God & The Problem of Evil

“God, what are you doing?” is a question many of us are dying to have answered from time to time. We see the evil on our news feeds and in our neighborhoods and wonder how bad things will have to get before God intervenes. Thankfully we have an entire book of the Bible devoted to this issue. Habakkuk saw the problem of evil around him and could not understand how it could coexist with a good and sovereign God. Yet we discover in the book that evil does not present a problem to God at all.

Habakkuk is one of the twelve minor prophets (minor referring to their size, not their substance). The minor prophets contain colorful and majestic statements about God’s character and ways. They are a kaleidoscope of God’s glory for God’s people. Each minor prophet presents the same faithful God in very unique ways. In Hosea, God is the faithful Husband to harlot Israel. In Joel, God wields an army of locusts. In Amos, God roars like a lion. In Obadiah, God brings down eagle-like Edom from his nest. In Jonah, God runs down the runaways. In Micah, God is a witness in court against His people. In Nahum, God comes like a storm, earthquake, fire, and flood. In Habakkuk, God enters into a dialogue with man. In Zephaniah, God sings. In Haggai, God shakes the nations. In Zechariah, God sends a fountain to cleanse the filthy. In Malachi, God rises like a sun and has wings like a bird. It is a shame if this part of our Bibles still have the shiny gilded-edge pages. The minor prophets contain a rich supply of promises as well; many are fulfilled, reminding us of God’s faithfulness, while others remain unfulfilled and call us to expectant faith in the future reign of Christ over the nations. So if you are pastor reading this, I encourage you to consider preaching through the minor prophets. I’m currently in the middle of a series which gives an overview sermon for each book and have found it thoroughly enriching to my devotional life and very practical for leading Christ’s sheep to live by faith.  

We must engage with God over the concerns on our hearts

What sets Habakkuk apart among the twelve is how it presents us with a conversation in prayer between the prophet and God over the problem of evil. Critics of Christianity often cite the problem of evil as the reason God cannot exist. Greek philosopher Epicurus developed what he considered an air-tight argument proving God’s non-existence. David Hume summarized it this way: “Epicurus’s old questions are still unanswered: Is he (God) willing to prevent evil, but not able? then he is impotent. Is he able, but not willing? then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? then whence evil?” (Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion by David Hume). At first glance, this seems reasonable. After all, you don’t have to look far to see evil abounding. But this logic is faulty because it is founded upon a false assumption: that a good God cannot possibly use evil without being evil. Yet this is the very truth we are given in the book of Habakkuk. Habakkuk discovers that God uses evil and yet promises to judge evil. 

Habakkuk was written a few decades before Judah fell to Babylon. It had been about a hundred years since God sent Assyria to conquer the northern kingdom, yet Judah in the south was still comfortable. Habakkuk complains to God about the evil and injustice of the southern kingdom and questions when God is going to act. He doesn’t bottle up his concerns, but pours them out like water before the Lord. He casts his cares on God because he knows God cares for him. He casts his burden on the Lord. He worries about nothing, but prays about everything. As one commentator put it: “It is a wise man who takes his questions about God to God for answers” (Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Daniel-Malachi, section on Habakkuk by Armerding). Waylon Bailey points out, “One of the wonders of Habakkuk’s message is the engagement of God with His people. He answered Habakkuk” (The New American Commentary: Micah-Zephaniah, section on Habakkuk by Waylon Bailey). How many concerns do we have that we never express in prayer? May we learn to engage with God over every concern that strikes us in the day.

God’s response to Habakkuk reveals the depth of His wisdom: “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…” (Hab. 1:5b-6a). This verse is not meant to be used for vision-casting Sunday, but is intended to communicate the depth of God’s wisdom. When we have unbelievable news to announce, we say: “You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.” God is here preparing Habakkuk for news that his finite mind won’t comprehend. Judah will fall to the Chaldeans (Babylon) and it is God who will send them. This of course demands another question from Habakkuk: “You who are of purer eyes than to see evil and cannot look at wrong, why do you idly look at traitors and remain silent when the wicked swallows up the man more righteous than he?…Is he then to keep on…mercilessly killing nations forever?” (Hab. 1:13, 17a). He wonders why God would use worse sinners to judge His own sinful people. Then, Habakkuk eagerly awaits God’s response. 

