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: March 1, 2023, p. 250.

In the last article we looked at Habakkuk’s third woe against Babylon (2:12-14) and saw that though Babylon was just coming to power and would soon dominate the nations, its might and conquests were all vanity: “Behold, is it not of the Lord of hosts that the people shall labour in the very fire, and the people shall weary themselves for very vanity?” All the labor of their conquests, their building projects, their political system were put forth in the middle of the fires that would destroy them, their city and their kingdom, and they only wearied themselves with all they accomplished. So the vanity of Babylon’s accomplishments, and of all human accomplishments is evident. Nothing is left of great Babylon but a few mounds where some clay bricks and an occasional treasure are excavated by archaeologists. 

Their accomplishments were also vain because God’s kingdom was coming and would endure forever: “For the earth shall be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea” (Hab. 2:14). The stone cut out without hands would break in pieces and destroy the iron, the clay, the brass, the silver, and the gold and would become a great mountain that would fill the whole earth (Dan. 2:31-45). Worse for them, Babylon’s might and glory would be used by God for the coming of His kingdom. 

The Jews of Habakkuk’s time would see the coming of God’s kingdom when those who knew the Lord returned from captivity, when the world also saw that God was the true God, the God of His people. There would be a further fulfillment of Habakkuk’s prophecy in the subsequent centuries with the dispersion of Judaism through the known world. The establishment of synagogues, the translation of the Old Testament into Greek, and the conversion of many Gentiles to Judaism (proselytes) would begin to fill the earth with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord. 

This prophecy continues to be fulfilled in the spread of the gospel to all nations: “For God, who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, hath shined in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” It will have its final fulfillment in the new heavens and earth when the present nations will be destroyed and we shall see God face to face in the face of Jesus Christ and know even as we are known (I Cor. 13:12). The third woe, then, is like the fifth, for it looks ahead not just to Babylon’s destruction but to that notable day when the kingdoms of this world are become the kingdoms of our Lord and or His Christ and He reigns forever (Rev. 11:15). 

Thus Babylon’s attainments would be for the coming of God’s eternal kingdom. God would use Babylon to chastise and purify His people and to reestablish His kingdom, first in Judah, then in all nations of the world, and finally in the new heavens and earth. 

Those who look for a fulfillment of Habakkuk 2:14 in a future millennial kingdom are wrong. An earthly fulfillment of the knowledge of the Lord covering the earth as the waters cover the sea would mean that there will be none left who do not know the Lord, none unsaved, and Scripture gives us no reason to believe that will happen short of eternity, though it begins here and now. 

The fourth woe (2:15-17) condemns Babylon’s drunkenness and fornication. It is notable that drunkenness is mentioned again (cf. 2:5). Most make the passage an allegory or metaphor (cf. also Jer. 51:5). Calvin says, 

This is the reason for the metaphor; for the Babylonian king, when he thirsted for the blood of men, and also for wealth and kingdoms, led into the same kind of madness many other kings; for he could not have succeeded except he had allured the favour of many others, and deceived them with vain expectations. As a person who gives himself up to drinking wishes to leave associates, so Habakkuk lays the same thing to the charge of the king of Babylon; for being himself addicted to insatiable avarice, he procured associates to be as it were his guests, and quaffed wine to them, that is, excited their cupidity, that they might join him in his wars; for each hoped for a part of the spoil after victory. Since, then, he had thus blinded many kings, they are said to have been inebriated by him.1 

In light of Revelation 17 and 18 where Mystery Babylon’s drunkenness and fornication are spiritual, there is no reason to disagree with Calvin (17:2, 6; 18:3). Nevertheless, in light of Daniel 5 a literal interpretation is also possible, for Babylon fell to the Persians the very night that her king in his drunken folly had brought out the vessels of God’s house to put to his own wicked use. 

In Revelation 17 and 18, two chapters we will be examining in another article, the allegory or metaphor goes beyond what Calvin says. The drunkenness is not only physical drunkenness, nor even only the drunkenness of covetousness and lust for power, but Babylon is drunken with the blood of God’s people in Judah, her fornication likewise spiritual, the worshiping of other gods and going after them. The man, then, who stands for Babylon and whom Habakkuk is describing, the man of verse 5, not only obtains his wealth by dishonesty and violence, not only uses his wealth to build his house on high, but fills his house with debauchery. It is almost a rule in history that the greater the house, the greater its wickedness. 

The result of Babylon’s sins will be shame, described in terms of man stripped naked: “Thou art filled with shame for glory: drink thou also, and let thy foreskin be uncovered” (2:16). And, like a drunken man wallowing in his own vomit, Babylon would vomit up all it swallowed: “And I will punish Bel [Babylon’s god, RHH] in Babylon, and I will bring forth out of his mouth that which he hath swallowed up: and the nations shall not flow together any more unto him: yea, the wall of Babylon shall fall” (Jer. 51:44). Babylon will not only be drunken with the blood of God’s people but that cup will become in Babylon’s hand the cup of the Lord’s fury, the cause of her vomiting and nakedness. The God of vengeance would be Babylon’s cupbearer to its everlasting shame. 

There is no reason to pass over a literal interpretation of the prophet’s words, for the Babylonians, led captive by the Persians, would be left naked and covered with their own filth. Nevertheless, that is not the main thing, but rather the words of Revelation 18:5, 6, “For her sins have reached unto heaven, and God hath remembered her iniquities. Reward her even as she rewarded you, and double unto her double according to her works: in the cup which she hath filled fill to her double.” 

