1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Habakkuk

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HABAKKUK, the name borne by the eighth book of the Old Testament “Minor Prophets.” It occurs twice in the book itself (i. 1, iii. 1) in titles, but nowhere else in the Old Testament. The meaning of the name is uncertain. If Hebrew, it might be derived from the root חבק (to embrace) as an intensive term of affection. It has also been connected more plausibly with an Assyrian plant name, ḫambaḳūḳu (Delitzsch, Assyrisches Handwörterbuch, p. 281). The Septuagint has Ἀμβακούμ. Of the person designated, no more is known than may be inferred from the writing which bears his name. Various legends are connected with him, of which the best known is given in the Apocryphal story of “Bel and the Dragon” (v. 33-39); but none of these has any historic value.[1]

The book itself falls into three obvious parts, viz. (1) a dialogue between the prophet and God (i. 2–ii. 4); (2) a series of five woes pronounced on wickedness (ii. 5–ii. 20); (3) a poem describing the triumphant manifestation of God (iii.). There is considerable difficulty in regard to the interpretation of (1), on which that of (2) will turn; while (3) forms an independent section, to be considered separately.

In the dialogue, the prophet cries to God against continued violence and injustice, though it is not clear whether this is done within or to Israel (i. 2-4). The divine answer declares that God raises up the Chaldaeans, whose formidable resources are invincible (i. 5-11). The prophet thereupon calls God’s attention to the tyranny which He apparently allows to triumph, and declares his purpose to wait till an answer is given to his complaint (i. 12–ii. 2). God answers by demanding patience, and by declaring that the righteous shall live by his faithfulness (ii. 3-4).

The interpretation of this dialogue which first suggests itself is that the prophet is referring to wickedness within the nation, which is to be punished by the Chaldaeans as a divine instrument; in the process, the tyranny of the instrument itself calls for punishment, which the prophet is bidden to await in patient fidelity. On this view of the dialogue, the subsequent woes will be pronounced against the Chaldaeans, and the date assigned to the prophecy will be about 600 B.C., i.e. soon after the battle of Carchemish (605 B.C.), when the Chaldaean victory over Egypt inaugurated a period of Chaldaean supremacy which lasted till the Chaldaeans themselves were overthrown by Cyrus in 538 B.C. Grave objections, however, confront this interpretation, as is admitted even by such recent defenders of it as Davidson and Driver. Is it likely that a prophet would begin a complaint against Chaldaean tyranny (admittedly central in the prophecy) by complaining of that wickedness of his fellow-countrymen which seems partly to justify it? Are not the terms of reference in i. 2 f. and 1. 12 f. too similar for the supposition that two distinct, even contradictory, complaints are being made (cf. “wicked” and “righteous” in i. 4 and i. 13, interchanged in regard to Israel, on above theory)? And if i. 5-11 is a genuine prophecy of the raising up of the Chaldaeans, whence comes that long experience of their rule required to explain the detailed denunciation of their tyranny? To meet the last objection, Davidson supposes i. 5-11 to be really a reference to the past, prophetic in form only, and brings down the whole section to a later period of Chaldaean rule, “hardly, one would think, before the deportation of the people under Jehoiachin in 597” (p. 49). Driver prefers to bisect the dialogue by supposing i. 2-11 to be written at an earlier period than i. 12 f. (p. 57). The other objections, however, remain, and have provoked a variety of theories from Old Testament scholars, of which three call for special notice. (1) The first of these, represented by Giesebrecht,[2] Nowack and Wellhausen, refers i. 2-4 to Chaldaean oppression of Israel, the same subject being continued in i. 12 f. Obviously, the reference to the Chaldaeans as a divine instrument could not then stand in its present place, and it is accordingly regarded as a misplaced earlier prophecy. This is the minimum of critical procedure required to do justice to the facts. (2) Budde, followed by Cornill, also regards i. 2-4 as referring to the oppression of Israel by a foreign tyrant, whom, however, he holds to be Assyria. He also removes i. 5-11 from its present place, but makes it part of the divine answer, following ii. 4. On this view, the Chaldaeans are the divine instrument for punishing the tyranny of the Assyrians, to whom the following woes will therefore refer. The date would fall between Josiah’s reformation (621) and his death (609). This is a plausible and even attractive theory; its weakness seems to lie in the absence of any positive evidence in the prophecy itself, as is illustrated by the fact that even G. A. Smith, who follows it, suggests “Egypt from 608–605” as an alternative to Assyria (p. 124). (3) Marti (1904) abandons the attempt to explain the prophecy as a unity, and analyses it into three elements, viz. (a) The original prophecy by Habakkuk, consisting of i. 5-10, 14 f., belonging to the year 605, and representing the emergent power of the Chaldaeans as a divine scourge of the faithless people; (b) Woes against the Chaldaeans, presupposing not only tyrannous rule over many peoples, but the beginning of their decline and fall, and therefore of date about 540 B.C. (ii. 5-19); (c) A psalm of post-exilic origin, whose fragments, i. 2-4, 12 a, 13, ii. 1-4, have been incorporated into the present text from the margins on which they were written, its subject being the suffering of the righteous. Each of these three theories[3] encounters difficulties of detail; none can be said to have secured a dominant position. The great variety of views amongst competent critics is significant of the difficulty of the problem, which can hardly be regarded as yet solved; this divergence of opinion perhaps points to the impossibility of maintaining the unity of chs. i. and ii., and throws the balance of probability towards some such analysis as that of Marti, which is therefore accepted in the present article.