We must learn to wait in faith on God’s promises

God puts his finger on Habakkuk’s pulse and says, “Write the vision…for still the vision awaits its 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…but the righteous shall live by his faith” (Hab. 2:2a, 3, 4b). He tells Habakkuk first to learn one important lesson: wait in faith on God’s promises to be revealed. Waiting and trusting are two of the hardest disciplines in our walk with God, yet they are vital. We must maintain a deep well of faith that trusts the person and promises of God over what our eyes can see. The Apostle Paul quotes Habakkuk to say that the justified live by this faith (Rom. 1:17; Gal. 3:11). How do we learn to trust God more than our eyesight? By looking backward at God’s faithfulness and forward in faith. This is the kind of faith that keeps you preaching when you see little fruit and the kind of faith that keeps you praying when you see no answer and keeps you hungry for God in the desert seasons.

God then pronounces the woes to come upon the Chaldeans. So God will use evil Chaldea to judge His people, but will then judge them for it. Some may wonder, “How can God use evil in His purposes and then judge those He uses to commit the evil?” This is a profound question and one we cannot and dare not avoid. The answer is found in the cross of Christ. Was God sovereign over the death of His Son? Yes. Did God hold those responsible who killed His Son? Yes. Acts 4:27-28 give it to us clearly: “for truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place.” We see this also with the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart. At times, God is said to harden his heart and at times Pharaoh is said to harden his heart. The answer is both. God guides the evil without compromising His justice. In the midst of God’s answer to Habakkuk’s second complaint is one of those profound promises of end time salvation for His people. Habakkuk 2:14 states, “for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.” The end result of God’s mysterious ways is God’s greater glory.

We must root our joy in God, not better circumstances

At the end of this dialogue with God, we find a different man than at the start. He began perplexed by God and he ends praising God. He began confused by God’s ways and he ends comforted by God’s wisdom. God called Habakkuk to a deep faith and he now displays it. Habakkuk ends his prayer with praise: “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” (Hab. 3:17-19). Habakkuk rooted his joy in a sovereign and good God, not better circumstances. This deep joy in God is the key to a living faith. Missionary pastor Samuel Pearce once wrote, “I felt that were the universe destroyed, and I the only being in it besides God, HE is fully adequate to my complete happiness; and had I been in an African wood, surrounded with venomous serpents, devouring beasts, and savage men, in such a frame I should be the subject of perfect peace and exalted joy” (A Heart for Missions by Andrew Fuller).

May we praise our God along with Habakkuk. And may we learn to sing with Paul, “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!” (Rom. 11:33).

Habakkuk’s Second Complaint

Habakkuk’s Second Complaint – 1:12-2:1

It is clear from the prophet’s second complaint that God’s answer didn’t clear up any of his concerns, rather the opposite has happened – Habakkuk now has more questions than before. Babylon is evil, God must punish them for these things, yet God is going allow their sin to go further and increase by punishing His own people with them? How can a righteous God use wicked Babylon to discipline and punish His own people? You may respond and say, “How can a thrice holy God look on at all, much less use it for His own glory?” They’re vile, He’s pure, they’re evil, He’s good. 1:12 shows this confusion at play within his heart. Habakkuk rightly states that God is eternal, and holy, and powerful – then the new questions come: 1:13 shows us that Habakkuk thinks God’s people are “more righteous” than the Babylonians, and because of this it is evil of God to punish the righteous with the wicked.

1:14-15 shows that Habakkuk thinks if Babylon does invade them that it would be utterly humiliating, as a fish is humiliated after being caught and would be dangling on a hook. 1:16-17 portray Babylon as proud of their strength and wickedness, to which Habakkuk responds with the question: how can they keep on “mercilessly killing nations forever?” Where is God’s justice? How can God’s holy character tolerate this? To Habakkuk, the character of God would never move God to do such a thing. Did you notice 2:1? As a soldier waits and watches on the watchtower for some sign of war, Habakkuk is waiting for God to answer him. This language signifies a direct challenge from the prophet to God, and this prophet is demanding a response.

God’s Second Reply – 2:2-2:20

Well, as you can imagine – God didn’t remain silent when His own prophet called His character into question. Now God does not always respond to people who bring His character into question. God is not a puppet King sitting atop a Fisher-Price throne worried about the opinions of others. He is the King of Kings, unafraid of any who take a cheap shot at Him. But graciously, God does reply to His prophet – and we learn a lot from it.

We learn in 2:3 that though it seems like nothing is changing, the time is coming soon when God will act. We learn in 2:4-5 that Babylon is a proud nation, drunk with their own greed and power, and we learn Habakkuk shouldn’t resemble them in character, but should show himself to be who he has been called to be, a righteous man who lives by faith resting/trusting in the promises of God even if it appears that “God is idle.”

