In The End, Justice

By: Stan Mast

November 15th, 2009

Scripture Reading: Habakkuk 2:2-20

A Bible text like this kind of makes you cringe, doesn’t it? Do you ever wish that these kinds of things weren’t in the Bible, or at least that we wouldn’t read them in church where children will hear them or on the public airwaves where any skeptic can listen in and sneer at them? Words like these make us uncomfortable, but I suspect that’s because most of us live lives that are fairly comfortable. Our lives aren’t filled with the kind of unjust suffering that would make us yearn for what this Scripture describes. Or are they?

Think with me for just a moment about some of life’s situations. You work hard at what you do. You are conscientious. You put in extra effort, believing that your hard work will pay off with a promotion, maybe a raise in pay, or at least a secure job. But then the person in the office next to you, who never does anything extra except maybe butter up the boss, gets your promotion and your salary increase. And you say, "It isn’t fair." Or because of the recession your company cuts your hours or your pay or even goes out of business entirely. In spite of a sparkling work record, you very unwillingly join the ranks of the unemployed. And you say, "It isn’t fair." You spend 40 years taking care of your financial business. You save for retirement; you invest wisely; and you build a nice nest egg that you think will last. But then because of the greed and mismanagement of some young genius on Wall Street, you lose half of your retirement savings. It’s just gone. And you say, "It’s not fair."

A young woman in high school is clearly the star of her team. She makes several all—area teams. But when it comes time to vote for the most valuable player on the team, the underclassmen all vote for a junior because they don’t like the senior. She doesn’t get most—valuable player. And she says, "It isn’t fair." You’ve been the best wife you could possibly be, but he meets some cute young thing at the office, begins an affair, and he wants a divorce. And you say, "It’s not fair."

Every day in the newspaper you read about somebody who obviously committed a crime. They have been caught red—handed. But some legal technicality opens the door of their prison, and they walk away scot—free, while the victim of their crime suffers for years. And everyone says, "It’s not right." Think of the people suffering in Iraq or Darfur—people terrorized by their own countrymen. They are crying out with the wounded and the wronged of history, "It’s not right, it’s not fair. There’s no justice."

Have you ever said that, "There’s no justice in this world"? Well, in this Scripture lesson, God says, "Oh, yes, there is. There is justice, absolute justice for all in the end." Last week, we left Habakkuk up in his watchtower, looking for God’s answer to his second question. "How can a God of justice use such an obviously wicked nation like Babylon to discipline his less wicked children in Judah?" Chapter 1 ended with Habakkuk asking, "Is the brutal nation of Babylon to keep on emptying his net? Is this cruelty and wickedness to go on and on and on? Will God let this injustice go on forever?" And he climbs up in his watchtower to wait for God to answer him.

Here we have God’s answer to our question. "Then the Lord replied." Let’s listen to what God says to us about life when it is unfair. God said to Habakkuk in verse 2 of chapter 2, "Write down the revelation and make it plain on tablets, so that a herald may run with it." The revelation about which God is speaking is everything that follows in this second chapter. God reveals to Habakkuk what is going to happen to Judah and to Babylon. This is a prophecy of how it will all end. God comes to Habakkuk and says, "I want to tell you how the mess you are in is going to turn out." How often don’t we want to know that? A close friend said to me the other day, "if only I knew the outcome of God’s plan, then I’d be ok."

God says to Habakkuk, "I want you to write it down. Make it plain on tablets." Write it large. Write it clear, so that all of my people, my people back then and my people throughout history, including those people who might be listening to the Back to God Hour in Denver or Africa or Saudi Arabia in 2009, so that all of them might be able to read it. Write it so that "a herald may run with it," or, as another version puts it, "so that those who run might read it." Make it a billboard. Make it so clear that even people who are running can read it. Or, as another version puts it, "so that those who read it may run," so that they wouldn’t be slowed down in their Christian pilgrimage, but can keep running the race with perseverance. The idea is that we get slowed down when life seems unfair. We struggle to comprehend what is happening to us. So God says, "Now, write it so these people will be able to understand it."

He continues in verse 3, "The revelation awaits an appointed time." An appointed time. God says, "What I am about to reveal to you has a time that is set for it. It is in my appointment book. I want you to know that my plane is never late." God always gets there just in time, at the appointed time. God knows that when we are stuck in a time of suffering and injustice, time drags. Time flies when you are having fun. But when you are counting the days until you get the results of a biopsy, or when you are waiting for the medication to drive down your baby’s fever, or when you wringing your hands at 3 in the morning because your teenager hasn’t driven into the driveway yet, time drags. When things are going wrong, time slows down to a crawl. And so God says, "Though it may linger" — he knows it feels that way — "wait for it. It will certainly come and will not delay."

God invites us here to take a step up above our time into his eternity. He urges us to look at our lives from his perspective in eternity, where there is no time, where there is no beginning or ending, where, in the words of Psalm 90, our lives are but a sigh, just the blink of an eye. Do you remember the poetry of the old hymn "Abide With Me?" One line captures God’s perspective on our lives. "Swift to its close ebbs out life’s little day." "Little day." It doesn’t feel little when things are going wrong. It seems interminable. So God says, "I want you to look at it the way I see your life and your history."

Think of those words of 2 Peter 3:8 where God says, "A thousand years are in my sight like a day." A thousand years are like 24 hours. Take that literally for a moment with me. A thousand years are like 24 hours. A hundred years are like two and a half hours. Ten years are like 15 minutes. One year is like a minute and a half. Sometimes it seems to take God forever to do the thing he says he will do. He is like a glacier creeping down a mountain in Alaska. He lingers and waits. But here, God says, "Remember, the year that you have been waiting for is a minute and a half. The ten years that seem forever are 15 minutes." When you look at it from God’s perspective, it doesn’t seem quite so slow. And so God says, "Though it linger, be sure you wait for it. It will certainly come. It will not delay."

