During the 2nd week of the Coronavirus lockdown...
A strange thing happened to me today. For the second time since the Coronavirus crisis in the United States, I have been led to the Minor Prophets section of the Old Testament, and this time to the book of Habakkuk. Before I get into it however, I must say that the world has not seen the like of such an international panic about disease since probably the Black Plague in the 14th century. That disease, according to some estimates, ravaged the population of Europe, taking between 60 million and 200 million lives - a number which still staggers the mind. Humanity all over the populated world was forced to develop its sciences from that time, and in turn came the periods of the Renaissance and Reformation in Europe. Without any argument, the Coronavirus pandemic is nowhere near the kind of destruction that the Black Plague was, but at no other time in history are we so linked with communication as we are today, not to mention the economy. In my lifetime, I have never seen New York City shutdown; but it has now. Same thing with Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, and our city of Dallas. In fact, every city and county in the entire United States is on “shelter in place” - all to “get ahead” of the pandemic which has a fatality rate of 1-2% (according to many ongoing statistics). The countries of the world as well as the United States have decided that it is safer to “flat line” their economies than to face the predicted carnage of the Coronavirus - a strategy that many leaders are having second thoughts about right now.
Within the last few days, stores and supermarkets have had to change their hours of operation because they are running out of stock and are having difficulty meeting the demand of items as toilet paper, bottled water, hand sanitizer, bread, meat, chicken, etc. Walmarts, Targets, and Krogers have seemingly been emptied! Hospitals, on the other hand, are preparing for the very worst and yet are sending their doctors and nurses and other workers home while maintaining a token staff because the patient counts, right now, are low. And yet, constantly in the news are the prognosticators’ predictions of millions of people who will be hospitalized in the coming days! Ann Coulter (the conservative columnist) asked the other day in an editorial, “How does one flat line panic?” The answer is that you cannot - there is no remedy, no medication, no promise that leaders and economists and pundits can make or take that can ease people’s anxieties. One must make a choice to trust God.
I believe that God will make all of this work together for good for those who love God and are called according to His purpose (Romans 8:28). I believe that just as in the times of the prophet Joel, this type of destruction (which happened in his eponymous book to get the attention of the people of God) will lead to the promise and fulfillment of a great outpouring of the Holy Spirit. But in the meantime, it is no understatement to say that daily life has become increasingly stressful on the mind. “Social Distancing” keeps people separated from each other. Human contact has become nerve-wracking if not threatening. We are not allowed to worship in groups of more than ten, and we find out the limits of mass media/social media/digital communications. As a whole we crave close contact. We want to go to restaurants. We want to congregate, we need that fellowship; and now we are afraid of it. We are restricted from it…all in the name of not contracting the Coronavirus or spreading it. It’s almost like leprosy in the Bible times except in a much greater scope. And still the guess work continues. No one has an accurate prediction of when things will get better or if they will get better all. Dr. Anthony Fauci, who has become in essence the point man from the government, says that he cannot speak to what is “anecdotal” in terms of a cure; as a medical doctor and scientist he wants to be absolutely foundational with all the research to back up the claim of any potential vaccination or medication that would possibly alleviate this present crisis. In the meantime he and the other doctors and medical researchers are predicting fatalities in term of hundreds of thousands of people! And dare I say it, many of the liberal press seem to salivate at the possibility just so that it could bring down the President. At the same time, there is the challenge against the Church world this Easter season. There is no end to negativity. Church leaders across the board have to deal with questions about the future: How will local churches survive? How do we take care of our bills, payments, and ministry expenses? What about missions? What about staff? Everything is up in the air.
For me personally, the questions about the future all have to do with the Faith. In my last article, I said that this is a time where everyone’s faith will be tested. Theology, Eschatology, the Pentecostal Experience is all on the proverbial scaffold; we are challenged on every side just as the prophets in the Old Testament were challenged, and this is one challenge that cannot be easily brushed aside or ignored. After all, many a crusade preacher, many a megachurch preacher had preached in a cavalier manner a cross-less Christianity, one that did not need a commitment and which was completely bent towards one’s present-day comforts. One needs just to “prophesy” their blessing over themselves - speak the word, and it was done! There was just one problem: without the message of the Cross, such ideas are just wishful thinking that will fail the test of time. And it is failing for many a life, now. Let me speak from the perspective of a preacher.
For decades, we have cried out to God’s people to humble themselves and turn to God. I personally was told many times over the years that my preaching was too negative and condemning at times...and I will admit in my reflective moments that perhaps that was true. It is not easy to go against the current of popular culture. But when I would retort to my protestors whether they had changed or not, the answer would be a resounding “no”. When everything is well to do, who is going to listen to the subject of Judgement? Malcolm Muggeridge - a British journalist/thinker of the last century was quoted by Dr. Ravi Zacharias as saying about a time when the British sang that the God who “made the mighty would make them mightier still” - an ode to the strength of the British Empire at the beginning of the 20th century upon which the “sun never set.” Muggeridge went on to say that he had lived to see that Empire - the very island of Britain - threatened with financial bankruptcy and dismemberment from within. No - it is not easy to listen to the “negative warning” about God and impending judgement on sin, injustice, immorality, and arrogance against Him and against one another when everything is well and good, and in a state of success.
