For whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the scriptures might have hope.
Romans 15:4


Habakkuk 1

 A Bible Study - Commentary by Jim Melough

Copyright 2002 James Melough


1:1.  “The burden which Habakkuk the prophet did see.”

“The burden” is literally the vision, oracle, prophecy, given Habakkuk by God in the form of a vision, in which it was revealed to him that the Babylonians (Chaldeans) were going to be raised up to be an instrument of chastisement against Judah for all her wickedness, which was compounded by her having had the warning example of Israel’s (the ten northern tribes) similar chastisement 130 years earlier when she had been led captive into Assyria for the very same sins.

Its being described as a “burden” reminds us that it was a message of coming judgment, and therefore not to be treated lightly; nor should we forget that it is as relevant to our present world as it was to that of Habakkuk.

At this point, however, Judah’s coming captivity hadn’t been revealed to the prophet, and his great concern was the apparent indifference of God to all the evil that abounded in the nation, his deep concern being expressed in the next verse.

  “O Lord, how long shall I cry, and thou wilt not hear! even cry out unto thee of violence, and thou wilt not save!”


The violence, i.e., the tyrannous oppression of the poor by the cruel and greedy rich, which he witnessed daily all around him, had obviously moved him to cry out many times asking God to intervene, but his pleas seemed to have fallen on deaf ears, for the evil continued unabated.  But now having been shown that he was about to receive a communication from God, he seemed unable to contain himself, and responded by asking why his prayers had  apparently gone unanswered, why God hadn’t stopped the wickedness and delivered the oppressed.


The same frustration is experienced today by many who cannot understand why God seems neither to know nor care that an ever increasing tidal wave of sin is sweeping the earth.  Habakkuk’s message is designed for just such people.  It is to teach them that He does know, He does care, and is preparing the world for the outpouring of His terrible Tribulation judgments in righteous retribution of man’s rebellion against Him.  Those who take the time to study His Word are unperturbed, for it enables them to see that God is in control in spite of all appearances to the contrary; and in the evil activity of the nations they see His hand moving those nations into place in preparation for the events of the coming great and terrible Tribulation judgments.  But the comfort of the scripturally instructed believer lies in the assurance that before that awful day dawns he will be caught up to meet the Lord in the air to be with Him for ever in heaven, see 1 Thess 4:13-18.


1:3.  “Why dost thou shew me iniquity, and cause me to behold grievance? for spoiling and violence are before me: and there are that raise up strife and contention.”


He continued his complaint by asking why he was compelled to go on day after day witnessing the evil activity of the rich against the poor, seeing everywhere gross injustice which grieved him sorely, while the nation was being torn apart by the resultant smoldering resentment of the oppressed against the oppressors, and the continual scheming of the rich to seize still more of what little the poor had left.


1:4.  “Therefore the law is slacked, and judgment doth never go forth: for the wicked doth compass about the righteous; therefore wrong judgment proceedeth.”


“... slacked” is literally to be sluggish: feeble: faint.  In other words the law no longer worked effectively.  It was perverted daily by venal judges rendering decisions in favor of the litigant who paid the biggest bribe.  No matter how righteous his cause, the poor man was encircled by, or caught in the toils of this iniquitous system which gave the appearance of legality to the seizure of his goods or property by the rich and powerful predators.


1:5.  “Behold ye among the heathen, and regard, and wonder marvelously: for I will work a work in your days, which ye will not believe, though it be told you.”


The Speaker here is Jehovah, and He responds to His servant’s complaint by revealing not only that He had heard it, but that He was fully aware of all that was going on, and had already decided what He was going to do about it; so He bids His servant, and the people (ye), to survey the nations, thus reminding Habakkuk and the people that He Jehovah was not just the God of sinful Judah, but of all the nations, and that He would use all of them to accomplish His purposes, the extent of those purposes being so great that they would believe only when they actually saw God’s plans executed.


