Habakkuk 3:17-19 “Though the fig-tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD, I will be joyful in God my Saviour. The Sovereign LORD is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer, he enables me to go on the heights. For the director of music. On my stringed instruments.”
Habakkuk’s prophecy ends on this wonderful positive note, and we all love these words. This is like being at a family conference that has to end with a message of encouragement so that everyone goes home singing. I believe that there’s a place for uplifting and inspirational preaching, and the last session of a conference is one such place. Yet the truth is that most of you will never hear again seven messages on the book of Habakkuk, even though it is all Spirit-breathed Scripture, and the likelihood is that if you should hear a sermon on this book then it is likely to be on these last three verses. Men claim that they are Bible believing preachers, and that they preach on all of Scripture, and yet they never take their congregations through the whole Word of God and let it teach, reprove, correct and instruct in righteousness, and yet that is why God breathed it out. Such men are selective, and what they select are the most evangelical passages of Scripture. They believe in Jesus Christ and yet they choose to preach on his messages of comfort and encouragement, and neglect his teaching on hell, or mortification, or his woes to the Pharisees, or his claims to be the one who chooses us, not that we choose him. The ‘Jesus’ whom many men believe in is more an extension of their own ideas than the Jesus of the Bible. Such men often say nothing that’s wrong but they omit many things that are right and necessary.
Think of chemotherapy and how some of the chemicals that go into a vein and spread through your body to check the spread of a disease can make you nauseous and cause you to lose your appetite and your hair. Should a doctor remove those elements from the potion? Should he claim he is doing so out of compassion so that a more benign mixture enters your system and you can say afterwards, “That wasn’t too bad”? No! He is not being your friend doing that, because the disease is not checked by a diluted compound. That doctor would be killing you by failing to give you all the necessary ingredients. So it is with the word of God. We need everything that is in Habakkuk, and everything that Jesus said, the warnings and the claims to sovereignty and the exhortations to repentance, as well as the wonderful positive words of encouragement.
This Habakkuk is the one who begins by telling us that he complained to the Lord that God was doing nothing in the land so that evil was controlling everything, and the Lord had replied, “Doing nothing? I am the one sending in the mighty Babylonian army to destroy Jerusalem and take captive the people of God.” God is revealed as one who is sovereign chastiser of his people, and chastise them he does.
1. HABAKKUK SUFFERS THE RESULT OF GOD’S JUDGMENT.
“The fig-tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines . . . the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food . . . there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls” (v.17). The Babylonian army has come into Israel , displayed a scorched earth policy and sent out parties of marauders day by day. They have taken everything within a thirty mile radius of Jerusalem to feed their troops who are laying siege to the city. Now there is nothing left. The old farmer lying in bed sends his son to see if there are any fruit on the fig-tree, but the drought has meant the tree has not even budded. “No figs father,” the son says. “Go to the vineyard and pick some grapes for me,” but they have all been plundered by the Babylonians. “What of the olive crop, son?” The boy goes and returns with the message that olives have failed this year. “Take your sickle and cut some wheat or barley from the fields.” The lad goes but he can find no crops in a single field. The father says, “What about the sheep and the goats and the heifers?” The son shakes his head. They have all been driven off by the Babylonian army. There is nothing left at all. Israel has been stripped of its beauty, productivity and joy. The nation is starving to death both in besieged Jerusalem and in the countryside around, the economy is broken and the landscape barren.
“If you enter this land,” God had told Abraham and his seed 1400 years earlier than Habakkuk, “you will find it to be one whose valleys flow with milk and honey.” What we find here in this desolation could hardly further from that promise. What has happened? Has God failed to keep his word? No, but there were not only promises of unimaginable blessing to the seed of Abraham, but of unspeakable judgment if they turned from God. The choice was starkly set before them. Obedience brought blessing; defiance brought barrenness and exile. There was that great scene as the people crossed the Jordan and went into the promised land. They entered a valley, and on one side of it was Mount Gerizim where six of the tribes were directed to stand, and then on the other side of the valley was Mount Ebal where the other six tribes were told to stand. One mountainside stood for the place of God’s blessing and the other mountainside the place of God’s curse. Their future as the people of God would either be one of blessing or cursing. One or the other, where would each stand? All the people had been forced to take one side or the other. You cannot stand on two mountains each side of a valley at the same time – unless you happened to be a giant a mile high. Where does everyone here stand? Is yours going to be a life under the curse of God or under his blessing? So the people found themselves split into two.
