A Bible Study -
Commentary by Jim Melough
Copyright 2002 James
1:1. “The burden which Habakkuk the prophet did
“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
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
1:2. “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
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
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
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 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.