It Really Is All Under Control: Habakkuk 1:5-11

September 24, 2007

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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