Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Remorseless evil against the weak and helpless is hard to fathom. Hearing various news stories every day of heinous acts both local and around the world, we are led to wonder, “What kind of monster could even think of such a thing, much less act upon it?” There’s evil, and there is Evil with a capital “E.” Such crimes directed against children fall into the latter category. What’s most disturbing about reports like these is how common they’re becoming. Hardly a week goes by when we don’t hear about a school shooting, or a kidnapping, or some severe case of neglect or abuse, or another equally malicious act of violence against a child.
Of course the reason we hear these stories is because news outlets know that they attract our attention. We get really upset when a child is a victim. Reporters know we’re almost numb to violent crimes committed against adults, because we’re so used to hearing about them. But older victims are perceived as being better able to defend themselves and less innocent than children. It doesn’t mean that they suffer any less.
Even so, it’s the exceptionally sad and tragic cases that affect us most. We more readily sympathize with the victims and burn with anger at the perpetrators. The reports provoke in us the question, “Why?” Why does God—whom we know to be loving and good—allow people to commit such horrible crimes? If He is all powerful, why doesn’t he stop them? Why does He allow innocent people to be the victims? If God is the defender of the helpless and the refuge of the oppressed, then why isn’t He doing anything?
We know that evil originates from our fallen natures and the cumulative sinful acts of humanity. We must acknowledge that evil with a capital E continues to be done. So, why does the Lord allow it to continue? And why does it seem that too often the people who do these evil things get away with it?
We are not the first people in history with these questions. The same burden weighed heavily on the mind of Habakkuk the prophet. He lived in the waning days of the kingdom of Judah. They were sorry times. Believe it or not, they were worse than the days in which we live.
’s king—heir to the throne of David—was a weak, vacillating, and morally corrupt man. His heart was on his own short-term interests, not the long term good of his people or nation. To pay for his lavish lifestyle and to buy the continued favor of the pharaoh of Egypt, he imposed heavy taxes. This burden was shouldered primarily by the poor and working classes.
That’s because the nobles, the people with all the power and money, were largely exempt through various legal loopholes and special favors for the king. Sound familiar?
So, the whole system of government was corrupt, as was the judicial system. For the right price you could buy any verdict or judgment you wanted. And the people with the money took advantage of the system to oppress and control the majority who did not. Since they also had law enforcement in their pocket, they backed up their authority with brute force and threat of violence. Anyone who dared to speak out against the corruption, or who complained about the injustice or their ill treatment, was likely to be beaten without mercy, imprisoned on trumped up charges, or, just as likely, simply killed.
Unfortunately the church, an institution that should have been speaking out against this sinful abuse of power, was no help. In fact, some of the worst perpetrators were high-ranking priests and religious authorities. After all, they were some of the richest people around. They made themselves even richer by turning the temple of God into a money-making machine. To attract the widest array of potential worshippers (that is, customers with money to spend), they opened the temple to include the erotically sensual worship of the Canaanite gods and goddesses. So, in the courts of the Lord’s house you could worship Baal and Ashtoreth, or the sun and moon if that was your thing. You could sacrifice your child to Molech, or buy the time of a temple prostitute. Whatever you wanted, it was there.
For the handful of people who still had faith in the Lord and wanted to offer their sacrifices to Him, you could do that, too. Most of the priests, though, would happily suggest that you to see things more inclusively. They would encourage you to cover all your bases by taking full advantage of the wide range of services the temple offered.
We don’t know exactly who Habakkuk was, because he doesn’t tell us. He might have been a low-ranking member of the priestly class. Think of him as a young pastor just out of seminary, brimming over with faith in the one true God and a heavy dose of idealism. He is eager to serve the Lord by faithfully serving his people. But when he gets to his first call and sees how the world really works, his eyes are opened. He sees the Temple defiled. He sees that his supervisors are nothing but a bunch of crooks and hypocrites. He sees all the injustice and oppression that’s going on in society—how every major institution is rotten to the core.
But mostly, Habakkuk sees how those few who are remaining faithful to the Lord are suffering. Their plight touches him, deep in his soul. His heart goes out to them. He feels their pain. And that’s fitting because his name, Habakkuk, means “embrace.” It’s almost like he’s trying to gather the afflicted in his arms and protect them from the evils that are threatening to devour them.
It’s from this posture that he looks to the Lord of heaven and pours out his complaint. “I don’t get it Lord,” Habakkuk says. “Why are you letting this go on? How long do I have to cry out before you’ll listen? Why aren’t you doing anything? How long will you see the violence and injustice that your people are being made to suffer before you’ll do something to save them?” One thing we can say for sure about Habakkuk is that his prayers were persistent.
Most of us, on the other hand, give up all too easily when things are bad and God seems to be silent. When we don’t get an immediate response, we assume that the Lord doesn’t care, or that he won’t do anything, or that maybe he’s not even there at all. Not Habakkuk. He says to the Lord, “I know you’re there, and I know that you can hear me. And I’m going to stand here like a sentinel until you give me an answer.”
The Lord who rewards faithfulness in His people answers Habakkuk. God’s initial response is recorded in the part of the first chapter which we did not read today. But what the Lord says there is this: “Relax, Habakkuk; I’ve got it all under control. Even now, I am delivering my faithful people and bringing those responsible for their misery into judgment. Let me tell you how, because it’ll blow your socks off.”
