We could well be forgiven for having missed the book of Habakkuk which, at just three chapters long, is hidden towards the end of the prophets in the Old Testament. We could also be forgiven for struggling to get a handle on Habakkuk's message which is so full of poetic imagery and seemingly harsh injunctions from God. But the book of Habakkuk, when placed in its context, has much to offer us today in the face of the troubles and sufferings of the world.
Habakkuk was written by a prophet based in Judah around five hundred years before the birth of Christ, around the same time the prophet Jeremiah was writing. Habakkuk is living in a time of great turmoil and tragedy. Judah is invaded, the people are sent into exile from Jerusalem and the nation, as the people know it, ceases to exist. It is a time of violence and disaster and it is into this situation that Habakkuk speaks.
|Habakkuk by F.O.Salisbury from bbc.co.uk|
And Habakkuk doesn't just speak to God, he challenges God. Habakkuk is somewhat unique among the prophets for directly questioning God's wisdom. Habakkuk, in the first chapter of the book, complains 'how long will I cry to you and you will not hear? I cry out to you Violence and you do not save'. Habakkuk's challenge to God echoes another strand of writings from the Old Testament, the wisdom literature such as the book of Job and Ecclesiastes, which is not afraid to ask the tough questions of faith in the face of suffering and loss.
The book reminds us that God is quite able to handle our questions and even our accusations and our reading comes from God's reply to Habakkuk's complaints. God challenges Habakkuk to see the human hand in the suffering of the world and to take this seriously. He also gives Habakkuk a message of peace and hope that, eventually, 'the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea'. Then the violence and suffering of the world will end. We can see in the third chapter of Habakkuk that the book was used in public worship in Israel. Here a psalm is presented that was originally set to music. It serves to reassure the people that their prayers are heard and that one day transformation will come.
We are given a taste of this transformation in our reading from Mark's gospel. It is no coincidence that Jesus comes as a healer and that Jesus' ministry is one marked by both physical and spiritual restoration and release. It comes quietly, so quietly that Jesus even tells people not to talk about it, but they nonetheless can't help but talk about it because 'he even makes the deaf hear and the mute speak'. Mark's account of Jesus shows us a foretaste of what Habakkuk hoped for, an end to suffering in the world.
In our turbulent times we too can draw lessons, and ultimately hope, from these ancient writings that still speak today.