How do we synthesise two prophetic messages in Scripture, given at the exact same time to the exact same people, that appear to be not just different but contradictory? One prophet seems entirely focused on putting an end to evil and suffering and seeing swift justice, whilst the other desperately pleads for leniency and more time before the inevitable judgment. Which view is correct or do these prophets together give us a beautiful picture of the loving nature of God expressed through his justice and mercy?
The first prophetic voice is that of Habakkuk, who composed a short conversation of his dialogue with God. Habakkuk lives in the death throes of his nation, during the reign of the last five kings of Judah. For nearly four hundred years now, the spirituality of the people of Judah has been in rapid decline. Idolatry and paganism were rampant and with it, sexual deviancy and child sacrifice. The noble, elite and wealthy were preying upon the poor, widow and orphan, seizing their land and forcing them into servitude. False prophets gave oracles of hope and peace in the midst of imminent war and catastrophe and the priesthood endorsed and practiced a surface level worship. Judges were easily bribed and criminals would be set free without consequence.
As Habakkuk looked around the evils perpetrated in his country his only response was
“O Lord, how long shall I cry and you will not hear? I cry out to you “violence!” and you will not save. Why do you show me sin and cause me to see trouble? For plundering and violence are before me; there is strife and contention arise. Therefore, the law is powerless, and justice never goes forth. For the wicked surround the righteous; therefore, unjust judgment proceeds.’ Habakkuk 1:2-4
Everything Habakkuk sees is violence, injustice, false worship and rebellion against God and an absence of love for one’s fellow man. Habakkuk’s plight is not dissimilar from ours today. Today we cry out to God for justice in the world. We see that idolatry is alive and well today though taken in a different form. That sexual deviancy is rampant and 42.3 million infants were killed in their mother’s wombs just in 2019. We see that the poor and vulnerable in society still suffer, whilst false teachers, preachers and prophets steal money, profess false miracles of hope and ultimately offer not even salvation but false gospels leading to eternal death. We see that though the law is good, it is too often powerless when abused by partial judges and biased law enforcers.
The cry of Habakkuk is alive and well today. A cry for God to bring judgment, to put an end to evilness and wickedness, and to come to the rescue of those suffering.
The second prophetic voice is that of Jeremiah, who endured perhaps the most difficult ministry of any prophet recorded in the Bible. Called at a young age to preach to his nation, he was to point out the sin and evil of his nation and call them to repent of their sin, to turn away from their wickedness and worship God. Or as God described Jeremiah’s commission, “to root out and to pull down, to destroy and throw down, to build and to plant.” For 40 years, Jeremiah preached a message of repentance to his fellow people in hopes of preventing judgment from God and the destruction of Jerusalem. His life’s work was spent dedicated to exposing the same evils Habakkuk wrote of, but to also point to a higher calling: a loving obedience to God and to one’s neighbour.
For this good work of forestalling judgment, Jeremiah was rewarded by attempted assassination plots, being thrown into prison, and being ridiculed by his own people to the point where Jeremiah cried out, “Oh that my mother’s womb had been my grave. Why did I come from the womb only to see pain and sorrow?”
Jeremiah spoke to the common people, to the priesthood, to the wealthy nobility, to the kings and leader of his country, warning them of the impending judgment through bitter tears, and his warnings were rejected. Jeremiah’s bitter tears are not unlike the ones we shed today. We are grieved to see our dearest friends, members of our family, those in our work place, our communities, and our country, follow into a direction that inevitably leads to judgment. We feel sorrow when we see those we love contributing to the evil in our world today. When we see these precious people who at that point are under the judgment of God’s law, we like Jeremiah beg with God, “please don’t bring judgment yet! Please give us more time! Please give my loved ones more time!” Though we long for justice we also beg God to prolong his patience and mercy just a bit longer to give those we love more time to come to know God.
The intercessory pleading of Jeremiah is alive and well today. A pleading for God to yes bring judgment, but not for a little while longer, so that more can be brought into God’s loving covenant of grace and avoid the penalty of death.
THE TWO PROPHETS
So, which prophet is right? Clearly both are. Habakkuk echoes our cries for justice and judgment, and for a putting an end to human suffering and calling the wicked up for trial for their actions. Jeremiah acknowledges this desperate need for justice, but like us he begs for God to wait just a little bit longer to give more the opportunity to repent. Justice and mercy.
These two ideas are in constant tension with one another, asking for both immediate and delayed judgment. I imagine it not only accurately depicts our feelings but also that of God. As God looks at the world and sees his beautiful creations whom he considers his children, suffering at the hands of others, he wants to put an end to it. But those who are perpetrating evil are also his beloved creation and so he is torn, giving them the same opportunity others have been given to repent before judgment.
The prophet Micah seems to be a perfect synthesis of these two prophetic voices. When debating with the wicked people of his time, he proposed that God was not interested in surface level worship. God did not require child sacrifice like the other pagan deities. He wasn’t even as concerned with offerings of rams or cows. Rather,
“He has shown you o man what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God”. Micah 6:8
By Christopher Petersen (and inspired by discussions with Caleb Rankin)