Sermon Manuscript – September 23, 2007

Last week, we started a walk through God’s conversation with Habakkuk. We read the first words of the exchange. Habakkuk complains to God that all he sees is evil wherever he looks. Pain and suffering are everywhere. Wicked men go unpunished. Where is God in the midst of this, the prophet wonders? Why don’t you do something?

We saw that Habakkuk’s problem is a very real, very current human problem. We wondered, with him, how there can be evil in the world of an all-powerful and loving God. We saw that you don’t have to be Christian to struggle with this – that some unbelievers take this as evidence against God’s existence.

And we saw that the Bible is a realistic book. It doesn’t hide from the problem of evil. It doesn’t paint pretty pictures that don’t match reality. It faces this problem head-on in Habakkuk – we saw that the whole book is really a Biblical answer to the problem, and that Habakkuk’s first question is what raises the issue in the first place.

And we were reminded that, while evil is a hard thing for even Bible-believing Christians to understand and reconcile with our God, that the Bible gives us the ultimate answer to the problem of evil. That answer is a person – Jesus Christ. God became a man and lived in the midst of all that evil, rose above it with a perfect life, and was brutally murdered as a result. And was raised on the third day, to give us hope, to remind us that the problem of evil is only temporary. God’s goodness and grace are forever.

So today we continue our study. Habakkuk has boldly called on God to act. And our God is not deaf. Our God responded. And he gave him a totally unexpected answer.

Let’s read.

GOD ANSWERS PRAYER!

This whole passage is, in a way, good news. God didn’t ignore Habakkuk. He heard the prophet’s prayers. He listened. He took note, and did something remarkable. He acknowledged the problem, and promises to act. Think about that. God sees evil, and He acts. God does not tolerate evil. It will be punished, as we are about to see. But for us, here’s a reminder, and an encouragement. God answers prayer! God hears us when we call! Your prayers are never wasted. Habakkuk approached God boldly, reminded Him of God’s own standards of right and wrong, and God rewarded this faith with an answer.

But there’s another lesson about prayer here. God always hears prayer. He always answers prayer. But sometimes He does so in mysterious ways. And sometimes they’re so mysterious, we can hardly make any sense of them.

A TOTALLY UNEXPECTED RESPONSE

Try to put yourselves in the shoes of the people who heard this. God’s not just addressing Habakkuk here – the Hebrew pronouns here are plural, and so when it says “you,” it means “you all.” God tells them He’s raising up the Chaldeans – also called the Babylonians. And if you read Kings and Chronicles, you know what happens next. The Babylonians would eventually destroy Jerusalem, tear down the Temple, and carry off most of the Hebrew people into exile far, far away. That is what God is promising here. It is absolutely terrifying.

Who are these Babylonians? They were a warlike people, very skilled in battle, from what is now Iraq. Up until just a few years before this book, the world superpower had been the dreaded Assyrians, who ruled most of the known world from the city of Nineveh. Ever wonder what happened to Nineveh after Jonah went to them? They returned to their old ways after a while. Nineveh was such a strong and powerful city that it seemed unlikely that it would ever fall – but it did. The Babylonian army surrounded the city, and finding no way in, they dammed up the river that flowed through the city. The city walls had been built to allow the river to flow under them, but when the Babylonian engineers stopped the river, the riverbed became a gate into the city – and the Babylonians walked right in and destroyed it.

The mighty Assyrians, that terrible enemy that had destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel – gone. In just a few short years. It was like the fall of the Berlin Wall in our time. In the space of just a few years, Assyria – the Soviet Union of Habakkuk’s day – went from being a superpower that could destroy the earth to a shattered collection of weak states. But in its place rose an even greater threat – the Babylonians.

Look at how God describes them. “A bitter and hasty nation,” he says. Angry and thoughtless. They shoot first and ask questions later. “They march through the breadth of the earth,” leaving a trail of destruction in their wake, seizing dwellings not their own. They take people from their homes and families from their lands, carrying them far away and scattering them abroad, and give them to their own people instead. “Dreaded and fearsome” – the nations tremble as they approach. The sadistic Assyrians, the proud Egyptians, the superpowers of the time, had met them in battle and lost. No one could stop them. And distance was no protection. Although Babylon was months of travel from Israel, their horses are “swifter than leopards,” and their armies “fly like eagles, swift to devour” their foes. Judah is like a small mouse or rabbit, helpless as the bird of prey falls like lightning from the sky to snatch it. There is no hiding. There is no escape.

And what kind of people are they? They “come for violence.” They enjoy war. They relish the fight. Violence is fun for them. Warfare is like sport – entertainment for their kings. They are “proud,” and their “justice and dignity go forth from themselves.” Unlike Habakkuk, who looked to God for justice, who found his dignity in his relationship with the Almighty, the Babylonians look to themselves. They are their own highest authority. They decide for themselves what is right and wrong, with no reference to God. Much like people today, they do what is right in their own eyes, and they are their own moral standard. And what do people like this worship? “Their own might.” They don’t love God, and they don’t trust in Him. They love and honour their own strength. They put their trust and hope in their armies. Their swords and chariots are their idols. They are self-sufficient – they are full of themselves. An evil and self-centred people.

So Habakkuk and the Jewish people have a problem that they did not even anticipate. Habakkuk had been crying out because he saw evil everywhere in his land, because the Jewish nation was corrupt. And God heard – He’s going to act. But in His own way. God will punish the wickedness of the Hebrews by using the wickedness of the Babylonians as His instrument.

The text, in a nutshell, says this: God’s going to deal with the evil Habakkuk’s worried about – but in an unexpected way. Instead of fixing the problems of the Jewish nation, God has had enough. He’s going to destroy it.

EVIL AND GOD’S PLAN

Why now? Why are the Babylonians coming? It’s ironic. The Babylonians worship themselves, trust in their own accomplishments, and yet their rise to power was not their doing. God takes the credit. God is responsible. “I am raising up the Chaldeans,” he tells the Jews. I did this.

