became dislocated in the copying of the text, or perhaps the poet chose to vary the shape of the last stanza. In Hebrew the entire poem speaks of a tyrant in the third person; NRSV has changed the references to second person. The exclamation hôy was originally a cry of grief, as 1 Kings 13:30 shows. The element of grief appears in some prophetic uses (Jer 22:18; 30:7; 34:5; Am 5:16 ), but the word is used here in a context of rejoicing over the death of a tyrant, and Isaiah uses it to introduce a series of accusations ( 5:8–23; 10:1–4 ). Some have claimed the word was just a cry to get attention, like ‘Hey!’, but that scarcely explains its uses in mourning the dead and the fact that it is usually followed by a third-person reference (ABD vi. 945–6; TDOT iii. 359–64). Other elements in Habakkuk's poem show that he had constructed a mock funeral song, using the traditional cry of grief in a new way, and emphasizing the theme of reversal of fortune that is typical of dirges (cf. 2 Sam 1:19–27 ). The introduction, with the words ‘taunt’ and ‘mocking riddles’, alerts us that Habakkuk is making a radically new use of a traditional genre. God has thus told the prophet to authorize his suffering people to celebrate the death of the tyrant in advance, for his downfall is inevitable.

Five of the ways the tyrant has brought suffering to many people will soon rebound upon him, the prophet says. He has enriched himself by impoverishing others; soon his own debts will be called in (vv. 6b–8 ). He has sought to ensure his own security at the cost of others; his own palace will testify against him (vv. 9–11 ). He thought the greatness of his building programmes justified bloodshed and iniquity; when the earth is filled with the knowledge of the Lord that will be shown to be folly (vv. 12–14 ). The use of drunkenness to accomplish his purposes (vv. 15–17 ) may be literal (cf. Isa 28:7; Prov 31:4–5 ), but the cup in v. 16b is the metaphorical cup of wrath found also in Jer 25:15–19 . The violence done to Lebanon (v. 17 ) refers to the frequent invasions of Phoenicia by Mesopotamian conquerors in order to obtain its valuable cedars (cf. Isa 14:8; 37:24 ). The gods who have authorized the empire-building of the tyrant are mocked as mere idols (vv. 18–19 ), using wordplays in Hebrew, one of which may be echoed in English as ‘stolid statues’. Then the rude mockery is brought to a sudden end with the call to silence (v. 20 ), for Habakkuk is about to speak of the way YHWH comes to save his people.

( 3:1–19 )

The separate title given to this poem, similar to those attached to some of the Psalms (Ps 7:1; 17:1; 86:1; 90:1 ), suggests that this may originally have been a separate piece, a psalm produced for use in temple worship, but it now forms an appropriate conclusion to the book (Hiebert 1986 ). Its use of theophanic language is similar to that of Ps 18 , and it may thus have been written as a psalm of thanksgiving. Several lines are extremely difficult to translate, because of their use of rare words. Apparently Habakkuk either quoted extensively from earlier poetry, or deliberately chose to use archaic language to express the awesomeness of the coming of the Lord. v. 2 is an effective introduction, including a prayer for divine intervention recalling ch. 1 , a confession of awe (lit. fear) at God's work, anticipating the terrifying theophany of vv. 3–15 , and the key words ‘wrath’ and ‘mercy’.

vv. 3–15 are one of the impressive theophanies (ABD vi. 505–11; OCB 740–1) of the OT, a term used of descriptions of the appearance of God that make extensive use of the most awe-inspiring of natural phenomena in order to convey the sense of God's overwhelming power (cf. Ex 19; Ps 18:7–19; 50:3; 77:16–20; Nah 1:2–8 ). Its archaic character is reflected not only in its vocabulary, but also in the echoes of ancient Near-Eastern myths involving conflict between a hero god, such as Marduk or Baal, and the watery chaos, Tiamat or Yam (ANET 1955: 60–72, 129–31; and cf. Ps 74:13–15; Isa 27:1; 51:9 ). Habakkuk also used the old traditions of YHWH as a warrior in order to speak of God's coming to save his people. Teman and Mount Paran (v. 3 ) are places south-east of Judah and are probably intended to recall the Sinai tradition, as in Deut 33:2 . Cushan may be a poetic shortening of Cushanrishathaim, one of the oppressors of Israel during the period of the Judges (Judg 3:8–10 ), and Midian may thus refer to the story of Gideon (Judg 6–8 ). Israel's use of terrifying language to describe the saviour God, as in vv. 5–15 , may be disturbing to modern readers, but it is properly understood as an effort to convey the awareness that God is ‘wholly other’, whose presence is both daunting and intensely attractive; the religious experience best described by Rudolf Otto as the ‘numinous’ (Otto 1958; Gowan 1994: 25–53). These two aspects of the sense of God's immediate presence then appear in Habakkuk's description of his reaction, in vv. 16–19 . He is physically shaken by it (v. 16a ), but the presence of God has given him not only the ability to endure trustfully (v. 16b ) but a sense of rejoicing that transcends all suffering. In the economy of ancient Israel, the failure of all that is listed in v. 17 would mean starvation, but in vv. 18–19 Habakkuk affirms that he has found in the saviour God the strength to become ‘more than conqueror’ (Rom 8:37; cf. 2 Cor 4:8–10 ). He has not found rational answers to the ‘Why?’ and ‘How long?’ questions with which the book began, but he has learned how to live without the answers, and how to live rejoicing.

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