The Prophet Who Tells Us to Pay Attention
In the Old Testament, prophets were God's spokespeople who told it to his people straight--we must pay attention. The Bible paints the prophets as those who jolt us awake and force us to see what is happening and what God says about such things.
As one scholar puts it: "The situation of a person immersed in the prophet's words is one of being exposed to a ceaseless shattering of indifference, and one needs a skull of stone to remain callous to such blows."
Prophets are the watchmen signaling with waving arms, often to people wanting to look away. Look up and see the evil done against others (Mic. 2:1-2), the prophets said. See the impact of your own choices on the vulnerable (Isa. 10:1-2). See the disobedience of God's people (Zeph. 3:4). God sees the ways we've gotten things super wrong, guys, and he's coming to do something about it. Get ready. We might not be paying attention, but he is.
It would be easy for some of us--and beneficial at times--to look away from the wrong done around us. We much prefer the aesthetics that way. Yet there are consequences to indifference.
We should not be surprised by discipline from the Lord if we choose not to pay attention to the discrepancy between our community's actions and God's righteous standard, just as the prophets warned in Israel. The Lord told them it was because they did not listen; it was because they didn't pay attention to his words that they were sent into exile (Jer. 29:18-19).
All right, you may think, suppose we pay attention to the injustice and brokenness around us, even when we want to look away. Then what? Do we acknowledge it, then put on a happy face? What do we do with anger, sadness, and powerlessness in the face of the horrific evil of this world that we cannot stop?
This is exactly where we join Habakkuk on his journey. You see, this prophet's book isn't a collection of his messages from God like some other prophetic books. Nor is it a narrative of his life, like the book of Jonah.
Habakkuk does something different--he invites us into his conversation with God, like we're sitting in on his prayer meeting. We have a front-row seat to Habakkuk's wrestling, listening, bravery, and gritty faith. We get to see what real faith in the middle of chaos, wrongdoing, and suffering looks like.
His situation can feel far from our lived experience, but it really isn't. Habakkuk lived in a time of political chaos, violence, and a whole lot of wrong. He had witnessed strong leadership and even revival. Then, he saw it all crumble before his eyes as leaders lived for their own power and believed in their own authority. Oppression, danger, and hardship enveloped his society. Sound familiar?
Do we see leaders around us live for their own power so that injustice seeps in? Have we seen the choice of self-protection and self-benefit instead of caring for those in need and those in the right? Time and again. In organizations, in nations, and, sadly, at times in churches.
As I write this, the global Christian community is still reeling from the news of a major Christian leader who was found to be a systematic sexual abuser. Some dear to me are mourning the broken systems of foster care and the impact on children.
And I bet you've seen some situation or issue unravel in recent years that made your stomach turn. Maybe it's human trafficking. Or racism. Or the needs of children. Or unfair treatment of some vulnerable population. Here's what I want you to know in all of that: Habakkuk gets it. He was facing what we still see in our world: injustice.
Our friend Habakkuk lived under the rule of King Jehoiakim. It wasn't a virtuous reign.
King Jehoiakim, the token king for Egypt, encouraged anything but righteous faith in the Lord of his name. "Change Your Worship to What Aligns You with the Right People" would have been his sermon title (Jer. 25:1-6; Ezek. 8:5-17). Additional idolatry brought gain in his mind. Thus, he seemed to ignore the feasts and temple--worship that God required of his people--using religion only for what served him.
Again, does this sound familiar? Leaders who would use religion to manipulate others and gain allegiance and power, all under the banner of God's name? A quick scroll through various types of media will prove that our present reality is littered with such stories.
Adding to his horrific reign, Jehoiakim raised taxes to fuel his own lifestyle and to pay Egypt their tribute. His lavish buildings required slave labor and abuse of his own people. The people lived in poverty as he built his costly homes. He clashed with Jeremiah, whom God used to warn him of coming judgment (Jer. 22, 25).
What was Jehoiakim's response to God's correction? He burned Jeremiah's scroll bit by bit, literally silencing the Word of God written for the people. To further silence the prophets who would dare to speak against him, Jehoiakim sent out assassins. Habakkuk faced the threat of death! The result of the abandonment of God's justice in Judah's society was chaos.
The silencing of correcting voices wasn't unique in Habakkuk's time.
Leadership punishing those who want to serve the Lord describes the circumstances for many across the world today. While our government may not have been taken over by a Pharoah, the misuse of power is around us, injustice and corruption too, even in the name of the Lord.
Though we'd rather look away sometimes, faith requires us to pay attention.
