We’ve all found ourselves in situations and seasons in which we wonder how long we will be stuck there.
In “kid time,” certain seasons seemed like an eternity and were often accompanied with incessant requests to know how long the holding pattern would last — the week before Christmas, the drive to Disney World, sitting in time-out — how much longer? As I grew a bit, my holding patterns seemed to be much more significant — waiting for the day I could get the driver’s license, waiting for those college acceptance letters, waiting for the phone call from the cute boy in the second row of fifth-period English. Cries of “How long?” spring from my lips today as I sit for hours in the DC Department of Motor Vehicles and as I wait for my chronically non-punctual friends at the movie box office. Those are all the cries of impatience in response to first world problems.
There have been other moments, however, when I’ve cried out, “How long?” in response to the gross injustice I see in this fallen world and the apparent inattentiveness of a God I understand to be loving. When my dad went on strike during my elementary school years, I asked, “How long?” As I watched my dear friend Cathy battle cancer for years, I asked, “How long?” When I prayed for my friend Mike as he walked through the pain of church politics that would seek to destroy the reputation of a good man, I asked, “How long?” How long before the house is sold, the job comes through, or the healing comes? They are words of anguish in the midst of a world that is broken. Something has gone wrong, and good people are left hurt, confused, and clinging as much as possible to whatever hope they can find.
This is the place we find Habakkuk. The first verse of the book introduces us to its central figure and writer. He was most likely a temple priest. Jerome and Luther explained that his name meant “to embrace” or “to wrestle.”1 From his writing, we discover that he lived in the very tension of those ideas.
As Habakkuk embraced God’s character, he was forced to wrestle with God’s actions; and as he wrestled with God’s actions, he embraced His character.
He also wrestled with his own people, his doubts, and his uncertainties, but he recognized that to truly wrestle, one must also genuinely embrace. Habakkuk was desperately concerned about the state of his nation. He was living in the midst of a spiritual sewer and was concerned about the spiritual complacency and lack of holiness, so he cried out to God on behalf of his people, asking Him to intervene in his situation and bring revival.
The first words out of Habakkuk’s mouth come screaming off the page in familiar desperation: “How long?” (Habakkuk 1:2). Clearly, he was a man who drove straight to the point. He didn’t feel the need to approach God in some pietistic posture or with a preamble of meaningless words to try to flatter God. His heart simply cried out, “How long?” Enough is enough.
The Scriptures don’t shy away from that question. In fact, it’s asked more than sixty-five times in the biblical text.
The psalmist turned the question around and dared to ask God, “How long?” at least ten times. Consider these examples:
How long, O Eternal One? How long will You forget me? Forever? How long will You look the other way? How long must I agonize, grieving Your absence in my heart every day? How long will You let my enemies win? — Psalm 13:1–2
How long will we wait here alone? Return, O Eternal One, with mercy. Rescue Your servants with compassion. — Psalm 90:13
When Isaiah looked around at the corruption and brokenness of his people, he asked God, “How long will this go on?” — Isaiah 6:11 NLT
When we fast-forward all the way to the end of the story, we hear the martyrs cry out in a loud voice:
How much longer, O Lord, the holy One, the true One, until You pronounce judgment on the inhabitants of the earth? Until You avenge our blood?” — Revelation 6:10
Habakkuk echoed the familiar question: “How long must I cry, O Eternal One, and get no answer from You?” (Habakkuk 1:2). Then he moved from asking, “How long?” to a new question: “Why?” He followed up with three specific questions (paraphrased):
• Why do You not save?
• Why are we faced with injustice in the world? Why do You put up with wrong?
These are not new questions. In fact they are the oldest questions in the world and the fundamental questions of humanity.
Does God exist? And if so, why is there evil in the world? Where does evil come from, and why do bad things happen?
One of these questions goes all the way back to the book of Job.
Most scholars believe that Job was the first book of the Bible actually written, and it focuses on the oldest theological question in the world: Why do bad things happen to good people? Job lost all of his possessions and his family, and ultimately he lost the support and encouragement of his best friends. In the book, he asks why more than a dozen times. Why was I born? Why have You made me Your target? Why do You hide your face and consider me Your enemy? Why should I not be impatient? Job had good reason to ask why. Both God and Satan agreed he was the most righteous man alive. Why should the good guys face such torment?
There is a striking parallel found between the two books, Habakkuk and Job:
Though I cry, “Violence!” I get no response; though I call for help, there is no justice. — Job 19:7 NIV
How long, LORD, must I call for help, but You do not listen? Or cry out to You, “Violence!” but You do not save? — Habakkuk 1:2 NIV
When we turn to the last chapter of Job, the questions end and God speaks. But the questions remain. In this book that focuses on the question of why bad things happen to good people, the author never provides an answer. Instead, we are given an opportunity to see a picture of Job’s character, posture, and response.
The “why” questions are as prevalent in Scripture as they are in our own lives. The psalmist asked why as often as he asked, “How long?”
Why, O Eternal One, are You so far away? Why can’t You be found during troubling times? — Psalm 10:1
Why have You forgotten me? Why must I live my life so depressed, crying endlessly while my enemies have the upper hand? — Psalm 42:9
Wake up, Lord! Why do You slumber? Get up! Do not reject us any longer! — Psalm 44:23
The question was even found on Jesus’ lips as He pulled Psalm 22:1 from His memory and screamed from the cross,
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? — Matthew 27:46; Mark 15:34 NIV
Habakkuk used six different terms to describe the dismay and hopelessness of the situation: atrocities, wickedness, disaster, violence, conflict, and controversy (Habakkuk 1:3). He also declared that the law is “powerless” (Habakkuk 1:4), from the same Hebrew word used in Genesis 45:26 and Psalm 77:2 to describe a heart or hands growing dumb, respectively. Jeremiah, who also prophesied around the time of Habakkuk, made similar claims with similar language about the wickedness of the people.
Habakkuk joined the chorus of prayers that seek to know “how long” and “why.” The rules weren’t working and the bad guys were winning.
He was desperate for God to show up and do what only God can do.
What questions are haunting you? To what place of desperation has life dropped you? Habakkuk let his questions and his desperation drive him to his knees in prayer.
We love a good ending, but often we must walk through time and trial before we arrive there. Sometimes, our questions of why and how long are met with silence. Other times, they are answered in ways we did not anticipate and cannot comprehend. Such is the story of Habakkuk.
Excerpted with permission from Amazed and Confused: When God’s Actions Collide With Our Expectations by Heather Zempel, copyright Thomas Nelson.
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As you’ve struggled with God over the questions “how long” and “why” — the fundamental questions of humanity — how has your relationship and trust in God changed and developed? Have you ever been angry at God? If so, why? What have you learned in your desperate prayers? Come share with us on our blog! We would love for our community to encourage one another in continuing to pursue God in prayer and trust Him for restoration and for God to do what only God can do! ~ Faith.Full