Overview of the Book of Habakkuk

Overview of the Book of Habakkuk

Overview of the Book of Habakkuk

Author: The prophet Habakkuk.


To guide Israel toward faith in God during the trials of the Babylonian conquest and exile by displaying the prophet's personal struggle and resolution.

Date: 605-600 B.C.

Key Truths:

  • God will not tolerate severe sinfulness among his people forever.
  • God may use wicked unbelievers to chastise his people.
  • Believers should honestly acknowledge before God the various difficulties they face.
  • Believers should learn to trust God, even when circumstances are difficult.


The opening verse explicitly identifies "Habakkuk the prophet" as the author of this book. The meaning of his name is uncertain. It may be connected with the Hebrew root "to embrace" or with the name of an Assyrian plant called "hambakuku." The former meaning may refer to Habakkuk's embrace of the Lord or vice versa; the latter may suggest a penetration of Assyrian culture into Judean society. The reference in Habakkuk 1:1 as "the prophet" may imply that he was well known. His use of the worship and wisdom traditions of Israel in his preaching has led some interpreters to the doubtful notion that he was a prophet attached to the Temple in Jerusalem. The suggestion that he simply worked in Jerusalem is more likely because he was deeply concerned with matters related to Jerusalem. What is certain is that in this book we meet Habakkuk as a true prophet with a burning zeal for the glory of the Lord. His "oracle" (Hab. 1:1) is unusual in that it is not primarily a word directed to the people but an answer to his own painful questions.

Time and Place of Writing:

The only objective evidence for the dating of Habakkuk's prophetic activity is provided by Habakkuk 1:6. The reference to the Babylonians (literally, "Chaldeans") as the threatening new world power indicates a period prior to Judah's subjugation by the armies of Nebuchadnezzar. This threat became a reality in 597 B.C., when the Babylonians captured Jerusalem and deported the young king Jehoiachin to Babylon (2 Kings 24:8-17). Habakkuk lived in the period of Jehoiakim's reign (608-598 B.C.) and was a younger contemporary of Jeremiah. An important event during this period was the defeat at Carchemish of Pharaoh Neco and his Egyptian army by Prince Nebuchadnezzar of Babylonia in 605 B.C. Shortly after Babylon gained this victory over Egypt, Judah and a number of other kingdoms became subject to the powerful Babylonians. A date between 605 and 600 B.C. may therefore be an appropriate conjecture of the time in which Habakkuk had his inspired vision. During this time the Babylonians became the dominating force on the international scene, mercilessly sweeping aside any opposition (Hab. 1:5-17). The evil reign of Jehoiakim formed a sad contrast to that of his father, the good king Josiah (see Jer. 22:13-19, 25-26). It was a period of spiritual deterioration in which the covenant people increasingly lost their unique character (Hab. 1:2-4).

Original Audience:

Habakkuk appears to have written to the Judahites still living in the Promised Land (the northern tribes had been taken into captivity in 722 B.C.). The Judahites had committed grave covenant violations, including committing violence against one another and perverting justice (Hab. 1:2-4), such that God was about to judge them severely by exiling them from the promised land (exile took place in 597 B.C.).

Purpose and Distinctives:

In many respects Habakkuk closely resembled his contemporary Jeremiah, for he was deeply concerned with the waywardness of God's people and the further difficulties they were about to endure. Habakkuk's concern demonstrated itself in dialogues with, and persistent appeals to, God (Hab. 2:1-2; 3:2, 16) rather than in prophetic preaching. The book records how the prophet moved from severe grief and doubt to trust and hope through prayer to God.

