4. God came from Teman
The third chapter of Habakkuk's prophecy opens with prayer and closes with praise.Between these expressions of worship there is a wonderfully eloquent account of Israel's last trial and Divine deliverance at the end of the Age, told in language which takes for its inspiration that other glorious epoch in Israel's history, the time of the Exodus. The prophecy is written in poetry—Hebrew poetry—and in form to be sung at the Temple services to the accompaniment of musical instruments. We may not doubt that in after days the noble strains of Habakkuk's psalm often were heard in Jewry, the hearts of the people beating fast with excitement and their eyes growing bright with pride as they thought of the salvation that one day must surely come.
"A prayer of Habakkuk the prophet upon Shigionoth." That is the superscription, the title, of the psalm, appearing in the Authorised Version as verse 1. The translators were uncertain as to the meaning of the last part of the phrase and so left the Hebrew word "shigionoth" untranslated, to the lasting puzzlement of future generations. Scholars now know that it referred to what we call the 'metre' of the song. In the original Hebrew the lines are of the impetuous, lofty style, composed in a state of deep mental stress or excitement, to which the Greeks gave the name of "dithyramb"; hence the title "upon Shigionoth" is best translated "in dithyrambic measure", as Moffatt renders it.
It is sometimes suggested that this third chapter was written at a much later period in Habakkuk's life, and that this accounts for the change in style. What is much more likely is that the vision awakened the dormant fire in Habakkuk's life, and that this accounts for all the passionate zeal which lay beneath his faith. In chapters 1 and 2 he had talked with God, prayed to God, and interceded with God—and God had answered and talked with him; but it is certain that at the end of chapter 2 heaven had been opened before the prophet's eyes and he had seen, first, the Lord seated upon his heavenly throne (ch.2 vs.20) and then the stupendous vision of the Lord coming forth to bring to pass his "strange work" (Isa.28.21) upon the earth. And it was that vision which, in the intensity of his excitement, he recorded in such glowing, vivid symbols in verses 3 to 15 of Chapter 3.
It was this experience that led him first of all to utter what must surely be one of the most moving prayers in the whole of the Scriptures. "O LORD, I have heard thy speech, and was afraid: O LORD, revive thy work in the midst of the years, in the midst of the years make known; in wrath remember mercy" (vs.2). He had realised at last that there was ordained a great gap between his own day and the day of the vision when Israel would be completely and finally delivered, and he was concerned that God should save alive his people, the work of his hands, during the intervening time. The word really means "preserve alive" as well as "give new life at the end", and is as often rendered "save alive" as it is "quicken". Habakkuk acknowledged that he had heard God's words, but although the scenes of the vision had filled him with joy and exultation, and given him a new confidence as to Israel's ultimate destiny, he was still "afraid" as to the intervening period. He knew that his people time and again would merit Divine condemnation for their faithlessness and hardness of heart. He knew how often they had been scattered and enslaved in past times because of their apostasy, and although he could not doubt God's faithfulness, his heart failed him when he thought of Israel's waywardness. And so, like Moses of old, he besought God on behalf of a stiff-necked and perverse people, that God would not cause his purpose to fail even although the people would prove undeserving of his bounty; that in his chastisement He would always save a remnant, and in the end "bring forth judgment to victory". "Preserve alive thy work in the midst of the years" he pleaded "in wrath remember mercy."
With that his mood changed. Even as he uttered the words he knew that God would be faithful, that deliverance would surely come, and with it the utter overthrow of all those evil forces which threatened and oppressed his people. And as the glorious history of the Exodus flooded into his mind he lifted up his eyes to the distant horizon and the Holy Spirit quickened his spiritual faculties so that before his wondering gaze there appeared the splendour of the God of Israel, a glory overspreading the skies and putting even the sun to shame as He advanced in the forefront of his ancient people, destroying their enemies before them and leading Israel into her desired haven. To the prophet's lips there came, unbidden, words which at one and the same time combined the events of the Exodus, the upheavals of Nature which so aptly symbolise the arising of God to set up his Kingdom, and the details of that last conflict in the empire of men which the Scriptures elsewhere call "Armageddon" and "Jacob's Trouble".
What did Habakkuk actually see? He beheld a great manifestation of natural forces—all in vision—the gathering and the breaking of a terrible tempest over the earth; in the midst of the tempest, riding upon the wings of the wind, Jehovah himself in his war chariot, hurling celestial thunderbolts upon the wicked and burning up his enemies round about (Psa.97.3). He saw Israel, a helpless people, surrounded by hostile nations invading the Holy Land, and he saw those nations swallowed up in the zeal of God's fury. He watched the storm die away, and Israel, resplendent in the calm sunlight of Divine favour, delivered for ever from all her oppressors. That was what he saw, and as he looked he clothed what he saw in the language of the story he knew best, the story of the Exodus; at the same time he described the later conflict that is yet to come, the one that closes the end of this Age.
We can be certain of that because it is that conflict which results in Israel's final deliverance and the fulfilment of all the prophecies concerning the Kingdom, and as if to make doubly sure, Habakkuk in verse 16 places on record his knowledge that he himself was to "rest" until that day arrived. If this prophet is in fact to be one of the heroes of faith who will rise again to lead Israel in the day of Christ's Kingdom, then there is a very definite fitness about the words of verse 16. But of that more presently.
