(1) The burden which the prophet Habakkuk saw.
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This is a very simple introduction. He does not say, "In the tenth year, in the tenth month of the reign of a certain king, Habakkuk the prophet, from a certain town, who was a Levite and a priest, saw a vision." He simply says, "This is what the prophet Habakkuk saw." We begin to see immediately some of Habakkuk's character. He removes himself almost entirely from the book. He is not worried about himself or his pedigree. His book is just a narrative of his conversation with God.
All we know about Habakkuk is that he was the prophet at the time. He is an obscure character, not appearing anywhere else in Scripture. In effect, there is nothing to learn except from what he says; the Bible contains no extraneous details about him. It is possible to extrapolate a few things about him. He may have been a Levite, one of the singers or musicians in the Temple, perhaps one of the sons of Asaph, because he writes a very fine song in the third chapter.
Even his name is uncertain. It seems not even to be Hebrew but foreign, an Akkadian word. Moreover, its meaning is disputed, the best guess being that Habakkuk means "embracer," almost like "hugger"—one who wrestles. In a way, that is what he does throughout the whole book. He embraces God, wrestles Him, for an answer—similar to what Jacob did—and he does not let go because he wants God to answer his troubling questions.
The date of the book is also uncertain. We know a general time, that it was probably written within twenty-five years of Jerusalem's fall in Judah, somewhere between 610-585 BC. This was right after Nineveh fell to the Babylonians in 612, and about the time that Nebuchadnezzar was besieging Tyre and before he came against Jerusalem. His first attack on Jerusalem occurred in 604, so the general consensus is that Habakkuk was probably written sometime during Nebuchadnezzar's seige of Tyre.
The awesome might of the Chaldeans was just one country away, and Judah itself was sinking further into sin. Josiah, one of Judah's best kings, had died, and his sons had come to the throne, and they had failed to hold the country together morally. Judah was beginning to fear that they would be next in the domino of nations that were falling, and they were terrified because word had reached them of what the Chaldeans, the Babylonians, did to those they conquered. Judah's day of reckoning was near, and so Habakkuk's cry to God is only a natural response of a man who loved his people and his nation.
We can see that Habakkuk's situation fits current circumstances quite closely. The fall of Israel is not too far off. This land is sinking further into sin, and no one seems to want to stand up to stop it. It could go quickly, even though we are the world's superpower. Just one terrorist who says he has a briefcase-size nuclear bomb could hold this country hostage, because no President would want to give up Houston, Denver, Seattle, Chicago, or any city in the United States to call the bluff of some terrorist group or some nation who decides that America needs to be cut down to size.
Not only that, things are happening in the church itself that make people ask questions, even of God Himself. "Why are you doing this, God?" "Why is the church disintegrating?" "Who are these people that have come in and destroyed the doctrines of the church?" "Why have You allowed it to happen?" Many of us have asked questions like these. They are the same questions Habakkuk was contemplating. He did not know what to think because what was happening did not seem to follow what he knew of God. "Why would God work this way?"
Like Habakkuk, we want to reconcile what we know of God with what is happening because we understand that He is sovereign. However, sometimes with God, it seemsthat two and two do not quite equal four, but with God two and two always make four. Our perspective is just not the same as His. So, we must go to God for answers when things do not seem to be going the way we expect them to. In this is the real value of this little, obscure book: It helps to answer some of these kinds of questions.
Notice that Habakkuk calls his message, his prophecy, a "burden." This is a very important word. Sometimes God's ministers, especially the prophets, had to deliver messages that people really did not want to hear. Often, speaking God's words is a burden because they are not always sweetness and light. Sweetness and light seem to come only at the end of the message, as a quick conclusion to the matter. What is so burdensome are the heavy, depressing terrible things that are the main part of the message. In addition, we all know what often happens to the messenger who bears bad news—sometimes he gets his head cut off! People who hear bad news too often take their wrath, their disappointment, their frustration out on the messenger. So it is no wonder Habakkuk says this is a burden! He bears a heavy load: He must tell his people something that they will despise, and because he says it, they will despise him. Thus, as he begins, Habakkuk says, "All right, here goes. You will not like what I have to say here, but read on." And so he presents his "burden."
— Richard T. Ritenbaugh