A Prayer of Pain and Praise

Dr. Kevin DeYoung, Senior Pastor

Habakkuk 3:1-19 | June 28 - Sunday Morning,

Sunday Morning,
June 28
A Prayer of Pain and Praise | Habakkuk 3:1-19
Dr. Kevin DeYoung, Senior Pastor

Our Father in heaven, every text in this Bible is inspired, it’s inerrant, it’s infallible, it’s profitable, and yet we all recognize there are, there are certain passages whose power and eloquence and majesty grip us in a particular way, and this from Habakkuk chapter 3 is one of those. Surely, I am not equal to the task of presenting this Word, let alone capturing all of the glory and the majesty in it, and so I pray that as You give me a humble heart, You would give me grace to preach with power and with might and with authority and You would speak just the Word that we need to hear, and You would give us the prayer for these days, that we might pray with earnestness before you. In Christ’s name. Amen.

So we come to the end of this book in our four-part series, Habakkuk, chapter 3. I will read the entire chapter, and as I just said in the prayer, it is one of the great prayers in all the Bible. One of the great chapters anywhere in the Bible.

“A prayer of Habakkuk the prophet, according to Shigionoth.

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.
God came from Teman,
and the Holy One from Mount Paran.
His splendor covered the heavens,
and the earth was full of His praise.
His brightness was like the light;
rays flashed from His hand;
and there He veiled His power.
Before Him went pestilence,
and plague followed at His heels.
He stood and measured the earth;
He looked and shook the nations;
then the eternal mountains were scattered;
the everlasting hills sank low.
His were the everlasting ways.
I saw the tents of Cushan in affliction;
the curtains of the land of Midian did tremble.
Was Your wrath against the rivers, O Lord?
Was Your anger against the rivers,
or Your indignation against the sea,
when You rode on Your horses,
on Your chariot of salvation?
You stripped the sheath from Your bow,
calling for many arrows.
You split the earth with rivers.
The mountains saw You and writhed;
the raging waters swept on;
the deep gave forth its voice;
it lifted its hands on high.
The sun and moon stood still in their place
at the light of Your arrows as they sped,
at the flash of Your glittering spear.
You marched through the earth in fury;
You threshed the nations in anger.
You went out for the salvation of Your people,
for the salvation of Your anointed.
You crushed the head of the house of the wicked,
laying him bare from thigh to neck.
You pierced with his own arrows the heads of his warriors,
who came like a whirlwind to scatter me,
rejoicing as if to devour the poor in secret.
You trampled the sea with your horses,
the surging of mighty waters.

I hear, and my body trembles;
my lips quiver at the sound;
rottenness enters into my bones;
my legs tremble beneath me.
Yet I will quietly wait for the day of trouble
to come upon people who invade us.

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.

To the choirmaster: with stringed instruments.”

On Friday, I read this post from a pastor I know of through a mutual friend. This pastor, whose writing I will read in just a moment, is planting a multi-ethnic church in Minneapolis.

Here’s what he wrote on Friday: “It’s been quite a month in Minneapolis. One month ago George Floyd was killed. Shockwaves went through our city and neighborhood. They quickly spread across the nation and the world. Yet here in Minneapolis the aftershocks have not subsided. Burned and destroyed business everywhere, calls to defund the police were followed this past month with 1600 calls to police of gunfire. In our home the question a dozen times a day is, “Were those gunshots?” A pastor friend and his wife had a bullet go through their wall, which prompted them to move. Homeless encampments started to spread and grow three blocks from our church. Hundreds of tents have gone up. It is a less than ideal situation for any involved. So many challenges emerge with this; drug dealing, prostitution, needles left scattered, police morale has never been lower. At the same time shootings have trended much higher. This week fifty youth were practicing football when gunfire broke out. This week one of our church member’s neighbors was carjacked at gunpoint. Which brings us to yesterday. Yesterday my friend and neighbor told his children, “Don’t go outside. There’s been too much shooting.” A few hours later, my daughter frantically called and texted me to say there had been an accident in front of our house and then a shooting. Two cars had collided and one person got out and shot the driver of the other vehicle. As my daughters went out after hearing the accident, the gunshot occurred, and the driver stumbled out with blood pulsing out of his arm. They rushed in to get my wife. Police and ambulance were quick to the scene as the man lay bleeding on our front step with his head on our blue towel. The last 24 hours have been a time of processing and praying. Trauma affects each person and family member differently. It affects children and families and pastors. This morning on my front porch all was quiet and I read from Psalm 93: The Lord reigns. Indeed He does. On our block, in our city, and in our nation, the floods have lifted up and yet His throne is established. He rules, He reigns, with Christ our solid Rock we are safe everywhere and at all times. Please pray for the man who was shot, and for our family, our church, and our city. Pray that His kingdom would come, His will would be done here in Minneapolis as it is in heaven.”

