Habakkuk 3 - poetry in motion

The Bible is designed not simply to be infallible when countenanced by the mind, but also inescapable when embraced by the Spirit. The attack upon the accuracy of the Bible has been so prolonged that many believers can spot such liberalism and simply ignore it. Additionally most conservative Christians will take a literal view of the Bible as a reaction against both liberalism and hereticism. However the Bible's infallibility cannot simply be measured in a restricted, scientific manner. In addition to perfect accuracy and divine inspiration the Bible is supposed to be life changing prose.

Habakkuk three is an example of exquisite visual imagery; it abounds in simile, metaphor, hyperbole. These are entirely legitimate literary devices and to accept that the Bible uses them should not be an issue to faith. Notwithstanding, careful analysis of Habakkuk three also shows that it is a perfectly accurate and consistent description of the Exodus and invasion of Palestine. It is also very possible that it foreshadows another similar event yet to come.

It is not the intent of this essay to do a full exegesis of this chapter. That is done very capably by Matthew Henry, Matthew Poole, Jameison-Fausset-Brown and Adam Clarke from whom much of my own material is drawn. The aim instead is to select some of the choicer morsels from this narrative to illustrate the literary as well as literal infallibility of Holy Scripture. I hope by doing this to encourage both an unshakeable belief in the accuracy of scripture but also a willingness to experience the emotional resonance that scripture is able to produce.

The poetic piece of this chapter commences in Hab 3:3. This verse is vital as it defines the historic setting, literary genre and theme for what follows. Firstly we are told that God came from Teman[1] and the Holy One from Mount Paran. This is essentially a direct quote of De 33:2 which is the start of the blessing Moses issued to the people prior to his death. Habakkuk is therefore going to give us an account in similar vein to Moses' recap of the Exodus. Secondly we get the word: 'Selah'. This word only appears in Habakkuk and Psalms. It is believed to mean a pause or reflection. JB Phillips suggests the best translation is: "Now think about that". Whatever the meaning Habakkuk is clearly linking his narrative to a musical or poetic grouping. What follows is designed to cause the heart to lift; not the ruler. Finally the theme comes: the glory and praise of God.

Hab 3:4 is then a mixture of historic fact, divine declaration, simile and metaphor. Firstly the simile is that the brightness of God is like light; presumably purging and holy. However the simile is also an accurate description of His appearance at Sinai[2] and parallels a divinely stated metaphor[3]. Notwithstanding the impressiveness of the scene we are told that His power was hidden. Again this corresponds with historic fact[4]. The metaphor is the rays shining from the hand of God. Matthew Henry likens this to the rays shining from Moses face when he came down from the mountain. I think this may be an application of it but I believe the metaphor has broader meaning. The whole of God is clothed in light and cannot be seen. But from His hand He directed, and can direct an outworking or glimpse of His power.

The fifth verse of Habakkuk can be taken entirely literally; at least in the more modern versions that render the 'burning coals' of the KJV as 'fever'. I think there are totally literal parallels of this verse given in scripture. For example the Lord used a plague in Egypt[5] against Pharaoh, against the Israelites in the wilderness[6] and used a plague of hornets to drive out the Canaanites[7]. Later in Israeli history God again used plagues against their enemies[8]. However I think those literal interpretations, whilst true, slightly miss the point of this verse. Hab 3:5 is picturing the Lord as a fighting machine with armor bearer before and behind. They were capable of rendering destruction on their own and yet were only presages of the main event.

Habakkuk is not expecting us to worry about the correct literal interpretation here; he is directing us to the awesomeness of God. Actually the very fact that at least six possible literal interpretations exist is the point. If I were to state that Barry Bonds is an incredible hitter of home runs then the fact that twenty people would each picture twenty different hits is precisely what made Bonds incredible. The fact that mentioning the plagues of God can bring up half a dozen possibilities is exactly what Habakkuk is conveying.

Hab 3:8 introduces another important literary device. Habakkuk the prophet is now asking the Lord questions. Whilst the words are still divinely inspired; the change of voice must be too. This is no longer 'thus saith the Lord' or even a divinely inspired Habakkuk stating fact, even poetically. This is now a divinely accurate record of a thought process that Habakkuk went through. As such the answer may be no, however one may assume that the appearance of what was happening was such as to render the question reasonable. We are therefore in a situation where we may have simile or we may have literal fact: unless God actually responds to the question we cannot really know.

