Is God Fair?

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Habakkuk 1:12 – 2:5

INTRODUCTION: Our message series is called “The Journey from Doubt to Faith.” In this series we are tracing Habakkuk’s journey from questioning and doubt at the beginning of chapter 1 to settled faith and confidence by the end of chapter 3.

Habakkuk’s three big questions are the same questions that many people struggle with today. “Does God care? Is God fair? Is God there?” Last week we looked at the first of those questions: “Does God care?” Today we move on to the second question: “Is God fair?” Although we will be looking at 1:12-2:5 this morning, we will just read 1:12-13 to get started. (Read Habakkuk 1:12-13 and pray.)

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“Is God fair?” Have you ever questioned God’s fairness? Has something bad ever happened to you, and you responded by saying, “God, that’s just not fair!” Actually, life is frequently unfair. That’s something I used to tell my boys when they were younger. They would complain about something, and I would tell them, “I’m sorry, but life’s not always fair.”

But saying that life is unfair is very different from saying that God is unfair. I can live with life being unfair. After all, I am a sinner. I live in a world that has been affected by sin. And I live here with … a whole bunch of other sinners! So, it makes sense that life is not always going to be fair. But when you ask, “Is God fair?” that is a very different question. But when you ask, “Is God fair?” that is a very different question.

Last week we looked at the question, “Does God care?” Habakkuk looked around at all the violence and injustice in Judah, and he questioned whether God even noticed or cared. God answered Habakkuk that yes, he does notice, yes, he does care, and that he was in process of raising up the Babylonians for this very purpose – to judge the people of Judah for their unrepentant sin.

But God’s answer creates a new problem for Habakkuk. Yes, Judah is sinful and unrepentant. But the Babylonians are even worse! How can God use a more wicked nation to judge a less wicked nation?

In the first section Habakkuk struggled with the problem of evil in the world. Now, in this second section he struggles with the problem of God’s justice. When confronted with the problem of evil, Habakkuk questioned: “Does God care?” When confronted with God’s judgment for sin, Habakkuk has a new question: “Is God fair?”

This is typical of how many people think of God even today. The two biggest questions people ask about God are: 1) “How could a loving God allow evil in the world?” and 2) “How could a loving God punish people for their sin?” These are our modern versions of “Does God care?” and “Is God fair?”

What people don’t realize is that their second question answers the first. Yes, God is a loving God who cares about evil in the world. And the reason we know this is because God will in fact judge all evil and sin in the world. God is both loving and just. Which is another way of saying that God cares, and God is fair.

Habakkuk’s situation was a little different, though. Habakkuk wasn’t questioning God’s right to judge sin. He was questioning God’s method. How could God use the Babylonians to judge the people of Judah? The Babylonians were even more wicked than the people God was judging. Wouldn’t it make more sense to judge the Babylonians? Was God being fair?

So, let’s take a look at Habakkuk’s complaint, and then we will look at God’s response to Habakkuk’s complaint.

I. Habakkuk’s complaint: How can God use the Babylonians to punish the people of Judah? (1:12-17)

First of all, Habakkuk’s complaint: “How can God use the Babylonians to punish the people of Judah?” Habakkuk brings his complaint forward in three stages. There are three things that he is absolutely convinced of in and of themselves, and yet he cannot see how all three could be true at the same time.

    A. God is sovereign over the nations (12)
      – Jeremiah 30:11; Malachi 3:6

The first thing Habakkuk is convinced of is this: God is sovereign over the nations. Habakkuk demonstrates this conviction in two ways.

First, Habakkuk believes that God is sovereign over the people of Israel. Look at the beginning of verse 12 where Habakkuk speaks: “O LORD, are you not from everlasting? My God, my Holy One, we will not die.” (Habakkuk 1:12a) It is kind of a strange verse at first. What does God’s everlasting nature have to do with the people of Israel not dying? What is the connection?

It has to do with God’s sovereignty. God is everlasting. He is the first and the last. God had bound himself in a covenant relationship with his people, and so, as long as God continued, God’s people would live on.

There is an interesting parallel in Malachi 3:6 where God says: “I the LORD do not change. So you, O descendants of Jacob, are not destroyed.” (Malachi 3:6) God does not change. He is the everlasting God who is sovereign over Israel. So, Habakkuk was confident that even if God judged his people for their sins, he would not completely destroy them.

