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Nahum, Habakkuk, and Zephaniah have a great deal in common. Each one gives a different facet of the dealings of God with mankind. They show how the government of God is integrated into the government of men. They also show God’s dealings with the individual.
Another similarity is the fact that they come from approximately the same time period. In fact, they all could have been contemporaries, and the possibility is that they were. (It is difficult to nail down the specific dates of the prophets—and of many of the other Old Testament books. The reason, of course, is that the exact dates are not important.) At least we know that all three prophets fit into the period between the reigns of kings Josiah and Jehoiakim, which would also be the time of the prophet Jeremiah. The northern kingdom had already gone into captivity, and the southern kingdom was right on the verge of captivity. After Josiah, every king in the southern kingdom was a bad king. Nahum, Habakkuk, and Zephaniah all fit into that period of decline.
Although there are similarities, these books also differ from each other. Nahum dealt only with Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrian Empire. Nahum showed that God is just, righteous, and a God of love; yet He was absolutely right in judging that city.
Habakkuk approaches the problem from a little different viewpoint. He is a man with questions. He is disturbed about God’s seeming indifference to the inquity of His own people. Habakkuk asks God, “Why don’t You do something?” In our day a great many folk feel as Habakkuk did. They are asking, “Why doesn’t God do something? Why doesn’t He move into the affairs of men and stop the violence and injustice and suffering?”
God answered the question for Habakkuk by informing him that He was preparing a nation, Babylon, to punish Judah and to take her into captivity—unless she changed her ways. Well, if you think Habakkuk had a problem before, you can see that he really had a problem then! Habakkuk asked, “Why will You use Babylon—a nation that is definitely more wicked, more pagan, and more given over to idolatry than Your own people—to punish Judah?” God reveals to Habakkuk that He was not through with Babylon but would judge her also. This is God’s method.
This book is very important in its relationship to the New Testament. It is generally conceded that the three great doctrinal books of the New Testament are Romans, Galatians, and Hebrews, all of which quote from Habakkuk. In fact, Habakkuk 2:4 is the background of their message: “The just shall live by his faith.” So this little book looms upon the horizon of Scripture as being important. Don’t let the brevity of it deceive you. Importance is not determined by how much you say but by what you say.
The name Habakkuk means “to embrace.” Dr. Charles Feinberg (Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, p. 11) described Martin Luther’s striking definition of this name:
Habakkuk signifies an embracer, or one who embraces another, takes him into his arms. He embraces his people, and takes them to his arms, i.e., he comforts them and holds them up, as one embraces a weeping child, to quiet it with the assurance that, if God wills, it shall soon be better.
Habakkuk told us nothing of his personal life, even of the era in which he lived. I call him the doubting Thomas of the Old Testament because he had a question mark for a brain. His book is really unusual. It is not a prophecy in the strict sense of the term. It is somewhat like the Book of Jonah in that Habakkuk told of his own experience with God—his questions to God and God’s answers. We could say that Habakkuk was born in the objective case, in the pluperfect tense, in the subjunctive mood. We write over him a big question mark until, in the last chapter and especially in the final two or three verses, we can put down an exclamation point. This book is the personal experience of the prophet told in poetry, as Jonah’s was told in prose.
Habakkuk was an interesting man, and he has written a lovely book with real literary excellence. The final chapter is actually a song of psalm of praise and adoration to God, a very beautiful piece of literature.
The closing statement in the book, “To the chief singer [musician] on my stringed instruments,” reveals that this book is a song. That little note was put there for the director of the orchestra and the choir. The final chapter of the book is a psalm of beauty. In fact, the entire prophecy is a gem. It has been translated into a metric version by A. C. Gaebelein (The Annotated Bible, pp. 214–219). Delitzsch wrote, “His language is classical throughout, full of rare and select turns and words.” Moorehouse wrote, “It is distinguished for its magnificent poetry.”
This little book opens in gloom and closes in glory. It begins with a question mark and closes with an exclamation point. Habakkuk is a big WHY? Why God permits evil is a question that every thoughtful mind has faced. I think that this book is the answer to that question. Will God straighten out the injustice of the world? This book answers that question. Is God doing anything about the wrongs of the world? This book says that He is. In my opinion it is possible to reduce the doubt of Thomas in the New Testament, of Habakkuk in the Old Testament, and of modern man into the one word. Why? It is the fundamental question of the human race. When we reduce all questions to the lowest common denominator, we come to the basic question: Why?
You can see that the message of Habakkuk is almost the opposite of the message of Nahum. In the Book of Nahum God was moving in judgment, and the question was: How can God be a God of love and judge as He is doing? Here in Habakkuk it is just the opposite: Why doesn’t God do something about the evil in the world?
The theme of Habakkuk is faith. He has been called the prophet of faith. The great statement of Habakkuk 2:4, “the just shall live by his faith,” has been quoted three times in the New Testament: Romans 1:17; Galatians 3:11; and Hebrews 10:38.
(McGee, J. Vernon. Thru the Bible Commentary, Vol. 30: Nahum & Habakkuk. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1991.)