Habakkuk’s Questions – Prayer and Violence

By Mark Morgan | Jeremiah

Jul 15

Habakkuk’s questions (Complaints!)

One of Habakkuk’s questions was a simple question we might often have asked ourselves: did God listen to his prayers? But that wasn’t the end if it. Would God answer him? And did Habakkuk want to hear the answers anyway? You see, Habakkuk’s questions weren’t just questions, they were more like complaints.

Habakkuk’s first complaint to God

2 “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help,
and you will not hear?
Or cry to you “Violence!”
and you will not save?
3 Why do you make me see iniquity,
and why do you idly look at wrong?
Destruction and violence are before me;
strife and contention arise.
4 So the law is paralyzed,
and justice never goes forth.
For the wicked surround the righteous;
so justice goes forth perverted.”

Habakkuk 1:2-4


Email problems?

When you send an email, it may never arrive at its destination.  Some say that about 20% of validly addressed email never arrives at all.

How do you know whether the email you sent arrived?  And even if it did, can you be sure that the recipient read it?

Sometimes the spam folder can snag our email.  Do we need to avoid expressions or content that suggest our message may be spam?  If our messages have been identified as spam before, they are much more likely to be called spam again.

To give our messages the best possible chance of getting through, we need to get the address right, make sure that our message doesn’t look like spam, and be a credible emailer – not a frequent spammer.

Does God hear prayer?

Habakkuk lived a long time before email, but he had the same concerns about prayer.  He complained that his cries for help had not been heard by God.

So how can we tell if God has heard?

In the Bible – and in our experience – God does not normally answer directly, or immediately.  Only in rare cases are answers given through God speaking or through angels sent to give instruction.  Does that mean he is not hearing prayer?

God does give us guidance about whether he will listen to prayer or not.  He says that he hears the prayers of righteous people (Proverbs 15:8, 29) but that the prayers of anyone who will not listen to God’s laws are an abomination to him (Proverbs 28:9; Psalm 66:18).  In some other specific examples, we are told that God will not listen to people who have blood on their hands (Isaiah 1:15) or to husbands who do not live with their wives in an understanding way (1 Peter 3:7).

In summary, if we live as God wants us to, he will listen to our prayer.  It’s up to us.


Violence is very popular and has always been.  First Cain murdered Abel (Genesis 4) and then violence gradually spread over the earth to the point where God finally sent the flood (Genesis 6:11-13).  Ever since, violence has been standard behaviour across the world.

Violence is reported as a common problem throughout the Bible and it was one of the things that Habakkuk complained about.

What do you think about violence?

Before you answer that though, let’s note that God hates people who love violence (Psalm 11:5), so it really is very important.

Violence spreads because violent people entice their neighbours into violence (Proverbs 16:29) and so it spreads all over the world.

Just think – our media thrives on violence.  Violence sells films, videos, TV shows, magazines, newspapers, sport, books and games.  Those who buy and share these things suggest to their neighbours, family and friends that they should watch them too and so men and women of violence spread their love of violence all over the world.

“Haven’t you seen this show?  You should!”

“This video game is really exciting!  You should try it!”

Violence really is more popular than peacefulness.

Do you find that a bit of violence spices up a film?  Does violence make a video game a bit more interesting?

God hates violence.  Violence killed God’s son.

Violence in Habakkuk’s time

Other prophets in Habakkuk’s time also complained about violence:


“I shout ‘Violence and destruction!’ ” (Jeremiah 20:8)

[Speaking to a king:] “Thus says the Lord: Do justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor him who has been robbed.  And do no wrong or violence to the resident alien, the fatherless, and the widow, nor shed innocent blood in this place.”  (Jeremiah 22:3)

[Speaking to a king:] “But you have eyes and heart only for your dishonest gain, for shedding innocent blood, and for practicing oppression and violence.” (Jeremiah 22:17)


“Violence has grown up into a rod of wickedness” (Ezekiel 7:10-11)

“The land is full of bloody crimes and the city is full of violence” (Ezekiel 7:23)

“The people fill the land with violence and provoke God still further to anger” (Ezekiel 8:17)


“God will punish those who fill their master’s house with violence and fraud” (Zephaniah 1:9).

Violence or peace?

God’s people had learned violence from the nations around them and become better at it than the people they had copied (see Psalms 106:34-38 and 2 Kings 21:9-16).

Habakkuk may well have suffered violence from his countrymen.  Jesus said to his disciples that they were to be happy when others reviled them or persecuted them on Jesus’ account because the nation had persecuted earlier prophets in the same way (Matthew 5:11-12).

