The prophet Habacuc

Habacuc is the latest in a series of the minor prophets of the Old Testament who are remembered in the liturgy of the Roman Church. Here is Habacuc’s entry in the martyrology for today:

“Commemoration of Saint Habacuc the prophet, who while confronting the iniquity and the violence of men announced the justice of God, but also His mercy, saying, ‘The just man however will live according to his faith.'”

Roman martyrology, December the 2nd

Poor Habacuc, being a good man, was spiritually oppressed by the wickedness around him in Judaite society – tyranny and robbery, legalism and contention, he says, and contravention of the venerable Law of Moses, evil men achieving their own ends at the expense of the innocent. This could be a complaint in our times also, for human nature doesn’t change. 

“Must I nothing see but wrong and affliction; turn where I will, nothing but robbery and oppression; pleading at law everywhere, everywhere contention raising its head? What marvel if the old teachings are torn up, and redress is never to be found? Innocence by knavery circumvented still, and false award given!

Habacuc, 1: 3-4

The reference to ‘old teachings’ I take to refer to derivations of the Law of Moses, and that seems to place Habacuc in history between the fall of the Assyrian kingdom that Nahum anticipated, and the growth in power of the neo-Babylonian empire that was centred in Mesopotamia by Chaldeans emerging from the north of Syria. A terrible people these Chaldeans, Habacuc says, but still merely an instrument of almighty God, likely to perish even as they proudly claim victory. And God would use them to humble His own people, Israel, just as they had humbled several other nations and peoples.

“A grim nation and a terrible; no right they acknowledge, no title, but what themselves bestow. Not leopard so lithe as horse of theirs, not wolf at evening so fast; wide the sweep of their horsemen, that close in, close in from afar, flying like vultures hungry for their prey. Plunderers all; eager as the sirocco their onset, whirling away, like sand-storm, their captives. Here be men that hold kings in contempt, make princes their sport; no fortress but is a child’s game to such as these; let them but make a heap of dust, it is theirs. Veers wind, and he is gone; see him fall down and ascribe the victory to his god! But Thou, Lord, my God and all my worship, Thou art from eternity! And wilt Thou see us perish? Warrant of Thine they hold, take their strength from Thee, only to make known Thy justice, Thy chastening power!

Habacuc, 1: 7-11

And now God declares that the just and honest will have built upon rock, whereas those who doubt live in a toxic atmosphere, deceived as a drinker is deceived by strong drink, and as a tyrant (as the Chaldeans) is is deceived by false dreams of glory. These last will inevitably have fallen to the lowest depths, in their crime, rapine and usury, for Israelite or Chaldean, their victims cry out against them:

“Ill-gotten gains thou wouldst amass to deck that house of thine; make it an eyrie, too high for envious hands to reach? Nay, with this undoing of many peoples thou hast done thy own house despite, thy own life is forfeit; stone from ruined wall cries out against thee, and beam from gaping roof echoes the cry. City thou wouldst found, city’s walls build up, with deeds of bloodshed and of wrong? What, has not the Lord of hosts uttered His doom, toil of nations shall feed the fire, and all their labour be spent for nothing? It is the Lord’s glory men must learn to know, that shall cover the earth, flooding over it like the waters of the sea.”

Habacuc, 2: 9-14

Injustices do not bring glory to the one inflicting them, but shame and vengeance from the Just One. From Him they will receive sentence, with no help provided by their idols of wood and stone.

“And thy prayer was, stock and stone should wake up and come to thy aid, senseless things that cannot signify their will; nay, breath in their bodies have none, for all they are tricked out with gold and silver! And all the while, the Lord is in His holy temple. Keep silence, earth, before Him.

Habacuc 2: 19-20

This last line is a prelude to the wonderfully poetic majesty with which Habacuc describes the advent of the vengeful God, arriving to right wrongs, an arrival that is reminiscent of those described by other prophets. 

There stood He, and scanned the earth; at His look, the nations were adread; melted were the everlasting mountains, bowed were the ancient hills, His own immemorial pathway, as He journeyed… Earth is torn into ravines; the mountains tremble at the sight. Fierce falls the rain-storm, the depths beneath us roar aloud, the heights beckon from above; sun and moon linger in their dwelling-place; so bright Thy arrows volley, with such sheen of lightning glances Thy spear.”

Habacuc, 3: 6, 9-11

And all this would be to the end of restoring the fortunes of Israel, duly disciplined and again faithful to God, to the ruin of the wicked and those who oppress the poor. The great vision of God in this little bit of poetry from chapter three ends with a lovely profession of faith – though all resources were to fail and life be at its last ebb, the prophet will continue to sing praises of God. As should we.

“What though the fig-tree never bud, the vine yield no fruit, the olive fail, the fields bear no harvest; what though our folds stand empty of sheep, our byres of cattle? Still will I make my boast in the Lord, triumph in the deliverance God sends me. The Lord, the ruler of all, is my Stronghold; He will bring me safely on my way, safe as the hind whose feet echo already on the hills.

Habacuc, 3: 17-19