Remember the problem of evil from last week? How can there be a God who is both all-powerful and good if there is evil in the world? Here is an unexpected answer. God is saying that more evil is on the way, and that it’s all His plan. He’s going to make use of evil people and their evil actions.

My wife has a friend back in New Brunswick. This girl is married, is a Christian, and has two beautiful kids. One of them is a little over two, I think, and the other is still just a baby – not even a year old. Well, the parents recently received some of the worst news a parent could ever hear. Their two-year-old has cancer.

It’s a rare form of cancer. I don’t know what kind, and I don’t know enough about these things to say what the poor child’s chances are. When we found out, having a little guy who’s getting closer and closer to that age, it was impossible not to wonder and to fear for Caden, to put ourselves in their shoes. How would we feel, if Caden had leukemia or something? What kind of effect might that have on us?

Why do two-year-olds get cancer? The Bible says God is all-powerful. He saw this coming. He could have prevented it. He could heal this boy, but he hasn’t yet. Why?

Why does evil happen in God’s world? Why doesn’t He just wipe it all away and not allow anyone to suffer?

And at first glance, our passage seems to make our problem worse. Here God is, and He’s taking responsibility for something bad that’s going to happen. Babylonians are coming to pillage and slaughter – and it’s God raising them up. Elsewhere in the Bible, we see the same picture. Jesus meets a blind man, and says that he was born this way so that the glory of God might be shown. Satan questions the motivation for Job’s faith, and so God allows all Job’s children and all his possessions to be destroyed as a test.

OUR MYSTERIOUS GOD

We Christians have a tendency to try to distance God from evil and suffering. But look at Jesus’ ministry, or read the Book of Job, or glance over the Ten Plagues of Egypt, or God’s instructions to the Hebrews to destroy everything in the land of Canaan – all these stories tell us something: the Bible doesn’t distance God from these things.

There’s two lessons we can draw from this.

First, God’s ways are mysterious. We simply don’t understand what he’s doing much of the time. A two-year-old child gets cancer. A Christian pastor and his wife are shot to death in Pakistan. A job is lost and a family must leave their home. The sins of God’s people are punished by the sins of a nation that doesn’t know God at all. Why does God let these things happen?

He is God. We are not. “The secret things belong to the Lord,” Deuteronomy tells us. God told Isaiah, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” If we had all the answers we wanted, we’d be God, and we wouldn’t have any problems. And if we really knew everything God was doing, He wouldn’t be God. He’d be like us, small and simple and limited.

Yes, He’s mysterious. Sometimes He’s just impossible to understand. But that’s because He’s God, and because He’s so much more than we could ever grasp or imagine. This is hope for us! Nothing that we can do can confuse or thwart or defeat Him. It’s because he’s so far above and beyond us and what we can do that we can pray to Him in the first place – and hope for help and encouragement. Because He’s mysterious, we know he’s not a little god, that needs our help and service and protection. He’s a big God. Yes, a mysterious God. But He’s OUR mysterious God – and what is not mysterious is that He loves us and works everything for our good.

And that is no small or abstract promise. We have a God who knows what it is to suffer. Who is personally acquainted with our struggles. Who doesn’t ask us to go through anything, through any suffering, that He has not already suffered Himself. Remember – this is the same God who decided to become flesh, to become a human being, and instead of asserting His rights let himself be mocked and spat upon. Instead of taking the privileges of a king, He let himself be insulted and abused. Rather than conquer his enemies with legions of angels, He let Himself be nailed to a wooden cross and left to die from exposure while His enemies laughed at Him. What kind of sense does that make?

No one ever suffered so much, and yet no one ever deserved it less. The only person in history who did not deserve pain and suffering, suffered most. Why would He choose to do things that way? But He did. And even more – after Jesus Christ was abused and tortured and killed by wicked men – He was raised from the dead. Death wasn’t the end, and it isn’t the end. And now everyone who believes in Him has the hope – the certain hope – of an everlasting life of pure joy, without any pain or suffering at all. We have the certain hope that every evil and every act of abuse and every thoughtless word and every violent deed will be dealt with, and set right, by God. God may be mysterious, but this isn’t: Romans 8:18 – Paul tells us “the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” God will set things right. Everything will be all right in the end.

GOD IS IN CONTROL

Second, God is fully in control. Of everything. Including evil. Here is one of the hardest and most controversial truths of the Bible, right here in this passage. God is raising up the Babylonians to punish Judah, in full knowledge of the Babylonians’ evil ways. God is taking, not avoiding, responsibility here for raising up a people that He Himself says, right here, will commit evil acts! How does that work? How can a holy God do such a thing?

There are a lot of people out there who see good and evil as two equal and opposite forces, fighting for all eternity. Yin and yang, light and darkness ever fighting, neither ever winning. The cosmic struggle. Evil is seen as something that cannot ever be truly defeated.

Well, that’s not the way it is. Evil is indeed God’s enemy, but it is not His equal. It is not a fair fight. It really isn’t even a fight at all. Satan thinks he is opposing God, but in reality Satan, and evil, are turned against themselves and wind up accomplishing God’s purpose. The Bible is very clear that evil never defeats God, and that God is always in control. The Book of Job shows us that Satan has to go to God for permission to touch any of God’s people. Satan could do nothing until God let him. And Satan could do no more than what God allowed Him to do – he could send disease, but he could not kill Job. Why did evil happen to Job? Because God had decided to test, and to grow, Job’s character. God put Job through a trial in order to make Job a better person, and he used Satan as merely His way to carry it out.