Then we are told, the Levites recited to all the people of Israel with a loud voice a list of unacceptable activities which would result in God’s judgment falling upon them, beginning with, “‘Cursed is the man who carves an image or casts an idol – a thing detestable to the LORD, the work of the craftsman’s hands – and sets it up in secret.’ Then all the people shall say, ‘Amen!’” There were many such curses for sinful behaviour (Deut. 27:14&15). Then the blessings for obedience were pronounced, “If you fully obey the LORD your God and carefully follow all his commands that I give you today, the LORD your God will set you high above all the nations on earth. All these blessings will come upon you and accompany you if you obey the LORD your God: You will be blessed in the city and blessed in the country. The fruit of your womb will be blessed, and the crops of your land and the young of your livestock – the calves of your herds and the lambs of your flocks. Your basket and your kneading trough will be blessed. You will be blessed when you come in and blessed when you go out” (Deut. 28:1-6). You all have a stark choice before you; it is either the way of fruitfulness by doing the Lord’s will or the way of barreness which is the consequence of doing things your way. The people had chosen defiance and the result was poverty, famine and starvation and that is what Habakkuk sees.
2. HABAKKUK REJOICES IN GOD EVEN WHEN ALL HIS COMFORTS ARE WITHDRAWN.
Habakkuk makes this extraordinary affirmation; “yet I will rejoice in the LORD, I will be joyful in God my Saviour” (v.18). Here is the note of determination, and almost of defiance. Habakkuk is joyful, and that is not based on a perfect harvest, or herds of sheep filling the fields, or the end of hostilities and peace with Babylon . It is not dependent on any change of circumstances at all. There is still a famine all around; there are still armed marauders stealing one’s possessions; the cupboard is still bare; the possibility of slavery in Babylonian exile still hangs over this family, and yet the people are not despondent. They are rejoicing. How can you explain this? It is simply that their joy was in the Lord, in God their Saviour. Let us break that down a little;
i] They were rejoicing in the coming of the Lord. God had said that the seed of the woman would come and he would bruise the serpent’s head. God would send a Messiah, the seed of Abraham, and that through him all the nations of the earth would be blessed. Great David’s greater Son would reign for ever and ever. God had said through the prophet Isaiah that his anointed servant would appear, that a virgin would conceive and bear a child, that he would be Immanuel, God with us, that his name would be wonderful counsellor, the mighty God, the everlasting Father and the prince of peace. He was certainly going to come and Habakkuk could rejoice in that assurance whatever the state of his crops and herds.
ii] They were rejoicing in the sacrificial death of the Lord. Isaiah said the coming Lord would be a man of sorrows, a suffering servant, because the Lord would lay on him the iniquity of us all. He would see of the travail of his soul and be satisfied. The lambs that were slain every day as sacrifices were simply types of the Lamb of God who one day would come and deal not with Israel ’s sin but the iniquity of sinners everywhere.
There was once a man from Ethiopia who was in the cabinet of the Queen of that nation named Candace. He travelled to Jerusalem in his carriage and worshipped God there. He purchased some Old Testament prophecies in large scrolls and he was a literate man and a linguist and so was able to read them. He was eager to know what they said because even as he was sitting in the moving chariot travelling back to Africa he was reading his new purchase aloud, but he couldn’t understand what was the meaning of those Scriptures. He was reading aloud these words, “He was led like a sheep to the slaughter, and as a lamb before the shearer is silent, so he did not open his mouth. In his humiliation he was deprived of justice. Who can speak of his descendants? For his life was taken from the earth” (Isaiah 53:7&8 as quoted in Acts 8:32&33). One of the early Christians called Philip was guided to that spot by God and he heard the Ethiopian read those words. “Do you understand what you are reading?” Philip asked him. “How can I?” he said, “unless someone explains it to me?” So he invited Philip to come up and sit with him. Philip began at the very passage of Scripture, and he told this African the good news of Jesus.
