Levi grew up in the Holy City of Jerusalem. His father was a merchant who peddled his wares on the city street while his mother took care of Levi, his two brothers, and three sisters. Levi’s mother was a woman of prayer and she insisted that her family go to Temple each Sabbath day to give praise and honor to God. Jacob, Levi’s father, went along to the Temple, and he observed the Sabbath. That was the problem for Jacob – he “observed” the Sabbath. He went along with his family, but he was on the outside looking in. Jacob didn’t see any practical value at all in going to Temple and calling upon a God that he couldn’t see. Jacob went along with his family, but in reality he was only counting down the hours until he could get back out on the street and make a buck.
It was fashionable to go to Temple and say your prayers under the political leaders who ruled during Jacob’s day. There was real reform taking place throughout the land, but for Jacob going to Temple was just an opportunity to meet potential clients. Outside of the Sabbath Jacob never gave God a thought although his wife was always singing to the Lord and making reference to the Torah.
When the political tide changed, a new regime took the reigns, and the people of the land began to see a different reality unfold. Laws were passed so that businesses could remain open on the Sabbath, pressure was put on religious “zealots” who took their faith too seriously, and Jacob was free at last. Many of his friends skipped worship so that they could work on the Sabbath and Jacob began to resist his wife’s wishes that the family worship together on the Sabbath. As the boys got older Jacob began to take them downtown on the Sabbath to “help” with his business instead of making them go with their mother to the Temple.
The city market was a wild place where merchants tried to get over on shoppers and shoppers tried to get over on the merchants. There was corruption, foul language, and feigned hospitality everywhere as everyone tried to cut a deal. With the relaxed political atmosphere there began to be more and more objectionable goods trickling into the carts of the merchants in the city square. Jacob’s boys drank it all in as they were now working on the Sabbath instead or worshipping. The Word of God became a thing of their past.
As time went on the boys and their father gave less and less attention to the things of God and more and more time to making money – sometimes with less than admirable business practices. Jacob explained it all to the boys by saying, “That’s the way it is in business. You have to take advantage of the customer before they take advantage of you.”
By the time Jacob’s sons grew up and went into business for themselves thoughts of God were long gone. The boys became more vile and corrupt than their father with no boundaries to keep a check on their behavior and practices. Over the course of time the boys went through many setbacks as they were caught cheating, lying, and even stealing to get ahead. Each time the boys would figure a way out of their mess by becoming even more conniving and by manipulating the system.
Jacob’s wife continued to pray for her husband and her sons. She asked the Lord to turn their hearts back to the things of God and away from the things that were destroying them. She spoke with her husband and sons on more than one occasion, but each time they explained to her that you have to do certain things to get ahead in business. They told her to “leave God for church and let them handle the family business.” She knew that destruction was on its way so she continued to pray that God would turn their hearts before devastation visited her family.
I am certain that Jacob’s wife and the prophet Habakkuk had much in common. Habakkuk had watched the crowds file into the Temple and then he watched them file out when it was no longer advantageous or popular to seek the Lord. Habakkuk continued to pour his heart out before the Lord, he continued to urge the people to turn around, but they would not listen.
Last week, as we began our study of the Prophet Habakkuk, we took a look at the events that led up to the time when Habakkuk wrote this powerful prophecy. If you will remember, I shared with you last week that Habakkuk is different from any other book of prophecy in our Bible in that the three chapters of Habakkuk’s book are a dialogue between the prophet and God. All of the other books of prophecy are written accounts of God’s dealing with His people and the prophet’s announcements to the people of the land of how God was about to act.
Habakkuk had seen a change take place in the country of Judah. During Josiah’s day the Temple was rebuilt, the Passover was celebrated with zeal, and idol worship and false religions of every kind were cleared out of the land by Josiah. Once Josiah died, the downward slide into idolatry, decadence, and the ultimate demise of the nation returned to the way it was before Josiah’s time. With each new king who came to the throne the march towards destruction and decadence grew with relentless resolve. If you will take a look at Habakkuk 1:1-4 with me, then we will begin our study.