There’s one other place in the Bible where God’s plan required that something evil happen, that an atrocity take place, that the innocent be tortured and killed by the wicked, that justice be perverted. One other place where, like in our passage, human sin and evil was used to punish human sin and evil. That place was the Cross. God sent His only Son to be whipped and beaten and nailed to a Cross, to die, an innocent victim of wicked men. And God accepted that death as payment for sin for anyone who believes in Jesus Christ for salvation. Human evil was used to punish human evil in Christ. And this was not an accident – God planned this. “The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers were gathered together, against the Lord and against his Anointed’– for truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place.” (Acts 4:26-28) “This Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.” (Acts 2:23)

Yes, sin is God’s enemy. Pain, evil, wickedness, suffering – they are all ultimately the work of Satan. He is a rabid dog that seeks to infect and destroy anything and anyone it can sink its teeth into. And yet he is a dog on a leash – God’s leash. Evil is so utterly defeated and so completely under God’s control that Satan suffers the humiliation of seeing all his rebellion and all of his attacks on God and His people turned around and used for their good and for God’s glory.

And there is the hope. Evil is real. It hurts. We hurt one another. We see, and do, terrible things in this world, and they are done to us. And God lets it happen – but He does so according to His plan. He does so, the Bible tells us, for His glory.

The glory of God… See, I don’t know why two-year-olds get cancer. I don’t know how that glorifies God. I can’t understand what possible glory there might be in some of the awful things we see in the news or in our own lives every day. Some of you here today are probably suffering at home, or in the workplace, or at school, or in the depths of your own heart. And if you were to ask me, “Why? What reason could God have in this? How does this give God glory?” I really couldn’t give you any hard or specific answers. I don’t really know why. But I do know this: God knows why. God has a reason. There is no senseless or purposeless evil in this world – for everything happens according to God’s purpose and plan. And that plan is good.

CONCLUSION

“And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28) That purpose is to grow us, to make us better people, to make us more and more like His Son Jesus Christ, who is perfect and beautiful. More like Christ, who loves nothing more than to give glory to the Father. And there it is. More like Christ, who is joyful. Imagine how happy Christ is! To have God Himself as His Father, to be sinless, to be immortal, to have all the pleasures and joys of being in God’s house and in God’s arms! How happy He is, as He sees His Father exalted and glorified in everything! God’s plan is to make us like Christ – and that includes like Christ in His joy, in His happiness! That plan is to, ultimately, give us greater joy and peace than we could ever imagine! No matter how discouraged or grieved you are today, if you believe in Christ, He will restore your joy. He will give you happiness again. And now, right now, there is hope. If you look to Him, He will give you peace and strength in your struggles.

A couple weeks ago I had to take Caden for his shots. And I held him as the nurse put those needles in his arm. He screamed and cried, burying his face in my shoulder, his tears all over my shirt, doing the only thing he knew to do in the midst of his fear and pain – clinging to Daddy, his little arms wrapped tightly around me. He’s too little to understand why that had to happen. All he knew was that it hurt, and he just isn’t capable of comprehending any reason why Daddy would let that strange lady hurt him. But it had to be done, and for his own good. I had a reason for what I did. There was a purpose in letting Caden be hurt, and someday he’ll be big enough to know these things. And until then, he’ll just have to cling to me, and until then, I’ll just make crystal clear that I love him and that I’m always looking out for his good.

Our good and our growth and our joy and our happiness sometimes require pain. And compared to God, we’re just too little to understand why that is. But God loves us! He intends our good, and the God who controls ALL things and who is never, EVER defeated will certainly, definitely, accomplish our good!

So, as Paul asked: “What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” (Romans 8:31,32)

“He who calls you is faithful. He will surely do it.” (1 Thes. 5:24)

– Jeff Jones

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Sermon Manuscript – September 16, 2007

BACKGROUND OF HABAKKUK

I want to lay out a bit of the background before we read the passage. This whole sermon, in fact, is an introduction to the book. When was this prophecy written? It was probably a little more than six hundred years before the birth of Christ. It was a time of strife and turmoil, obviously. There was violence and wickedness in the land. And we meet Habakkuk.

Habakkuk lives in Judah – that’s the southern part of the land of Israel. He grew up under a good king, a man named Josiah. If you ever want to read a Biblical story about a revival, go to Kings and Chronicles and find the story of Josiah. This young man became king at just eight years old, picking up the pieces from his wicked father and grandfather. His grandfather Manasseh, in particular, had been really bad. He had worshiped idols. He had brought pagan images into God’s temple. He persecuted and killed the followers of God. A Jewish legend says the prophet Isaiah was killed by being sawn in two under this king. And his reign was very long – over fifty years. A half-century of unmitigated wickedness.

His son only lived a couple of years before he died, doing much the same things, and then Josiah took the throne. Here’s an eight-year-old boy, king of the whole land. Eight-year-olds can be pretty smart, but they don’t usually do big things like running nations by themselves, and so Josiah had a mentor – a very wise, godly man named Hilkiah, the high priest of God. And Josiah listened to Hilkiah, learned the ways of God from him. Even at a very young age, Josiah began making changes. I’ll read what the Bible says about this young man, from 2 Chronicles 34. Remember, this is what Habakkuk had grown up with:

Josiah was eight years old when he began to reign, and he reigned thirty-one years in Jerusalem. And he did what was right in the eyes of the LORD, and walked in the ways of David his father; and he did not turn aside to the right hand or to the left. For in the eighth year of his reign, while he was yet a boy, he began to seek the God of David his father, and in the twelfth year he began to purge Judah and Jerusalem of the high places, the Asherim, and the carved and the metal images. And they chopped down the altars of the Baals in his presence, and he cut down the incense altars that stood above them. And he broke in pieces the Asherim and the carved and the metal images, and he made dust of them and scattered it over the graves of those who had sacrificed to them. He also burned the bones of the priests on their altars and cleansed Judah and Jerusalem. And in the cities of Manasseh, Ephraim, and Simeon, and as far as Naphtali, in their ruins all around, he broke down the altars and beat the Asherim and the images into powder and cut down all the incense altars throughout all the land of Israel.

At sixteen he starts systematically dismantling the idol worship that his father and grandfather had built. And then his mentor finds a scroll of the law that had been lost in the Temple, and this scroll just fuelled the fire. Revival – it starts with men of God and is powered and sustained by the word of God. The people recognize their sin and renew their covenant and promises to God. Everything’s looking up, for the first time in a century. And Habakkuk lived through it all.

