Habbakuk Is Even More Put Out. How Can God Use Such Instruments to Chasten His People? (Habakkuk 1:12-17).
‘Are you not from everlasting, O YHWH?
My God, my Holy One, We will not die.
O YHWH, you have ordained him for judgment,
And you, O Rock, have established him for correction.'
Habakkuk acknowledges that he recognises that they are coming as instruments of chastening, and that God is over all and that therefore there was no need for despair. God will not finally allow His people to cease to be (die). But he is still baffled. Why such instruments?
An alternative reading to ‘you will not die' in very ancient manuscripts, which were said to have been corrected by Ezra and the Scribes (there were eighteen such corrections), is ‘You shall not die'. This would be contrasting the eternal God to the gods who could die and then live again, and further strongly asserting His everlastingness. It may well be correct, the emendation being made at the horrific suggestion that death could be associated with YHWH, even theoretically.
His first confidence is in the everlastingness of God. Empires come and go, but YHWH is from everlasting and goes on for ever (Genesis 21:33; Psalms 41:13; Psalms 90:2; Psalms 93:2; Isaiah 40:28; Jeremiah 10:10). He has everlasting power. That is why He can show everlasting mercy (Psalms 100:5; Isaiah 54:8; Jeremiah 31:3), He can make an everlasting covenant (Genesis 9:16; Genesis 17:7; Genesis 17:19; Psalms 105:10; Isaiah 55:3; Jeremiah 32:40; Ezekiel 37:26), He can establish an everlasting kingdom (Psalms 145:13; Daniel 4:3; Daniel 4:34; Daniel 7:14; Daniel 7:27), He can deliver with an everlasting deliverance (Isaiah 45:17), holds His true people in His everlasting arms (Deuteronomy 33:27), and will finally give them everlasting life (Daniel 12:2). All these privileges His true people will enjoy. This was certainly not true of the king of Babylon.
His second confidence was in the fact that God was his own God, as ‘the Holy One', the One Who was ‘set apart' as different, the One Who was unique (Exodus 15:11; 2 Samuel 7:22; 1 Kings 8:23), the One Who was ‘wholly other', totally distinctive from the world which He had created. And that holiness included a moral purity as revealed in His Law, and in His final dealings with man, which is why He will call all men to account (Genesis 18:25; Exodus 34:7; Nahum 1:3), so that when men experienced His presence they felt as though they were dust and ashes, they felt totally unclean, they were filled with awe and reverent fear (Job 41:5-6; Isaiah 6:5; Isaiah 33:14; Genesis 15:12; Genesis 17:3; Ezekiel 1:28; Ezekiel 3:23).
So because God offered everlasting mercy and everlasting deliverance, and was faithful to His everlasting covenant, Habakkuk knew that His true people could not ‘die', they could not cease to be.
‘You have ordained him for judgment, and you, O Rock, have established him for correction.' He accepted that God had ordained the king of Babylon as His means of chastisement and correction for His people. But he will now argue that he does not think that they are fit instruments. What he did not realise, however, as God did, was how deep was the sin of his own people, how greatly it had offended Him, and how difficult it would be to root out. Most of us fail to recognise the difficulty that God has in rooting out sin in inveterate sinners like us. That is why we too often have to suffer. Note the fact that in the final analysis the king of Babylon was ordained and established by God. Nabopolassar and Nebuchadnezzar were his instruments.
These ideas must be held in tension. These kings were free men, with freedom to choose and act as within their limits they wished. Nor did God force them into their behaviour. But nevertheless He was sovereign over them in a way they could never have dreamed of, and they therefore unknowingly fulfilled His will. (But that does not mean that all that they did was His will).
‘O Rock.' This is in contrast with these kings who are but as sand. He is the Rock, unshakeable, unchanging, permanent, a tower of strength (Deuteronomy 32:4; Deuteronomy 32:18; Deuteronomy 32:30-31; 1 Samuel 2:2; 2Sa 22:2; 2 Samuel 22:32; 2 Samuel 23:3; Psalms 31:3 and often; Isaiah 17:10). Habakkuk is declaring His confidence that although he cannot fully understand what is happening, He is confident that in the end God is their Rock.
‘You are of purer eyes than to behold evil,
And you cannot look on what causes wretchedness.
Why do you look on those who deal treacherously,
And hold your peace when the wicked swallow up the man who is more righteous than he?'
Habakkuk cannot understand why the Rock, the Everlasting One, the Holy One, will allow this situation to happen. He knows that God is pure, and so pure that He cannot look with equanimity on evil and wrongdoing (see for example Psalms 5:4-6; Psalms 34:16; Psalms 34:21). He knows that He cannot bear what causes wretchedness. (The root ‘ml refers to what causes wretchedness, such as labour and toil, distress and trouble, disaster and evil, and so on). So why does He stand by and allow this, yes, even bring it about? Israel may be wicked, but not as wicked as Babylon which was proverbial for wickedness. Why then allow Israel to be ‘swallowed up' by them, with the result that they become leaderless and helpless? (As with the Assyrians it was Babylonian policy to remove the leadership of rebel nations so as to tame them).
‘And make men as the fish of the sea,
As the creeping things that have no ruler over them?
He takes all of them up with his hook,
He catches them in his net,
And he gathers them in his dragnet.
Therefore he rejoices and is glad.
Therefore he sacrifices to his net and burns incense to his dragnet,
Because by them his portion is fat,
And his food plenteous.
Shall he therefore empty his net,
And not spare to slay the nations continually?'
The smaller nations, including Israel and Judah, are likened to fish and creeping things, who have no ruler (while not true of all fish and creeping things this is certainly true of many, and in those days it appeared even more so). The nations have no proper ruler because their rulers have been removed into captivity. And Babylon is likened to fishermen using every possible means, hook, net and dragnet, in order to catch the fish.
And because he catches so many fish, giving him a fat reward and plenty of food, he sacrifices to his net and burns incense to his dragnet. He worships what he sees as the means of his provision. The net and dragnet are metaphorical. They did not really exist. So the prophet cannot mean that he literally worships them. Rather he sees behind them the gods who grant them to him. He sees the gods themselves as making provision for him through his activities and conquests. Thus it is the gods behind his net and dragnet that he is worshipping. So as it makes him rich with plenty can anyone therefore imagine him ceasing to use the net, leaving it empty, and ceasing to spoil the nations?
We do not need to particularise the details, it is the impression that counts. His net includes the gathering of regular tribute, the looting of cities, the obtaining of wealth by violent means, the seizing cattle and sheep, exactions by crooked officials, the robbing of temples and so on. In fact any means by which the Babylonians could enrich themselves. And Habakkuk's problem is that in the face of this YHWH does nothing. What is the explanation?