Theological Trajectories from Eden & Sinai in Habakkuk 3

What follows is Dave’s paper (in sections) which was presented at the recent meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.  It’s also going to be published in the July issue of the Puritan Reformed Theological Journal….


I.  Introduction

The trajectory of the various biblical motifs and themes woven within both the Old and the New Testaments reaches a climax in the book of Revelation. For instance, the garden-like temple-city of Revelation 21 is the climax of a major theme first evidenced in Genesis by the Garden of Eden, where “humans were created to build for God a temple-city on the earth.”

Additional themes from the creation account (e.g., man’s status as the Lord’s vice-regent) are developed in the story of the Bible, even as the fall of mankind into sin created significant twists and turns. The book of Exodus further develops these, as well as unique sub-themes (e.g., how God can continue to dwell among His people after their fall into sin). The tabernacle, the temple, and the city of Jerusalem in the promised land, all play very important roles in the grand theme of God’s design to dwell on earth with His people, and set the stage for the specific developments of the New Testament — the coming of Jesus Christ, the church, and ultimately, the “New Jerusalem” of Revelation 21.

This paper identifies a few of the key theological trajectories from Genesis and Exodus as they appear in the minor prophet Habakkuk, specifically focusing on chapter 3 — the “prayer of Habakkuk the prophet” — the final, climactic chapter of that book.

II.  Overview of Habakkuk

The book of Habakkuk is the eighth of twelve minor prophets found at the end of the Old Testament. These three short chapters were composed in Judah during the last days of Josiah and the regime of Jehoiakim, sometime prior to invasion by the Chaldeans (Babylonians) and the exile of Judah, c.605–587 BC.  Habakkuk himself is a main character of his book, yet little is known about him other than his title “prophet” (1:1). “Less is stated in the Bible concerning Habakkuk than almost any other prophet” says David Baker.  He was likely a contemporary of Jeremiah, as well as other minor prophets Nahum and Zephaniah. The minor prophets are often called The Twelve to stress their shared emphases and their collective unity. Stephen Dempster observes they all typically emphasize three things:  the sin of Israel, the just judgment of God, and, the hope after the judgment. Habakkuk focuses primarily on the first two of those common elements, while the third element is implied in several spots, as we will see.

Not every prophet in this collection predicts all these events, but the entire combination (12 minor prophets) presents a more panoramic view of the future than found in the previous prophets. … All announce coming judgment.

The times in which Habakkuk lived were filled with violence, and gross disobedience towards God and His law. “The fabric of national life had begun to come apart at the seams.”  God would chasten His people with the invasion of Judah, the destruction of Jerusalem and exile from the land — all as “the result of covenantal defection, of a failure to trust in and obey the Lord.”

The theme of the book of Habakkuk typically magnifies the pivotal verse, 2:4b, the righteous shall live by his faith.   R.K. Harrison provides a summary-like statement of the theme, while F.F. Bruce highlights Habakkuk’s personal application.

Spiritual rectitude is an absolute necessity for both individuals and nations; that wealth is at best a teachers foundation for a secure life; that evil is bound to fail ultimately even though it may experience temporary triumphs at the expense of good; and that trust in the power of God is the only sure basis of strength … whatever the external circumstances may be.

[Habakkuk’s theme is the] preservation of loyal trust in God in face of the challenge to faith presented by the bitter experience of foreign invasion. …Habakkuk, in hardship and privation, comes to know God more fully and to rejoice in Him for His own sake and not for the benefits He bestows.

Immediate context for Habakkuk

The book of Habakkuk is easily divided in two, with chapters one and two forming the first part — presenting a unique dialogue-of-sorts between the prophet and the Lord. The dialogue is initially about the sins of the people of Jerusalem and the seeming inattention of the Lord to the situation, but then quickly shifts, driven by the prophet’s concerns over the Lord’s harsh plan to deal those sins (invasion and exile at the hand of a wicked nation). Chapter three forms the second part — a prayer in the form of a psalm-like poem  presenting the prophet’s final response of faith in the Lord’s plans.