In regard to the poem which forms the third and closing chapter of the present book of Habakkuk, there is much more general agreement. Its most striking characteristic lies in the superscription (“A prayer of Habakkuk the prophet, set to Shigionoth”), the subscription (“For the chief musician, on my stringed instruments”), and the insertion of the musical term “Selah” in three places (v. 3, 9, 13). These liturgical notes make extremely probable the supposition that the poem has been taken from some collection like that of our present book of Psalms, probably on the ground of the authorship asserted by the superscription there attached to it. It cannot, however, be said that the poem itself supports this assertion, which carries no more intrinsic weight than the Davidic titles of the Psalms. The poem begins with a prayer that God will renew the historic manifestation of the exodus, which inaugurated the national history and faith; a thunderstorm moving up from the south is then described, in which God is revealed (3-7); it is asked whether this manifestation, whose course is further described, is against nature only (8-11); the answer is given that it is for the salvation of Israel against its wicked foes (12-15); the poet describes the effect in terror upon himself (16) and declares his confidence in God, even in utter agricultural adversity (17-19). As Wellhausen says (p. 171): “The poet appears to believe that in the very act of describing enthusiastically the ancient deed of deliverance, he brings home to us the new; we are left sometimes in doubt whether he speaks of the past to suggest the new by analogy, or whether he is concerned directly with the future, and simply paints it with the colours of the past.” In any case, there is nothing in this fine poem to connect it with the conception of the Chaldaeans as a divine instrument. It is the nation that speaks through the poet (cf. v. 14), but at what period of its post-exilic history we have no means of inferring.

