Habakkuk 2:4-17 “See, he is puffed up; his desires are not upright – but the righteous will live by his faith – indeed, wine betrays him; he is arrogant and never at rest. Because he is as greedy as the grave and like death is never satisfied, he gathers to himself all the nations and takes captive all the peoples. Will not all of them taunt him with ridicule and scorn, saying, ‘Woe to him who piles up stolen goods and makes himself wealthy by extortion! How long must this go on?’ Will not your debtors suddenly arise? Will they not wake up and make you tremble? Then you will become their victim. Because you have plundered many nations, the peoples who are left will plunder you. For you have shed man’s blood; you have destroyed lands and cities and everyone in them. Woe to him who builds his realm by unjust gain to set his nest on high, to escape the clutches of ruin!
You have plotted the ruin of many peoples, shaming your own house and forfeiting your life. The stones of the wall will cry out, and the beams of the woodwork will echo it. Woe to him who builds a city with bloodshed and establishes a town by crime! Has not the LORD Almighty determined that the people’s labour is only fuel for the fire, that the nations exhaust themselves for nothing? For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD, as the waters cover the sea. Woe to him who gives drink to his neighbours, pouring it from the wineskin till they are drunk, so that he can gaze on their naked bodies. You will be filled with shame instead of glory. Now it is your turn! Drink and be exposed! The cup from the LORD’s right hand is coming round to you, and disgrace will cover your glory. The violence you have done to Lebanon will overwhelm you, and your destruction of animals will terrify you. For you have shed man’s blood; you have destroyed lands and cities and everyone in them.”
What we have in these verses at the heart of Habakkuk is a taunt song in five verses, and in the midst of it a fabulous promise about the future of this world of ours. When I was a little boy in the Second World War I sang with other children taunt songs about the Nazi leaders, Hitler, Lord Haw Haw, Goebbels and Himmler. Today every soccer supporter is familiar with taunt songs because that is what supporters chant during football matches.
The rival team is taunted about the score, to the tune Amazing Grace, “two nil, two nil, two nil, two nil.” The rival supporters are also taunted for their silence as the winning team’s supporters start to sing to the tune Guantanamera, “Sing when you’re winning, you only sing when you’re winning.” Or, “Noise in a library, there’s far more noise in a library.” Another popular chant, sung to Oh My Darling, Clementine, is “You’re not singing, you’re not singing, you’re not singing anymore!” Another taunt is “Shall we sing a song for you?” when the opposition fans aren’t very vocal in their support. When the visiting fans are a small group they are taunted, “You should have come in a taxi.” When Liverpool fans sing, “You’ll Never Walk Alone” rival fans reply “You’ll Never Get A Job”. Or if it is an easy victory the taunt is “Can we play you every week?”
Then the referee is the subject of the taunts, “Twelve men, you’ve only got twelve men” (when the referee favours a team like a 12th man). The team’s manager can also be taunted; when the late Robert Maxwell was briefly the Derby County manager, the Derby fans sang, “He’s fat, he’s round, he’s never at the ground, Captain Bob, Captain Bob.” Players are taunted for various things, for their misses, “How high do you want the goal?” when a player shoots over the bar; or for being an older player, “You’re so old it’s unbelievable;” or for a player judged overweight the fans will sing to the tune, Knees up Mother Brown, “Who ate all the pies?”
The size of a small ground can also be mocked, dismissed as “My garden shed” – My garden shed/Is bigger than this/My garden shed/Is bigger than this/It’s got a door and a window/My garden shed/Is bigger than this). The town they come from is also mocked. If it should be Manchester, then the rival fans would sing, “. . . In the Manchester slums, in the Manchester slums, they look in the dustbin for something to eat. They find a dead cat and they think it’s a treat, In the Manchester slums.” Those are taunt songs and they are sung in soccer matches all over the world.
