Rev. Ronald Hanko, minister emeritus in the Protestant Reformed Churches and
member of Covenant of Grace PRC in Spokane, WA

Previous article in this series: June, 2023, p. 394.

A prayer of Habakkuk the prophet upon Shigionoth. O Lord, I have heard thy speech, and was afraid: O Lord, revive thy work in the midst of the years, in the midst of the years make known; in wrath remember mercy. God came from Teman, and the Holy One from mount Paran. Selah. His glory covered the heavens, and the earth was full of his praise. And his brightness was as the light; he had horns coming out of his hand: and there was the hiding of his power. Before him went the pestilence, and burning coals went forth at his feet. He stood, and measured the earth: he beheld, and drove asunder the nations; and the everlasting mountains were scattered, the perpetual hills did bow: his ways are everlasting. I saw the tents of Cushan in affliction: and the curtains of the land of Midian did tremble. Was the Lord displeased against the rivers? was thine anger against the rivers? was thy wrath against the sea, that thou didst ride upon thine horses and thy chariots of salvation? Thy bow was made quite naked, according to the oaths of the tribes, even thy word. Selah. Thou didst cleave the earth with rivers. The mountains saw thee, and they trembled: the overflowing of the water passed by: the deep uttered his voice, and lifted up his hands on high. The sun and moon stood still in their habitation: at the light of thine arrows they went, and at the shining of thy glittering spear. Thou didst march through the land in indignation, thou didst thresh the heathen in anger. Thou wentest forth for the salvation of thy people, even for salvation with thine anointed; thou woundedst the head out of the house of the wicked, by discovering the foundation unto the neck. Selah. Thou didst strike through with his staves the head of his villages: they came out as a whirlwind to scatter me: their rejoicing was as to devour the poor secretly. Thou didst walk through the sea with thine horses, through the heap of great waters. When I heard, my belly trembled; my lips quivered at the voice: rottenness entered into my bones, and I trembled in myself, that I might rest in the day of trouble: when he cometh up unto the people, he will invade them with his troops. Habakkuk 3:1-16

Chapter 3 of Habakkuk concludes the prophet’s dialogue with God. The dialogue began with Habakkuk reminding God of Judah’s sins and wondering why God did not punish them (1:1-4). God answered, telling Habakkuk that the Babylonians were coming. God would use them to chastise Judah (1:5-11). God’s answer only increased the prophet’s concern. He wondered how God in His holiness could use the wicked Babylonians, since that cruel nation was even more wicked than Judah (1:12-17).

Thinking he had said too much and been too forward with God, Habakkuk decided to stand aside silently and wait for God’s answer (2:1). God’s second answer confirmed the coming of the Babylonians. God, however, assured Habakkuk that the just would live by faith— that justified by faith in Christ, God’s people would not come under His destroying wrath (2:2-4). Habakkuk understood then, that whatever happened could only be God’s loving and saving chastisement.

God answered Habakkuk further by telling Habakkuk that not Judah but the Babylonians would come under His destroying judgment, as the ungodly always do (2:5-20). But not wanting Habakkuk and His people to focus on Babylon and its coming judgment, God also spoke both of a blessed future for His people (3:14) and of His own sovereign dominion of all things (3:20). “Focus on Me and on what I will do for you,” God says. That is just what Habakkuk does in chapter 3.

Chapter 3 of Habakkuk is very different from the rest of the book and from anything else in the fifteen other major and minor prophets. It is so different from the rest of Habakkuk that many Bible critics do not believe it was written by him or originally part of his prophecy. They are wrong. The third chapter has appeared as part of the book going back to the Intertestamentary Period, but more importantly, the book would not be complete without its third chapter. Chapter 3 is a fitting and necessary conclusion to the dialogue between God and the prophet recorded in the previous two chapters. In chapter 3, Habakkuk, having questioned God’s ways in chapter 1 and received God’s answer, prays for God to do His will and submits wholeheartedly to the sovereign will of God.

He submits not only for himself but for the nation. Having heard in the final verse of chapter 2 the truth that God was in His holy temple, the prophet prepared the prayer and song of chapter 3 to be sung in the temple in the presence of God, though also later in captivity in Babylon. Questioning and complaining must cease (2:20), but Habakkuk understands that to say nothing would be as sinful. God must still be worshiped, and Habakkuk helps the people to worship the God of judgment and salvation in chapter 3.

