NAHUM had comforted Judah with the assurance that the power of Assyia should be overthrown, though for a time it was permitted to afflict the people of God. Habakkuk warns Judah of another great empire which was commissioned to chastise her backslidings (in spite of the partial reformation under Josiah), but which should itself suffer the vengeance which its iniquities merited. The predicted fate of Nineveh had lulled the Judaeans into a false security, so that they forgot the dangers that threatened them, and, though they were no longer guilty of idolatry or selfish luxury, they relapsed into carelessness, forgetfulness of God, and various evil practices. Habakkuk is commissioned to show them that punishment was waiting for them at the hands of the Chaldeans, from whom as yet they had not realized their danger, though Isaiah (Isaiah 39:6, etc.) had forewarned Hezekiah that his treasures should be carried to Babylon and his sons be servants in the palace of the king. The Chaldeaans were hitherto little known in Judaea, and prophecies referring to them made but slight impression on the hearers. It was not, indeed, till Nineveh had fallen that Babylon, long an appanage of Assyria, secured its independence, and entered on its short but brilliant career of conquest. Nabopolassar, who had treacherously joined the Medea and aided in the capture of Nineveh, obtained the hand of the Median king's daughter for his son Nebuchadnezzar, and received, as the reward of his treachery, not only Babylonia itself, but a large portion of the Assyrian territory, including the suzerainty over Syria and Palestine. Thus the way was prepared for the interference of the Chaldeans in Jewish affairs. The overthrow of Pharaoh-Necho, King of Egypt, at Carchemish by Nebuchadnezzar left the Babylonian monarch free to punish the revolt of Jehoiakim, and to continue the hostile measures which culminated in the destruction of Jerusalem and the deportation of the Jews. The prophecy of Habakkuk is an organic whole, divided into two parts, the first of which is a colloquy between God and the prophet, in which is announced the judgment coming upon Judah through the instrumentality of the Chaldeans; the second is a magnificent ode celebrating the punishment of God's enemies and the salvation of the pious. After announcing his office and mission, the prophet (Hab. 1.) expostulates with God on the iniquity and corruption which abounded in Judaea, and complains that it has not sooner been checked and the righteous released from suffering at the hands of the wicked. God answers that the day of retribution is at hand, for he commissions the Chaldeans, a fierce, rapacious, warlike nation, to punish the sinful people. Terrified at this account of the Chaldeans, the prophet beseeches the Lord not to punish unto death, and not to involve the good in the fate of the evil, and asks how God, in his holiness, can look calmly on the wickedness of those whom he uses as the instruments of his vengeance. The prophet (Hab. 2.) waits for the answer to his expostulation; and God graciously replies, and bids him write the oracle plainly that all may read, because, though the fulfilment may be delayed, it is absolutely certain. The law of his kingdom is that the just shall live by faith; that righteousness has the promise of life and is life, but the proud and evil shall perish. This asserts the doom of the Chaldeans in general terms; and then their fall is announced in more particular form, under five special "woes," arranged strophically, and supposed to be uttered by the nations whom they had oppressed. They are thus denounced for insatiate ambition, covetousness, cruelty, drunkenness, and idolatry. So if the evils among the Jews are about to meet with chastisement, yet destruction awaits the oppressing Chaldeans, and God's justice is confirmed. The psalm that follows (ch. 3.) illustrates and, as it were, recapitulates the substance of the previous portion. Habakkuk professes himself greatly terrified at the judgment announced, and prays the Lord, while carrying out his threat, to remember mercy. Then he depicts the coming of the Lord to judge the world and to bring salvation to the righteous. He describes the theophany wherein God showed his majesty and power, and made the nations and inanimate nature to tremble. He delineates the judgment against the enemies of the Church, first symbolically, by the agitation of material things at the Lord's presence, and then properly, by its effect on the ungodly in this world. And through all runs a stream of consolation in that salvation is promised to the righteous amid the wreck of evil men. He ends the ode by describing the effects of this manifestation on the people of God, viz, fear at the coming chastisement, and hope and joy at the future salvation.
The writer of this book calls himself "Habakkuk the prophet;" and that is all that we are told of him for certain in Holy Scripture. The name signifies "Embracing," and is taken personally to mean either "one who embraces" or "one who is embraced." The latter seems more probable. St. Jerome explains it also in the sense of one who wrestles with God, as Jacob, in prayer. But this sense is not generally allowed, and many commentators assume that the appellation is virtually equivalent to Theophilus, "Beloved of God." The name is written by the LXX.
