Robert Carroll and Stephen Prickett

in The Bible: Authorized King James Version

Published in print February 1998 | ISBN: 9780192835253
Published online April 2009 |

Series: Oxford World's Classics


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The Book of Habakkuk (Greek Ambakoum) consists of a lament (1), a vision (2) and a prayer (3). The lament concerns the Chaldean (Babylonian) invasion which appears to encourage the wicked and cause suffering to the righteous—a commonplace theme in lament psalms: ‘Therefore the law is slacked, and judgment doth never go forth: for the wicked doth compass about the righteous; therefore wrong judgment proceedeth’ (1: 4). In response to the lament is both a vision and a series of woe oracles. ‘And the Lord answered me, and said, Write the vision, and make it plain upon tables, that he may run that readeth it. For the vision is yet for an appointed time, but at the end it shall speak, and not lie: though it tarry, wait for it; because it will surely come, it will not tarry. Behold, his soul which is lifted up is not upright in him: but the just shall live by his faith’ (2: 2–4). That last phrase, ‘the just shall live by his faith’ (or ‘faithfulness’) is one of the most famous and influential lines in the whole Bible. It is echoed in the New Testament a number of times (Rom. 1: 17; Gal. 3: 11; Heb. 10: 38–9) and, through Martin Luther's use of it, became a leading slogan of the Reformation. In the context of Habakkuk it seems to have a somewhat different meaning: that in these times of savage injustice those in the right will survive according to their faithfulness. The woe oracles which follow in 2: 5–19 represent an interesting example of the genre (cf. Isa. 5: 8–23); ‘Woe to him that buildeth a town with blood, and stablisheth a city by iniquity! … Woe unto him that giveth his neighbour drink, that puttest thy bottle to him, and makest him drunken also, that thou mayest look on their nakedness!’ (2: 12, 15). The form of Hab. 3 is a prayer, with a liturgical-musical heading (3: 1, 19) similar to many of the psalms, celebrating in hymnic fashion the coming of YHWH in battle—in the Hebrew Bible one of the dominant images of YHWH is as a warrior, a ‘man of war’ (Exod. 15: 3).82 In some of the great hymns of the Bible (Exod. 15; Judg. 5) YHWH is represented as coming from the south, marching to battle and vindicating his people by slaughtering their enemies. Often such images are mixed with images of YHWH's battle victory over the dragon in creation (Isa. 51: 9–11), so that myth and ‘history’ are melded together: ‘Thou didst cleave the earth with rivers … The sun and moon stood still in their habitation: at the light of thine arrows they went, and at the shining of thy glittering spear. Thou didst march through the land in indignation, thou didst thresh the heathen in anger. Thou wentest forth for the salvation of thy people, even for salvation with thine anointed … Thou didst walk through the sea with thine horses, through the heap of great waters’ (3: 9–15). Whether Hab. 3 was originally part of the book (it is lacking in the Habakkuk Commentary scroll from Qumran) is less important than the point that this liturgical hymn offers an ideologically sound resolution of the problems raised by the lament element in the book. By the end the writer seems prepared to live with the problems of life: ‘Although the fig tree shall not blossom, neither shall fruit be in the vines; the labour of the olive shall fail, and the fields shall yield no meat; the flock shall be cut off from the fold, and there shall be no herd in the stalls: Yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will joy in the God of my salvation’ (3: 17–18).

Chapter.  658 words. 

Subjects: Religious Studies ; Biblical Studies

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