Throughout history, this has constantly happened to those who are weak, or are not willing to use violence themselves.

But God does not want it to remain so.  His plan for the future is for a world without violence, as he says of Jerusalem:

“…I will make your overseers peace
and your taskmasters righteousness.
Violence shall no more be heard in your land,
devastation or destruction within your borders;
you shall call your walls Salvation,
and your gates Praise.”

Isaiah 60:17-18


“Why must I see iniquity?”

Habakkuk 1:3

Those who love God don’t like to see iniquity.  God has told us in the Bible that iniquity is wrong and that we should not even think about it[1] – yet Habakkuk observes that God allows us to see it around us all the time.  Why?

God seems to want us to have to make the choice between evil and good.  He will never allow us to be tempted beyond what we are able to bear,[2] but he does want us to practise making the right choice.  So we need to make sure that we are constantly rejecting evil and choosing good.

And then Habakkuk gets to his main question.  The earlier comments were just an introduction.

“Why do you [God] idly look at wrong?”

Habakkuk 1:3

Habakkuk is asking why God looks at wrong but does nothing about it.  He is suggesting that because God does this, destruction and violence are everywhere as are strife and contention.  Furthermore, as a direct result of this, law is paralysed and justice never goes forth.

These are Habakkuk’s complaints, and we do well to think about them.

Swift justice?

In various countries around the world, there are millions of court cases pending, some of which have been waiting for more than 5 years.  Many people charged with offences cannot get bail, but spend years in jail waiting for a trial that could only sentence them to a much shorter time in jail if they were found guilty.

Habakkuk is arguing that justice must be quick or it is not justice.

Is this true?

A few comments from the Bible:

Ecclesiastes 8:11:  Because the sentence against an evil deed is not executed speedily, the heart of the children of man is fully set to do evil.

Isaiah 5:18-19:  Woe to those who draw iniquity with cords of falsehood, who draw sin as with cart ropes, who say: “Let him [God] be quick, let him speed his work that we may see it; let the counsel of the Holy One of Israel draw near, and let it come, that we may know it!”

Isaiah 57:11:  Whom did you dread and fear, so that you lied, and did not remember me, did not lay it to heart? Have I not held my peace, even for a long time, and you do not fear me?

Isaiah 26:10:  If favour is shown to the wicked, he does not learn righteousness; in the land of uprightness he deals corruptly and does not see the majesty of the Lord.

Evil resists justice

These passages tell us that whether justice comes quickly or slowly, many evil people will not learn.  It seems that quick justice can control evil people, but it won’t teach them righteousness.  However, slow justice does give righteous people time to repent of their evil deeds; time to reflect; time to think of what they have done, to recognise their sin and repent.

God could give instant justice.  Adam and Eve ate the fruit in the garden of Eden and God could have killed them immediately.  If he had, there would have been no children and no human race.  Likewise for all of us.  If God had killed each of us when we first sinned, there would be no children.  No human race.

Most of the time, however, God does not punish swiftly – but he did command his nation to control evil by judging swiftly.  Most countries now have many people staying in prisons for long periods of time, but God’s commands were for quick judgement and quick punishment – but only where two or more witnesses were available.  Other crimes were not to be punished by mankind.  God, who is witness to everything, would punish in due time.

Government of the world has been given to mankind, but God still intervenes as he chooses from time to time.  He also chooses the rulers[3] and he will judge the results in the end.[4]

Summary of Habakkuk’s complaint

Habakkuk complains that evil flourished in Israel.  Violence was everywhere; the law was paralysed; justice was never done.  Then he asked the vital question: why does God let it happen that way?

God answers Habakkuk’s question, but it wasn’t the sort of answer that Habakkuk expected or wanted.

God’s answer to Habakkuk

If you have questions you would like to ask God, have you ever wondered how he might answer them?

In the Bible, a few people asked God questions and were given answers by him: Abraham, Rebecca, Job, Moses, Manoah and his wife, David, Elijah, Jeremiah, and, of course, Habakkuk.  Sometimes, God’s answers are direct and simple, clearly addressing the question.  For example, David asked God if he should attack the Philistines and God said yes and told him how to do so.  Other people received answers that did not seem to answer the question directly at all, and the answer that God gave to Habakkuk was like this.

Remember that Habakkuk had asked why God did not respond to requests for help or listen to complaints about the violence that filled the nation.

