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Previous article in this series: December 15, 2023, p. 154.

Although the fig tree shall not blossom, neither shall fruit be in the vines; the labour of the olive shall fail, and the fields shall yield no meat; the flock shall be cut off from the fold, and there shall be no herd in the stalls: yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will joy in the God of my salvation. The Lord God is my strength, and he will make my feet like hinds’ feet, and he will make me to walk upon mine high places. To the chief singer on my stringed instruments. Habakkuk 3:17-19

 

If chapter 3 is the crown of Habakkuk’s prophecy, then verses 17-19 are the jewels in that crown. Doubts have turned to faith in God, complaints to song, and questioning to confidence. No wonder then that these verses are often quoted and remembered.

Habakkuk describes a time when “the fig tree shall not blossom, neither shall fruit be in the vines; the la­bour of the olive shall fail, and the fields shall yield no meat; the flock shall be cut off from the fold, and there shall be no herd in the stalls.” Habakkuk is not using these verses as we use them, to give thanks to God for an abundance of food and crops, recognizing the pos­sibility that it might be otherwise and that we must be thankful always. Such use of the verse is not inappropri­ate, but is not what Habakkuk is talking about.

Nor is he describing a coming time of drought or famine; but he is remembering what God had said about the coming of Babylon and the devastation of the land by that enemy (cf. Is. 6:11). There would be nothing left of fields and vineyards, flocks and herds when Babylon marched through the breadth of the land, to possess the dwelling places that were not theirs (1:6) and when they gathered the captivity like sand (1:9).

What would happen to the fields and flocks was only part and picture of what would happen to the nation, as Isaiah prophesied: “And now go to; I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard: I will take away the hedge thereof, and it shall be eaten up; and break down the wall thereof, and it shall be trodden down: And I will lay it waste: it shall not be pruned, nor digged; but there shall come up briers and thorns: I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it. For the vine­yard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah his pleasant plant: and he looked for judgment, but behold oppression; for righteousness, but behold a cry” (Is. 5:5-7).

Even Habakkuk could not foresee the horrors of the Babylonian conquest and captivity as described by Jer­emiah in Lamentations 2:20-22 and other parts of that book: “Behold, O Lord, and consider to whom thou hast done this. Shall the women eat their fruit, and chil­dren of a span long? shall the priest and the prophet be slain in the sanctuary of the Lord? The young and the old lie on the ground in the streets: my virgins and my young men are fallen by the sword; thou hast slain them in the day of thine anger; thou hast killed, and not pitied. Thou hast called as in a solemn day my terrors round about, so that in the day of the Lord’s anger none escaped nor remained: those that I have swaddled and brought up hath mine enemy consumed.”

Habakkuk describes the loss both of luxuries, figs and the fruit of the vine, and of the things necessary for survival, the olive and the flocks and herds with their meat and milk. All would be destroyed by the ravages of Babylon’s coming. The people would be left with noth­ing; their homes, their cities and their place of worship would be destroyed and they would be taken to Babylon as captives. Their children would be taken from them as were Daniel and his friends, many of them would be slaughtered and unspeakable things would be done to them by the Babylonians.

Yet Habakkuk’s prayer and song amount to this: “No matter what horrors lie ahead, and no matter how bad our situation becomes, God will still be Jehovah, the Lord, who established His unbreakable covenant with us. Things will likely be worse than anything I can imagine, but God will still be the God of our salva­tion. When all things seem to be against us and we are no longer in the land God promised; when there is no earthly reason left to rejoice and be thankful, then I will still rejoice in the Lord.”

What a prayer for troubled times and for the end times! Nothing left but God, but having Him we still have everything: “Whom have I in heaven but thee? and there is none upon earth that I desire beside thee. My flesh and my heart faileth: but God is the strength of my heart, and my portion for ever (Ps. 73:5, 6).

Lloyd-Jones puts it well:

Herein we as Christians are to differ from the world. When hell is let loose, and the worst comes to the worst, we are to do more than “put up with it” or “be steady.” We are to know a holy joy and manifest a spirit of rejoicing. We are to be “more than conquerors,” instead of merely exercising self-control with the aid of an iron will. We are to rejoice in the Lord and to joy in the God of our salvation. Such a time is a test for our Christian profession. If we are not then more than conquerors, we are failing as Christians.1

Yet our response is often not this but rather, “How can God do this to poor me? What did I do to deserve this? I cannot go on under these circumstances. Does not God love me?” Or, “Will the Lord cast off for ever? and will he be favourable no more? Is his mercy clean gone for ever? doth his promise fail for evermore? Hath God forgotten to be gracious? hath he in anger shut up his tender mercies?” (Ps. 77:7-9). Trials sometimes bring not joyful song but discouragement, depression, and un­happiness, while we wish to die and hope the Lord will take us away.

Habakkuk dedicates his song, not just these vers­es, but the whole chapter, to the chief singer, so that it could be sung in the temple in the years that remained before the Babylonian conquest and by the Jews when the temple was destroyed and the singers scattered. In dedicating it to the chief singer, he dedicates it also to us to be prayed and sung when things are at their worst. When church troubles are overwhelming; when families are scattered by the evils of these last days, when there seems no reason at all to rejoice, then this must be our song. With its pleas for mercy, its remembrance of the Lord’s work in the past, and its reference to the Lord’s Anointed, there is nothing else to sing and pray when troubles come:

Though troubles great o’ershadow me,
Thou art my refuge strong;
My mouth shall praise Thee all the day,
Thy honor be my song.