1 The oracle that Habakkuk the prophet received. 2 How long, O LORD, must I call for help, but you do not listen? Or cry out to you, “Violence!” but you do not save? 3 Why do you make me look at injustice? Why do you tolerate wrong? Destruction and violence are before me; there is strife, and conflict abounds. 4 Therefore the law is paralyzed, and justice never prevails. The wicked hem in the righteous, so that justice is perverted. (Habakkuk 1:1-4 NIV)
We see in the very first verse of Habakkuk’s book that Habakkuk received an “oracle” from the Lord. What does “oracle” mean? That’s a great question. The Hebrew word (Massa) means, “load or burden, an utterance or oracle.” The word is found in 66 places in the Hebrew Bible and it is translated, “burden” some 57 times. It isn’t difficult to understand how the message the Lord delivered to Habakkuk was a “burden” for him to bear when you consider all that Habakkuk had witnessed in his lifetime. Habakkuk had experienced the glory days of King Josiah for a period of time, but he had also witnessed the absolute turning away of the people’s hearts during the reign of the four kings who sat on the throne following Josiah’s death. When the message from God came to Habakkuk he was broken hearted with what he knew was coming for the people of Judah because they would not repent and turn back to the Lord.
What is really interesting is that Habakkuk wasn’t the only prophet of God who was burdened with the coming demise of the people of Judah. Other prophets who spoke for God during the same time period of Judah’s history received a “burden” from the Lord. In Jeremiah, we find the same Hebrew word used that we find in Habakkuk 1:1. Read along with me in Jeremiah 23:33-36.
33 “When these people, or a prophet or a priest, ask you, ‘What is the oracle of the LORD?’ say to them, ‘What oracle? I will forsake you, declares the LORD.’ 34 If a prophet or a priest or anyone else claims, ‘This is the oracle of the LORD,’ I will punish that man and his household. 35 This is what each of you keeps on saying to his friend or relative: ‘What is the LORD’S answer?’ or ‘What has the LORD spoken?’ 36 But you must not mention ‘the oracle of the LORD’ again, because every man’s own word becomes his oracle and so you distort the words of the living God, the LORD Almighty, our God. (Jeremiah 23:33-36 NIV)
Why were Jeremiah and Habakkuk so “burdened?” That is a great question and if you will look back at Habakkuk 1:2-4 you can find your answer. Habakkuk questions God by asking,
2 How long, O LORD, must I call for help, but you do not listen? Or cry out to you, “Violence!” but you do not save? 3 Why do you make me look at injustice? Why do you tolerate wrong? Destruction and violence are before me; there is strife, and conflict abounds.
Since the day of King Josiah’s death the prophet had cried out to God to turn the hearts of the people back to the Lord, but the people persisted in seeking their own desires. The idol worship that was banned in Josiah’s day flourished under King Jehoahaz and others. With each new king that came to the throne the people’s ears grew more and more deaf towards the voice of God, and society began to deteriorate. Look at the characteristics that were present at the time of Habakkuk’s writing.
The nation that was called to be a kingdom of priests had become a nation known for its violence, injustice, destruction, strife, and conflict. What was it that brought about this change in the climate of the hearts of the people of Judah?
If you will remember just last week we spent a lot of time talking about the days of King Josiah and how, once the Law was discovered, the people celebrated the Passover like it had not been celebrated in over 300 years. How did Jerusalem spiral from a city of worship to a city of destruction, conflict, and strife? It is quite simple really. To sum it up in a phrase, “They didn’t listen.”
When King Josiah heard the Word of the Lord he heeded the Word. God had already planned to judge Judah because of the sins of Manasseh and the people of his day, but the Lord stayed His hand of judgment during the days of Josiah because the king had a tender heart towards the Lord and he acted on what he had heard. Look at 2 Kings 22:18-20 and read along with me.
