Alfred Place Baptist Church

3:1-16 In wrath remember mercy

Habakkuk 3:1-16  “A prayer of Habakkuk the prophet. On shigionoth. LORD, I have heard of your fame; I stand in awe of your deeds, O LORD. Renew them in our day, in our time make them known; in wrath remember mercy. God came from Teman, the Holy One from Mount Paran. Selah. His glory covered the heavens and his praise filled the earth. His splendour was like the sunrise; rays flashed from his hand, where his power was hidden. Plague went before him; pestilence followed his steps. He stood, and shook the earth; he looked, and made the nations tremble. The ancient mountains crumbled and the age-old hills collapsed. His ways are eternal. I saw the tents of Cushan in distress, the dwellings of Midian in anguish. Were you angry with the rivers, O LORD? Was your wrath against the streams? Did you rage against the sea when you rode with your horses and your victorious chariots? You uncovered your bow, you called for many arrows. Selah. You split the earth with rivers; the mountains saw you and writhed. Torrents of water swept by; the deep roared and lifted its waves on high. Sun and moon stood still in the heavens at the glint of your flying arrows, at the lightning of your flashing spear. In wrath you strode through the earth and in anger you threshed the nations. You came out to deliver your people, to save your anointed one. You crushed the leader of the land of wickedness, you stripped him from head to foot. SelahYou came out to deliver your people, to save your anointed one. You crushed the leader of the land of wickedness, you stripped him from head to foot. Selah. With his own spear you pierced his head when his warriors stormed out to scatter us, gloating as though about to devour the wretched who were in hiding. You trampled the sea with your horses, churning the great watersI heard and my heart pounded, my lips quivered at the sound’ decay crept into my bones and my legs trembled. Yet I will wait patiently for the day of calamity to come on the nation invading us.

These words are a prayer-psalm written by this mysterious prophet called Habakkuk. They are intensely personal as he speaks in the first person, “I have heard of your fame; I stand in awe of your deeds, O Lord” (v.2) but they were words soon to be sung by others. We are given what appears to be the name of this class of psalm, ‘shigionoth’, or perhaps that word is referring to a certain metre. No one is sure, but the suggestion is that others would be singing these words. For example, we are told at the very end of the prophecy that this psalm is “For the director of music. On my stringed instruments” (v.19). So something that began as an individual’s response to God, overwhelmed by his power, ends up expressing the response of every believer. There are personal hymns in which the author writes, for example, of amazing grace that saved “a wretch like me” or that praise “Jesus lover of my soul,” and they are immediately taken up and sung by all the individuals constituting a worshipping congregation. “Yes, we are wretches too, and the Lord Jesus loves our souls.”

  1. THE PROPHET IS AWED BY THE REAL FAME OF GOD.

Habakkuk begins, “Lord, [that is, Jehovah] I have heard of your fame; I stand in awe of your deeds, O Lord” (v.2). What makes people great? People think it’s their fame, that they are great because they are famous. You ask young people what they want to be in life and many will reply, “Famous. I’d like to be famous,” and all the hyped talent shows on TV reflect this craving for fame. Many weep if they don’t get through to the next round; they have lost their one opportunity for fame. But concerning the company of men and women who are famous, how many of them have also done awesome deeds? Jehovah had fame, but he’d also done awesome deeds. Many famous people are simply famous for being famous. They’re admired for an image that has nothing to do with who they really are.

Tom Cruise has made millions as a movie star. He has an image of being strong and romantic. But what has he actually accomplished? He really isn’t a secret agent licensed to kill terrorists; he’s an actor who puts on makeup and does a lot of pretending in front of a camera. Tom Cruise is not the ultimate lover; beyond his romantic image the truth is that he couldn’t make a woman happy long enough to keep a marriage going. But the world is so crazy about movie stars that it thinks men in makeup are macho, and that stars who go through a trail of ruined relationships are romantic men.

