I’m doing some research on the prophet Habakkuk and I was wondering if you have some thoughts on it. In chapter 3, there seems to be a prediction about a lot of violence that God will supposedly bring. How might we see Christ in the midst of these verses?
Habakkuk is a fascinating and perpetually relevant book. The prophet begins with a complaint about God’s perceived inactivity in the face of domestic evil and injustice run amok. He then proceeds to complain at God’s activity when foreign troops pummel the nation, apparently as Yahweh’s agents of retribution.
In chapter 3, the prophet anticipates Yahweh’s vindication of his people in a dramatic, and yes, violent taunt song. Some very important things to note about that genre:
First, historically, taunt songs were a common genre among the nations and their prophets. It was the international trash-talk of the Ancient Near East. When the prophets of various nations brag against their enemies through taunts, they proclaim victory in the name of their god/gods.
The function of taunt songs is more for a people’s own sake. Their enemies may never actually usually hear them. The point is rather for the prophet to comfort a nervous populous by singing of victory in blustery tones as an act of faith in their God. So it goes in Habakkuk. While he can see no signs of victory on the horizon, the prophet composes and sings this song of the Lord to encourage his perplexed people not to despair.
We call this layer of reading the ‘literal sense’ in that we take care to explore the ancient story, read the words of the prophet in context, ask about the nature of that genre. For example, taunt songs are not theology. They are songs loaded with figures of speech, including metaphors, symbolism, hyperbole, etc. It is a form of orally delivered poetic prophecy and, given the poetic element, might have circulated as the equivalent of a top-40 hit of the day.
So in terms of interpretation, we start there. But that’s just the outer rind of the fruit. To stop there fails to read the Bible as sacred Scripture. And particularly as Christians, we are required to peel back the outer husk to ask how this text is ultimately fulfilled in Israel’s Messiah, who Christians believe to be Jesus the Christ.
We ask this question about this prefigurement because that is how Christ interprets this text on the Road to Emmaus on the first afternoon of his resurrection (Luke 24:13-35). There he explains to two disciples that “Moses, the Prophets, and all the Scriptures” (the Hebrew Scriptures and our Old Testament) anticipate the Messiah suffering and entering his glory. That passage definitely needs to be considered as we ask, “HOW does chapter 3 prefigure Christ, his death, and his resurrection?
Here is the first key from Habakukk 3:13-14:
You came out to deliver your people,
[yes, this is why God sends Jesus]
to save your anointed one.
You crushed the leader of the land of wickedness,
[who is that? Yes, Satan].
you stripped him from head to foot.
[cf. Colossians 2:15!]
With his own spear you pierced his head
[the spear that pierces Jesus’s side is metaphorically turned to slay death itself]
when his warriors stormed out to scatter us,
gloating as though about to devour
[the mockers and murderers who gloat at
the cross and scattered the disciples]
the wretched who were in hiding.
[the disciples locked in the upper room]
Is this what Habakkuk foresaw? Perhaps. Or perhaps not. But it is surely what Christ hears via the Spirit as she blows through Habakkuk’s message across the centuries. It is the greater fulfillment of any immediate drama the author might intend.
What an incredible song of victory prefiguring the New Covenant and Jesus’ triumph on the Cross, in Hades, and at the Resurrection! Habakkuk, previously shaken to the core by the resounding “woes” of chapter 2, continues to quake … but he also chooses hope and then faith:
16 I heard and my heart pounded,
my lips quivered at the sound;
decay crept into my bones,
and my legs trembled.
Yet I will wait patiently for the day of calamity
to come on the nation invading us.
17 Though the fig tree does not bud
and there are no grapes on the vines,
though the olive crop fails
and the fields produce no food,
though there are no sheep in the pen
and no cattle in the stalls,
18 yet I will rejoice in the Lord,
I will be joyful in God my Savior.
Finally, the English translations close out Habukuk with the mistranslated line “For the choir director. On the stringed instruments.” Hebrew scholars admit this is at best a guess based on reconstructed roots. But the Jews who translated the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek (before Christ) saw it differently and clearly. They finish with this mighty encouragement:
The Lord God is my strength,
and he will set my feet to the end (completion),
He will cause me to ride on the high places,
so that I might conquer with his song!
What a beautiful benediction to such a powerful gospel.
Perhaps someone could even compose a song for those lyrics.