In the late 7th century BC a prophet named Habakkuk recorded the oracle he received from God (1:1). It was put into written form (2:1) and spread through the land, though we know almost nothing about the man or how that was accomplished. He is mentioned in an extra-biblical book from the period, Bel and the Dragon, in which Habakkuk supplied food and water to Daniel when the latter was in the den of lions (Daniel 6), but the book is not considered by scholars to be historically dependable.
In any case, Habakkuk’s oracle begins with a complaint, expressed with apparent fervor to God (1:2-3). Around him Habakkuk sees violence and evil, so that people are plundered while they hide behind forms of legality that shield them from justice (1:4). He wonders why God is silent, and wonders how long God will refrain from acting. God responds that indeed he is active, but that when Habakkuk hears what he is doing Habakkuk won’t be able to believe it (1:5). God is correct, Habakkuk is not merely astounded, but appalled, and lets God know it (1:12-2:1).
Sometimes the ancient Hebrew prophecies in Scripture are deemed intellectual suspicious, a form of religious literature that educated, modern people will find tedious to read and difficult to believe. Anyone who accepts that obviously hasn’t read Habakkuk’s oracle. The social conditions that tear at Habakkuk’s soul—violence, destruction, the plundering of the powerless—seem torn from today’s headlines. And the question he raises—just where is God in all this?—is as current as today’s editorial.
The oracle also illustrates the learning theory of Jean Piaget (1896-1980). He saw that learning occurs when we discover something that doesn’t fit into our thinking, and so results in some unease until we figure out how everything fits together. It’s a process, from equilibrium, through disequilibrium, to a new equilibrium, and reading the oracle of Habakkuk is like walking through Piaget’s discovery.
So, what did Habakkuk learn? Well, the record is more richly layered than this, but these three lessons seem clear—and are remarkably applicable to our own age:
1. The God of Scripture is the God who listens—even to complaints, doubts, and accusations launched against him.
2. God’s way of working is never what we would expect.
3. Placing hope in preferred political outcomes will always disappoint.
Graphics: Statue of Habakkuk by Donatello (1386-1466) on the exterior wall of the Duomo, Florence, Italy. Still from the movie The Road (2009) based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy.