Is God Listening?

Original Date: 
Sunday, July 1, 2012

Habakkuk 1:1-11 When Life Doesn’t Make Sense: Is God Listening?

Elie Wiesel experienced the death camps of Birkenau and Auschwitz as a young boy. His memoir, Night, is one of the most respected and renowned pieces of literature concerning the Jewish Holocaust. It is also a devastating story of crushed faith and spiritual darkness.

One of the stories Wiesel relates concerns his Oberkapo, a Dutchman who had over 700 prisoners under his command. This Oberkapo was actually kind to his prisoners. The Oberkapo also had a young boy—a pipel—as they were called who served as a sort of assistant.

One day, a power plant failed and the Gestapo concluded it was sabotage. They found a trail, and it led back to the Oberkapo. When they searched his block, they found a significant quantity of weapons. Both the Oberkapo and the pipel were tortured, but they named no names. The Oberkapo disappeared, but the pipel was condemned to die along with two other inmates who were found armed. Wiesel describes what happened next:

One day, as we returned from work, we saw three gallows….Roll call. The SS surrounding us, machine guns aimed at us: the usual ritual. Three prisoners in chains—and, among them, the little pipel…

The SS seemed more preoccupied, more worried, than usual. To hang a child in front of thousands of onlookers was not a small matter. The head of the camp read the verdict. All eyes were on the child. He was pale, almost calm, but he was biting his lips as he stood in the shadow of the gallows….

The three condemned prisoners stepped onto the chairs. In unison the nooses were placed around their necks.

“Long live liberty!” shouted the two men.

But the boy was silent.

“Where is merciful God, where is He?” someone behind me was asking.

At the signal, the three chairs were tipped over…

Then came the march past the victims. The two men were no longer alive. Their tongues were hanging out, swollen and bluish. But the third rope was still moving: the child, too light, was still breathing…

And so he remained for more than half an hour, lingering between life and death, writhing before our eyes. And we were forced to look at him at close range. He was still alive when I passed him. His tongue was still red, his eyes not yet extinguished.

Behind me, I heard the same man asking:

“For God’s sake, where is God?”

And from with me, I heard a voice answer:

“Where is He? This is where—hanging here from this gallows…” (Night, pgs. 63-65, quoted by Mark Talbot in Suffering and the Sovereignty of God, edited by Piper)

For Wiesel, his experiences during the Holocaust destroyed his faith. And we can see why.

You and I did not go through the Holocaust. We have, at best, only a dim notion of the horrors Wiesel and others endured. And yet, we all live in a world where things like the Holocaust happen. We all live in a world people hurt people in the most astounding ways. In my paper, just this week, I read a story about a mother who locked her 10 year-old daughter in a closet. The story said she knew her daughter was malnourished, so that’s why she locked her up. She was ashamed of what would happen when the authorities found her. So when someone finally did call in a concern, and child welfare services checked, they found a 10 year-old girl who weighed only 30 pounds! Locked in a closet! This is the world we live in!

We live in a world of ethnic strife and ongoing warfare. Another story I read this week talked about how the heads of 17 Pakistanis were found in Afghanistan. Travel in many parts of Mexico is not safe because the Drug Gangs have more power than the police. In Mali, Africa orphanages are overflowing because government unrest is forcing scared parents to search out places of refuge for their kids. That’s our world.

Or, even closer to home. We all know stories of marriages and families that have been ripped apart because one spouse has chosen to cheat. We know stories of drunk drivers veering across lanes and taking innocent lives. In any large crowd there are bound to be people who have experienced abuse or endured rape. Some of these things have happened to us, while we were Christians, even as we were begging God to make it stop.

So why didn’t He? As the man in Wiesel’s story asked: “For God’s sake, where is God?”

The Questioning Prophet
We’re beginning a new series today called When Life Doesn’t Make Sense. And I want to tell you, right up front, that we are probably not going to get answers to those questions. At least, not answers that are going to completely answer all our questions. I’m not promising to explain why child-abuse happens or to give an explanation for the holocaust.

But what we are going to do is look through a book of the Bible that asks these hard questions and wrestles with God. It’s the book of Habakkuk. (I pronounce it hab-ahh-kuk. I used to pronounce it HABBA-kuk, but at seminary it was mostly pronounced hab-ahh-kuk. I’m not really sure if there is a correct pronunciation. It’s one of those: “You say potato, I say spud” sort of deals.)

