And God Lets Them

By: Stan Mast

November 1st, 2009

Scripture Reading: Habakkuk 1:1-11

The title of this sermon is taken from that famous pre—Civil War anti—slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin. In that novel a poor slave named George Harris is bitterly numbering the woes afflicted on him and his fellow slaves by merciless slave—owners. Particularly, he laments the fact that no matter what he does, he is always going to be a slave, and his wife and children can be sold away from him at the whim of their master. He cries out, "They buy and sell us, they make trade of our heart’s blood and sweat and tears, and God lets them. He does. God lets them."

The prophet Habakkuk looked at the world through eyes similar to those of George Harris. He saw the wicked prospering, the righteous suffering, and God doing nothing. And he struggled to hold on to his faith. How can I square my faith in a God of justice with a world that is filled with injustice and horrible suffering? Now, I can relate to the George Harris’s and Habakkuk’s of the world, and I suspect that you can, too. Habakkuk’s questions and complaints are the deep concerns of our hearts. This minor prophet with a major message can teach us how to live triumphantly in times of trouble, how to keep living and believing when there are pieces missing in life’s puzzle. Over the next few weeks, we will listen to God’s surprising responses to our persistent questions about the apparent conflict between our faith in him and the facts of life in our world today.

A little historical background will help us understand the magnitude of the prophet’s problem. Habakkuk’s ministry happened in the years surrounding 600 BC, some 300 years after the nation of Israel had been split in two by civil war. The northern kingdom of Israel had already been dragged into exile, and it was now the last days of the southern kingdom of Judah. That once proud and powerful nation had been reduced to a fourth—rate power, and they were caught between the two major powers of Assyria to the north and east of Judah and Egypt to the south and west. Judah was like the football in a game between two titanic football powers. They were kicked and fumbled and passed off and pounced on for what seemed an eternity. They were manhandled by whichever nation was in power.

That international power struggle had produced internal chaos. As so often happens when a nation is in decline, this little country was experiencing moral and spiritual bankruptcy. Everywhere he looked, the prophet saw pretty much what you and I see when we look around at the 21st Century world. "Violence and destruction are before me," he says in verse 3. Everywhere he looked he saw people taking advantage of each other, lying and stealing and cheating; people hurting each other with swords or words or money or whatever they had at hand.

And as a result of this, he says, "there is strife and conflict abounds." Everybody was fighting everybody. It was every person for himself or herself. It was one seething mess of self—interest, one special interest group there against another special interest group here, this neighbor against that neighbor, conservatives verses liberals, "Strife and conflict abounds."

In that atmosphere, he says, "The law is paralyzed." We know what that is about, don’t we? When there is so much wrong, where do you start to make it right? Another translation of that passage says, "The law is relaxed or slacked." That is exactly what happened then and what happens now.

We saw the same phenomenon in the recent financial crisis in the US and around the world. When banks were too big to fail or when there were too many foreclosures for the market to handle, the old rules were relaxed and new laws were written. In so many areas of life, things that used to so obviously wrong are now so common that we don’t call them wrong anymore. "The law is paralyzed." I mean, after all, if God isn’t going to do anything about these difficult moral and legal issues, if his law can be disobeyed and he doesn’t act, why bother?

Finally, says the prophet, "justice never prevails." Of course not. There are some righteous people left, people who want to do the right thing, who want to live by the law of God, and who try to make that happen in their culture. But the wicked are so numerous, and they so surround the righteous, that the righteous are hemmed in. So even when the righteous try to make justice happen, justice gets perverted. And so, says the prophet, the righteous suffer, while the wicked prosper, and God lets them. He does. God’s lets them, all over the world.

In Iraq, shadowy insurgents plant bombs all over the countryside and innocent civilians and brave soldiers are blown to pieces. And God lets them. He does. God lets them. In Darfur and other African countries, dictators and rebels hack and stab and commit genocide. In the West Bank, the Palestinians and the Israelis riddle each other with bullets and rockets. And God lets them. He does. God lets them. Where I live in the United States, drug dealers peddle death disguised as pleasure, and God lets them. Even the Church is filled with people who act piously on Sunday and like piranhas on Monday, living for possessions and prestige and power, while claiming to follow the principles of peace. And God lets them. He does. God lets them.

Where is the God of justice? That is what Habakkuk cried in his little book. That was his response to what he saw in the culture around him. Specifically, he asks, "How long, O Lord? I cry for help, but you don’t listen. I scream ‘violence,’ but you don’t save." All this evil and suffering goes on and on and on, and God doesn’t do anything. Oh, Lord, how long? Is there no end, no answer, no justice, no salvation? And why, Lord? Why do you make me look at injustice? Why do you tolerate wrong? You could do something, Lord. Why don’t you?

