Wrath and Mercy
Wrath & Mercy
How’s your memory?
I was reading about memories this week. Here’s some of what I found.
The famous lateral thinker, Edward de Bono said "A memory is what is left, when something happens and does not completely unhappen. "
Or how’s this? "No amount of time can erase the memory of a good cat, and no amount of masking tape can ever totally remove his fur from your couch.”
"Memory is what tells a man that his wife's birthday was yesterday"
Or this one, usually attributed to Mark Twain, "A clear conscience is usually the sure sign of a bad memory."
But how’s your memory?
What sorts of things do you remember?
How good are you at remembering, calling to mind things from the past?
We’ve got 2 extremes to that, represented by 2 different animals haven’t we?
There’s the goldfish, reputed to have a 5 second memory,
And the elephant, who never forgets.
Which one are you? Although really I think that’s an unfair comparison. I mean, what does an elephant need to remember. “There was some grass over there. Yeah, I remember there was some grass over there too.”
One of the very last episodes of the TV series The West Wing is titled “Institutional Memory.” Institutional memory is the collective memory and experiences of a group of people. How do people who haven’t had a set of experiences themselves, benefit from the experience of others.
Habakkuk chapter 3 is an example of institutional memory. Habakkuk the prophet calls to mind great things that God has done, not that he’s experienced in his life time, but things in the life time of his nation, and so great is his memory of these events, that they shape his life,
They form the basis of his relationship with God, his confidence in God,
And he asks God to act again, like he knows God has acted in the past.
Getting to Grips with the Genre
I’ve got a Bible that’s completely fallen apart, and the pages are all coming out, and so sometimes I just kind of stuff them back in wherever. And so you might be reading through the creation story in Genesis, and you turn the page only to discover you’re now in Revelation and the whole thing’s over already!
Before anyone thinks we need to buy Clayton a new Bible, I have Bibles that are in one piece, but it’s good to have a Bible that’s falling apart, because everyone thinks “Wow, Clayton must read his Bible a lot!” I’m just kidding.
But we could be forgiven for thinking that’s what’s happened here to Habakkuk 3, has it come adrift from the Psalms and someone’s stuck it here?
Let me point out some similarities. Habakkuk 3 has the same kind of title as we see in lots of the Psalms. The formatting of our Bibles might make this hard to see, but have a look at Habakkuk 3 verse 1, A Prayer of Habakkuk the prophet and now flick back to Psalm 86, which is titled A Psalm of David. They put the Psalm titles in those little capital letters, but they could just write them just like Habakkuk 3 verse 1
In Habakkuk where it says in italics “Habakkuk’s Prayer” that’s not part of the Bible text. That’s just added by people who print our Bibles to help us find our place.
The title here is A prayer of Habakkuk the prophet. On shigionoth
Flick all the way back to Psalm 7, and we see something very similar, A shiggaion of David, which he sang to the Lord concerning Cush, a Benjamite.
And no one really knows what shigionoth or shiggaion mean, but it’s probably a literary or musical term.
You’ll see also that word selah, in verses 3 and 9 and 13, and if you have Psalm 7 still open, you’ll see it at the end of verse 5. Again we don’t really know its exact meaning. It’s probably related to the word for “lift up”, maybe meaning for the band to, take it up a notch, play louder, maybe actually for the priest to raise his hands.
Some scholars think it might be the point where the people interject, the “Hallelujah”, “Amen”, “preach it brother” kind of thing, so feel free to do that in verses 3, 9 and 13!
Now look down at the very last line of Habakkuk 3, For the director of music. On my stringed instruments And again, some of the Psalms, Psalm 4, Psalm 6, have this instruction too for how the song was to be played.
What does it matter?
It matters because of institutional memory.
Habakkuk 3 is a song, like the Psalms in our Old Testament, intended to be sung by the people of God, probably, in the temple.
It’s a song for God’s people to hear, to sing together, and in doing so, to be reminded of certain truths, and the collective memories of their history.
It was very important that God’s people remembered what God had done in the past, as we’re about to see.
Do it Again, Lord
At the end of the service today, when we’re having tea and coffee, If you’re standing talking to someone, and they’re holding a toddler, and the toddler’s got a toy, which they throw on the ground, if you pick up the toy and give it back to the toddler, what invariably happens next?
They throw it on the ground again, don’t they?
It’s a great game!
You do something they like, and they want you to do it over and over again.
That’s more or less Habakkuk’s approach in verse 2 of chapter 3, this prayer starts with the cry, “Do it again, Lord. The great things you’ve done in the past,
The things our collective memory tells us about you.
