God’s Final Answer

By: Stan Mast

November 22nd, 2009

Scripture Reading: Habakkuk 3:1-15

Have you heard that famous story told originally by James Dobson about the teacher of the Sunday School class? She asked, "Boys and girls, what is brown and furry, and lives in trees and stores up nuts for the winter?" There was a long awkward silence, and then finally one little boy raised his hand and said, "Teacher, it sounds like a squirrel, but I know the answer must be Jesus."

We still smile at that often repeated story because we all recognize that it contains more than a grain of truth. That is the classic little kid’s Sunday school answer. No matter what question, the answer is always "Jesus," or "God." We adults always smile with amusement at that kind of simplistic faith. But here in Habakkuk 3, we hear that very answer. Except that here, it doesn’t sound simplistic at all. Indeed, it sounds profound. As a matter of fact, it sounds like the final answer.

If you have been following this conversation between God and His prophet through this series, you know what the question is. Habakkuk has been wrestling with the problems of injustice and suffering. He saw the wicked prospering, and the righteous suffering, and God letting them. He cried out to God, "Why? Why do you let this happen? Why don’t you do something about it? How long will it be, oh Lord, until you fix this mess we are in?"

And God answered Habakkuk. He said, "I am doing something. I am picking up this big ugly stick of the nation of Babylon, and I am going to use this stick to discipline my naughty, disobedient child, Judah." When Habakkuk protests that that doesn’t sound right, God says, "And then I am going to break that big ugly stick in a thousand pieces and destroy the wicked people of Babylon. In the end there will be justice, absolute justice for all. Whatever a person sows, he will reap."

I don’t know about you, but I have found those answers of God helpful and comforting. However, I have also found them not quite satisfying. They raise all kinds of other questions. God’s answers to Habakkuk leave some very ragged loose ends in the tapestry of life. It is good to know that there will be justice in the end, but what about the meantime? What about now? When the righteous keep suffering, why doesn’t God do something about it now? He could. Why doesn’t he? Why does God let things happen that make us ask why, when he could keep them from happening? And how long will it be until God does what he says he is going to do?

Even if you aren’t troubled by those big, general, philosophical questions, nearly everybody has asked the more personal version of them at one time or another in life, "Lord, why me, and why this?" Or maybe even more painfully, we ask, "Why this little one? Why this illness? Why that tragedy?" Earlier in this series, I mentioned my grandson, Owen, who loves puzzles. In fact, he loves everything; he loves life. But he’s been so sick in this past year that life wasn’t very much fun. It was always something—a cold followed by the flu followed by an ear infection followed by a barking cough followed by pneumonia followed by another bout of the flu. We prayed for him, but then something else would happen. And we finally said, "God, enough! Why don’t you do something about all this? He’s just a little guy. How long must he suffer?" It just didn’t make sense to grandpa and grandma when we didn’t get answers to our prayers or our questions. There were so many loose ends.

Here in Habakkuk 3, the prophet takes his loose ends to God, and God gives him the final answer. Habakkuk expresses that final answer in a prayer that is also a song, a song about the glory and the fury of the Lord. Listen to the final answer. It begins with a personal confession. Habakkuk says, "I have heard of your fame"—that was in the past—and now I stand in awe of your deeds." Another translation puts it, "Thy work, oh Lord, do I fear." God has just told him what he is going to do to the Babylonians. In graphic detail, he has outlined what shape his justice will take. Even though the justice of God visited on the Babylonians will mean some kind of satisfaction for the Jews, Habakkuk says, "Lord, when I look at what you say you are going to do, it scares me. It fills me with awe."

Some time ago, I read an account of the bombing of Hiroshima during World War II. I was particularly struck by a description of what it was like in the plane that dropped the bomb. The story said that as the crew looked back, and saw that mushroom cloud rising up, and were overwhelmed by the power of that first atomic bomb, the whole plane was filled with a hushed silence. That is exactly what Habakkuk is talking about. He says, "Lord, I see what you are about to do, and it fills me with awe and fear."