Now, I’m not knocking Tom Cruise or any other celebrity. I’m just knocking what people call fame. Most celebrities would agree that the way people think of them has nothing to do with who they really are as individuals. They find it laughable that people make such a big deal of them. They’re not any different from us. They are sinners; they have the same struggles that we have, and they also have the same value and dignity as human beings made in God’s image. Any talents they possess have more to do with that divine image than with the image the public has of them, and each one of us is made in the likeness of God.

Many teenagers dream of people one day coming up to them and saying these words of Habakkuk, “I have heard of your fame” They fancy being worshipped themselves. Unbelievers don’t worship God, so they hero worship famous people as a substitute, and the ultimate dream is being worshipped by others, hundreds of girls screaming their names. They are so desperate for some link with famous people that they’ll do almost anything to meet them in person or wear their brand of athletic shoes. They want a share in their glory. You see, all men and women are designed to take part in Another’s glory, in reality, in the glory of God himself. God has made man to know the glory of God and if man refuses to see it then he will find a substitute glory. Blessed Habakkuk had actually seen God’s greatness, “Lord, I have heard of your fame; I stand in awe of your deeds, O Lord” (v.2). Habakkuk stood in awe of all that God had done.

  1. GOD IS FAMOUS BECAUSE OF ALL HIS DEEDS.

What has God done that makes us awestruck before him?

i] God Created Everything. Here’s the opening verse of Genesis 1: “In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth . . .”.  That’s real fame, to have made everything! You know, I’ve often heard people say that this passage from Genesis should be read mythically. ‘Genesis 1 is myth,’ they say.  They believe that every nation in the ancient world had its myths about how things came to be, and this is Israel’s version.  But the truth is, myth is precisely what this passage is not!  Genesis 1 is anti-myth.  Indeed, one of the reasons that chapter is placed there at the very beginning of Genesis is to take on the creation myths of the nations around Israel.

Let me give you a taste of pagan mythology describing the origin of the earth. In the Babylonian creation myth we meet Apsu, the goddess of fresh water, Tiamat, the goddess of the sea, and Mummu, the god of mist.  You also meet Marduk, who slays the sea goddess Tiamat.  With one half of her body, he forms the sky and with the other half of her body he forms the earth. Then you learn of Kingu, the husband of Tiamat, who also is slain. From his blood is formed men and women, who are assigned the role of performing meaningful tasks for the gods.  Now that, men and women, is myth!  Earth, sky, sea – everything is deified. The world is considered to be full of gods and goddesses who do battle against each other – often to the great injury of mankind.

Or check out Germanic creation stories; Germanic paganism reports that the giant Ymir was murdered by Odin and his brothers.  From his corpse the world was made. The sea is made of his blood and the sky is made from his skull. The world is thought to have had that gruesome beginning, formed out of battles among the gods.  This is the stuff of myth! But now read again the first chapter of Genesis 1. Consider how factual and down-to-earth is the Bible’s message: “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.” In the first chapter of Genesis, there is not many gods but one. In the first chapter of Genesis, the sea is not a god or goddess, but simply a body of water, filled with fish. In the first chapter of Genesis, the sun, moon, and stars are not deities that influence the course of human life – there is no basis for astrology here – but merely lights so that we can figure out when it’s time to get up and time to go to bed, when it’s time to plant the fields and time to reap the harvest.

No, the first chapter of Genesis is not mythology.  Instead, the opening verses of Genesis took on the paganisms of the ancient world. In fact, that opening chapter is also taking on all the recycled pagan cosmologies of today.  Listen, says Genesis, the world is not divine. The universe is not ultimate; it’s not eternal. No, the cosmos is a creation. The God that we are dealing with in Scripture is the personal Creator, the God who speaks, the Maker of heaven and earth! He has made each one of us in his image, and so what talent and brilliance many people display. They owe it all to God. How mighty is our God! What fame for God! Have you heard of it? Do you stand in awe of earth’s glorious Creator? Hear Habakkuk as he extols the magnificence of God; “His glory covered the heavens and his praise filled the earth. His splendour was like the sunrise; rays flashed from his hand, where his power was hidden” (vv.3&4). God created everything.