In fact, this is exactly what God told his people through the prophet Jeremiah: “Though I completely destroy all the nations among which I scatter you, I will not completely destroy you. I will discipline you but only with justice; I will not let you go entirely unpunished.” (Jeremiah 30:11)

Habakkuk firmly believed that God was sovereign over the nation of Israel. But then he also believed that God was sovereign over all the other nations as well. Look at the second part of verse 12: “O LORD, you have appointed them to execute judgment; O Rock, you have ordained them to punish.” (Habakkuk 1:12b)

God had just told Habakkuk that he was sending the Babylonians to judge the people of Judah, and Habakkuk has no doubt that is exactly what God is doing. The Babylonians are coming, and Habakkuk affirms that God is the one who has appointed and ordained them for this task. That’s the first thing Habakkuk is convinced of: God is sovereign over the nations.

    B. God is holy and cannot tolerate wrong (13)
      – 1 Thessalonians 5:22; 1 Peter 1:15-16; 1 John 1:5

The second thing Habakkuk is convinced of is this: God is holy and cannot tolerate wrong. Look verse 13 now: “Your eyes are too pure to look on evil; you cannot tolerate wrong.” (Habakkuk 1:13a)

This is one of the great teachings of Scripture: God is absolutely holy and pure. 1 John 1:5 tells us that “God is light; in him there is no darkness at all.” (1 John 1:5) It means that God is perfectly holy, righteous and pure. There is no evil, sin or darkness in him at all. But Habakkuk goes even further here in verse 13. Not only is there no darkness or evil in God. His eyes are too pure even to look on evil.

Now, this does not mean that God closes his eyes and ignores all the evil in the world. Otherwise, how could God judge the world? No, God sees every sin every person commits every day. When Habakkuk says, “Your eyes are too pure to look on evil,” he means “God does not look at sin with any type of acceptance or approval.”

When we look at sin in the world, we are sometimes horrified, often disgusted, but there are also times when we are tempted or attracted. Not so with God. God has only one reaction to sin. He is offended. All sin is a direct affront to God’s holiness. God is holy, and therefore he is offended by sin. God cannot tolerate wrong. Were it not for his gracious love and forgiveness, his righteous wrath would destroy us all instantly. This is why the Bible tells us to avoid even the appearance of evil. (1 Thessalonians 5:22)

How about you? Are you offended by sin? Do your eyes refuse to look upon evil? 1 Peter 1 tells us: “But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: ‘Be holy, because I am holy.’” (1 Peter 1:15-16) We all need to grow in this area of holiness.

Of course, the fact of God’s holiness prompts some additional questions from Habakkuk. Look at the rest of verse 13 now where Habakkuk asks God: “Why then do you tolerate the treacherous? Why are you silent while the wicked swallow up those more righteous than themselves?” (Habakkuk 1:13b) Habakkuk is trying to reconcile what he knows about God with what God has just told him about the Babylonians. He cannot understand how God could use the wicked Babylonians to punish those more righteous than themselves.

    C. Babylon is wicked and yet prospers (14-17)

So, Habakkuk knows that God is sovereign over the nations. He knows that God is holy and cannot tolerate wrong. And yet there is also a third thing that Habakkuk is firmly convinced of, and that is this: Babylon is wicked and yet prospers.

Look at verses 14-17 where Habakkuk describes the Babylonians. He says to God: “You have made men like fish in the sea, like sea creatures that have no ruler. The wicked foe pulls all of them up with hooks, he catches them in his net, he gathers them up in his dragnet; and so he rejoices and is glad. Therefore he sacrifices to his net and burns incense to his dragnet, for by his net he lives in luxury and enjoys the choicest food. Is he to keep on emptying his net, destroying nations without mercy?” (Habakkuk 1:14-17)

Habakkuk pictures Babylon as a fisherman and all the nations as helpless fish in the sea. Babylon the fisherman is violent and cruel, pulling up the people of the nations with hooks and dragging them away in his nets. Not only that, but he delights in their misery. He rejoices and is glad over those he captures. This phrase “rejoice and be glad” is usually used of worshiping God in the Bible, especially when the two words are paired together like this. Here Habakkuk uses the two words together to highlight how the Babylonians worship their own power and success.

The worship imagery continues in the next verse where we read how Babylon “sacrifices to his net and burns incense to his dragnet.” The words “sacrifice” and “burn incense” are also used in the Bible for worship, although Habakkuk uses them here in a form that almost always applies to idol worship rather than God. God is the one who has raised Babylon up, God is the one who has given Babylon its power and strength, and yet Babylon does not acknowledge God’s role in any of this. Instead, Babylon worships its own strength and skill.