Babylon would be punished for its violence, especially its violence against Judah. Most commentators understand verse 17 to be a reference to Judah. The violence of Lebanon, then, is the violence done to Lebanon, and Lebanon and its beasts are a reference to the land of Judah to which Lebanon was the northern entrance, as well as the provider of timber for the house of God and the other houses of Jerusalem. That is Calvin’s understanding: 

By Libanus then we are to understand either Judea or the temple; for Libanus [Lebanon, RHH], as it is well known, was not far from the temple; and it is elsewhere found in the same sense. But if any extends this to the land of Judea, the meaning will be the same; there will be but little or no difference as to the subject that is handled. Because the violence then of Libanus shall overwhelm thee.2

That Lebanon stands for the temple or for the land of Judah is not strange. Isaiah 37:4 and Jeremiah 22:6, 23 use the same language, and it is difficult to understand why else Lebanon would be mentioned here. Guilty of violence against God’s people, Babylon—land, city and citizens—would suffer accordingly. 

The fifth and final woe, verses 18-20, is in a different format than the others and begins not with woe, but with a question about idolatry: “What profiteth the graven image that the maker thereof hath graven it; the molten image, and a teacher of lies, that the maker of his work trusteth therein, to make dumb idols?” The question is put in an unusual way. The Word of God does not ask whether the worshiper of idols profits from his idolatry but whether the image itself profits, the graven image from the fact that someone made it, and the molten image, though a teacher of lies, that men trust in it. The question is put that way to show that idols are dumb: “Behold, it is laid over with gold and silver, and there is no breath at all in the midst of it” (2:19). Psalm 115 describes this also: “They have mouths, but they speak not: eyes have they, but they see not: They have ears, but they hear not: noses have they, but they smell not: They have hands, but they handle not: feet have they, but they walk not: neither speak they through their throat” (vv. 5-7). 

No profit in idolatry, yet Babylon was guilty of gross idolatry and Nebuchanezzar’s great image of God was only a small part of his idolatry. He was named for one of his gods as was Belshazzar after him, the gods mentioned in Isaiah 46:1, “Bel boweth down, Nebo stoopeth, their idols were upon the beasts, and upon the cattle: your carriages were heavy loaden; they are a burden to the weary beast.” As he admitted, Daniel too had been renamed for one of his idols; Daniel “whose name was Belteshazzar, according to the name of my god” (Dan. 4:8). The night that Babylon was conquered by the Persians, Belshazzar showed the truth of what the Word of God had prophesied through Habakkuk: “Then they brought the golden vessels that were taken out of the temple of the house of God which was at Jerusalem; and the king, and his princes, his wives, and his concubines, drank in them. They drank wine, and praised the gods of gold, and of silver, of brass, of iron, of wood, and of stone” (Dan. 5:3, 4). 

That night Belshazzar and his kingdom showed that the idols they worshiped and in which they trusted were of no help or profit, for “in that night was Belshazzar the king of the Chaldeans slain. And Darius the Median took the kingdom, being about threescore and two years old” (Dan. 5:30, 31). He also learned that night, though the lesson was brief and fatal, that “the Lord is in his holy temple.” He had it written on the walls of his palace by the fingers of man’s hand, “mene; God hath numbered thy kingdom, and finished it. tekel; Thou art weighed in the balances, and art found wanting. peres; Thy kingdom is divided, and given to the Medes and Persians” (Dan. 5:26-28). 

In interpreting the handwriting on Belshazzar’s wall, Daniel reminded him of how his father had learned the truth that the most High rules in the kingdoms of men, that the Lord is in His holy temple: 

O thou king, the most high God gave Nebuchadnezzar thy father a kingdom, and majesty, and glory, and honour: And for the majesty that he gave him, all people, nations, and languages, trembled and feared before him: whom he would he slew; and whom he would he kept alive; and whom he would he set up; and whom he would he put down. But when his heart was lifted up, and his mind hardened in pride, he was deposed from his kingly throne, and they took his glory from him: And he was driven from the sons of men; and his heart was made like the beasts, and his dwelling was with the wild asses: they fed him with grass like oxen, and his body was wet with the dew of heaven; till he knew that the most high God ruled in the kingdom of men, and that he appointeth over it whomsoever he will. And thou his son, O Belshazzar, hast not humbled thine heart, though thou knewest all this; But hast lifted up thyself against the Lord of heaven; and they have brought the vessels of his house before thee, and thou, and thy lords, thy wives, and thy concubines, have drunk wine in them; and thou hast praised the gods of silver, and gold, of brass, iron, wood, and stone, which see not, nor hear, nor know: and the God in whose hand thy breath is, and whose are all thy ways, hast thou not glorified (Dan. 5:18-23). 

Psalm 115:4-11 sum up the matter for us:

Their idols are silver and gold, the work of men’s hands. They have mouths, but they speak not: eyes have they, but they see not: They have ears, but they hear not: noses have they, but they smell not: They have hands, but they handle not: feet have they, but they walk not: neither speak they through their throat. They that make them are like unto them; so is every one that trusteth in them. O Israel, trust thou in the Lord: he is their help and their shield. O house of Aaron, trust in the Lord: he is their help and their shield. Ye that fear the Lord, trust in the Lord: he is their help and their shield. 

“The Lord is in his holy temple indeed!”

1 Commentaries on the Twelve Minor Prophets, vol. 4 (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1950), 113. 

2 Twelve Minor Prophets, vol. 4, p. 119.