(Psalter #191, stanza 1, Psalm 71).

Habakkuk uses the name Lord, Jehovah, the great covenant name, because in what precedes he has been reviewing the history of God’s covenant faithfulness. He uses the name God to emphasize God’s sovereignty in all His dealings with His people. Captivity? Babylon? If that is what God is pleased to do, then it must hap­pen, but God will forever be the sovereign God of the covenant who uses all for good. And so Habakkuk uses both names together in verse 19 in celebration of both truths.

The two words Habakkuk uses to tell of his joy in verse 18 show us that his joy was not the muted or grudging joy of one forced to acknowledge God’s sov­ereign goodness, but real, heart-felt joy. The first word, translated “rejoicing,” is to jump for joy, and the second word means to spin around or dance for joy. How many would be able to do that, even say what Habakkuk says, in the face of earthly troubles? Only grace makes that possible.

His joy, as ours, is ever only in God as the God of our salvation, that is to say, in God as He reveals Himself in Jesus. That name, the God of my salvation, though Habakkuk could not have known it, is very close to the personal name of our Savior, Jesus. Yet there can be no doubt, that though the name Jesus had not yet been giv­en as the personal name of our Savior, Habakkuk, like Abraham, saw His day and was glad (John 8:56).

Never may our joy be dependent on circumstances or on others. There are those who think it impossible to rejoice when they are seriously ill or dying. Husbands and wives, friends, church members, often think that unless circumstances and people change, they cannot be happy. Rejoicing is always in God as the God or our salvation or there is no possibility of rejoicing.

Habakkuk adds to his joyful resolution his con­fidence that God would be with him and bless him through the troubled times ahead: “The Lord God is my strength, and he will make my feet like hinds’ feet, and he will make me to walk upon mine high places” (v. 19). These words are a near quote of Psalm 18:32, 33, words first sung by David when God delivered him from his enemies. Thus Habakkuk ends his prayer and song as he began by harking back to God’s dealing with His people in ancient times, dealings that forever prove His faithfulness and mercy.

That God would be Habakkuk’s strength does not just mean that God would give him perseverance and help in the face of Babylon’s coming, but that God, liv­ing in Habakkuk’s heart, would be everything Habak­kuk needed. That truth, too, is fulfilled in Christ. In Him by faith we share everything that is His—His Fa­ther, His family, His Spirit, His life. Even our strength is no longer our own but His, for we have no strength of our own.

When Habakkuk says, “he will make my feet like hinds’ feet,” he is expressing his confidence in God’s power to help him rejoice in the troubled times ahead, to jump and spin around for joy, to rejoice in the God of His salvation. Some commentators have, however, made these words a reference to Judah’s return from captivity, and that may be so in light of a passage like Isaiah 40:31, “But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint.” Certainly it looks forward also to the blessedness of heaven, when the high places of which Habakkuk speaks will be the inheritance of God’s people forever. Nevertheless, they are an expres­sion, too, of his joy in the Lord.

The reference to his stringed instruments is not only a reference to the words of chapters 3 as a prayer and song and not only a reference to the purpose of this chapter, but also a reference to the permanence of this song, for it is a song that will be sung forever by God’s people. Habakkuk’s words are similar to those of Hezekiah in Isaiah 38:20, “The Lord was ready to save me: there­fore we will sing my songs to the stringed instruments all the days of our life in the house of the Lord.” Heze­kiah, healed of his illness and assured that the line of Christ would continue, resolved to be forever thankful. So did Habakkuk. So do we now and forever.

We have seen that Habakkuk dedicates his song and prayer to the chief singer. In the temple that was a man like Asaph or Heman. In the church it is Christ. He is the One who sings in every psalm and whose gracious voice is heard in the singing of every saint. He is the One whose voice is heard in this song and in the singing of the church in such times as would come on Judah. He says, “I will declare thy name unto my brethren, in the midst of the church will I sing praise unto thee” (Heb. 2:12). He is the One, present in our hearts, who brings up on our lips this song when there is, humanly speak­ing, no reason to sing. He is the reason, often the only reason to sing in troubled times.

This song is His also because on that worst of all days, when the fig tree did not blossom, when there was no fruit in the vines and when the blood of the everlast­ing covenant flowed instead of wine; when the labor of the olive failed, and the fields yielded no meat; when the Lamb of God was cut off from the fold, and when there was no herd in the stalls for all had fled, turning every­one to his own way, then the Lord revealed Himself to us as never before as the God of our salvation, deliver­ing our feet from lowest hell and setting them on high. He is the chief singer always.

In Him the Lord has fulfilled His word “to appoint unto them that mourn in Zion, to give unto them beau­ty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness; that they might be called trees of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, that he might be glorified” (Is. 61:3). In Him we received a blessedness with which all the sufferings of the former times cannot be compared until that day comes when every tear has been wiped away and there is no more sorrow or death or crying or pain. Blessed be His name forever, and until He comes may every song be sung in His honor and company.


1 D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, From Fear to Faith: Studies in the Book of Habakkuk (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1982), 71.