Babylon worships its own strength because it is by conquest that “he lives in luxury and enjoys the choicest food.” In other words, Babylon enjoys its pleasures at the expense of the nations it conquers. And Habakkuk doesn’t see any end to this. It seems no one can stand up to them. Will the Babylonians continually empty their nets, destroying the nations without mercy?

Habakkuk doesn’t have a problem with any of these three things individually. He knows that God is sovereign over the nations. He knows that God is holy and cannot tolerate wrong. And he knows that Babylon is wicked yet prospers. He is convinced that all three are true. He just cannot see how all three can be true at the same time.

For example, if God were not sovereign, then God could not stop Babylon, and so Babylon’s success would not raise any questions. Or, if God were not holy, he would not care about Babylon’s wickedness, and so that would also remove the problem. Or, if Babylon was good and prosperous, or wicked and suffering for that matter, then Habakkuk would have no problem reconciling that with a sovereign, holy God either.

The problem for Habakkuk is that all three of these conditions exist at the same time. He knows God is sovereign. He knows God is holy. And he knows Babylon is wicked yet prospers. It doesn’t make any sense to him. It makes him question God’s justice. It makes him wonder, “Is God fair?”

II. Interlude: Habakkuk looks for God’s answer (2:1)

I love the way Habakkuk deals with his questions and doubts. We saw last week when Habakkuk struggled with doubt, instead of walking away from God, he brought his questions and doubts to God. Now that Habakkuk has voiced his second complaint, let’s look at chapter two and see what he does next.

He says in 2:1: “I will stand at my watch and station myself on the ramparts; I will look to see what he will say to me, and what answer I am to give to this complaint.” (Habakkuk 2:1) Habakkuk stubbornly clings to God even in the midst of his doubts. Habakkuk 2:1 is the Old Testament equivalent of Mark 9:24: “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24) Habakkuk takes his stand upon the watchtower. He stations himself on the ramparts. He looks for God’s answer.

This is something we all need to learn to do. When you have questions or doubts, bring them to God. Take your stand, dig yourself in, station yourself for the long run, and wait upon the Lord. God will answer your questions in his time. Now, God may not settle some of your questions until you reach heaven. But he will always give you himself, and he will always give you the faith to carry on. Habakkuk takes his stand on the watchtower, and he looks for God’s answer.

III. God’s response: The Babylonians will also be judged for their sin. Meanwhile the righteous will live by faith, trusting God to act justly in his own time. (2:2-5)

And then, God answers him. God gives him a revelation. God gives him a vision of what will happen in the future. The Babylonians will also be judged for their sin. Meanwhile the righteous will live by faith, trusting God to act justly in his own time.

    A. God’s answer awaits an appointed time (2-3)

The first thing God tells Habakkuk is that the answer awaits an appointed time. Look at verses 2-3. “Then the LORD replied: ‘Write down the revelation and make it plain on tablets so that a herald may run with it. For the revelation awaits an appointed time; it speaks of the end and will not prove false. Though it linger, wait for it; it will certainly come and will not delay.’” (Habakkuk 2:2-3)

God tells Habakkuk to write down the content of the revelation. Habakkuk is to write it plainly on tablets so that a herald may run with it. These verses are a little difficult to translate, but the basic gist of it is that Habakkuk should write it down and make it plain for all to see. There is an appointed time for its fulfillment, and when that time arrives the revelation will not prove false. It won’t happen right away, but Habakkuk should wait for its fulfillment in God’s perfect timing.

God’s word is certain. The fulfillment of his promise will neither be early nor late. God’s answer awaits an appointed time.

    B. Babylon’s actions are not justified in God’s sight (4-5)

Secondly, God assures Habakkuk that Babylon’s actions are not justified in God’s sight. Look at verses 4-5: “See, he is puffed up; his desires are not upright — but the righteous will live by his faith — indeed, wine betrays him; he is arrogant and never at rest. Because he is as greedy as the grave and like death is never satisfied, he gathers to himself all the nations and takes captive all the peoples.” (Habakkuk 2:4-5)

God is using Babylon to bring judgment to Judah and the other nations, but that does not excuse Babylon’s sin. Babylon is puffed up, unrighteous, drunken, arrogant, restless and greedy. Babylon conquers nations, not out of concern for God’s justice, but because of his own arrogance and greed. Babylon is drunk on power and wine, and his drunkenness will betray him. This part of the prophecy is fulfilled in Daniel 5 where we learn that drunkenness was part of what led to Babylon’s eventual downfall.