Reading that post, I was reminded of two things. First, however comparatively little I’ve been affected by the troubles in our world compared to many, many others. And second I was convicted that my prayers have been too infrequent, not big enough, not bold enough. My prayers have not gone as deep or spread out as wide as they should.

The prayer in Habakkuk chapter 3 is just the prayer that we need for these days. The prayer was composed by Habakkuk, we know that. We see it in verse 1. He’s speaking as a prophet on behalf of the people, just as Moses had done or Deborah or David. We also have several hints that this was not a private prayer, but it was composed for public worship. Sometimes in the moment of most exquisite pain, you explode and overflow extemporaneously with prayer, and sometimes in the moments of greatest pain and confusion, the right thing to do is to reflect and write.

So that’s what Habakkuk has done. This is not a prayer that just came forth on the moment, but one that he has obviously put together with great thought, and has done so not only to express his heart before the Lord, but to be one that the whole community could use. We see at the very beginning it’s according to Shigionoth, and I’ll tell you exactly what that means: I don’t know. Nobody quite knows. An instrument? A style? A kind of dance? We don’t know. We also have “Selah” three times in here. I’ll tell you exactly that means: We don’t know. Maybe a pause, maybe a musical notation, but again it signified it’s for corporate worship. And then the third hint, more than a hint, is at the very end, “To the choirmaster: with stringed instruments.” So God’s people are meant to sing this and pray it together.

I’m so grateful we’ve been able to sing these words, exactly these words, put to music so well by Nathan and led by our team.

This is a remarkable prayer. One of the most exalted and most eloquent anywhere in the Bible.

James Montgomery Boice in his commentary tells the story, and it’s one of those stories I hope that it’s true, but he tells the story of Benjamin Franklin one time, who was not an evangelical Christian but had a certain sympathy, an affinity, and appreciation for the Bible, that he was in France on one of his envoys and he was there with leading intellectuals of the day who would have been skeptics of Christianity, and the story is that he said I want to bring you an ancient poem from the ancient world, and he read to them from Habakkuk chapter 3, in particular from the end. And they were marveling at this beautiful poetry in these last few verses and where in the world did you find such beautiful verse? And then he told them that it was from the Bible, to their chagrin.

This is one of the most powerful, eloquent passages anywhere in the Scriptures.

I want us to look at it in three parts. It’s easily divided into three parts.

First, a remarkable request. Second, a remarkable recompense. And then third, a remarkable rejoicing.

First then, a remarkable request. Look at verse 2. And as you’re directing your eyes there, remember what we’ve seen in this book, what Habakkuk has learned after two complaints and five woes. God will judge faithless Judah, that was the first complaint. Why do you look on the lawless deeds of Your people? And then God says, well, be astounded, look back, be in awe, I am going to do something in your days you can hardly imagine. I am raising up the Chaldeans, this wicked people, who will judge.

In time, however, God will also judge Babylon, and that was the second complaint. How can you look upon those who are even more wicked than us? And God says, well, the righteous will live by faith. I have not forgotten about them. And then last week we saw five woes that will come upon Babylon for their wickedness.

But at this moment nothing has changed except Habakkuk’s perspective. We haven’t gotten to the judgment. We haven’t gotten, certainly, to the judgment that is coming upon Babylon. In one sense, things seem worse for Habakkuk than when he started his complaint. They seem worse, but he sees better. They seem worse, but sees better.