In 2:6-20 God reminds Habakkuk that though it may look like a further injustice is going on, that is not the case. Though it may look like evil prospers God is providentially moving history in the direction He wants it to go. The wicked always come to an end, and God never overlooks any sin from any creature that He made to dwell in His creation. These verses (2:6-20) contain 5 woe’s against Babylon, 2:6, 2:9, 2:12, 2:15, and 2:19. Notice exactly what was in Babylon that caused God to pronounce woe’s against them: greed/violence (2:6-8), love of wealth (2:9-11), injustice (2:12-14), drunkenness/sexual immorality (2:15-17), and idolatry (2:18-19).

These woe’s remind Habakkuk and us that God’s judgment will move mightily against any human power that sets itself up against God’s reign and rule. From the generation of the flood, to those who built Babel, from the Philistines, Moabites, and the Cannanites, to the Roman empire, from North Korea, to ISIS – even our precious United States of America, if we continue our current trend and move away from God one heart at a time – God will not sit by idle. In time, and ultimately at the final judgment every knee will bow, every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father. Again the clearest example is the cross of Christ. How much does God hate sin? He turned away from His one and only Son once all the sins of all who would ever believe in Jesus were laid on Him. God forsook His Son, and laid the punishment we deserve on Jesus. God doesn’t just remove sin, He doesn’t just sit by idly, He crushes it, defeats it, conquers over it in the death of Jesus on the cross. But for all those who refuse and reject Jesus, judgment is still coming.

What should our response be from hearing these things in chapter 2?

Two things:

a) 2:14, into the dark night of the soul for the prophet Habakkuk God makes a promise that floods his heart with blazing light. When it seems like nothing but sin, lawlessness, and evil is filling the whole earth we hear this stunning promise from God, “For the earth will be filled with the knowledge (perception and pondering is happening) of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.” There is always hope because God Himself promises that though it may look otherwise, He will make sure that one day the knowledge of His glory will fill the whole earth. Now, someone may read this and say – this is the most selfish and egotistical statement God has ever made. C.S. Lewis said this before God saved him. That “God in the Psalms seems like a vain old woman craving for compliments because He tells us to praise Him so much.” If you agree you reject the fountain of all delight, pleasure, joy, and happiness. I 100% disagree with these statements because they miss a huge Biblical reality that the whole Bible puts on display for us. God’s glorifying Himself is how God loves His people the deepest. Why? Because it is when His glory goes public, when it is seen, when it gazed at, our hearts fill up with a forever happiness and we are satisfied to the depth of our souls. Therefore God glorifying Himself is good news for us, because God’s passion for His glory is the measure of His commitment to our joy.

b) Second, after receiving the wonderful promise that the knowledge of the glory of the Lord will fill the earth, even though it looks like it won’t ever happen we ought to be stunned to silence. 2:20 says, “The Lord is in His holy temple, let all the earth keep silence before Him.” There is not much to explain this except to say that true awe produces silence in us. This is not a quiet respect that we tell kids to do when they’re being too noisy in a setting they shouldn’t. This is being struck speechless by glimpsing the Lord of Glory. Nothing is better for the soul than to be struck speechless by the glory of God, priorities will fall in line, what’s important will rise up, what’s secondary will take a back seat, fires in heart will be calmed, worries, cares, and concerns won’t seem to worth our attention.

Habakkuk’s Prayerful Response – 3:1-19

Habakkuk got the message, was rebuked, and responds to God with some of the most joyful words in the entire Bible. So we see, that another benefit of being struck speechless by the Lord of Glory is that when we begin speaking again, beautiful things come out. 3:17-19 is the apex of this prayer – this is where God’s promise in 2:14 leads to.

So we’ve seen Habakkuk 1,2,3 put on display before us – remember how I asked you to dig up those things you’ve tried to bury on Monday? Your cares, concerns, problems, issues that seem to large to be resolved? If you haven’t dug down and gotten them out, do it now. Remember I said that God was about to deal with us? He’s about to do so now. If you haven’t picked up on it by now, we’ve seen how God dealt with the heart of His own prophet here in the text.

Do you believe that God is willing to do the same thing with you?

You and I must be reminded that God deals with our issues sometimes by solving them, but I do think that’s the exception. Most of the time, God deals with our issues not by removing them but by dealing with our hearts. How does He deal with our hearts? By putting Himself on display. “One fresh glimpse at the glory of Christ can do more toward scattering the darkness and doubt than anything else you can do.”

Most of you know Psalm 46:10, but I don’t think most of you know the whole verse. We’ll end with this, “Be still and know that I God, I WILL BE EXALTED AMONG THE NATIONS, I WILL BE EXALTED IN ALL THE EARTH.”

(Image courtesy of Gilbert Lennox Photography)

Habakkuk’s First Complaint

Gazing at or laboring to get a glimpse at the Glory of God is the most practical thing anyone can ever do.

