Asking raw and honest questions about suffering can seem faithless and inappropriate in church, but these are literally the questions that drive Habakkuk’s prophecy. We don’t know much about the prophet, but we can best place Habakkuk’s ministry in the early 600’s after Assyria (who conquered the Northern Kingdom of Israel in 722BC) had been conquered by the Babylonian Empire. The Babylonians (also called the Chaldeans) were threatening to come in and do to the Southern Kingdom of Judah what Assyria did to Israel. Fear ruled the day, and other prophets like Jeremiah, Zephaniah, and Daniel were actively warning Israel about coming judgment.
The book of Habakkuk follows a very simple outline: two questions (and the LORD’s answers) then a prayer. But the simple outline of the book presents some raw and difficult questions. “O LORD, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not hear? Or cry to you ‘Violence!’ and you will not save?” (1:2) “Why do you idly look at traitors and remain silent when the wicked swallows up the man more righteous than he?” (1:13)
If one of us wrote the book of Habakkuk it would probably tie these in a pretty bow with a happy ending. Those who suffer would receive the reward and peace they long for. God would be honored and magnified by the godliness of those who endure suffering with joy and patience. The nations who watch on would be astounded by the power and love of God for his people under difficult circumstances. It would make a great Hollywood movie. But Habakkuk ends, “Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD; I will take joy in the God of my salvation. God, the Lord, is my strength; he makes my feet like the deer’s; he makes me tread on my high places” (3:17–19). We all long for clear and clean answers when it comes to suffering and why God allows it. But God simply doesn’t give that type of answer. Instead, he replies, “the righteous shall live by his faith” (2:4)
In the midst of fear and pain and the hard questions prompted by suffering, we look to the cross of Jesus Christ and behold the suffering of God. God did not answer our suffering by words alone, but through his own suffering in order that we would be released from the curse of sin. Until that Day of the Lord when Jesus returns to judge and put the final end of sin and evil, we walk by faith (not by sight) because we behold the suffering of Jesus… and the empty tomb. He has overcome. In this life we will suffer, and we won’t always know why. But we draw from the well of faith to declare, “yet I will rejoice in the LORD; I will take joy in the God of my salvation. God, the Lord, is my strength.