Singing in the Pain: The Theology of Habakkuk


The book of Habakkuk is unique within the canon of Scripture. Essentially, Habakkuk is a dialogue, a verbal exchange between the prophet and Yahweh. This short, but often forgotten book, offers a unique perspective on issues related to faith, divine justice, suffering, and God’s sovereignty. Habakkuk raises several questions throughout his three chapters regarding the nature and role of God, his relationship with his people, and how human suffering is reconciled with the sovereignty of God.

Chapter 1: Faith Tested

In the opening verses of Habakkuk, the prophet expresses his concern about the widespread injustice and violence in Judah. He complains that his cries for help have remained unanswered (1:2–3). Having been witness to the wickedness and violence in his nation, it is difficult for him to understand why God allows him to witness such atrocities. The author laments that the system of law, with its checks and balances, has been paralyzed and that there is no justice in the courts. The righteous are outnumbered by the wicked, and justice has been perverted (2:4).

In response (1:5–11), God reveals his plan to bring judgment on Judah through Babylon, a nation even more corrupt than Judah. This revelation presents Habakkuk with the challenge of trusting God’s wisdom and sovereignty to control events that may appear irrational or unfair. As he begins his second complaint (1:12–17), Habakkuk describes some profound attributes of God: he is everlasting, the Holy One, and a Rock (1:12). However, in some respects, this is part of the prophet’s struggle. If God is holy, why would he punish a less sinful nation (Judah) by using a more sinful nation (the Chaldeans)? It appears that Habakkuk is experiencing a crisis of faith because he is struggling with how an eternal God who made eternal promises to Abraham and David will be able to keep his word if Judah is punished by Babylon. In contrast to other prophetic books that proclaim judgment on neighboring nations, Habakkuk questions God’s decision to use Babylon as an instrument of judgment against his own people. 

However, Habakkuk confesses, “You have ordained … you have appointed” (1:12b). As James Bruckner observes, “In one verse, Habakkuk progresses from incredulity to acknowledgment of the facts through his trust and knowledge of Yahweh.” During his crisis of faith, he passes from questioning God to confessing his faith in God’s sovereignty, only to question God again. In 1:13, Habakkuk expands upon his previous questions. If God is so holy that he cannot even look at sin, why does God remain silent when “the wicked swallows up the man more righteous than he?” Using a powerful metaphor, the prophet likens wicked Babylon to a fisherman who rejoices when he catches his prey (1:15). In addition, he sacrifices to his net in idolatrous worship, lives in luxury, and consumes the finest food (1:16). Chapter 1 closes with the question of why God would permit a sinful and idolatrous people to continue killing innocent people without regard for mercy (1:17).

Habakkuk teaches us that lamentation and questions to God are opportunities to strengthen the believer’s faith.

Habakkuk teaches us that lamentation and questions to God are opportunities to strengthen the believer’s faith. They give believers a “pathway of honest faith and faithful conversation with him in horrible times.” Nearly one third of the Psalms are songs and prayers of lament and complaint. Habakkuk’s question of “How long?” (1:2) is also to be found in Psalm 6:3, 13:1–2, 79:5, and 89:46. In Habakkuk, believers are given a model for being honest with God and believing in his goodness, regardless of whether or not they can see it. It is necessary to have faith in Yahweh’s sovereignty in order to wait for his justice.

Chapter 2: Faith Taught

In Chapter 2, the prophet waits and wonders how God will respond to his complaint (2:1). God’s response comes in 2:2–20. The prophet is instructed by Yahweh to “write a vision” of the future (2:2). Despite the fact that it may seem slow to develop, it will eventually come to fruition and will not be delayed (2:3). A contrast is drawn between two types of people in 2:4: one has a “puffed up” or arrogant soul, which is “not upright within him” (2:4a), while the righteous live by faith in God—an inner disposition of abiding trust in God’s promises and character. Most people are familiar with this part of the verse because the Apostle Paul cites Habakkuk 2:4 in Romans 1:17 to explain how individuals are justified before God: by faith.

The Apostle Paul cites Habakkuk 2:4 in Romans 1:17 to explain how individuals are justified before God: by faith.

A major theme in this chapter revolves around divine justice, which implies that those who pursue unjust activities will ultimately suffer consequences—a notion aptly illustrated by several “woes” of judgment. Yahweh begins in 1:5 by denouncing their greedy consumption of wine and strong drink. In addition, he describes their greed as “wide as a grave” (NLT); and that those who are greedy are never satisfied and never have enough. The Babylonians consume, but are never full or satisfied. “They will take all the cultures of the ancient Near East captive, collect all the people as their possessions, and bring their treasures home, but they will still be restless” (Bruckner). They are like Alexander the Great, who wept because there were no more worlds to conquer.

The rest of the chapter contains the “woes” for the greedy, puffed-up, drunken, and arrogant Babylonians. In the first “woe” (2:6–8), Yahweh states that one day the situation will be reversed for Babylon. A day will come when Babylon will be subjected to taunts and ridicules as a result of God’s divine judgment. One day, those who have been captured will become captives. It is inevitable that those who have pillaged and plundered will one day be pillaged and plundered themselves.

In the second woe (2:9–11), Yahweh states that the wicked may have attempted to gain security by building homes that are “safe from harm.” But because of the murder they have committed and their sinfulness, the very stones in the walls will cry out against them and the beams in the ceilings will echo their complaint (2:11). The contrast is clear: rather than finding security in their home, they will find righteous judgment.