And then, suddenly, Josiah is killed in battle with the Egyptians. And for all the godliness Josiah had cultivated in Judah’s society, he had failed to do so in his own home. Josiah had more than one wife, and several sons, and after his death these sons served as king one after another. And they were all bad, just as bad as Josiah’s father and grandfather had been.

Without Josiah, the revival fizzles. It was a top-down thing, I think. The government was pushing it, the priests were behind it, but the hearts of the people just weren’t in it. And when a new king came to the throne, who rather liked the old days and the idols that Josiah had broken, Habakkuk saw the whole land revert to its wicked ways.

That’s the land Habakkuk had grown up in. That’s the story of the culture and community of Habakkuk’s youth. And here he is. Let’s read what he has to say:

HABAKKUK’S BURDEN

The very first phrase of our text is very interesting. My translation says, “The oracle that Habakkuk” saw. The King James renders it far more literally: the burden that he saw. The Hebrew word has the sense of a heavy load, a great weight on Habakkuk’s shoulders. To be given a message from God is always a serious thing. And all Christians, not just prophets or pastors, carry this load. We are all witnesses for Christ. We all know the Gospel and are bound to share it with others. This is not a light or casual responsibility. We must all handle God’s Word with the greatest care.

But Habakkuk’s burden isn’t just heavy because of the nature of the message as God’s Word. It’s a particularly heavy burden because of the content of the message. Habakkuk has come bearing very, very bad news. And while we’re not going to get into it today, Habakkuk has the responsibility of telling his people that their nation and society are about to be viciously destroyed. The enemy is coming, by God’s design, to punish and destroy the land for its wickedness. And I’m sure Habakkuk woke up the next morning just dreading his duty to give the people the message.

See, even we, as Christians, have bad news to bring. The bad news we bring to the world is this: God hates your sin, and He is prepared to punish you for all eternity in hell unless you turn from your sin, cry for mercy to God, and believe in Jesus Christ as your Saviour. It’s good news only if you believe it – it’s the worst possible news if you don’t. And we as believers have a burden, just like Habakkuk did. We must preach the whole Gospel, not just the pleasant parts.

This whole book is a burden – a great weight – that Habakkuk was given for his people. We shouldn’t take that lightly. We should never take the Word of God lightly.

Let’s go on, then, into our passage. Habakkuk faces a big problem in our text.

THERE’S EVIL EVERYWHERE

The problem is this: Habakkuk sees evil everywhere. All around him there is crime and injustice. Habakkuk mentions “violence” twice – he sees people being beaten and killed, husbands abusing their wives, parents abusing their children, masters beating their slaves. He sees the poor being shaken down in the streets for mere pennies by thugs hired by the rich and powerful. He sees the servants and prophets of God being sneered at and assaulted for their faith, persecuted for not bowing the knee to idols like Baal and Asherah. Every day, he hears of another rape, another murder.

Strife and contention abound. Like children, everyone picks petty fights and hurt one another just for kicks. People sue one another at the drop of a hat. And where can they go for justice? The torah, the law, seems paralyzed. The Hebrew word has the sense of numbness – it’s as if the law has been rendered insensitive and without any feeling at all, no longer able to move or act. People go to the courts for justice, but there’s none to be found. Justice has been perverted – twisted and bent out of shape by wicked men so that even the courts become a means of evil gain. Judges are taking bribes from the wicked and punishing the innocent.

What a horrible sight to behold. A terrible world to wake up to, again and again, day after day. That’s Habakkuk’s first problem, and it’s a big one. Habakkuk sees violence everywhere – violence against others, violence against the community, violence against common decency, violence against the law, violence against God.

One could look around our world today and be forgiven for feeling the same way. Let me read just a few news clippings from the last couple years:

“Over 110,000 abortions are performed in Canada every year. That represents a ratio of about 30 abortions to every 100 live births.”

“Four Canadian soldiers were killed by a suicide bomber on a bicycle in southern Afghanistan on Monday while the troops were conducting a security patrol, according to the Canadian military. The bombing injured 27 civilians, including children. The Taliban has claimed responsibility. In the opening session of the House of Commons today, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said the soldiers were handing out candy to children when the bomb exploded.”

“Fifteen-year-old Jehan Mina became pregnant after being raped by her uncle and cousin. Her family filed a complaint of rape but since there were no witnesses, the alleged rapists were acquitted. (Pakistani law will not accept the testimony of a female rape victim, but requires a minimum of four male witnesses to prove an attack took place). Yet her pregnancy was proof that extra-marital sexual intercourse had taken place and she was sentenced to 100 lashes in public. The punishment was later converted to 3 years imprisonment and 10 lashes.”

Our world is a wicked place. It is full of pain and suffering. And that’s a problem. It’s a problem we all face. Personally. When that drunk driver takes the life of a relative, when someone vandalizes your car, when your child is bullied at school, when a politician uses your tax dollars to buy votes or refinish his basement – sin affects us all. Look at this world we live in from the perspective of Habakkuk – through God-colored glasses. Measure this land, this community by God’s standard. It’s not hard to see all this and, with Habakkuk, cry out to God, “How long, O Lord? Why do you make me see evil?”

Now, the state of his society is bad enough, but this isn’t just any society we’re talking about. This is the land of Judah. This is the people of Israel. The covenant people, the chosen nation. This isn’t just any community. This is God’s people.

There are few men and women of integrity left to be found. Habakkuk looks around, but people who serve God are few and far between. They are surrounded by the wicked – hemmed in, besieged by evil, unable to escape the press of corruption that boxes them in. They are outnumbered, and there is no relief in sight. Blood runs in the streets, in the courthouses, in the places of worship, in private homes.

These people who rape and murder are called by God’s name. The law that has been paralyzed, the torah that is numb and insensitive, is the Law of God. The justice that is twisted and perverted in the service of evil is the justice that God appointed.