It is instructive to note that Paul quotes this verse when addressing the Jews in Antioch, see Ac 13:40-41, thus confirming what has been noted in our studies of the other prophetic books: in much of fulfilled prophecy we see the foreshadowing of a more complete fulfillment of events yet future.  For example, the condition of the world addressed by the prophets, was very similar to our twenty-first century world, and few spiritual minds have any difficulty seeing in the judgments that fell upon that world foreshadowings of those about to engulf this present world, in the form of the impending Tribulation judgments.  And also as it was then so is it today: the false prophets who foretold continued peace were believed, while many of the true prophets were mocked and stoned - until the judgments fell!  So will it be with this present world.


1:6.  “For, lo, I raise up the Chaldeans, that bitter and hasty nation, which shall march through the breadth of the land, to possess the dwellingplaces that are not theirs.”


As He had used Assyria to punish rebellious Israel (the ten northern tribes), so was Jehovah now about to use Babylon (the Chaldeans) as His instrument for the chastisement of equally wicked, and more culpable Judah, she, as noted above, having had the example of Israel to warn her of the terrible consequences of continued rebellion.


His description of the Chaldeans as being “bitter and hasty” is also translated as “revengeful, fierce, impetuous, savage, unruly,” and history confirms that that is exactly what they - and the Assyrians before them - were.  Concerning the Assyrians, A.H. Sayce has written, “Pyramids of human heads marked the path of the conqueror; boys and girls were burnt alive or reserved for a worse fate; men were impaled, flayed alive, blinded, or deprived of their hands and feet, of their ears and noses...”  and the Chaldeans were guilty of the very same atrocities.


As so often, God’s retributive judgment would match the punishment to the crime.  As the wealthy Judahites had stalked through the land like savage predators seizing illegally the goods and property of their poor brethren, so now were they to suffer the same treatment at the hand of the invading Chaldeans (Babylonians).  All that they possessed rightfully, plus all that they had acquired wrongfully, would be snatched from them by the invaders; and as their wickedness had often resulted in the actual or virtual slavery of those they had wronged, so would they themselves be led off into actual slavery in Babylon.


1:7.  “They are terrible and dreadful: their judgment and their dignity shall proceed of themselves.”


The Chaldeans were feared and dreaded by all the nations, the only law they acknowledged being that of “might is right,” and in bringing them against Judah, God continued to match crime and punishment, for that was the very same principle that governed the cruel grasping rich in their dealings with the poor.  Their perversion of justice had made them rich and given them an imagined dignity.  But what a fate awaited them!  As slaves in Babylon they themselves would be the victims of the “might is right” principle, and there would be no dignity.  As they had treated the poor of their own people, so now would they be treated by the Chaldeans.


1:8.  “Their horses also are swifter than the leopards, and are more fierce than the evening wolves: and their horsemen shall spread themselves, and their horsemen shall come from far; they shall fly as the eagle that hasteth to eat.”


The language here is clearly hyperbolic, being used to emphasize the rapacity, speed, and invincibility of the Chaldeans, for the horse is one of the biblical symbols of strength; the leopard, of swiftness; the wolf, of stealth and cunning; and the eagle (vulture), of speed and unexpectedness as it swoops down silently to snatch its unsuspecting prey.  In Zep 3:3 Judah’s corrupt judges are called evening wolves.  As the rich men of Judah had been to their victims, so would God bring against those same rich men an enemy of similar character who would devour them.


Its being said that the horseman would spread themselves and come from afar, means that they would come from a distant land to spread destruction wherever they went - and Jehovah was bringing them into the land of Judah as His instrument to punish the rebellion of a people who had ignored warning, and defied the God of heaven and earth.


Habakkuk need have had no fear of God’s failure to punish sin, even though His great patience may have indicated otherwise; nor should any other man entertain the same foolish thought.  The ever increasing wickedness of the world today prompts many to question why God permits it, but the answer is the same today as then: He is of great patience.  His patience, however, isn’t infinite.  All the signs around us reveal that He is about to rise up and execute judgment.


1:9.  “They shall come all for violence: their faces shall sup up as the east wind, and they shall gather the captivity as the sand.”


The Chaldeans were synonymous with violence.  They ravaged and plundered wherever they went, none having the power to stop them.