Habakkuk was a prophet at a tumultuous time in Judah’s history, and he was asking some very tough questions. The book—and it’s just a short little book in a section of the Bible called the Minor Prophets—reads almost like a prayer journal. We get some of Habakkuk’s very personal, very heartfelt thoughts and questions about God—and then we get some of God’s answers.

In fact, let me give you a quick outline of the book of Habakkuk. Here’s pretty much how it goes. It starts with Habakkuk asking some hard questions. He says, “God, where are you? It’s getting pretty rough down here. Aren’t you going to do something?” Then God answers by saying, “Trust me Habakkuk. I’ve got a plan. I’ve got this.” But then, Habakkuk takes a look at God’s plan and he says: “God, I’m not sure I like your plan all that much.” And God answers by saying, “Trust me Habakkuk. I’ve got a plan. I know what I’m doing.” And then, come chapter 3, Habakkuk says: “I’m not completely sure what’s going on. But I’m going to trust God.”

That’s pretty much the whole book, and that’s pretty much the point of the book as well. Even when we aren’t sure what is going on, we can trust God. That’s the message of the book: Trust God.

Walter Kaiser, a Bible commentator, summarizes the book of Habakkuk like this: “Habakkuk has much to teach us…about how, in the face of great difficulties, one can get on with the task of living now, enjoying the deep satisfaction of knowing who God is and that He is able to handle things—come what may!”

So that’s where we’re aiming. We aiming to get to the place where we can trust God—come what may. But on the way, we’re still going to have tough questions. So let’s start there. Habakkuk 1:1-11. We’re going to get Habakkuk’s hard questions and God’s surprising answer.

How Long, O Lord?
The book starts with hard questions. Habakkuk is asking the same questions Elie Wiesel is asking in Night. Verses 1-4:

The oracle that Habakkuk the prophet received.
2 How long, O Lord, must I call for help,
but you do not listen?
Or cry out to you, “Violence!”
but you do not save?
3 Why do you make me look at injustice?
Why do you tolerate wrong?
Destruction and violence are before me;
there is strife, and conflict abounds.
4 Therefore the law is paralyzed,
and justice never prevails.
The wicked hem in the righteous,
so that justice is perverted.

Let me give you a little background on Habakkuk. He was a prophet in Judah at about the same time as the prophet Jeremiah. And the situation in Judah at that time was not good.

In fact, Judah’s deterioration had been a long time coming. It had been a slow but consistent descent into idolatry, social injustice, crime and violence.

There had been a brief flicker of hope when King Josiah took the throne. He found a copy of the law in a temple storage bin and led a revival. Pagan altars were torn down and people turned back to God. Some of you might remember that story. Josiah was a good king. But then he died, and his sons took over. And his sons were somewhat dimmer lights.

The first son made a disastrous alliance with Egypt and ended up being carried away by the Egyptians after only 3 months on the throne. The second son—Jehoiakim—was a puppet of the Egyptians and reversed all of Josiah’s social and religious policies. The prophet Jeremiah says that Jehoikim’s reign is filled with injustice, greed, murder, oppression and violence (Jer. 22:13-19). This is the state of affairs which prompts Habakkuk to ask the questions you see in verses 1-4:

“How long, O Lord?” How long is this going to go on? Destruction and violence, strife and conflict. People are hurting kids. Drunks are fighting in the streets. Families are being torn apart. And the law is paralyzed. The cops come, but they’re just as corrupt as the criminals. The King is the worst of the lot. How long is this going to go on?

Habakkuk’s is theological question. He prays, he calls out for help, but help doesn’t seem to be coming. Is God there? Is God paying attention? As one commentator says: “A silent heaven is the greatest mystery in our existence.” (quoted by FF Bruce in The Minor Prophets, p. 844)

More than that, Habakkuk wonders: “Why do you make me look at injustice?” Here he is, a sinful and mortal man, and he’s tired of reading all the headlines. He’s sick of looking at all the terrible things people do to each other. But he’s wondering, if it bothers him so much—again, he’s a sinful and mortal man—shouldn’t it bother God even more?

Do you ever wonder about that? If we are so troubled by all the hurt and wickedness and wrong—and we’re sinful and mortal—then how much must it bother the Holy and eternal God? Isn’t God just about fed up with it all? Why doesn’t God do something?