The people would need Habakkuk’s prayer when the Babylonians came. As Calvin put it,

Let us then bear in mind, that the way of fostering true religion, prescribed here to the miserable Israelites while dispersed in their exile, was to look up to God daily, that they might strengthen their faith; for they could not have otherwise continued in their obedience to God. They would, indeed, have wholly fallen away into the superstitions of the Gentiles, had not the memory of the covenant, which the Lord had made with them, remained firm in their hearts: and we shall presently see that the Prophet lays much stress upon this circumstance.1

Chapter 3, though, is not just Habakkuk’s gift to the people. It is part of the inspired Word of God through the prophet and comes to people as a gift of God. God would fulfill His word and send the Babylonians, but He would not forget His people or cast them off. He would provide for them in Babylon and this prayer is proof of His faithfulness. It was given through the prophet, as Calvin says, “that the prayer might have some authority among the people; for they knew that a form of prayer dictated for them by the mouth of a Prophet, was the same as though the Spirit itself was to show them how they were to pray to God.”2

That the prayer was meant for public worship is evident from the first and last verses of chapter 3. The word Shigionoth in verse 1 is a word also found in the heading of Psalm 7 and may be a musical directive for public singing. The word selah, is found three times in the chapter, as in many of the Psalms and is also understood by many to be a musical notation, perhaps on the order of a musical rest. Verse 19 dedicates the song to the chief temple singer and gives further instruction for musical accompaniment when sung in worship.

The chapter, then, forms a public poetic prayer but, like many of the Psalms, it is a prayer that is also a song (five Psalms are called prayers: 17, 86, 90, 102, 142). There are other songs in the prophetic books, notably Isaiah 5:1-7, but that song is very different and was probably not meant to be sung in the temple as this was. There are other prayers, too, but no others in the prophetic books that were meant to be public prayers.

As a prayer and song, chapter 3 is a nice reminder that when we sing the Psalms we are also praying to God and when we pray we are not just asking but praising God. As Lloyd-Jones says: “Prayer is more than petition and includes praise, thanksgiving, recollection and adoration.”3 Even when we ask for things, we ask by way of acknowledging God to be the overflowing fountain of all good and the One upon whom we depend for everything.

Habakkuk 3 is a song and prayer of submission to God’s revealed will concerning the coming of the Babylonians. In response to Habakkuk’s questioning, God did not change His purpose or tell Habakkuk that He would send some lesser chastisement on Judah. He had said (2:3), “the vision is yet for an appointed time, but at the end it shall speak, and not lie: though it tarry, wait for it; because it will surely come, it will not tarry.” He did not amend what He had said about the coming of the Babylonians one word. He is Jehovah, who changes not.

But the prophet changed. Puzzled, troubled, questioning God’s ways and His very character, Habakkuk had expected to be reproved (2:1). He had not been reproved but given a word of comfort and peace (2:4, 14, 20), a word that he could pass on to Judah, though God maintained His Word. Believing God’s Word, though still afraid, Habakkuk submits to the will of God and prays that God’s will be done. He not only submits to God’s will, however, but recollects God’s past dealing with His people and pleads that God would remember mercy, as He had done in the past. Then, having submitted to the will of God and prayed for mercy, he ends his prophecy with a joyful confession of trust in God.

In chapter 3 Habakkuk sees the coming of the Babylonians in a different light from chapter 1. He sees their coming in the light of God’s ancient dealings with Israel, and verses 2-16 are a description of those ancient ways. In chapter 3 Habakkuk trusts that God will deal with His people as He dealt with them in the past, punishing them for their sins but always being merci- ful. Habakkuk sees the coming of the Babylonians as a continuation, a revival, of God’s past work: “Revive thy work in the midst of the years;” and as God’s continuing to make Himself known as the God of His people, though in fearful ways: “In the midst of the years make known.”

Those ancient ways include Israel’s deliverance from Egypt, their wilderness wanderings, their entrance into Canaan, the conquest of the land under Joshua and the days of the judges. Habakkuk, however, does not speak of those days chronologically and historically, but generally and with the focus on God Himself, His power and righteousness and faithfulness and mercy. That history with its focus on God and His ways is the fabric of which chapter 3 is woven.

These historical allusions are not presented in any particular order and sometimes include different events. They are all woven in one fabric that depicts God as the covenant God of His people, but always as a God of judgment and salvation. Woven into that fabric are a number of themes: God’s presence among His people as their Deliverer and Savior, His chastisements for their sins, His faithfulness and mercy to them in chastising them, His sovereign use of the nations to chastise them, His punishing of the nations for their part in those chastisements, and His sovereign use of the creation, the rivers, seas, mountains, and hills in all these works among the nations and with His people.

