Bible Overview is a wonderful resource for anyone interested in Bible study. Each month we feature a book of the Bible (in order) by Bible scholar and lecturer, Mary Jane Chaignot.
This month has three entries, Nahum, Habakkuk, and Zephaniah, whose writings are found among the Minor Prophets. It is generally assumed that these three were contemporaries and all shared in the belief that God was sovereign, just, and able to deliver the righteous. They each, however, had a different method of conveying that message. Nahum showed God’s sovereignty by prophesying against Nineveh. Habakkuk struggled with God’s answer that he would use the Chaldeans to chastise Judah. And Zephaniah declared his message to the world – that all needed a course adjustment. But after judgment, a remnant would arise and God would restore His people to a life of blessings. If you want to read some of the history previous to this selection, you can find the earlier books in our archives.
The Bible Time-Line is another quick reference for locating individuals or specific books. We encourage readers to share their Bible Study success stories on this site. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org to be included on next month's site.
Like his predecessor, little is known about Habakkuk apart from his book in which he is mentioned twice. Scholars aren’t even sure how to pronounce his name, nor do they know what it means. They think his name is the Hebrew form of an Assyrian word meaning plant, but that is not very helpful. Since the three short chapters of his prophetic material conclude with a hymn, some have suggested that perhaps Habakkuk served in the Temple or that he was from a priestly family. Indeed, the name figures prominently in the apocryphal book, Bel and the Dragon, which is one of three addendums to the book of Daniel. Another legend connects him to being the son of the Shunammite woman, or that he was one of the watchmen referred to by Isaiah. Truth is, however, nothing is known for sure about this prophet, where he came from or even when he preached.
Scholars generally associate him with the time of Nahum, possibly a bit later. Habakkuk refers to the “rise of the Chaldeans,” who were probably the early Babylonians. That would date his work to a period of time after the fall of Nineveh – 612 BCE – but before the fall of Jerusalem 587 BCE. This would have been the time of Judah’s last hurrah. With Assyria finally out of the picture, Judah enjoyed a few decades of great prosperity, while the international powers put their energies into reorganizing. Habakkuk, then, witnessed a change in conditions going from excellent and filled with great promise to desperate as the Babylonians turned their attention towards Jerusalem.
Habakkuk was quite unique among the prophets in that he not only spoke God’s message to the people, but he also spoke to God about his people. The first part of his prophecy is a dialogue in which Habakkuk questions God. He understood that God’s people had long ago broken the covenantal agreement with the Lord. But as a man of deep faith, he could not understand why God had not arisen to rectify the situation, particularly since he had prayed diligently for change. In fact, it seemed as though the wicked were triumphant and the prayers of the righteous were in vain.
God’s response that he would use the Chaldeans as his instruments of justice raised more questions than it answered. Habakkuk acknowledged the evil doings of the people, but even their worst sins paled in comparison to those of the Chaldeans. How could a good God solve a bad situation by making it worse? God’s answer that all evil would be overcome only partially resolved Habakkuk’s dilemma. He took comfort in the good news that a righteous remnant would survive. On this basis, Habakkuk was able to sing a hymn of prayer and praise at the end of his prophecy. He was never told when or how this would all take place.
His book, then, is of great theological value. Habakkuk raises some of the most difficult questions in the whole Bible. How can an infinitely good God allow sin to go unpunished? Jeremiah will voice a similar complaint, while Job addresses the issue from the other side. Such questions suggest a capacity for reflection and thought that is typically not associated with ancient Israel. But Habakkuk insists on an answer. God does respond, not necessarily in the way that we would like, but His words contribute to a proper understanding about God and His work throughout history. Regardless of the human picture, the sinner will not prevail; the righteous will win through. While this assurance might not completely solve the problem, it certainly is part of the right response. Even if it appears that God is inactive, this outcome is still certain. But these events will happen in God’s time, not man’s. In the meantime, those who are righteous need to stay alert. They should keep on living in faith and they should keep God’s commandments even when there is no sign of His presence. This response was so satisfying for Habakkuk that he was able to end his writings with a psalm of praise and prayer.
The truths learned from Habakkuk also had value for New Testament writers. Paul was among the first to quote Habakkuk (2:4) -- in Romans 1:17 and Galatians 3:11-12 -- using that core message that the righteous will live by faith. In so doing, he found Old Testament support for his own message of salvation by faith. The writer of Hebrews also echoed these thoughts and Martin Luther’s adaptation of them is legendary.
The book is generally divided into three sections. The first is a dialogue with God, 1:1-2:4. The second is a series of five woe oracles, 2:5-20, and the third is a hymn of prayer and praise, 3:1-19.