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

Previous article in this series: August 2023, p. 442.

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. Habakkuk 3:1-2
We saw in the last article that Habakkuk 3 is a fitting conclusion to the prophecy, for in it Habakkuk bows submissively to the will of God, acknowledges His unchangeable faithfulness, and resolves to rejoice in God as the God of His salvation. He teaches the faithful in Judah to do the same.
Chapter 3:1 identifies what follows as a prayer. It is both Habakkuk’s personal prayer and a public prayer intended for the temple and for public use in the years of the captivity. Judah would need Habakkuk’s prayer in Babylon as a reminder of the need for submission to God’s will. She would need to sing often of His unchangeable faithfulness and His sovereign power. Only He could use the captivity and its horrors for Judah’s salvation.
As a personal prayer intended also for public use, it is a wonderful testimony to the need for individual prayer and for communal prayer. When we are troubled and confused, as Habakkuk was, then we must pray. When we have confronted the revealed will of God and found it difficult, we must pray. When we do not understand God’s ways, then we have nothing left but prayer. And when not only we but the church is afraid and wondering, then we must come together in prayer: “The attitude which should characterize Christian people in a time of trial and perplexity is seen here.”1
The word translated “prayer” is a word that means intercession or supplication. That is certainly the main element in the prayer, especially the petition, “in wrath remember mercy.” It is prayer that includes not only petition but also all the elements of true prayer—worship, thanksgiving, remembrance of God’s ways, confession of sin, and pouring out of one’s heart to God. Especially the element of recollection or remembrance stands out in the prayer, as it does in Psalms 78, 81, 105, 106, and 107. Remembrance is an element of true prayer that is often forgotten, perhaps because too many Christians are ignorant of God’s ways in ancient times.
Prayer should include recollection and remembrance. Thinking, in prayer, of God’s past works and ways provides a foundation for confident prayer even in the worst times and the greatest need. Habakkuk, remembering, is able to pray as everyone ought to pray in troubled times and perplexing circumstances. Remembering God’s ways teaches us His faithfulness, His sovereignty, His saving purpose in all things.
The word Shigionoth (Shiggaion in the heading of Psalm 7) is difficult to translate accurately. Calvin and others think it is a form of the Hebrew word for ignorance, a word that reflects back on the prophet’s own ignorance and questioning. The idea of verse 1 would then be, “a prayer to be prayed when guilty of sins of ignorance.” Calvin’s interpretation is appealing and, if true, means that Habakkuk’s prayer is meant for times of doubt, fear, and questioning. Others, however, take the word as a musical directive or reference to tunes or instruments.
In the first part of verse 2, Habakkuk confesses that he is still afraid. When he heard of the coming of the Babylonians, he was afraid and that did not change, though he had turned to prayer and praise and found reassurance in God’s answers to him. That he was still afraid is evident from the verb tense in verse 2, which could be translated, “I am afraid.” Verse 16 echoes those fears: “When I heard, my belly trembled; my lips quivered at the voice: rottenness entered into my bones.” Habakkuk now understands that the coming of the Babylonians is the will of God, that they are in God’s sovereign hand, and that out of it all God will work good for His people. Nevertheless, thinking of what lay ahead for Judah, he was terrified.
How much like us he was. Resting and trusting in God by faith, even rejoicing in Him, does not always and immediately banish our fears. We may think of the end times, as terrible as the coming of Babylon for Judah, and tremble for our children and grandchildren and for the church, while still trusting that all things work together for good to those who love God. We find ourselves so often in the condition described in II Corinthians 4:8, 9, “We are troubled on every side, yet not distressed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; cast down, but not destroyed.”
No doubt Habakkuk’s fear is also part of his repentance. He had dared to question God’s ways, and though he may not have been personally responsible for the sins of Judah against which he prayed in 1:1-4, he, like us, was a sinner who knew himself to be worthy of God’s judgments against sin. Like us he was communally responsible for the sins of God’s people. Always there is in the church a mutual responsibility for the sins of God’s people, as the story of Achan shows so clearly (Jos. 7:1ff.), and Habakkuk’s fear expresses that sense of responsibility.
With all his fears, he shows that he received God’s word to him when he twice addresses God as Lord, Jehovah, the God of the covenant and of His covenant people. He is fearful but sure that God is not only unchangeable in His purpose with Babylon and Judah, but also unchangeable in His love and care for His own. Babylon must come for the chastisement of God’s people, but God will never cast off His own, will never forsake them. Of that Habakkuk is now sure.
So he prays, “Revive thy work in the midst of the years.” Habakkuk, instead of questioning God’s ways, is now praying that God will do as He said in sending Babylon, in using Babylon to chastise His people, and in working out in that inscrutable way the salvation of His Old Testament people. Habakkuk in praying that God’s will be done describes Babylon’s coming as a revival of the work He did in delivering Israel from Egypt, in bringing them through the wilderness, in punishing them for their murmuring and rebellion, in bringing them to the promised land and giving them the land, in using the nations to chastise them when they sinned in the land every man doing what was right in his own eyes.