They way you’ve shown your glory,
The way you’ve demonstrated your wrath and your mercy, do it again!”
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.
2 weeks ago, we saw in chapter 1, Habakkuk asking God to act, because of what he knows about God’s character.
“You’re holy, you’re too pure to look on evil, so when are you going to step in and do something about the sin and evil in Judah?”
Here in chapter 3 he’s asking God to act in accordance with how he’s acted in the past.
Do it again, Lord.
See both of these responses are responses of faith, to what he knows about God.
We called this little series in Habakkuk “Living by Faith in Difficult Times” because that’s one of the constant themes of these 3 chapters. If you’re a Christian, how does your faith in God shape your life, when things aren’t going the way you like,
When God’s priorities aren’t honoured in our society.
But it would be a mistake for us to think that “living by faith” is purely about actions, what we’re like out in the world, because of what we know about God and what he’s done. Here, Habakkuk’s faith means he asks God to act. His faith drives him to prayer.
Lord, I have heard of your fame;
I know how you’ve acted in the past, please do it again.
Renew those actions in our day,
in our time make them known;
in wrath remember mercy.
See Habakkuk knows that God has every right to be angry.
The nation of Judah, they’re God’s chosen people,
God’s called them,
He’s preserved them,
He’s rescued them numerous times,
He’s made himself known to them,
And yet still the people reject him,
Still they turn their backs on him,
Still they think “we’re better off without God, let’s do things our own way”
They reject God and his purposes
Yeah, God has every right to be angry. And so Habakkuk pleads, in wrath remember mercy.
Even while you are, justifiably angry with us, God, show mercy to us.
Habakkuk knows he can’t expect God to just ignore the sin and evil and injustice that is rife in the nation of Judah.
The International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia is still in the headlines this week.
Imagine that Ratko Mladic who was arrested a couple of weeks ago, is found guilty of all the charges against him, genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity.
And the presiding judge says, “We’ve found you guilty, but we’re going to let you go. It wasn’t such a big deal, we don’t think we need to do anything about it. You’re free to go.”
What would happen?
There would be an outcry, wouldn’t there?
It would probably be the end of the International Criminal Tribunal.
Its credibility, its moral authority would be in pieces.
God can’t just ignore the sin among his people, he has to do something about it. Habakkuk told us in chapter 1, your eyes are too pure to look on evil.
Yes, God’s righteous anger at sin will be poured out, but in the midst of that, God is able to show mercy.
I discovered that Ratko Mladic was taken, under extremely heavy security, to visit the grave of his daughter, who took her own life. That was an act of mercy.
He didn’t deserve it.
He didn’t earn that right.
He is an accused war criminal, rightly in detention until the outcome of the charges against him is determined.
But even while ensuring that justice is still happening, mercy can be shown.
For the people of Judah, the imminent destruction of Jerusalem,
and the carting off of people, to captivity to Babylon, they were just about the worst imaginable expressions of God’s wrath, God’s anger at their sin and rebellion.
Back in the early part of the Old Testament, Deuteronomy and Leviticus, when Moses explains to people the consequences for disobeying God, for turning their backs on God’s law, at the end of all the list of consequences that will follow, he warns, they will be uprooted from their land and thrust into another land.
The Babylonian captivity is a devastating judgment of God.
Judah enjoyed their position, they flourished, when they were God’s people, living in God’s place, under God’s rule. Some of you will have heard that summary before.
But now, in punishment for sin and rebellion, the people scattered,
They’re taken from God’s place to another place,
And they’re subjected to the rule of someone else.
In your wrath, your right and just judgment, remember mercy.
Make a way back,
Provide deliverance, like you have before,
Preserve people like you have before,
The situation is so dire that only God can make a way out.
In your wrath, your right and just judgment, remember mercy.
And that’s exactly what God does.
Sin is punished. It has to be, we wouldn’t have it any other way, let alone the God of the universe, but in the midst of God’s right and just judgment, is mercy.
When the things foretold in Habakkuk come to pass, and the people of Judah are exiled to Babylon, God spoke through the prophet Jeremiah, to those living in captivity and promises to restore a remnant.
11 For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future., I will gather you from all the nations and places where I have banished you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back to the place from which I carried you into exile.”
And from that remnant, 500 years later, comes, comes Jesus of Nazareth.
That one who tastes God’s wrath like no other, so that we don’t have to.
The one in whom God’s mercy finds its ultimate display.
God, in his wrath, remembers mercy.
Lessons from Israel’s history
The main part of this chapter gives us an insight into Habakkuk’s institutional memory, and exactly what it is that he’s asking God to do.