That’s what we see here in verse 2. Look up. His posture now is one of worship. He has composed this thinking of his people and worship, and he begins “O Lord.”

Don’t ever think that gathering for worship isn’t doing anything. Whatever is falling around us in the world, don’t that, well, “You Christians are just gathering for your worship services. Why don’t you do something?” This is what matters most, that we would direct our attention to God Almighty. That we would look up when everything around us says, no, just look out, just look around, just one more swipe through your phone, just one more hour on the news channel, just look out and see and there will be plenty to discourage you, even to make you frightened.

Habakkuk now is looking up.

How do we deal with uncertain. I mean, we have heard that word “uncertain” and “unprecedented.” Those are going to be the two words for 2020. Every commercial: “In these uncertain times… In these unprecedented times…. We want you to know that our product is here for your family.” Isn’t it so… I have gotten so many personal e-mails from Fortune 500 companies telling me they’re thinking of me, me, little old me.

Well, what do we really need in these uncertain, difficult, confusing, frightening times? How do we cope? How do we deal with it? Well, the world can deal with it in its ways. Perhaps just resignation. You know, whatever will be, will be. It is what it is. Can’t change it. Or maybe you’re wired to get as much as information as possible and that helps give a sense of control and certainly there’s value in learning and listening. Or perhaps you’re the opposite and you want to avoid as much information as possible. If I could just not look at my phone, not turn on TV, not see a paper, not turn on the radio, if I could just not know anything that’s going on, it will seem better.

Or maybe you give yourself a kind of pep talk. You know, sing with the trolls “I will get back up again” and everything’s going to be okay. Or maybe you deal with it as it seems like a large number of our fellow citizens do, by working yourself up into a frenzy and yelling at everyone.

As Christians, we must be different. And while there may be elements of all of those things, minus the just yelling, we know what is most important is to look up. Now that sounds cliché, but it’s true. Sometimes, sometimes you cannot think your way out of it. You cannot cry your way out of it. The balm comes, the healing comes, the hope comes not because anything has changed in your circumstance, but your gaze has changed from earth to heaven.

Notice two things he acknowledges here: I have heard the reports of You, and Your work, O Lord, do I fear. In other words, he says, “Lord, You’re the One I need to hear from and You’re the One I need to fear.”

There’s a thousand other voices we can hear from. There’s ten thousand things to make us afraid. Habakkuk says I’ve heard from You and You’re the only one really that I ought to fear, and he makes this remarkable request. Do you see the series of petitions? He prays for revival in the midst of years, revive it. I think in the “midst of years” means “in the midst of these years of judgment,” or perhaps more particularly the time in between the punishment that we will receive and our vindication that is coming. Revive Your work, O Lord.

Do you believe that God still saves sinners? That He still humbles the proud? Do you believe that God can still heal the broken? He can forgive the wayward? Do you still believe that God can change minds? That He can change hearts? Do you still believe that we worship a God who raised Jesus Christ from the dead? Then pray in the midst of years, God, revive it. Do Your work as of old, come, visit us and our nation with great power. Pray.

He prays for revival. He prays for revelation. In the midst of years, revive it; in the midst of years, make it known. That is, make Your work known, make Your Word known. Would You show us more of Yourself and Your power? He prays for revival, he prays for revelation, he prays for remembrance, in wrath remember mercy. Treat us not as our sins deserve.

If you want to know how to pray in these days, you could do a lot worse than just camping out on verse 2: O Lord, revive Your work, O Lord, reveal Your Word and Your glory and Your might. O Lord, in wrath remember mercy.

It’s easy to think that the great movers and shakers of history are the presidents or the politicians, or maybe even the preachers, and who’s to say that it isn’t an army of unseen men and women on their knees, night after night, day after day, to pray and to plead and to intercede and God hears their prayers.

It’s a remarkable request. Revival, we see in the history of the church, is apt to come in times not of prosperity but of adversity. Yes, we certainly need wise and godly politicians. We need responsible journalists and pundits. We need fair and intelligent academics. We need experts in law and in criminal justice and in medicine and all the rest.