The Lord tells Habakkuk, “You could never have imagined it, but I’m going to bring the much feared and hated armies of Babylon against your nation. They will be my instruments to rescue my people and punish the wicked.”
Hearing this answer shocked Habakkuk. However wicked the people making life miserable for God’s faithful were, the Babylonians were ten times worse. They were merciless in their conquests, and they ruled the nations they subjugated with terror tactics. They would routinely order mass executions; making examples of those they killed by slowly torturing them to death. On top of it all, the Babylonians were idol-worshipping pagans. At least the present leaders and nobles of Judah, the ones afflicting the people, were of God’s chosen race. At least they paid lip service to the Lord. At the public religious festivals, at least they outwardly claimed to acknowledge and worship him.
It didn’t make any sense to Habakkuk. How could the holy, perfect, and righteous God fight evil among his own people by the hands of people who were in every way even more evil? And how would that make things any better for the oppressed? If things are bad for them now, then how much worse will it be for them under the Babylonians? Armed with these new questions, Habakkuk returned to prayer again. He asks, “Can you explain this? How is it that you who are holy, you for whom the tiniest sin is an outrage, how can you use that which is evil to accomplish your good and perfect will?”
We heard the Lord’s answer to Habakkuk, and what He says is this: “Write this down, and use big letters so that everyone can see. I want this message spread around. My plan of salvation is unfolding exactly as I planned. Even though it seems to you like I’m slow fulfilling My promises, hang in there. It will surely come.”
And then God concludes with what are some sharp words of rebuke for Habakkuk: “Look at you, your soul puffed up with pride and all bent and twisted inside you. The righteous will live by his faith.” What God is saying is this: You act as if you think you know it all. You see people suffering from injustice and the sins of others and then have the audacity to accuse Me of falling down on my job. And then, when I tell you how I’m going fix things, you think you can tell Me that the way I’m going to do it is all wrong. Well, let me remind you: I am the Lord, not you. I know what’s going on. You don’t; you only think you do. I know what is best for each and every person living on the face of the earth, and that’s precisely what I give them. And all things ultimately serve my good and holy will, even the sins of the wicked. To those who need hardship and suffering in their lives to keep them faithful, I give hardship. To those who are in sin and unbelief, I provide opportunities and patience for them to repent and turn to me.
I know what I’m doing; I’m not making any mistakes. You can be sure of this: all My faithful will be saved, and every sin will be punished. In the end you will see. Both My love and My justice will prevail. Your part in all this is to trust Me. Indeed, your trust in Me and My loving care is how I count you righteous in my sight. You are righteous when you put your faith in me.
The Lord didn’t need Habakkuk to tell Him how to do His job. And what God did in the end was truly remarkable. He brought in the Babylonians just as He said He would. They overthrew the wicked rulers of Judah and punished them severely. They took away the wealthy’s ill-gotten riches.
Meanwhile, most of God’s faithful people were deported to Babylon. Life for them there was far from luxurious, but at least the Babylonians maintained proper law and order. For them it was simply good business to treat honest people who obeyed their laws fairly.
So, strange as it may seem, the formerly oppressed faithful fared better under the evil Babylonians than they did under their own kings and religious leaders. Not many years later, the faithless Jews who remained in Judah rebelled against their Babylonian masters. And when they did, the Lord fulfilled his judgments against them by having the Babylonians utterly destroy them. For several decades, the only faithful Jews in the world were the ones exiled in Babylon. Then, when the timing was right, the Lord raised up another power, the Persians, to punish the Babylonians for their crimes. After Babylon fell, the Persian king let the deported Jews return home to rebuild their country. And through it all, the Lord used faithless and evil people to carry out His will and preserve the people who trusted in him.
And that should not surprise us. All of this is only a foreshadowing of the much greater deliverance that was yet to come: In the life of Jesus, the Lord would use evil rulers and corrupt religious leaders to carry out the greatest injustice in all of history. They condemned and killed the Son of God, the only truly innocent person who ever lived. Yet, what men meant for evil, God meant for good. Through the innocent suffering and death of his Son, the Lord God brought salvation to sinners who repent of their sins and trust in Jesus. There, on the cross, God saw to it that every sin ever committed was punished in His Son, so that those who put their trust in Him will be saved. In Him both God’s love and his justice prevail. And in Him, we live before God, righteous by faith.
Believing this ought to change the way we look at all the evil in the world. We don’t suddenly and naively perceive it as good, because evil is still evil. It’s bad. Rather we don’t use our encounters with evil as an occasion to accuse the Lord of falling down on his job, or not caring for his people, or not being just. Instead, we should see it as a call to greater faith in Jesus – to trust in Him even though we cannot see or imagine what good the Lord is accomplishing by it. We should see it also as an opportunity for us to show the love and compassion of our Savior.
And, finally, remembering the prayer of our Lord to forgive them because they do not know what they’re doing, we should see the evil we suffer at the hands of others as opportunities to extend to them the same forgiveness that we have received in Jesus. May God our Father use every means at His disposal to work in us such a complete and holy faith in Christ Jesus our Lord. In his holy name. Amen.