If the Worst Happens: Habakkuk 3: 17-19a – A Reflection by Rev Keith Innes

Keith Innes

I have just finished studying the Book of the prophet Habakkuk. At first glance the book’s final verses convey straightforward comfort and encouragement to people of faith. On reflection, matters may not be quite so simple. To anyone aware of the multiple ecological crises in which we live, the verses might seem problematic because they could encourage escapism along the lines: ‘Never mind, I’ve got my faith and I don’t need to do anything’. The text is as follows:

Though the fig tree does not blossom,
and no fruit is on the vines;
though the produce of the olive fails
and the fields yield no food;
though the flock is cut off from the fold
and there is no herd in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the LORD;
I will exult in the God of my salvation.
God, the Lord, is my strength;
He makes my feet like the feet of a deer,
and makes me tread upon the heights. (Habakkuk 3:17-19a, NRSV)

These words are followed by a liturgical instruction, translated in the NRSV by: ‘To the leader: with stringed instruments’. Instructions like this are found in the Psalms (e.g. Psalm 4); the verses appear to form the conclusion of the psalm in chapter 3, as well concluding the whole book. A glance at Habakkuk’s prophecy as a whole will help us in our understanding of these final verses.

I find persuasive the common interpretation of the verses up to 2:5 as a dialogue between the prophet and God. In 1:1-4 Habakkuk complains that God allows violence and injustice to remain unchecked. God’s answer (1:5-11) reveals that judgment will come – but it will come at the hands of the Babylonians. This revelation provokes the prophet’s second complaint (1:12-17): although he has already acknowledged that judgment is due, he is distressed that it should be carried out by a cruel, callous nation so given over to idolatry.

The following section (2:1-5) contains not so much an answer; more the promise of an answer, and the spirit in which the answer should be awaited – including the famous words ‘the righteous live by their faith’ (or, ‘their faithfulness’). The remainder of chapter two consists of a series of ‘Woes’ – prophetic judgments in the form of laments. Habakkuk 3:1-16 recounts an apocalypse – a revelation of God’s coming in majestic judgment to set everything right, in terms that are truly earth-shattering.

So much is clear. But the new fact in our own day is that many ‘apocalyptic’ threats come from our own attitudes and actions. The misuse of our technology can degrade and even destroy God’s creation, whether by nuclear radiation, habitat destruction, the loss of fertile soil, climate change or war. Our own activities cause this degradation and loss, although they can also be seen as God’s judgment on our sinfulness.

In such circumstances, the words of 3:17-19a could be misused to encourage a passive, pietistic fatalism. We might imagine that they invite us to retreat into a private world of spiritual peace and inactivity. Instead, we need to repent of the actions and attitudes that are causing suffering and harm. We should bear witness, and act, so as to oppose the sinful abuse of God’s human and non-human creation. Actually the words of the passage itself are enough to correct passivity. For verse 19 speaks of ‘strength’, being sure-footed as a deer, negotiating the ‘heights’ – hardly the language of passivity and quietism!

Yet it remains true, for us as for Habakkuk that good and faithful people sometimes have to endure agonising failure and loss. At such times rejoicing in the Lord, exulting in God and God’s saving power, may seem a tall order. It can only be achieved by God’s strength. At the heart of Habakkuk’s message for us is the realisation that, in an ecological crisis that we have brought upon ourselves, only God can save us. Despite our fantasies to the contrary, God is ultimately in control and we are not. We still ‘wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home’ (2 Peter 3:13, NRSV). In our lives on earth, we are called to live for him who is ‘making all things new’ (Revelation 21:5, NRSV). The perplexities surrounding a time of wrong, and the deep mysteries of God’s providence, are resolved not on the level of rational thought, but by a confidence based on personal trust and loyalty to God.

Keith Innes

Keith Innes was in parish ministry from 1958 until his retirement in 1997. Since then he has studied and written on biblical eco-theology. His notes “God, the Earth and Humanity in the Book of Micah” and “British and American attitudes to nature” are available on the JRI Briefings page of this website.

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