18 Tell the king of Judah, who sent you to inquire of the LORD, ‘This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says concerning the words you heard: 19 Because your heart was responsive and you humbled yourself before the LORD when you heard what I have spoken against this place and its people, that they would become accursed and laid waste, and because you tore your robes and wept in my presence, I have heard you, declares the LORD. 20 Therefore I will gather you to your fathers, and you will be buried in peace. Your eyes will not see all the disaster I am going to bring on this place.’” (2 Kings 22:18-20 NIV)
Because of how King Josiah reacted to the discovery of the Word of God judgment was withheld during his reign. When Josiah died it was said of him in 2 Kings 23:25.
25 Neither before nor after Josiah was there a king like him who turned to the LORD as he did-with all his heart and with all his soul and with all his strength, in accordance with all the Law of Moses. (2 Kings 23:25 NIV)
I have to spotlight the glaring lesson for us that is so present in these verses – leadership matters – character counts. During the last two Presidential campaigns there was a lot of discussion about the importance of character and leadership all across our land. Make no mistake about it – character counts and leadership is so important for a nation. King Josiah was a godly leader and for 31 years reform took place all across the land – it just didn’t take root in the hearts of the people.
That should be a great challenge to us today. I do not know many people who would question of the character of our President. President Bush is a man of God, a man of prayer, and a man who seeks counsel from God’s Word. He has ministers in the White House on a regular basis who pray for him and with him. He is unashamed of his faith and he speaks up, even in public, about the importance of faith. Make no mistake about it, just because we have a godly President doesn’t mean that our hearts are passionate about the things of God. We can’t rely upon the faith of our President to preserve our nation or our lives as individuals – we must seek God ourselves with all of our hearts.
If you will remember our study last week you will recall that after Josiah died his son, Jehoahaz, took over the throne for 3 months before Pharoah Neco removed him. Pharaoh Neco placed another of Josiah’s sons, Jehoiakim, on the throne. In spite of all that Jehoiakim had seen he still didn’t seek God – he sought popularity with the people and powerful nations that he thought could save his hide. During Jehoiakim’s reign, the Lord spoke through the prophet Jeremiah about the condition of the people’s hearts. Turn to Jeremiah 35:15-17 and read along with me.
15 Again and again I sent all my servants the prophets to you. They said, “Each of you must turn from your wicked ways and reform your actions; do not follow other gods to serve them. Then you will live in the land I have given to you and your fathers.” But you have not paid attention or listened to me. 16 The descendants of Jonadab son of Recab have carried out the command their forefather gave them, but these people have not obeyed me.’ 17 “Therefore, this is what the LORD God Almighty, the God of Israel, says: ‘Listen! I am going to bring on Judah and on everyone living in Jerusalem every disaster I pronounced against them. I spoke to them, but they did not listen; I called to them, but they did not answer.’” (Jeremiah 35:15-17 NIV)
Unlike Josiah, the people of Judah and their leaders would not listen to God. In verse 15, the Lord says, “Again and again I sent all my servants the prophets to you.” Again and again the people would not listen. Over the course of time the people’s ears became deaf to the voice of God crying out through the prophets who came to call them back to God.
On Wednesday night we were studying the book of Exodus and Moses’ dealings with Pharaoh while the Hebrews were slaves in Egypt. For six of the first ten plagues, when Moses would cry out to Pharaoh, “The Lord says, ‘Let My people go!” we read that Pharaoh hardened his heart. The Hebrews watched Pharaoh harden his heart towards God, they watched the devastation that came upon Egypt because of his hard heart towards God, but still, once they were in the wilderness, the people of God hardened their own hearts toward God. God used this as an example for generations to come. In Psalm 95 we read,
Today, if you hear his voice, 8 do not harden your hearts as you did at Meribah, as you did that day at Massah in the desert, 9 where your fathers tested and tried me, though they had seen what I did. (Psalm 95:6-9 NIV)
Many years later, when the writer of Hebrews was writing to the people of his day, he echoed those same words to those who were hearing the Gospel and yet hesitant in making their commitment to surrender their lives to the will of God. Today, God speaks to us with the same urgency – “Do not harden your hearts when you hear My voice!”