But a true preacher gets no pleasure seeing the destruction of his own people, probably because even though he knows that judgement is coming, he does not know HOW it is coming. Such was the case of Habakkuk. The context of Habakkuk was similar to that of Malcolm Muggeridge at the turn of the last century. It was a time where the nation of Judah was enjoying the best from their economy with moments of relative peace. But all was not well. As Malcolm Muggeridge said once, “there is no such thing as darkness, only failure to see.” Most people were successful enough to avert their eyes from the sins of the time. If they didn’t want to see the immoralities committed by people, then they were not going to see it. If they did not want to see the spiritual compromises of the nation, they were not going to see it. If they did not see the injustice perpetrated by the rich and powerful against the poor and weary, they could just close their eyes and look the other way. Everything was well! Why cause a disturbance? The temple still functioned in Jerusalem, and there were sacrifices offered daily. But, formalism had become the true practice of Jewish people - the actual god they worshiped was power that came from wealth and promotions. They saw the Ten Commandments every day - on stone tablets, in books that the priest read, on signs on the wall - but the Holy Spirit that wrote it, spoke it was not moving in their hearts with it. In other words, “a form of Godliness denying the power thereof.”
Habakkuk, the frustrated preacher-prophet asked God, “How long do I cry like this, and nothing changes?” God answers him, in essence, “if I tell you how I will move upon these people in judgement, you will not believe it.” Habakkuk’s response was something akin to “yes I will!” God then tells him that he will raise up the Chaldeans (the Babylonians) against the Israelites. Habakkuk had two responses: 1) “I don’t believe it! 2) How can you do it like that?
It took me a while to figure the main idea of Habakkuk’s prophecy. It is not about judgement - that is a secondary theme in the book, and could be considered a message that applies to the whole world, not just to the people of Israel. It applies also the Babylonians (and to anyone else) and the crimes they were committing and would commit in their rise to power. “But the Lord is in His temple. Let all the earth be silent before Him” (Habakkuk 2:20).
The primary idea is twofold: endurance and then revival. The troubles that were coming could not be avoided and no one was exempt. Everyone was going to suffer, and the people of Judah would be taken into captivity; some would escape with their lives, but the situation would be miserable. But God’s presence would still be with His people. This problem was not outside of His will or knowledge nor was He powerless to do anything about it. In fact, in His time He would do absolutely great things on behalf of His people no matter what suffering they would endure in any part of the world they would end up - God would still watch over His people. “Write the vision down on tablets so that he that is running may read it. For the vision is yet for an appointed time but at the end, it shall speak and not lie. Though it tarry wait for it for it shall surely come and not delay…the just shall live by faith (Habakkuk 2:2-4, a paraphrase).” For what vision? To what purpose? To what end? Revival/Renaissance.
“The earth shall be filled with the knowledge of the glory Lord as the waters cover the sea (Habakkuk 2:14).” After this comes Habakkuk’s prayer, which providentially closes out the book.
Most of Habakkuk’s prayer in chapter 3 is praise and worship to God. In a beautiful way, he is describing God’s power and glory and how He comes with all His power to delivers His people. The intent of the Holy Spirit through the prophet is to bring the people of God to, and through, a decision point - something that happened several times in the Old Testament. What decision? To quote Joshua, “Choose you this day whom you will serve.” Joshua answered for himself and his family: “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord! (Joshua 24:15).”
Each personality who stood for God in the Bible spoke to the people of their times with an eye to the future, especially the prophets. Habakkuk had a very difficult prophecy to preach. He could see God’s judgement coming down. He could see that God would use the Babylonians to execute that judgement. He knew what His people (both the believers as well as the sinners) would go through at the hands of the Babylonians and many other nations. He knew how widespread the destruction would be, and the question he need to answer in his own life was, “Can I trust God through this?” It was the decision point, that moment of a “leap of faith” - a moment similar to that moment when Peter heard the Lord call him out of the boat to walk on water. It was not a moment free of risk; in fact to the contrary - it was a moment and situation with untold fears of the unknown. All Habakkuk knew was that God was speaking to him…”The just shall live by faith.”. That was enough for him. As the apostle Paul said in I Thessalonians 5:24, “Faithful is he that calleth you, who will also do it.” Do what exactly? “The very God of peace sanctify you wholly; and I pray God your whole spirit and soul and body be preserved blameless unto the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
No one can have faith in God on their own. It is the Holy Spirit that helps us in our weakness. He knows our heart and if our desire is to obey His will and walk in His way - and if so and we ask Him, and surrender our lives to Him - He will help us! And that is what Habakkuk was saying when he closed his book in worship: “Though the fig tree should not blossom and there be no fruit on the vines, though the yield of the olive should fail and the fields produce no food, though the flock should be cut off from the fold and there be no cattle in the stalls, yet I will exult in the Lord, I will rejoice in the God of my salvation. The Lord God is my strength, and He has made my feet like hinds’ feet, and makes me walk on my high places. (And as an aside) For the choir director, on my stringed instruments (Habakkuk 3:17-19).”