Wrath and Mercy
A sermon on Habakkuk 3:1-16 by Coty Pinckney, Community Bible Church, Williamstown, MA 7/1/01
Romans 1:18 reads:
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men. (NAU)
How do you react to verses like that? Many of us shy away from quoting such verses, or even referring to the wrath of God.
There is a legitimate reason to exercise care in this regard; today if we say that a person is wrathful, we usually mean he is in a rage; his emotions are out of control to the extent that he does not exercise good judgment.
Certainly we don’t want to imply that God’s emotions are out-of-control. Yet if we are to be true to the Word of God, we have to use this word; we have to teach the truth that God hates all ungodliness and unrighteousness, and that ultimately He will mete out severe punishment for the ungodly.
The Bible refers to God’s wrath more than 160 times – and more than 30 of these occurrences are in the New Testament. As an example, consider the first section of John chapter 3, the story of the encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus. How many of you can quote John 3:16?
For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whosoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.
Several of you probably can quote the next verse:
For God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through Him.
These are well known. But how does this section of John chapter 3 end? Look at John 3:36:
He who believes in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not obey the Son will not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him.
Why is God’s wrath so prevalent throughout the Bible? Why is it present even in the key descriptions of the gospel in Scripture – such as John 3?
Without God’s wrath, there is no Gospel! What is the gospel? The Gospel is the message of salvation from hell! Salvation from damnation! The gospel is not therapy for our hang-ups, nor is it advice for how to be happy. The primary message of the gospel is not how to have a better marriage or how to discipline the kids or how to lose 15 lbs. No! The gospel tells me how I can change from being by nature an object of God’s wrath and become His beloved child. We never know the extent of God’s mercy until we understand His hatred of sin; we can never appreciate God’s mercy unless we appreciate His wrath. In the passage in John, Jesus’ statement to Nicodemus, “You must be born again!” makes no sense unless God’s wrath abides on those who do not believe.
Wrath and Mercy form the central themes of the first part of Habakkuk 3. The book of Habakkuk has been building up to these major themes over the first two chapters. Recall the book’s outline:
In verses two to four of chapter one, the prophet cries out to God: “Where is justice? God, I have cried out to you about the injustices in Judah, and I’m tired of looking at them – Act, Lord!” God responds in verses five to eleven, saying, “You won’t believe what I’m going to do. Yes, I will act – by sending the Babylonians to sweep through and destroy everything in their path.” This was not quite what Habakkuk had in mind. He wanted a surgical strike – cruise missiles sent in to pick off the chief offenders against God’s law. But God plans to punish the entire nation using violent, evil people! Verses 1:12-2:1 record Habakkuk’s response: “God, your eyes are too pure even to look upon evil – so how can you choose to use evil men, who won’t even recognize your existence, to accomplish your purposes?” Although confused, Habakkuk is confident that God will answer him, will tell him what to say to the people of Judah. The prophet waits for God to answer.
God does answer – first telling Habakkuk, “It may look like I delay, but I always act at exactly the right time. The righteous man will live by faith – so you, hold on to my promises! As for the Babylonians and all those who don’t live by faith – Woe!” God then pronounces five “woes” on the Babylonians, showing the prophet that He will indeed judge those who are evil – and along the way, giving us wonderful lessons concerning the meaning of living by faith.
Chapter 3 is Habakuk’s response to this revelation of God. Listen carefully now as I read, picking out what these verses tell you about the following four themes, which will serve as our outline today:
We’ll read the entire chapter, although we’ll deal with verses 17 to 19 in a separate sermon (in three weeks).