Here in the Old Testament, one of its 39 books was written by the prophet Isaiah. It speaks of God’s suffering Servant who would be put to death, but not for his own sins: “All we like sheep have gone astray, we have turned every one to his own way, and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isa. 53:6). And when Philip heard such words being read aloud he spoke to the man from Ethiopia about Jesus. In other words, the Lord Jesus Christ was the one being spoken of by Isaiah. He fulfilled this prophecy in an extraordinarily detailed way.
When Isaiah and Habakkuk were alive they needed to sacrifice a lamb in atonement for his sins. But those sacrifices were weak sacrifices: they in themselves – as the blood of animals – could not take away the guilt of our sin. They were simply pointing forward to a time when the Lord, the Lamb of God would come, and he would actually do that. He takes away our sins as far as the east is from the west. When Philip Hacking was training for the Anglican ministry he was staying with some non-Anglican Christians, and one man in particular would test Philip Hacking with questions. One was this: “Tell me, Philip, why does this psalm say ‘as far as the east is from the west’ and not ‘as far as the north is from the south’”? Philip said, “I’ve no idea.” The man said, “Well, it’s fairly obvious really, You see, there is the North Pole and there is the South Pole, and you can measure the distance. But where is west? And where is east?” That was his simple explanation, and he was fumbling for a great truth, that what Christ has done on Golgotha has taken our guilt and shame from us an immeasurable distance. They are all gone from us, and we cannot even begin to describe how far that is. They are all gone from us so that we will never see them again. You and I in Christ are utterly forgiven, not because of our love for Jesus but simply because of his grace and the work he did by himself on the cross. Every trace of them is gone. All the memory of them is removed from the mind of God There is no shadow of fear that these sins will ever be brought back and charged to us again. Satan himself cannot bring them back. Our sins have been cleansed and forgiven; they have been taken away. There is no sin that has been excluded from the work of Christ. We can rejoice always in that.
iii] They were rejoicing that the Lord lives today. The crops are dead; the fruit is dead; all the animals are dead, but the Lord is risen and lives – he who came and gave his life for us, and so the Christian is neither the prisoner of his present nor the slave of his past. A real Christian is someone who has a living, growing relationship with Jesus Christ. When we rejoice it is not at the memory of the Lord, or the teaching of the Lord, or even the example of the Lord. We rejoice because he is alive and with us today. When he cried ‘Finished!’ on the cross it was his work, not his life that was finished. The one who died was raised from the dead on the third day, and appeared to his people, and then after 40 days ascended to heaven. We know where he is this moment: he is at the right hand of God, and, because he is God, he also comes and meets with us when we gather in his name. In other words, the Lord Jesus Christ is here now. When we speak to him in prayer we are speaking to a real living person. It is as if he were standing alongside me in the pulpit listening to me as I pray on behalf of you all. When we sing to him we are singing praise and love to a living person.
In heaven the King of love is sitting on his throne, and that is the proof that his work is all completed, and has been completely accepted. God is not saying to him, “Son, prepare for another return visit to suffer and atone for what you failed to atone for on your first visit.” No, it is “Sit at my right hand.” It is, “There is no need for you ever to leave me again, my beloved Son. I am giving you a name that is above every name.” Christians hope is to see this Christ, and be with him. There was a little Christian boy, seriously ill, and someone said to him, “Where are you going?” “To heaven,” he said. “Do you want to go there?” “Oh yes,” he replied. “Why?” “Because Jesus is there.” “But what if Jesus should leave heaven?” this person asked to test him. The little chap wasn’t phased: “Oh, I’d leave with him,” he said. Heaven is Jesus Christ, being with him. Later on that sick boy was asked if he wanted anything. “I’d like a golden crown,” he said. “What would you do with a golden crown?” they said. “I’d put it at the feet of Christ,” he said. The devil tells us a lie when he says to us the life will never be better than it is now. It is my hope looking forward and my confidence looking back that things are going to become far better than our fears imagine. God is going to work all things together for our good.
iv] They were rejoicing because the Lord was in control of everything that happened.
