Sermon by Steve Cooper based on Habakkuk 1:12-13.
Good morning! A few years ago I enjoyed watching the movie The Remains of the Day. The main actor is Anthony Hopkins, who plays the role of an emotionally repressed butler in an English country house in the 1930s. He falls gradually in love with the housekeeper, played by Emma Thompson. Sadly, the butler is incapable of expressing his feelings in any way, and the relationship remains stilted and unreal.
Often our relationship with God can remain at a similarly superficial and unreal level. We think that we dare not explode and tell God what we feel about things like: his silences, his decisions and his ways. We dare not complain to God about things which perplex us. But God wants his children to be honest with him.
This morning let’s explore a fascinating prayer in the Bible, where a servant of the Lord dared to be honest with God. It’s a prayer the Lord welcomed.
It comes as a surprise to many people that the God revealed in the Christian Bible welcomes our honesty. When we’re feeling disappointed with God, or annoyed, or perplexed, or confused, the Lord invites us to be honest about how we really feel. God wants us to trust him with our deepest fears and our wildest feelings. This is shown in the Book of Job, where the Lord approves of Job’s honesty and disapproves of the pious trivia of Job’s comforters. God wants us to throw everything at him, not to pretend that we don’t think and feel in ways which might seem to us unacceptable and shocking.
The prophet Habakkuk was perplexed, and he confronted God with very honest words. At the start of the book of Habakkuk the prophet complained with blunt language. He was distressed at the low moral standards of God’s people, especially violence and injustice. This behaviour was in clear violation of God’s commands to his people. Habakkuk complains because God doesn’t seem to be intervening. The Lord gives an answer to Habakkuk’s complaint, and the answer shocks the prophet. The Lord is going to chastise and punish his people for their disobedience by bringing a vicious and cruel army, the Babylonians, to invade Judah.
Habakkuk is more perplexed than before. When he made his first complaint he was perplexed that God seemed to be silent and absent when his own people were disobedient. Now the prophet’s perplexity is deeper – this God who is holy, who loves his people, who has entered into covenant promises to protect his people – is going to use one of the cruellest nations in the world to inflict devastation on God’s own people.
This morning let’s look at Habakkuk’s second complaint, where he tries to deal with his perplexity in prayer with God. There is much we can learn from the prophet’s prayer. We all have questions and problems which perplex us. Our perplexity might be due to suffering in our own personal lives, or suffering endured by others, or suffering caused by one nation against another. We’re perplexed and confused because God – who according to the Bible is utterly good, wise, loving and strong – doesn’t seem to intervene to stop the suffering and right the wrongs. We can’t work out why God allows things to go on as they are, with so much hurt and evil. Let’s see what Habakkuk does as he faces these perplexing questions.
First, he the prophet reminds himself of God’s unchanging characteristics. Before he begins arguing with God, he takes a breath and goes over in his mind what he knows of God’s eternal attributes. Notice, though, he’s reminding himself in prayer before God – he doesn’t turn away from God to consult friends or counsellors. Of course, when we’re perplexed there’s an important place for consulting with wise and godly people. But it’s wise to begin with coming first to the Lord in both private and public prayer, pouring out our confusions to him. As the old hymn says, ‘What a friend we have in Jesus … take it to the Lord in prayer.’
What are we to do when life throws all kinds of perplexing questions at us? The prophet Habakkuk was perplexed, and his response was to be honest in his prayers to God. His honest prayer is a superb example for us.
He begins by reminding himself of the unchanging characteristics of the Lord. First, the revealed name of this God is ‘LORD’ (Heb. Yahweh). Habakkuk addresses God: ‘Lord, are you not from everlasting?’ (1:12a). This term ‘LORD’ is the name revealed by God himself to his people to show that he is committed to his people with covenant promises. He will be their God, and will look after them and care for them if they trust him and obey him. For Habakkuk his relationship with Yahweh is personal – he refers to the Lord as ‘my God, my Holy One’ (1:12b).
Second, this God is ‘everlasting’ – ‘LORD, are you not from everlasting? (1:12a) The Babylonians are powerful, but they are only human, mortal and frail. God reigns on high, and he never changes.
Third, God is ‘holy’ – Habakkuk prays: ‘My God, my Holy One, you will never die’ (1:12b). God is completely other, radically pure, distinct from the impurity of other ‘gods,’ and separate from sin and evil.
