The book of Job is one of the earliest Old Testament books. In it is found the earliest use of “woe” to express one’s feelings. Job used the expression in a down time. He complained in his affliction. He was a man of flesh who in weakness thought that whether he did right or wrong, God was out to get him. He said, “ Woe to me.” Job was wrong in his complaint, but before we take him to task, we do well to ask if we ourselves do not frequently have the thought.
The expression as we use it, “woe is me”, is one of sorrow or distress. It describes a feeling of personal misery, despair, sadness as an explanation of grief. It might even express frustration.
Though he does not use the word, the prophet Habakkuk, in the first chapter of his book, implies some of the same sentiment expressed by Job. What Habakkuk wrote could well have been written for and about us today. “ O Lord, how long shall I cry, and You will not hear? Even cry out to You, ‘Violence!’ and You will not save. Why do You show me iniquity, and cause me to see trouble? For plundering and violence are before me; there is strife, and contention arises. Therefore the law is powerless, and justice never goes forth. For the wicked surround the righteous; therefore perverse judgment proceeds” (1:1-4). Have such thoughts perhaps crossed our minds recently?
When God’s people no longer respect Him or listen to His Word, He may choose to use the ungodly as instruments to bring the wayward to repentance. Even those who believe that God is love may sometimes wonder where He is, as the prophet did. Does He not care? Does He not see what is happening? Does He not hear our prayers? Does He not love us? This is when we might have our “Woe is me” moments. God is love; just because He is, as a loving Father He sometimes finds it necessary to use “tough love” to accomplish His purpose. “Whom the Lord loves He chastens…” (Hebrews 12:6), in order that He might save some!
Habakkuk lived in Judah during a time when worship in Judah was defiled by corruption and wickedness invited judgment. The Lord would use the Chaldeans as instruments to punish Judah. At the same time for the comfort of the faithful the prophet told them that the Lord would bring judgment upon the Chaldeans.
In just such circumstances, Habakkuk said, “I will stand my watch and set myself on the rampart, and watch to see what He [the Lord] will say to me, and what I will answer when I am corrected” (2:1). What the prophet heard was the announcement of judgment against the godless Chaldeans. It would happen in the Lord’s time. Patience was called for, “Because it will surely come, it will not tarry” (2:3). The ungodly, the wicked, the greedy, the proud, the oppressor, the server of self rather than of God will suffer destruction. On the other hand, “The just shall live by his faith” (2:4). The Lord works in His own way, in His own time, and for His own purpose. In times of pain, grief, or uncertainty the oppressed among God’s believing children often think the Lord should work more quickly. Yet the prophet catches himself and tells himself to wait quietly, patiently, in faith for God’s deliverance. Whether for salvation of the righteous, or judgment upon the wicked, the Lord keeps His promises! As the prophet, we may have to wait to see.
“The just shall live by his faith.” This is the only time the word “faith” is used in this book. [Forms of the word (faithful,-fully, -fulness) are used often in the Old Testament, but the word as such is used only twice in the Old Testament—here, and Deuteronomy 32:20]. In Romans 1:17 the apostle Paul quotes Habakkuk 2:4. When Luther read Romans 1:17, it was a turning point in his life. The Gospel is foolishness to the world, yet it is the power of God unto salvation to the sinner burdened by his sin, troubled in His conscience, and oppressed by the world. Said the apostle, “ I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God unto salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, ‘The just shall live by faith.’” “By grace you have been saved, through faith…” (Ephesians 2:8).
What Habakkuk heard left him in awe. “O Lord, I have heard your speech and was afraid” (3:1). Judah for the moment had to endure the tyranny of the Chaldeans who in turn would suffer God’s wrath. Deliverance would come. Now there was no “Woe is me.” Habakkuk believed the Lord. He closed the second verse of the third chapter with a plea of confident faith, “In wrath remember mercy.” It is ever true. The Lord’s exercise of love, judgment and mercy, come together.
The prophet believed it, but he was also moved to look at things from a broader perspective. He saw things from the perspective of eternity. The third chapter concludes with words of faith and confidence. “Though the fig tree may not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines; though the labor of the olive may fail, and the fields yield no food; though the flock may be cut off from the fold, and there be no herd in the stalls— Yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will joy in the God of my salvation. The Lord God is my strength; He will make my feet like deer’s feet, And He will make me walk on my high hills” (3:14-19). Might not His believing children even say, “The hills are alive with the sound of faith!?”