A prayer of Habakkuk the prophet, according to Shigionoth. 2 LORD, I have heard the report about You and I fear. O LORD, revive Your work in the midst of the years, In the midst of the years make it known; In wrath remember mercy. 3 God comes from Teman, And the Holy One from Mount Paran. Selah. His splendor covers the heavens, And the earth is full of His praise. 4 His radiance is like the sunlight; He has rays flashing from His hand, And there is the hiding of His power. 5 Before Him goes pestilence, And plague comes after Him. 6 He stood and surveyed the earth; He looked and startled the nations. Yes, the perpetual mountains were shattered, The ancient hills collapsed. His ways are everlasting. 7 I saw the tents of Cushan under distress, The tent curtains of the land of Midian were trembling. 8 Did the LORD rage against the rivers, Or was Your anger against the rivers, Or was Your wrath against the sea, That You rode on Your horses, On Your chariots of salvation? 9 Your bow was made bare, The rods of chastisement were sworn. Selah. You cleaved the earth with rivers. 10 The mountains saw You and quaked; The downpour of waters swept by. The deep uttered forth its voice, It lifted high its hands. 11 Sun and moon stood in their places; They went away at the light of Your arrows, At the radiance of Your gleaming spear. 12 In indignation You marched through the earth; In anger You trampled the nations. 13 You went forth for the salvation of Your people, For the salvation of Your anointed. You struck the head of the house of the evil To lay him open from thigh to neck. Selah. 14 You pierced with his own spears The head of his throngs. They stormed in to scatter us; Their exultation was like those Who devour the oppressed in secret. 15 You trampled on the sea with Your horses, On the surge of many waters. 16 I heard and my inward parts trembled, At the sound my lips quivered. Decay enters my bones, And in my place I tremble. Because I must wait quietly for the day of distress to come upon the people who will invade us.
17 Though the fig tree should not blossom And there be no fruit on the vines, Though the yield of the olive should fail And the fields produce no food, Though the flock should be cut off from the fold And there be no cattle in the stalls, 18 Yet I will exult in the LORD, I will rejoice in the God of my salvation. 19 The Lord GOD is my strength, And He has made my feet like hinds' feet, And makes me walk on my high places. (NAU, choosing the marginal reading at close of v. 16)
The Power of God
How great is our God? Brighter than the brightest lights; more powerful than anything in all creation.
(1) Brighter than the Brightest Lights
Verse 4 tells us His radiance is like sunlight, with rays flashing from His palms. Like light, God is completely pure; there is no darkness at all in Him. His heat is penetrating. Furthermore, we cannot look at His brightness, since we can’t even look at the sun. And yet “there is the hiding of his power” – what we see is only a tiny fraction of all His brightness.
Verse 11 emphasizes this even more, telling us that even the sun can’t look at the light of God’s arrows and spears.
(2) More powerful than all of creation
Verse 3: “His splendor covers the heavens, and the earth is full of his praise” All the heavens and the earth – that is, all parts of creation -- display His greatness. Verse 5: His power extends even to those parts of creation that seem random, that seem evil: disease, pestilence.
Verse 6: What looks like it will last forever here on earth? What seems most permanent? The mountains, the hills. The Hebrew words translated “perpetual” and “ancient” are typically used to mean “everlasting.” Yet before God, these mountains and hills that look like they will last forever collapse, are shattered. Notice the last phrase in verse 6: “His ways are everlasting.” The word translated “everlasting” here is the same word translated “ancient” earlier in the verse. Thus, it is only God’s ways that are truly everlasting. He is more powerful than the strongest created thing; His power continues long past the end of the most permanent part of creation.
So note what we have seen:
God’s brightness, purity, and heat are stronger than the brightest light we know, the sun.
All Parts of creation – from the minutest subatomic particle to the vastness of space, from the productivity of farmland to the ravages of disease – display His power and glory.
God alone is truly everlasting – He will destroy what seems to be most permanent.
How does this almighty, all-powerful God use His power? In part, to bring about justice. Now remember, this was Habakkuk’s first request to God. “Lord, where is justice?” And God has explained that He will bring about justice, He will punish the leaders of Judah who have forsaken Him, He will punish the Babylonians and all those who do not live by faith. Here Habakkuk elaborates poetically on those thoughts.
Verse 12 pictures God as marching in indignation, trampling the nations in anger. Verse 8 is more explicit: “Did the Lord rage against the rivers. . . Was Your wrath against the sea?” Answer: No, but God acted through the waters for His purposes. It’s not clear what specific past act of God Habakkuk has in mind. Possibly he is thinking of the parting of the Red Sea – remember, that was a time of salvation for the people of Israel, and a time of judgment upon the Egyptian army. God held back the waters until exactly the right time, and completely destroyed Pharaoh’s troops chasing the Israelites. “The horse and rider He has thrown into the sea.” Possibly Habakkuk is thinking of the flood in Noah’s time, when judgment came upon all mankind. In any event, God uses water, rain, and floods as “rods of chastisement” (verse 9), as punishment to those who reject Him.
