We are focusing on Habakkuk 2:6-14 for Sunday, March 15. This is the continuation of Habakkuk’s response to the Babylonian imperial invasion of Judah and the Babylonians exercise of tyrannical imperial rule over the Judeans. Habakkuk turns from asking God when relief will come, and why this is happening in the first place, to “taunting” the oppressors with the prospect of their [inevitable, ineluctable] future downfall. [Some study questions on the text are here.]
BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: Part of the background for this week’s text is last week’s text! The stage has been set by Habakkuk’s perplexed questions about “how long” the scandalous injustice of Judean society is going to continue, and then “why” God deals with it by means of the even more horrific Babylonian kind.
Chapter 2 opens with Habakkuk’s announcement that he is waiting for an answer, and with God’s response to “write the vision” – in billboard-size letters, so that even someone running by (we might think of someone driving by at 70 mph) can’t miss it. It will come to completion “at the appointed time.” We often talk about God’s time-table not being the same as ours; here, God seems to echo those sentiments.
In contrast to “the proud” who are facing a comeuppance, “the righteous,” or just, who are not the proud, live by their faithfulness – firmness – steadfastness. This famous verse, in its context, seems to be saying that the way of life of the righteous or just person, the tzaddik, is the steadfast way of life of faithfulness to God and God’s Torah. That faithfulness is itself lifegiving; “virtue is its own reward.”
Injustice, on the other hand, is its own downfall, as we’ll see in the next few verses. At least, that’s the assertion here. Moreover, “everyone” knows it (v6). Except, possibly, the oppressors.
Verses 6b-19 are “taunt songs” – a genre that includes texts ranging from “na-na-na-na-nah-na” and “I know you are, but what am I?” to high literature (like Homer, Vergil, and Beowulf), in addition to our prophetic literature. (Other taunt songs include Isaiah 14:4-21, and maybe Micah 1:10-16.) Generally taunts are associated with battle, or at least conflict. And since they have the effect of enraging the taunted – at least, that seems to be their purpose – it makes me wonder whether Habakkuk would actually have shared these particular taunts with the powerful Babylonians, or whether they are the kind of thing that oppressed people say behind the oppressors’ backs. My money is on the latter.
This text never appears in the lectionary, making this lesson of how oppressive pride sows the seeds of its own destruction one of those things we wouldn’t know about the Bible if all we knew was the lectionary.
The final chapter of Habakkuk contains a remembered theophany – a divine appearance – which serves as a model for the future Habakkuk anticipates for “the people who attack us” (Habakkuk 3:16). The book concludes with the intensely utopian exclamation of vv17-19, grounded on the ultimate promise of God’s justice and salvation.
CLOSER READING: The “everyone” who will “taunt” and make up proverbs about the arrogant are the “all nations” of v5 who have been collected into the Empire – by force, against their will.
[Late night television comedic monologues are, I suspect, a contemporary analogue to these “mocking riddles”.]
The three taunts we are looking at offer a vision of “what goes around comes around,” or of anticipating something like an “equal and opposite reaction” of natural negative consequences. The ones who “heap up what is not their own,” who in effect plunder those who borrow money from them, will be “plundered” in turn. The ones who do everything possible to secure their houses with ill-gotten gain will find those houses themselves turning on them. Those who found cities and towns on unjust principles [“iniquity”] will find that they’ve worked for nothing, since the only things they care about are perishable and transient.
What will last is the “knowledge of the glory of YHWH,” which will fill the earth, “as the waters cover the sea.” Rashi translates it “as the waters cover the seabed.” He’s probably right. But I like to think of is as “white on rice,” anyway: inseparable from; identical.
That will make the earth full of the knowledge of the glory of the Holy One, indeed.