But what we need most is God Almighty to be merciful to us and to revive His work in our day. That’s what we need most.

It’s a remarkable request.

And then the bulk of the prayer is taken up with this remarkable recompense. A recompense meaning “paying back,” “a return in kind,” and we have a detailed explanation drawing on Israel’s past about what will be Israel’s future. How God is going to bring a recompense upon the enemies of God and judge them. The theme is judgment upon the enemies of God and salvation for God’s people. And the might acts in verses 3 through 15 are retold using familiar elements from Israel’s history.

And there are two main sections here in this second remarkable section. You can see them distinguished by third person and then second person.

So look at verses 3 through 7. He’s referring to God in the third person, so “He” and “Him” and “His,” and then he switches in verse 8 then to “You” and “Your,” to second person.

So the theme in the first half, verses 3 through 7, is God’s splendor. Teman and Mount Paran, verse 3, they refer to the southernmost boundary of Israel’s journey from Egypt to the Promised Land. Teman was the southern part of the desert and Mount Paran was the area between Egypt and Sinai. So it’s a reference to God leading His people out of slavery in Egypt through the Sinai Peninsula, through the desert, safely to the Promised Land. And most of the imagery here comes from the Exodus motif, so verses 3 and 4 speak of the appearing of God’s glory on Mount Sinai, what scholars call a theophany, that is, a God appearing, His splendor covered the heavens, brightness like light, rays flashed from His hand. It’s the scene in Exodus 19 where Mount Sinai quakes and thunder and lightning and loud peals of thunder echo forth from the mountain.

He delivered His people, verse 5, as with plagues and with pestilence.

Verse 6, the Lord strides over the earth, shaking the nations like a plaything, scattering eternal mountains like He’s throwing sand, bringing low everlasting hills like He was knocking over some ant hill. His worthy everlasting ways.

Do you see the emphasis there? These problems, these people, these massive mountains of men and of nations, God bestrides them as a colossus, flicks them over, tosses them like so much beach sand. Oh, their eternal mountains were scattered, their everlasting hills sank low. You want to know whose ways were truly everlasting? It was the Lord’s.

Verse 7: “I saw the tents of Cushan in affliction.”

After the death of Joshua, we read in Judges, as the people are in the Promised Land, among the first enemies to assault God’s people were those from Cushan-Rishathaim, you read that in Judges chapter 3. And then the Midianites in Judges chapter 7 would soon follow.

So this is a reference to God judging the former enemies of God’s people. He shows Himself in splendor, covering the heavens. The earth full of His praise as He marches across the earth to execute judgment upon the unbelieving and the wicked, and it is no difficult task for God.

And then we see the second half, beginning in verse 8, the theme of His wrath. God worked His might against the rivers, that’s what Habakkuk recalls. And against the seas, just like He parted the Red Sea, He parted the Jordan River, He rolled up the Brook Kishon.

He made, verse 11, the sun and moon to stand still in their place. This is a reference to Joshua fighting at Gibeon against the five kings of the Amorites and in order that the vindication and the victory would be complete, God makes the sun to stand still, not literally standing still, but from our perspective to stand still in the sky, that the day might be prolonged and the victory might be had.

He appointed His anointed one for salvation, verse 13. The anointed one could be a reference to Moses, or David, or Solomon, or perhaps Cyrus, who would lead the people though he was a pagan king and would set the people free from Babylon. What’s meant most of all, however, is to look forward to the Anointed One, the christened One, the Christ, the Messiah, who is to come and will work deliverance for His people.

God will trample upon His enemies, verse 15, like the horses of Israel can run through the Red Sea on dry ground. The prophet is pulling image after image and story after story from Israel’s past to say, “Do you remember what it was like? Do you believe the stories that have been told? Are the things you learned in Sunday school true? Did this happen?” And so he leads people to marvel at the splendor of God, and the wrath that is coming upon God’s enemies.

Notice the striking language in verse 14 in particular: “You pierced with his own arrows the heads of his warriors.” They will be destroyed with their own weapons.