We in the church are prone to thinking that we’re insulated from the evil in the world. It’s hard to believe that Christians could do such things, but I’ve got some more clippings to read:

“Two-thirds of pastors reported that their congregation experienced a conflict during the past two years; more than 20 percent of those were significant enough that members left the congregation.”

“A church bishop and two top aides have been indicted by federal prosecutors on charges they bilked banks out of nearly $2-million to finance the clergyman’s “lavish and expensive lifestyle.” …The indictment also alleged Lewis forged signatures of other ministers and pastors in churches he associated with to obtain loans in those churches’ names without the pastors’ knowledge.”

“33 percent of pastors confess ‘inappropriate’ sexual behavior with someone in the church.”

“While [in the US] abortion in general decreased… the percentage of those who are evangelicals has increased from 16.7 percent to 18 percent [of total abortions] — in other words, in a given year, 234,000 evangelical [American] women abort.” I don’t expect the ratios are any different here in Canada.

Habakkuk was horrified by what he saw among God’s people. Would he feel much different about God’s people today? When we gossip about one another, when we are harsh or cruel or impatient with one another, when we assume fellow believers have wrong motives or attitudes toward us, when we ignore the teaching of the Word of God and blindly imitate the culture in how we do church or treat one another – all these things are the kinds of practices that so upset our prophet.

So we can draw an application right away – God’s people are to be better than this! The very reason Habakkuk was so upset reminds us that the people of God are to be different from the world! We’re not supposed to fight among ourselves, to hurt one another. We’re supposed to uphold the torah, uphold the Word of God, not paralyze or numb it through indifference or ignorance! Let’s not dishonour him in how we live as a community.

THE PROBLEM OF EVIL

So this is the problem so far: Habakkuk sees evil everywhere, and he sees evil among God’s own people. That’s bad enough, but for Habakkuk, it’s even worse because he wonders – where is God in all of this?

There was once a Greek philosopher named Epicurus. He lived in the third century before Christ. He had this idea that happiness should be defined as the absence of pain, and that life should be devoted to avoiding pain as the key to happiness. And he looked at the world around him, like Habakkuk did three hundred years earlier, like people do today, and he saw pain. He saw suffering everywhere.

And for Epicurus, this meant one thing. There could be no all-powerful, loving God. Epicurus was the first person to articulate what we now call the “problem of evil.” He challenged those who believed in an all-powerful, loving deity, asking them this question: “Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not all-powerful. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent – evil. Is he both able and willing? Then how can there be evil?”

If you hang around atheists for any length of time, you’ll hear this argument. Really, it is aimed right at Christians, right at the teachings of the Bible. See, the Bible tells us that God is all-powerful. “His dominion is an everlasting dominion, and his kingdom endures from generation to generation; all the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, and he does according to his will among the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth; and none can stay his hand or say to him, “What have you done?”” The Bible tells us that God is loving. “So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him.” So – why is there evil? If He exists, where is He? Why doesn’t He do something?

And when the world sees the same kinds of evil, the same violence and sin, among us who claim to believe in God, they pose a similar question. “If God is real, why are His followers the same as everyone else? What’s the point, if faith doesn’t make a difference in one’s life? How can God be real, when His people are so fake?”

That’s really the whole problem. Habakkuk’s problem is the “problem of evil.” The whole book of Habakkuk addresses the problem of evil in God’s world. It’s the same problem of evil that we face today. How do we deal with the presence of evil and pain and suffering in this world? What does that mean for our faith?

One way is to adjust your picture of God, to agree with Epicurus that God can’t be all-powerful and loving and permit evil at the same time. The solution, then? Make God smaller. He’s still loving, don’t worry. But He’s not really all-powerful, you see. He can’t stop all evil. A good example of this approach happened just a few weeks ago. Just after that bridge collapsed in Minneapolis, killing thirteen people, Rabbi Harold Kushner gave an interview on Minnesota Public Radio explaining where God was in the midst of the collapse. God wasn’t responsible for the collapse, Kushner said, because God isn’t really “all-powerful.” No – God actually doesn’t control the laws of nature, he explained. The collapse of the bridge was just random, senseless. God couldn’t have been responsible, much less intended anything good or bad by the collapse, because He couldn’t control it.

But how does that help? If God’s so small that He can’t prevent evil from happening, then how can He be expected to help us or keep us safe? See, Habakkuk faced this problem of evil, too. But look at how he deals with it.

GOD’S WORD FACES THE PROBLEM OF EVIL

The very reason Habakkuk has a problem in the first place is because he is convinced God is all-powerful and loving. If Habakkuk believed in Rabbi Kushner’s god, he wouldn’t have wasted his breath praying for relief. Why pray to such a little god? How can he help? But Habakkuk believes in the God of the Bible – the God who has all power, who Himself is love, and yet whose creation is teeming with wickedness.

Yes, evil isn’t easy to explain in the universe of a sovereign God. But in the day of evil, when sin comes to hurt and destroy, when pain and suffering fall, only a sovereign God can help. The very attributes which seem to create the problem of evil – omnipotence and love – are the very ones we trust in most when we come to God in prayer.

The problem of evil is a blessing, in a way. It calls attention to just those aspects of God that we need the most. It calls us to God’s promises and asks us to believe. Habakkuk believed. We know this, because he prayed. And he kept praying when every earthly indication was that his faith was futile.

Yes, there’s evil in the world. And it’s hard to explain against what the Word of God tells us about Him. And there’s the choice. That’s the two ways. Do we believe the Word of God? When it says, God is all powerful; when it says, God is loving and merciful; when it says, God is just and right – do we take God at His Word and trust Him? Do we believe it? Or do we form a god in our own image, one that doesn’t offend us or make us uncomfortable?

Why believe the Bible? That’s really the question here. And we have an answer here. Look – these are the words of a prophet who lived three hundred years before Epicurus even came up with the problem of evil! Here in the pages of this Bible is not some fluffy, pie-in-the-sky, utopian idea, avoiding reality. No, here we find a godly man, a believer, wrestling with the same problem that some people use to try to deny the faith!

