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Homily on the Holy Prophet Habakkuk (Ambakoum)

An Excerpt from Of Whom the World was not Worthy

by Protopresbyter James Thornton

The Holy Prophet Habakkuk, one of the minor prophets inasmuch as his book of Holy Scripture is short, lived during the late seventh century before the Birth of Christ. In addition to his book, he is mentioned in the Book of Daniel, where the account of his miraculous journey to bring food to the Holy Prophet Daniel during his captivity in the lions’ den appears. [1]

Saint Habakkuk observed the rise of the Babylonians and was well aware of the imminent threat they posed to the Kingdom of Judah and to the blessed city of Jerusalem. Moreover, as a Prophet of God, he fully perceived that the conquest of Judah would be God’s punishment for Judah’s gross infidelities, that is, for her dabbling in paganism and superstition, and for the avariciousness and concomitant injustices that had become rife in Judean society. Yet, the Holy Prophet was puzzled, and he expressed his several concerns to God, which he transmits to us in a dialogue between himself and God.

The book opens with the words, “The burden which Habakkuk the prophet did see.” [2] The revelation of God, the ongoing revelation which is the life of a Prophet of God, St. Habakkuk describes as a burden. To know the dark future, and to be summoned by God to tell others of that coming time of darkness and of God’s wrath towards the guilty, indeed is a burden that lies heavily upon the heart. It must be done, God must be obeyed, but it is far from a happy obligation.

The Holy Prophet asks God how He can so long tolerate the wickedness, corruption, and oppression that had taken hold of Judah: “O LORD, how long shall I cry, and thou wilt not hear! even cry out unto thee of violence, and thou wilt not save! Why dost thou shew me iniquity, and cause me to behold grievance? for spoiling and violence are before me: and there are that raise up strife and contention. Therefore the law is slacked, and judgment doth never go forth: for the wicked doth compass about the righteous; therefore wrong judgment proceedeth.” [3]

God replies that the wicked and unjust among the Judeans will soon taste the bitterness off a terrible judgment, a judgment that will come from an invasion by the Chaldeans [i.e., the Babylonians], a “bitter and hasty nation,” [4] whom He will send to reprimand His people and bring them to their senses. For, God tells Saint Habakkuk, the Babylonians “are terrible and dreadful: their judgment and their dignity shall proceed of themselves. Their horses also are swifter than the leopards, and are more fierce than the evening wolves: and their horsemen shall spread themselves, and their horsemen shall come from far; they shall fly as the eagle that hasteth to eat. They shall come all for violence: their faces shall sup up as the east wind, and they shall gather the captivity as the sand.” [5] The Babylonians will act, God says, as His instrument of chastisement; they will be used by God to accomplish His purposes.

But Saint Habakkuk is still troubled since the pagan conquerors, while annihilating the cruel and oppressive from among the people of Judah and so winnowing the good from the bad, will bring cruelties and oppression of their own as they march forth, endlessly devouring nations. God responds, instructing the Saint to write down what He says so that it may be precisely conveyed to the people of Judah and to their posterity. The Babylonians, though for the moment the instruments of God, will nevertheless themselves receive a judgment appropriate to the evil they work. Ultimately, they too will be laid low and humbled, while the remnant of the faithful among the Hebrews will be restored to freedom. Hints of the coming fate of the Babylonians are then presented in a series of “woes.”

“Woe,” writes the Holy Prophet Habakkuk, “to him that increaseth that which is not his!” [6] And he continues: “Woe to him that coveteth an evil covetousness to his house, that he may set his nest on high….” [7] “Woe to him that buildeth a town with blood, and stablisheth a city by iniquity!” [8] “Woe unto him that giveth his neighbour drink, that puttest thy bottle to him, and makest him drunken also….” [9] And, finally, “Woe unto him that saith to the wood, Awake; to the dumb stone, Arise, it shall teach!” [10]

In other words—and this all refers to the Babylonians, typifying their conduct and their ways—woe to those who rob others and accumulate riches dishonestly or by violence: woe to those who are consumed by boundless greed: woe to the those who commit numberless murders and tyrannize their fellow man: woe to those who propagate sin among their neighbors, debauching them: and, woe to those who worship lifeless idols of wood and stone and imagine that some good can come out of them. Woe to them because, in God’s good time, they too shall be struck down.