ii] God Cares for Everything. It is not that God wound up the world and let it tick away for millennia while he busied himself with heaven. The world he created is the world he cares for. We all live and move and have our being in a caring God. Every good and perfect thing that is ours is God’s personal loving gift to us. Let me tell you this story to illustrate God’s care for us. Leonard Sweet, in his book Soul Salsa tells of a tribe of American Indians that had an unusual ritual for training and testing young warriors.  On the night of a boy’s 13th birthday, he would be blindfolded and led out of the familiar surroundings of home and family deep into the dense forest.  By the time he took off his blindfold, he’d be miles away, in complete darkness, all alone. That’s how he would spend the entire night. Can you imagine what that would be like?  With every twig snap, with each rustle of leaves or movement of branches, he’d wonder at thirteen years of age, what dangers there might be, lurking, watching, ready to pounce?  Undoubtedly, it would be a terrifying night.

Sometimes life feels like that kind of experience. The world itself can seem a foreign, dangerous, lonely place at times. A doctor’s diagnosis that contains the word ‘cancer’; failure in business, the loss of a job, burying a child – these are lonely, wilderness experiences, that can devastate us.  But we’ve all seen some people of great faith not only survive but even grow through the most harrowing of life experiences. What is it that makes the difference? What does it take to make it through the dark night, to see the dawn of a new morning?

Think again of that lonely and frightened 13 year-old Indian left in the woods.  Eventually, of course, the morning came, and when the first shafts of dawn’s light broke into the forest, the young man would be startled to see the dimly discerned outline of a figure in the shadows. A man. A familiar man. His own father. He had been there the whole night long, right next to him, his bow and arrow at the ready, prepared to meet any danger that might come to his son.

God cares for every one of his people like that, saying, “Lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world.” He is ever present for us, even when things don’t turn out well, even when we can’t see the happy ending. He was right alongside those three young men in Babylon when they were thrown into the fiery furnace. The Son of Man was with them walking in the furnace. Consider how this story would have been heard in the ears of the listeners for whom it was first intended. Where could they find comfort, these Old Testament Christian exiles?  Where could they turn to find hope for any kind of future? They had offended and rejected the only God who saves. Then they hear this story of fellow-countrymen who in Babylon trusted God, come what may, and immediately he refused to abandon them. They could find both hope and comfort as they listened to the story of the God who stuck to Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego in their fiery trial.

God was faithful; he hadn’t saved them from the fires of exile, but he was present and walking there among them in Babylon. He was purifying his people, burning away their sinful rebellion like a refiner’s fire. That is what he was doing to you during your trial; it was a sign of God’s own great faithfulness. He was determined to improve you. The people of God are going to survive – that’s the message – a God who delivers and saves his people. See in our text how Habakkuk rejoices in this, “You came out to deliver your people, to save your anointed one,” (v.13). What fame for the God who cares! We stand in awe of his deeds.

When, in 1940, our troops were surrounded by the German armies at Dunkirk, our fate seemed sealed. In fact the British commander sent a short message to headquarters. It consisted of three words of Scripture, which showed how much knowledge of the Bible existed sixty seven years ago. The message was taken from Daniel 3, in the Authorised Version of course: “But if not . . .” The three believers were ready to be thrown into the fiery furnace knowing God was able to deliver them from the flames, “but if he did not” . . . they would still remain faithful. Whatever happened God still cared for them.

iii] God Will Judge Everyone.