Verses 3 to 15 give us the high points of the history of Israel, how God has acted for people, particularly in the Exodus from Egypt, through to the crossing of the Jordan, and their entry into Canaan.
This is what Habakkuk wants God to do in his day, the magnificent display of God’s presence, his power and glory.
The Hebrew word for God that Habakkuk uses is an old form of the word, it was the language for God used by Abraham, Isaac, Jacob.
So even just by choosing that particular word, Habakkuk draws his hearer’s mind back to God’s presence with his people in those ancient times. Maybe there are words and phrases for you that just immediately draw your mind back to some previous experience.
Habakkuk recalls, God came from Teman,
the Holy One from Mount Paran. Selah
His glory covered the heavens
and his praise filled the earth.
4 His splendor was like the sunrise;
rays flashed from his hand,
where his power was hidden.
5 Plague went before him;
pestilence followed his steps. And so on and so on.
This whole section is what theologians call a “theophany” which just means an appearance of God in power and glory.
And if you have a look at it, you can see it’s the same kind of thing repeated. The most powerful and awesome aspects of creation are used to describe God and his power and glory and presence.
There are some place names, the areas through which Israel travelled after leaving Egypt, where God made himself known, and where he gave the law to his people.
There’s the image of the earth trembling and thunder and lightning, which is associated with the giving of the law at Mount Sinai,
Verses 8 to 10 pick up the language of Judges 5 and God fighting for his people, coming to their aid, the rivers and the heavens doing God’s bidding,
And it goes on right through the chapter.
God comes, to save his people.
What is really interesting though, is the tense that Habakkuk records all this in. He doesn’t use the past tense, even though he’s clearly referencing these events in Israel’s history.
So even though in our NIV these great events are all translated in past tense, in the original language, they’re in the perfect tense, which generally draws attention to the ongoing nature of some action.
Which make perfect sense for Habakkuk doesn’t it?
The fact that God did all these things in the past is one thing, but the reason Habakkuk’s quoting them all now is because he’s convinced there are ongoing implications.
So the Good News Bible translates verse 3, God is coming again from Edom, that’s another name for Teman. That’s how strong this sense of reminder is, God has come before, and because of that, Habakkuk is confident that he’s coming again.
God made himself known,
God displayed his glory,
God judged sin,
And what Habakkuk is convinced of, and maybe what we need to be reminded of, is that God hasn’t stopped doing those things.
In Habakkuk’s day, God still wanted to make himself known,
In Habakkuk’s day, God was still displaying his glory,
In Habakkuk’s day, God was about to judge the sin of his people.
And this, really, is the answer to the ultimate question raised in this book, isn’t it?
Habakkuk wanted to know, why does God allow those who do evil to go unpunished?
Well, he doesn’t.
God has always acted against sin.
He has always acted against his enemies,
He’s done it before, and he’ll do it again.
A response of faith
And so Habakkuk will wait.
His response to this theophany is a response of faith.
He trembles at the thought of God’s power and glory and presence being manifested in his day, but still he trusts God.
I heard and my heart pounded,
my lips quivered at the sound;
decay crept into my bones,
and my legs trembled.
17 Though the fig tree does not bud
and there are no grapes on the vines,
all kinds of calamities, yet, verse 18,
I will rejoice in the Lord,
I will be joyful in God my Savior.
19 The Sovereign Lord is my strength;
he makes my feet like the feet of a deer,
he enables me to go on the heights.
Habakkuk’s confidence in God allows him to see beyond the present, to the time of God’s victory over his enemies, which he knows will come, even if he doesn’t know when it will come.
Which all raises some questions for us, we who live, not only after the time of Habakkuk, but also after the time of God’s ultimate judgment of sin, when Jesus steps into the path of God’s anger at us, and takes the punishment that we deserved for our ignoring God.
You might have some of your own questions, but I’ve got 3.
Is our God the God of Old Testament history?
Firstly, do we understand our God to be the God of these Old Testament events?
For Habakkuk it was clear wasn’t it? He knew it was his God who had led Israel out of Egypt, gave the law.
The God who would judge sin in Judah was the God who had judged sin in the wilderness.
Now we are in the very fortunate position of being able to look back at Jesus, the ultimate revelation of God, God made known, God with us, as we’re told in the Christmas story.
But to say Jesus is the ultimate revelation of God is not to say he’s the only revelation of God, that nothing about how God made himself known before matters. On the contrary, when Jesus wants to demonstrate his identity to those around him, it’s as the God of this Old Testament history. Remember that “I am” language in John’s gospel if you were here with us earlier in the year, those connections to the wilderness wanderings and the crossing of the Red Sea in John 6.