Fourth, God is faithful. Habakkuk says ‘we will not die’ (1:12). He remembers the Lord’s promises in the OT, that God will not abandon or completely destroy his people.
Fifthly, the prophet affirms the strength of God – he calls God ‘the Rock’ – he prays ‘you, my Rock, have ordained them to punish’ (1:12d). The biblical image of God as a rock reminds us that he is powerful and mighty.
Here, then, is the first thing Habakkuk does when perplexed. He stops to think. He reminds himself of that which we are absolutely certain. It’s like he says: ‘In this terrible and perplexing situation in which I find myself, here at least is solid ground.’ When walking in the country or on mountain trails we come to marshy bogs. The only way to negotiate them is to find solid places on which you can place your feet. You search for footholds. So when perplexed, we remind ourselves of the certain things, our souls are reassured, and we begin to lose our sense of panic.
Several years ago, when our children were young, we moved from Queensland back to NSW. My wife and I were convinced this was God’s leading. Our children were anxious about losing friends and starting again in a strange new place. Our second daughter, who was 13, came across a verse from the Bible which meant a lot to her. It’s Isaiah 41:10 – ‘Do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.’ My daughter wrote the verse down, and it was displayed near our kitchen table. It helped us remember the characteristics of God. It calmed us as we faced our perplexing questions about the future.
This morning we’re thinking about what to do when we face perplexing questions. The prophet Habakkuk, as he brought his perplexing questions to the Lord in prayer, shows us what to do.
After reminding himself of the characteristics of God, the second thing Habakkuk does is to receive the truth which God has revealed to him. The Lord had just told him that God will use the Babylonians as the instrument of God’s purposes. Now Habakkuk is willing to receive the bitter truth of this fact – he prays ‘You, LORD, have appointed them to execute judgment; you, my Rock, have ordained them to punish’ (1:12c,d). If this is the decision of the God who is LORD, everlasting, holy, faithful and strong, then Habakkuk accepts its wisdom. When the Lord first gave the law to his people though Moses he warned disobedient Israel about invasion and destruction at the hands of foreign powers (Dt 28). Habakkuk has to bow his head in awed submission before the just decisions of a sovereign God.
It’s in the third part of Habakkuk’s prayer that his honesty is fully expressed. He now begins to remonstrate with God about the glaring contradiction between God’s revealed character and this latest revelation of God’s intentions. Habakkuk prays: ‘Your eyes are too pure to look on evil; you cannot tolerate wrongdoing. Why then do you tolerate the treacherous? Why are you silent while the wicked swallow up those more righteous than themselves?’ (1:13).
Here are Habakkuk’s perplexing questions. How could God turn a blind eye to such a cruel and ruthless nation as the Babylonians? If God condemns such evil, why does he do nothing about it? Is God immoral? Is God lacking in power? Habakkuk’s complaint is not so much about the wickedness of the Babylonians, as with the silence of God – he prays ‘Why are you silent while the wicked swallow up those more righteous than themselves? (1:13c). In every generation God’s people have been perplexed about the seeming silence of God. Injustice and evil seem to flourish, we cry to God to intervene, and he seems remote and uncaring. We’re encouraged as we remember Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, wrestling in prayer with his perplexing questions, eventually finding comfort and strength.
It’s important for us to notice the sequence of Habakkuk’s prayer. This sequence guides us as we face our own perplexing questions and bring them in prayer before the Lord. First, he remembers God’s unchanging characteristics. Second, he receives the truth which God has revealed to him, even though that truth might seem bitter and unfair. Third, he remonstrates with God, honestly expressing his outrage and confusion about what seems to be happening. The sequence is important. Habakkuk is free to argue and remonstrate with God only after planting his feet firmly on the ‘Rock’ (v.12). His very strong inner security, as a person loved by and belonging to God, releases him to be honest before the living God. The prophet doesn’t become bitter and cynical. The God he complains to is a God he believes in.
Life is often hard, and the thoughtful person faces many perplexing questions. Some of our questions will never be fully answered during this life. But today we’ve considered a model of prayer which helps us express our perplexing questions to God. When the prophet Habakkuk was confused and bewildered, he recalled what God is like, he submitted himself to God’s wise purposes, and he was honest in telling God about his questions.
Let me lead us in prayer. ‘Living LORD God, you are everlasting, holy, faithful and strong. We humbly surrender to you and your purposes. Enable us to trust you enough so we can be honest and real about our true feelings. In the midst of our perplexing questions, give us your peace and a calm faith. In Christ’s name, Amen.’