The Secret of Effective Prayer
A prayer of Habakkuk the prophet. On shigionoth.
Lord, I have heard of your fame;
I stand in awe of your deeds, O Lord.
Renew them in our day,
in our time make them known;
in wrath remember mercy.
The third chapter of Habakkuk is a prayer. It is one of the great prayers of the Bible, to be placed alongside Abraham’s intercession for Sodom, David’s prayer at the dedication of the materials for the temple, and the Psalms. But it is a prayer in context and cannot properly be understood apart from the entire prophecy.
Habakkuk began his book by asking God why he was so slow in answering his prayer for revival in Israel. Then when God did answer, he said he was going to send the Babylonians to punish his people Israel. This was not the answer Habakkuk wanted, and he asked God how he could do such a thing. How could he use a wicked people to punish those more righteous than themselves? These questions were asked in chapter 1. God’s answer came in chapter 2, summarized in verse 4: “See, he is puffed up; his desires are not upright—but the righteous will live by his faith.” In the remainder of chapter 2 God describes how the one who is “puffed up” will be brought low. The Babylonians will themselves be punished. In the meantime, the one who knows God will live by faith in God. Times may be bad. The future may become worse. But the righteous will live by faith in him who alone is worthy of that faith.
Chapter 2, which contains this revelation, ends by saying: “The Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth be silent before him” (v. 20). It is an appropriate and solemn ending. All that remains is for Habakkuk to worship this God and lay his petitions before him.
The Nature of Prayer
Prayer is speaking to God. If you can talk to your wife or husband, you can talk to God. If you can talk to your brother or sister, you can talk to God. Anything that obscures the simplicity and spontaneity of prayer as conversation should be avoided, for prayer is a very simple thing. We must not think that we need a special time or place or mood to pray.
But having said that and having emphasized it as much as I know how, let me also say that prayer can also be formal. The last chapter of Habakkuk is such a prayer. It is a carefully structured, formal composition. In fact it is a poem. This suggests that after Habakkuk had received the revelation of God’s coming judgment on the Babylonians and the instruction to live by faith, he collected his thoughts and composed this chapter as a beautiful and careful expression of what his heart wanted to say to God. (Mary’s Magnificat may be another example of such a careful composition.)
If the thought of a carefully composed prayer bothers you, disregard this thought until later in your Christian walk. It is far more important that prayer be a simple thing in which you truly utter the deep thoughts of your heart and pour out your petitions to God. If prayer is not a simple thing for you yet, do not be led astray by the truth that it can also be more complex. Still, if you are one who prays naturally and if you know that you can come to God at any place and at any time, you can learn something additional from this prayer of Habakkuk. There is also room for composed prayer in which we put down in writing the deepest expression and clearest insights of our hearts and minds.
Habakkuk’s prayer can be divided into three parts. The first part is an approach to God; we find it in verse 2. The second part is the prayer itself, consisting largely of rehearsal of God’s mighty acts; we find it in verses 3–15. The third and final part is Habakkuk’s personal testimony; we find this is verses 16–19. The first of these (verse 2) will occupy our thoughts in this chapter.
Habakkuk’s prayer begins in this way: “Lord, I have heard of your fame; I stand in awe of your deeds, O Lord. Renew them in our day, in our time make them known; in wrath remember mercy.” In many ways this is a very simple verse. Still, it contains all the essential elements of an effective approach to God and teaches us how our prayers can be effective.
What are the elements of effective prayer? The first and most essential is humility. We cannot succeed in prayer if we come into God’s presence demanding things because of who we are. We cannot succeed if we think that somehow we deserve to be there and deserve to be heard. Habakkuk’s approach to God is a very humble prayer. Some might say, “How do you get humility from that verse? Is it because the prophet claims to stand in awe of God’s deeds?” That is part of it. But the true measure of Habakkuk’s humility in this prayer is seen by comparing 3:2 with the prophet’s earlier prayers. Place them side by side. Here he says: “I stand in awe of your deeds, O Lord. Renew them in our day, in our time make them known; in wrath remember mercy.” Earlier the prophet’s prayers went: “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?” (Hab. 1:2); “Your eyes are too pure to look on evil; you cannot tolerate wrong. Why then do you tolerate the treacherous? Why are you silent while the wicked swallow up those more righteous than themselves?” (1:13). Can you not hear the difference? The prayers of chapter 1 are complaints. The final prayer assumes a different attitude.
