Thou art of purer eyes than to behold evil, and canst not look on iniquity.

—Habakkuk 1:13

A lot of people have talked about the goodness of God and then gotten sentimental about it and said, “God is too good to punish anybody,” and so they have ruled out hell. But the man who has an adequate conception of God will not only believe in the love of God, but also in the holiness of God. He will not only believe in the mercy of God, but also in the justice of God. And when you see the everlasting God in His holy, perfect union, when you see the One God acting in judgment, you know that the man who chooses evil must never dwell in the presence of this holy God.

But a lot of people have gone too far and have written books and poetry that gets everybody believing that God is so kind and loving and gentle. God is so kind that infinity won’t measure it. And God is so loving that He is immeasurably loving. But God is also holy and just. AOG107

We praise You for your love and mercy, Lord, but may we never take lightly Your awesome holiness and Your fearful justice. Amen. [1]

13 The verbs “look on” (rāʾâ) and “tolerate” (hibbîṭ) are repeated from vv. 3 and 5 (where hibbîṭ is translated “watch”), marking a further development in this dialogue on justice. To “look” at a matter can imply that it is viewed with acceptance (cf. Pss 66:18; 138:6). That the Lord, unlike most ancient Near Eastern gods, refuses to countenance “evil” (rāʿ) and “wrong” (ʿāmāl; cf. v. 3) is a basic tenet of Israel’s faith (e.g.; Pss 5:4; 34:16, 21).

As in v. 3, the violent discrepancy between this premise and the prophet’s perception of reality provokes the question “why?”—a question founded, nevertheless, on the obedient faith expressed in v. 12. The evil apparently tolerated is that of the “treacherous” (bôgedîm; GK 953), namely, those who are unreliable and break faith in relationship (cf. Jer 3:8, 11; Hos 5:7); the term is applied again to the Babylonians in Isaiah 21:2 (cf. Isa 39). The Lord’s tolerance is implied because he has been “silent” or uninvolved (cf. Ps 50:21; Isa 42:14); the treachery is typically that of the wicked, who “swallow up” (cf. Ex 7:12; Pss 35:25; 124:3; La 2:16) the righteous as a wolf devours its prey.

The identity of the “wicked” has been disputed. Evidently they correspond to the fisherman in vv. 15–17. The NIV’s transition between vv. 12–13 and vv. 15–17 from a plural to a singular third-person subject is not present in the MT, where singular third-person forms predominate throughout. These verses are also linked by a continuity of theme, the image of devouring food pervading the passage. In turn, vv. 12–17 show extensive continuity with vv. 5–11. The image of fishing corresponds to that of hunting (v. 8; cf. Jer 16:16). The express purpose is to consume the prey (vv. 8, 16; the root ʾkl [“eat”] occurs in each verse). This is motivated by a boundless greed, gratified without principle and pursued by means of a far-flung, international aggression (vv. 6–10, 13–17; the root ʾsp [“gather”] occurs in vv. 9, 15, and the noun gôyîm [“nations”] in vv. 5, 17). This greed entails the overthrow of all opposing human authority (vv. 10, 14) and the deification of the aggressor’s own power (vv. 7, 11, 16). Both passages attribute this tyrannical imperialism to God’s initiative in judgment (vv. 5–6, 12, 14), yet without condoning it (vv. 11, 13).

In view of these detailed correlations, it may be concluded that the “wicked” in v. 13 correspond to the Babylonians in v. 6. They are thus distinct from the “wicked” in v. 4, just as the “violence” and perverted justice in vv. 7 and 9 differ from that in vv. 2–4; and they represent a further dramatic embodiment of the lex talionis, the “wicked” being judged through the “wicked” (cf. Eze 7:23–24).

As the “wicked” in v. 13 correspond to the fisherman in vv. 15–17, so the “righteous” correspond to the “nations,” likened to fish (vv. 14–17), as their respective prey. The designation therefore includes Judah, whose sin has caused her to be numbered among the nations of vv. 14–17 in judgment (cf. Lev 26:33, 38; Dt 28:64–65; Jer 9:16; Eze 4:13, in all of which Israel is “scattered among” the nations, while ultimately being kept separate). Habakkuk’s concern is, of course, his own people, both as the perpetrators and victims of injustice; and the dramatic exchange of vv. 5–17 serves primarily to set his initial local concern in an international context of God’s unfolding patterns of justice. For the prophet this only heightens the dilemma.[2]

1:13 eyes are too pure. In spite of the prophet’s expressions of faith and trust, he found himself in even further perplexity. The essence of Habakkuk’s next quandary is expressed in this verse: If God is too pure to behold evil, then how can He use the wicked to devour a person more righteous than they? Would not God’s use of the Chaldeans result in even greater damage to His righteous character?[3]

1:13 purer eyes than to see evil. This is a classic statement of the puzzle of how an all-powerful God can allow sin to continue unchecked. Habakkuk cannot understand the justice of allowing wicked Babylon to punish a less wicked nation such as Judah. (He can call Judah more righteous because, even though most of its people were unfaithful to God’s covenants, some of them actually were faithful.) Habakkuk thinks that God’s holiness should have prohibited him from using the corrupt Babylonians.

1:13 In the crucifixion of Christ the wicked leaders swallowed up Christ the righteous one.[4]

1:13 when the wicked swallows up someone more righteous than Habakkuk questions why Yahweh permits the Babylonians to devour the kingdom of Judah. The prophet suggests that Yahweh’s holiness should have caused Him to prevent the oppression of the people of Judah, especially since some of them remained faithful to Him. Habakkuk complains that Yahweh remains idle and silent despite Judah’s suffering.[5]

1:13 purer eyes. How can the holy and all-powerful God, to whom sin is totally repugnant, permit evil to go unchecked and unpunished?

traitors. Lit. “those acting treacherously.” The reference is to the Babylonians. Habakkuk cannot fathom how the holy God can use such an unscrupulous and wicked nation to punish Judah, whose conduct is by comparison “more righteous.”[6]

[1] Tozer, A. W., & Eggert, R. (2015). Tozer on the almighty god: a 365-day devotional. Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers.

[2] Armerding, C. E. (2008). Habakkuk. In T. Longman III & D. E. Garland (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Daniel–Malachi (Revised Edition) (Vol. 8, pp. 618–619). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[3] MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (2006). The MacArthur study Bible: New American Standard Bible. (Hab 1:13). Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

[4] Crossway Bibles. (2008). The ESV Study Bible (p. 1722). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.

[5] Barry, J. D., Mangum, D., Brown, D. R., Heiser, M. S., Custis, M., Ritzema, E., … Bomar, D. (2012, 2016). Faithlife Study Bible (Hab 1:13). Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.

[6] Sproul, R. C. (Ed.). (2015). The Reformation Study Bible: English Standard Version (2015 Edition) (p. 1601). Orlando, FL: Reformation Trust.

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