Habakkuk’s petition was fulfilled when God did send the Babylonians and used them to purify and restore His people. It was fulfilled again when God visited the sins of His people at the cross and out of the darkness of His judgments brought salvation and peace to His own. It is fulfilled now when persecutors and heretics are used for the good of His church. And it will be fulfilled one last time when God sends Babylon once more and out of those judgments works eternal salvation. Always God revives His work and always His work follows the same pattern: spiritual decline and sin on the part of His people until things become humanly impossible and it seems deliverance will not come to His people who are suffering under His severe chastisement. It is then God works His miracles of deliverance, saving and rescuing them and sending judgment on the enemies He used to chastise them.
When Habakkuk prays that God will “in the midst of the years make known,” he is asking that God will make Himself known as the God of judgment and as the God of salvation, as a righteous but also merciful God. His focus has changed. From focusing on the terrors of Babylon’s coming, he now focuses on God Himself and His glory; and what a lesson that is for us. We are troubled, afraid, doubting, and worrying when we focus on circumstances or even on ourselves and our feelings; but when we look to the Lord, then our whole perspective changes and we are on our way to peace and joy.
At the cross, too, God made Himself known in answer to Habakkuk’s prayer, made Himself known as both a just and merciful God and as the only Savior. He made Himself known when He put Himself in the person of His Son into the hands of sinners, uncloaking their wickedness and forgiving those who crucified His Son. At the point of hopelessness, when it seemed that wickedness had triumphed, God finished the work of redemption. So, too, He will make Himself known when history comes to an end and the great day of judgment arrives.
We use the word “theophany” to express that truth. All of history is a revelation of God. We see that in the judgment of the last day. The question arises, Why must there be a judgment, when most of the human race are already in heaven and hell? Why must there be a judgment when God knows all the secrets of men’s hearts and lives? This can be answered only by the truth that the judgment day is God’s revelation of Himself as One who is righteous, just, merciful and gracious in all His works.
The expression “in the midst of the years,” used twice in verse 2, has the idea of “in the nearest part of the years.” It refers to the eminent coming of Babylon and what would happen to Judah when Babylon came. It refers to the very near future for Judah. Habakkuk is praying, “When these things come to pass, revive Thy work and in wrath remember mercy.”
“In wrath remember mercy” is a plea that God in sending Babylon and visiting His wrath on Judah will be merciful to His people. That mercy, though Habakkuk may not have realized it, would not mitigate the horrors of the Babylonian conquest, nor would it mean that God’s people would not go into captivity with the rest. It did mean that God in His mercy would use even the coming of the Babylonians and the captivity in Babylon for the salvation of His people. He used those dreadful days to chastise, correct, purify, strengthen, and give hope to His people.
“Remember,” however, does not merely mean, “Do not forget to be merciful.” It means, “Be merciful as in the past—remember the mercy shown to Israel in Egypt, in the wilderness, in the conquest of Canaan and in the days of the judges: Be merciful as always; be merciful as when we were in the wilderness when our murmuring and complaining and rebellion needed to be punished. Do what Thou hast purposed, but do it, as in the past, out of mercy and for the salvation of Thy people. I do not understand why it must be this way, and am so afraid that my bones have turned to jelly, but I am confident that God is the God of our salvation and that He who has always been the God of His covenant people will be so always and in all that happens.”
That prayer, “in wrath remember mercy,” can only be prayed with an eye on Christ. Only in Him is there any possibility of mercy when the wrathful judgment of God is revealed. Only in Christ can One who is too pure of eyes to look on evil be merciful. Only through the fulfillment of the promises of Christ, would that prayer of Habakkuk be answered.
And so Habakkuk, though not as clearly as we, sees Christ. He is the revelation of Jehovah Savior, as His name reminds us. He is the One in whom God revives His work in the midst of the years and the One in whom a wrathful God remembers mercy. He is the One in whom justice and mercy meet, in whom righteousness and peace kiss each other. He is the safety of all whom the Father has given Him, even when they must be chastised for their sins. He is the One in whom the prophecy of Psalm 89:30-34 is fulfilled: “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.”
Perhaps Habakkuk was thinking of Psalm 89 when he prayed the prayer and sang the song of chapter 3. He certainly was thinking of us and of our need for this prayer in the desperate days in which we live. As Calvin says, “Whenever, then, the judgment of the flesh would lead us to despair, let us ever set up against it this truth—that God is in such a way angry that he never forgets his mercy— that is, in his dealings with his elect.”2
There are, then, three petitions in Habakkuk 3:2: “Send the Babylonians to chastise us if that is necessary, as it so often was in the past; do so that the glory of Thy mercy and grace may be revealed, because Thy glory is more important than anything else; and remember that Thou art a merciful God and hast shown Thyself merciful in all Thy past dealings with us.” And the same applies to us: “Do to us as Protestant Reformed Churches whatever is necessary for our salvation and so reveal the glory of Thy mercy, for that is the only thing that matters; but, O Lord, show us that mercy, who are so undeserving of it, show it in the same way it was shown to our fathers in the wilderness and in the days of the Babylonian captivity.”


1 D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, From Fear to Faith (Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 1970), 58.
2 John Calvin, Commentaries on the Twelve Minor Prophets, vol. 4 (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1950), 139, 140.