We all experience great joy in life from time to time. We buy a house. We have a child or grandchild. We enjoy good music. We eat the most perfectly cooked steak. We have a great night with friends. Life can be…well, good. And yet. How many times have we looked around our tiny spheres of existence and wondered what in the world was going on? None of us has to look very far to see chaos and social injustice and brokenness all over the place. Each one of us has the innate sense that this world is not what it ought to be. The world should not be like this. Anger and violence and racism and poverty and unfaithfulness and lying and corruption and greed and malice and war and hostility are everywhere, and these things ought not to be. This has led many skeptics to ask the question: if God is so good, then why is the world so bad? The accusation is often implicit though it is frequently made explicit: if God can prevent evil but doesn’t, he’s either not good or he’s not real. As believers we can also wonder why the world is allowed to continue with such evil everywhere. This is not a new question.
Sometime before 605BC, when the Battle of Carchemish took place, the prophet Habakkuk asked this question. The northern kingdom of Israel (also called Samaria) had been conquered in the year 722BC, though it had suffered many defeats prior to that. Around 734BC many of the people had been taken into exile by Tiglath-Pileser III, the powerful king of the most powerful nation on earth at the time: Assyria. Then between 729–724BC many more were taken into exile by Shalmaneser V and Sargon II, two more Assyrian kings. By 722BC the northern kingdom of Israel simply ceased to exist, along with the ten tribes of Israel that made up that kingdom.
Over the next hundred years or so the kingdom of Judah remained with a king descended from David on its throne, just as God promised. By Habakkuk’s time political power was shifting and Judah faced many threats—both internal and external. Egypt’s power was rising as it had become the dominant force in the region. Assyria’s power was rapidly fading. By the early 600s BC Assyria was in disarray as Babylon started its rise to power along with Egypt.
Habakkuk sees the evil in his own nation as social justice is perverted. He sees evil throughout his nation as those with power use it to oppress, to steal, kill, and destroy.
O LORD, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not hear? Or cry to you “Violence!” and you will not save? Why do you make me see iniquity, and why do you idly look at wrong? Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise. So the law is paralyzed, and justice never goes forth. For the wicked surround the righteous; so justice goes forth perverted.Habakkuk 1:2–4 ESV
Habakkuk cries out to God for help and wonders why he won’t do something about all the evil and suffering in the world. Notice his claim in his question: “why do you idly look at wrong?” Why do you just sit there, doing nothing, when evil is everywhere? Also notice his perspective: why does Habakkuk have to see iniquity? Why are destruction and violence paraded before Habakkuk’s eyes? He’s claiming that he can clearly see all that is wrong with the world while God—apparently—just seems to stare at the same evil but does so “idly”—he’s unmoved by it.
He says the “law is paralyzed”. The law is the covenant God made with his people at Mount Sinai. This covenant had a fatal flaw: it could not change God’s people. The law was God’s self-description, his way of telling his people, “Be like me, and here’s what I’m like”. This was not enough to change them. Because of their stubborn hearts and their sin and their lack of love for one another, the law was paralyzed. It couldn’t stop the people from being evil. This is Habakkuk’s complaint. The iniquity and destruction and violence he sees comes from among God’s people. When he says “the wicked surround the righteous”, he means the wicked among God’s people surround the righteous among God’s people.
The problem for Habakkuk is he cannot see the world as God sees it. Rather than get angry and lash out against Habakkuk for his cries and complaints, God lets him in on a little secret: he’s not idle.
Look among the nations, and see; wonder and be astounded. For I am doing a work in your days that you would not believe if told. For behold, I am raising up the Chaldeans, that bitter and hasty nation, who march through the breadth of the earth, to seize dwellings not their own. They are dreaded and fearsome; their justice and dignity go forth from themselves. Their horses are swifter than leopards, more fierce than the evening wolves; their horsemen press proudly on. Their horsemen come from afar; they fly like an eagle swift to devour. They all come for violence, all their faces forward. They gather captives like sand. At kings they scoff, and at rulers they laugh. They laugh at every fortress, for they pile up earth and take it. Then they sweep by like the wind and go on, guilty men, whose own might is their god!Habakkuk 1:5–11 ESV
God tells Habakkuk to do exactly what Habakkuk claims he’s been doing: look and see what God is doing! He tells Habakkuk that even if he were to tell Habakkuk exactly what he’s doing Habakkuk would not believe him. God says that rather than idly watching what’s going on, he’s actively directing human history. He is raising up the Chaldeans—Babylon—to become the dominant power. This requires that he also bring down Assyria. It is no surprise to God that Assyria’s power is being destroyed because God is shifting it to Babylon for his purposes.
God acknowledges what he has done to this end. They are a “bitter and hasty nation”. People rightly fear them. They have an advanced army as their horses are a tremendous advantage in battle, allowing them to simply outrun and overwhelm the foot soldiers they fight against. The outcome of this superiority is they “gather captives like sand”. They laugh at those who oppose them, for none have been able to resist them. God also includes a detail that indicates their eventual destruction: the real god they worship is their own military power, and one thing God has demonstrated repeatedly is that military power of kings and nations are truly as nothing to him. He is, after all, the one who raises up kingdoms and destroys kingdoms. He puts kings on thrones and he removes kings from thrones.
Rather than sitting there idly watching evil do evil things, God is actively working in this world. He’s working at the macro level, moving nations about as he sees fit, to accomplish his purposes. He’s also actively involved at the micro level, working in individual lives, guiding and directing history as he sees fit, all to accomplish his purposes. The truth is that neither you nor I can see what God sees—and we wouldn’t believe it if we could! We can only catch glimpses.
We can be comforted by God’s response to Habakkuk’s cries. As we see injustice and evil and chaos in our own little worlds, whether health problems or financial problems or relational problems, we can trust that God is not idle. He’s doing things behind the scenes that even if he were to tell us, we wouldn’t believe him. As we see injustice and evil in our community, whether local or national, we can trust that God is not idle. He’s been doing things behind the scenes that even if he were to tell us, we wouldn’t believe him. As we see injustice and evil and chaos in the broader world, whether the ongoing war in Ukraine with Russia or we see the growing destruction in Israel and Gaza and implied threats that other nations may enter into the conflict, we can trust that God is not idle. He’s doing things behind the scenes that even if he were to tell us, we wouldn’t believe him. We can trust that God is not lazy on his throne but is actively working. He is actively and intimately involved, guiding and directing the world, and in the end we will see his sovereign hand at work.
We can take great comfort in the wisdom John Piper wrote several years ago:
God is always doing 10,000 things in your life, and you may be aware of three of them.John Piper
Take heart, Christian. God is at work in your life. You may—may!—be aware of two or three things he is doing through your circumstances, but know there are at least 9,997 other things he is doing, things that you wouldn’t believe, even if he told them to you. If the state of the economy or the trouble in Israel and Gaza or that medical diagnosis or that crumbling relationship continues to cause fear and anxiety, know that God is actively working, whether you see it or not.
Our response to the varying circumstances of life, whether we experience good or bad, ought to be the response God calls Habakkuk to in that great text cited by the apostle Paul: “the righteous shall live by his faith”. We need to understand something significant here: faith is not a response to our circumstance. Faith is a response to who God is. Because God is unchanging and because God is good and trustworthy, our faith in him ought to be unchanging as well, despite our circumstances. Because faith is a response to who God is rather than a response to our circumstances, we can say with Habakkuk,
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.Habakkuk 3:17–19 ESV
In the midst of pain and difficulty and in the midst of joy and prosperity, our faith must be in God, not in our circumstances.