Then God says in verse 4, "See," there is the vision. "Behold!" "Look!" And he points to the wicked. Now, I have to tell you that verses 4 and 5 are as difficult in the Hebrew as anything you are going to find. If you read three or four translations, you will get three or four different readings of those two verses. That’s why I am not going to try to tell you what each phrase means. The point is clear. Remember that Habakkuk has been wrestling with the fact that the wicked prosper and the righteous suffer. The wicked are always up and the righteous are always down. Well, here God says, "That’s not the way it is going to end. In the end, the wicked will fail and the righteous will live."

What follows in verses 6 through 20 is an expansion of that simple theme, "the wicked will fall." In verses 6 through 8, God says, "The Babylonians are greedy people. They take, and they grab, and they pile up." But, in the end, they themselves will be victims of greed. In verses 9 through 11, he says, "They are a materialistic people. They think that by setting their nest on high with all kinds of stuff, they can be secure. Well, in the end, their stuff will fall apart." In verses 12 through 14, he talks about their cruelty, building a city with blood. They are a cunning and violent people. In the end, they will be victims of cruelty themselves. In verses 15 through 17, he talks about the fact that they are a people who are always shaming their opponents. They treat their enemies with contempt. In the end, they will be objects of contempt. They will be humiliated, and disgrace will cover their glory. And then in verses 18 through 20, he talks about their false gods. "They are a people who trust their own creations. In the end, their idols will let them down."

If all of that seems a little obscure and complicated, let me tell you that this is a vivid description of the great Biblical principle of justice, the one expressed pointedly in Galatians 6:7, "Do not be deceived. God is not mocked. Whatever a man sows, that he will also reap." Justice is like a harvest. If you sow wild oats, you’ll get wild oats. If you sow sour grapes, you’ll reap sour grapes. If you sow sin, you will get sin in return. In very graphic language here, God is saying to Habakkuk that the wicked will be punished so that every single punishment will exactly fit the crime. Psalm 7, a psalm about God’s righteous judgment, uses a fascinating word to describe this principle of God’s justice. "The trouble caused by the wicked recoils on himself…." Think of a gun. The bullet flies out, and the gun kicks back. It recoils. That will happen to all the wicked. Their sin will recoil on them and each one will be punished in just the right way. You can be sure, says God, that no sin, no injustice, no inhumanity will go unpunished. In the end there will be justice, terrible justice, for all.

For all except the righteous, who receive mercy instead of justice. Not the people who think they are righteous because there are so good, but the people who are righteous because of their faith in Jesus Christ. The righteous, says verse 4, "will live by faith." Now, I know that Habakkuk doesn’t mention Jesus in that verse, but that verse looms large in Paul’s explanation of salvation through Jesus in his letter to the Romans. In fact, Habukkuk 2:4 is the theme verse of that great letter. Listen to the opening words of Romans 1, verses 16 and 17. "I am not ashamed of the Gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes; first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written, "The righteous will live by faith." For the next eight chapters, the Apostle Paul launches into the Bible’s most eloquent and detailed explanation of how sinners can get right with God. "It’s by Faith!" says Paul again and again. That entire elaborate explanation in Romans is an expansion of the simple words here in Habakkuk.

Let’s focus on those words as they spoke to Habakkuk’s great question about the wicked and the righteous. God says, "The righteous will live by faith." Note that carefully. "The righteous shall live…." The people who spend their lives on the short end of the stick, who are always getting a raw deal, the people for whom life is nothing but a constant death, people who find life miserably hard to live but try to follow God anyway, the righteous will live. They will not just exist through it all, but live abundantly and eternally.

The righteous will live by their faith. The righteous will live, because they continue to cling to God even when their faith doesn’t fit the facts. The righteous will live because they keep waiting for God’s promises to come true. The righteous will live because they cling tenaciously to Jesus Christ, even when he seems absent in their time of suffering and injustice. The wicked will fall. The righteous will live by their faith.

And there will be glory. Did you notice that right in the middle of this grimly comforting prophecy of gloom and doom, there is that wonderful verse 14, "For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea." When I first began to study this chapter, I wondered why that verse would be in the middle of the funeral dirge of the Babylonians. Why, in the middle of all the woes, do we read this business of the glory of God. Here’s why. Since the fall of Adam, history has been a tale of rebellion in which we have all been robbing God of glory. As Paul put it, "All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God." But in the end, when God acts in absolute justice and overwhelming mercy, the knowledge of the glory of God will cover the earth as the waters cover the sea.

Until that time, God’s people do well to think often of the last verse of this chapter. "The Lord is in his holy temple. Let all the earth keep silence before him." God is in his temple, not the one in Israel but the one in heaven, sitting on his throne, ruling this creaking old world of ours, doing his work of justice and mercy. God is in his temple, not the one made of wood and stone, but the one made of flesh and blood. I’m talking, of course, about Jesus, who said of his own body, "Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up again." Jesus is God’s temple, where we meet God on this earth. When the wicked prosper and the righteous suffer, we must come to Jesus and be silent, trusting that in him we shall find mercy in the midst of suffering, and in the end justice.

In the end, when we finally see his glory, every mouth will be stopped. Every tongue that has ever wagged against him will be stilled. Habakkuk has shown us that it is OK to question, to complain, to tell God exactly how you feel, the way the prophet has been doing. That is not wrong; it is even sometimes an act of faith. But there comes a time for all of us, when we ought to lay our hand on our mouth, and stop our questions, and simply rest in the knowledge that he is God. The Lord is with us in Jesus. Let us put our hand in his and live by faith.

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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