The third chapter, then, is the climax of the book, the result of the prophet’s dialogue with his Lord, and his digestion of that revelation.  Chapter three is titled a prayer (3:1), yet packaged and apparently presented to the people for use as a psalm in public worship (see 3:19c).  The intended audience was not limited to the doomed residents of Judah, but included any who would face similar, stark circumstances from the hand of the Lord.

In this prayer, Habakkuk asserts that he will do what Yahweh calls the righteous to do in 2:4, namely, he will trust Yahweh and rejoice in Him even if it seems that Yahweh’s promises of a prosperous land — blossoming fig trees, fruit on the vines, flocks in the fold, herds in the stalls — are not seen (3:17–19).

III.  Habakkuk 3 in the Bible’s Historical-Redemptive Story

The book of Habakkuk has several points of contact with the Bible’s central historical-redemptive storyline; the text of chapter 3, in particular, playing a crucial role. This section of the paper looks, first, at two broad connections with the Bible’s grand storyline in Habakkuk. It then narrows to examine the text chapter three in light of key trajectories from Eden and Sinai.

Connections to the Dominion Mandate.

Perhaps the strongest point of contact is found in the declaration of the prophet in Habakkuk 2:14, at the center of the “vision” (2:2) which he was instructed to write plainly and distribute widely:  For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD as the waters cover the sea. This verse is anchored to the very purposes of creation, and displays God’s design behind the placement of mankind in the garden, as stated in the “Dominion Mandate” of Genesis 1:28 — And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”

At creation, Yahweh designed a cosmic theater for His glory. On the cosmic stage God constructed a garden-temple, and He put His image in the temple. The image of God, man, was to extend the borders of the garden-temple by ruling over the earth and subduing it.

The grand design of God for establishing His dwelling with men on the earth took a great turn at the Fall of Adam and Eve and their exile from the garden (Genesis 3). When the wickedness of mankind grew great, the Lord permanently exiled all but eight souls from the face of the earth in the flood (Genesis 6–9). As the descendants of Noah increased and disobeyed the Creator’s commands, they attempted to build for themselves a man-made mountain-city named Babel, (Genesis 11) — revealing that “by instinct, men are city builders” who would “attempt to access heaven and avoid filling the earth.”

Nevertheless, God’s plan and purpose to fill the earth with His glorious presence remain. They are reiterated in Habakkuk 2:14, which speaks of “God’s purpose to establish and expand His presence in a new Edenic temple even after the exile.”  Whether God’s people were living east of Eden, or in Egypt as slaves, or in the southern half of a divided kingdom, or exiled from Jerusalem to the land of Babylon, the goal of our Creator’s Dominion Mandate — to fill the earth with His presence and the knowledge of His glory — will be passionately pursued.

The Lord’s commitment to be present with His people is overwhelming — strong enough to conquer sin and death. Nothing can thwart God’s plan to be with His people in a relationship that surpasses the intimacy of Eden. God’s goal to be with His people still directs the flow and outcome of salvation history as God providentially brings His redemptive mission to completion, a mission accomplished through covenants.

Connections to Babel–Babylon

This city of Babel not only “casts a long shadow over the whole of the biblical narrative”  but is particularly significant to the content of the book of Habakkuk. Babel is more widely known in the Old and New Testaments by its other name, Babylon. It represents the determined, rebellious efforts of man’s opposition to dwelling with God on His terms. It will only be finally destroyed in the last day (Rev. 18) at the return of Christ and the coming of the New Jerusalem.

The book of Habakkuk connects with the Babylon theme in two ways:  first, in the middle “woe” of the five announced in chapter two; and then, more generally in the rapidly-rising Babylonian empire (“Chaldeans” in 1:6), whom God raises up to destroy the holy city and take its residents into captivity!   The particular woe of Habakkuk 2:12-13 is clearly against those who live and labor as did the first Babylonians:  12 Woe to him who builds a town with blood and founds a city on iniquity! 13 Behold, is it not from the LORD of hosts that peoples labor merely for fire, and nations weary themselves for nothing?