Babylon was mighty; look back to the first chapter and Jehovah’s description of the Babylonian army. Who could withstand such a mighty military machine? The most powerful army in the world; let us read it again “I am raising up the Babylonians, that ruthless and impetuous people, who sweep across the whole earth to seize dwelling-places not their own. They are a feared and dreaded people; they are a law to themselves and promote their own honour. Their horses are swifter than leopards, fiercer than wolves at dusk. Their cavalry gallops headlong; their horsemen come from afar. They fly like a vulture swooping to devour; they all come bent on violence. Their hordes advance like a desert wind and gather prisoners like sand. They deride kings and scoff at rulers. They laugh at all fortified cities; they build earthen ramps and capture them. Then they sweep past like the wind and go on – guilty men, whose own strength is their god” (Hab. 1:6-11). What do you notice about it? It is the repetition of the plural form, ‘they . . . them . . . their.’ Babylon boasts in its many, but Israel makes her boast in one alone, and that one is the infinite and almighty God.

See the answer to the power of Babylon in this prayer of Habakkuk in chapter three and notice the repetition of the singular forms, ‘he’ and ‘him’ and ‘his’; “Plague went before him; pestilence followed his steps. He stood, and shook the earth; he looked, and made the nations tremble. The ancient mountains crumbled and the age-old hills collapsed. His ways are eternal. I saw the tents of Cushan in distress, the dwellings of Midian in anguish.” (vv.5-7). You see God’s hounds of war running before and after him, they are called ‘plague’ and ‘pestilence.’ Do you see that it takes just one look from Jehovah for the nations of the world to tremble? The very mountains and hills crumble as he approaches. The powerful nomadic Bedouin-like tribes, Cushan and Midian, are overwhelmed with anguish.

But then notice something else, how there is a grammatical change in the eighth verse. Do you notice the indication that that verse begins a new paragraph? What is happening there? Instead of Habakkuk and the people telling one another about the Lord’s power, now Habakkuk turns and addresses the Lord himself. Our God is a God you can speak to, and even talk with about his great works of judgments. Remember Abraham confronted with the Lord about to judge Sodom? Abraham had a family living in Sodom; he may have known some people living there who might have been righteous men. Abraham talks to the Lord about his intention of condemning Sodom. “Then Abraham approached the Lord and said: ‘Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked? What if there are fifty righteous people in the city? Will you really sweep it away and not spare the place for the sake of the fifty righteous people in it? Far be it from you to do such a thing – to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and the wicked alike. Far be it from you! Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?’” (Gen. 18:23-25). You can speak to the Lord about his judgments, and he won’t get angry with you; he will listen and answer.

So here in the eighth verse Habakkuk turns to God and he speaks to him about God’s judgments coming upon the whole cosmos, rivers, seas, mountains, the deep with its foaming waves, sun, moon and the lightning, and they all tremble at God’s judgments. See how Habakkuk describes the universe roaring and writhing as God comes near: “Were you angry with the rivers, O LORD? Was your wrath against the streams? Did you rage against the sea when you rode with your horses and your victorious chariots? You uncovered your bow, you called for many arrows. Selah. You split the earth with rivers; the mountains saw you and writhed. Torrents of water swept by; the deep roared and lifted its waves on high. Sun and moon stood still in the heavens at the glint of your flying arrows, at the lightning of your flashing spear. In wrath you strode through the earth and in anger you threshed the nations. You came out to deliver your people, to save your anointed one. You crushed the leader of the land of wickedness, you stripped him from head to foot. Selah. With his own spear you pierced his head when his warriors stormed out to scatter us, gloating as though about to devour the wretched who were in hiding. You trampled the sea with your horses, churning the great waters.” (vv. 8-15).

