Would you like to keep private past decisions that were questionable? How many times do you wish that others would not criticize you? Do you like it when others want to discuss with you some error that you made in the past? Except when you are sinfully bragging, do you like to talk about past sins? Unless you are an uncommon saint, the answer to all of these questions is that we do not like to be questioned, criticized or reminded of our sins. Our amazing God is open to a discussion about His decisions. The God who created us is willing to discuss how He treats us. The book of Habakkuk reveals a God who is open and transparent. Let's jump into our study of the Bible and see what we can learn about God's decision-making!
Trusting God's Goodness (Habakkuk)
Commentary for the May 25, 2013 Sabbath School Lesson
What if there are fifty righteous people in the city? Will you really sweep it away and not spare the place for the sake of the fifty righteous people in it? Far be it from you to do such a thing—to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and the wicked alike. Far be it from you! Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?”
The Lord said, “If I find fifty righteous people in the city of Sodom, I will spare the whole place for their sake.”
Then he said, “May the Lord not be angry, but let me speak just once more. What if only ten can be found there?”
He answered, “For the sake of ten, I will not destroy it.”
Genesis 18:24-26, 32 NIV
The book of Habakkuk is problematic for the modern reader. We easily identify with the author and his concerns about injustice. It is a problem today as it was back in the middle of the 1st millennium B.C.. But how God deals with injustice in this book is just as shocking to us as it was to Habakkuk.
The Bible contains several earlier stories regarding God’s methods for dealing with widespread evil. The first, the Noachian flood has God directly eliminating almost the entire human race along with most of the animals.[i] This goes beyond genocide but we are somehow able to accept a pure God not tolerating evil humanity. They crossed the line and needed to be punished. After all, we do this with our own children. Granted, we don’t drown our children for their transgressions, but then we are not God. In His compassion God determined to save eight righteous people, Noah and his three sons along with all of their wives, these being the only ones who were faithful on all the earth.
This theme is repeated again in the story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.[ii] Once again all are destroyed, save Abraham’s nephew Lot and his two daughters. This story is slightly more morally ambiguous as Lot’s caviling and incest make us a little uncomfortable with the level of his righteousness. One gets the feeling that although he was saved, it was more because of his relationship with Abraham than because of any innate goodness on his part. One interesting parallel between these two stories speaks perhaps to the compassion of God. In both instances, destruction did not occur until the number of the righteous dropped below ten.
Of course, we have the later understanding of King David in the Psalms that no one is righteous,[iii] a sentiment echoed in Paul’s epistle to the Romans.[iv] While this supports the concept of a universal need for grace, it does not seem to be the perspective in Genesis. Some might see these Genesis accounts as portraying an entirely different God than the God of the New Testament. Others might simply see a progression in how we understand God’s character. In any event, it appears that for the Genesis account, the author believed that one could escape condemnation by achieving a certain level of righteousness. In Noah’s case, he appeared to achieve it through obedience. In Lot’s, he demonstrated hospitality to strangers.
One can sense some of this same thinking when later the Israelites conquered Canaan. In the books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel and on through much of the royal records of Kings and Chronicles, we find the Israelites smiting their enemies and justifying it because on a scale of one to ten for righteousness, the Israelites are ten and the Canaanites are a one. Of course these number values get a little murky when we consider Achan’s greedy sin,[v] Samson’s promiscuity,[vi] Saul’s disobedience,[vii] and David’s adultery.[viii] Nonetheless, the Israelites considered their tattered righteousness was still better than that of the surrounding nations. With an exceptionalism founded in monotheism they were able to moderate the problematic parts of these incidents in such a way that they bolstered rather than diminished their status as a “chosen” people.