Habakkuk teaches us this well. One of the ways the small prophetic book of Habakkuk does this is its personal tone. Most of the other prophetic books are very impersonal, you don’t hear a lot about the prophet himself. Usually what we find is God speaking through the prophet to His people dealing with their sin. Habakkuk is not God speaking through His prophet to His people about their issues, it’s God speaking to His prophet, dealing with Habakkuk’s issues. It’s in this way that God means to encourage His people. You see Habakkuk had issues, questions, concerns, and problems that seemed so large, gigantic, and overbearing that it prompted Habakkuk to do what no prophet of God should ever do, complain.

Out of his own frustration rose two main questions he demanded God to answer: 1) God, where are You? and 2) God, why are You doing this?

Right away this is where the small book meets us. What in your life right now seems so large, gigantic, overbearing, and unresolvable that you find yourself growing angry, depressed, confused? Are these issues causing you to ask God the same questions Habakkuk was? I know it may be painful to do, but dig down deep, look over the walls you’ve built up, and get those things that have brought, or are bringing you pain, tears, and sleepless nights in view. Dredge them up from the pits you’ve placed them, put them in front of your face – and get ready, God is about to deal with them.

Here’s where were headed.

a) Habakkuk’s first complaint is 1:2-4, God answers in 1:5-11.

b) Habakkuk’s second complaint is 1:12-2:1, God answers in 2:2-20.

c) The entire third chapter is Habakkuk’s breathtaking prayerful response to God after seeing God respond to his own complaints. So that’s where were headed, let’s go there now.

Habakkuk’s First Complaint – 1:2-4

Right away perhaps some of you notice how similar this language is to the Psalms of lament, like Psalm 13 which start with “How long O’ Lord?” Clearly for Habakkuk the very fact that he is asking the question of “how long” means it has already been long enough. He is tired of living in a violent, immoral, idolatrous, and lawless society, and he is tired of talking to God about it and hearing nothing in return. He even goes as far as to call God “idle.” This is not good. It’s understandable, but it’s inexcusable to speak to God in such a bold accusatory manner. Will the Law ever be upheld? Will justice ever right these wrongs? The wicked surround the righteous, and to Habakkuk, God is nowhere to be found.

This honest anger at God is not rare in the Bible. Job also felt God was absent in the midst of his trials, Israel too in the midst of wandering through the wilderness. And isn’t it the case for you and I, that when we find ourselves in those moments of darkness, or where the clouds of sin (whether our own or another’s) are too thick to see through, or when you’ve prayed and prayed and prayed and prayed and haven’t heard anything in response from God, it’s in these moments where you and I tend to think like Habakkuk here, that God is idle, off on vacation somewhere and unsure of when He’ll return. Most of us can look back into our lives and recall moments where we felt as if we were at the end of our rope, where we only knew despair and gave up all hope. I know most of you have been there, perhaps some of you are just coming out of one of these seasons…perhaps some of you are there now. Just as He did in Genesis 1, into this hopeless despair and darkness, God speaks.

b) God’s First Reply – 1:5-11

In the darkness God speaks. But notice that this probably isn’t how Habakkuk thought God would answer is it? “If I were to tell you how wonderful My rescue is going to be, how I’m going to bring justice, and restore hope to My people, you wouldn’t believe it!” You can almost hear Habakkuk say to himself, “try me.” God says, “I will bring justice to my people, but I’m going to do it through your enemy – the Chaldeans (Babylon).” Perplexing isn’t it? How God answers the prayers of His people?

He answers, always answers, but He comes in His own timing and His own way. Isaiah 55:8-9 remind us that God’s ways are higher than our ways, and that His plans and purposes are higher than our plans and purposes. This would’ve challenged Habakkuk’s faith, and I think it challenges our own today – that God would bring about rescue and redemption and good through what we think of as evil? Proud and strong Babylon will come and judge Judah and Israel, and through this God will work out His grand plot. Joseph said as much after being sold into slavery, wrongly accused, and forgotten in prison. When his brothers found out who he was in Genesis 50:20 he responded by telling them, “As for you brothers, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about as it is this day.” What? So God uses the evil plans and purposes of men to fulfill His own good and perfect will? Yes.

The clearest example of this is the cross of Christ, sovereignly ordained by God to take place, yet carried out by evil and wicked men who wanted to kill the Son of God. Habakkuk, and we too, are being challenged to continue in faith despite what our eyes are seeing and despite what our hearts are feeling – God is always working, even when it seems the darkest. He is governing all events in history for the glory of His name and the good of His people. God’s providence is always purposeful, and always personal.

(Image courtesy of Gilbert Lennox Photography)