The Holy Prophet grasped God’s wishes and His objectives and was therefore pleased with God’s response to his questions; although it meant a period of suffering, still, in the end, it meant Godly purification and redemption. Saint Habakkuk sings God’s praises, ending his short book with the words, “Yet I will rejoice in the LORD, I will joy in the God of my salvation. The LORD God is my strength, and he will make my feet like hinds' feet, and he will make me to walk upon mine high places.” [11]

The first lesson we learn is that what appears to be dumb fate is not that at all. God will use temporal entities, like the Babylonian Empire, to direct history as He desires. God is the Master of the historical process. He was that in the time of Saint Habakkuk, He is that today, and He will remain that until the End of the Ages.

The second lesson we draw today involves the five woes of the Holy Prophet Habakkuk, which were aimed at the Babylonians, but which have a much broader application, an application to men and women in general, that is, to all of us here today. We are told, “Woe to him that increaseth that which is not his!” [12] If we are guilty of accumulating wealth dishonestly—even if our means may be technically legal—then we incur God’s displeasure. Additionally, if we fail to share our accumulated wealth with the poor, then, likewise, we stand under God’s judgment.

Then we read, “Woe to him that coveteth an evil covetousness to his house, that he may set his nest on high….” [13] Any of us who are covetous— and you will remember that that means greedy—, who are prideful, who place money or material goods first among our priorities, higher than our spiritual welfare or duties to God, will obviously fail to win eternity with God.

The third woe is, “Woe to him that buildeth a town with blood, and stablisheth a city by iniquity!” [14] I doubt that any of us here today will commit the bloody terrors of the Babylonians. Yet, some imitate these terrors on a smaller scale, creating fear among underlings for unjust causes, for example. You will remember from our discussion last year of the Commandments of God, that Christ likened anger to killing: “Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment. But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment….” [15] We cannot build our lives on anger, on wrath, as if we possess rights and capabilities that properly belong only to God. Also, we cannot murder our fellow man through gossip, lies, and evil chatter. We cannot climb the “ladder of success,” worldly success, over the ruined lives of our brothers and sisters. God will judge us for that.

The next woe reads, “Woe unto him that giveth his neighbour drink, that puttest thy bottle to him, and makest him drunken also….” [16] Sin is endemic to fallen mankind. God understands our struggle with sin and understands how difficult that struggle is for all of us. And He is merciful to us as a consequence. However, those who “giveth his neighbour drink” is he who place temptation before their fellow men, enticing them, beguiling them, bewitching them, luring them into sin, as a fisherman lures a fish to its doom with a baited hook. That enticement may involve alcoholic drink, or it may not. Drink and drunkenness are not the points here; sin is the point. To entice a brother or sister into sin in any way is to give that person the proverbial “kiss of death.” God will therefore judge the tempter accordingly.

And, lastly, ““Woe unto him that saith to the wood, Awake; to the dumb stone, Arise, it shall teach!” [17] The last woe has to do, as we said, with idolatry. Few people today bow down in adoration before wooden or stone idols of false gods, except in places where savagery still prevails. However—and we have spoken of this many times before—there are other false idols before which modern man does bow. These may be the false idols of money, power, career, an addiction to evil forms of entertainment (e.g., rock music or trashy films), an exaggerated and unhealthy attachment to other persons, fancy clothes, high living, and a host of other things. To sacrifice the eternal for the temporal is to choose death over life.

My beloved children in Christ, we read these Old Testament books, and our wise Mother the Church has preserved them for us, not solely for their historical content, but because from them we learn lessons that are timeless. May every man and woman here heed the words of the Holy Prophet Habakkuk, rejecting that which brings death, and instead choosing life!

Endnotes

  1. Bel and the Dragon 1:33-39 (Bel and the Dragon is an integral part of the Book of Daniel in the Septuagint).
  2. Habakkuk 1:1.
  3. Ibid., 1:2-4.
  4. Ibid., 1:6.
  5. Ibid., 1:7-9.
  6. Ibid., 2:6.
  7. Ibid., 2:9.
  8. Ibid., 2:12.
  9. Ibid., 2:15.
  10. Ibid., 2:19.
  11. Ibid., 3:18-19.
  12. Ibid., 2:6.
  13. Ibid., 2:9.
  14. Ibid., 2:12.
  15. St. Matthew 5:21-22.
  16. Habakkuk 2:15.
  17. Ibid., 2:19.

From Of Whom the World was not Worthy: Sermons on the Lives and Works of the Patriarchs and Prophets of the Old Testament, by Protopresbyter James Thornton (Etna: CA, Center for Traditionalist Orthodox Studies, 2010), pp. 141-146. Posted on November 12, 2010.