Habakkuk rejoices in the justice of God; he uses references to everything these people could see around them to charge their consciences vividly with the impending judgment of God. You remember how Handel describes the wicked singing confidently to a merry tune, “All we like sheep have gone astray we have turned each one to his own way.” Then comes the aria, “He shall dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.” That is exactly Habakkuk here; “you crushed the leader of the land of wickedness, you stripped him from head to foot . . . with his own spear you pierced his head” (vv. 13&14). Almost everybody likes a prophet once he’s dead. It’s the ones who are alive that we don’t like very much. It’s easy to say we would have really repented if we’d heard the preaching of a Jeremiah or an Amos or a John the Baptist or Jesus. But when we’re confronted by the voice of God in our own time coming through a man we address by his first name, and he is the one who challenges us to repent of the sins that we cling to and make excuses for, then repentance is another story. In many of our churches, if a preacher stood up and preached a sermon on God’s judgment like Habakkuk, or John the Baptist, or Jesus to the Pharisees, he’d soon be out looking for a new job or the congregation would greatly diminish. We are all the same, admiring great prophets and reformers like Savonarola and John Knox from a distance – now that they’re gone – but what we want in our own pulpit is a person who is nice, sociable, easy to get along with. We won’t come out and say it, but what many of us really want is a wimp. We want a tame religion, not the fierce, challenging reality of the living God. We want Rev. Pussy Cat, not Dr. Lion from the Tribe of Judah.

A prophet of God is not a nice person telling other nice people how to be even nicer. Zechariah wasn’t stoned to death for saying, “I’m OK, you’re OK.” Jeremiah wasn’t thrown into a deep cistern up to his waist in slime for saying, “Something good is going to happen to you.” John the Baptist didn’t get his head cut off for saying, “Smile, God loves you.” Jesus wasn’t crucified for saying, “What you folks really need is more self-esteem.”

God’s spokesmen in the past weren’t simply ‘nice’ people, and they didn’t always say nice things. Jesus himself wasn’t always a ‘nice’ person. His words were often harsh, bordering on cruel, but Jesus was cruel to be kind. He loved people too much to stand by idly while they destroyed themselves trying to prove they were already good enough without him. When Jesus finished thundering out his seven woes to the Pharisees, his eyes began to fill with tears and his voice cracked: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing” (Matt. 23:37). Behind Jesus’ fierce anger lay his tender love. He saw these people marching toward destruction, so he sounded the alarm, and pleaded with them to come to him and wept when they refused.

Don’t make the same mistake. Don’t expect a true spokesman from God to be just a nice person telling other nice people how to be even nicer. The gospel tells you that you are wicked, that your heart is full of corruption and mixed motives, that you need to be forgiven and transformed. If you think you’re basically a good person and merit God’s approval, woe to you! You’re still outside the kingdom of heaven, and you’re probably also shutting the kingdom in the faces of others. No matter how good you look, no matter what others may see, your heart is corrupt.

The only way you will ever enter the kingdom of heaven is to repent of your sin and to plead for God’s mercy and forgiveness. You must put your faith in Jesus and in the blood he shed to pay for your sins. Your inner deadness must be replaced by the life of God’s Holy Spirit.

Jesus came to save sinners. Christianity is for sinners only. People who think they are already good enough to deserve God’s approval needn’t apply. The church of Jesus is the place to be confronted with our sin and comforted by God’s grace which is greater than all our sins. The church is not a place to congratulate ourselves on how good we are. Any church that forgets this truth needs to be reformed. Any individual who forgets this truth needs to be reborn.

  1. MAY GOD REMEMBER MERCY.

Let us go back to the beginning of this chapter and the text that Habakkuk announces; “I stand in awe of your deeds, O LORD. Renew them in our day, in our time make them known; in wrath remember mercy” (v.2). The people of God had become ungodly idol-worshippers. They had rejected Jeremiah’s preaching for forty years, and finally God sent in the Babylonian army to destroy the city, and the temple, to level both to the ground. He took the people into Babylonian captivity for seventy years so that whole generation perished. This was God’s will and Habakkuk knew it, however, Habakkuk had no right to wish for its fulfillment. He had no encouragement from God to rejoice in the destruction of Jerusalem. He had no divine permission to get excited as he prophesied this message, giving it with a smile on his face and a longing in his heart, saying, “I told you so.” Judgment was the will of God, and yet it could not be prophesied except with a heavy heart because it was so terrible.

