A Psalm of Victory in Defeat: Habakkuk 3

Among the minor prophets, Habakkuk displays more personality than most because we see an evolution in his thinking.  He moved from questioning the Lord in chapter 1 to relying utterly on him in chapter 3.  He speaks of the cycle of the Lord’s actions the defeat of the Babylonians at the hand of the oppressed ones whom they defeated, which builds on the reader’s previous experience of the Assyrians’ defeat of the haughty Israelites, and the Babylonians’ defeat of the haughty Assyrians.  The Lord brings in an army to defeat the haughty, and then the army becomes haughty.  And repeat.  Breaking the cycle, the Lord himself came for the final battle against the foreign gods and the prophet took his place as one of the lowly so that he can ultimately experience victory from the Lord through the Lord’s glory.

The odd terminology of this chapter made an impression on readers.  Words like “shigionoth” (v. 1) and “selah” (vv. 3, 9, 13) are left untranslated in most Bibles because they are technical musical terminology.  Significantly, these words appear most often in the Psalms.  The odd vocabulary of this chapter gives it a particular tone, evoking the Psalms and the that book’s typical themes of defeat and victory.

The Lord appears on the scene quickly and fiercely in the first verses of chapter 3 (vv. 2-7).  The prophet first declared the great work of the Lord, about which he listened in fear and requested mercy (v. 2).  We next see an epiphany, like we saw in Michah 1 and Nahum 1, when the Lord came from the mountains in greatness (v. 3) and bright (v. 4).  He arrived not with life, though, but with death through pestilence and sickness (v. 5).  He surveyed his creation, and startled the nations, mountains, and hills (vv. 6-7).  With his terror demonstrated by weapons and great size, the Lord arrived as a great warrior.

The Lord is prepared as a warrior to fight in the primeval battle against the waters and chaos, whose armies are the nations (vv. 8-15).  In Babylonian mythology, the creation of the heavens and earth came about when the champion of the gods, Marduk, raised an army to defeat the horrific troops of the god of the rivers, Apsu, and the goddess of the salt waters, Tiamat.  In Habakkuk 3, the Lord acted like Marduk, but on his own and without an army rode against the “rivers” and the “sea” (vv. 8-9).  All of nature trembled to see this battle among the forces of nature (v. 10).  Even the sun and moon–important Babylonian gods–froze in fear before the weapons of the Lord (v. 11).  He tromped through the nations–the troops of the other gods–to give victory/salvation to his own anointed king and defeat the waters (vv. 12-15).

This image of war terrified the prophet (v. 16), but he hoped in the Lord despite appearances (vv. 17-19).  The prophet was not cheering on the Lord as he came in victory but was afraid.  He understood that the Lord is a whirlwind, as we saw in Nahum 1:3, that takes out anything in its path.  In our own times, even if someone believed that hurricane Katrina struck our shores to express divine wrath, even the most pious believer would take shelter in fear.  Habakkuk knew that the Lord is essentially dangerous, expressed in v. 2 by his request that the Lord remember mercy in his wrath.  Nevertheless, Habakkuk settled on hoping in the Lord as the only real victory (vv. 17-19).  Even in the face of utter drought and famine, he promised to rejoice in the Lord (vv. 17-18).  The Lord will provide him strength (v. 19).

This change of heart came abruptly and its naivete is troubling.  Why would the prophet hope in this destructive, terrifying deity?  Doesn’t he sound like the abused wife giving her husband “one more chance” to be kind?

Just like in the Psalms, Habakkuk recognizes that he must be the humble one if he wants to be victorious.  The Bible seeks to make the case for the Lord as the only (relevant) deity.  As a result, everything must come from the Lord, the good and bad.  Ultimately, the destruction that the Lord causes brings down the haughty and raises up the lowly; the defeated receive victory, and the victorious are defeated.  If the lowly remember that they are lowly before the Lord, that they were raised up in charity, they will have nothing to worry about.  Logically, then, the Lord is irresistible, and the only ones who would resist are those who put faith in their own strength.  Those who do not resist, put faith in the Lord’s strength.  The Lord, as we saw in Nahum, is the whirlwind and also the shelter from the whirlwind.

The glory of the Lord is that he can make something out of nothing.  He targets the powerful because they think they have produced something.  He emasculates them by claiming that he was the one who allowed them to produce something and by proving his point by taking away by violence what they thought the produced.  Moreover, he uses the weak to do so, further demonstrating that he alone controls their fate.  Once the weak are on top and believe that they have produced something, the cycle continues.  In this chapter, the prophet describes the final battle, when the Lord evens all the scores and ends the cycle.

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