The Unbelievable Saviour – A Portrait of God (9)

I have been working on a new book project for a while, God Is: Portraits of the King. It consists of short expositions of Scripture portraying the character of Yahweh, our God. This and related posts are chapters from this book.

Look among the nations, and behold;
Be astonished and astounded.
For I am doing a work in your days
that you would not believe if told.
Habakkuk 1:51
Siege of Jerusalem - Francesco Hayez
Francesco Hayez, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Several decades ago, J.B. Philips suggested that the “God” of many people in his age was too small, that the common conception of God was a diluted and distorted version of the true and living God.2 This problem of sticking God in a box of our own making is not unique to mid-20th century Britain; recent authors have spoken of the practical theology of the late 20th-century and 21st-century teens as “morally therapeutic deism,” where “God” is not heavily involved in people’s lives, he wants everyone to be good people, and self-realisation is the primary good of this life.3 The Book of Habakkuk, one of the Minor Prophets, suggests that we are not the only generation that struggles with fitting God into a preconceived box.

In the opening verses of Habakkuk, Habakkuk cries out to God to save his people from the wicked leaders of their nation. This is a time of great turmoil in Judah, where God’s law is not enacted and injustice reigns. God’s response shatters Habakkuk’s preconception of God, and God knows this. God describes the amazing work of salvation he is about to do as unbelievable, “I am doing a work in your days, that you would not believe if told” (1:5). When God reveals this deed, the coming invasion of Babylon (1:6-11), Habakkuk responds as God anticipated, with unbelief. “You couldn’t do such a thing!” Habakkuk charges God (1:12-2:1), yet God could and would do it. Habakkuk must learn that God is not bound by what he can conceive. God is good; God is the “God of old,” the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; he has definite character and is, therefore, reliable. However, that God is reliable and trustworthy does not mean God is predictable.

God tells Habakkuk that the job of a believer is to trust him in the face of his unbelievable deeds, trusting him because he is reliable. When the present deeds of God seem preposterous, he can point to his track record and show that he has been unwaveringly faithful thus far. Our trust is not blind but is rooted in history, in the demonstrable kindness and faithfulness of God who walked with our ancestors, who delivered Israel from slavery, who continually showed them mercy, and ultimately came as a man to suffer and die that we might live. God reassures Habakkuk that he will indeed judge the wicked, even if he might use them for a time as tools of redemption (2:6-20). However, at the end of the day, God has given us his resume and we are left to be silent and trust him,

But, YHWH is in His holy temple,
   be silent before Him all the earth! (2:20)

Habakkuk looks to the track record of God and makes the plunge: he recognises that God can be trusted. He asks, despite his fear, that God would “give [this deed of yours] life, in the midst of years, make it known” (3:2). And he concludes,

Even when the fig tree does not bear fruit,
and there is no yield of the vine,
the labour done for olives fails,
and the fields do not produce food,
the flocks are cut from the fold,
and there is no cattle in the stalls,
I myself will rejoice in YHWH;
I will exult in the God of my salvation.
The Lord YHWH is my strength:
He sets my feet like a doe
and causes me to tread upon high places. (3:17-19)

God would save his people; God would answer Habakkuk’s prayer, though not in the way he first imagined. Nevertheless, God is the “God of my salvation,” the God who fulfills his promises to preserve and protect his people. Sometimes, God’s ways of doing so are astounding and astonishing (1:5), yet despite the unbelievable, God can be trusted. Habakkuk sets for us the example of someone who fears the work of God yet nevertheless trusts the God who will do this. Similarly, Jesus feared the suffering set before him, he could even ask for another way, yet in the end, “Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done” (Luke 22:42, ESV).

  1. This post is based on Habakkuk 1:5, 2:3-4, and 3:17-19. All translation are from my Habakkuk commentary. []
  2. J. B. Phillips, Your God Is Too Small: A Guide for Believers and Skeptics Alike (Simon and Schuster, 2004). First published in 1953. []
  3. R. Albert Mohler Jr., “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism–the New American Religion,” The Christian Post, 18 April 2005, https://www.christianpost.com/news/ moralistic-therapeutic-deism-the-new-american-religion.html; Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2005). []

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