Some of you may know the name of Eli Wiesel. Eli Wiesel survived a Nazi concentration camp. He saw six million of his fellow Jews slaughtered in World War II. In his book, A Jew Today, Eli Wiesel turns to God and says, "Enough! Since you seem to approve of all of these persecutions, all these outrages, have it your way. Let the world go on without the Jews. We’ve had it. We quit. Enough!"

That is the temptation we face as we look at the facts of injustice and suffering. We are tempted to say to God, "Enough! We quit. You will have to go on without me, because I no longer believe." But that is precisely what Habakkuk the prophet did not do. Oh, yes, he cries out to God. He complains to God. He does what some of us have wanted to do in the last weeks and months; go straight to God and question the way things are, the way he runs things, ask him to give an accounting of the way the world is, under his sovereignty.

Habakkuk asks his "how long’s" and his "why’s," but he doesn’t give up. He doesn’t say, "Enough, God, I quit." The prophet remained a believer. As a matter of fact, I am convinced that it is precisely faith that makes us ask why, "how long?" It is precisely because we believe that God is just and righteous and holy and merciful and gracious that the injustice and suffering in the world so confuse us. I mean, if you really believe the Gospel, that the sovereign God sent his Son to be our Savior, then there simply are those times when you look up to him and say, "God, I don’t get it. Why? How long?"

What you have in Habakkuk is a man of faith taking his questions and complaints not to the neighborhood tavern, not to the local newspaper, not to some television talk show, but to his God. He complains not against God but to God. And, wonder of wonders, God answers him. I mean, actually answers him. We hear the first of God’s answers in verses 5—11.

He says to Habakkuk, "Look at the nations." In effect, he is saying to the prophet, "Look out there, Habakkuk. Your perspective is too narrow. When you try to figure out the ways of God, you are short—sighted. You focus all of your attention on your own small nation, on your own little life. When you do that, all you see is injustice. So what you have to do is lift your vision and look out there among the nations, among the ungodly, the unbelievers, and then you will see. Look at the nations and watch, and you will be utterly amazed. If you look carefully, you will see something that is going to horrify you and amaze you. It is very little right now, but it is growing, and it is coming, and when it gets here, it will be horrifying." God tells the prophet exactly what he will see if he looks out there.

But first he says, "I am going to do something in your days that you would not believe even if I told you." Did you catch what God said there? I read it fast on purpose. Did you catch it? God says, "I am going to do something in your days." Habakkuk has been saying, "God, how long until you do something?" God says, "How about right now?" "Why don’t you do something, God?" "I am," says God, "right now, in your day. The problem is that when you hear it, you are not going to believe it." This is a reminder that God’s work sometimes takes such an unexpected, frightening, even unreasonable shape that when we see it, we don’t really believe it is God’s work at all.

In verse 6 God spells out this unbelievable thing he is going to do. "I am raising up the Babylonians, that ruthless and impetuous people." If you really know your Bible, you will recall that the Babylonians were cousins of the Israelites. They were at that time beginning to rise as a world power. Up to this point Judah had been bashed back and forth by Egypt to the south and the west and Assyria to the north and the east. And now God’s says, "I am raising up the Babylonians, that ruthless and impetuous people."

"Ruthless" is an understatement. The Babylonians were renowned for the cruelty of their warfare. They had no mercy on even children, on infants, on women with infants in their wombs. "Impetuous" is reference to the speed of their onslaught. Some of you will recall what the Germans called their brand of warfare in World War II—— blitzkrieg, lightning war. That describes the Babylonians in their day. "Their horses are swifter than leopards and fiercer than wolves." This cruel and invincible nation was sweeping over the earth like a desert storm, sweeping one nation after another out of the way, taking captive kings and fortified cities.

The worst thing about them is that they were utterly ungodly. Verse 7 says, "They are a law to themselves." They made their own laws. They had no regard for the law of God. Verse 11 says, "Their own strength is their god." They worshipped themselves. As a matter of fact, if you read the account of their conquests in some of the major prophets, they regularly laughed at the God of Israel. They derided the God of Israel.