But he still prays. He prays two simple requests in verse 2. "Renew your work in our day. In our time, make it known." I read that and thought of those classic Nike commercials, "Just do it." He is saying, "Lord, it frightens me, but do it. And do it now. Do it in our day, in our time." It is as though he is saying, "Thy will be done, and now." And then he prays, "In wrath, remember mercy. Remember your people, Lord. Remember the faithful ones who have clung to you and tried to do your will. When you pour your wrath out as you say you will, then remember mercy. Be merciful to your people."

If you can recall the beginning of our study, you know what a change has occurred in Habakkuk. He has moved from his agonized "why" and frustrated "how long" to this submissive "thy will be done." Now the only thing he asks is mercy for the people of God. How does somebody move that distance?  How do you stop complaining to God and say, "God, all I want is what you want." A friend of mine recently went through a fierce battle with cancer. She told me that her greatest source of strength in her ordeal was the famous prayer of abandonment by Charles de Foucauld.

Father, I abandon myself
into your hands;
Do with me what you will.
Whatever you may do,
I thank you.
I am ready for all,
I accept all.
Let only your will be done in me
and in all your creatures.
I wish no more than this, O Lord.
Into your hands
I commend my soul;
I offer it to you,
with all the love of my heart,
for I love you, Lord,
and so need to give myself,
to surrender myself
into your hands,
without reserve,
and with boundless confidence,
for you are my Father.

In fewer words, that is basically what Habakkuk is saying to God here. How does a human being come to that kind of submissive faith, when life is full of injustice and suffering?

You find the answer in verse 3, in two words: "God came." "God came." Up to this point God has been talking, explaining, giving an account of his ways with the human race. But here God stops talking and comes from afar, from the distance we human beings experience when we are down in the pit and he’s up on the throne. "God came," appeared to Habakkuk in his glory, his power, his fury.

I don’t know if I’m going to be able to help you to see what Habakkuk saw. Habakkuk uses episodes from Israel’s ancient history in these verses. He talks about natural disasters and the nations around Israel. He ransacks his vocabulary and his imagination to find a way to describe the indescribable, to help us to see what the Bible says nobody has ever seen, the actual appearance of God to a human being. John 1:18 reminds us forcefully that "no one has ever seen God." That tells us that what Habakkuk saw here was not God in all his glory, but just a tiny fraction, just the hem of the robe of God’s majesty.

Habakkuk begins by talking about the glory of God in verses 3 and 4. The glory of God is described in the Old Testament as a shining cloud that hovers over the tabernacle. Here it is more. Picture the sun, but not in one place in the sky. Picture the brilliance of the sun filling the entire sky above and the entire earth beneath. That is what Habakkuk saw. "His glory covered the heavens, his praise filled the earth, his splendor was like the sunrise." Everywhere he looked he saw the brilliance of the sun, the glory of God.

Do you know the way the headlights of a car at night will hide the car from your view, if you are standing in front of the headlights? That helps us understand what Habakkuk meant when he said that "rays flashed from his hand where his power was hidden." The glory of God hid the power of God. But the power of God was there, because when God’s glorious power came down to the earth, the universe was shattered. Verse 6 says, when God stood on the earth, it shook. The nations trembled.  The mountains crumbled. In verse 10 it says the mountains, when they saw God, writhed like serpents.

Verses 8 and 10 describe the effect of God’s coming on the water. In the original language you get the sense of the chambers of the deep opening, the water rising. The heavens above break, and the water comes down. It was as though the firmament between is removed. What does that mean? Well, do you remember the older translations of Genesis 1 where it says that the firmament separated the waters below from the waters above? Here the firmament is removed, and the waters above and the waters below become one again, and the world is returned to the beginning of Genesis 1, where "the spirit of God brooded over the waters, and the earth was without form and void." Verse 11 says that the sun and the moon stood still in the heavens. Another version translates it, "They went out." It became black, as the first day.