What some think is an argument against God is actually evidence that He lives! The Bible doesn’t avoid the hard questions. It doesn’t cover over the nasty reality of life in an evil world. It doesn’t pretend things are better than they are. The Bible is an honest book. It is a book that matches our experience, and explains it. It is a book that deals with reality – it faces the real questions. That shows it’s for real. That shows it’s the truth.

THE BIBLE ANSWERS THE PROBLEM OF EVIL

And even more than that – the Bible gives us the ultimate answer to the problem of evil. Only in the Bible do we find the Gospel. Only in the pages of God’s Word do we find the message of salvation in Jesus Christ. Habakkuk didn’t know what we do now. He had not yet seen his Saviour. But he trusted in God’s promise to set things right, to deal with sin.

For the prophet, this was still in the future. All he had was a promise. And when he saw nothing but evil, that promise looked dim, and that’s what drove him to prayer. “God – where are you? You promised to punish evil! You promised to save the righteous!” He cried out because he could not see salvation.

What a blessing we have, then, in God’s Word! What was still future for Habakkuk has been done and finished for us! God sent His Son, Jesus Christ, into the world to deal with the problem of evil. He lived a perfect life, to show that we can honour God in the midst of a sinful world. He died a sinner’s death, so that if we believe in him and trust in His work for our salvation, all of our sins – from first to last – are cleared away. And he was raised from the dead, to show that death can’t hold us! No matter how terrible life may get, no matter even if the wicked take our lives, we have the promise of being raised again!

And, finally, as the ultimate answer to Habakkuk’s question, we have the promise of a final reckoning. The Apostles’ Creed states that Jesus Christ “sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty – from there he shall come to judge the living and the dead.” God won’t leave this world the way it is forever. Judgment is coming – and all that evil and wickedness will be punished. And on that day, every tear will be wiped from our eyes. We shall not know fear or pain or war or grief anymore.

And that’s the hope we can take from this passage. God knows what we’re facing. He knows about the “problem of evil.” He knows we struggle to understand. And he gave us a Bible that proves it! Here He gives us a picture of a man, a believer, an inspired prophet, who also struggled. Remember, the book starts with a cry of anguish – and yet it ends with a hymn of praise! Here he shows us hope – that by approaching God boldly, and persistently, like Habakkuk did, we – who know far more about God’s plan than Habakkuk ever did! – can also be lifted out of despair and see the glory of God.

– Jeff Jones

Sermon Manuscript – August 26, 2007

This is a different kind of psalm than the ones we have looked at so far. The previous psalms have been quite emotional – we had Psalms 51 and 44, which were laments, Psalm 139, which is a psalm of praise, and Psalm 30, which is a psalm of thanksgiving. Each of these poured out the heart of the psalmist to God, before others, and each of them were loaded with feeling and emotion.

Psalm 15’s not quite like those. It’s more cerebral and less emotional. It’s actually very similar to the books of Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes. It is called a wisdom psalm. It aims to offer wise, practical advice to others. It is counsel, it is words to live by.

Let’s read.

THE QUESTION: WHO MAY DWELL WITH GOD?

Let’s start by looking at verse 1. David poses a question – just one question, stated twice, in two different ways. David asks who may sojourn, who may dwell, in the tent of the Lord, on His holy hill.

What did he mean by that? And what does it mean for us today? We’ll begin by looking at what David is talking about when he says “tent,” and “holy hill.”

There’s two meanings we could take from the word “tent,” two related subjects here, and I think David means both. Pay close attention to these two – keep both of them in mind. The first is the literal meaning – a tent, a temporary shelter. In particular, David speaks of God’s tent. Remember, the Jewish temple was built by Solomon, David’s son. God didn’t have a permanent temple in David’s time. Instead, Israel centred its worship on the “Tent of Meeting,” also called the Tabernacle. It was a very large tent where the Ark of the Covenant was kept. In David’s time, he had moved that Tabernacle to his capital city of Jerusalem, and placed it on the highest hill – Mount Zion. That’s what David means by “holy hill,” in the next phrase – what we now call the Temple Mount. It was God’s mountain, a holy mountain, set apart for His use and kept pure for His glory. This was a place of worship – God’s house of worship. This is the first thing David is talking about here, the first thing I want you to remember: who may draw near to worship God? Who is entitled to stand before this holy and awesome God and offer Him praise?

The second meaning is a little broader. In Hebrew, they often used the word “tent” as shorthand for a household. This came from the days when their ancestors lived as nomads, moving from place to place, and living in tents. The whole household would often share a large tent, and so even hundreds of years later a man’s household, the family which he led, was often called his “tent.” So here’s the second question I want you to keep in mind: David is, in addition to speaking of God’s place of worship, asking: who may live in God’s household? Who may be part of His family? Who may call God “Father?” Who, in short, may enjoy a close family relationship with this awesome God? And that’s closely related to the first, for what do the members of God’s household do? They worship Him! They belong to Him so that they may glorify Him!

Who may live in the place of constant worship? Who may enjoy life in the house of God? This, brothers and sisters, is a gospel question! What must I do to be saved? It’s the same question! David is asking, “What does a worshipper of God – a Christian – look like?”

If you believe in Christ, this is an important question, for David is going to tell us how we should now live. If you aren’t a Christian, if you haven’t trusted in Jesus Christ as your Saviour, or if you aren’t sure, then this message is vital for you. David is about to explain what a person must do to be acceptable before God, to have eternal life.

THE ANSWER: ONE WHO LIVES RIGHTEOUSLY

Who can sojourn in God’s tent, and dwell on His holy hill? Well, first, notice that even the question itself implies an answer. It’s God’s tent, for starters. It’s God’s hill. We don’t set the terms; He does. We don’t decide, as mere human beings, how one is acceptable to God – that’s God’s call to make. He sets the bar. He makes the standards. And since it’s a holy hill, we know that these standards will have something to do with holiness – that is, being set apart, pure, perfect, and spotless. Notice, too, the implication in the question: not everyone can sojourn in His tent or dwell on His hill. If they did, why ask? Not everyone meets God’s standards.