Jesus claims to be this God, living among his people, yet I think there’s a tendency among Christians today, to kind of, not go back any further than Jesus, in forming our understanding of who God is.
Yet, if you’re a Christian person here this morning,
Your God is the one who shook the mountains when giving the law to his people,
Your God is the one who holds the sun and moon and stars in his hand.
Your God chose a people for himself, though there was nothing about them, that he might love them. It was just his sovereign, gracious choice.
If you’re not a Christian this morning, If you don’t know what it means to say, “I’m forgiven because Jesus died in my place”, I’m so pleased you’re here with us, and there’s something I really want you to see about God.
See the God who we speak about, is this God, in Habakkuk 3, who is over all the nations.
A God who hates sin and evil, and will judge sin and evil.
Here is a God so pure, that would have no place with him at all.
Is that your picture of God, or is your idea of God, just a friendly old grandfather who gives you whatever you want and, asks no questions ?
Are you in the Mick Dundee camp, “Me and God, we’d be mates”, nothing more nothing less.
We need to make sure we understand God rightly.
Is our God as a God who saves?
Secondly, Is our God a God who saves?
We read this theophany, in verses 3 to 15, and think, “Yeah there’s battle, there’s judgment, there are displays of glory and power, but do we see the purpose?
God doesn’t display his glory just to make himself feel good?
He doesn’t pour out his judgment on someone because he got out of the wrong side of bed in the morning.
Do you see it there in verse 13, You came out to deliver your people, to save your anointed one.
Our God is a God who saves.
Habakkuk’s vision, of God’s majesty and power, foreshadows the rescue, through Jesus’ life and death and resurrection.
When we read Habakkuk 3, 26 hundred years after it was written, the message for us is, God saves. And unlike Habakkuk, we know exactly how that story ends.
We know what it takes for God to save his people.
We know what it takes for God to crush evil, and defeat sin.
It took the death of Jesus on a cross.
There’s that old saying, if you’re not part of the solution then you must be part of the problem, I don’t know if anyone’s ever had that quoted at you, but some people tend to think the Bible is like that, the first 2 thirds, the Old Testament, is about the problem, the last bit, the New Testament is about the solution.
But if we think it’s that neat, we’ll miss all the evidence in the Old Testament that our God is a God who saves.
That God longs to save people,
And preserve people,
That when the baby Jesus is given his name, “Jesus, which means God saves, because he will save his people from their sins”, Matthew tells us, that wasn’t the first that anyone had heard about a God’s salvation.
And if we come to understanding the kind of salvation that God has worked for his people time and time again, we’ll be much more able to fully come to grips with the salvation from sin that he offers us in his son Jesus.
Our God is a God who saves.
Do we long for return of Jesus?
Question number 3, Do we long for the return of Jesus, like Habakkuk longed for God to come among his people?
Remember the Good News Bible, God is coming again from Edom.
Habakkuk was so convinced of that, and then, because he was so sure, verse 17, Though the fig tree does not bud
and there are no grapes on the vines,
The bank account’s empty and so is the fridge, yet I will rejoice in the Lord he says.
We know that God did come. He broke into human existence in the person of Jesus Christ. What we look forward to is Jesus’ return.
But I wonder if we look forward to it the way Habakkuk looked forward to God coming.
You’d have to say pretty much everything we know about Habakkuk in this chapter is shaped by his confidence that God is coming.
Could, or would, the same be said of us?
That the return of Jesus Christ, God the Son, flavours every aspect of our lives?
If it doesn’t, I think I know at least one reason why. Despite the fact that some of us, even today, struggle with all kinds of difficulties, for many of us, we’re just content with our lives?
We’re desensitized, or uncaring, about the injustice, and suffering in the world.
A society seeking to create an existence apart from God, tends not to trouble us, on the whole,
Even the sin in our own lives, we might justify, ignore, or explain away.
Those are sweeping generalizations, but I think they explain why we don’t long for God to come and complete the establishment of his kingdom to the degree that we ought.
All of those things I just mentioned will be done away with when Christ returns, just a shadow of a memory.
Should we not be longing for Jesus’ return,
And living in the light of Jesus’ return.
Well we’re out of time.
I hope in Habakkuk we’ve seen God afresh.
I hope that what we’ve seen about God has helped us understand who Jesus is, why he came, why he died.
I hope what we’ve seen has helped us understand the depths of God’s grace.
I hope Habakkuk’s question, and resolution, his faith, can be a model for our faith.
I hope what we’ve learned will help us live by faith in difficult times.