The taunt song of Habakkuk chapter two is written and sung by God. There is constant tension between two seeds in the world, the seed of the woman and the seed of Satan. There are two kingdoms in the world, the kingdom of light and the kingdom of darkness. There are the righteous who live by their faith, and there are those who are puffed up, whose desires are not upright (v.4). There is a ceaseless conflict going on between these kingdoms. You will meet the chants of the boastful, the arrogant and the self-assertive. You see them standing around the cross of Christ on Golgotha and they are chanting their taunt songs by the hour mocking the Son of God in his pain. Habakkuk saw them in his day conspiring and plotting against the Lord, and they’re often fuelled by alcohol. You remember the night king Belshazzar of Babylon was killed he had been carousing with his nobles at a banquet. Then the hand of God appeared and wrote on the wall. That ended the mockery of God. The vessels taken from God’s temple in Jerusalem brought in to be filled with drink now seemed objects of fear. They were men betrayed by drink. When you look at this fifth verse of our text you see the false courage and energy that drunkenness creates, “Indeed, wine betrays him; he is arrogant and never at rest. Because he is as greedy as the grave and like death is never satisfied, he gathers to himself all the nations and takes captive all the peoples.” (v.5). We are reminded Belshazzar and his men in the famous second psalm, “Why do the nations conspire and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth take their stand and the rulers gather together against the LORD and against his Anointed One. ‘Let us break their chains,’ they say, ‘and throw off their fetters.’ The One enthroned in heaven laughs; the Lord scoffs at them” (Psa. 2:1-4). This taunt song in Habakkuk is the scoffing of the Lord.
God is answering Habakkuk’s prayer. This prophet is bewildered that the Lord should use such a fiendishly evil people like the Babylonians to punish his own people, and this taunt song is one of God’s encouragements to the prophet and the people. Babylon is not going to have the last word in history. That empire seemed to everyone to be such an impregnable and irresistible force in the world, but after God picked up Babylon as his rod, and used it to punish ungodly Judah then God laid it down again and punished Babylon too.
There are five taunts and they come from the scornful Lord of heaven. You see the five stanzas? They begin in verses 6, 9, 12, 15 and 19. In the New International Version they are translated by the exclamation ‘Woe!’ but Palmer Robertson in his commentary on this book suggests that a better translation is ‘Ha!’ Remember the great sermon of Jesus Christ against the Scribes and Pharisees in Matthew 23. Seven times our Lord taunts them saying, “Woe to you Scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites.” We could also translate that, “Ha to you teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites!” Walt Chantry reminds us of another time when Jehovah mocked the mockers. “Earlier in Israel’s history a giant of a warrior had stood before the Jewish forces inviting them to send out their best man to fight him. Proudly he had cried, ‘I defy the armies of Israel this day.’ This man of massive dimensions, wearing his mammoth armour and carrying his Herculean weapons, had stood before the Jews. A lad dressed as a shepherd had approached him. The boy had said, ‘I come to you in the name of the LORD of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied. This day the LORD will deliver you into my hand, and I will strike you and take your head from you.’ Thus the taunter had been taunted” (Walter Chantry, “God’s Great Purpose of History: Habakkuk 2:5-17, Banner of Truth magazine, June 2007, p.29). A day is coming, God tells Habakkuk, when not just one shepherd boy David will be brave enough to stand against God’s enemies, but all the Lord’s people and all the nations the Babylonians have plundered will stand and mock the fierce oppressor, “Will not all of them taunt him with ridicule and scorn” (v.6). Let us briefly consider the first four divine taunts. Each one is contained within three verses. Each one describes one of the notorious crimes of the Babylonians, and each one specifies an appropriate punishment.
1. THE PLUNDERERS WILL BE PLUNDERED.
“Woe to him who piles up stolen goods and makes himself wealthy by extortion! How long must this go on? Will not your debtors suddenly arise? Will they not wake up and make you tremble? Then you will become their victim. Because you have plundered many nations, the peoples who are left will plunder you. For you have shed man’s blood; you have destroyed lands and cities and everyone in them” (vv.6-8). The first crime is theft; 2,700 years ago and still the natural heart of man is unchanged. Our little town if full of thieves. Everyone of us has suffered because things have been stolen from us, our purses taken from our handbags, our bicycles, objects from our cars; our children have come home from school reporting money stolen from them. This church has been broken into and objects have been stolen. You read the weekly local newspaper and there are many reports in every single edition without a pause of thefts from shops and hospitals and private houses. I sometimes think that this town is run by Ali Baba and his forty thieves. God has said, “Thou shalt not steal.” He gives the right to private property. We lock our doors and we carry around with us our keys because we will not make it easy for the natural man to steal from us.
At time of war the thieves are conquering armies who cart off stolen goods in long convoys of loot. They crush their subjugated peoples, and their only hope is that God will have mercy on them, while those plunged into debt can only cry, “How long must this go on?” God gives them hope saying the “debtors will suddenly arise. Will they not wake up!” (v.7). A people long subjugated, like those in the coma of communism in eastern Europe, wake up, throw off their chains of captivity and then their old masters become their victims. Those who were once plunderers will be plundered. That will happen to mighty Babylon, says God. It will happen in the great day of judgment when every thief in Aberystwyth will be summoned to give account to God. We must all appear there; there will be no escape.