While Achan’s sin was speedily and dramatically dealt with by the people, one senses a growing toleration for these behaviors over time. This, of course, brings us to the time of Habakkuk. The lack of righteousness was reaching a point where it was impossible to ignore. Perhaps the prophet expected a dramatic act of God like in Noah’s or Lot’s days—a feat of righteous indignation. Instead, it is as though God says, “I am going to use the gangs of East Los Angeles to wipe out the Hollywood Hills because Hollywood has become so evil.” Those in Hollywood would probably seriously question whether or not those gangs had any right to do so as they could hardly be any better. Therefore, why wipe out Hollywood instead of East L.A.?
This is what Habakkuk could not understand when God told him that the Chaldeans of the Babylonian Empire would destroy Jerusalem. They were not the chosen people. How could they be instruments to restore justice? Perhaps, in spite of all the evil around him, the prophet could still not see that the scales of relative righteousness had changed. Since God did not destroy the world with a flood nor Sodom and Gomorrah with fire until there were fewer than ten righteous people left, maybe things had gotten that bad in Jerusalem. He had previously demonstrated His great patience and compassion. If he continued to do so, perhaps it would get to a point that no one righteous would remain. Perhaps this is what Luke the Apostle was alluding to when he questioned whether there would be any faithful left on the earth at the Parousia.[ix] Perhaps the second coming is not triggered so much by the spread of the gospel as by the level of evil.[x]
When we consider these things and how patient and compassionate God has shown Himself to be, we might ask ourselves how few saints there may be praying for our cities and nations and staving off destruction. This is what the prophet was doing. The book of Habakkuk is not so much a prophecy directed toward Jerusalem as it is a prayer directed to God. Prayer is powerful and God responds. He guided Noah to save a remnant from the flood. He responded to Abraham’s prayerful request regarding Sodom and saved Lot and his daughters. Even blind Samson, with all his faults, prayed and found vengeance on his enemies when God answered him.
This happens in spite of what Genesis tells us about our own righteousness being efficacious for our salvation. Several examples in the Old Testament show that we are saved by the grace of a compassionate God. Nineveh, an Assyrian city dedicated to the worship of Ishtar was saved by the God of Jonah. Ruth, of the Moabites, a people who had been cursed to have no part with Israel, was saved by the God of Naomi. Rahab of Jericho, a Canaanite, a people to be utterly destroyed by Israel, was spared by the God of Joshua.
The lesson to be garnered from this is that no matter how wicked your city or nation has become, God’s grace is still powerful to save those whose hearts are His. We should pray for the cities and countries where we live, because those prayers may be the difference between salvation and destruction for many. Even though we may feel alone as we struggle for justice and fairness, there may be Rahab’s we do not know about, who, with us, are standing in the gap between life and death for their city.[xi] Like Rahab, they may not even know the God who loves them, but He knows their hearts belong to Him.[xii]
Perhaps Habakkuk was mistaken when he assumed that the Jews were more righteous than the Chaldeans that God was sending to execute sentence on Jerusalem. Even today, nationalistic exceptionalism is a common trend. Maybe we all at times tend to look down on those from other countries as somehow being inferior to ourselves. We may even feel ourselves a nation or denomination “chosen” as ancient Israel did. But if we pervert justice and oppress others, how are we better than anyone else?
We may think it is safe to let our selfishness and greed have its way since it has done so for so long without anything dire happening, but if we hurt others in this way, do we know when the limits of God’s compassion will be passed? Do we even know who the individuals are who might be saving our Sodom from destruction? Would it matter if we did? If we knew that fewer than ten people were seeking the righteousness of Christ in our community, would we behave differently? Perhaps it is because we do not know who these people are and how many remain that Jesus said of His coming, “But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”[xiii] Maybe we are closer than we realize.
[i] Genesis 6-9
[ii] Ibid., 18-19
[iii] Psalm 14:1-3
[iv] Romans 3:10
[v] Joshua 7
[vi] Judges 16
[vii] 1 Samuel 15
[viii] 2 Samuel 11
[ix] Luke 18:7-9
[x] Matthew 24:22
[xi] 1 Kings 19:14-18
[xii] Romans 2:14-15
[xiii] Matthew 24:36, NIV
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