The first prayers were not entirely bad. If we are free to come to God at any time of the day or night on any day of the week to voice what is on our hearts and minds, then we are certainly free to ask the kind of questions Habakkuk asks in these verses. Habakkuk was grieved by Israel’s sin. He was disturbed that revival had not come. The prophet had every right to ask God why there was no revival and what God was going to do about the situation.
But something happened in the interval between the prayers of the first chapter and the prayer of the third, and it changed Habakkuk. Quite simply, Habakkuk had taken his mind off himself, the Israelites, and the Babylonians and focused on God. So long as he was operating merely on the human level, the difference between the relative goodness of Israel and the relative badness of the Babylonians seemed great. He could ask, “Why are you silent while the wicked swallow up those more righteous than themselves?” But once he had looked to God—once he saw the righteousness of God and reminded himself of the eternal and sovereign God he worshiped—these differences faded into insignificance and the relative goodness of Israel seemed unimportant. Habakkuk saw that all, including himself, fall short of God’s standards and require God’s mercy to be saved.
Lloyd-Jones puts it this way: “How was Habakkuk brought to such a position? It would seem that it was when he stopped thinking of his own nation, or of the Chaldeans, and contemplated only the holiness and justice of God against the dark background of sin in the world. Our problems can nearly all be traced to our persistence in looking at the immediate problems themselves, instead of looking at them in the light of God. So long as Habakkuk was looking at Israel and the Chaldeans, he was troubled. Now he has forgotten Israel as such, and the Chaldeans, and his eyes are on God. He has returned to the realm of spiritual truth—the holiness of God, sin in man and in the world—and so he is able to see things in an entirely new light. He is now concerned for the glory of God and for nothing else. He had to stop thinking in terms of the fact that the Chaldeans were worse sinners than the Jews and that yet God was going to use them, perplexing though this problem was. That attitude made him forget the sin of his own nation through concentrating on the sin of others, which happened to be greater. As long as he remained in this attitude he remained in perplexity, unhappy in heart and mind. But the prophet came to the place where he was lifted entirely out of that state, to see only the wonderful vision of the Lord in His holy temple, with sinful mankind and the universe beneath Him. The distinction between the Israelites and the Chaldeans became relatively unimportant when things were seen like that. It was no longer possible to be exalted either as an individual or as a nation. When things are seen from a spiritual viewpoint, there can only be an acknowledgment that ‘All have sinned and come short of the glory of God,’ and ‘The whole world lieth in the evil one.’ The holiness of God and the sin of man are the only things that matter.”
This is what needs to happen if we are to learn to pray effectively. As long as we come into God’s presence saying, “Well, I am not perfect, God, but I am a good deal better than Bill Smith or Mary Jones; and therefore, you should listen to me because, after all, I am a Christian and I am pretty good and, well, I did put five dollars in the collection plate last Sunday instead of a quarter, and …”—as long as we come with that attitude, we are going to have an exceedingly ineffective prayer life. But on the other hand, if we can say, as Habakkuk himself learned to say, “It is only by grace that I am even led to pray, only on the basis of grace that I can come; I do not deserve anything from you, but I come because you have invited me to come; I lay my petitions before you”—if we pray like that, God will hear our prayer and will answer.
Sometimes this error can be quite subtle. R. A. Torrey tells how on one occasion when he was speaking on prayer, a note was put into his hands that read: “Dear Mr. Torrey: I am in great perplexity. I have been praying for a long time for something that I am confident is according to God’s will, but I do not get it. I have been a member of the Presbyterian church for thirty years, and have tried to be a consistent one all the time. I have been a superintendent in the Sunday school for twenty-five years, and an elder in the church for twenty years; and yet God does not answer my prayer and I cannot understand it. Can you explain it to me?”