“... their faces shall sup up as the east wind” is a poetic and hyperbolic announcement of the fact that as the east wind (the dreaded Sirocco) with its scorching heat, dried up all the moisture and killed the vegetation, so would the Chaldeans also spread destruction.


“... they shall gather the captivity as the sand” is also metaphoric, meaning that their captives would be as numerous as the grains of the desert sand.  Virtually all the population of Judah were carried captive into Babylon.


1:10.  “And they shall scoff at the kings, and the princes shall be a scorn unto them: they shall deride every strong hold; for they shall heap dust, and take it.”


Kings and princes meant no more to the Chaldeans than did common men.  From the highest to the lowest, all the people of other nations were the objects of their scorn.  As the rich men of Judah had scorned the poor whom they victimized, so would the rich men in turn become the victims who would be scorned by the Babylonians.


And they were equally contemptuous of the fortifications of the nations they invaded.  They simply built up earthen ramps to the tops of the city walls, thus rendering those walls of little use by nullifying the advantage of elevation which the walls might have given the defenders, since they, the Chaldeans, were then able to attack face to face on the same level.


1:11.  “Then shall his mind change, and he shall pass over, and offend, imputing this his power unto his god.”


This verse has been variously interpreted, but those interpretations which seem to be closest to the truth are they which take it to refer to the passing away of Babylon.  “... mind” means wind or spirit; and “change” means to slide by: hasten away: pass on: change: abolish: cut off: go on: pass away, so that the first two clauses seem to be saying that Babylon’s spirit - all that is Babylon - will cease to be.  This prophecy was fulfilled when Babylon was destroyed by the Medes in 539 BC.


“... and offend, imputing this his power unto his god,” is then construed as the explanation for Babylon’s end: the nation offended God by attributing their success to their own imaginary God, and their refusal to acknowledge Jehovah as the only God.


Some translators render the first two clauses of this verse as “They pass by, or sweep on like the wind,” and the remainder of the verse as, “but they are guilty men, for their might is their god” - New Berkley Version; “they load themselves with guilt ... whose own power is their god” - Amplified; “dismayed are all those whose strength was their god” - NEB; “this culprit who makes his own strength his god” -NAB; “overstepping the limit; he will make his strength his god” - Bible in Basic English.


1:12.  “Art thou not from everlasting, O Lord my God, mine Holy One? we shall not die.  O Lord, thou hast ordained them for judgment; and, O mighty God, thou hast established them for correction.”


Here the prophet replies to God, and he begins by acknowledging His eternality and His holiness, two attributes which guarantee that Judah will not die no matter how severe the chastisement incurred by her disobedience, her preservation being necessary for the fulfillment of God’s covenant promises to her.  God has ordained judgment and correction (chastisement) for His rebel people, but it is for their ultimate blessing.  And not only is this true of Judah, but of all God’s people, the writer of Hebrews reminding us, “For whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom he receiveth.... Now no chastening for the present seemeth to be joyous, but grievous: nevertheless afterward it yieldeth the peaceable fruit of righteousness unto them which are exercised thereby,” Heb 12:6-11.


But not only had God ordained judgment and correction for His guilty people: He had ordained Babylon as the instrument through which He would administer that needed judgment and instruction, this being the truth declared specifically in the latter half of the verse.  It was this announcement that shocked Habakkuk.  He couldn’t understand how God could use for Judah’s chastisement a people more wicked than she.


1:13.  “Thou art of purer eyes than to behold evil, and canst not look on iniquity: wherefore lookest thou upon them that deal treacherously, and holdest thy tongue when the wicked devoureth the man that is more righteous then he?”


Habakkuk’s reference is to the wickedness of the Babylonians, the prophet’s question being why God was using them, a people more wicked than sinful Judah, as His instrument of chastisement.  What he failed to understand was that Judah’s sin was greater.  She was more culpable because she sinned wilfully against greater light.  The wisdom of God in choosing the Chaldeans as His instrument of chastisement is revealed in the fact that they were the people who would mete out to rebel Judah exactly the same treatment as the rich Judaeans had meted out to their own countrymen.