In the midst of all that Habakkuk saw, he spoke. Habakkuk had a burden weighing on him after paying attention, and he told God about it. It's as if the prophet puts his arm around us and invites us into his prayer: "How long, Lord, must I call for help and you do not listen or cry out to you about violence and you do not save?" (Hab. 1:2, CSB throughout).
Habakkuk used God's divine name, revealed to Moses: Yahweh ("Lord"). It reminds us that this is no ordinary master but the Lord who is in relationship with his people, and this clearly isn't the first time Habakkuk brought up the chaos and pain around him. He'd stood there waving his arms in frustration before. Through poetry and repetition, Habakkuk told God what has been happening--he'd been calling out for help, and God wasn't helping.
Habakkuk may appear brash to us as he accuses God of dallying instead of saving. But Habakkuk's prayer wasn't impertinent; it was like a child, scared and hurting, asking for help from a devoted parent. An intimate dialogue with a trusted God. His neighbors were pulled into forced labor. His family was taxed with little left. The Word of God was ignored, and godly worship was twisted to do whatever served the powerful.
Lord, the God who knows us, where are you for your faithful people? Habakkuk's heart expressed. He continued: "Why do you force me to look at injustice? Why do you tolerate wrongdoing? Oppression and violence are right in front of me. Strife is ongoing, and conflict escalates" (Hab. 1:3).
He described the oppression and violence that smacked him in his face. It escalated, piling higher and higher, like a mountain that blocks the sun. It felt hopeless.
"When will it be too much, God?" Have you asked that? "When will the injustice hit the point that you have to take notice, God? Do you even see?"
Some of God's people in Habakkuk's time were faithful. They were the ones listening in on Habakkuk's prayer time. Others in Judah were anything but--taking advantage of those in need and seeking their own pleasure.
So Habakkuk said, "This is why the law is ineffective and justice never emerges. For the wicked restrict the righteous; therefore, justice comes out perverted" (Hab. 1:4).
Let's zoom in on this verse. In the first two lines of verse 4, Habakkuk made the claim that the law of God wasn't working. The word for "law" here speaks to what should be ruling the society, the law of the land. It also speaks to God's teaching for his people's spiritual and moral formation.
Those who followed Jehoiakim into idol worship and greed now rejected God's instruction. Their personal make-your-own religion led them to ignore the practices of the temple, designed to form their hearts and shift how they treated others. What was the impact on justice for the hurting? It never showed up.
With muddied allegiance to the Lord, their devotion to things like the idols of the king brought injustice to the community. Their lack of faithfulness to God led to lack of faithfulness to others.
In the second sentence, the servants of the Lord were surrounded by betrayers, as the word restrict literally means "to encircle." Those who cheated and manipulated for their own gain gathered around those who would not give up their integrity, like bullies ganging up on a playground child or a wolf pack enveloping prey.
People who should be trustworthy entrapped instead. There was no place to turn. Habakkuk said it again--justice? It was twisted and bent, winding like the country road that gets you nowhere. It's as if the constant reoccurrence of "justice" indicates that it is meant for all humankind.
Isn't this the common pattern of injustice? Those who should have done right have done wrong. Those who should have stood up to stop it didn't. Those supposedly trustworthy instead conspire for their own gain.
Just like thousands of years ago, muddied allegiance to God (and to his means of grace that form our hearts) leads to unfaithful care for the hurting. When we become devoted to idols that make our lives easier, like the status-giving idols of Egypt, we are less willing to do what's right for our neighbors.
Do you feel like you're living in that place where you, in some form or fashion, long for the wrong to finally be set right? Do you feel like you looked to those with lots of promises, only to find that the results were twisted versions of the truth with no strong advocate in sight?
That's where Habakkuk was living. The wicked surrounding the righteous and justice coming out bent. If we are meant to live in a just community, then what do we do in the face of the opposite? How do we respond with faith?
It's easier to leave injustice in our blind spots. This is especially true when the injustice is being done to those with different life experiences than our own, or when we cannot see beyond our own suffering.
Yet corruption and misuse of power are alive and kicking, and more are enslaved worldwide today than ever before. When we pay attention, we see the children without families and the desperate refugees searching for safety.
There may be three women in your small group whose husbands just left them. Your neighbor may face prejudice on a weekly basis for his ethnicity. Your friend's children may struggle with anxiety from being bullied.
God sees the injustice on the grand stage and in small corners--he does not look away. And you know what? He asks his people to do the same.
The call of the prophets begging God to act shifts in the New Testament. God has already come in Jesus Christ and continues to work through his Spirit. So now, we read the exhortation for God's people to be alert and ready. We must pay attention to what is happening around us and to God's work in the world.
Adapted by permission of B&H Publishing Group from Trembling Faith by Taylor Turkington.