What does the Lord do there in heaven? He is in control of things. David could say, “The Lord is my shepherd, and so I shall not be in want.” The mighty Messiah is in charge of everything that happens in the universe: every explosion on the face of the sun; every sparrow that falls to the ground; every birth; every death; every marriage; every estrangement; every pleasure; every pain that men know. All these things are in the mind of Christ and he rules the universe, determining its movements and its every change
The living Christ is the Lord of providence, that is, he preserves and governs every creature and every action. He is at the helm of this world and he is guiding it through space. He is bringing this great cosmos to its appointed destination. When things are at their most chaotic, Jesus is still in control. When prayer seems to be unanswered, our God reigns. When Twin Towers are destroyed by evil men and loved ones are killed, Christ still has all authority in heaven and earth. The Carpenter of Nazareth is building coffins for his enemies. When our worst fears are realised, our Lord is still the King of kings. He is head over all things to the church, and head of the church. Whatever is good for the children of God we shall have it. If crosses are good we shall have them. If disgrace is good we shall have that. If embarrassment is good we shall have that. If failure is good we shall fail. If heartache and rejection is good we shall have that, because the main good for every Christian is to be conformed to the image of the Lord Jesus. Christ-likeness is the one great end of our lives, and to further that the Lord will send into our lives whatsoever he chooses. There are those memorable words of John Newton said, “Everything is needful that he sends. Nothing is needful that he withholds.” Every day is his workmanship. Not for a moment does he step down from the throne of the universe so that fate momentarily rules amidst angels and men. I only get what the Lord determines. I will never get what evil alone determines, or what chance alone determines. The Lord Jesus has all authority in heaven and on earth. I rejoice in the living Lord who is in control. Rejoicing in the Lord means rejoicing that in the worst of all times and the best of all times our Saviour lives and he is in control of everything that is happening to me now, and that he is saving me to the uttermost because he ever lives to intercede for me.
3. HABAKKUK WAS CONVINCED THAT IN THE FUTURE GOD WOULD KEEP HIM.
The prophet looks ahead and he says, “The Sovereign LORD is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer, he enables me to go on the heights” (v.19). Habakkuk made his relationship with God so personal; “Sovereign Jehovah is my strength,” he said. That was the secret of his whole life; he had a personal relationship with God and he had been transformed from within. He had been strengthened with new resources, new desires, a new purpose and new meaning of the meaning of life. We would flood this passage with the New Testament and say that he had been made a new man in Christ Jesus. Through the Holy Spirit God had given him the gracious potential to live as a son of God in this world. When he experienced a surge of sinful weakness dragging him down he clung to God’s strength all the more. He went back to God again and again, and so the resources of God were given to him increasingly.
Christians believe that the same Spirit of God which raised Jesus Christ from the dead is actually dwelling in them, in every single one of them. There is no greater power in the whole universe than that; the very energy of God is active in their lives. Ask a Christian what makes him live for the unseen things of God, so that the things of eternity are more valuable to him than the things of time, even more valuable than his own life? He will tell you, “The Spirit of Jesus Christ indwells us. We are loved by a love that will not let us go. We keep going back to God even in the toughest times, ‘though the fig tree does not bud, and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls yet I will rejoice in the Lord” (v17). We deserve nothing and God has justly brought his judgments upon us, yet he has put us in the situation today where he is our strength, and he keeps strengthening us. The Sovereign Lord who is our Father loves us, and he’ll never set our feet where our faith will fail. He rules this vast universe and controls all the circumstances of our lives, and he deeply cares for us, so that God is as likely to ill-treat us as to ill treat his own Son. In fact he is strengthening us and enabling us to do everything through him who gives us the strength. I live, and yet not I but his strength lives through me.
That is the wonder of the Christian life; it is not a life I live all by myself and by my own power; neither is it a life in which the ‘I’ – my unique identity and personality made by God – is obliterated and I watch Christ doing everything. No, I am strong as I appropriate his strength and so I can do everything through God’s enabling. Dr Lloyd-Jones preaches on the text from Philippians, “I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me;” saying, “I wonder if I can best put this by telling you how an old preacher, famous in the last century, once put it when preaching on this very text. Those old preachers used sometimes to preach in a very dramatic way. They would have a kind of dialogue with the apostle in the pulpit. So this old preacher began to preach on this text in this way: ‘I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me.’ ‘Wait a minute, Paul, what did I hear you say?’ ‘I can do all things.’ ‘Paul, surely that is boasting, surely you are just claiming that you are a superman?’ ‘No, no, I can do all things.’
