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Waiting Well – a lesson from Habakkuk

How long?

Waiting is a big part of life, and something that I’m keenly aware of right now: when will we move into our new home? When will our baby come? Which will come first? Will it be before or after Christmas (or during!)?

When we are waiting for something that is completely out of our hands, it can be hard. The wait for something like Christmas is easier, as we have a colourful advent calendar helpfully counting down the days to the fixed point – 25th December – when we can finally open that stocking. It is the not knowing that makes the waiting difficult.

This is not a new struggle; Habakkuk is one of the ‘minor prophets’ in the Old Testament, writing around 640-615BC. He is writing at a time when God had been using the nation Assyria to punish Israel for its disobedience. Habakkuk turns to God and cries out,

“O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not hear?”
(Chapter 1 verse 2).

He has experienced violence and injustice (verse 4), and he wants to know how long it will go on for before God will step in and help.

I felt a real resonance with this and the world we live in now. Verse 4 says,

“So the law is paralysed, and justice never goes forth. For the wicked surround the righteous; so justice goes forth perverted.”

It seems like wickedness and injustice surround us on every side, and the law is powerless to stop it; I’m thinking particularly of the recent attacks in Paris. How long will situations like this continue before God steps in and does something?

In cases like this, it is right for us to be saddened and to want the suffering to stop, and like Habakkuk we should be turning to God in this. However, our attitude is important. I can’t help feeling that Habakkuk is criticising God for not acting. Verse 3 says,

“Why do you make me see iniquity, and why do you idly look at wrong?”

He is calling God idle! Often it can feel like that, especially when we know that in a situation God is the only one who can do something. But God doesn’t stay silent, he speaks to Habakkuk.

God’s response

As we (and Habakkuk) should have guessed, God’s got it covered. Immediately he says to him,

“I am doing a work in your days that you would not believe if told.”
(Chapter 1 verse 5)

God knows what he’s doing, and though it will seem incredible to Habakkuk, he goes on to explain himself anyway. But the answer isn’t something that Habakkuk is going to like… God tells him that he is going to raise up the Chaldeans, a people who are “dreaded and fearsome” (Chapter 1 verse 7), and that they will bring much violence.

Clearly this is not the answer Habakkuk was looking for, so he turns to God with his ‘second complaint’, again calling God idle and silent (chapter 1 verse 13). Clearly this isn’t true, as God has already told him that he is working in this way – showing that God is neither idle nor silent! God is gracious enough to respond to Habakkuk yet again, saying,

“Write the vision: make it plain on tablets, so he may run who reads it. For still the vision awaits the appointed time; it hastens to the end – it will not lie. If it seems slow, wait for it; it will surely come; it will not delay.”
(Chapter 2 verse 2 – 3)

God is patient with Habakkuk, explaining clearly to him, even telling him to write it down. He makes it clear once more that he is working, but that Habakkuk must be patient. God has a plan, and the plan involves some specific timing. Next God goes on to explain that he will judge the Chaldeans, though he plans to use them to bring judgement first. God will bring justice, but the time isn’t here yet. And yet, God promises more than just judgement on this specific people. Chapter 2, verse 14 says there will be a day when,

“the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.”

When will this day come? Well, like Habakkuk, we don’t know yet. However, we are able to be more patient, to see this more clearly, as we are living later on in God’s plan. Habakkuk is waiting for Christmas, too, but the very first Christmas. He knows that God will bring salvation, he is aware that there will be a Messiah one day, but he doesn’t know when. Habakkuk can hold fast to the prophecy of Isaiah, that one day “the virgin shall conceive and bear a son and call his name Immanuel,” (Isaiah 7:14), but he doesn’t know when this will happen, or even the magnitude of this event.

For us, living this side of the cross, we can see that God’s plan for salvation has come about, he has kept his promises, and we can be saved through Jesus. We no longer have to wait for this first Christmas. However, as we know all too well, this world is not perfect yet. Though Satan has been defeated, and death has lost its sting, we are not in heaven yet. And so we, too, cry out “how long?” as we wait for suffering to end. We are waiting for the day when Jesus will come again, when the heaven and earth will be renewed, and all pain will cease. We are waiting for heaven. And it can be hard, because we don’t know when this will happen.

While we wait

Before he finishes speaking to Habakkuk in chapter 2, God reminds him that he, the Lord, is holy and powerful, and ought to be worshiped and revered (verse 20). And so, this is what Habakkuk does in chapter 3. Finally, he gets it, and out comes this amazing prayer of worship. He says,

“O Lord, I have heard the report of you, and your work, O Lord, do I fear. In the midst of the years revive it; in the midst of the years make it known; in wrath remember mercy.”
Habakkuk recalls what God is like and appeals to his character.

The rest of the chapter is really worth reading and reflecting on, as Habakkuk describes God’s power and greatness; it’s a dramatic passage speaking of lightning, pestilence, mighty rivers, moving mountains, stopping the sun and moon and, above all else, salvation. Verse 13 says,

“You went out for the salvation of your people, of the salvation of your anointed.”

In the midst of his suffering, Habakkuk acknowledges that God is working to save his people.

By looking at God’s character, rather than his own problems, Habakkuk is finally free to worship God as he ought to. The last three verses in the book of Habakkuk are challenging and encouraging. They say,

“Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold, and there be no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will take joy in the God of my salvation. God, the Lord, is my strength; he makes my feet like the deer’s; he makes me tread on my high places.”

In these verses he names just about everything that could go wrong, and yet he rejoices in God. While he is waiting for his suffering to pass, he looks to God, sees him as he is, and can’t help but be joyful and full of worship. This reminds me of Paul, who in Philippians 4 verse 11 says,

“I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content.”

Whether we are waiting for a particular event, waiting for our suffering to pass, or simply waiting for the perfected creation in heaven, by looking to God’s character, and speaking to ourselves of his goodness, rather than staring at ourselves and at our own situations, we can be lifted out of them, we can feel joyful, and we can wait well.

Written by Katie Holloway

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