What on earth does that mean? Well, some of you might recall the words of Isaiah 6 where God appeared to Isaiah in the temple and the mere train of his robe filled the temple and the angels sang, "Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty." When Isaiah saw God in the temple, he said, "I am undone." That is exactly what happened to the universe when God appeared to Habakkuk in this chapter. The universe is undone. It is returned to its primitive state before the creative word of God began to bring order and shape.

Habakkuk sees the power of God undoing creation, because that power comes to the earth, in Habakkuk 3, in terrible fury and wrath. Verse 12 pictures God as a mighty warrior, stamping his way through the earth, stamping on the wicked and the haughty and the proud, stamping on the ungodly. His arrows glint. His spear flashes like lightning. God’s chariot rolls through the oceans of the world as though they are puddles left after a rainstorm. When Habakkuk began to write his little prophecy, the nations of the earth seemed so powerful. Assyria and Egypt and Babylon overwhelmed Israel with their power. And Habakkuk is filled with desperate questions about God’s justice. But after he sees the fury of the Lord, he realizes that those powerful nations were like a little waterspout out on Lake Michigan compared to a category 5 hurricane.

So far, what Habakkuk saw is only enough to terrify. But right in the middle of all that glory and power and fury is the word that changed Habakkuk’s perspective on injustice. Verse 13 says, "You came out to deliver your people, to save your anointed one." All of this glory and power and fury is God coming to deliver his people. And that is what changed Habakkuk’s perspective. That is why he moves from complaining in frustration to submission and faith. He has seen God coming in all of his glory and power and fury, riding his chariot of salvation to save God’s people. The universe disintegrates, the wicked tremble, but God is merciful to his people.

Habakkuk has seen God, and that changed everything, even as it did for Job. You may recall how Job in all his suffering complained bitterly to God. Like Habakkuk he dared to confront God with hard questions, but unlike God in Habakkuk God does not reply to Job for a long time. But in the end God answers Job’s questions with his own questions, all of which are designed to remind Job that God is God and Job is not. That leads Job to lay his hand on his mouth and repent of his bold challenge of the Almighty. Here’s what he says in Job 42:5. "My ears had heard of you, but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes."

That’s where Habakkuk is after seeing God. The final answer to all of our questions is God—not propositions about God, but the person of God. When he finally sees God, Habakkuk comes at last to the kind of faith we will hear expressed in verses 16 through 19, probably the most powerful and beautiful expression of faith anywhere in the Bible. The final answer for you and me, when we find ourselves saying what Habakkuk said at the beginning, is to pray what he prayed. We must take on our lips these words, "Oh, Lord, renew your work in our day. Do your work of justice, Lord. Do your work of salvation. Do it in our time. We don’t want you to wait, Lord. Do it now. The only thing we ask for ourselves is mercy. That is all we ask. We don’t care, Lord, what loss might come to us when you come to this earth. We don’t care what suffering we might go through, all we ask is ‘thy will be done.’ Just give us mercy."

Of course, you and I won’t pray that prayer. We can’t pray that prayer until we see God as Habakkuk did. You can’t possibly move from complaining and questioning to submission and humility until you see God. But how can you see God? I mean, he doesn’t fill sanctuaries like he did in the days of Israel. I don’t think a person listening has seen God the way Habakkuk did. How can we meet God face—to—face?

Many of us know the answer already. We hear it in the rest of that text from John 1 that I quoted earlier. John 1:18 says, "No one has ever seen God. The only Son who was in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known." Or as II Cor. 4:6 puts it, "We see the glory of God in the face of Christ." The greatest appearance of God on this earth was when he became one of us in Jesus Christ, bringing God’s salvation, taking on himself the wrath of God, bringing us to the mercy of God. And "we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father."

So if you want to meet God face—to—face, you have to come to Jesus Christ in humility and repentance, in faith and adoration, asking him to save you from the wrath to come and from your own sins. If you do that, then when the holy one comes in all his glory and power and fury, the universe disintegrates and the wicked tremble, you will finally experience all of your salvation, because the Judge will be your Savior. In that day, you and I will discover that the little Sunday School boy was right after all. The answer really is Jesus.

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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