Now, here’s the unbelievable punch line of God’s answer to Habakkuk’s question. God says, "I am raising them up. I am… and they are going to sweep over the nation of Judah and take it captive, and lead these people away." Habakkuk cries for God to do something about the injustice in Israel, to stop the violence. God responds by raising up the unjust, violent Babylonians. It is as though God says, "I hear you, and I am going to reach down into the filth of the nations and pick up this big ugly stick called the Babylonians and use them to discipline my naughty, disobedient, rebellious children in Judah." "No, I don’t approve of their wickedness. I didn’t make them that way," says God, "but I am going to pick up that big ugly stick and use it to discipline my beloved, but rebellious child."

That is God’s first answer to the prophet’s questions and complaints. You say, "That is hardly a satisfying answer." Well, think about it for just a moment. There are a couple of very helpful principles tucked into this answer of God. First of all, it reminds us that God has a plan for history. You know that, but this particular Scripture reminds us that God’s plan is much bigger and incredibly more complicated than we would ever think. God says, when you are trying to figure out my plan for the church or my will for your life, you need to look higher and further and wider and deeper. God’s plan even includes the forces of ungodliness.

That is important to remember, but there is a deeper lesson than that. When God carries out his plan for history in our lives, sometimes he gives answers to our prayers that are unexpected, to say the least. Habakkuk prays for justice and salvation, and God raises up this big ugly stick over the head of his children. That is the last thing Habakkuk would ever have expected when he began to cry out to God.

Habakkuk was just like us in that respect. When he prayed, he had a pretty clear idea of how God ought to answer. But he learned that sometimes God answers our prayers by doing exactly the opposite of what we expected, letting things get worse before they get better. That is not what we want to hear, but that is a part of God’s answer to the prophet’s complaints and prayers—unexpected answers.

There is another side to this same lesson: when God works out his plan, he sometimes uses unexpected instruments to correct and save his people. It was simply unthinkable to the Jewish people that God would use a wicked, ungodly nation like the Babylonians to deal with them. God acknowledges that to them, "You are not going to believe it even if I tell you." But God did use Babylon, and he does similar things today. In his sovereignty, God is able to hit a very straight line with a very crooked stick, sometimes a big ugly stick.

It is risky to take that principle and apply it directly to the situation we are in today. Dr. Martin Lloyd Jones was a preacher who wasn’t hesitant to do that. While he was preaching at the height of the Cold War, he used to say that Communism was God’s big ugly stick. He claimed that God has raised up Communism for the very purpose of chastening God’s wayward people. I think that identifying a nation or an event or a person as God’s big ugly stick is saying more than the Bible says. I prefer to say, with Donald Gowan, "We believe that God is working in history… but we must acknowledge that at present what God is doing seems incomprehensible and sometimes counterproductive." It looks as though God is defeating his own plan, but we believe that he is working in unexpected ways.

That is the first answer God gives to the prophet’s complaints and questions. I am well aware that God’s answer raises many other questions. In fact, the prophet Habakkuk raises one of these in the next words of Habakkuk, and we will take that up in our next message. For now, I want to close by thinking with you about that other time God used a big ugly stick to save his people. The most magnificent example of that was, of course, the cross of Jesus Christ. In fact, you would be surprised to know that in Acts 13:41, the Apostle Paul quotes Habakkuk 1:5 as a prophecy of what God would do in Jesus Christ.

Think about it. God’s way of saving us was as unexpected, as shocking, as unreasonable as anything God ever did in the day of Habakkuk. I mean, really, God became a man? Ridiculous! Saved by a criminal dying on a cross? Preposterous! And all you have to do to be saved is believe? How foolish! And yet that was God’s way of saving us. He raised up a big ugly stick and nailed his Son to it. When your faith is shaken by the facts of life in a world filled injustice and suffering and you just want to cry to heaven, "Why?" and "How long?", look beyond your own life and this moment in history. Behold the man on that big ugly stick, and trust God to do the right thing. Amen

About the Author

Stan Mast

Stan Mast served as the Minister of Preaching at the LaGrave Avenue Christian Reformed Church in downtown Grand Rapids, MI. from 1990 until 2012, when he retired.  He graduated from Calvin Theological Seminary in 1971 and has served four churches in the West and Midwest regions of the United States.  He also served a 3 year stint as Coordinator of Field Education at Calvin Seminary.  He has earned a BA degree from Calvin College and a Bachelor of Divinity and a Master of Theology from Calvin and a Doctor of Ministry from Denver Seminary.

He is happily married to Sharon, a special education teacher, and they have two sons and four grandchildren.  Stan is a voracious reader and works out regularly.  He also calls himself a car nut and an "avid, but average" golfer.

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