Welcome to Truth for Life where today we're beginning our study in the book of Habakkuk, an Old Testament prophet who wasn't afraid to ask God tough questions.
Alistair Begg will help us explore these questions during this study. We'll see that the worries Habakkuk had more than 2,500 years ago continue to plague many of God's people to this day. I think it is time for us as a congregation to be in the Old Testament, and so we are. I decided that it would be good for us to go to the Minor Prophets, because they are so routinely neglected. I have somewhat arbitrarily decided to dip into the Minor Prophets here in Habakkuk, perhaps because I think in all the Minor Prophets I may have done one or two studies in my life from this particular prophecy.
Neither of them were any good. One of them was while I was still a student, and it is a great investigation for me and a journey on which we will go together. It is important to recognize that when we reference this as one of the twelve Minor Prophets, as they're referred to, the reason that they're regarded as being Minor Prophets in contrast to the five big ones is not in relationship to their content, but it's simply in relationship to their length. And in contrast with, for example, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, the Minor Prophets are all far smaller than those larger books. And when we study in this way, in this little book of three chapters, I don't think that we will have reason to regret the time that we spend. The temptation for us, especially going into the Old Testament, is to immediately assume that we are so far removed from the circumstances that are described in these chapters that they may well have nothing at all really to say to us. But in actual fact, as we're going to discover, although we're a long way away both chronologically and geographically, we are far closer than we may be prepared to admit when it comes to thinking in terms of the moral and the spiritual condition of the people of God as described here in these three chapters. And as in all of our study of the Bible, we dare not jump too quickly to application, lest we do not understand what it is we're seeing. So before, if you like, we bring Habakkuk to Cleveland, we have to go and meet him first in his own setting. Because it is only as we understand who and where Habakkuk was that we can then make any kind of sensible application to who we are and to where we are.
In the time that is afforded to us, we will notice just two things. Let's pay attention, first of all, to the prophet, and then just say a word concerning the problem that he surfaces. First of all, the prophet.
The oracle that Habakkuk the prophet received. If you're taking notes and you look for subpoints, the first subpoint that I wrote down is simply biographical content. Biographical content. What is the biographical content? Actually, it is totally nonexistent.
It just isn't there. You can't find Habakkuk anywhere else in the Old Testament—at least, I've been unable to find him—and all that we know of him we may derive from our study of these three chapters. Now that tells us something, not simply about this individual, but it actually tells us something about the role of the prophet, the role of the one who is raised up by God to speak to the circumstances of the times in which he lives, to bring the burden of God's insights and designs to bear upon those who are his listeners. And if you like, we may say, as with true preaching, that the significance of the prophet is to be found in what he says. Or if you like, that his biography, nonexistent as it is, is subservient to the burden that he brings. You say, Well, I don't understand burden. Well, depending on your translation of the Bible, you may have oracle as the second word in the first verse, or you may have burden as the second word in the first verse. I prefer the word burden. It's in the King James, I think, the burden that Habakkuk the prophet received.
Was it an oracle? Yes, but it was a burden. What was the burden? The burden of seeing things as per the insight that God had given him. The burden of looking out at circumstances that others had seen but didn't see the significance of what they were seeing. It's very similar to what you have in Nehemiah. Although he was not a prophet, he was called to something of a prophetic role when he arrives in Jerusalem, and he sees that the walls are broken down, the people are living in disunity and in chaos, and he says to them, Do you see the trouble we are in?
And the fact was, they did, but they didn't. And it was the burden that had been given to Nehemiah—a burden of leadership, a burden of responsibility. And so, for Habakkuk, his credentials are all in his call. His credentials are all in his call. His significance is all in his sermon.
No time at all is taken up with personal introductions. Why? Because the message is greater than the man. And the message is always greater than the man. Despite our preoccupations in twenty-first century America with personalities, the message is always more significant than the man. All of my sermons preached are eventually grass.
Their only significance is to be found insofar as they represent any dimension whereby the unerring truth and reliability of God's Word itself finds an anchor in our souls. And hence we began with John the Baptist. Perhaps took you off guard. Strange reading with which to begin our evening worship. No, not so strange. And they asked John, Who are you? And remember his answers. No, I'm not him. Well, are you him? No, I'm not him. Are you him?
No, I'm not. And in their frustration they said, Oh, come along now, John. We're going to have to have something to put up on the screen. We need something for our bulletin. We need something to tell everybody how significant you are. And remember, he eventually says, I'm a voice crying in the wilderness. I'm a light that is shining for a little while, but he is the light of the world.
I am a finger that is pointing in the direction of him, and he must increase and I must decrease. I think that's part of the significance of the absolute total absence of biographical emphasis here. It runs through the prophetic words.