The bigger they are, the harder they fall. Like a general whose army turns against him. Like the leader who says to his followers “you ought to question all authority,” and then they turn around and question his authority. Or like celebrities and journalists who stoke the fires of cancel culture and then have their past mistakes unearthed and then their fans call for them to get canceled, too. It’s turning their own weapons against them.

I remember one time several years ago I was writing a piece, a review or something of some academic book, and I was, it was a good book but I was critical in places, and I sent it to a friend of mine before I posted it and said “what do you think?” and I pointed out some errors. And then I pointed out a number of typos in the book and my friend made a very good point. He says, “I don’t think you want to do that, Kevin. He who lives by the typo, dies by the typo. Unless you can promise that you will never have any typos, you should just let it go or it will come back to haunt you.” Very good advice.

O. Palmer Robertson, in his commentary, says about verse 14: “Often God’s people find themselves severely disturbed because they see no visible power as strong as their enemy’s, but the prophecy of Habakkuk encourages the faithful to assume a strange perspective. They must look at the strength of the enemy as the very source of their own protection, for as God sovereignly raises up powers and brings them down again, He turns the strength of the enemy against itself.”

Do you believe this? Wherever you see the enemies of God’s people, wherever you see injustice, unbelief, lies masquerading as the truth, and it seems for all the world that there is no power equal to the enemies of God. God has a way of turning their weapons against them.

Pharaoh has Israel trapped against the Red Sea, surely it will be the death of them. No, no, no… It will be Pharaoh and his army who will be swallowed up in the sea.

Haman prepares the gallows for Mordecai, and who is it to hang on the gallows but Haman himself.

Daniel’s enemies devise a plot that whoever would not pray to the king should be thrown into the lions’ den, and who ends up being eaten to the lions, but Daniel’s enemies rather.

Again and again, we see God building up the strength and the might and the devices of His enemies only to turn the weapons against them. You pierced with his own arrows the head of his warriors. That which seemed to be impenetrable, indefatigable, that which seemed to be invincible, You turned against him who came like a whirlwind to scatter me, rejoicing as if it devour the poor in secret, You trampled with the surging of mighty waters.

It is a remarkable recompense that the Lord promises, not only in Habakkuk’s day, but in our day, against all who would raise their fist against God and His ways and His Word and His anointed.

And then finally there is a remarkable rejoicing. This is the most famous section in Habakkuk. You notice in verse 16 he switches to “I.” Now he’s said on a couple of occasions, at least in verse 7, but now definitively moving from “His” and “Him” to “You” and “Your” and now to “I.” Habakkuk’s response is here given to the Lord’s responses. He says “I hear and my body trembles, my lips quiver,” so my whole body is shaking. He dared to offer a complaint, not once but twice, to the Lord and we’ve seen that it was an earnest, not a faithless, but a faith-filled complaint.

But having received a response from the Lord these two times, now Habakkuk comes with one final response, and isn’t to mount up another complaint, but to be quiet, and we’ll wait quietly for the day of trouble to come upon the people who invade us. Is this not often the lesson that we need to learn? It may take weeping and lamenting and righteous complaining to get there, but Habakkuk has gotten there: I will wait. I don’t see it, but I believe.

Remember, earlier in chapter 2, verse 4, his soul is puffed up, it is not upright within him, but the righteous shall live by his faith.

And it was not an abstract faith, just a set of theological principles that he must believe, that’s important, but it was very particularly concretely, do you believe that God sees and He knows? Do you believe that God will come not only to right this wrong, but to judge those who are righting the wrong in Israel?

It’s a specific faith for a specific time. God’s Word is true, and what is coming upon us will not be the end of the story. That’s what you must believe in the midst of suffering, in the midst of uncertainty, fearful times, frightening diagnosis, grief upon grief. It’s great to say I affirm the Apostles’ Creed, but bring all of that doctrine down here to the moment: Do you believe that whatever suffering, whatever fear you are facing, it is not the end of the story for the Christian? Just as Habakkuk said I will wait quietly for the day of trouble to come upon the people who invade us, the Babylonians will not get the last word.