Who can sojourn in God’s tent, and dwell on His holy hill? There’s quite a list here. One of the first things we can draw from this is that a true worshipper values what is right. The worshipper “speaks truth in his heart” – he values the truth on the inside, not just on the outside. Honesty, truthfulness, integrity – they all arise from the heart and soul of this person. He or she knows God’s truth, and he clings to it at the very centre of his being and orders his entire life around it.

And not only does he, positively, value God’s truth – he also, negatively, despises what God rejects. In his eyes – in his perspective, from his point of view, in his opinion – a vile man is despised, David says. The word translated “vile” here refers to something spoiled, and thrown away – there’s a strong sense that the person is cast aside, rejected by God. So it’s not just any sinner, for everyone is a sinner. We’re talking about someone who is hardened in their sins, knowingly and flagrantly living in a vile and lawless manner. And so this despising of the vile person is not a personal thing – we haven’t rejected them; God has rejected them and the way that they live, and we must treat them accordingly until they turn away from that lifestyle and back to God. Yes, we are to love our enemies, and in this case love is tough – it calls evil “evil” and behaves accordingly until there is a change. This is the natural result of aligning one’s values with God. When we do, we love the things God loves – like this man, who honours and respects and loves the person who fears the Lord – and hate the things God hates.

So the worshipper of God values what is right. Second, a true worshipper does what is right. Indeed, most of this section speaks about outward behaviour, especially our behaviour toward others. The worshipper refrains from what is wrong, avoids what is evil. He does not slander with his tongue – saying false and hurtful things about others. No, he speaks the truth, in love. He does not do evil to his neighbor. No, he loves his neighbor as himself! He does not take up a reproach against his friend – that is, he throws no slurs, neither does he rejoice when others are insulted.

One of the points needs explaining. David says that the worshipper does not “lend out his money at interest.” This sounds odd to us. Our entire economy is built on credit – buying even a small house requires a mortgage and interest. Back in David’s day, often a person in great debt would consider selling himself into slavery to pay it back, and often the only alternative available to him was to ask someone for a loan to avoid slavery. This loan would have to be paid back, and in the ancient Middle East interest rates on such loans in such desperate circumstances were often around fifty percent! This practice of charging high interest in taking advantage of a person’s misfortune was called usury, and it was illegal under the Law of Moses. A modern equivalent might be the astronomical kind of interest rates we have seen recently in the payday loan industry, where people have been caught charging up to 1300% interest on short-term loans. The Law forbade Jews from taking advantage of one another in this way. God didn’t forbid fair payment for services, which would include the much more manageable interest we might pay on a mortgage. So a true worshipper does not take advantage of those in need.

The worshipper is honest even to his own hurt. When he swears an oath – when he makes a promise – he keeps it, regardless of how badly he is damaged by it. He does not change – he is a rock others can cling to, he is consistent in his beliefs and in his behaviour, and he treats everyone fairly. He takes no bribe against the innocent – even when doing the wrong thing results in great financial reward, he refuses. Like God, he will clear the innocent.

So David is saying that the worshipper of God will not do these things – that he will treat those who are in trouble with compassion and care.

GOD DEMANDS PERFECTION

Taken all together, David is describing a man righteous – fair, just – in all his ways. In fact, we can sum up his whole discussion with the first phrase of his response: “He who walks blamelessly.”

There’s the standard. That is the level of performance God expects from those who would be His people. That’s the qualification for residence in God’s household. 100% on the exam of life. Blamelessness. Perfection. Holiness.

This passage is hardly unique. In fact, God everywhere in the Bible demands spotless perfection from His people. The sacrifices they brought had to be unblemished – no spots, no wounds, no injuries. Any sin, no matter how small, is a capital offence in God’s eyes. Ezekiel warned Israel, “The soul that sins shall die.” Paul said in Romans, “The wages of sin is death.” Jesus Christ told His disciples in the Sermon on the Mount, “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

Why is the bar so high? Why can’t God give us a handicap, make allowances for our imperfection? Because we’re talking about His holy hill. Because the worship in His tent is to be holy. Because He is a holy God. Absolutely perfect. Totally set apart. Completely spotless. Listen: no other characteristic of God is spoken of by the Bible the way it speaks of His holiness. Not love, not compassion, not mercy, not anything else. The Bible says repeatedly that God is holy, holy, holy – stressing it three times, the highest emphasis possible in the Biblical languages. God is absolutely perfect and holy, and wants nothing less from us, His people. We bear His image, we represent Him on the earth, we are the crown of His creation. So, for God to expect any less than perfection from us would be to violate Himself. So this list, in a way, is “law”– it lays out God’s expectations, and if we fail to keep them, we sin and fall short of the mark.

THE WORSHIP GOD REQUIRES

Remember, we’ve already seen that this psalm is talking about two related subjects. David began with the question of God’s tent – the two things I asked you to keep in mind: not just how to be accepted into God’s household, but also how one is to offer worship to God. Let’s discuss worship first. This is the application for the people of God, for those who already belong to Him. This is the application for believers. Here it is: worship is not a “come-as-you-are” affair. To God, worship is a VERY serious matter. What kind of worship do you think a perfect God, who expects perfection from His people, wants? There’s a song that we all know, and one of the lines in the song reads, “Come – just as you are – to worship.” Yes, it’s a popular song, but it’s wrong. Worship is most definitely NOT something you just “come just as you are” to do.

Worship is a deliberate thing. It is serious business. If you had an important meeting – like, say, a job interview – what would you do? Would you just wander in “as you are,” in dirty clothes, without rehearsing or going over the interview ahead of time in your mind, without finding out a little about the company and the job first, without taking the time to prepare a resume beforehand? How much more important than a job interview is the call to worship our God? We were made for His glory! Our whole purpose in life is to worship Him! Read this psalm – it’s not talking about dressing in tuxedos to worship. God’s concerned with your character, with the state of your heart, and it had better be right. Worship, more than anything else, requires that you take some time to examine yourself. It means recognizing the sin in your life, confessing it and asking for forgiveness. It means asking God to soften our rebellious hearts so they can receive instruction. It means we seek to be cleansed by God’s grace so that the worship we offer is acceptable to Him.