This was God’s answer:

5 “Look among the nations, and see;
wonder and be astounded.
For I am doing a work in your days
that you would not believe if told.
6 For behold, I am raising up the Chaldeans,
that bitter and hasty nation,
who march through the breadth of the earth,
to seize dwellings not their own.
7 They are dreaded and fearsome;
their justice and dignity go forth from themselves.
8 Their horses are swifter than leopards,
more fierce than the evening wolves;
their horsemen press proudly on.
Their horsemen come from afar;
they fly like an eagle swift to devour.
9 They all come for violence,
all their faces forward.
They gather captives like sand.
10 At kings they scoff,
and at rulers they laugh.
They laugh at every fortress,
for they pile up earth and take it.
11 Then they sweep by like the wind and go on,
guilty men, whose own might is their god!”

Habakkuk 1:5-11

Was this an answer?

God does mention violence, but that is the only obvious connection with Habakkuk’s question!  Instead, the answer is a description of what is about to happen to Habakkuk’s nation.

If we think about the answer for a while, however, we can start to see that it really is an answer – but that Habakkuk would have had to think carefully to unravel the puzzle.  This was no simple Yes/No answer.

Habakkuk had complained about violence in Judah, and God describes how he will bring judgement on Judah through the Chaldeans.  If Judah wanted violence, they would get it.  If they wanted iniquity, they would suffer it.  If they loved wrong, they would be outdone in wrong by the Chaldeans.The Chaldeans entered Jerusalem and burned down the Temple of the Lord just as God had said. They carried off all the valuable objects from the temple.(http://freebibleimages.org/illustrations/jeremiah-cistern/ Slide 15 CC-BY-SA-3.0 Sweet Publishing / FreeBibleImages.org (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/))

God says that this was a work in Habakkuk’s time that he wouldn’t have believed if someone had told him about it.  But it was going to happen all the same.

Hosea was told that Israel had sown the wind and would reap the whirlwind,[5] and now Judah was to suffer the same fate.  They had sown violence and would suffer greater violence.  They had sown wrong and would themselves be grievously wronged.

The Chaldeans would be God’s tool for punishing Judah.  Terrible and fearsome, they would all come for violence, gathering captives like sand; scoffing at kings and laughing at rulers.  To them, impregnable fortresses are a joke.  They are, God says, guilty men whose own strength is their god.

God is acknowledging to Habakkuk that Judah is evil.  But his solution to the problem is not what Habakkuk had either expected or wanted.

Habakkuk’s second complaint

12 Are you not from everlasting,
O Lord my God, my Holy One?
We shall not die.
O Lord, you have ordained them as a judgment,
and you, O Rock, have established them for reproof.
13 You who are of purer eyes than to see evil
and cannot look at wrong,
why do you idly look at traitors
and remain silent when the wicked swallows up
the man more righteous than he?
14 You make mankind like the fish of the sea,
like crawling things that have no ruler.
15 He brings all of them up with a hook;
he drags them out with his net;
he gathers them in his dragnet;
so he rejoices and is glad.
16 Therefore he sacrifices to his net
and makes offerings to his dragnet;
for by them he lives in luxury,
and his food is rich.
17 Is he then to keep on emptying his net
and mercilessly killing nations forever?
1 I will take my stand at my watchpost
and station myself on the tower,
and look out to see what he will say to me,
and what I will answer concerning my complaint.

Habakkuk 1:12 – 2:1

Habakkuk calls this a complaint, and I suppose it is one – since he is questioning God’s answer to his first complaint.  He seems to be trying to work his way through the situation as he imagines it will be based on God’s earlier answer.

A paraphrase

Most of the text is quite easy to understand, but since there are some harder parts, I have included a short summary below.  Try comparing it with the full text above to see if they are saying the same thing.

O God, are you not eternal? – you will not kill us all, for you always leave a remnant.  You have appointed the Chaldeans to punish Judah, yet you are too pure to look on evil, so why do you remain silent when an evil nation swallows up a nation that is more righteous?

It is as if the Chaldeans are a fisherman and we are all fish to be caught.  He even worships his fishing tackle, because it allows him to live in luxury!  Will you let him continue this forever?

Now I will stand on my watchtower and wait for God’s answer to my complaint.

Review of Habakkuk’s second complaint

Habakkuk’s main complaint is that God is punishing a wicked nation (Judah) through the invasion of a nation that is even worse (Babylon).

He describes the Chaldeans in v14-17 as an utterly sinful nation that enjoys killing.

But was Babylon more wicked than Judah?  We cannot judge just how bad an individual or nation is, but in this case God has given us some information which might surprise you.