Tellingly, Habakkuk’s comments highlight the futility of building Babylon through the oppression of others, for ultimately when the New Jerusalem comes, the earth will be filled with God’s glory (2:14).

In the days of Habakkuk, although the northern kingdom had gone into exile, there were people of God dwelling in Jerusalem, with the temple of God in their midst. And as her prophets faithfully labored, “the importance of Jerusalem [began] to grow in prophetic eschatology.”   But the people were living in sin and spiritual rebellion even after witnessing the exile of the northern kingdom a century earlier.

She herself had not learned, however, that repeated violation of the covenant with God on her own part would not be left unpunished forever. She would not, according to the prophet, be faced with a similar fate herself.

The Lord will not let the residents of Jerusalem continue to live as if they were residents of Babylon — and so He ordains through Habakkuk that He will exile them to that very place (1:6ff). “Israel sinned like Adam and was exiled from God’s presence and out of the land, and God withdrew His presence from their temple.”  Such a corrective move was vital to the larger mission of God, because “only by Israel being distinct from the nations was there any purpose in being Israel at all or any hope for the nations themselves eventually.”

It is a grand theme indeed, that Babel-Babylon — the “archetypal god-less city”  which represented the first rebellious effort to compete with the proper establishment of God’s dwelling with men on earth — would arise centuries later as a swift, merciless, military empire to overrun the holy city of Jerusalem during the lifetime of Habakkuk. Yet, as the book of Revelation makes clear, the Lord will destroy Babylon in the end, as the New Jerusalem arrives.

Connections to the Exodus and the “Song of Moses”

Perhaps the most exciting discovery in this study of Habakkuk is how the psalm-like prayer of chapter three makes use of the “Song of Moses” in Exodus 15. We will unpack those connections after first recalling the context of the Song of Moses, and showing how Habakkuk 3 is to be understood as a song.

After 400 years in slavery in Egypt, the LORD delivered His people from Pharaoh by powerful signs and wonders. Arie Leder reduces the theme of Exodus to one sentence:  “By mighty signs of power the Lord rescues Israel from Pharaoh and brings her to His presence at Sinai in order to dwell in her midst by means of the tabernacle.”[1]  To honor the Lord and to celebrate that great deliverance, Moses and the people of Israel sang this song to the LORD (Exodus 15:1).

This song reminds the reader of the wider perspective of the biblical narrative:  The nations will tremble at the passing of God’s people (15:14-16), and the establishing of the Lord’s dwelling place (15:13, 17).[2]

Blackburn concurs, that not only the Song of Moses but the entire book of Exodus sees “the Lord’s missionary commitment to make Himself know to the nations as the central theological concern.”[3]

But is the third chapter of Habakkuk also such a song? It is considered to be a psalm-like piece with designs for liturgical use in the temple[4] or by worshippers in the coming exile. There are clues that point the reader in this direction.

First, the presence of a formal title — which is explicitly a “prayer” but similar to many such titles in the Psalter used for poetic, liturgical prayer.[5]  Second, the liturgical term Shigionoth — which may refer to an instrument or a type of psalm (the term appears only here and at Psalm 7:1).  Third, we notice the repeated presence of the musical term Selah in 3:3, 9 and 13.  Finally, unique in the prophetic writings, there is an explicitly musical postscript, To the choirmaster: with stringed instruments (3:19c).

[1] Arie Leder, Reading Exodus to Learn and Learning to Read Exodus, Calvin Theological Journal 34 (1999), 35.

[2] Arie Leder, The Coherence of Exodus:  Narrative Unity and Meaning, Calvin Theological Journal 36 (2001), 258.

[3] W. Ross Blackburn, The God Who Makes Himself Known, NSBT 28, (Apollos/InterVarsity Press, 2012), 15.

[4] Daniel I. Block, 20.

[5] See Pss 17; 55:1; 61:1-2; 86; 90;102; 141:2; 142; and, 143:1. [Also, c.f., Ps. 72:20, The prayers of David, the son of Jesse, are ended.]

posted on behalf of Pastor Dave Bissett

C.M. Granger

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