Our estimate of the theological teaching of this book will naturally be influenced by the particular critical theory which is adopted. The reduction of the book to four originally independent sections requires that the point of each be stated separately. When this is done, it will, however, be found that there is a broad unity of subject, and of natural development in its treatment, such as to some extent justifies the instinct or the judgment of those who were instrumental in effecting the combination of the separate parts. (1) The poem (iii.), though possibly latest in date,[4] claims first consideration, because it avowedly moves in the circle of primitive ideas, and supplicates a divine intervention, a direct and immediate manifestation of the transcendent God. He is conceived as controlling or overcoming the forces of nature; and though an earlier mythology has supplied some of the ideas, yet, as with the opening chapters of Genesis, they are transfigured by the moral purpose which animates them, the purpose to subdue all things that could frustrate the destiny of God’s anointed (v. 13). The closing verses strike that deep note of absolute dependence on God, which is the glory of the religion of the Old Testament and its chief contribution to the spirit of the Gospels. (2) The prophecy of the Chaldaeans as the instruments of the divine purpose involves a different, yet related, conception of the divine providence. The philosophy of history, by which Hebrew prophets could read a deep moral significance into national disaster and turn the flank of resistless attack, became one of the most important elements in the nation’s faith. If the world-powers were hard as flint in their dealings with Israel, the people of God were steeled to such moral endurance that each clash of their successive onsets kindled some new flame of devotion. Through the Chaldaeans God worked a work which required centuries of life and literature to disclose its fulness (i. 5). (3) When we turn from this view of the Chaldaeans to the denunciation of their tyranny in “taunt songs” (ii. 5-20), we have simply a practical application of the doctrine of divine government. God being what He is, at once moral and all-powerful, the immoral life is doomed to overthrow, whether the immorality consist in grasping rapacity, proud self-aggrandizement, cruel exaction, exulting triumph or senseless idolatry. (4) Yet, because the doom so often tarries, there arises the problem of the suffering of the innocent and the upright. How can God look down with tolerance that seems favour on so much that conflicts with His declared will and character? This is the great problem of Israel, finding its supreme expression for all time in the book of Job (q.v.). In that book the solution of the problem of innocent suffering lies hidden from the sufferer, even to the end, for he is not admitted with the reader to the secret of the prologue; it is the practical solution of faithfulness resting on faith which is offered to us. So here, with the principle of ii. 4, “the righteous shall live by his faithfulness.” The different application of these words in the New Testament to “faith” is well known (Rom. i. 17; Gal. iii. 11; Heb. x. 38) though the difference is apt to be exaggerated by those who forget how much of the element of אֱמוּנָה: lies in Paul’s conception of πίστις. In G. A. Smith’s words, “as Paul’s adaptation, ‘the just shall live by faith,’ has become the motto of evangelical Christianity, so we may say that Habakkuk’s original of it has been the motto and the fame of Judaism: ‘the righteous shall live by his faithfulness.’”

The Hebrew text of this impressive and varied book is unfortunately corrupt in many places; even so cautious a critic as Driver accepts or favourably notices eighteen textual emendations in the three chapters, and suspects the text in at least seven other cases. For the interpretation of the book in detail, the English reader will find Driver’s commentary (1906) the most useful.

References to earlier literature will be found in the following noteworthy studies of recent date: Davidson, “Nahum, Habakkuk and Zephaniah,” in Cambridge Bible (1896); Nowack, Die kleinen Propheten (Hdkr.) (1897); Wellhausen, Die kleinen Propheten3 (1898); G. A. Smith, “The Book of the Twelve Prophets,” in The Expositor’s Bible, vol. ii. (1898); Driver, article “Habakkuk” in Hastings’ Dictionary of the Bible, vol. ii. pp. 269–272 (1900); Budde, article “Habakkuk” in Ency. Biblica, vol. ii., c. 1921–1928 (1901); Stevenson, “The Interpretation of Habakkuk,” in The Expositor (1902), pp. 388–401; Peake, The Problem of Suffering in the Old Testament (1904), pp. 4-11 and app. A, “Recent Criticism of Habakkuk”; Marti, Dodekapropheton (K. H. C.) (1904); Driver, “Minor Prophets,” vol. ii., in Century Bible (1906); Duhm, Das Buch Habakkuk (Text, Übersetzung und Efklärung), 1906 (regards the book as a unity belonging to the time of Alexander the Great). Max L. Margolis discusses the anonymous Greek version of Habakkuk iii. in a volume of Old Test. and Semitic Studies: in Memory of William Rainey Harper (Chicago, 1908).  (H. W. R.*) 

  1. These legends are collected in Hastings, D. B. vol. ii. p. 272. He is the watchman of Is. xxi. 6 (cf. Hab. ii. 1); the son of the Shunammite (2 Kings iv. 16); and is miraculously lifted by his hair to carry his own dinner to Daniel in the lions’ den (supra).
  2. Followed by Peake in The Problem of Suffering, pp. 4 f., 151 f., to whose appendix (A) reference may be made for further details of recent criticism.
  3. For the less probable theories of Rothstein, Lauterburg, Happel and Peiser (amongst others), cf. Marti’s Commentary, pp. 328 f. and 332. Stevenson (The Expositor, 1902) states clearly the difficulties for those who regard ch. i. as a unity. He sees two independent sections, 2-4 + 12-13, and 5-11 + 14-17.
  4. Earlier, however, than Ps. lxxvii. 17-20, which is drawn from it.