Saturday of week 18 of Ordinary Time – First Reading


Commentary on Habakkuk 1:12-2:4

Today we have one reading from the Prophet Habakkuk. The book dates from the years 605-597 BC, that is, between the great Babylonian victory at Carchemish and Nebuchadnezzar’s invasion of the southern kingdom of Judah which resulted in the capture and destruction of Jerusalem. In addition to the threat of invasion, the city itself was a hotbed of political intrigue and widespread idolatry.

The first two chapters, from which our readings are taken, consist of a dialogue between God and the prophet and it may be the only place in the Bible where someone questions the way God manages events.

The New American Bible also comments:

The third chapter [from which we will not be reading] is a magnificent religious lyric, filled with reminiscences of Israel’s past and rich in literary borrowings from the poetry of ancient Canaan, though still expressing authentic Israelite faith. God appears in all his majestic splendour and executes vengeance on Judah’s enemies. The prophecy ends with a joyous profession of confidence in the Lord, the Saviour.

In today’s reading the prophet complains to God how he can tolerate the evil of those who cause so much suffering among his chosen people. The Jerusalem Bible summarises the prophet’s feelings thus:

If it is true that the Chaldaean triumph is ultimately due to Yahweh, this only moves the problem back to Yahweh himself who must give the answer. How is it that a just and holy God, the custodian of justice, can treat nations thus, and the chosen people in particular? Will he allow the wicked to engulf the virtuous?

While the New International Version comments:

Habakkuk cannot see the justice in Judah’s being punished by an even more wicked nation, and thinks that the Babylonians surely would not be allowed to conquer Judah completely.

The prophet acknowledges God as the Holy One who lives in eternity from ancient times, that is, from the time of the Exodus, the basis of the prophet’s hope for the future. “O Rock!” – a title recognising God’s immutable power. But it is this God who has made Babylon his agent for the judgement of the chosen people. Yahweh “made this people an instrument of justice, set it firm as a rock in order to punish”.

At the same time, the prophet sees a contradiction here. God’s eyes are too pure to look on wickedness and tyranny and yet he remains silent while evil men practise their treachery on those, who, though bad, are not as evil as their enemies. It is the classic question, asked again and again: Why does evil seem to flourish unchecked by a just and holy God? A question often asked on September 11, 2001 and after other similar murderous attacks.

God, says Habakkuk, treats people “like fishes in the sea”. The victims of Babylonia are as helpless as fish swimming into a net.  In fact, Mesopotamian reliefs show conquering rulers symbolically catching their victims in fishnets. It seems that the Babylonians are allowed to do anything they like and, in the end, “triumphantly rejoice”. They then offer celebratory sacrifices over their “catch” and burn incense to the booty which rewards them with wealth and luxury.

Is there to be no end to all of this?, the prophet wants to know. “Shall [Babylon] keep brandishing his sword, to slay peoples without mercy?” So the prophet goes on a long watch on Jerusalem’s city walls to see if the Lord has any answer at all to his complaints. The prophet keeps watch like a sentry on behalf of his people. He looks out from his tower expecting a response to his challenge.

Yahweh’s response comes in the second part of today’s reading. “Then the Lord answered and said…” The prophet is told to write down the vision or revelation and put it on tablets so that it can easily be carried and read out by a messenger and delivered to all those meant to receive it. The word used here refers specifically to a prophet’s vision.

The message is “for its own time only” without any specification of when it will happen. It will be fulfilled at the appointed time. In fact it will deal with the fall of Babylon in 539 BC, 66 years after Habakkuk made his prophecy. “It presses on to fulfilment and will not disappoint.” It has an energy of its own, because it is the expression of Yahweh’s word moving to inevitable fulfilment.

The Advent liturgy uses this verse to express expectation of the Messiah.

The message, then, is to be patient. It may be slow in coming but “come it will, without fail”.

In conclusion a contrast is made between two kinds of people. On the one hand there is the one “who flags, whose soul is not at rights” but “the upright man will live by his faithfulness”. The king of Babylonia and his followers can be numbered among the first kind as well as those people of Judah who have lost confidence in God. The other remains utterly faithful to God no matter what happens and how long he has to wait.

‘Faithfulness’ to God, i.e. to his word and to his will, is characteristic of the ‘upright’ man, and assures him security and life here on earth. The wicked man, who does not have this ‘uprightness’ runs to ruin. The upright and the wicked in this context are respectively Judah and the Chaldaeans: the former will live, the others perish.

“The just man, because of his faith, shall live.” In light of God’s revelation about how (and when) he is working, his people are to wait patiently and live by faith – trusting in their sovereign God. The clause is quoted frequently in the New Testament to support the teaching that people are saved by grace through faith and should live by faith (Heb 10:38-39). It became the rallying cry of the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century.

There is a distinction to be made between ‘faith’ and ‘faithfulness’. ‘Faith’ implies a deep and unconditional trust in God’s love and care for us, even in our sinfulness. ‘Faithfulness’ or ‘fidelity’ suggests maintaining, through thick and thin and perhaps over a long period of time, the integrity of a relationship (as in marriage). Obviously both apply in this passage.

We all need to live by faith and faithfulness. Here is one of the secrets of peace and happiness in our lives.

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