2. THE EXPLOITERS WILL BE EXPLOITED.
“Woe to him who builds his realm by unjust gain to set his nest on high, to escape the clutches of ruin! You have plotted the ruin of many peoples, shaming your own house and forfeiting your life. The stones of the wall will cry out, and the beams of the woodwork will echo it” (vv. 9-11). The theme again is ‘unjust gain’; there is widespread corruption from crime, drugs, pornography and extortion rackets. Think of the political power of African dictators, how they have impoverished countries like Congo and Zimbabwe, putting the revenues taken from the state in their private Swiss bank accounts, living in palaces protected by private armies while their countries starve and their prisons are full of their opponents. Think of the corrupting influence of political power in our land, how Members of Parliament again are voting to award themselves ‘generous’ increases in salary and bottomless allowances for travel and housing in Cardiff, Edinburgh, Belfast, London and Brussels. An anonymous rich bureaucracy have built themselves huge nests with spectacular views in the Swiss mountains “to escape the clutches of ruin.” Yet God knows all this, and he pictures the very houses in which they live in their opulence crying out. The stones of the wall will cry out, “Lushness, greed, luxuriance, waste,” and the beams of the woodwork will take up the cry and echo back, “Excess, prodigality, debauchery, intoxication” (v.11). There will be no escape for these men who have lived for their possessions. Pride goes before destruction. Jesus said how hard it would be for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. The love of money is the root of all kinds of evil.
3. THE SHEDDERS OF BLOOD WILL HAVE THEIR BLOOD SHED.
“Woe to him who builds a city with bloodshed and establishes a town by crime! Has not the LORD Almighty determined that the people’s labour is only fuel for the fire, that the nations exhaust themselves for nothing?” (vv.12&13). How the Babylonians built their city. With an inexhaustible supply of slaves they erected massive fortifications. When slaves grew exhausted and feeble because of the paltry food they were given, they were killed. The walls of Babylon were as wide as our church building – normal walls were just ten to fifteen feet thick. Yet what was all their strength when the appointed time for the destruction of Babylon came? Before God the fortifications were as rice paper –fuel for the fire.
It happened like this, that in the year 538 Cyrus launched his attack on the city one night when the population, relying on the strength of the walls, was giving itself to one long banquet of carousing and debauchery led by the king and his nobles. “Let us eat, drink and be merry . . .” Cyrus had noticed a canal which ran west of the city carrying off surplus water from the river Euphrates into a nearby lake. Cyrus ordered his men to deepen the canal and to turn the river Euphrates into it. That resulted in the flow of the main river being considerably reduced. It became very shallow, and so Cyrus’ army entered the waters and walked along the river bed under the defences right into the city – without battering rams or siege engines or any bloodshed at all – and they destroyed much of the city. In the next century it declined more and more and two centuries later you might describe it as a vast desert, in fact there was no certainty as to the actual site of Babylon until the early nineteenth century. The nation had exhausted itself for nothing.
4. THE DISGRACERS OF MEN WILL THEMSELVES BE DISGRACED.
“Woe to him who gives drink to his neighbours, pouring it from the wineskin till they are drunk, so that he can gaze on their naked bodies. You will be filled with shame instead of glory. Now it is your turn! Drink and be exposed! The cup from the LORD’s right hand is coming round to you, and disgrace will cover your glory. The violence you have done to Lebanon will overwhelm you, and your destruction of animals will terrify you. For you have shed man’s blood; you have destroyed lands and cities and everyone in them.” (vv.15-17). This is a picture of Babylonian debauchery, forcing more and more drink on men and women until all their inhibitions and modesty are destroyed. “Now it is your turn!” God says. “It will be you who will be filled with shame, not any longer the glories of the conquering armies returning with their prisoners (the kings in chains soon to have their sons killed before them and their eyes put out). God will put a cup in your hand to drink O Babylon; it will be the cup of disgrace. The violence you inflicted in one particular shameful massacre in Lebanon will be inflicted on you. Your merciless treatment of dumb beasts will be visited upon you to terrify you (You think of how poor terrified wild animals were baited and turned on one another in the Coliseum to entertain the spectators). That will be your future when Cyrus captures the city.”