In reading the verses that follow, it needs to be remembered that Habakkuk is writing in what has been called the "prophetic perfect" tense, that is to say, he took his stand, mentally, at the time of the fulfilment of the vision and described the events as having already occurred. This is a common practice in Hebrew prophecy; the absolute certainty of the things seen, even though still many years in the future, justifying the use of the completed tense. We appreciate the force of the symbolism best if we, in thought, range ourselves alongside the prophet and behold what he beheld, our imagination fired by the glory of his language.
"GOD CAME FROM TEMAN, and the Holy One from Mount Paran." (vs.3) That is the tremendous announcement with which Habakkuk heralds his vision. Then comes the rubric instruction "Selah", the command for a reverent hush and pause in the Temple service, for priests and people to keep silence, as it were, before the God Whose majestic presence has so solemnly been declared to them. And if the people thus kept silence before the ineffable (inexpressible) Name upon every occasion that this Psalm was sung in their worship, with what more awesome reverence must the prophet have viewed the opening scenes of the vision which gave birth to the words. He was evidently looking southward toward Teman, (Edom or Seir), and Paran (in the Arabian desert), the two centres from which God had arisen to lead his people to the Promised Land, and he saw the dawn of a golden radiance that told him of the Lord's rising up once again for deliverance. He might have thought of the words of Moses "The LORD came from Sinai, and rose up from Seir unto them; he shined forth from mount Paran, and he came with ten thousands of (his) saints"— holy ones—(Deut.33.2). He must certainly have recalled the inspiring words of the 68th Psalm "Let God arise, let his enemies be scattered: let them also that hate him flee before him... O God, when thou wentest forth before thy people, when thou didst march through the wilderness;… The earth shook, the heavens also dropped at the presence of God; even Sinai itself was moved at the presence of God, the God of Israel" (vs.1,7,8), for this is the song of Israel's march toward the land under the leadership of God, as the historian declares in Num.10.35; "And it came to pass, when the ark set forward, that Moses said, Rise up, LORD, and let thine enemies be scattered; and let them that hate thee flee before thee." For a moment Habakkuk may have seen what Balaam, seven hundred years previously, had seen in vision, the ten thousands of Israel surging homeward to their land of inheritance under that golden radiance of the Divine presence, and have repeated to himself Balaam's words on that great occasion: "From the top of the rocks I see him, and from the hills I behold him ... how goodly are thy tents, O Jacob, and thy tabernacles, O Israel. . . God brought him forth out of Egypt. . . He shall eat up the nations his enemies . . . Blessed is he that blesseth thee, and cursed is he that curseth thee" (Num.23 and 24). And as Habakkuk watched, the brightness of the Shekinah glory, the "pillar of fire by day", illumined all the sky and all the earth, preceding and guiding Israel in the way. So did he break out into the glowing description that follows the pause. "His glory covered the heavens, and of his praise the earth was full. And his brightness was as the sunlight; rays streamed forth out of his hand (Leeser), and in them was hidden His might" (Ferrar Fenton). The whole picture is that of a great sunrise of golden fire advancing from the horizon to overspread the heavens and resolve itself into the glory of the Lord, the Shekinah, leading the hosts of redeemed Israel back home.
And the question we have to ask ourselves is this: to what event in the end of the Age does this opening portion of the vision refer? Where is our starting point for the final application of Habakkuk's prophecy?
Analogy points us to the day when God will "set his hand the second time to recover the remnant of his people, which shall be left, from Assyria, and from Egypt . . . and from the islands of the sea . . . and shall assemble the outcasts of Israel, and gather together the dispersed of Judah from the four corners of the earth" (Isa.11.11-12). And not only so, but to a time when God begins to rise up for the salvation of all men from the power of sin and death, a time when He commences to set in motion those forces which result in the glory of the Second Advent, to inaugurate the "sending" of the Lord Jesus Christ, in all the "Times of Restitution of all things" (Acts 3.19-23). The vision as it proceeded showed that the golden glory was to be followed by a dark storm before the ultimate "afterward of peace", but prior to the storm there was certainly a phase in which the sunshine of Divine favour shone for a brief space upon the earth, an earnest of good things to come. And that fact gives us our starting point. The vision dates the commencement of its fulfilment at that time in the history of this world—the nineteenth century—when both Christian and Jew became conscious of the active working of God in their separate destinies. The Christian world—that section of it which was "watching for his appearing"—realised the approaching consummation of the Age and the imminence of the Advent of its Lord, and the Jew who still prayed in sincerity and in earnest longing "next year in Jerusalem" saw the outward evidence of forces moving toward the accomplishment of his desire. Before the storm clouds of this present time of trouble had begun to gather there was a period of golden glory during which light from the Heavenly Throne was illumining the Plan of God as never before, and the roseate prospect of the coming Kingdom, for both Christian and Jew, became clearer and more entrancing as year succeeded year, "This Gospel of the Kingdom" said Jesus, "shall be preached in all the world for a witness unto all nations; and then shall the end come" (Matt.24.14). That word was fulfilled in that century as never before. An understanding of the nature and purpose of the Millennial reign was attained such as had not blessed the Church in previous centuries. The knowledge of "Advent Truth" relating to the coming again of Jesus was brought to a higher and more complete stage than had ever been known. On the Jewish side the movement for the return to Palestine—then drawing its inspiration largely from religious sources—was born, and men began to talk of a Jewish state and nation. In a score of ways the golden light of Divine favour overspread the earth and caused men to look up and lift up their heads, sensing that deliverance was drawing nigh. In very truth a mighty angel had "come down from heaven, having great power; and the earth was lightened with his glory." (Rev.18.1).
To be continued