Disequilibrium (II): Modern lessons from an ancient seer  

Posted by Denis Haack in , ,

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.

This entry was posted at Monday, February 07, 2011 and is filed under , , . You can follow any responses to this entry through the comments feed .


In the intense turmoil of the world, I've wondered what God's heart is when it comes to justice. God's retribution often appears to be as harsh as, or some cases, more harsh than the original injustice. Here's where God's heart and mind seem obscured to me, so I'm not sure how to respond. When we know God's heart, we can praise Him in truth.
Some biblical passages either directly plead for vicious justice or praise Him when it arrives. Habakkuk seems to praise God as a direct response to His promise of justice served up with a devastating blow (ch. 3). I prefer to see people turn to God, a desire that's also seen in the teachings of Jesus. So how do we respond when we see the other side of God's response to evil? I recognize that the Calvinist perspective generally teaches that it's all by God's predetermined will. Regardless of the doctrinal perspective, are we to dance with joy when His wrath is poured out?

February 8, 2011 at 9:21 PM

24/7 Mom:
Excellent question, and one that is important not just for worship but for belief.

I would urge you to read Habakkuk again, especially chapter 3. It is true that by his prayer something has changed. However, the prophet is not rejoicing in "vicious justice." Quite the opposite: he fears what is coming (3:2), requests mercy (3:2), recognizes God's judgment on a fallen humanity and earth (3:15) but recognizes that God's purpose is to bring salvation (3:13), again greatly fears what is coming (3:16), is willing to be content during great loss and devastation (3:17-18), and points to the source of his contentment, God himself (3:19). He is glad that bad things are coming, he is rejoicing in God.

The reality of the book of Habakkuk is that God never answers Habakkuk's complaint. Or to say it more precisely, he answers Habakkuk's complaint by saying, "You can not possibly understand. You are finite and your desire for justice is always perverted with a sense of we are better than them (1:13). Rest in me. I am the infinite One, history is not out of control, and I promise two things. First, in the end, justice and righteousness will prevail. You are too finite to see how this will work so you'll have to trust me. Second, my promise is so sure you can live by faith now in it's light.

Calvinists who "dance with joy when his wrath is poured out" are denying both the gospel and their Calvinism. One comfort I take from Habakkuk is that evil people in this dark world are not allowed to simply work their wicked will indefinitely, a situation that would make me despair utterly. God is at work, how I do not know, but he promises that evil will not have the final world, and that somehow, mysteriously, graciously, miraculously, even the evil plans of wicked humankind will somehow, mysteriously, graciously, miraculously be undone when Jesus returns and heaven works backwards so that God's glory will be undiminished.

Thanks for posting. I always look forward to your musings.

February 10, 2011 at 9:46 AM

So, in other words, God's answer is Habakkuk's complaint? H asks when are you going to do something.

God answers: "Oh, I'll do something, but you aren't going to like it."

I get much further in understanding God's goodness when I think of it more as unbearable and incorruptible goodness, rather than kindness. Sometimes God's kindness is not very obvious to me.

February 16, 2011 at 11:05 AM

Old Dominion Heather:

Good question. I would put it this way. Habakkuk raised his complaint, one we tend to ask today. "Everywhere we look is plunder, oppression, pain. How long do we have to wait until God acts?"

The first grace is that God responds. (He is under no obligation to do so.) The second grace is that he assures us he has been long at work. (Far longer, in fact, than we've been asking our question.) The third grace is that his justice will undo all the fallenness, with heaven working backwards so that not merely will injustice be punished but so that righteousness will fill all creation. The fourth grace is that how this works is a mystery. (If we could figure his ways out, he would be a god so small as to be not worth worshipping.)

I.e., Habakkuk raised his complaint, and God responded by saying can't possibly comprehend what I will do, so the answer you need is to know Me. This is what trusting God means. Seeing that he is good, and being content that his goodness will reign supreme even though our tiny minds can't imagine how it is possible.

Same answer God gave Job.
Thanks for joining the conversation.

February 16, 2011 at 12:04 PM

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