You and I need to know that we don’t harden our hearts intentionally. Not too many folks raise their fists to the heavens and say, “No!” Most of us harden our hearts simply because we neglect God will and Word. Most of us harden our hearts simply because we desire our desires more than we desire God. Most of us harden our hearts simply because we think God will wink at our sin and our neglect of His Word because we are going to church, we read the Bible, or because we put a check in the plate now and then. We need to recognize that sitting in a church building is not a guard against a hard heart.
The people of Judah trusted that God would bless them for no other reason than that the Holy City of God was sitting in their midst. They deceived themselves — God did not deceive them. They may have convinced themselves that everything was all right, but God continued to send His messengers to tell them that they needed to reform their ways. In Jeremiah 7:2-11 we read,
2 “Stand at the gate of the LORD’S house and there proclaim this message: “‘Hear the word of the LORD, all you people of Judah who come through these gates to worship the LORD. 3 This is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says: Reform your ways and your actions, and I will let you live in this place. 4 Do not trust in deceptive words and say, “This is the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD!” 5 If you really change your ways and your actions and deal with each other justly, 6 if you do not oppress the alien, the fatherless or the widow and do not shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not follow other gods to your own harm, 7 then I will let you live in this place, in the land I gave your forefathers for ever and ever. 8 But look, you are trusting in deceptive words that are worthless. 9 “‘Will you steal and murder, commit adultery and perjury, burn incense to Baal and follow other gods you have not known, 10 and then come and stand before me in this house, which bears my Name, and say, “We are safe”-safe to do all these detestable things? 11 Has this house, which bears my Name, become a den of robbers to you? But I have been watching! declares the LORD. (Jeremiah 7:2-11 NIV)
God called the people to turn around, but they trusted in deceptive words. What is he talking about? That is a great question. Not only were the people not willing to listen to God, but they found teachers and prophets who would tell them what they wanted to hear. You know you can always find someone to tell you what you want to hear. If you will just look hard enough or if you are willing to make it advantageous for someone, then you can hear anything you want to hear from somebody. Things were no different in Judah than they are in the United States today. Jeremiah wrote,
10 To whom can I speak and give warning? Who will listen to me? Their ears are closed so they cannot hear. The word of the LORD is offensive to them; they find no pleasure in it. (Jeremiah 6:10 NIV)
In reading this verse you almost sense frustration on the part of God. God says, “To whom can I speak and give warning?” The people are not open, their ears are closed, and so God’s message can’t get through to their hearts. We need to know that even if God’s message can’t get through – God’s will can, and will.
The people who heard Habakkuk and Jeremiah crying out for them to turn back to seek God were headed towards destruction, they had become desensitized to the things of God, and they lacked the discernment to know what was “good” for them and what would destroy them. In the same chapter of Jeremiah that I just read from we read these words.
13 “From the least to the greatest, all are greedy for gain; prophets and priests alike, all practice deceit. 14 They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious. ‘Peace, peace,’ they say, when there is no peace. 15 Are they ashamed of their loathsome conduct? No, they have no shame at all; they do not even know how to blush. So they will fall among the fallen; they will be brought down when I punish them,” says the LORD. (Jeremiah 6:13-15 NIV)
The people were not ashamed of their actions. They weren’t troubled by their behavior because they had grown numb to the ways of God. The false prophets and priests of the day didn’t do the people any favor by telling them not to worry about it. The priests knew better, but it wasn’t fashionable in that day to speak the Word of the Lord. As a result the people grew numb. When we grow numb to the things of God the Word of God is rendered powerless in our lives. This is what is meant in Habakkuk 1:4 when we read,
4 Therefore the law is paralyzed, and justice never prevails. The wicked hem in the righteous, so that justice is perverted. (Habakkuk 1:4 NIV)
Habakkuk writes that the “law is paralyzed.” The Hebrew word for “paralyzed” means, “to grow numb, be feeble, be benumbed.” The Bible teaches that we are born sinners. We are born “numb,” with no clue as to what God’s will is for our lives. When Christ comes into our heart we are sensitized to the things of God, we come alive, and the Lord gives us His Spirit to remind us of His will and to correct us when we go astray. If we tune God out then there is no way for us to be sensitive to the sin that seeks to destroy us.
