Psalm 119 – Affliction

  [67] Before I was afflicted I went astray,
              but now I keep your word.

  [71] It is good for me that I was afflicted,
              that I might learn your statutes.

  [75] I know, O LORD, that your rules are righteous,
              and that in faithfulness you have afflicted me. (ESV)

Psalm 119 is a 176-verse ode to the wondrous goodness of God’s law that I used to find quite confusing.  The psalmist goes on and on and on about the goodness of the law.  I could understand an ode to God’s mercy, kindness, and love, but why an ode to this restrictive set of rules that God handed down to Israel?  I came to realize (mostly through breaking many of these rules and the disaster that ensued) that the law is actually an immense blessing, a guide to the best possible outcome for God’s people.  Obeying God’s law is like putting water in a fishbowl or premium gasoline in a Ferrari.  It ensures that we get exactly what we were made for.  And for this reason, God’s restrictive law is actually wonderful.  It provides the exact set of restrictions that make us most alive, most free.

In the heart of Psalm 119, the psalmist takes a moment to acknowledge the goodness of the means by which God caused him to delight in the law: affliction.  He actually says that it is good that he was afflicted (v.71) and that affliction is a sign of God’s faithfulness (v. 75) since affliction ultimately makes us turn to His Word (v. 67).

Affliction can be truly horrible and sad, but the immense good that can come from it is that when we are afflicted, we may more than ever before look outside ourselves for help, for life.  In the midst of affliction, I may realize that I am not a self-contained life source with answers to all of life’s mysteries.  I may look to God and His ways instead.  I may find that while I have been charting my own course through this mysterious and perilous world, God has all along revealed the exact way to go.

We cannot possibly know all the reasons that God allows affliction into our lives.  Some is self-imposed (the consequences of our own sin) and some is the result of living in a world broken by sin (a sickness or loss).  When afflicted, however, there is one sure response: move toward God.  Follow Him and His ways.  He has proven His trustworthiness by becoming a man and dying to bring you to Himself.

We live in a time of immense uncertainty in which many face severe afflictions of various kinds.  When we are unsure of how to respond and what to do, we should do what God says to do: run to Him, worship Him, love your neighbor, remember Him in all your ways.  You can even thank Him for afflicting you.  As you do so, you will not gain all the answers, but you can be assured that you are living life as it was meant to be lived.  That is the blessing of the law.

Habakkuk part 8 – 3:17-19 – Rejoice

  [17] Though the fig tree should not blossom,
              nor fruit be on the vines,
  the produce of the olive fail
              and the fields yield no food,
  the flock be cut off from the fold
              and there be no herd in the stalls,
  [18] yet I will rejoice in the LORD;
              I will take joy in the God of my salvation.
  [19] GOD, the Lord, is my strength;
              he makes my feet like the deer's;
              he makes me tread on my high places.
  To the choirmaster: with stringed instruments. (ESV)

Habakkuk’s dialogue with God has radically transformed his outlook.  Having begun by questioning whether God could possibly know what He’s doing, Habakkuk now not only trusts in the LORD but rejoices in Him.  V. 17 depicts the loss of every material thing and every worldly source of security, and Habakkuk has been told that this day WILL come for God’s people.  Yet His response is to rejoice!

In the midst of disaster, God’s people have a perspective that differs drastically from that of the world.  When we come to know the God who is holy and powerful yet who saves, the God who is redeeming His entire creation, the loss of HIM is the only true disaster.  If we have been secured in His covenant love, then that means we have everything.  That means we can live lives of continual joy in all circumstances knowing that God can ONLY be good to His people.

Christians bring an even clearer perspective to this text, because we know how that covenant love was secured.  On the cross, the only true disaster befell our sinless savior.  As He cried out to the eternal Father, the response was only silence.  To save us, Jesus truly lost everything so that we could have every good thing forever.  We are now like the deer that can be sure-footed even on the most treacherous of heights.  If we have Him, then we have every good thing forever.

“For while in Him confiding, I cannot but rejoice” – William Cowper

Habakkuk part 7 – 3:1-16 – Remember

[1] A prayer of Habakkuk the prophet, according to Shigionoth.