Actually, we know more about some than others, but even the things we know about them are not that profound or compelling. You go to Amos, for example, and what does he have for his credentials? He's a keeper of fig trees and a tender of sheep. And now here we have at our conference this week Amos. Now, we were going to put something in the bulletin about Amos, but really, there's nothing much to put in. I mean, he had a few fig trees, and he was looking after sheep, but it was rather embarrassing.
We just left it out. But I'll tell you what, when he stood to his feet and began to preach, it was all forgotten then. There is an important lesson here, then. I want to point it out, especially for young men who are here who feel that God may be calling them to the preaching role. Let me tell you what the key is in one verse, and it's Isaiah 66 2, where God says, This is the one I esteem.
He who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word. That in the very core of the individual called to the task, there is a genuine self-effacement which understands the compelling nature of the call. It says something not only concerning the individual, but it says something concerning the reality of that which he's called to do, to speak prophetically, and to preach. And I've been reading the most recent book by David Wells for these last few days and boring all my colleagues with quotes from it, but I have three more for you right now, as the book draws to a close.
And I've slowed down to just about a page a day, because I've been enjoying it so much, and I only have a few pages left. This is what Wells is saying to the twenty-first century. He says, Preaching is not a conversation, a chat about some interesting ideas. It is not the moment in which postmoderns hear their own private message in the biblical words, one unique to each one who hears and then go their own way.
No. This is God speaking. He speaks through the stammering lips of the preacher, where that preacher's mind is on the text of Scripture, and his heart is in the presence of God. God, as Luther put it, lives in the preacher's mouth. This is the kind of preaching that issues a summons which nourishes the soul, which draws the congregation into the very presence of God so that no matter what aspect of his character, his truth, his working in this world is in focus.
We leave with awe, gratitude, encouragement, and sometimes a rebuke. We have been in the very presence of God. That is what great preaching always does. Preaching lives between two worlds—the world of God's truth and the world we inhabit in our minds and daily life. If preaching does not bridge these two worlds effectively, the church inevitably stumbles.
Where preaching negotiates these worlds, there one is likely to find spiritual authenticity. The biographical content, almost totally lacking. Secondly, the historical context in which he speaks, we have more to say.
I could take you to various chapters, but I'm not going to for want of time. I simply want to say to you that if you keep the picture of Daniel in mind, and all that happened to Daniel when he was dragged away into Babylon, you have in that timeframe and in that incident the fulfillment of that which Habakkuk is called upon to speak to his generation. And what God burdens him with, both to see and then to say, finds the greater part of his fulfillment in those events concerning the invasion of Babylon and the captivity of God's people. And if you want to delve into it, then you will find that the king at this time was Jehoiakim. And if you look up Jehoiakim, that will help you.
It will take you into 2 Kings. And if you look in the prophecy of Jeremiah, you will discover that the same king, Jehoiakim, is mentioned there in Jeremiah and gives to us the understanding that Habakkuk was a younger contemporary of the prophet Jeremiah. They didn't live at all of the same time, but they lived during the same era. And it is out of that historical framework that this prophecy emerges. So, the prophet, his biographical content is absent. The historical context may be discovered if you search out the Scriptures. The problem that he surfaces is there for us in verse 2 and following. How long, O LORD, must I call for help, but you do not listen? What he is really describing here in surfacing is essentially the discrepancy between revelation and experience. How can he reconcile what he knows of the character and purpose of a good and powerful God with all that he sees around him?
That's what he's asking. How can it possibly be that you, O God, are good and powerful, and yet violence and moral ineptitude and chaos confronts us at every point? A collapsing economy, diminishing productivity, food shortage, violence, social injustice, and a wholesale disregard for God's law—just to run through that little list, immediately says to somebody, Well, maybe this isn't as far removed from where we live as I thought. Collapsing economy, diminishing productivity, food shortage, violence, social injustice, and a wholesale disregard for what God has said in his Word.
That's a problem, isn't it? And you will notice in verses 2–4 that the problem was internal. This wasn't a problem of the people who were outside the framework of God's family. It was those who were within God's family.
What he is describing here is that God's people are very far from what God had designed for them. When God put them together and called them out and established them, he explained to them very clearly all the plans he had for them. And he says to them in Exodus 19, You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles' wings and brought you to myself. Now, if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all the nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. And these are the words you're to speak to the Israelites. And are they there?
No, they're far from there. And the problem is an internal problem, and the problem is a continual problem, because there was no end in sight, because there was no apparent intervention or action on the part of God. And when you look at those verses, you realize that the problem is essentially twofold. God's time scale, verse 2, how long is this going to go on? And God's tolerance, verse 3, why do you make me look at injustice, and why do you tolerate wrong? It's a very contemporary question, isn't it? It's a question on the lips of every thoughtful believer.
How long will this go on? And why is it that this good God whom we serve, this moral God that we serve, this all-powerful God that we serve, tolerates declension and spiritual and moral dry rot amongst those who profess to be the followers of his Son? Well, we'll have to wait until next time to begin to consider God's action.