This treacherous transformation of people’s hearts wasn’t a unique phenomenon to Habakkuk’s day. In the New Testament, the Apostle Paul wrote to Timothy and said,
2 Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage-with great patience and careful instruction. 3 for the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. 4 They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths. (2 Timothy 4:2-4 NIV)
The day will come in every generation when folks will not put up with sound, biblical teaching. Every generation is confronted with the choice of whether or not we will listen to the Word of God and heed its direction or whether we will create our own theology, our own ideologies. It’s not like we totally dismiss God’s Word, we just take the parts that are comfortable to us and leave the rest out
I was talking to a friend of mine this past week that recently attended a Bible study in town with several hundred young people. My friend called me because she was disturbed by what she heard during the Bible study. The teacher of the Bible study said that everything that is good is from the hand of God and that everything that is bad is from Satan. He mentioned how he is tired of hearing people ask, “Where was God on 9-11?” He said that God had absolutely nothing to do with the events that happened on that day — and the people broke out in thunderous applause.
We, who live in America, are being confronted by two opposing theologies today. One the one hand there are great Bible teachers who teach that God is sovereign over the affairs of all humanity and that God uses everything that takes place in our lives to draw us to a deeper faith, a deeper walk, so that we can know that the Lord alone is our strong tower, our place of rest and refuge.
On the other hand, there are Bible teachers today who teach that God is more like Santa Claus than the God of the Bible. Everything good is from God and everything bad is from Satan. Every time I hear that type of teaching I want to ask, “Was the Cross from Satan or was it God’s will to give His Son for the payment of our sins? Was the 400 years of slavery in Egypt the work of God in the lives of the Hebrews or was it the work of Satan? Was John’s exile on the island of Patmos God’s will or Satan’s attack? I could go and on with a thousand illustrations from God’s Word, but the fact of the matter is that all of these things occurred so that God might be glorified and His people know beyond a shadow of doubt that He alone is God.
I want to encourage every person here today to unashamedly proclaim the whole counsel of God’s Word. Resist the temptation to soothe your soul and the souls of those around you with popular teaching. You may momentarily soothe yourself or someone else, but in the long run it will only lead to destruction.
The Lord spoke to the people of Judah and encouraged the people of God to speak up when He gave them a word for the people. Turn with me to Jeremiah 23 and read along beginning in verse 25.
25 “I have heard what the prophets say who prophesy lies in my name. They say, ‘I had a dream! I had a dream!’ 26 How long will this continue in the hearts of these lying prophets, who prophesy the delusions of their own minds? 27 They think the dreams they tell one another will make my people forget my name, just as their fathers forgot my name through Baal worship. 28 Let the prophet who has a dream tell his dream, but let the one who has my word speak it faithfully. For what has straw to do with grain?” declares the LORD. (Jeremiah 23:25-28 NIV)
God’s instruction to you and me is let those who will teach and proclaim what they believe about God teach, but we are to unashamedly proclaim the Word of God and let the chips fall where they may.
I want to invite you this morning to allow the Lord to search your heart. Before we can ever teach the Word of God to others we need to know that we are submitting to God’s Word ourselves. Let the Lord search your heart at this time. If you are seeking the Lord with all of your heart then thank Him for His faithfulness. If the Lord shows you that His Word has been paralyzed in your life because of the waywardness of your heart then I want to invite you to come forward and commit your life to Jesus as Lord of your life. Won’t you come?