“Well, the old preacher kept up the dialogue. He questioned Paul and quoted every statement made by Paul in which he says that he is the least of all saints, etc. ‘You are generally so humble, Paul, but now you say, “I can do all things,” haven’t you started boasting?’ And then at last Paul says: ‘I can do all things through Christ.’ ‘Oh, I’m sorry,’ said the old preacher, ‘I beg your pardon, Paul. I didn’t realise there were two of you.’
Now I think that puts it perfectly. ‘I can do all things through Christ.’ ‘There are two of you.’ Not I only, not Christ only, but Christ and me, two of us.” (D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Sermons on Philippians, p.224). “The Sovereign Lord is my strength” (v.19).
Then you see what Habakkuk says, “He makes my feet like the feet of a deer, he enables me to go on the heights” (v.19). What a wonderful picture. The deer darts through the forest; it doesn’t crash into a tree trunk; its feet don’t slip as it jumps from rock to rock going up the side of a precipice. It is a model of sure-footedness and vitality. God promised to make us go through life like that! Think of it! The devil will cast many stumbling blocks in our way, but we’ll leap over them. Think of Joseph in Potiphar’s household and the possibility of a calamitous fall. Joseph is standing on the edge of a precipice. Will he fall to his death? No! God makes his feet like the feet of a deer and Joseph runs out of the room without falling. He then goes on to enormous heights, to become prime minister in Egypt . He was tested first in Potiphar’s house, and having come through that he was enabled to go on to great influence and power.
Let me extend that picture to the life of the people of God. Think of the hunting dogs chasing them, the dogs of Babylon , and then of Persia , and then the dogs of Greece and finally of Rome . It is so relentless. How did Israel survive? For centuries she was hunted to the death but her testimony survived. The Seed of the woman was not destroyed because the feet of the remnant were made like the feet of a deer, and then in the fulness of time the promised Messiah came. The people of God were more than conquerors. Today who trembles at Babylon , Persia , Greece or Rome ? But the people who follow Christ fill the whole earth. Walter Chantry points out that “to tread upon high places is the privilege of victors. Warriors would run along the highest ridges overlooking the valleys in which their battles had been won. Later they would ride chariots along the heights. It was very similar to the victory lap of honour in an Olympic race. All this was done to demonstrate their dominance over what lay before them” (Walter Chantry, “Habakkuk: A Book for Times of Extreme Crisis”, Banner of Truth Magazine, December 2007, p. 32).
There are sections of my jorney as I walk along the narrow road that leads to life where I will meet dangers of all kinds. How will I survive? All seems lost. I am bound to fall. The trial seems too great; the burden too heavy for me to carry. I am too weak to carry on. All is lost. No! “The Sovereign LORD is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer, he enables me to go on the heights” (v.19). Think of the experience of Old Testament Christians looking at the animal world around them. So many things spoke to them of God’s power and love. Here they are comforted by the sure-footed deer and they think, “If God does that for a deer, how much will God keep my feet from falling.” Then they looked at an eagle soaring far above the mountains, getting into a current of air and soaring up effortlessly, higher and higher into the sky. He marvels at that, and then he says, “That’s me! That’s the life of the people of God. That’s how God deals with us all. They that wait upon the Lord renew their strength; they mount up with wings as eagles; they run and grow not weary, they walk and don’t faint.”
That is the note on which the prophecy of Habakkuk ends. It begins. “How long will I cry for help? But no, you will not hear.” The prophet is perplexed, but he goes to God and pours out his complaint to the Lord. Then God answers him and changes the prophet so that Habakkuk ends by saying, “Though the fig-tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD, I will be joyful in God my Saviour. The Sovereign LORD is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer, he enables me to go on the heights” (vv. 17-19). What assurance! Here is the full flowering of Habakkuk’s faith. We see him living up to his name of ‘one who clings to the Lord.’ Let things come to their worst the prophet now has such a conviction about the sovereignty of God that this becomes the most important circumstance in life and all else pales into insignificance in comparison. What if our worst fears are realised, what if there are natural disasters and the land is devastated and the population decimated, let the most unimaginable things occur, Habakkuk has been taught by God that the Lord is able to turn black disaster into expectation. God rules on high, Almighty to save and he is near to us, a very present help in trouble. “Yet I will rejoice . . .” says the prophet and that is like the apostle saying, “But God . . .” We bring the plight of man into the context of God’s power and that leaves no room for discouragement, just utter confidence and trust.
9th December 2007 GEOFF THOMAS