Habakkuk 1:1-12 “The Rise and Fall of Empires”

Read the Scripture

Habakkuk was a prophet in Judah during the last days of this southern kingdom. The northern kingdom Israel had fallen to the Assyrians in 722 BCE. Tiny Judah was all that was left of David and Solomon’s earlier empire. The barbaric and ruthless Assyrian Empire had been defeated by the Neo-Babylonian Empire. Babylon was the new threat to the ancient Near East. Eventually Babylon’s empire reached as far as northern Egypt. Judah had to kowtow to this new neighborhood bully and was forced to pay costly tribute in order to survive with some degree of independence. 

In spite of the messages of such prophets as Isaiah and Micah, the king of Judah, his cronies, and the landed gentry continued their exploitation of the poor and their practices of idolatry. In our passage, Habakkuk asks the perennial questions of those suffering from injustice: “How long?” and “Why?” These questions of theodicy have been asked by billions of humans since the dawn of kingdoms and empires five thousand years ago. Because Yahweh is a God of justice whose association with Israel began with Her liberating Hebrew slaves in Egypt, Habakkuk was troubled by what he saw as a lack of response to the suffering of the poor in a system of corruption, oppression, and violence. 

God answered Habakkuk’s questions—at least, in part, but not in a way that the prophet expected. God was already doing something that no one on earth could expect. God was preparing the dreaded Babylonians to come to Judah and sweep the kingdom away! Through terrifying military might, Babylon would put an end to this unjust and idolatrous kingdom. The great Jewish scholar Abraham Heschel wrote the following about this oracle from God: “While God’s design is veiled in an enigma, it is the prophet who volunteers an explanation. The nations are guilty; punishment must follow the guilt. The Chaldeans [Babylonians] are the instruments of God’s justice.” So, Habakkuk said, “O Lord, You have ordained them as a judgment; and You, O Rock, have established them for chastisement.” But that realization presented another question: Why should innocent people in Judah suffer so that the wicked in the kingdom could be punished? Hundreds of millions of families asked that same question during the two World Wars of the 20th century. Indeed, there are many today who continue to ask that question. 

How might we interpret and apply this passage from Habakkuk in our own day? Does it have anything to say to us? Can such an understanding of God be harmonized with the picture of God presented by Jesus? I suggest we may indeed gain some insights from this passage dating 2600 years ago, but only if we do our homework and only if we recognize our own complicity in the machinations of empire. The following are some insights that may be helpful.

  1. We must always remember that the focus of the Hebrew Scriptures is always on the community, not on the individual. The individual matters only as a part of the wider community. Healing, deliverance, and salvation come to the individual through the community. We Westerners may find this disturbing, but our society also experiences the connectedness which the Scriptures assumed to be the overarching reality of our world. How many people of color, poor people, immigrants, those who have physical, emotional, and mental challenges, those who make up the lgbtq comminity suffer because of the greed, prejudice, and violence of others? And how many of them may suffer when “judgment” finally falls upon such greed, bigotry, and violence? We are all connected. As John Donne said, “Ask not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.” 
  2. The prophets understood God as Creator and Ruler of the Universe. Therefore, they were inclined to see unfortunate events and circumstances as coming from the will of this mighty God. However, even with this understanding of reality, there remained a contradiction. All the prophets saw injustice as coming from greedy and violent people. They, not God, were the cause of so much suffering in the world. God did not ordain such poverty and oppression. These evils were the result of evil intentions of evil people. Here we find an inconsistency in theology which would continue into our day as we ponder the question of theodicy. 
  3. I have suggested elsewhere in this blog that what the Bible calls “judgment” might be better understood by us as “consequences.” God does not incite violent kingdoms and empires to wreak havoc, destruction, and suffering in this world. God is incapable of doing violence or injustice. God cannot not love. However, one could argue that God has constructed the universe in such a way that evil eventually self-destructs. Two popular quotes refer to this eventual destruction. “The wheels of justice turn slowly, but exceedingly fine” (Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s translation of a portion of a poem by 17th century poet Friedrich von Lugau) and “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice” (MLK). Both quotes recognize that justice may be a long time coming, but evil eventually destroys itself. The reason for this self-destruction is because evil has no ultimate, eternal grounding. Only God is ultimate and eternal. Anything which is contrary to the goodness, justice, and love of God is doomed to extinction. (Notice I wrote “anything” and not “anyone.” For a more thorough presentation of this truth, see my blog article entitled “A Privation of Good.”) 

History is littered with failed kingdoms and empires which have brought destruction upon themselves. Every empire has assumed that it is the exception—that it will last forever and is exempt from the consequences of practicing evil. But every one of these empires have brought about their own destruction. Egyptian pharaohs claimed to be divine and to rule over an eternal kingdom. The royal house of David boasted that it would forever rule over Israel and that Jerusalem and its temple would never be destroyed. Alexander the Great, proclaimed a god by the people he conquered, died at the age of thirty-three and his vast empire was divvied up among quarreling generals whose descendants lost everything. Rome proudly asserted that it was the Eternal City but was trashed and levelled by barbarian tribes. Spain and Portugal savagely ruled vast territories but were quickly defeated by upstart kingdoms. England boasted that the sun never sets on the British empire, but today England is a second-rate country pitifully trying to hold on to the pomp and circumstance of a past that has long since vanished. The USSR which brutally tried to conquer the whole world through communism had to tear down its iron curtain as it lost the ability to control even its own people. These are just a few examples of the fate of arrogant, unjust, and violent empires.  

Every empire has assumed that it is the exception—that it will last forever and is exempt from the consequences of practicing evil.