Verses 13 and 14 are the most graphic: “You struck the head of the house of evil to lay him open from thigh to neck.” This is God’s justice; the person responsible for evil is sliced open. And note what instrument God uses for this purpose: the evil one’s own spears (v. 14). Just as the evil ones are rejoicing, thinking they have the victory, God destroys them with their own weapons.
Recall Haman in the book of Esther? Haman builds a gallows 75 feet high, intending to hang Mordecai the Jew. But God so works matters that Haman himself is hung from the gallows he built. This is the same idea; God turns the evil intended for others on the perpetrator. This is justice indeed.
Surely we applaud the justice in these acts. And yet they are sobering in their severity. And we see now that Habakkuk is sobered:
Verse 16: “I heard and my inward parts trembled, At the sound my lips quivered. Decay enters my bones, And in my place I tremble.”
And again, verse 2: “LORD, I have heard the report about You and I fear.”
Habakkuk asked for judgment – but he is overwhelmed at God’s response. He trembles, shakes, and quivers thinking about God using His awesome power against humans. And then “decay enters my bones” – he can hardly stand, he collapses thinking of God’s purity and His punishment of evildoers. Habakkuk sees God for Who He is – and the response? Fear!
Eight times the Bible refers to God as “a consuming fire” – that’s what Habakkuk sees, the power, the majesty, the justice of God. God’s judgment is severe; His wrath is serious; His power is overwhelming; and His purity is perfect. Like Isaiah (Is 6), Habakkuk sees his own weakness and impurity compared to God – he sees that he too deserves God’s wrath and punishment. So he fears.
Is this a right response? By all means! The book of Proverbs tell us “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”
Do your knees tremble before God?
Do you want justice? Do you understand what justice entails?
Do you ask, “Why doesn’t God do something about evil people? Why doesn’t He just zap them? God, Act!” Do you know what you are asking for? Do you tremble when you say this?
The Plea of the Prophet
Habakkuk gives us a wonderful example to follow here. He fears – but he doesn’t then say, “I have no hope before God!” Instead, he cries out, “Revive your work! Make your work known – work again as you did in the past – as at the flood and the parting of the Red Sea!” He asks that this happen “in the midst of the years,” which the NIV interprets to mean “in our day.” Habakkuk is saying, “Don’t wait until the end of the years; don’t wait until judgment day. God, in the midst of the years act again!”
But what does Habakkuk ask God to do? He does not repeat his request from chapter one. He no longer asks only for judgment. Now he pleads, “in your wrath, remember mercy!”
Here is our example. He hopes in God! In the midst of his fear, he cries out, “Oh God, you are merciful, and that is our only hope!” He doesn’t say, “Oh God, don’t show your wrath! We don’t deserve it!” He knows that God’s people as well as the Babylonians deserve God’s wrath. He knows God is right to judge – and He sees that unless God shows mercy, all face judgment. For God’s light is brighter than the sun – as John says, “In Him is no darkness at all!” And yet in God’s people, there is much darkness. So Habakkuk pleads, “God, remember mercy!”
Did you notice the exhibition of God’s mercy in the rest of the chapter?
Verse 13: “You went forth for the salvation of Your people.” And the severe judgment related in verse 14 is meted out to those who scatter God’s people.
So God is acting in justice; He is exercising His great power for the salvation of His people.
Joel gives a similar thought:
The LORD roars from Zion And utters His voice from Jerusalem, And the heavens and the earth tremble. But the LORD is a refuge for His people And a stronghold to the sons of Israel. (3:16 NAU)
Might, power, judgment, wrath – yet a stronghold, a refuge of mercy for His people. That is the nature of our God.
We’ll conclude with four observations:
(1) God’s wrath is necessary!
Even in chapter 1 Habakkuk says, “Your eyes are too pure to look upon evil.” It is the very nature of God to hate evil. And God always acts in accord with His character. So the existence of evil requires punishment. God would not be God if He did not punish evil.
(2) Our wrath is not necessary!
God’s wrath results from His purity – “In Him is no darkness at all.” By His very nature he cannot tolerate evil. But we can tolerate evil, and we do. Our wrath does not bring about God’s righteousness, because our wrath is mixed with impure motives.