When God led Israel into the Promised Land, he said that he would expel the existing inhabitants because they were evil.[6]  He uses the graphic word picture of a land vomiting out its inhabitants because of their wickedness.[7]

At that time, he warned Israel that they would find themselves in the same situation if they did not obey God’s commands.  By the time King Manasseh had finished his unholy reign, God said that Judah was not only as bad as the nations they had replaced in the Promised Land – they were worse.  With that knowledge, we have to ask whether Babylon really was worse than Judah?

They had an appearance of serving God, but it wasn’t genuine.

Habakkuk made his complaint and then waited to hear how God would respond.  We’ll look at God’s answer soon.

God’s second answer

The second chapter of Habakkuk starts by telling us that Habakkuk was going to stand at his watchpost, stationed on the tower, waiting for an answer from God.

Could this be a hint as to Habakkuk’s job when he was not being a prophet?  Maybe he was a watchman, in a country watchtower or on the walls of Jerusalem.  Or maybe he is trying to make a link to Isaiah 62:6-7, where God speaks of watchmen looking out for Jerusalem.

“On your walls, O Jerusalem,
I have set watchmen;
all the day and all the night
they shall never be silent.
You who put the Lord in remembrance,
take no rest,
and give him no rest
until he establishes Jerusalem
and makes it a praise in the earth.”

Isaiah 62:6-7

Whatever the fine detail may mean, the overall meaning is clear: Habakkuk has put his complaint before God, and he will wait for God’s answer.

It sounds as if he is expecting to be reproved.

Jeremiah, another prophet from the same time, had a very similar complaint:

“Righteous are you, O Lord,
when I complain to you;
yet I would plead my case before you.
Why does the way of the wicked prosper?
Why do all who are treacherous thrive?
You plant them, and they take root;
they grow and produce fruit;
you are near in their mouth
and far from their heart.”

Jeremiah 12:1-2

David wrote similar complaints too, and many, if not all, of us will have felt the same.  We all see evil people seeming to do well and wonder why.

When God answers Habakkuk, the first instruction is that he must write down the vision.  Habakkuk’s private question had become public property – we can still ponder over it today.  Thankfully, God’s answer is included as well, but if you expect it to be a simple explanation, think again!


Various people ask this question in the Bible, and God consistently answers: “Wait!”

It will come.

Just wait.

To Habakkuk, God said:

“For still the vision awaits its appointed time;
it hastens to the end—it will not lie.
If it seems slow, wait for it;
it will surely come; it will not delay.”

Habakkuk 2:3

I don’t know about you, but I am not very good at waiting.

We often travel to India, and in the places we visit, many people wear shirts with printed messages in English – although often the wearer will not understand what they so proudly proclaim.  Most are empty nonsense, but at times there are surprisingly profound messages.  Yesterday we saw this treasure:

“Life is a one-time opportunity.
Use it wisely.”

Fill your life with useful work for God, but don’t fill it with impatience.

By all means, look eagerly for the return of Jesus,[8] but keep living life while you do so.  God’s time scales can be much greater than ours – his plans often work in blocks of hundreds or thousands of years.[9]  Don’t worry too much about the small snapshot of history that you will see in your lifetime.  God is in control and he weaves the paths of history through many, many lifetimes.  Yet when judgement comes, it often comes very swiftly.

God told Habakkuk that the events he had planned would come.  In fact, they were hurrying along.  We do not know exactly when Habakkuk prophesied, but it was probably still more than 25 years before Babylon would be God’s tool of sudden, violent judgement on Judah, and another fifty years before Babylon herself would be judged.

Our choice

God is not slow, but he is patient[10] – both with individuals and with nations.  He gives us each life, commands and boundaries, but then he also gives us free will.  His ideal is salvation for all, but it is offered on his terms.  Salvation and eternal life are for righteous people – and God wants everyone to be righteous.  But each person gets to choose how they respond.  It is expressed beautifully to his chosen people, Israel, in Deuteronomy 30:19-20:

“I call heaven and earth to witness against you today,
that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse.
Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live,
loving the Lord your God,
obeying his voice and holding fast to him,
for he is your life and length of days,
that you may dwell in the land
that the Lord swore to your fathers,
to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give them.”

Deuteronomy 30:19-20

The contrasting options are also made clear in the New Testament for all believers:

“For to set the mind on the flesh is death,
but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.”

Romans 8:6

God is giving you time, but don’t let time get away from you.

Noah had to build the ark.  It was an enormous boat.  He couldn’t have procrastinated until God said that the flood was coming in seven days!  The boat had to be built slowly, methodically, piece by piece.  Our life is the same.  Building habits of godliness is good, but it takes time.  Practice godliness every day.  Practice refusing evil every day.  This is choosing life: setting the mind on the Spirit.

