Assyria was the Darth Vader of the Middle East.
In the 7th century BC, which is the 600’s, Assyria stomped all over the Middle East, including Israel, breathing heavily, dressed in black, committing acts of cruelty and violence. Its theory of government was that one rules by fear, by terrorizing the people, by threatening cruel punishment if you are caught doing wrong; and maybe even if you aren’t, just to keep you humble and frightened. Assyria was one of the cruelest empires the world had seen to that point – a strong efficient war machine, and a crushing tyrant of a ruler.
In the 600’s, the nation of Israel was divided into two pieces, a part called “Israel,” or the ten tribes, in the north, and a part called “Judah” in the south. The part called Israel was completely destroyed by the Assyrians. The capital city of Damascus was smashed and all the people scattered throughout the empire, never to return. The part called Judah was forced to pay heavy tribute time and time again until there was no wealth left in the land. Even after the payments, Jerusalem was finally attacked, laid siege to by the Assyrians, and nearly fell; the Assyrians turning and leaving on the verge of final victory is still somewhat of a mystery and a miracle –otherwise, Judah would have suffered the same fate as Israel.
None of the conquered peoples, of course, liked Assyria, any more than we are meant to like Darth Vader, and Judah was no exception. It prayed and hoped and waited for the day Assyria might finally collapse.
In the year 612, Judah’s prayers were finally answered. Assyria’s capital city of Nineveh fell to the armies of the Medes and Chaldeans, two peoples far to the East. Judah celebrated – the entire book of the prophet Nahum, in fact, is a celebration song gloating over the fall of Assyria. “Ding dong the wicked witch is dead”—from now on, Judah could emerge as its own nation again, not threatened by the awful Assyrians. A new period of independence began.
Then just seven years later, in 605, a famous battle called Carchemish took place. The Babylonians defeated the Egyptians in this battle and marched on to the South and West. It quickly became apparent that no one was going to stop them, and that Judah was about to be treated, all over again, the way it had been treated by Assyria. The wicked witch of the East was dead, but the wicked witch of the West was coming “and she’s far worse than the first one.” So much for independence.
The news of Babylon’s approach is what stirred the prophet Habakkuk to go up on his watchtower, and ask the questions we’ve just heard this morning: What is this, God?” “How long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen, to cry to you ‘Violence!’ and you will not save?” Why do the wicked triumph? Why is justice perverted? Why do you let evil forces succeed? We just got rid of the worst enemy ever, and right away you let another one come along and take over! This is it, God: I want an answer and I want it now. “I will stand at my watchpost, and station myself” here until I get an answer to my complaints. Let’s have it God – right now.
Habakkuk isn’t the only person to have ever asked questions like this, is he? This coming Wednesday is September 11th, the anniversary of a national tragedy, and many Americans have asked similar questions of God regarding that terrible day, haven’t they? While some people of faith, in response to that September 11th, you may remember, turned to God, clung to God, for comfort; and others were able to persist in their faith without asking questions, who didn’t connect God with the events at all; there were some – many, including people of strong faith who had attended church regularly for years – who also asked: “How did God let this happen?” and “Where is God, in the face of such evil?” They asked, with Habakkuk, “Why do the wicked triumph? Why do you let their evil plans succeed? Why didn’t you step in and stop them? I need an answer, God.”
And now we have Hurricane Dorian, and all the stories and photos of destruction and lives lost. And regularly, accounts of mass shootings, all over this nation. And I couldn’t help notice how many times the word “cancer” appears under “Prayer Requests” in today’s bulletin. “Where are you, God? Why do you let these bad things happen? I need an answer, God.”
In chapter 2 of Habakkuk, God does decide to answer the prophet immediately. And there’s no indication of any displeasure over his demands, or his anger; apparently God doesn’t mind being yelled at when there’s a good reason. Cynthia Rigby, professor of theology at Austin Seminary, addresses this in connection with the book of Psalms: Voicing our lament, she writes, admitting our pain and our anguish and our doubts about whether God really is with us, is not too much for God to bear. She encourages people not to feel they must have “happy, fake smiles” to be people of faith, but to read the Psalms, and find the “rhythm between crying out to God and praising him” to be found there. In Psalm 22, for example, David cries out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”, as Jesus does later, from the cross.
In Psalm 44, of which even Rigby acknowledges “I have never had the guts to pray this personally,” David confronts God about promises that haven’t been kept, and says “Rouse yourself! Why are you sleeping? We have been faithful to you, but you have not been faithful to us.”
Some people who have experienced personal suffering “are often afraid to come to church,” Rigby continues, “and what they’re most afraid of is coffee hour,” when people insist they accept platitudes like: “This is God’s will, God’s plan; you must just accept it. God doesn’t give us more than we can bear. Now straighten up.” By reading the lament passages in the Bible, they can instead realize that in an intimate relationship with God, there is nothing wrong with asking, “God, where are you? How could you let this happen? Now I too am one of the communion of faithful saints who have cried out.”