Basically, Habakkuk is at the end of his rope. And so he asks the hard questions. He goes to God wonders what is going on.

And I find encouragement in this. I’m glad that the Bible models these hard questions for us.

There is a sort of faith that can be pretty “pollyannish.” You know, always looking at things with rose-colored glasses and saying that if God is in control then everything is fine. As Christians, we can be so scared of making God look bad that we try to always pretend that everything is “GREAT! JUST GREAT!” even when things are not. We feel like our faith means we have to defend God from the idea that we could ever be disappointed.

But the truth is: we live in a fallen, fractured, corrupted world. We live in a world where there is hurt and pain and suffering. And sometimes none of it makes any sense. And when that happens, Habakkuk shows us that we have every right to question God. We have every right to go to God and pour out our hearts and wonder what’s going on. Not to accuse God mind you—Habakkuk never accuses God of anything—but to question Him.

We can ask the hard questions.

But here’s the thing, we might not always like the answers.

Utterly Amazing
God’s surprising answer to Habakkuk begins in verse 5:

5 “Look at the nations and watch—
and be utterly amazed.
For I am going to do something in your days
that you would not believe,
even if you were told.

Now, if you take it out of its context, this verse is the kind of verse you could expect to find on a refrigerator magnet or a wall calendar. God says He’s going to do something utterly amazing. Something that, if I told you about it, you wouldn’t even believe. That sounds like a good thing. It’s not. Verses 6 through 11:

6 I am raising up the Babylonians,

Stop right there. The Babylonians. Are those good guys or bad guys in the Bible? These are bad guys. Anytime the Rolling Stones name an album after your city, you know it’s bad. Babylon is the city chosen in the book of Revelation to represent all evil. The Great Whore Babylon. These are not good guys. So keep reading, God says:

6 I am raising up the Babylonians,
that ruthless and impetuous people,
who sweep across the whole earth
to seize dwelling places not their own.
7 They are a feared and dreaded people;
they are a law to themselves
and promote their own honor.
8 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;
9 they all come bent on violence.
Their hordes advance like a desert wind
and gather prisoners like sand.
10 They deride kings
and scoff at rulers.
They laugh at all fortified cities;
they build earthen ramps and capture them.
11 Then they sweep past like the wind and go on—
guilty men, whose own strength is their god.”

Habakkuk is living in a destructive and violent country. The wicked are winning, the righteous are losing. So he cries out to God: He says, “God, are you gonna do something?”

And God’s answer is: “Yeah, I’m gonna do something. I’m gonna send in the Babylonians.”

Historically speaking, the next thing to happen to Jehoiakim and the people of Judah was that Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonian host invaded. Jehoiakim goes from being an Egyptian puppet to being a Babylonian puppet. Within a couple years he’s replaced by his brother Zedekiah, and within 15 years Jerusalem is besieged and stormed, Solomon’s temple is destroyed, and the better part of the population is carried away into exile.

The ruthless and impetuous Babylonians, feared and dreaded, swoop in like vultures and gather prisoners like sand. They scoff at rulers and laugh at Jerusalem’s walls. Like a desert wind scouring clean the countryside, they roll up the Judeans and go on.

So God’s answer to the wickedness of Judah is to send in an even more wicked people. His response to Habakkuk’s call for justice is to bring judgment in the form of defeat and exile.

And that’s where this section of scripture ends. Next week we’ll see that Habakkuk responds to this declaration of God with another complaint. He’s not so sure the cure isn’t worse than the disease. He wonders that God would choose to clean things up with a dirty broom. We’ll ponder that next week.

But for now, I just want us to reflect on the way God answers Habakkuk’s first complaint. Essentially, He says to Habakkuk: “I’m God, and you’re not.” That’s what He’s saying here. “I’m God, and you’re not.”

He’s saying: “I don’t mind your questions, Habakkuk, but you might not like my answers. I have a plan, I’m going to deal with the wickedness, but it’s not necessarily going to go the way you want. You’re going to have to trust me.”

God doesn’t need to be defended. He doesn’t defend Himself. He says, “This is what I’m going to do. I’m God, and this is how things are going to go. And that’s all you need to know.”

The Key Verse
Like I said, we’re not necessarily going to get the answers we want to all of our questions. Maybe it wasn’t even right for me to start with the Holocaust. I don’t mean to imply that I’m going to make sense out of all of that. It’s just, the kind of questions genocide and child abuse make us ask about God are exactly the kind of questions Habakkuk was asking.