God wants to see us as people who make a long-term choice to serve him: starting from our youth and building – but it is our choice.

When Jesus returns, he will judge our choices.

Judgement on Babylon

“Behold, his soul is puffed up; it is not upright within him,
but the righteous shall live by his faith.
“Moreover, wine is a traitor,
an arrogant man who is never at rest.
His greed is as wide as Sheol;
like death he has never enough.
He gathers for himself all nations
and collects as his own all peoples.”

Habakkuk 2:4-5

As God answers Habakkuk’s complaints, he describes Babylon in Habakkuk 2:4-5.  Whether you take the words quite literally or more symbolically, you will probably come to the same general conclusions.

God speaks of Babylon as if the empire was an individual – arrogant and ungodly, with an insatiable appetite for power.

The words probably describe quite literally the behaviour of the individual leaders of Babylon: proud, godless, drunken, gluttonous and overbearing.

When a male bird performs his mating dance, he will often puff out his chest and fluff up his feathers so that he looks bigger and more attractive.  Several translations use “puffed up” or “lifted up” in this passage, and we can easily recognise in those expressions the pride of Babylon with an inflated opinion of its greatness.


Throughout history, all kingdoms have tried to demonstrate their greatness through construction and art.  Yet all empires come to an end.  In the end, the air leaks out of the balloon and all that “puffing up” can be seen for what it is.  Their power and influence fade away and what they built is all that is left.  The great pyramids of Egypt, the Colosseum of Rome, Ankor Wat, Machu Picchu, Mesa Verde and so many other great constructions have all been left to the ravages of time and thermodynamics.  Stone lasts, but the power of empires doesn’t.

Pride is a terrible problem for humans.  It seems to be a strange component of our self-awareness that makes us think that we have made ourselves what we are.  Somehow we delude ourselves that we deserve recognition for the abilities we have, as if we are responsible for them!

Of course, we have had nothing to do with it at all.  If we are clever, it came from God.  If we are strong, that also came from God.  If we have good eyesight, God gave it.  If we are flexible, it came from God.  If we are good-looking or good at cooking, these came from God as well.

True, we can help or hinder the development of those skills, but even that ability to learn through practice came from God.  Our very life and all of our mental and physical powers came from God.[11]  So what is there for us to be proud of?  Nothing at all – but we still are!

Babylon’s pride would be punished by God – and the uninhabited ruins of Babylon still stand as a testimony that the punishment was meted out.

The word of God came to Zephaniah at much the same time as it came to Habakkuk, and his prophecy has a few references to pride also.  These are good for us to think about.

“…I will remove from your midst your proudly exultant ones,
and you shall no longer be haughty in my holy mountain.
But I will leave in your midst a people humble and lowly.
They shall seek refuge in the name of the Lord,

Zephaniah 3:11-12

Once God removes the proud, only the humble will remain.  Are we proud or humble?  Is there anything we can do about it?  Yes, there is.  God said:

Seek the Lord, all you humble of the land,
who do his just commands;
seek righteousness; seek humility;
perhaps you may be hidden on the day of the anger of the Lord.

Zephaniah 2:3

We can look for humility.  Practise it.  Develop our skills of humility.

Pride is being pleased with what we are.  In short, it is having faith in ourselves – just as Babylon did.  God contrasts this with people who are righteous.  They live by faith – faith in God, not themselves.

Many years ago, King Nebuchadnezzar, at the height of his power, looked out over Babylon from the roof of his palace and said:

“Is not this great Babylon,
which I have built by my mighty power
as a royal residence
and for the glory of my majesty?”

Daniel 4:30

Now Nebuchadnezzar is dead.  All that is left of Babylon is an uninhabited ruin.

See also

Article on the prophet Habakkuk

Habakkuk (Wikipedia)


[1] Matthew 5:27-28; Ephesians 5:3; Philippians 4:8
[2] 1 Corinthians 10:13
[3] Daniel 4:17, 25 & 32; Romans 13:1-5
[4] Romans 14:12
[5] Hosea 8:7
[6] Leviticus 20:23; Deuteronomy 9:4-5
[7] Leviticus 18:24-28
[8] 1 Corinthians 1:7; Philippians 3:20; 1 Thessalonians 1:10; 2 Timothy 4:8; Titus 2:13; Hebrews 9:27-28
[9] 2 Peter 3:8
[10] 2 Peter 3:9
[11] Exodus 4:11; 1 Corinthians 4:7; 1 Peter 4:10-11