So Paul says in Colossians:
For it is because of these [sins] that the wrath of God will come upon the sons of disobedience, 7 and in them you also once walked, when you were living in them. 8 But now you also, put them all aside: anger, wrath . . . (Col 3:6-8 NAU)
God displays wrath – but we are not to display anger or wrath. Vengeance belongs to God, not us; indeed, the certainty of God’s vengeance frees us from having to pay back evil for evil. We are freed to love our enemies, to pray for those who persecute us – and to know that God will see that every sin is paid for. God’s wrath is necessary; ours is not.
(3) God’s wrath seems to be delayed, but is certain.
From our perspective it looks like God’s wrath will never come about. We may not see punishment for all the evil we encounter – indeed, we almost certainly will not see all that punishment. Habakkuk did not; he must have been an adult at the time of Habakkuk 1, around 605 BC. God did not fulfill these prophecies against the Babylonians until 70 years later. The prophet must have died by that time.
But at the last day, God will right all accounts. There will be no sin that will not be paid for either by the blood of Jesus or the eternal punishment of the perpetrator. And when will this happen?
This gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all the nations, and then the end will come. (Mat 24:14 NAU)
“And then the end will come.” After we complete our great commission, after we spread the good news to every tribe and tongue and people and nation, then the end will come. There is no uncertainty here – then the end will come.
Peter elaborates on this point:
But by His word the present heavens and earth are being reserved for fire, kept for the day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men. . . . 9 The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance. (2 Peter 3:7,9 NAU)
The day is coming. God waits for the fulfillment of the great commission. Then the ungodly will be destroyed, and God’s people will rejoice with Him forevermore.
Given the sobering nature of this judgment, do we still pray, “Amen! Come, Lord Jesus!” Yes! But the judgment is terrible. So let us work and witness and pray so that by all means God may bring many to Himself, saving them from His wrath.
(4) God’s wrath is the beginning of the gospel!
Without wrath, there is no gospel. We saw this in John 3 above. Look now at another key explanation of the gospel, Romans 5:8.
But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.
The heart of the gospel! But what is the next verse?
Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from the wrath of God through Him.
We never understand the depth of God’s mercy, the necessity of the cross, the pain and suffering of the cross – unless we first understand God’s wrath. We cannot have the slightest idea of what Jesus did on the cross unless we see that God cannot tolerate sin, that He must punish every evil act.
Habakkuk didn’t see the wonder of God’s work on the cross. He saw only through a glass darkly, perhaps through Isaiah’s prophecies in chapter 53, that God’s suffering servant would heal us by His wounds. He only had clues. He didn’t understand how God could be perfectly just and perfectly merciful. So he simply cried out, “God, without your mercy we are all subject to your judgment! So in your wrath remember mercy!”
On this side of the cross, we see God’s mercy clearly. Question: Do we see God’s wrath as clearly as Habakkuk? We must see both!
So what about you? How should you and I react to this?
John Piper says our right reaction is to be:
deeply sobered by the awful severity of God, humbled to the dust by the absoluteness of our dependence on his unconditional mercy, and irresistibly allured by the infinite treasury of his glory ready to be revealed to the vessels of glory.
Sobered. Humbled. Allured. Is that your reaction?
Do you believe in Jesus as Savior and Lord? Then praise God that He is a God of justice! Praise God that He punishes every sin! Praise God that He will not let the guilty go unpunished. Praise God that His justice frees us from any need of revenge! And let that infinite treasury of glory allure you to Him more and more and more!
Our God is
Praise Him! Tremble before Him! And work to hasten the coming of His kingdom!
Do you not believe in Jesus as Savior and Lord? These words we read earlier were written for you:
He who believes in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not obey the Son will not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him.
Believe in the Son! Oh, believe in the Son! Humble yourself before Him! He, and He alone is the source of true life now and eternal life for all time! The alternative is too terrible to contemplate – bow your knees before this God of wrath and mercy, and cry out, “Oh, God, might you save even me? Will you apply the blood of Jesus even to my sins? Oh, God, I believe – help my unbelief!”
Believe – believe! And you will have eternal life.
This sermon was preached at Community Bible Church in Williamstown, MA on 7/1/01. The quote comes from John Piper, The Justification of God: An Exegetical and Theological Study of Romans 9:1-23, 2nd Edition (Baker, 1993; originally published in 1983), p. 220.
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