  [2] O LORD, I have heard the report of you,
              and your work, O LORD, do I fear.
  In the midst of the years revive it;
              in the midst of the years make it known;
              in wrath remember mercy.
  [3] God came from Teman,
              and the Holy One from Mount Paran. Selah
  His splendor covered the heavens,
              and the earth was full of his praise.
  [4] His brightness was like the light;
              rays flashed from his hand;
              and there he veiled his power.
  [5] Before him went pestilence,
              and plague followed at his heels.
  [6] He stood and measured the earth;
              he looked and shook the nations;
  then the eternal mountains were scattered;
              the everlasting hills sank low.
              His were the everlasting ways.
  [7] I saw the tents of Cushan in affliction;
              the curtains of the land of Midian did tremble.
  [8] Was your wrath against the rivers, O LORD?
              Was your anger against the rivers,
              or your indignation against the sea,
  when you rode on your horses,
              on your chariot of salvation?
  [9] You stripped the sheath from your bow,
              calling for many arrows. Selah
              You split the earth with rivers.
  [10] The mountains saw you and writhed;
              the raging waters swept on;
  the deep gave forth its voice;
              it lifted its hands on high.
  [11] The sun and moon stood still in their place
              at the light of your arrows as they sped,
              at the flash of your glittering spear.
  [12] You marched through the earth in fury;
              you threshed the nations in anger.
  [13] You went out for the salvation of your people,
              for the salvation of your anointed.
  You crushed the head of the house of the wicked,
              laying him bare from thigh to neck. Selah
  [14] You pierced with his own arrows the heads of his warriors,
              who came like a whirlwind to scatter me,
              rejoicing as if to devour the poor in secret.
  [15] You trampled the sea with your horses,
              the surging of mighty waters.
  [16] I hear, and my body trembles;
              my lips quiver at the sound;
  rottenness enters into my bones;
              my legs tremble beneath me.
  Yet I will quietly wait for the day of trouble
              to come upon people who invade us. (ESV)

So much of the way we are instructed to respond to calamity is to wait.  But we are not supposed to JUST wait.  While we wait, we are to remember and be strengthened by the salvation that the LORD has already accomplished on behalf of His people.

These verses are filled with imagery of the miraculous exodus from Egypt, Israel at Mount Sinai receiving God’s law, and Israel defeating God’s enemies in the conquest of the Promised Land.  The salvation of the LORD is His work alone, and it is incredible.  Israel could only respond by praising Him, serving Him in reverent fear, and wondering at His mercy toward them.

The hope in this passage comes through the realization that a God who goes to such great lengths to save His rebellious people will not turn around and quit on them.  Those of us that live on the other side of the second exodus (the cross of Christ) have the same hope, but it is amplified.  The God who made the long journey from heaven to earth to die for His enemies so that they might become His children will not suddenly quit on us.  So while we may tremble at impending disaster like Habakkuk (v. 16), our remembrance of God’s salvation should lead us to simultaneously anticipate His ultimate defeat of evil, that day when every knee will bow and proclaim that Christ is Lord, and when we will rest in His loving arms.

Habakkuk part 6 – 2:6-20 – Keep Waiting For It

[6] Shall not all these take up their taunt against him, with scoffing and riddles for him, and say,

  “Woe to him who heaps up what is not his own—
              for how long?—
              and loads himself with pledges!”
  [7] Will not your debtors suddenly arise,
              and those awake who will make you tremble?
              Then you will be spoil for them.
  [8] Because you have plundered many nations,
              all the remnant of the peoples shall plunder you,
  for the blood of man and violence to the earth,
              to cities and all who dwell in them.

  [9] “Woe to him who gets evil gain for his house,
              to set his nest on high,
              to be safe from the reach of harm!
  [10] You have devised shame for your house
              by cutting off many peoples;
              you have forfeited your life.
  [11] For the stone will cry out from the wall,
              and the beam from the woodwork respond.
  [12] “Woe to him who builds a town with blood
              and founds a city on iniquity!
  [13] Behold, is it not from the LORD of hosts
              that peoples labor merely for fire,
              and nations weary themselves for nothing?
  [14] For the earth will be filled
              with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD
              as the waters cover the sea.
  [15] “Woe to him who makes his neighbors drink—
              you pour out your wrath and make them drunk,
              in order to gaze at their nakedness!
  [16] You will have your fill of shame instead of glory.
              Drink, yourself, and show your uncircumcision!
  The cup in the LORD's right hand
              will come around to you,
              and utter shame will come upon your glory!
  [17] The violence done to Lebanon will overwhelm you,
              as will the destruction of the beasts that terrified them,
  for the blood of man and violence to the earth,
              to cities and all who dwell in them.
  [18] “What profit is an idol
              when its maker has shaped it,
              a metal image, a teacher of lies?
  For its maker trusts in his own creation
              when he makes speechless idols!
  [19] Woe to him who says to a wooden thing, Awake;
              to a silent stone, Arise!
  Can this teach?
  Behold, it is overlaid with gold and silver,
              and there is no breath at all in it.
  [20] But the LORD is in his holy temple;
              let all the earth keep silence before him.” (ESV)

In this series of taunts, God reassures Habakkuk that all God’s enemies will certainly pay for their evil deeds.  Whether it is violence, cruelty, or injustice, all those who perpetrate evil will have evil return on them.  The God that they defy is the LORD of hosts (v. 13), the commander of the heavenly armies.  Yet amid the disaster for all enemies of the LORD, there is hope for all His people: the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD as the waters cover the sea (v. 14).