In the third woe (2:12–14), the Chaldeans are accused of building cities with money obtained through murder and corruption (2:12). In 2:13, for the first time, Yahweh is mentioned by name as the Lord of hosts. Therefore, the Chaldeans’ sin was not only against others, but also against the Lord. Contrary to the sinful wealth of the Babylonians (2:13b), Yahweh is everlasting and eternal (1:12). As a result, their wealth will be reduced to ashes and all of their work and conquest will be for nothing (2:13c). We are then led to another famous passage in this little book: “For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea” (2:14). Another contrast can be seen here. Yahweh intends to bless the entire world through the covenant he made with his people, as opposed to the Chaldeans who will be judged by God and whose wealth and status will be reduced to ashes.

In the fourth woe (2:15–17), the Babylonians are condemned for making their enemies drunk in order to take advantage of them and to demoralize their captives. Soon, however, they will drink from the cup of God’s judgment, from his own hand, and their glory will be turned into shame (2:16). In contrast, Yahweh’s glory will fill the entire earth. In 2:17, the irony continues: though the Babylonians may have done violence to Lebanon, violence will be done in turn to them and will overwhelm them. Isaiah 14:8 states that even the cedars of Lebanon will rejoice at Babylon’s destruction. Just as Nebuchadnezzar cut down the trees of Lebanon to build his city, so the city of Babylon will be cut down in God’s judgment.

Yahweh continues his taunting in the fifth and final woe (2:18–20) by stating that turning to idols is futile in attempting to escape the judgment of God. An idol carved by man is unprofitable; it is only a “teacher of lies” (2:18). In 1:11, Yahweh stated that “their own might is their god.” The contrast is evident once again: their own might cannot save them, and their idols cannot save them either. It is impossible for an idol to speak, come to life, or provide any assistance. Yahweh is the only one who can make wood and stone “speak” (2:11). As opposed to the false idols of Babylon, Yahweh is real and present in the temple. It is he who speaks; it is he who moves; it is he who acts; it is he who guides. For the Babylonians, the best course of action is to remain silent before the eternal, holy God.

This concludes the dialogue between the prophet and Yahweh. He honestly asks God some tough questions and lays out his struggles before him, and Yahweh is faithful to respond. Chapter 3 presents the prophet’s response to God’s response. In a similar manner to many of the psalmists, Habakkuk begins his book with lament and complaint, but ends with worship and a declaration of trust in Yahweh’s character.

Chapter 3: Faith Triumphant

Chapter 3 contains some of the most beautiful expressions of trust and worship in Scripture. In the opening verses, the prophet expresses his desire for God to revive his work and make it known to the people. Even though God is angry with their sin, the prophet appeals to God’s mercy as well. Amidst Israel’s judgment, Habakkuk acknowledges Israel’s sinful behavior and believes that only God’s mercy can save them. Throughout the chapter, vivid imagery emerges, illustrating God’s supreme authority and power. The prophet describes God in all his splendor, powerful enough to shake mountains and seas. It is important to note that these metaphors not only emphasize God’s unmatched strength, but also demonstrate that no adversity is too great for Yahweh to overcome. The depiction of Yahweh in this passage further emphasizes Habakkuk’s unwavering faith in Yahweh. He has complete confidence that despite life’s uncertainties, the Lord remains a constant source of strength and refuge for his people. The book closes with a declaration of trust in God.

Habakkuk has complete confidence that despite life’s uncertainties, the Lord remains a constant source of strength and refuge for his people.

The blessings that the prophet mentions in 3:17 are more than tertiary blessings. They were essential for Judah’s security. The blossoms on the fig tree and the grapes forming on the vine represent the things Judah was trusting for the future. They were a symbol of hope for the future. Even though it is only a blossom or a flower, it is a tangible indication that figs and grapes are on their way. But in this scenario, there are no signs for the future—the fig tree does not bud, there are no grapes on the vine, and there is no visible sign that these things will ever take place. Their olive crop and fields represent those things they are trusting in the present that will affect their future. The absence of crops in the field this year indicates that there are no seeds for crops next year. Despite the difficulties that exist today, the prophet paints a bleak picture that does not appear to be improving anytime soon. As a result, their future and security are at risk. The sheep and cattle represent their reserves, but in this case, there are no reserves to fall back on: no sheep are in the pen; there are no cattle in the stalls. To put it in today’s terms, there is no money in the bank; there is no equity in the property. Yet despite the absence of these essentials, the prophet rejoices in the Lord and finds strength in the salvation of God.

Applying Habakkuk Today

In what ways can Habakkuk’s theology be applied practically? It is easy to trust God when the fig trees are budding and the vines are full of grapes; when the olive crop is flourishing and the fields produce food; when one has ample sheep and cattle in reserve; but will we remain faithful to God once those things are gone? The book of Habakkuk teaches us that God is our ultimate security, even in the face of changing circumstances. Amidst a changing world, God remains constant. Despite changing people, God remains the same. Even in changing times, God will never change.

The book of Habakkuk begins in gloom with a question mark and ends in glory with an exclamation point.

He concludes the book by using a metaphor of God enabling him to triumphantly overcome challenges, just as a deer walks on high places. The book of Habakkuk begins in gloom with a question mark and ends in glory with an exclamation point. Habakkuk opens with a doubt: “What is God doing?” But ends with a shout: “Look who God is!” Habakkuk opens with “How long shall I cry?” But closes with: “I will rejoice!” Habakkuk opens with the complaint: “You do not save” (1:2) but closes with the confession: “I will joy in the God of my salvation.” The righteous live by this kind of faith. Even without a temple and hundreds of miles from their homeland, the righteous live by faith in God. Even after seventy years of exile, and as memories of their homeland and temple fade, the righteous live by faith in God. The essence of faith is trust, joy, and even hope despite suffering and adversity.

Travis Johnson
Travis Johnson
Travis Johnson is Lead Pastor of the Findlay Bible Methodist Church.