“... deal treacherously” is literally to take by pillage, i.e., by violence, this being exactly, not only what the Babylonians did, but also what the rich Jews were doing to the poor. 


“... devoureth” means to make away with, especially by swallowing, i.e., to destroy.  This is what the Chaldeans would do to guilty Judah, it being God’s requittal of the rapacious greed of the rich Jews which was literally destroying the poor whose lands and goods they seized by any means in their power.  The men thus robbed were virtually reduced to slavery as the only means of existence.


The inequities of today’s world evoke the same question in the minds of many; but as it was in Judah and Babylon, so is it also today.  God does see all that happens, and in amazing grace and patience has waited for men to repent.  But His patience isn’t infinite, and the moment when it will give place to His righteous judgment is almost upon us.  The signs all around us declare that the Tribulation judgments are about to break upon a world that has filled its cup of iniquity to overflowing.


1:14.  “And makest men as the fishes of the sea, as the creeping things, that have no ruler over them?


So incensed is the prophet by what he considers to be injustice on God’s part, that he can’t control his exasperation, for it seems that God, in delivering Judah into the hand of the Chaldeans, is making no difference, as it were, between men and fish or creeping things (the worms used as bait to catch fish?). The men of Judah were to be delivered up to the Chaldeans just as God makes fish available to fishermen, their having “no ruler over them,” meaning that they are defenseless against their foes.


What Habakkuk was overlooking was that the oppressed poor of Judah were in that very same position.  As these lesser creatures have neither leaders nor laws, neither had the oppressed Judaeans, for those who ought to have been their leaders were they who preyed upon them mercilessly and destroyed them.  The laws, which God Himself had instituted when He brought them out of Egyptian bondage, had been so perverted that the poor couldn’t have been worse off had those laws never been given.  The custodians of the law misused it to give the appearance of legality to their plunder of their helpless victims - their own poor brethren.


The world today is also divided between the have’s and the have not’s, so that many of the latter are also tempted to see themselves as being little different from the fish and lesser creatures, it being with them as it was with the poor of Judah, a corrupt legal system being manipulated in favor of the rich and powerful, leaving the poor like fish to be taken by the rich. 


The prophet, however, was applying the figure to Judah and Babylon, Judah being the fish, and Babylon, the fisherman.


1:15.  “They take up all of them with the angle (hook), they catch them in their net (seine), and gather them in their drag: therefore they rejoice and are glad.”


The reference to “the nations” in verse 17 has led some to conclude that verses 15-17 refer only to the Babylonians, and not to the rapacious rich Jews.  The settling of that question, however, is relatively unimportant, for the description fits both.  The attitude of the rich Jews toward the poor of their own people was just the same as that of the Babylonians towards the other nations.  In both cases the victims were like fish to be caught with a hook or a net, and in both cases the oppressor rejoiced in his evil work.  (Seine is a net that hangs vertically, having floats at the top, and weights at the bottom).


1:16.  “Therefore they sacrifice unto their net, and burn incense unto their drag; because by them their portion is fat, and their meat plenteous.”


It is to be remembered that Judah, in addition to continuing the ritualistic worship of Jehovah, also worshiped the Baalim, so whether the reference is to the Jewish or to the Babylon oppressors, the truth being declared is the same: the one as much as the other credited their idols with their good fortune.  See Jer 2:28, for example, relative to Judah’s idolatry, which evoked God’s angry question, “But where are thy gods that thou hast made thee? let them arise, if they can save thee in the time of thy trouble: for according to the number of thy cities are thy gods, O Judah.”


1:17.  “Shall they therefore empty their net, and not spare continually to slay the nations?”


Though the word “nations” seems to limit the application of this verse to the Babylonians, it doesn’t entirely exclude its application to the Jewish oppressors also, for “nations” in a broad sense means also “people.”  But again, the resolution of that problem is relatively unimportant, for the prophet might well ask whether the depredations of both were to continue for ever; and again, conditions in the world today prompt the same question in the minds of many.

[Habakkuk 2]


     Scripture portions taken from the Holy Bible, King James Version
© 2000-2005 James Melough