The Lord Jesus Christ, according to His humanity, was tempted as we are, yet was without sin (Hebrews 4:15). He was oppressed and afflicted (Isaiah 53:7). He felt the forsakenness of God (Psalm 22:1, Matthew 27:46). Our Lord knows our circumstances and also our fears. He sympathizes with our infirmities. He hears our cries. While in our waiting we are frequently impatient, He gives strength to bear the burdens. He will deliver His people from their trials and afflictions according to His gracious will—in His way and time. If deliverance does not come when we think it should, it will surely come when we receive the promised inheritance laid up for us in heaven. Our Father is faithful!
The prophet could lean on history to confirm the Lord’s faithful Word. He knew how the Lord had delivered Israel from Egypt and how He had led them through the wilderness to the Promised land. The prophet was also acquainted with how the Lord had accompanied David. He knew the Lord is not slack concerning His promises. God’s children who know history– His-story — have the same confirmation of the Lord’s faithfulness.
But we have an advantage the prophet did not have for we have the fulfillment of what he believed through faith. Habakkuk knew the prophecy of the Savior. But he lived before it came to pass. We live in time of the fulfillment of Jesus’ birth, as well in the glow of the resurrection of our Lord. What we wait for now is the final deliverance. “… Though now you do not see Him, yet believing, you shall rejoice with joy inexpressible and full of glory, receiving the end of your faith—the salvation of your souls” (1 Peter 1:8-9). “The just shall live by faith.”
In 2021, as Christ-believers we have a far greater concern on our heart and mind than what is happening in and to the nation. It is the unveiled attacks that are being made and will continue to be made upon the Christian Church, and the Christian faith. Keep in mind that attacks on the Church, the Body of Christ, and upon the faith, are attacks against the Lord God Himself. This is nothing new in history. True to His Word, the gates of hell have not prevailed against the Church (Matthew 16:18). The Psalmist said, “Why do the heathen rage, and the people plot a vain thing?… He who sits in the heavens shall laugh…” (Psalm 2). At the same time, the Psalm concludes, “Blessed are those who put their trust in Him.” As to ourselves we are called upon with Habakkuk to watch for what God has in mind, meanwhile being faithful in our worship, in our teaching, and circumspect in our life.
Our weapons against the devil’s insidious attacks, some perpetrated within the church itself, are not political, secular, or physical. The single weapon with which the Church fights evil, false doctrine, and efforts to destroy it is the Word of God, His Truth. The Church is not to curry the favor of the world in an attempt to preserve itself. The Church is to preach the Law of God which uncovers sin; it is to preach the Law to bring people to a knowledge of their sins and the eternal consequences of sin, that they may see their need and ask as did the jailor of Philippi, “What must I do to be saved” (Acts 16:30)? The faithful are to go forth then with the Gospel to bring peace through the message of Jesus’ atonement to those who confess their sins and are troubled. Paul told the jailor, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved, you and your household” (Acts 16:31).
Furthermore it is the Truth, the Gospel, which alone changes hearts and turns them from evil to reflect the mercy and love of God, qualities the world cannot and will not find without the Gospel. To the changing of hearts and transformation of life, the Word of God is stronger than might of arms, money, politics, or human schemes.
The first chapter of Habakkuk is a fit description of our society and our world. Habakkuk’s questions and fears are ours. Yet as he communicated with the Lord in prayer and was given a new perspective, so we can pray to the Lord, and find His answer to our prayers in His Word, the Holy Scriptures.
Of the prophet’s conclusion, Theodore Laetsch wrote: “Once more Habakkuk is sure that the Church of God, of which he is a member by faith in the Redeemer, shall not be vanquished by the enemies. Rather it shall go on in its conquest of the world for the Lord and His Anointed. On this note of joyous confidence ends this remarkable psalm. It was written not only as a private memorial of conflicting emotions, but also as an encouragement for his fellow believers who were [and we might add, are] harassed by misgivings similar to his own” (Bible Commentary: The Minor Prophets, p. 353, CPH, 1956).
Whatever the future holds, whatever the circumstances in nation or Church, trusting in the Lord, rather than lamenting “Woe is me,” let us join with the prophet and say, “Yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will joy in the God of my salvation. The Lord is my strength…” ( 3:18-19). In the Lord we are secure. We have a future.
“How blessed are they who hear God’s Word,
And keep and heed what they have heard!
They wisdom daily gather;
Their light shines brighter day by day,
And while they tread life’s weary way,
They have the oil of gladness
To soothe their pain and sadness” (TLH 48:1).