Introducing the Book of Habakkuk

Nothing is known about the prophet Habakkuk. The book is set, based upon its contents, after the rise of the neo-Babylonian empire when they became a threat to the kingdom of Judah (see 1:6); between the end of Josiah’s reign and the fall of Jerusalem. The lack of specific historical references cause it to speak transcontextually to the larger issues of “the righteous,” “the wicked,” and the “silence of God.”

The General Structure of the Book of Habakkuk[1]

Who should be silent when “the wicked” conquer “the righteous”?—questions of responsibility and judgment

I           A conversation between the prophet and Yahweh (1:1-2:20)

A         How long will injustice prevail?—the prophet’s question (1:2-4)

B         The Babylonians will bring judgment upon the people of God—a divine response (1:5-11)

C         Why are “the wicked” appointed to judge “the righteous”?—the prophet’s response (1:12-17)

D         The righteous live, the proud are judged—a divine response (2:1-4)

“The righteous” are those that live by faith, that is, the humble (contrasted to the proud in 2:4). The problem with those that the prophet considers “righteous” is that they are proud, that is, they are not righteous. Thus, the issue turns on the insight that God is not silent as “the wicked” crush “the righteous,” but God is speaking judgment against “the wicked” by the hand of “the wicked.” This is an important part of the prophets’ redefinition of moral responsibility in which all humankind are apprehended as culpable of judgment before Yahweh. Note they shift between God’s alleged silence and need for silence before Yahweh who pronounces judgment on the condemned. (Also, consider the fifth, and climactic, woe against those who worship images that cannot speak [2:19].)

Your eyes are too pure to behold evil, and you cannot look on wrongdoing; why do you look on the treacherous, and are silent when the wicked swallow those more righteous than they? (1:13)

But the Yahweh is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him! (2:20; cf. 3:16)

II         An oracle against the oppressors (2:5-20)

E          Five woes against oppressors (2:5-19)

F          Be silent before Yahweh (2:20)

III        A psalm of praise—the prophet’s response (3)

the psalmist’s call for God’s answer (3:2)
the coming of God the warrior (3:3-6)
Yahweh’s victory over his enemies (3:7-15)
the psalmist’s faith in God (3:16-19)
Connections between the psalm and the oracles of Habakkuk include, “wicked” in 3:13; 1:3, 13; and “waiting” 3:2, 16; 2:1-5.

[1] The structure is based upon my own reading, and selected insights and adaptations from Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture, 447-56; Marvin A. Sweeney, “Habakkuk, Book of,” ABD, 3: 1-6.

Also see
introduction to the prophets, and see bibliography on the prophets.

Copyright 2011