Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4, 3:1-2

Habakkuk is quite unusual amongst the prophets of the day – not unique, but unusual – in his approach to the suffering that he saw around him.

The usual pattern was to call out the people for their sin, insist on a return to the ways of the Torah, to obedience to Yahweh. In general the prophets declared that any suffering the people were experiencing was down to their own failure to live as God’s people as they had been called.

But Habakkuk is unusual: he questions – even criticises – God’s inaction in the face of the injustice and suffering that he sees.

With a cry that I am certain everyone who has ever prayed will recognise.

“How long?”.

The first part of our reading – the Prophet’s complaint – centres around this question. How long?

O LORD, how long shall I cry for help,

   and you will not listen?

Or cry to you ‘Violence!’

  and you will not save?

How long do I need to keep crying out? How long do I need to pray? How long will you wait before you take action?

It’s a question, as I say, that I’m sure we’ve all found ourselves asking. We pray, and have some degree of confidence that God hears us, but don’t see action. We tell ourselves that God’s timing is different from ours, that there is a deeper reason than we know or understand, but – at least if you are anything like me – you don’t find those words satisfying. The prophet’s complaint: “How long will I cry out and you will not listen?” rings true.

And the first, and probably the most important, thing that I read in the words of Habakkuk is permission. Permission to be frustrated with God, to be impatient with God. Permission to declare “I don’t understand why you don’t do something”. Permission to imply that God isn’t listening.

In the story of Elijah there is a confrontation between Elijah and the prophets of Baal, in which the prophets of Baal cry out to their God to strike an altar with fire, and nothing happens. And Elijah mocks them: “Baal is meditating, or he has wandered away, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened”. (It sounds even better if you realise that “he’s wandered away” is probably better translated “he’s on the toilet”)

Of course, when Elijah calls out, God responds immediately.

But Habakkuk reminds us that Elijah’s experience is the exception. God, it seems, has wandered away, God’s attention is elsewhere.

How long must I call out? Things are really bad! Injustice, violence, wrongdoing, trouble.

How long must I call out? Things are really bad! Pandemic, war, floods, corruption, violence.

We cry out just as Habakkuk did – and it’s reassuring to know that. Just as the Psalms capture pain and anger and all those emotions we label as “negative” or “inappropriate” for our approach to God, and remind us that God is big enough to cope with the way we are, not just the way we think we should be – so Habakkuk reminds us that God can deal with our impatience, can understand our frustration, even when that frustration is directed at God.

And the second part of our reading then gives us God’s response. But first we have some words from Habakkuk about how he hears:

I will stand at my watch-post,
   and station myself on the rampart;
I will keep watch to see what he will say to me,
   and what he will answer concerning my complaint.

Having challenged God with his cry, “How long?”, Habakkuk waits in expectation that God will answer.

I guess that might be somewhere else that most of us struggle. Because the voice of God doesn’t generally come to us, certainly not when we expect it or want it.

Over the years I’ve come more and more to recognise that God speaks to me when I seek God’s guidance, but that God’s voice speaks most often in the natural – in words others say, in something I happen to read, in a memory that comes unbidden, in the way ideas fall together in my mind. I’ve learned – I’m learning – to trust that God speaks to us through those ways and others, and, perhaps most of all, through one another, through our community of faith.

So Habakkuk models for us an expectation. I will watch to see what God will say. And then he accounts what he hears:

there is still a vision for the appointed time;
   it speaks of the end, and does not lie.
If it seems to tarry, wait for it;
   it will surely come, it will not delay.

Which, let’s be honest, is a pretty unsatisfactory reply, all things considered. Habakkuk’s question was “how long”, and God’s reply is essentially “It’s still coming – wait for it, it will not delay”.

Since “delay” was exactly Habakkuk’s problem, we hear these words as challenge, perhaps a mild rebuke, but mostly as reassurance. Just because things aren’t happening when you would like them to, God seems to be saying, that doesn’t mean there’s been a delay. It doesn’t mean God’s timing is off. It seems to tarry, perhaps, but it will surely come.

It’s not entirely unlike the vibe of the promises of Jeremiah that we reflected on a few weeks ago, when he wanted to assure them that their suffering did not mean they were no longer the people of God. So Habakkuk hears from God the promise – what you see as delay does not mean I will not take action.

It’s not the answer Habakkuk wanted, not the answer we want when we ask “how long?”. But it’s the answer God gave, and gives. “It will come. There is no delay.”

And then in the third part of our reading, we have Habakkuk’s response to this message of God. It has the classic mark of the prophets – reverence for God, “I stand in awe of your work” – and an acceptance of God’s decision.

But I love the fact that even now, even accepting God’s reply that the action Habakkuk is calling for will come, in the right time, that it has not been delayed, Habakkuk still slips in an appeal

In our own time revive it;

   in our own time make it known;

God has said the timing will be right; and Habakkuk replies as if to say “yes, but it would be good if that right timing was also a soon timing”.

But there’s more. Perhaps Habakkuk has realised that the action that God might take – God’s solution to the corruption of the political and religious leadership of the time – might not be all good. That the systems were so broken, so abusive, that God would overthrow them completely.

For in the last words that we heard read he adds a rider that doesn’t really seem to follow from what has gone before.

Habakkuk’s cry is against evil and wrongdoing, destruction and violence: he surely knows that God is more set against such things than he, the prophet, ever could be. And so to his plea that God’s response come soon, he adds these words:

in wrath may you remember mercy

Has Habakkuk perhaps begun to grasp that God’s delay might not be weakness, but mercy? Like Jesus’ parable of the wheat and the weeds – “don’t pull the weeds out, you’ll pull up good wheat with them. Let them grow together, we’ll sort it out at harvest”

in wrath may you remember mercy

God’s love, God’s desire to show mercy, extends to the wrongdoer. And perhaps we ought to remember that: for when we cry out against injustice, we ought to have the wisdom to recognise that we are often part of the problem. That we are beneficiaries of unjust systems. That our standard of living is built on the wasteful use of the earth’s resources, and the dispossession of the first peoples of this land.

That, as Solzhenitsyn wrote, “The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either — but right through every human heart — and through all human hearts

So as we cry out “how long will you allow wrongdoing?” we never forget that our hope rests firmly and fully on the grace of God; that we live by faith that God’s solution to human suffering will include mercy for our part in causing it.

Habakkuk gives us permission to voice our impatience, our frustration, at God’s seeming unwillingness to act. But we are reminded, too, that we depend upon that same restraint.