“How long, O Lord?”
Throughout your life you may have asked this question in desperation or pain, perhaps while weathering a difficult season in your life—maybe you were struggling financially, suffering from an illness, or dealing with a broken heart. If you have, you might appreciate how this question actually displays God’s greatness, not a failure to act.
A Petition for Deliverance
The prophet Habakkuk asked this question as he began a discussion with God in Scripture. As he saw the kingdom of Judah, his home, overrun with sin, he said, “How long, O Lord, will I call for help, and You will not hear? (Habakkuk 1:2, NASB).
Habakkuk knew God would have to drive sin out of Judah and restore justice and righteousness in the land if it wanted to escape Israel’s fate. In the prophet’s day, the 10 tribes of Israel had already been taken captive by Assyria for their sin. Sadly, the fall of the two tribes of Judah was not far behind.
Why Should God’s People Suffer?
God answered Habakkuk’s question with prophetic clarity about the future of Judah. Because of its unfaithfulness to the Lord, it, too, would fall into the hands of sinful enemies. God specifically identified its captors as the Chaldeans (Babylonians), who were transitioning into the place of world power that Assyria had been occupying. Led by King Nebuchadnezzar, the Chaldeans were “a bitter and hasty nation which marches through the breadth of the earth, to possess dwelling places that are not theirs. They are terrible and dreadful. They all come for violence” (vv. 6, 7, 9).
Instead of driving sin out of the land, God was driving His people out of the land.
This probably wasn’t the answer Habakkuk was hoping to hear. Instead of driving sin out of the land, God was driving His people out of the land. To make it worse, they would be carried off by people even more evil than them. In his frustration, Habakkuk asked, “Why do You look on those who deal treacherously, and hold Your tongue when the wicked devours a person more righteous than he?” (v. 13). The prophet Jeremiah, Habakkuk’s contemporary, shared this concern: “Why does the way of the wicked prosper?” (Jeremiah 12:1). I think I would ask these same questions if I were in their position: Why would God let His people be oppressed by a nation even further from His heart than Israel was?
Justice in Judgment
God answers in chapter 2 with a recurring promise to judge Judah’s wicked captors, offering five woes against Babylon before it had ever even taken away the Israelites. The Babylonians would be judged. Israel’s responsibility was to wait. That’s not such an easy task, especially when waiting meant being exiled and subjugated to Babylonian rule. Yet God declared, “the just shall live by his faith” (v. 2). Even in the midst of suffering, being evicted from their Promised Land and serving under their enemies, the Israelites were called to live by faith.
God has always desired for His people to live by faith. Everyone from Abraham to Job to David to the apostles were called to walk by faith, not by sight. Paul taught this lesson in 2 Corinthians 5:7 as well.
This instruction was enough to move Habakkuk to song. The third chapter of his book records his prayer and a hymn played with his stringed instruments, glorifying and rejoicing in the Lord.
Babylon was the agent of God’s correction, but its sin did not go unpunished either.
Israel did not get a free pass as God’s people. On the contrary, Israel was called to live to a higher standard than the other nations. Failure to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation (Exodus 19:6) resulted in His judgment. God did indeed use the wicked nation of Babylon to chastise His people just a few years after Habakkuk’s prophecies, but He did not cast them off forever. Babylon was the agent of God’s correction, but its sin did not go unpunished either.
Punished, Not Abandoned
Sunday, August 7, marks Tisha B’Av this year, the day on the Jewish calendar reserved to dwell on tragedies in Jewish history. On this date, the ninth day of the Hebrew month Av, the destruction of Judah God prophesied to Habakkuk came to pass. Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar broke down Jerusalem’s wall, burned and demolished the Temple and the city’s palaces, and destroyed all its precious possessions (2 Chronicles 36:15–21; 2 Kings 25:1–26) on this day in 586 BC. Then in similar fashion in AD 70, Titus of Rome destroyed the second Temple. Several other Jewish tragedies are attributed to this date, including the fearful report of the 10 Israelite spies in the Promised Land in Numbers 13 and 14 and the Edict of Expulsion in 1492 that banished Jewish people from Spain.
Tisha B’Av is a collection of tragedies that begs Habakkuk’s question, “How long, O Lord?” In the context of how long Judah’s sin would run rampant, the answer was: not long. God’s judgment for Judah’s disobedience came swiftly. But the result of that judgment started a new period of prolonged suffering. The Jewish people were driven from their homeland for a long time—but not forever. After being exiled to Assyria and Babylon, they were dispersed throughout the world for most of the past 3,000 years. But today, millions of Jewish people are now home in their God-given land.
The implicit question behind Habakkuk’s question about Babylon’s conquest is: Why would God allow His people to suffer so much? Hadn’t His covenant with them meant living in the land of Israel?
The Israelites’ sin had to be condemned within the context of the covenant. But that doesn’t mean God abandoned His people. He used evil kingdoms to chasten His people for their unfaithfulness to Him, but they faced their own punishment for their immorality. Assyria fell to Babylon at the end of the 7th century BC, and Babylon fell mere decades after taking the kingdom of Judah into captivity. Neither empire has ever regained power in the millennia since.
Kingdoms come and go, world power shifts back and forth, and the nations continue to struggle for supremacy. The only lasting power belongs to God. The world operates by His command, not by the strength of man. And the only lasting line of people who have endured the dispersion and suffering before being reunited in their land today is the Jewish people, chosen uniquely by God. Habakkuk understood God’s dominion over the earth and His deliverance of His Chosen People, expressing his praise, “Yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will joy in the God of my salvation. The Lord God is my strength” (Habakkuk 3:18–19).
By the end of his conversation with God, Habakkuk no longer needed to ask, “How long, O Lord?” He realized the Lord was great, and living by faith in Him was enough for Habakkuk. This truth rings especially true on Tisha B’Av; but we are blessed that we can be certain the Lord will remain faithful to His character and His promises every day.