Habakkuk is asking if God was angry with the waters or the sea, he then refers to God's horses and chariots of salvation. I believe the two literal events referred to here were the crossing of the Red Sea and Jordan. Two miraculous events in which the waters were driven back as if attacked or scolded. I believe the reference to horses and chariots has a beautiful ironic twist. The threat against Israel was the horsemen and charioteers of Egypt. They were however no match for the horses and chariots of God. These later do of course exist[9] although I suspect that this reference is pure ironic metaphor.

Verse 9 is one of those visual metaphors that should stir the blood when considered properly. Up until verse 8 it was the awesome majesty of God in view. The picture is ominous, brooding, even foreboding but with no real action. In Hab 3:9 the God of Heaven prepares for the attack. The bow is taken out of its sheath and, at least according to the NKJV, the arrows are prayed over. The commentators differ as to what that means but anyone with combat experience will know that some soldiers kiss or bless the projectile before it is launched. Here we see God Almighty preparing his arrows to strike. In one sense this describes an entirely literal event and as God has appeared in Christophany it could be literal. That said, I believe the following Selah is there to cause us to ponder the scene but also to remind us that we are dealing with poetry.

The latter part of verse nine up to Hab 3:11 are then a reasonably historic narrative except for the use of anthropomorphism of inanimate objects. Verse nine describes dividing the earth with rivers; a direct reference to the bringing forth of the water from the rock as described in Ps 78:15,16. Verse 10 is then anthropomorphism: mountains are trembling; the deep has a voice and hands. Notwithstanding the verse is referring to actual events. We know that Sinai shook[10]; we know that the overflowing Jordan was passed[11], we know that the Red Sea was pushed back by a wind[12]. Verse eleven might then be treated as fanciful prose except that it directly correlates with historic fact. In Joshua 10:12-13 we find the sun and moon staying still; and this is the same battle where God sent missiles from heaven killing more than the Jews managed[13].

Habakkuk has with a piece of masterful literary skill taken a literal historic fact and placed it subsequent to the Lord preparing for battle. Then by 'animation' of inanimate objects he has turned the natural forces that God turned against the foe into a credible army fighting on the Lord's behalf. I don't think the Bible is suggesting that anthropomorphism is factual; mountains don't get scared they are rock. Instead the Lord is providing us with a graphic pictorial image of providence. If you are fighting on the Lord's side then the waters, mountains, wind, rain, sun, moon and stars are there to fight on your side or get out of the way. The use of imagery conveys this far more memorably then any theological discourse ever could.

My final cherry that I aim to pick from this chapter is Hab 3:16. It is probably one of the simplest of the verses in this chapter to interpret; but it may prove to be the most controversial. Reading the first two clauses we have no reason to avoid a literal interpretation. A body can tremble and a lip can quiver; they are both perfectly acceptable human responses. But the third clause states that rottenness entered his bones. This isn't a simile. It would seem to introduce a metaphor that is so close to reality and only for one clause. So are we to assume that Habakkuk actually spontaneously contracted some form of bone marrow disease? Or are we perhaps forced to accept that the Bible sometimes uses hyperbole or even hyperbolic idiom? For me given the highly poetic nature of this chapter I have no problems in taking this as hyperbole; a well documented exaggeration designed to express in comprehensible form the depth of emotion that the prophet suffered.

This essay has not attempted and has certainly not managed to provide an exegesis of Habakkuk 3. I have detailed enough points to show that it is closely paralleled with the Exodus and invasion of Canaan but with the added slant that its purpose is to show the might of God; not simply repeat history. I have documented a plethora of literary devices from simile, through metaphor and anthropomorphism to what I believe is an example of hyperbole. I have also shown along the way that the Bible has carefully flagged these symbols so that we know we have mandate to interpret; rather than follow a more literal rendering. My intent is not to encourage liberalism or even supernaturalism. I do hope however that this essay has opened our eyes a little to the experience that God has provided for us in His word.


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