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


Previous article in this series: October 1, 2023, p. 8.

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 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. Habakkuk 3:7-13


In verses 7-13 Habakkuk reiterates some of the history of Israel’s entrance into Canaan under Joshua and of the distressing days of the judges. He does so in no particular order, but his retelling is nonetheless effective.

Cushan in verse 7 appears to be a reference to Mes­opotamia, and Midian to that nation. The verse rec­ollects the history of Othniel’s victory over Cushanr­ishathaim, king of Mesopotamia (Judg. 3:7-11) and to Gideon’s victory over the Midianites Judg. 7:1-8:13). The word “affliction” is actually the word “vanity” and the word “tremble” means to tremble with fear. What a picture, then, verse 7 draws: the Lord’s work of sal­vation making even the curtains of Midian afraid, and proving all the life and culture and might of ancient Mesopotamia but vanity.

Thinking of the partings of the Red Sea and the Jor­dan River, and the smiting of the River Kishon (Judg. 5:21) in the days of Barak and Deborah, Habakkuk asks in chapter 3:8, “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?”

The question is asked because the answer is obvious. God’s displeasure was not directed at the brute creation. The rivers and the sea were His instruments in the great events Habakkuk is remembering and retelling: the sea in drowning Pharaoh and his army, the River Kishon in defeating Sisera and his army, and the Jordan in being divided to let Israel pass through to the conquest of Ca­naan. His anger was, of course, directed at the Egyp­tians and the Canaanites, but even that does not answer the question completely. He was angry with the nations and used the rivers and the sea against them on behalf of His people. Calvin says,

When he asks, was God angry with the rivers and the sea, he no doubt intended in this way to awaken the thoughts of the faithful, that they might consider the design of God in the works which he had already mentioned; for it would have been unreasonable that God should show his wrath against rivers and the sea; why should he be angry with lifeless elements? The Prophet then shows that God had another end in view when he dried the sea, when he stopped the course of Jordan, and when he gave other evidences of his power. Doubtless God did not regard the sea and the rivers; for that would have been unreasonable. It then follows that these changes were testimonies of God’s favour towards his Church: and hence the Prophet subjoins, that God rode on his horses, and that his chariots were for salvation to his people.1

As Calvin says, it was for the salvation of His church that the Red Sea was first piled in heaps and then re­turned to its former flood, that Jordan was stopped in its course, and that Kishon overflowed its banks and swept away the Canaanite armies. That is obvious, but is not always remembered by the church in times of trouble and suffering. Habakkuk did not remember it when he was first told of the coming of the Babylonians.

God does all things for the salvation of His church. At the shore of the Red Sea, Moses said to Israel, “Fear ye not, stand still, and see the salvation of the Lord, which he will shew to you to day: for the Egyptians whom ye have seen to day, ye shall see them again no more for ever” (Ex. 14:13). Psalm 114:5 asks: “What ailed thee, O thou sea, that thou fleddest? thou Jordan, that thou wast driven back?” The answer has already been given in verses 1-3: “When Israel went out of Egypt, the house of Jacob from a people of strange language; Judah was his sanctuary, and Israel his dominion. The sea saw it, and fled: Jordan was driven back.” Judges 5:21 sings, “The river of Kishon swept them away, that ancient river, the river Kishon. O my soul, thou hast trodden down strength.”

That He uses even the created order to destroy the enemies of His church and deliver His people is a great and needed testimony in these last days to the truth that the battle is the Lord’s and He fights on behalf of His church. The horses and chariots referred to are not literal, but describe God on behalf of His church as One-man army. The horses and chariots of the Egyp­tians and of the Canaanites were nothing to Him. He removed the wheels of Pharaoh’s chariots and sent the River Kishon to sweep away the nine hundred iron chariots of the Canaanites.

The chariots and horses may very well include the chariot and horses that took Elijah to heaven (II Kings 2:12) and those that Elisha’s servant saw at Dothan (II Kings 6:17), part of God’s angelic army. Psalm 68:17 says, “The chariots of God are twenty thousand, even thousands of angels: the Lord is among them, as in Si­nai, in the holy place.” Nevertheless, it is the Lord Him­self who fights for His people and to whom the victory belongs even when He uses the angelic hosts.

The first part of verse 9 has suffered from many in­terpretations. One writer mentions over one hundred of them. Nevertheless, the reference to the Lord’s bow being unsheathed according to the oaths of the tribes is not difficult. The oath can only be the great oath of His covenant to establish Himself forever as the Friend of His people. It is His word to Abraham, to His de­scendants and to us; a word that is infallible, sure, un­breakable. God is pictured, therefore, as a mighty war­rior, with His bow ready for the defense of His covenant people and the destruction of their enemies. And if the word “selah” indicates a musical pause or rest, it comes at an appropriate place. What a thing to think of: Ha­bakkuk’s vision of God armed for battle at the head of His horses and chariots of salvation!

The last part of the verse reminds us that God is no ordinary warrior, but one whose weapons are the powers of creation, the rivers again being mentioned, the very earth divided by them. Those powers of creation, rivers and seas, mountains and valleys, beasts and birds, rain and sunshine, sun, moon and stars, the changing seasons and planetary orbits are part of a vast army that marches to do His will. Those who have grace are able to see it in earthquakes and floods, in famine and pestilence. These are accomplishing His will in the judgment of the nations and the salvation of His people. They are always part of His coming for judgment and salvation in Christ.

Verses 10 and 11 personify those powers of creation and describe them as though they were alive. They, too, are God’s servants and do His will, trembling at His command, where men and women in their unbelief do not tremble and obey. What a picture! The mountains tremble before Him, the floods pass by as on review be­fore their great Captain. The waves of the sea are like soldiers lifting up their hands to salute Him to whom they owe their obedience.