And God’s answer is “Trust me. You have to trust me.” It’s all a matter of trust.

In fact, what I’d like to do now is jump ahead to the key verse in all of Habakkuk. Actually, this is a key verse in the Bible. It’s a verse that some 600 years later the Apostle Paul is going to quote often as the key to understanding salvation. It’s a verse that is going to lead Martin Luther to light the match that sparks the entire Reformation. It’s Habakkuk 2:4:

“See, he is puffed up;
his desires are not upright—
but the righteous will live by his faith.”

Basically, God is saying (and this is another section of the book where God is portrayed as the speaker) God is saying there are two kinds of people in the world. There are those who trust themselves, and those who trust God. Those are your choices. You can trust in yourself, or you can trust in God.

The “puffed up” are those who trust in themselves. They are the proud. The arrogant. They are the ones who think they have things all figured out. The ones who feel they can dictate to God. They think they could do a better job of running the universe than God can. These are people who rely on their own strength, their own power, their own ability and intelligence. As verse 11 said about the Babylonians, “their own strength is their god.”

But for these people, when the bad times come, when things happen that are beyond their control, the best they can do is wait them out. Because they dismiss God, then they have no hope that there is any sense in their suffering. They have no reason to believe there is any meaning in their pain. In the end, the life of the proud ends in despair.

But those who put their faith in God have a different kind of hope. Even when life doesn’t make sense to us, there is hope that there is at least One who understands what is going on. Those who trust in God have reason to believe He has superior wisdom to us, and that He has a plan that can redeem even the worst of our experiences.

In John Bunyan’s classic book Pilgrim’s Progress there comes a point where the main character’s son—Matthew—is being questioned about his faith. He’s asked what he does when he comes to a part of the Bible that he doesn’t understand. Matthew’s answer is perfect. He says: “I think that God is wiser than I.”

That answer is equally appropriate when we are confronted with events in life that we can’t make sense of. “I think that God is wiser than I.” Such an attitude of trust expresses the believer’s humble confidence that God—in the words of the Heidelberg Catechism—“will turn to my good whatever adversity he sends me in this sad world, for he is able to do this because he is almighty God, and he desires to do this because he is a faithful father.” (HC a 26, quoted by Bast in Why Doesn’t God Act More Like God?, p. 17)

What other choice do we have? Be puffed up and trust in ourselves, and believe in a world that ultimately has no meaning? Or trust in God and live by faith?

People Who Jump
Finally, I’d like to take you to the New Testament. I mentioned that Habakkuk 2:4 is a key verse in the Bible, and it gets quoted quite often in the New Testament. One such place is Hebrews 10.

The situation in Hebrews is not so different from what we’ve been talking about in Habakkuk or with our examples from today. People are wondering about all the bad in the world, and they’re wondering if continued belief in God is worth it. They’re thinking about chucking their faith. In response, God’s Word says:
35 So do not throw away your confidence; it will be richly rewarded. 36 You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised. 37 For in just a very little while,
“He who is coming will come and will not delay.
38 But my righteous one will live by faith.
And if he shrinks back,
I will not be pleased with him.”
39 But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who believe and are saved.
The author quotes Habakkuk, “my righteous one will live by faith” to encourage us to persevere. To not throw away our confidence.

I love that last line. “We are not of those who shrink back.” We are those who believe, and are saved.

I heard a story once about General Westmoreland, the general in charge in Vietnam. One day General Westmoreland was examining a group of paratroopers. And as he went down the line, he asked each one, “How do you like jumping son?” And each trooper would say, “I love to jump, Sir!” All the way down the line, that’s how it went: “How do you like jumping son?” “I love to jump, Sir!” Until finally, the General came to the last soldier in line: “How do you like jumping son?” “I hate to jump, Sir!” “Well then, why are you a paratrooper?” “Because I love to be around people who jump.”

Believing in God is a lot like jumping out of an airplane. It takes a lot of faith that everything is going to work out right in the end. Jumping can be scary. Sometimes the questions and struggles can get so overwhelming that we’d rather not jump at all.

But oh, how wonderful it is to be around people who jump. I pray that Hope Church can be a community of people who are willing to continue to take the leap of faith in God.