John J. Collins
The prophecy of Habakkuk is considerably more reflective than that of Nahum. He prophesied a few years later, when the Babylonian threat had become obvious. Habakkuk, however, not only reacts to the immediate danger but ponders the underlying problem. Why do the wicked circumvent the just? Why do the wicked devour those more righteous than themselves? Granted that the blame falls on humanity, why does God allow such a situation to prevail? The question, in short, is one of theodicy, or the justice of God and is more typical of wisdom literature than of prophecy. The classic treatment is found in the book of Job. The question of theodicy arises later in the apocalyptic literature especially in the great apocalypse of 2 Esdras, which is printed with the Apocrypha in Protestant editions of the Bible.
Habakkuk was concerned first of all with the injustice within Jewish society. It is illuminating to compare the “woes” in chapter 2 with Jeremiah's critique of King Jehoiakim (609–598 BC), which accuses the king of oppression and exploitation, especially in building a cedar palace by forced labor (Jer 22, 13–19 ). Jehoiakim might well be accused of storing up what is not his (Hb 2, 6 ) and of setting his nest on high ( 2, 9 ), and even the violence done to Lebanon ( 2, 17 ) may refer to his use of cedar. The critique, however, is couched in general terms and can apply to any wealthy and arrogant man.
Habakkuk's answer to the question of theodicy anticipates the kind of response that the apocalyptic writers would later offer. He does not provide an explanation but a promise that the situation will be rectified in time. At first the solution seems worse than the problem: God will raise up the Babylonians ( 1, 6–11 ). Isaiah (chapter 10 ) had spoken of Assyria as the rod of the Lord's anger. Babylon apparently fills this role in Habakkuk, by bringing about the downfall of King Jehoiakim. In Isaiah the rod itself would eventually be broken. The eventual destruction of Babylon is implied in Habakkuk too. The prophet cannot have been unaware that Babylon was a prime example of the wicked who devours one more just than himself and whose throat was insatiable as death ( 2, 5 ). Because of the similarity between the behavior of Babylon and that of the wicked in Judah, it is sometimes unclear to which Habakkuk is referring. The lesson, however, is clear. Even though justice is not apparent in the world, one should trust in the Lord and be patient.