. Other forms also occur. In the apocryphal addition to Daniel, entitled 'Bel and the Dragon,' a prophet in Jewry, named Habakkuk, carries food to Daniel in the den of lions; and the title of this legend in the Septuagint itself (not in Theodotion) is, "Part of the prophecy of Habakkuk, the son of Jesus, of the tribe of Levi." But the whole account is plainly unhistorical, and its connection with the canonical writer cannot be maintained for a moment. In calling himself a "prophet" Habakkuk claims Divine inspiration and mission, and to have exercised his office in his appointed sphere. Whether he was called from some other occupation, as Amos, or whether he was trained in the schools of the prophets, is unknown. Some ground for supposing him to have been a Levite is given by the musical direction in Habakkuk 3:1, and the conclusion of the psalm, "For the chief musician on my stringed instruments," which would perhaps imply that he was qualified to take part in the temple services, and himself accompanied his hymn with instrumental music. But recent critics have thrown grave doubt on this inference (see Exposition). Legend has supplemented the silence of authentic history concerning the life of Habakkuk by certain details, some of which may have some elements of truth. Thus rabbinical tradition asserts that he was the son of the Shunammite woman whom Elisha restored to life. This, of course, is altogether unfounded. Christian writers, too, have not been backward in developing hints into facts. Pseudo-Epiphanius ('De Vit. Prophet.') and Pseudo-Dorotheus assert that Habakkuk was of the tribe of Simeon, and born in a place called Bethitouchar, perhaps Bath-Zacharias, famous in the history of Judas Maccabaeus (1 Macc. 6:32), that at the capture of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar he fled to Ostracine, a town on the seacoast of Egypt, some sixty miles east of Pelusium and remained there till the Chaldeans departed, when he returned to his own country, and died two years before the end of the Captivity. His tomb is said to have been long shown at Keilah in the hill country of Judah, and at Chukkok in Naphtali.
The time when Habakkuk prophesied can be gathered only from hints scattered in the book itself; and the limits thus obtained are a period before Babylon had obtained its independent position and so was able to menace its neighbours, and of course before the invasion of Judah, B.c. 605, twenty years later. Modern critics who do not believe in the possibility of supernatural prediction, at once settle the question of the prophet's date by affirming that his assertion concerning the punishment of Jerusalem at the hands of the Chaldeans must have been uttered after the event, or else so short a time previous, that natural acuteness could foresee the result so certain to occur. But this does not dispose of his prediction touching the overthrow of Babylon, which human foresight could not have taught; and if we must allow the predictive element in one case, why must we refuse it in another? But neglecting the theories of these critics, as based on an erroneous principle, we find very great difficulty in coming to any satisfactory decision. Two theories are upheld by great names respectively. The first assigns our prophet to the time of Manasseh, immediately succeeding Nahum a theory which is countenanced by the position of the book in the Hebrew and Greek canon. The general iniquity of which Habakkuk complains may certainly be predicated of that period in Jewish history. That the Chaldeans had not yet invaded the land, and that their appearance was not expected, we learn from Habakkuk 1:5, "I will work a work in your days, which ye will not believe, though it be told you." The words, "in your days," imply, says Pusey, that he is speaking to adults, many of whom would survive the invasion of Nebuchadnezzar, in the fourth year of Jehoiakim, and who, if he prophesied about the close of the reign of Manasseh, would be about sixty years old at the time of the Chaldean attack. Some time later, when the Babylonian empire was well established, it would have been nothing incredible that destruction should menace Judaea from that quarter. It seems probable, too, that Zephaniah, who executed his office in the days of Josiah, adopted some of the words of Habakkuk (comp. Habakkuk 2:20 with Zephaniah 1:7). Jeremiah likewise made use of his prophecy (Jeremiah 4:13; Zephaniah 3:3; and Habakkuk 1:8). Habakkuk, on the other hand, employs the language of Isaiah 11:9 in Habakkuk 2:14. These arguments would apply with equal force to the earlier part of Josiah's reign. Thus critics would place our prophet between B.C. 650 and 635, according to the usual reckoning, or about B.C. 626 in revised chronology. And this seems the most probable opinion. The other theory makes him a contemporary of Jehoiakim, between B.C. 609 and 598, grounding the opinion upon the idea that his account of the violence and oppression committed by the Chaldeans could only have been written by one familiar with their proceedings, and that it would have been injudicious prematurely to fill the minds of the people with fear of these foreign invaders. This is further supported by the tradition mentioned above, that he lived to see the Babylonian exile. The force of these arguments will not be allowed by any one who believes in the supernatural inspiration of the prophets of God.