The glory of the LORD is his special presence with His people.  It is what filled the tabernacle and temple.  Habakkuk’s hope and our hope is that there will come a day when it fills the earth.  On that day, sin and all its effects will be fully and finally put to death.  As God’s people, our hope is in THAT day, and not in the removal of a particular evil that gives our lives temporary stability.

The LORD’s final taunt is against all false gods and false hopes (vv. 18-20).  Trusting in anything that is made, trusting in anything other than the true God, is the epitome of folly.  God’s people, who like Babylon are prone to such folly, should take note.  In what are we putting our trust?  Let us turn in reverent awe to the holy one (v. 20) who goes on to demonstrate His holiness, power, and glory as one who is taunted (Matt 27:28-31), as one who suffers like an evildoer on our behalf in order to secure our everlasting hope (2 Cor 5:21).

Habakkuk part 5 – 2:2-5 – Wait For It

[2] And the LORD answered me:

  “Write the vision;
              make it plain on tablets,
              so he may run who reads it.
  [3] For still the vision awaits its appointed time;
              it hastens to the end—it will not lie.
  If it seems slow, wait for it;
              it will surely come; it will not delay.

  [4] “Behold, his soul is puffed up; it is not upright within him,
              but the righteous shall live by his faith.
  [5] “Moreover, wine is a traitor,
              an arrogant man who is never at rest.
  His greed is as wide as Sheol;
              like death he has never enough.
  He gathers for himself all nations
              and collects as his own all peoples.” (ESV)

Habakkuk has asked God an honest question and now God responds.  His response is, “wait for it.”  Verses 4a and 5 depict Babylon (and any proud person), drunk on their own power, greedy, and abandoning common decency altogether.  This evil and injustice will not escape God’s sight.  “But the righteous shall live by his faith.”  This is not merely referring to faithful living, but to sharing in the salvation accomplished by the LORD – looking to who He is and what He has done rather than to what I can do in any given situation.

When calamity hits, we have the option of trusting ourselves (a path to continual insecurity and insatiable greed), or trusting in the LORD who answers His people when they call.  Sometimes, as in this case, we must wait far longer than we would prefer.  But He alone is trustworthy, and life apart from Him can only end in disaster.  Wait for it.

Habakkuk part 4 – 1:12-2:1 – Why?

  [12] Are you not from everlasting,
              O LORD my God, my Holy One?
              We shall not die.
  O LORD, you have ordained them as a judgment,
              and you, O Rock, have established them for reproof.
  [13] You who are of purer eyes than to see evil
              and cannot look at wrong,
  why do you idly look at traitors
              and remain silent when the wicked swallows up
              the man more righteous than he?
  [14] You make mankind like the fish of the sea,
              like crawling things that have no ruler.
  [15] He brings all of them up with a hook;
              he drags them out with his net;
  he gathers them in his dragnet;
              so he rejoices and is glad.
  [16] Therefore he sacrifices to his net
              and makes offerings to his dragnet;
  for by them he lives in luxury,
              and his food is rich.
  [17] Is he then to keep on emptying his net
              and mercilessly killing nations forever?
  [2:1] I will take my stand at my watchpost
              and station myself on the tower,
  and look out to see what he will say to me,
              and what I will answer concerning my complaint. (ESV)

This amazing rebuttal from Habakkuk expresses both confidence in the LORD and an accusation of Him and His ways.  He knows that God is eternal and that God’s people can therefore be confident about their future.  He knows that God has ordained Babylon’s conquest as a judgment.  At the same time, he can’t get past how God seems to idly look on while great evil is perpetrated in the world and wicked nations prosper.  He portrays man at his worst, callously exploiting others and “killing nations forever.”

It is not incongruous in the Bible to serve and trust the LORD and yet question His ways.  If God’s work in the world is far beyond human comprehension, then of course we would find it confusing and even seemingly backward much of the time.  Because He is good, He even invites us to express our bewilderment as we relate to Him.  So if you are wondering how it is that God could allow and even ordain wars and disease and death, know that you are not alone and that like a patient parent (unlike me these days!), He listens to all our questions and concerns.  More strikingly, this God, as He pursues us in love, even becomes like us and asks the question Himself! (Matt 27:46).

