Lesson 4 of6
In Progress

Introductory Issues in Habakkuk

Divine justice and attentiveness

Habakkuk calls on God to be attentive to injustice in the world, both local and international. If God hears the cry of the righteous, God saves the righteous. That is the theological assumption at the base of Habakkuk’s faith, and it is the basis of his laments.

The prophetic call for judgment did not mean indiscriminate approval of the means of judgment. Questions of God’s justice emerge both with regard to injustice within the community and forms of addressing that injustice. The righteous experience violence both from oppressors within the community and from foreign invaders. The former pervert the Torah. Even though the latter are construed as the agents of God’s judgment, they know no bounds, and the righteous are swept up in their self-aggrandizing violence. Habakkuk demands God’s attentiveness to both sources of violent suffering.

The book does not resolve the theodicy question that it raises. Rather, the book puts forth a model for waiting in the time between the promises of God to deliver the righteous and the actual time of deliverance. Waiting does not silence the lament. Lament and exultation are coupled through candid speech about the present and a recognition of the heritage of deliverance witnessed in the received tradition.

The oppressor in 1:2-4

The perpetrators of the injustice mentioned in the opening lament are not identified explicitly. Most interpreters have concluded that the reference is to internal Judean injustice such as that described in Jeremiah. The coming of the Chaldeans (Babylonians) named in 1:6 is then understood to be the shape of divine judgment on those perverting the law in Judea. But the wicked who swallow the righteous in 1:13 are clearly the invaders and consequently some interpreters conclude that 1:2-4 also refers to the Babylonians. The flow of the book favors the first interpretation.

References to prior events in chapter three

Habakkuk prays for contemporary deliverance (3:2) based on received testimony to God’s power to deliver (3:3-15). Proper names such as Teman and Mount Paran (3:3) prompt attempts to correlate the action in the hymn to events in Israel’s redemptive history, especially the accounts of the exodus from Egypt through the entry into Canaan. The attempted correlations, however, have not reached the point of consensus. As with other hymnic material that is equally illusive (compare Deuteronomy 33; Judges 5; and Psalm 68), the data that historians need to reconstruct events is lacking.

In addition, terms like sea and river may even be deliberately ambiguous. They may refer simply to physical realities or they may be personifications that reference cosmic chaos figures. The reader is allowed to hear both in the text. The hymn does more than report in an elusive fashion; it celebrates the significance of deliverance and expresses the limitlessness of God’s action on behalf of oppressed victims of violence. Deliverance both restores the victims and reorders life itself.

Relationship of 3:1-19 to 1:1-2:20

The liturgical notes in 3:1 and 19b tend to separate the third chapter from the rest of the book. The notes could indicate that the third chapter has been appended secondarily to chapters one and two. Or, the chapter could have been original to the book but subsequently used independently in worship, thereby accruing the liturgical notations. The rare words and grammar suggest a separate author in the view of many interpreters, but those features could also be part of a deliberate attempt to write in an archaic style or they could be the result of reworking an older hymn. The chief argument for understanding the chapter as integral to the book comes from following the pattern of dialogue. Habakkuk laments (1:2-4) and God responds (1:5-11). Habakkuk laments again (1:12-2:1) and God responds (2:2-20). The latter response both points to a future vision and announces the demise of the immediate oppressor. Habakkuk then petitions God to act now (3:2) based on past action. The vision, in the form of an old or deliberately archaic hymn, is God’s response. Habakkuk responds with both trembling and confidence, the latter expressing trust and exultation. Habakkuk moves from sharp lament to fervent petition, to waiting. God moves from promises of near-term fixes to a promise of final deliverance and cosmic reordering that will echo past acts of redemption. Despite the potentially disruptive effect of the liturgical notes and the shift in style in the hymn, the third chapter is integral to the flow of the book. The exhortation to silence at the end of chapter two is not a sufficient endpoint for the flow of the dialogue up to that point.


Most scholars agree that, once the book was shaped, there was little subsequent emendation. Rather, the textual difficulties in the book involve translation. Chapter three, in particular, has expressions and terms that elude modern translators. The overall flow is usually clear, but exactness remains a matter of debate. Grammatical constructions and lexical terms occur that seldom appear elsewhere. Modern readers should be cautious not to overinterpret specific verses where the translation remains unclear.