A brief outline of verses 1-16 shows this:

  1. 3—Mount Sinai and the wilderness wanderings
  2. 4—The giving of the law and God’s revelation at Mount Sinai
  3. 5—Egypt’s plagues and the judgments on Israel during the wilderness wanderings
  4. 6—Israel’s battles in the wilderness and in Canaan
  5. 7—Gideon’s battle against the Midianites
  6. 8-10—The passage through the Red Sea, the crossing of Jordan, and Barak’s and Deborah’s victory over the Canaanites
  7. 9—The miracle of water from the rock at Rephidim and Kadesh
  8. 11—Joshua’s battle against the Canaanites
  9. 12-14—Israel’s battles in the wilderness and especially in Canaan
  10. 15—The Red Sea
  11. 16—The conquest of Canaan

There are echoes of other songs in Habakkuk’s prayer and song. It echoes Exodus 15:1-21, the song of Israel at the Red Sea; Deuteronomy 32:1-43, the song Moses taught Israel before his death; and Judges 5:1-31, the song of Deborah and Barak after their victory over the Canaanites as well as many of the Psalms. Compare, for example, Exodus 15:6 with Habakkuk 3:4, Exodus 15:8 with Habakkuk 3:15, or Exodus 15:14-16 with Habakkuk 3:7. Compare Deuteronomy 32:8 with Habakkuk 3:6, Deuteronomy 32:22-24 with Habakkuk 3:5, or Deuteronomy 32:40-43 with Habakkuk 3:12-14. Compare Judges 5:5 with Habakkuk 3:3, 10 or Judges 5:20-21 with Habakkuk 3:8-10.

There are two reasons for these similarities. Habakkuk, like most of the Jews, would have known these other songs from his childhood and their words would have been deeply rooted in his soul. But also, these songs are all similar in that they have the same great theme, the Lord’s coming for judgment and for salvation.

Habakkuk weaves this historical fabric with its different themes to show that God’s ways are everlasting (3:6); that His ways in sending the Babylonians to chastise Judah, and then judging the Babylonians for their part in those chastisements, are no different from His past ways and dealings with His people. Habakkuk is pointing out that God always comes both for judgment and for salvation, judgment of His people’s sins as well as the sins of the nations, but in and through it all He comes for the redemption of His chosen people. Judgment must begin at the house of God, but Zion is redeemed with judgment.

The themes of Habakkuk 3:1-16 are the same as those of Psalm 89:30-34, “If his children forsake my law, and walk not in my judgments; If they break my statutes, and keep not my commandments; Then will I visit their transgression with the rod, and their iniquity with stripes. Nevertheless my lovingkindness will I not utterly take from him, nor suffer my faithfulness to fail. My covenant will I not break, nor alter the thing that is gone out of my lips.” They are the themes of Isaiah 43:1-4, “But now thus saith the Lord that created thee, O Jacob, and he that formed thee, O Israel, Fear not: for I have redeemed thee, I have called thee by thy name; thou art mine. When thou passest through the waters, I will be with thee; and through the rivers, they shall not overflow thee: when thou walkest through the fire, thou shalt not be burned; neither shall the flame kindle upon thee. For I am the Lord thy God, the Holy One of Israel, thy Saviour: I gave Egypt for thy ransom, Ethiopia and Seba for thee.” They are the great themes of the whole Old Testament.

At the heart of those themes is the gospel promise of the coming and work of Christ in whom God will in wrath remember mercy, use the nations for their deliverance and salvation, and scatter the nations forever (John 12:31). In sending Christ, He provides a foundation for chastisement that saves and does not destroy. In Christ He provides a righteousness that belongs to His people through faith, that preserves them from His destroying wrath, and that even in chastisement delivers them from the wrath to come. In Christ Zion is redeemed with judgment.

Habakkuk’s prophecy in chapter 3 reaches not only to the coming of Christ, but also all the way to the end of time. Always God brings salvation through judgment for His church—typically in the Old Testament, redemptively in the coming and work of Christ, by reformation of His church through the New Testament era, and finally in the events of the end times. Always the nations are part of His work, sovereignly used by Him and sovereignly judged by Him, but out of it all His people and His church, righteous in Christ, emerge purified and ready to live with Him in eternal fellowship.

1 John Calvin, Commentaries on the Twelve Minor Prophets, trans., John Owen (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1950), vol. 4, 133.

2 Calvin, Commentaries on the Twelve Minor Prophets, vol. 4, 133.

3 D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, From Fear to Faith: Studies in the Book of Habakkuk (London: Intervarsity Press, 1970), 57.