Habakkuk, a man with a burning passion for the honor of his holy God (Hab. 1:12; 3:3), experienced a profound spiritual crisis because of the Lord's apparent indifference to appalling spiritual conditions among his people (Hab. 1:2-4). The absence of covenant life and obedience was not only dangerous to the people of God but also an insult to, and a rejection of, the covenant Lord himself. Because only divine intervention could bring about a reversal of this lethal situation, Habakkuk urgently and persistently (but seemingly in vain) appealed to the heavenly Judge (Hab. 1:2). In response the Lord revealed that the Babylonians who were then appearing on the scene of history (Hab. 1:6) would be his instrument of judgment. This cure sounded even worse than the disease and added to the prophet's distress (Hab. 1:5-17). How could the holy God, for whom it is impossible to tolerate wrong (Hab. 1:3-13), use these wicked people for the fulfillment of his purposes? Does God really maintain the difference between evil and good in the outcome of history?

Convinced that the events of history were not determined by blind fate but by the living God of Israel, Habakkuk stationed himself in expectant waiting on the Lord until he received an answer to his painful questions (Hab. 2:1). The Lord's subsequent reply or revelation (literally, "vision"; Hab. 2:2-3) provides his people with a true perspective on the promised outcome of history. It does not resolve all the painful questions, but it does teach the secret of covenant life in the here and now of history (Hab. 2:3-4); i.e., perseverance, patience, and hopeful expectation in waiting for the coming fulfillment of the Lord's unfailing promise. In spite of the inscrutability of his ways, God's purposes are consistent and will culminate in eternal life for the faithful and righteous but woe and death for the self-sufficient and arrogant (Hab. 2:4-19). The Lord's presence in his Temple affirms his lordship over history and carries the assurance that, in the end, his legitimate claim to the whole world will be universally acknowledged (Hab. 2:14, 20; Isa. 45:21-25; 1 Cor. 15:28).

The revelation of the Lord's purposeful guidance of history transformed Habakkuk's complaint into a hymn of prayer, praise, and joy (Hab. 3:2-20). Instead of passively waiting for divine intervention, he began to positively pray that the Lord would again act in accordance with his mighty deeds and with his qualities as displayed in the exodus and at Sinai. In his prayer the future moved into the present. In anticipation he celebrated the Lord's coming (Hab. 3:3-7) and his conflict against (Hab. 3:8-12) and triumph over all opposition in nature and history (Hab. 3:13-15). Nothing, not even the possibility of the severest calamities, could any longer dampen Habakkuk's overwhelming joy in the expectation of the coming salvation guaranteed by the Lord's faithfulness to himself and to his revelation (Hab. 3:17-19).

Christ in Habakkuk:

When Paul, in his letter to the Romans, looked for an appropriate text on which to base his understanding of the Gospel, he chose Habakkuk 2:4 in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament (Rom. 1:17; cf. Gal. 3:11; Heb. 10:37-38). Like Habakkuk (Hab. 1:1-17), Paul was convinced that wickedness and sin are incompatible with God's holiness and that this tension can be resolved only by divine intervention. The prophetic word to Habakkuk (Hab. 2:1-20) reveals in principle the way by which God will ultimately deal through Christ with the incompatibility between sin and holiness. The cross of Christ and the final judgment at his return are fulfillments of this revelation. Paul, like Habakkuk, affirmed that true life is possible only in a relationship of total dependence on the Lord. Such dependence, based on the faithfulness of our God, transforms our very existence in this world by filling our lives with joy and hope in the expectation of the final fulfillment of all his promises (Hab. 3:1-19; cf. Hab. 2:3). In this way, Habakkuk can be called the great-grandfather of the Reformation. The key concepts of his preaching, taken over by Paul, deeply influenced men like Luther and Calvin and eventually became key slogans in Reformation faith. Only faith that is persevering and obedient trusting in the God of Habakkuk, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ - provides the key to meaningful existence in the world during this period between Christ's first coming and his return.

Notes from the NIV Spirit of the Reformation Study Bible, Dr. Richard Pratt, ed. (Zondervan, 2003).

Introduction Material:

Introduction to the Prophetic Books


Copyright, Authors, and Theological Editors of the SORSB

Answer by Dr. Richard L. Pratt, Jr.

Dr. Richard L. Pratt, Jr. is Co-Founder and President of Third Millennium Ministries who served as Professor of Old Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary and has authored numerous books.