Well, let me just give you a couple of observations in conclusion. First of all, it would be helpful for us to follow the prophet's example in learning to call on the Lord for help. Notice what he's doing here. He's taking his complaint to the only place we ought to take it. Take it to the Lord. How long, O Lord, must I call for help?
This is something that's been going on for a while, and he's calling at the right place. He recognizes what the psalmist says. My help comes from the Lord who made heaven and earth. Secondly, we have to be thankful that God is not so unkind as to answer all our prayers when we want them answered.
Yes, I said unkind. That God is not so unkind as to answer our prayers in our timeframe. The delays of God, from our perspective, are always purposeful. He may be dealing with our selfishness.
He may be dealing with an area of disobedience in our lives. He may be delaying, from our perspective, in order to teach us how to trust him in the waiting room. He may be actually saving us from ourselves. There's surely a reason why the Bible calls us on frequent occasions to wait upon the Lord. And then notice that God's delay in winding up history, in actually doing something dramatic, is meant to lead men and women to repentance. When people ask, Why doesn't this God of yours do something? we need to learn to be able to say, This God of ours has done something, and tell them the story of the cross. We need to be able to say, This God of ours is going to do something, and tell them about the bar of his judgment. And we need to be able to say, This God of the Bible is doing something. And that is, he is showing kindness to those who deserve his wrath in order that he might give them time to come to repentance.
Do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, tolerance, and patience, not realizing that God's kindness leads you towards repentance? And finally, we need to make clear to ourselves that the history of Habakkuk's era was under God's control, and that that is true in every age. Learning to see that the events of our world, whether in Habakkuk's day or in our own day, are all tied in their significance to God's eternal purpose in relationship to his kingdom. And if we will keep our gaze there, focused on the gospel, focused on this great good news, focused on King Jesus, focused on the fact that his perspectives on the unfolding story of world history are far more comprehensive than we could ever imagine, and yet remain absolutely focused on the person of his Son, Jesus, and of the triumph of his resurrection, and the glory of his ascension, and the absolute certainty of his return, then all of our cares and all of our cancers, all of our disappointments and all of our failures, all of our heartaches and heartbreaks and confusions may be brought under the all-embracing security of God's sovereign purpose. He understands when, like Habakkuk, we cry out, How long and why?
And the answer of his Word is finally given to us expressly in Jesus and in the triumph of Revelation, allowing Christians in an earlier era to use words like these to help them as they went off to their work on a Monday morning. God is still on the throne, and he will remember his own. Though trials may press us and burdens distress us, he never will leave us alone. God is still on the throne, and he will remember his own. And his promise is true.
He will not forget you. God is still on the throne. If you're listening to Truth for Life, that is Alistair Begg with a message he's titled, How Long and Why? If you're a regular listener to Truth for Life, you know it is our pattern to teach the Bible verse by verse, the whole Bible from the Old Testament and the New. We trust that the Bible is without error, that it is the authoritative Word of God. So our mission is to teach the Bible every day in a way that is clear and relevant. We do this believing that God will use his Word to work in the hearts of many who listen, bringing them to know and trust in the Lord Jesus.
In addition to the Bible teaching you hear on this program, we love recommending to you books that will help you live out your faith. And the book we want to suggest to you today is a brand new release from Alistair titled, The Christian Manifesto. This book has just been published, and in it, Alistair guides us through a close-up look at the radical instruction Jesus gave in the well-known sermon recorded in Luke's Gospel, where he describes life in the Kingdom of God.
So what exactly did Jesus mean when he taught us to love our enemies, to turn the other cheek, to feel blessed when we're poor in spirit, even when we're reviled? The Christian Manifesto takes a deep dive into the countercultural value system that Jesus described and shows us the happiness that results when we adopt these upturned ideals. Ask for your copy of Alistair's new book, The Christian Manifesto, when you make a donation to Truth for Life at truthforlife.org slash donate. And while you're online, look for The Christian Manifesto study guide that goes along with the book. It's in our online store at truthforlife.org slash store.
You can donate and purchase the study guide by calling us at 888-588-7884. Now, here's Alistair to close today with prayer. Father, we thank you that your Word shines light into the confusion and darkness of our days, and we thank you that when we turn all these years back into the prophecy of Habakkuk, and as we delve into it and try to make sense of it, we find that it pushes us out and on and on until we turn our eyes upon Jesus. We look full in his wonderful face, and the things of earth grow strangely dim in the light of his glory and his grace. We pray grace to the Lord Jesus Christ, and we pray, gracious God, that as we bring our questions and our concerns to you, that we might find in you the answer that we so desperately require. And in Jesus' name we pray. Amen. I'm Bob Lapine. Tomorrow we'll learn what to do when God's timing and tolerance don't match our own. The Bible teaching of Alistair Begg is furnished by Truth for Life, where the Learning is for Living.
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