And then in verse 17, he rattles through six different clauses of calamity, moving and increasing severity. And these were not merely hypotheticals, but this is what would befall them, what would come upon them. First the figs. The figs are a delicacy, a sign of prosperity was for each person to dwell under his own fig tree, so this is some of the finer things, the good stuff in life, but it gets more severe. Then the grapes, the fruit of the vine, so no longer wine to drink. Well, you could leave on milk and water. But then no olives, no oil for cooking, no oil for lighting your lamps. And then the fields are empty, no grain, no wheat, no barley. That means no bread, no staple foods. And then the flocks are cut off from the fold. No sheep, no goats. That’s where you get your clothing, that’s where you get your food, that’s where you get your milk. And then finally no, no cattle, no herd in the stalls. Not only your meat, that was a rare occasion that they would have meat, a special occasion, but even more so no herd in the stalls mean nothing to till the soil, nothing to do the heavy work. Do you see how he is moving from disappointment, no figs, to inconvenience, to a significant change in life, to possible starvation, to exposure to the elements, to finally the end of the means of economic production. This is a dire situation that Habakkuk delineates.

Yet, I, verse 18.

You remember in Ephesians 2, the great “but God,” we were dead in our sins and trespasses, we were children of wrath, sons of disobedience, “but God was rich in mercy.” But God, the great transition there in Ephesians chapter 2, who we were dead, but God did this. That “but God” speaks to the objective work of the Gospel. This “yet I” speaks to the subjective response of faith to that Gospel.

There may be no figs, no food, no clothes, no milk, no production, nothing to sustain us, “yet I.” This is the mark of God-centered defiance. Yet I will rejoice. This is the revolution, this is the rebellion worth having. A rebellion of joy. I will be like a deer bounding through the air, scampering along the craggy mountains, swift, surefooted. You say, well, how can he rejoice? He can rejoice because he has seen the God of present glory.

Too many Christians live as if God did not exist. Do you see the mighty acts of salvation? The mighty acts of judgment? Do you believe? Do you and I believe this God really exists? We’re not speaking into the wind. We’re not just gathering because we like to be together. We are praying to Almighty God and He hears us. And we know Him and His Word and through the Lord Jesus Christ. Do you believe? Have you seen? Do you know something of this God of present glory?

That’s why Habakkuk can rejoice. And not only that, he’s seen the God of present glory and he trusts the God of future grace. He has an expectation of life after the last enemy has come and gone. It may not be full-blown resurrection, but it’s almost the same. When the last enemy has come and gone, when the last enemy, when the last Babylonian has done his worst, yet I will rejoice, because God will be my strength and my salvation. And if Habakkuk could believe that, how much more can we trust in that God on the other side of the cross, as we have seen the world and the devil do its absolute worst on Good Friday. No greater act of injustice ever perpetrated in the history of human kind than the crucifixion of the Son of Man and He could not stay dead. Death would not have the final word over Christ, and death will not have the final word over any of us.

The movement in this book is simply amazing. When you consider that Habakkuk’s predicament has, at least in the terms of his own understanding, his predicament has gone from bad to worse. We start at chapter one and it was bad, we got to chapter three and it is undeniably worse. That’s the trajectory of his circumstances, but not the trajectory of his spirit. His circumstances have gone from bad to worse, his spirit has gone from complaint to joy.

There’s that famous line from Spurgeon: My joy has been put out of the reach of my enemies.

Would the Lord do that for you and for me? To put your joy out of the reach of our enemies? Whether those are earthly foes or unnamed enemies from the demonic realm, or simply death itself. The trajectory from bad to worse, the spirit of Habakkuk from complaint to joy, because he’s seen the Lord and he believes that death and destruction will not have the last word, and so he can rejoice.

Let’s pray. Our Father in heaven, we are a sinful people, a struggling people, often a disbelieving people. Would You give us the faith of Habakkuk? Would you give us the faith that justifies knowing that the righteous live by his, by her, faith. And so we believe, and call out to you, knowing that whatever may come, so long as we have Jesus, it is well with our soul. We pray in His name. Amen.