Habakkuk 3:16-19, Rejoicing in Adversity

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16 I heard and my heart pounded,
    my lips quivered at the sound;
decay crept into my bones,
    and my legs trembled.
Yet I will wait patiently for the day of calamity
    to come on the nation invading us.
17 Though the fig tree does not bud
    and there are no grapes on the vines,
though the olive crop fails
    and the fields produce no food,
though there are no sheep in the pen
    and no cattle in the stalls,
18 yet I will rejoice in the Lord,
    I will be joyful in God my Savior.
19 The Sovereign Lord is my strength;
    he makes my feet like the feet of a deer,
    he enables me to tread on the heights.
For the director of music. On my stringed instruments.

Habakkuk 3:16-19

Habakkuk the prophet was given a really hard message to deliver.  Because of Israel’s sins, the Lord was sending the pagan Babylonians to devastate their land.  Habakkuk struggled to understand how a holy God could use such unholy people to do his will.  God assured the prophet he would also judge the Babylonians for their wickedness, but it was a hard message to accept and hard to preach.  Tough times lay ahead, but at the end of his book, Habakkuk shows us how a believer is to face testing times such as those we are living through.  Let’s look at Habakkuk 3:16-19.

1. Waiting upon God

In the first part of chapter 3 Habakkuk thinks about the greatness of God and the way in which he has judged evil in the past.  That gives him encouragement, yet as he thinks of what he and Israel are going to have to endure in the near future, he is almost overwhelmed.  His language is very vivid: ‘my heart pounded…my legs trembled’ (v16).  He is rendered almost helpless by fear.  The storm is coming and he can imagine something of what it will be like.

It is good to realise that even a prophet may feel overwhelmed by what God is doing.  He is a man of flesh and blood, just like us.  He is not some cold, unfeeling person, immune to the trials that he and others have to pass through.  He trembles in fear.  At one time or another, we all face such situations, times when we feel we are at the end of our resources and cannot cope.  We may well be fearful about the future, especially in these very uncertain times.  We can identify with Habakkuk.

But notice too he says, ‘I will wait patiently for the day of calamity’ (v16).  He had resources to meet the trials, and we can have the same help in our times of need.

2. Rejoicing in God

In verses 17 and 18 we have a testimony to the power of faith in a fearful man.  Habakkuk is able to overcome his fears because of the strength provided by his God-given faith.  For this reason, he will be able to rejoice, even in the deepest adversity.

First of all the prophet faces up to the worst that may happen – ‘Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vine…’ (v17).  He depicts the worst situation imaginable since the fig, vine and olive were staple crops for the Israelites.  If these fail, there will be no food and no income.  The same applies to the flocks and herds he mentions.  It is a picture of economic disaster followed inevitably by famine, and probably starvation and death.  All of this could happen as a result of the Babylonian invasion.  It may not turn out to be as bad as this, but Habakkuk considers the ‘worst-case scenario’.  He does not buoy himself up with false hopes, telling himself ‘it could never happen’.  The hope that God’s people have in dire situations is not some kind of psychological trick, pretending that things will not really be too serious.  As we face a very uncertain future, in both the short term and the long term, we need something better than telling ourselves the worst will not happen to us.

Notice that Habakkuk’s rejoicing is ‘in the Lord’, it is ‘in God my Saviour’ (v18).  That is crucial.  He rejoices in the Lord who keeps His Covenant of Grace with his people in all generations.  However bad circumstances may become, the Lord will not forsake his people, and on both the personal and the national scale his purpose will be worked out for his glory.  Whatever Habakkuk himself may be called to suffer, he is assured that God will be at work in the situation.  For that reason he can not only accept whatever comes – he can rejoice and praise God.

By faith in the Lord, we too can rejoice even in adversity.  We do not know what God in his providence will bring to anyone of us.  It may include suffering, sickness, or even death.  Just because we are the Lord’s people, we are not spared all the hard experiences of life.  We can, however, be assured of his direction of events according to his wise and loving plan, and we can thank him for that knowledge.  This is not ‘keeping a stiff upper lip, nor is it self-deception: it is trust in the God who has saved us by Christ’s redeeming work, and who has committed himself to us in covenant grace.  Only the child of God can respond to crises in this way.

3. Strengthened by God

Habakkuk has not finished yet.  In v19 he makes another great assertion of confidence in the Lord: ‘The sovereign Lord is my strength’.  It lifts him above the present crisis and lets him see beyond it to the fulfilment of God’s purpose.  He is confident that God will give him the necessary strength to endure the test that is coming.  He uses the image of the deer – ‘he makes my feet like the feet of a deer’ – an animal proverbial for its speed and agility.  In v16 his feet were faltering, his legs were trembling, but now the Lord enables him to be sure-footed.  The fearful arrival of the Babylonians will not cause the prophet to stumble in doubt concerning the goodness of God’s plan.

At the end of the verse, Habakkuk expresses firm assurance in the Lord: ‘he enables me to go on the heights’.  His language suggests a degree of control over his situation – looking down on the trials from high ground.  He is also expressing his freedom from fear – if he stands on the high ground, he does not need to hide.  In difficult times it can be very tempting to try and hide from the struggles that confront us.  It may seem safer, but it is misguided.

Habakkuk has found the secret of true strength.  It lies not in self-confidence, but rather in trusting the Lord.  That is why he is confident of coming through his trials with his faith intact.

Here is a lesson every believer needs to learn.  Salvation begins with abandoning trust in ourselves and turning to Christ.  That is how we are then to live the Christian life – depending on the Lord’s strength.  Only thus can we face testing times.  Whatever comes to us – whether fear, anxiety, illness, loss or some other hard experience – we can face it with confidence in the God who gives us all the strength we need.  As the Apostle Paul learned, his strength is made perfect in our weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9).  May we know that strength in these testing days.

David McKay

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