Habakkuk part 3 – 1:5-11 – God Responds

  [5] “Look among the nations, and see;
              wonder and be astounded.
  For I am doing a work in your days
              that you would not believe if told.
  [6] For behold, I am raising up the Chaldeans,
              that bitter and hasty nation,
  who march through the breadth of the earth,
              to seize dwellings not their own.
  [7] They are dreaded and fearsome;
              their justice and dignity go forth from themselves.
  [8] Their horses are swifter than leopards,
              more fierce than the evening wolves;
              their horsemen press proudly on.
  Their horsemen come from afar;
              they fly like an eagle swift to devour.
  [9] They all come for violence,
              all their faces forward.
              They gather captives like sand.
  [10] At kings they scoff,
              and at rulers they laugh.
  They laugh at every fortress,
              for they pile up earth and take it.
  [11] Then they sweep by like the wind and go on,
              guilty men, whose own might is their god!” (ESV)

It is amazing that God welcomes His people to cry out “How long?” in the face of suffering and injustice.  It is even more amazing that in Habakkuk’s case, He responds.  He is a God who hears and a God who is intimately involved in the details of our lives and our world.  God’s response to Habakkuk’s complaint has two components: 1. God is ALREADY at work, and 2. It is NOT in the way you’d expect.

God is keenly aware of the situation among His people and has already been working (before Habakkuk brings it up) to raise up the Chaldeans (Babylonians) as the new regional superpower to deal with it.  Surprisingly, God will use this violent and fierce nation that is morally worse than Israel to accomplish His good purposes for Israel, which at this point in time is overrunning them.  While Habakkuk had seen violence among his own people (v.2), the Chaldeans would take violence to a new level (v. 9), eventually leveling Jerusalem and capturing God’s precious people in 586 BC.

In the face of disaster, God is already at work to bless His people.  He’s been at work long before we ever think to ask.  And yet He works in surprising ways that no one could predict.  Sometimes, like in this case, He makes things seemingly much worse in order to ultimately make them better.  Sometimes he inflicts pain in order to heal.  But He is always working for the good of His people.

Habakkuk part 2 – 1:1-4 – How Long?

[1] The oracle that Habakkuk the prophet saw.
  [2] O LORD, how long shall I cry for help,
              and you will not hear?
  Or cry to you “Violence!”
              and you will not save?
  [3] Why do you make me see iniquity,
              and why do you idly look at wrong?
  Destruction and violence are before me;
              strife and contention arise.
  [4] So the law is paralyzed,
              and justice never goes forth.
  For the wicked surround the righteous;
              so justice goes forth perverted.(ESV)

“How long?” is the most natural question to ask in the face of suffering.  When true suffering and brokenness arrive, we immediately want to know when they will leave.  We feel the wrong and we cry out for it to be righted.  Amazingly, in this and many other places in the Bible, God invites His people to ask it of Him.  He’s not offended by the question and it does not seem to annoy Him.  Although He is the King and in control of everything, working all things for the good of His people, it is still right and good to cry out, “How long?” when suffering and evil seem to prevail.  We don’t need to pretend everything is ok.  We don’t need to just deal with it.  Habakkuk sees people hurting each other and people in danger and it bereaves him.  It seems like everything is messed up without any hope of justice and peace prevailing.  And so he cries out to the LORD, “How long?”

As we face suffering, uncertainty, and injustice, before we do anything else, it is good and right that we would first direct our attention to the One who rules the universe and join His people who have throughout time cried out “How long?”  While it is a question that seems to reveal a struggle to believe, it is a question that gets us out of our self-sufficiency and is directed toward the only One who can do anything about the wrong we see in our world.  Because the reality is that we live in a world that is continually broken, whether we feel it acutely or not, the disposition of “How long, O Lord?” is a good place for the Christian to be.  It helps us direct our attention toward Him and our hope toward a time when He will fully and finally make all things right again.

Habakkuk part 1 – Introduction

Over the course of the next few days, I will be posting some brief devotional thoughts on the book of Habakkuk, a particularly important book of the Bible during dark times.  I hope you will follow along and benefit from it!

Habakkuk.  Some people pronounce it HaBAKKuk.  Others pronounce it HABakkuk.  It is not a book of the Bible with which many people have much familiarity.  It is, however, a great resource during dark, scary, and uncertain times.  It is written at a particularly dark point in the history of God’s people, Israel.  Although God had chosen Israel as His holy people, set apart for His glory, they were committing all kinds of treachery, worshiping the gods of neighboring people, practicing prostitution in the temple of the LORD, and sacrificing their children to the god Molech (cf 2 Kings 23).  If that weren’t enough, terrifying global superpower Assyria loomed large, threatening to overrun God’s people entirely.  The fate of Israel as God’s chosen and treasured people appeared bleak.

Into this terrifying situation, the prophet Habakkuk enters into a dialogue with God about sin and justice, and ultimately about how we can trust and even praise God during the most trying of times.  For those seeking to make sense of wickedness in the world, the threat of catastrophe, God’s role in it all, and how we can flourish during dark times, the book of Habakkuk provides needed perspective and needed answers.  I hope you will follow along in this devotional study of Habakkuk over the course of the next few days.