You find that again and again in Scripture, that the word of doom in preaching ought not to be declared with a loving lingeringness – as if we were longing to see damnation come upon the heads of those to whom we proclaimed it. I will say today that there are men and women reading this on the road to destruction. I believe that that is true, but I have no reason to gloat about that. You might remember how Isaiah says, “Lord if this message which I have to preach is going to be overwhelmingly refused by those who hear it, and that that is your plan, I just have one question for you . . . how long must I go on preaching it?” That’s the right attitude.

You will remember that the Lord Christ predicted the fall and judgment of Jerusalem. When he saw the city he wept over it; in the very moment of declaring its doom he cried, “I would have gathered you as a hen gathers its brood under its wings, but you would not.” You also remember how Paul was stoned and whipped and beaten with rods by the Jews and yet his heart’s desire and prayer to God for Israel was that they should be saved. He could wish himself accursed that they might be blessed. There was one Monday when the two Scottish preachers Andrew Bonar and Robert Murray M’Cheyne met, and Bonar asked M’Cheyne what he had preached on the previous day. “On hell,” said M’Cheyne. “Did you preach it tenderly?” asked Bonar.

Now that is exactly Habakkuk’s attitude. Have you noticed this, what he says as he finished describing the mighty judgments of God? “I heard and my heart pounded, my lips quivered at the sound; decay crept into my bones and my legs trembled. Yet I will wait patiently for the day of calamity to come on the nation invading us” (v.16). The prophet was overwhelmed with the cosmic vista of the judgments to come. Come they would; and he would wait patiently for them, but how overwhelmed he felt at the fact. Yes, the Babylonians were patently immoral, ungodly, and viscious men. There was no question of that. They were steeped in vice; they were an abomination in the eyes of God. They would get what was coming to them. They were sunk deep in degradation, merciless cruelty and violence, and yet Habakkuk trembled at the thought of what was going to happen to them. His lips quivered, and he was about to weep. He could hardly stand. Habakkuk was an authentic prophet wasn’t he?

You and I need to shake ourselves because we can lose all credibility as the body of Christ if our own hearts cease pounding, and our lips stop quivering, and our legs no longer tremble. Did Habakkuk believe that those Babylonians were men, actual men? Yes. Did he believe that they had souls? Yes. Did he believe that they were immortal? Yes. Did he believe that when the day of judgment came that their eternities would be fixed, never to be changed again? Yes. Did he believe that most of them were on the road to perdition? Yes. Yet did he believe that there was still time before God came, the plague going before him and the pestilence following God’s steps? Then let Habakkuk’s heart pound and his lips quiver and his legs tremble! Let him preach the mercy of God to them. Let Habakkuk get involved, and let me get involved, and let all of us be involved. Knowing therefore the terrors of the Lord let us persuade men. Let us cry to God, “In wrath remember mercy.” Abraham prayed like that over Sodom, and Habakkuk prayed it over Israel, and Jesus over Jerusalem, and Paul over his fellow-countrymen, and shouldn’t we pray it over Aberystwyth? For everyone who confesses his sins and comes in faith to Jesus Christ for salvation, God will in no wise cast them out.

There is no soul reading these words who has the right to say that there’s no possibility of forgiveness for me, because no matter how deviant your life has been, no matter how monstrous, no matter how carnal, sad and hypocritical yet with the Lord there is forgiveness and with him is plenteous redemption. He pledges to every soul that comes to him through Jesus Christ, even at the eleventh hour, “I will be your God and you will be my people.” Upon that commitment God never goes back. From that time forth no creature shall be able to separate him from the love of God which is in Jesus Christ our Lord.

To God we cry, “In your wrath remember mercy! Never forget your covenant mercy O Lord!” We dare to say those things to God and to remind the world about him, a God who is pitiful, and longsuffering, a God of steadfast covenant love, but perhaps above all, because it is our world’s most desperate need, the God who IS.

2nd December 2007  GEOFF THOMAS