The book of Habakkuk is an integrated whole with the following outline:
|1.2–4||The prophet's initial complaint|
|1.5–11||God's answer to the prophet|
|1.12–17||The prophet's second complaint|
|2.5–20||A series of “woe” oracles|
|3.1–16||A theophanic hymn, set within a biographical framework|
|3.17–19||The prophet's final song of faith|
The central theme of the book has to do with God's purpose. It was composed between 609–598 BCE, when the Babylonian armies under Nebuchadrezzar marched into and captured the Palestinian landbridge. Habakkuk resides in the southern Israelite kingdom of Judah, and unlike the prophets who preceded him, Habakkuk addresses his words not to his compatriots but to God. His principal question is: When will God fulfill his purpose and bring in his reign of justice, righteousness, and peace on the earth? When is the kingdom of God going to come?
In the first oracle (1.2–4), Habakkuk raises his initial lament. He sees in Judean society around him nothing but violence and evil—the oppression of the weak, endless strife and litigations, moral wrongs of every kind. And despite Habakkuk's continual pleading with God to end the wrong, God seems to ignore him and to leave the righteous helpless to correct it.
But then God does answer his prophet (1.5–11). He tells Habakkuk that he is rousing the Babylonians to march through the Fertile Crescent and to subdue Judah, as punishment for her sin. The nation that has rejected God's order and rule will find itself subjected to the order and rule of Babylonia and her gods.
In the third section (1.12–17), the prophet acknowledges the justice of God's punishment of Judah. And because God's judgment is always finally an act on the way to salvation, Habakkuk knows that Judah will not die. But his problem remains, because the Babylonians, in their cruel conquests, are even more unrighteous than Judah has been. When will God bring that unrighteousness to an end?
To seek an answer, Habakkuk stations himself on his watchtower (2.1), a symbol of his complete openness to God. And God answers him, assuring him that the “vision”—that is, God's righteous rule, God's kingdom—will come, in faithfulness to the divine promise. Indeed, the fulfillment of God's purpose hastens to its goal. It may seem delayed to human beings, but it will surely come, in God's appointed time. In the meantime, the righteous are to live in faithfulness to God, trusting his promise, obeying his commands, and acting in a manner commensurate with the coming kingdom. Only those who live such trusting and obedient lives will have fullness of life. Those who rely on themselves and their own prowess, who are proud and self‐sufficient, and who have no regard for the ways and will of God, will not prosper but will sow the seeds of their own destruction.
The “woe” oracles that follow in 2.5–20 illustrate the message of 2.4. V. 5 is corrupt, but probably should be read, “Moreover, wealth is treacherous; a mighty man is proud, and he does not abide”—a reference to the Babylonians. In the following verses, the prophet then shows the inevitable downfall of all who are unfaithful—of proud tyrants who oppress their captives, of corrupt and self‐glorifying governments and military powers, and of idolaters.
The hymn of 3.3–15, with its introduction, confirms the message of 2.2–3. The prophet is granted a vision of God's final, future judgment of all, and of the establishment of God's rule over all the earth. The Lord is portrayed as a mighty warrior, marching up from the southern desert, to conquer all his foes and to give salvation to all who trust him. The portrayal presents the most extensive theophany (description of the divine appearance) to be found in the Hebrew Bible and depicts the overwhelming glory and might of God, before whose presence and promise of judgment Habakkuk both trembles and is reassured. Some scholars hold that this hymn is an earlier, perhaps much earlier, liturgical composition, incorporated into the book in the postexilic period; if so, it has been skillfully integrated into its present context.
From such a vision of God's future triumph, Habakkuk has found his certainty. He therefore sings the magnificent song of faith (3.17–19) with which the book closes. The prophet's external circumstances have not changed. Violence and injustice still mar his community, strife still abounds, nations still rage and devour the weak, and the proud still strut through the earth. But Habakkuk has been given to see the final outcome of human history. God is at work, behind all events, fulfilling his purpose. His kingdom will come, in its appointed time, when every enemy will be vanquished, and God's order of righteousness and good will be established over all the earth. The prophet, and all the faithful like him, can therefore rejoice and exult.
Nothing more is known about the prophet, though he figures as a minor character in Bel and the Dragon 33–39. Paul quotes the book (2.4) in both Romans (1.17) and Galatians (3.11), in his discussions of justification by faith. Hebrews 10.37–38 identifies the coming “vision” of Habakkuk 2.2–3 with Christ, and uses it to strengthen a persecuted church. And believers throughout the years have affirmed the truth of Habakkuk's central thought: No matter what the circumstances, abundant and joyful life can be had from faithfulness to God.