So, God having judged his own people with the Babylonian invasion ultimately brings worse judgment on Babylon. “The wicked may triumph for a while, they may ‘flourish as the green bay tree’, but it is not going to last. Their doom is sealed. What perplexes God’s people is, Why does God allow it? He allows it for his own purposes, so that the world may stagger under these evil powers, before he suddenly shows his power and manifests his own sovereignty. The principle for us to hold on to is that God is over all. ‘The way of the transgressor is hard’ whether it be an individual, a nation, or the whole world. Your worldly man may make a fortune by evil business methods and arrive at the top. But see the end of the ungodly! Look at him dying upon his bed; see him buried in a grave, and think of the doom and woe that are his destiny! We should feel sorry for the ungodly that they were fools enough to become drunk with temporal success. Their end is fixed” (Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, From Fear to Faith, IVP, 1953, p.54)
5. THE EARTH WILL BE FILLED WITH THE KNOWLEDGE OF THE GLORY OF GOD.
Right there in the midst of this taunt song is a glorious divine word of promise. God assures Habakkuk, “For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD, as the waters cover the sea.” (v.14). This is like an orchid blooming in the midst of a sewerage farm. Imagine a vast stadium full of the vilest football chants with all their racism and venomous four letter words, and then suddenly a group of people begin to sing clearly and beautifully so that all the stadium can hear them,
“God is working his purpose out as year succeeds to year:
God is working his purpose out, and the time is drawing near;
Nearer and nearer draws the time, the time that shall surely be,
When the earth shall be filled with the glory of God
As the waters cover the sea.
“From utmost east to utmost west, wherever foot hath trod,
By the mouth of many messengers goes forth the voice of God;
Give ear to me, ye continents, ye isles, give ear to me,
That earth may filled with the glory of God
As the waters cover the sea. (A.I. Ainger, 1841-1919).
There might be a sober hush at the ground, and not a few jeers as men again turn to the game before them, but they have been given a glimpse of truth and reality other than 22 men kicking a ball.
What shall I say about these great words? That it is not the only time that they are found in the Bible spoken by the prophets. In Numbers 14 there is a description of the children of Israel refusing to enter the Promised Land. They are choosing a new leader to replace Moses to turn them around and lead them back to Egypt – back to slavery. They are a people without hope, and then God speaks and instead of speaking words of judgment he says these same words, ‘Truly, as I live, all the earth shall be filled with the glory of the Lord’ (Numbers 14:21). He is saying to them, “Don’t despair. This is indeed a wilderness, but you will not always live east of Eden. Paradise will be regained.”
Again, in Isaiah 10 and 11, God addresses the threat of Assyria and the Lord speaks of his judgment coming upon that nation. Then God tells them of a Branch growing out of the root of Jesse. The extent of the Branch’s kingdom is described in these identical words, ‘For the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea’ (Isa. 11:9). He is coming who will do it, the one who says, ‘I am meek and lowly in heart’ (Matt. 11:29). It is he of whose coming it was said: ‘The glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together: For the mouth of the Lord has spoken’ (Isa.40:5).
Those words should fill us with hope and they set before us a definition of the scope of our mission. They ought to fill us with a tremendous confidence as we face up to our calling as Christians. We are being given a theology of glory, of God’s unfrustratableness in his determination to save the world (though some are lost), of the invincibleness of his grace, of God’s authority over his creation – his position of eminence and total control – and that it’s in the hands of the Lord Jesus Christ. Right over the Gentile world his influence is going to be known and felt
These words, in fact, are a deliberate echo of God’s promise to Abraham that in him all the nations of the earth are to be blessed. We are going to fill the world with the knowledge of God – who is the Glory. The nations are all going to have the privilege of being evangelized. So God is giving his church on a number of occasions in the Old Testament this vision, and it is a vision of success, a vision of the most tremendous, and assured, and effectual, and infallible success, because there is no doubt about it, that the world is going to be filled with God’s glory. People are going to come from the north, south, east and west, and they are going to enter the new heavens and new earth. As we go forth with the gospel we must keep this vision in our minds. We’re not to say, “The struggle availeth not.” We are not to think, “labour in the Lord is in vain . . . there’s no point; it’s of no consequence” because the promise is that the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. We must keep that hope before us because the professing church has got into this rut, this despondency, this feeling that no matter what you do, and how you work, and whatever preparation you do, that nothing is going to avail.
Let us grab our despondency by the scruff of the neck and say, “This is not a biblical attitude,” because the promise is that every continent and every island and every language and tribe and people are going to be reached by the gospel. The glory of God is the face of Jesus Christ and the world is going to see him. In the gospel there is good news for all the nations, for every creature. In other words the church can say to every human being, “We have good news for you,” good news individually and personally. I am able to say to every soul in this church, “There is good news for you,” and you are to have no doubts about it. You are not to say, “but I am not religious. I am not born again. I am not converted.” I am saying that whatever your condition might be there is the offer of wonderful news, whoever you are there is good news. I am addressing each individual with splendid, life-changing news.