Verse 10 describes Sinai and the Red Sea. Hebrews 12:26 reminds us of how the mountain shook at God’s voice and the waters of the Red Sea passed by and lifted up their hands when He divided the waters to make a passage for Israel, as also did Jordan when Israel was ready to cross into Canaan. Nevertheless, whenever an earthquake shakes the mountains and whenever there is a storm on the sea, Habakkuk’s words are fulfilled.

That is not a thing to be forgotten. When mountains tremble and the sea lifts up its hands, then it is good to remember that they tremble and are lifted up before Him and in acknowledgment of His almighty power as the God of His people. So we sing in Psalter #259, st. 5, 6 (Psalm 96):

Make all the nations know God reigns forever;
Earth is established as He did decree;
Righteous and just is the King of the nations,
Judging the people with equity.

Let heaven and earth be glad; waves of the ocean,
Forest and field, exultation express;
For God is coming, the Judge of the nations,
Coming to judge in His righteousness.

Verses 11 and 12 describe the conquest of Canaan under Joshua. Verse 12 describes the conquest in gen­eral terms and verse 11 with specific reference to the Battle of Gibeon, when Joshua defeated the five con­federate kings of the Canaanites, commanding the sun and moon to stand still to help Israel. As Habakkuk reminds us, the battle of Gibeon was the Lord’s battle. Not only did He make the sun and moon stand still, something beyond the power of any man, but Joshua 10:10, 11 says, “And the Lord discomfited them before Israel, and slew them with a great slaughter at Gibeon, and chased them along the way that goeth up to Beth­horon, and smote them to Azekah, and unto Makkedah. And it came to pass, as they fled from before Israel, and were in the going down to Bethhoron, that the Lord cast down great stones from heaven upon them unto Azekah, and they died: they were more which died with hailstones than they whom the children of Israel slew with the sword.” Joshua 10:14 adds, “And there was no day like that before it or after it, that the Lord hear­kened unto the voice of a man: for the Lord fought for Israel.”

Verse 12 describes God marching through Canaan and the Canaanites in His anger mowing and thresh­ing them. There is, of course, no other explanation of Israel’s victories. A people, mostly untried in battle, a rabble of former slaves, moving irresistibly through the armies of the Canaanite nations, not only defeating them, but wiping them out, must have been the work of their God.

Verse 13a is the important part of Habakkuk’s prayer and recollection of Israel’s past history. God’s going forth is always for the salvation of His people. Even when His going forth touches the lives of His people in persecu­tion, in church troubles, in the rise of antichrists and of the man of sin himself, in wars and rumors of wars, in apostasy and lawlessness, He goes forth for their salva­tion. Always He is bringing judgment on the nations and working out the salvation of His people. All things work together for good to those who love God.

There is much difference of opinion about His “anointed” (v. 13). Many identify His anointed as His people, true and elect Israel. Certainly they are includ­ed but seldom if ever in Scripture are His people called His anointed. The reference is usually to Israel’s lead­ers, to their kings especially (I Sam. 12:3; 24:6; II Sam. 23:1; II Chr. 6:42; Ps. 18:50) and sometimes to their priests (Zech. 4:14), and more importantly to Christ (Ps. 2:2; 89:38; Is. 61:1).

We agree with the translation of the KJV and its use of the word “with,” taking His anointed to be Christ. We read the verse: “Thou wentest forth for the salva­tion of Thy people, even for salvation with Thy Christ, Thy Messiah.” We agree with Robertson, who says: “A better interpretation is that the word means ‘with,’ and is presenting God’s ‘anointed’ as having a different relation to salvation from that of the people. God’s sal­vation is for His people, but it is accomplished with His anointed.”2

Why should it be thought strange that Habakkuk suddenly makes such an explicit reference to Christ? This is the Word of God and even in the Old Testament God’s Word was plain enough concerning the coming and work of Messiah. Faithful Israel spent its days waiting and hoping for the Lord’s Anointed. Realiz­ing, too, that men like David and Solomon often failed as the Lord’s Anointed, they expected someone greater than these kings (Luke 11:31).

Habakkuk, then, has Christ in view once again. He is the reason why the Lord does not cast off or destroy His people. He is the One by whom Zion is redeemed through judgment. It is unthinkable that God would go forth for the salvation of His people without His Anointed. Jesus said in Nazareth, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the bro­kenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised” (Luke 4:18, 19).

Calvin says,

He adds, with thy Christ. This clause still more confirms what Habakkuk had in view—that God had been from the beginning the deliverer of his people in the person of the Mediator. When God, therefore, delivered his people from the hand of Pharaoh, when he made a way for them to pass through the Red Sea, when he redeemed them by doing wonders, when he subdued before them the most powerful nations, when he changed the laws of nature in their behalf—all these things he did through the Mediator. For God could never have been propitious either to Abraham himself or to his posterity, had it not been for the intervention of a Mediator.3

Habakkuk, then, thinking of the coming of Babylon, not only looks to the past for proof that in every way and in all circumstances God will work out the salva­tion of His people. He also looks to the future and to the coming of Christ, the Anointed One, in whom all the promises of God would be fulfilled and His people saved with an everlasting salvation. We must do the same.

1 Calvin, Commentary on the Twelve Minor Prophets, vol. 4, (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1950), 151.
2 O. Palmer Robertson, The Books of Nahum, Habakkuk and Zephaniah (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1990), 237.
3 Calvin, Commentaries on the Twelve Minor Prophets, vol. 4, p. 163.