So Habakkuk asks, and God, with no hint of displeasure, answers. And God’s answer, I think, is a two-fold answer, an immediate short-term answer for Habakkuk, and a long-term answer for his readers. The short-term answer is summarized by Pittsburgh Seminary Old Testament Professor Donald Gowan in his little book on Habakkuk, and other commentaries I’ve read agree: First, God responds, you must be patient, persistent, persevering. “There is still a vision for the appointed time,” verse 3 tells us. There is still a plan in place. “If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come.” God’s time is not our time; the picture we see is not the big picture God can see. Habakkuk first receives an assurance: this one development doesn’t mean the whole plan’s been knocked out of place. Things will still work altogether for good.
“Second, Mr. Habakkuk,” God says, “in the meantime . . . Be faithful.” Your job while you wait for the whole plan to develop and resolve itself is to do your best to be faithful. Hang on; don’t give up. The examples Dr. Gowan gives are the person with the chronic illness who never becomes bitter, never gives up on life, still relishes what good they can find and gives what they have left to give. Or a partner in a one-sided marriage, who gives much but whose own needs are left largely unfulfilled, but who keeps their own marriage vows as long as possible rather than quickly turning to unfaithfulness, desertion, or divorce. Or his own parents, who for twenty-five years in their home church watched ministers come full of hope and vision and leave discouraged after a few years because their fellow church members couldn’t understand what church is all about, and wouldn’t cooperate with those who had some vision. Twenty-five years his parents did not quit and seek another congregation, or sow dissension, because they knew that church needed them. Be patient, the plan is still in effect; and in the meantime, be faithful.
Is God’s answer satisfying? It was for Habakkuk. Either the words themselves, or something about the way God said them, or something God did for the prophet while saying them – an infusion of the Holy Spirit maybe – turned the trick; because by the end of chapter 3, the end of the book, Habakkuk is writing “Though the vines aren’t producing fruit or blossom right now, even though our flocks and herds seem lost, I will rejoice in the Lord. God is my strength; God is my salvation.” Something has restored Habakkuk’s confidence.
Is the answer satisfying for us today, when long years after nine-eleven, there are still terrorists in the world and troops dying overseas, and families waiting at home? You’ll have to answer that for yourself, but one thing I have noticed is that it does describe some of the ways we acted following that day: While we were also told, for example, that resolution wouldn’t come quickly or easily, that we’d have to be patient, persistent, and persevering, we in the meantime kept supporting our troops, kept praying for them, refused to give in to hopelessness or despair. We kept expressing our faith in the ideals of our country. Whether we were aware of it or not, that we acted out God’s answer to Habakkuk: be patient, good will triumph, and in the meantime, be faithful.
There is also, I believe, a second long-term answer to Habakkuk’s questions, given by God: God’s answer begins, “Write the vision down . . . to be easily read.” My answer will come to you to be written down, for all the people to read. These are instructions God will eventually repeat to many people of faith over the years – “Write these things down, for my people to read” – and the collection of these writings is, of course, our Bible. Throughout the Bible we find, here and there, parts of the answer to our question “Why do you let bad things happen, God?”
“All Scripture is inspired by God,” II Timothy tells us, to help us “continue in what we have learned and firmly believed,” to help us “be persistent in unfavorable times,” to encourage us. We have other places in this book, besides Habakkuk, to help us in our times of questioning.
I won’t try to summarize them all today. I did that once, in a sermon at my first church, called “Why Do Bad Things Happen?” I wrote myself a note the day after I preached it and attached it to the sermon: “This is at least two sermons, maybe more.” It was too much, too complicated, for one thing; I can still see the eyes glazing over. So maybe in the future, if you want, we can consider the other Bible passages in a short series of worship services, or in a Bible study.
I can tell you today, one thing the answer is not: we are not to jump to the conclusion, the Bible tells us over and over again, that a bad thing happening means God is punishing someone – as a few notable people said about September 11th, at first. No.
- There’s John 9:1-3 – Jesus says that’s not how God works.
- There’s Luke 13: 1-5 – Jesus says that’s not how God works.
- There’s Matthew 5:45 – Jesus says rain falls on the righteous and the unrighteous.
- There’s the whole book of Job . . . a bad thing happening does not imply God’s punishment, the Bible says.
I can also tell you one thing the answer is: It does have to do with God’s giving human beings free will, and that they sometimes use that freedom to do evil. That’s part of the answer – as it was with nine-eleven and terrorists.
The rest of the Bible’s answers will have to wait for another day; but we do have Habakkuk’s answer for today: There is still a vision. God’s plan is still in place. It will come; be patient, persistent, persevering. And in the meantime, be faithful.
God, Habakkuk’s questions trouble us still, with our limited perspective: Why do you let bad things happen? Why are the wicked allowed to proceed with their plans? Why are people in harm’s way? Give us faith, in your unlimited perspective, and power, and desire for good. Help us to be patient, and faithful. Amen.