What is that news? Surely it is this that the God of Habakkuk – he is Lord. Jehovah – he is God. I think we overlook the glory of that. We take this great fact of the existence of the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Creator of the world, for granted! Do we imagine that that has no religious importance? It is the single greatest article of our faith. The Lord he is God. This world has not come out of nothing. It does not exist in nothing, it is not going to issue in nothing, but the living God has made it and he holds it firm in his loving hands, and he has his purpose for it – to fill it with the knowledge of the glory of his Son as the waters cover the sea.
It is not a world in the hands of chaos, but in the hands of God. It is not a world gripped by chance, nor by cosmic malice. This world, in all its groaning and sadness, is in God’s hands. There was the great Hebrew scholar John Rabbi Duncan, and when he was a student he was deeply exercised on whether there was a God, and then one day, as he stood on the bridge over the river Deen in Aberdeen, he saw it! He saw the glory of this whole world residing and resting and reposing in the hands of God, and Rabbi Duncan danced for joy on the Brigadeen. That is the glory that is going to fill the world, that this whole world is in the hand of a benevolent, wise, loving, gracious Ruler. Life in this world has meaning. I can at the end stand over a grave into which a coffin has been lowered, and I can read that beloved name on the brass plate, and I can know that that grave is not the meaning of life. That coffin is not the purpose of life. It is not reducible to that because my life is in God, and as it is in God it has meaning, and it is the meaning of his grace and his love.
How does this promise come about? How does this vision become a reality? How does the earth get filled with the glory of God? How does it become nearer in achievement? Only by the work of faith and a labour of love; only by always abounding in the work of the Lord; there is no other possibility. Christians have to go into the small corner of their existence, and gossip the gospel. There they have to hold fast to their confession. They have to hold forth the word of life. I am told that today there are in this world 1,200 million Muslims, and 800 million Hindus, and 60 million Buddhists, and 23 million Sikhs. There is also a vast number of nominal Christians, those who live in the twilight of Christian superstition. Now I ask you concerning the mass of pitiable and attractive humanity in the world, what proportion of them are evangelicals? How many of them hold to the historic Christian faith? How many are confessional Christians? How many of them are saved?
What a task it is to be engaged in the fulfillment of such a promise. It is not the promise that this little building of ours is going to be filled. That would be a manageable promise on human terms. I do not need great faith to believe it, or set up various schemes and stunts to get a crowd and say, “Done it!” No. This promise is one commensurate with the infinite God who made the Universe. He intends to fill the world with his Son’s glory. I must ask myself how? What part can I play where I have my existence? In the world in which I live and move – how can I fill that with God’s glory? I am asked at times, “What’s the magic formula? What is the sure-fire method? What are the three easy steps to fill the world with the glory of God? What are the guaranteed principles of church growth?” When I reply I seek to do so on the basis of God’s word that there is no other way than by our labouring, and I have to put it to myself, and put it to you, and to the students with their lives stretching out before them, that I think we have lost our way in this particular connection. We are facing the most awful problems in this whole area of effective, practical evangelism.
Let me illustrate it in this way, that if you have a conference where the main theme is theology then it generates only a little interest, but if you have a conference on evangelism and methods of witness then there is greater interest in learning about doing things, in having lectures on how to witness, and running youth meetings, and successful outreach. I am saying that there is no difference between lectures on theology and lectures on tract distribution. The one is as theoretic as the other, and a great deal of energy as students is tied to the illusion that because we can have week-end conferences on practical themes therefore this is somehow being practical. But I am saying that reading missionary books, and stories of doorstep evangelism, and just thinking or talking about these things is not being practical.
I am saying that if we are really interested in filling the earth with the knowledge of God’s glory then start talking about Christian convictions to your colleagues and acquaintances in work, in college, helping in Sunday School and Young People’s Meetings and not talking about evangelism but actually doing it and failing at it, and trying again, and getting the answers that you did not have the first time you tried it, and never stopping. Our judgment is not that we failed in evangelizing but that we never started. I would think that there are limitless opportunities for glorifying God in this town. It is not sermons on practical evangelism that are needed, and a heart to move and a will to obey.
Can I not put this challenge to you? I know my own vulnerability, but I’m not dumb. God gave me a larynx and a tongue and with them I can taunt the results of unbelief and mock the achievements of the unrighteous, and speak of their horrific end. Yes I can talk about many things, but the challenge is to the labour of love, and to display personal concern for others. If we are to fill the earth with the knowledge of God’s glory then we have to start with two people for whom we are praying regularly and seeking faithfully to help see God’s glory in the face of Jesus Christ. Such work is not in vain.
11th November 2007 GEOFF THOMAS