4. GENERAL CHARACTER.
There is something very striking in the style of Habakkuk. In grandeur and magnificence it is perhaps equalled by other of the prophets; language as pure, power as concentrated, may be found elsewhere; but the extended colloquy between God and the prophet, and the exquisitely beautiful ode which forms the conclusion of the prophecy, are unique. The introduction of the majestic theophany is as bold in conception as it is sublime in diction. We know not whether most to admire the idea set forth, or the images under which it is developed. How terrible are the threatenings and announcements! how bitter the derision! how sweet and tender the promises of mercy and love! The past, the present, and the future are presented in vivid colours. Difficult, almost impossible, as it was for a prophet, confined to one circle of ideas, to be original, Habakkuk has given a new form to old conceptions, and brightened the notions of earlier seers with the splendour of imagery all his own, and with harmonious diction which is surpassed by no other sacred poet. The final ode may be set beside the two grand psalms, the eighteenth and the sixty-eighth, and will not suffer by the comparison.
Among the works specially devoted to the elucidation of the prophecy of Habakkuk we may note the following: The Jew Abarbanel, whose commentary Was translated into Latin by Sprecher; Agellius; De Thou; Jansen d'Ypres 'Analecta in Habac.; 'Dugue, 'Explication'. The above are Roman Catholic commentations. Among Protestants may be mentioned Capito; Chyrtaeus, 'Lectiones'; Marbury, 'A Commentarie'; Tarnovius, 'Comm.'; Kalinsky; Monrad; Kofod; Faber; Wahl, Translation and Notes; Wolff; Delitzsch, 'Der Proph. Habakkuk ausgelgt'; Gumpach; Reinke, 'Der Proph. Habakkuk'.
6. ARRANGEMENT IN SECTIONS.
The book consists of two parts.
Part I. (Habakkuk 1, 2.) Judgment upon the evil, in the form of a colloquy between the prophet and God.
§ 1. (Habakkuk 1:1.) The inscription of the book.
§ 2. (Habakkuk 1:2-4.) The prophet complains to God of the iniquity rife in the land, and its consequences.
§ 3. (Habakkuk 1:5-11.) God answers that he will send the Chaldeans to punish the ill doers with a terrible vengeance; but these, his instruments, shall themselves offend by pride and impiety.
§ 4. (Habakkuk 1:12-17.) The prophet beseeches the Lord not to suffer his people to perish, seeing that he is in covenant with them, but to remember mercy even during the affliction at the hand of these rapacious oppressors.
§ 5. (Habakkuk 2:1-3.) The prophet, waiting for his answer, is bidden write the oracle in plain characters, because its fulfilment is certain.
§ 6. (Habakkuk 2:4.) The great principle is taught that the proud shall not continue, but the just shall live by faith.
§ 7. (Habakkuk 2:5.) The character of the Chaldeans in some particulars is intimated; their destruction is announced under the form of five "woes."
§ 8. (Habakkuk 2:6-8.) For rapacity.
§ 9. (Habakkuk 2:9-11.) For avarice, violence, and cunning.
§ 10. (Habakkuk 2:12-14.) For founding power on blood and devastation.
§11.(Habakkuk 2:15-17.) For base treatment of subject nations.
§ 12. (Habakkuk 2:18-20.) For idolatry.
Part II. (Habakkuk 3.) Psalm or prayer of Habakkuk.
§ 1. (Habakkuk 3:1.) The title.
§ 2. (Habakkuk 3:2.) The proemium, in which the prophet expresses his fear at the coming judgment, and prays God in his wrath to remember mercy.
§ 3. (Ch. 3:3-15.) He depicts in a majestic theophany the coming of God to judge the world, and its effect, symbolically on material nature, and properly on evil men.
§ 4. (Ch. 3:16, 17.) It produces in the people of God, first, fear and trembling at the prospect of chastisement.
§ 5. (Ch. 3:18, 19.) And next, hope of salvation and joy in God.