The Problem of Evil: Habakkuk 1:1-4

September 18, 2007

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

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One Response to “The Problem of Evil: Habakkuk 1:1-4”

  1. pediatric said

    Great..
    Useful info.. I think 🙂

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