That’s the first application, the one for believers. Look over this list David gives, and it says this: this is the kind of worshipper God desires. Don’t come to worship just as you are.

THE PRICE OF ADMISSION

Now the second application is for believers and for those who do not yet believe. How is one accepted into God’s household? How do we attain to eternal life? Eternal life requires a perfect life. That’s God’s standard. That is the price of admission to God’s house.

Yet no one can be perfect! We all fail to meet this standard! The Apostle John baldly stated that “if we say we have no sin, we lie, and the truth is not in us.” As Paul says, “All have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God.” We are “sinful from birth, sinful from when” our mothers conceived us, David says. Jeremiah reminds us that our hearts are “desperately wicked, and deceitful beyond cure.”

How are we supposed to get right with God, then? What if we just stop sinning? What if we do good works to make up for it? That won’t work. Even if we were to somehow straighten up our act, and go forth and sin no more, ever again, we would not be blameless – for we all still have a sinful past. And good works cannot cover our sins, the Bible tells us again and again. God’s holiness and honour require that sin be punished. He cannot and will not tolerate any person standing before Him stained with sin.

Let’s sum up this list. Who can sojourn in God’s tent, and dwell on His holy hill? Only a perfect person can be accepted by God. Only perfect righteousness, a spotless life, will please God.

THE ONLY ONE WHO QUALIFIES

Only one person in human history ever perfectly kept God’s law. Only one man was blameless, did no evil, perfectly loved His neighbor, truly and consistently valued the things of God, whose character was not only beyond any reproach, but never changed – and never changes. What we could not do, Jesus Christ did. He met and exceeded the standard God set. And in doing so, He earned the right to stand before God the Father. And more than that – more than a perfect life and a spotless record – He died the death that we all deserve for our sins. He took the place of sinners on His cross. He was pierced for our transgressions. Crushed for our iniquities. The punishment that brings us peace was laid on Him. God the Father laid on His own Son, Jesus Christ, the sins of us all.

Who can sojourn in God’s tent, and dwell on His holy hill? The one who recognizes their failure to do all these things David describes, and realizes that they have no hope of eternal life, of pleasing God, on their own. The only way you can hope to stand before God and not be immediately destroyed is Christ. You must recognize that you are a sinner, and that sin makes you filthy and unacceptable in God’s sight. You must repent of that sin – that means, you must turn away from things that don’t please God. You must abandon all trust in your own efforts to save yourself. The world says, “believe in yourself – you can do it.” The Bible says NO. You can’t. You must give up any lingering hope that you will somehow earn your place before God, that you might be able to impress Him enough to let you off. You must abandon all hope in yourself and hope in what Christ did instead. You must trust in Jesus Christ to be your Saviour, trusting that in His mercy He will keep you safe from God’s wrath. You believe in the spotless life that He lived – trust that this life, this righteousness of His, will be counted as yours by God. And you must put your faith in what He did on His Cross – trusting that your sins were punished completely, all of them, and that therefore no reason remains for God to condemn you to hell.

That’s the Gospel – that’s the good news. That though we could never be blameless, though we could never hope to be worthy of staying in God’s tent or living on His holy hill, Jesus Christ was. And by trusting in Him, we are joined to Christ by faith, and once again have fellowship with God. We may now stand on that hill, in that tent, to praise and glorify God.

If this isn’t you, if you haven’t yet put your faith in Christ for your salvation, don’t wait. Only God knows how long you still have! Cry out to God – ask Him for mercy. God will not wait forever. He will punish sinners.

And for we who have been saved, who do believe and trust in Jesus Christ, here is the challenge: As we read David’s description of a true worshipper, do our lives look like this? Are we really blameless in the way we behave and act? Do we value God’s truth and treat others with love and compassion? And – do we do this consistently? Do we always do this?
If not – why not? We have the Spirit of Christ! God never allows us to be tempted beyond what we can bear! We have no one and nothing to blame for our failure, for we have the Spirit and He enables us to obey. Don’t accept excuses from yourself. Ask God for help, and live like you were born to worship!

WE CANNOT BE SHAKEN!

David closes his psalm with a promise: “He who does these things will never be shaken.” The idea is that such a man, who is blameless, who does what is right, he cannot be moved. He cannot fall, or be dislodged – he is secure, safe and sound.

But again, we fall short of this standard. We don’t do these things David describes. Even those of us who believe find it a struggle to be righteous, and fall short all too often. What about the promise, then? Again – if we can’t meet the standard, then we don’t get the blessing, either, right? But – Christ did. He did all these things. He lived a spotless life! What does that mean, then? Christ can never be moved! Christ cannot be shaken!

What kind of Saviour would He be, if He could? If Christ could be shaken, then how could we trust Him? He might stumble. He might be shaken. He might lose His grip on us. We might lose our salvation. We may fail to be saved, might be lost from Christ’s hand.

But that’s not right! Christ once declared, “And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day… I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand.” Christ cannot be defeated! He cannot be frustrated. He cannot fail to do God’s will! He is God! What kind of God fails?

Christ lived a perfect life, and God promises that a perfect life cannot be shaken. Jesus was perfect – and that is our assurance. That is our security. That is our hope.

And we, who are joined to Him by faith? We will not be shaken, either. We hope in Christ. God is our foundation and our assurance. Nothing in this life, no powers or persecutions or storms or swords, can ever shake us – for Christ holds us in His hand! They can’t shake us, because they can’t shake Him! Death can’t even shake us – because it’s only the door to Christ!

We can’t do it ourselves – and that’s the very reason why we’re safe! What an awesome God! What wonderful salvation! And what amazing grace!

– Jeff Jones