God tells Habakkuk that the Babylonians will also be judged for their sin, but all in God’s timing. In fact, as we will see next week, the rest of chapter two outlines Babylon’s many sins and each of the many judgments that are coming because of those sins.

This was the answer that Habakkuk needed to hear. Habakkuk knew that God was sovereign, he knew that God was holy, but he also knew that Babylon was wicked and prospering. And that did not make sense. It threw into question God’s justice: “Is God fair?”

But now God had made it clear that Babylon would be judged for its sin after all. Now Habakkuk knew that God was sovereign, holy and just. Babylon would be judged for its sin. Meanwhile, God says, the righteous will live by faith, trusting God to act justly in his own time.

    C. The righteous will live by faith (4b)
      – Romans 1:16-17 (Galatians 3:11; Hebrews 10:38)

This one phrase right at the end of verse 4 – “the righteous will live by faith” – this is one of the most important verses in the whole Bible. It is quoted three times in the New Testament – in Romans 1:17, Galatians 3:11 and Hebrews 10:38. This is the verse that God used to reveal the gospel to Martin Luther and launch the entire Reformation. It is a wonderful verse, both in its original Old Testament context, as well as in its New Testament fulfillment.

Let’s look at the Old Testament context first. For Habakkuk, the verse meant that he should live by faith while he waited for God’s righteous judgment to fall on Babylon. The word “live” here in 2:4 is a confirmation of what he said earlier in chapter one: “O LORD, are you not from everlasting? My God, my Holy One, we will not die.” (Habakkuk 1:12)

Why would the people of Judah live and not die? Was it because of their own righteousness? Not a chance. The whole reason God was bringing the Babylonians was to judge the people of Judah for their sin. No, they would live because of their faith in God who had bound himself in a covenant relationship with his people. They would be righteous by faith, not by their own works.

The full implications of this verse are brought out later in the New Testament through the gospel of Jesus Christ. The gospel, or good news, is that even though we are sinners and deserve punishment for our sin, Jesus died on the cross and took our punishment that we might be forgiven for our sins.

That’s why Paul writes in Romans 1: “I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes…. For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written” – and then he quotes Habakkuk 2:4 – ‘The righteous will live by faith.’” (Romans 1:16-17)

It is not your righteousness that gives you life. It is the righteousness of Jesus that gives you life. Jesus gives you his righteousness when you put your faith in him and trust his death on the cross for you instead of your own works – even as Habakkuk put his faith in God’s love and faithfulness rather than in the people of Judah. As Habakkuk said: “O Lord, are you not from everlasting? Therefore we will not die…. The righteous will live by faith.” (Habakkuk 1:12, 2:4)

CONCLUSION: So, how do we apply this passage to ourselves today? I would like to close by looking at three things this passage tells us about God, and three things it tells us about ourselves.

First of all, three things this passage tells us about God:

  1. God is sovereign. He is active in the affairs of history. He uses the nations to bring about his will whether those nations acknowledge him or not. This is good to remember when you look at all the conflict around the world even today. God is sovereign over the nations, and he will use their actions to accomplish his purposes. God is sovereign.
  2. God is holy. He cannot tolerate any wrong. His eyes are too pure even to look upon evil. Because God is holy, we too should be holy in all we do.
  3. God is just. He will judge all evil in the world, including those whom he has used to judge others.

 
So, those are three things this passage tells us about God. Here are three things this passage tells us about us:

  1. We are sinners, and therefore we are all subject to God’s condemnation. We may think we are “better” than some others in the world, even as the people of Judah thought they were “better” than the Babylonians, but compared to God’s absolute holiness, we are all the same.
  2. We cannot save ourselves by our works. Most people are deceived into thinking that they will go to heaven by their works, when, in reality, they won’t. Our good works are just what we are supposed to do anyways. They do not earn us any merit. They do not cancel out any of our sins.
  3. Therefore, the righteous will live by faith. It is only through faith that we can be made right with God and know eternal life rather than eternal condemnation.

 
Many times, people look at all the evil in the world and think, “God does not care.” Then they learn that God will judge their sin and they think, “God is not fair!” But God does care, and God is fair. God’s loving care and perfect justice meet together at the cross. Jesus died on the cross for your sins so that if you will put your faith in him, you can be saved. Put your faith in Christ today, and receive his righteousness, because God tells us: “The righteous will live by faith.”

© Ray Fowler

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