But what about the U.S. Empire? Please do not argue that we are not an empire. In some ways, we are the only empire left in the world. And we too, like all other empires, assume that we are the exception—that God has chosen us as God’s anointed people and favored us above all other nations because of our goodness and religious zeal. Like all empires in the past, we arrogantly assume we are the exception. But the sad truth is that we are more similar to past empires than we are willing to admit. For those who deny we are an empire or who assume we alone are the exception to the pattern that has plagued humanity for the past five thousand years, I would like to point out two realities of our empire which resembles the tragic character of all empires in history. (I have ten more areas I could mention but will restrict my comments to only two areas.)

  1. Military and political intervention: Since 1776, the U.S. has invaded seventy nations. Fifty of those invasions have occurred since 1945. Between 1974 and 1989, the U.S. government has tried seventy-two times to change other nations’ governments through military intervention and violent espionage. We maintain between 660-800 military bases outside out national borders. (For so-called “security reasons,” the exact number is unknown, but 660 is the minimum while many analysts believe that 800 is a more accurate estimation) The United Kingdom has six military bases outside its borders, Russia has eight, and France has seven. We comprise 4% of the world’s population but possess 43% of the world’s weapons and 40% of the world’s wealth. Every empire in history has required a massive military to expand its power and wealth and to protect what it already has amassed. We, of course, maintain that we must maintain such a military-industrial complex to preserve the freedom and peace of the world. Every other empire has also justified the existence and use of its military with similar arguments. Ancient Rome, for example, maintained it needed its armies to preserve the “pax Romana” which in reality guaranteed Rome’s own greedy acquisition of most of the wealth in the ancient world. In truth, we are not that different from other empires when it comes to the purpose and use of our own military. 
  2. Economic: The goal of all empires has been to secure the wealth and status of a very small percentage of its population. In every empire the top 1-10% has enjoyed obscene wealth and privileges which others are never allowed the opportunity to enjoy. Here are some of statistics which reveal that the U.S. has continued this unjust trend:
  1. The wealthiest 10% of U.S. citizens own a record 84-89% of stocks.
  2. The top 1% gained over $6.5 trillion in corporate equities and mutual find wealth curing the pandemic according to the latest data from the Federal Reserve.
  3. The bottom 90% of U.S. citizens hold about 11% of stock and added $1.2 trillion in wealth during the Covid-19 wealth.
  4. The richest 1% of the U.S. population now accounts for more than half the value of equities owned by U.S. households according to Goldman Sachs which has contributed to stagnant wages for workers.
  5. The richest 1% owns 50% of the stocks held by U.S. households and between 34% and 42% of the total wealth in the country.
  6. See my blog article entitled “The Economic Dimension of Racism” which reveals how the economics of our empire is racist at its core.

If we do not change our greedy, unjust, and arrogant ways, in time we will go the way of all empires.

Like all empires, the U.S Empire has, at best, a checkered history. Much of the world would be better off if we ceased to exist as an empire. How could we argue otherwise when we possess 40% of the world’s wealth while comprising only 1/25th of the world’s population? If we do not change our greedy, unjust, and arrogant ways, in time we will go the way of all empires. Many will suffer from such a demise, including those innocent of such greed, injustice, and arrogance. So, is there any hope in such a world which eventually must suffer the consequences of its folly? Habakkuk would claim that God is still present in this world and is committed to the goal a peaceable and just community. He would assert that even in the midst of our national unrest and obsession with the accumulation of things and a fascist agenda, God is at work and is raising up people of conscience, compassion, and justice who can help pick up the pieces once our empire implodes. God is not a U.S. citizen and does not love us anymore than She loves the rest of the world. She is not ultimately dependent on us or any empire for the divine will to be done. In fact, Habakkuk would assert that none of us can even imagine what God will do as Her truth marches on. The prophet saw the destruction of Judah by Babylon as God’s judgment on his people. We today would perhaps see that destruction as the natural consequences of centuries of injustice and arrogance. Whether because of God’s judgment or simply the consequences reflected in some kind of “historical karma,” the Babylonian Empire lasted from 612-539 BCE—only 73 years. It too was cast into the dustbin of history. 

What we must trust is that God will find witnesses to Her will and agenda for this world—a will and agenda which include justice. Where She will find such faithfulness is beyond our imaginations or expectations. It would be nice if through genuine repentance, radical generosity, and healing compassion, the United States could be that witness. If history is to be trusted, the probability of such a transformation is highly unlikely. But if it is possible, it will because we have humbly decided to be the exception—the only exception in the entire history of this world.   

Habakkuk 1:1-12 (NRSV)

1 The oracle that the prophet Habakkuk saw.
2 O Lord, how long shall I cry for help,
and you will not listen?
Or cry to you “Violence!”
and you will not save?
3 Why do you make me see wrongdoing
and look at trouble?
Destruction and violence are before me;
strife and contention arise.
4 So the law becomes slack
and justice never prevails.
The wicked surround the righteous—
therefore judgment comes forth perverted.
5 Look at the nations, and see!
Be astonished! Be astounded!
For a work is being done in your days
that you would not believe if you were told.
6 For I am rousing the Chaldeans,
that fierce and impetuous nation,
who march through the breadth of the earth
to seize dwellings not their own.
7 Dread and fearsome are they;
their justice and dignity proceed from themselves.
8 Their horses are swifter than leopards,
more menacing than wolves at dusk;
their horses charge.
Their horsemen come from far away;
they fly like an eagle swift to devour.
9 They all come for violence,
with faces pressing[a] forward;
they gather captives like sand.
10 At kings they scoff,
and of rulers they make sport.
They laugh at every fortress,
and heap up earth to take it.
11 Then they sweep by like the wind;
they transgress and become guilty;
their own might is their god!
12 Are you not from of old,
O Lord my God, my Holy One?
You[b] shall not die.
O Lord, you have marked them for judgment;
and you, O Rock, have established them for punishment.

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