Torrey replied, “It is perfectly easy to explain it. This man thinks that because he has been a consistent church member for thirty years, a faithful Sunday school superintendent for twenty-five years, and an elder in the church for twenty years, that God is under obligation to answer. He is really praying in his own name, and God will not hear our prayers when we approach him in that way. We must, if we would have God answer our prayers, give up any thought that we have any claims upon God. If we got what we deserved, every last one of us would spend eternity in hell. But Jesus Christ has great claims on God, and we should go to God in our prayers not on the ground of any goodness in ourselves, but on the ground of Jesus Christ’s claims.”
At the close of the meeting a man stepped up to him and said, “You have hit the nail square on the head. I did think that because I had been a consistent church member for thirty years, a Sunday school superintendent for twenty-five years, and an elder in the church for twenty years, that God was under obligation to answer my prayers. I see my mistake.”
So long as we approach God feeling that we are owed something because we are better or more faithful than someone else, we are making this mistake too. It is only when we abandon all thoughts of being better that we begin to approach God with a genuine and proper humility.
This is necessary when we pray for our church, particularly if we are evangelicals. We evangelicals tend to look at the liberal church and condemn it for its obvious departure from biblical truth. We say, “The liberal church no longer believes the Bible to be the authoritative and inerrant Word of God. It no longer believes in the virgin birth of Christ. It has doubts about the resurrection. It may even question the Lord’s divinity. Isn’t that terrible? Isn’t it good that we still believe these doctrines?” Well, it is terrible that a professedly Christian church should deny such doctrines, even in part. It is good that the evangelical church still holds to them. But if we approach God on the basis of that distinction, thinking that we therefore have some special claim upon God because of it and that he must answer our prayers because of it, we are repeating the error of the man who talked to Torrey. The only way we dare approach God is humbly, and the only way we can rightly present our petitions is with the utterance “God be merciful to me, a sinner.” We may be relatively better than the liberal church, but we are also relatively worse than the church of other generations. We do not have the convictions of the martyr church, nor the sensitivity to sin of the church of the Great Awakening. If there is to be a revival, it will not start with the liberal establishment. It will begin with us. It is only when the people of God humble themselves and pray and seek God’s face and turn from their wicked ways that he hears from heaven, forgives their sins, and heals their land (2 Chron. 7:14).
The second element in Habakkuk’s approach to God (the second secret of effective prayer) is worship or adoration. This is also seen in the opening half of the verse: “Lord, I have heard of your fame; I stand in awe of your deeds, O Lord.” Worship is acknowledging God’s true worth, his “worth-ship.” It is rehearsing his attributes so that we might have a true mental image of him. Habakkuk does precisely that in the central part of his prayer.
Most of us have a problem at this point. Often our prayers have very little worship or adoration in them. We have an acrostic for prayer based on the word ACTS: “A” for adoration, “C” for confession of sin, “T” for thanksgiving, and “S” for supplications or petitions. In this acrostic, adoration rightly comes first and should dominate any normal prayer, with each of the other items (particularly the last) taking progressively less time. But what often happens is quite different. We rush through the first part of our prayer (“Oh, Lord, we thank you that you are a wonderful God and that you sent Jesus to die for us …”) but then settle down on the requests (“Lord, here are sixteen things I want from you”). This is how Habakkuk prayed at the beginning. It is not very effective. Our requests will not be God’s desires for us and most will go unanswered. On the other hand, if we focus first on God’s great characteristics and his acts in past and present history, then our requests will change—they will be more in line with God’s desires—and we will receive what we are praying for now quite properly.
Prayer for God’s Work
This leads to the third and final secret of effective prayer, namely, petitions that are in accord with God’s desires. After Habakkuk had approached God humbly and had recognized his true worth and great deeds, he was ready to make his petitions; but now, as we suggested would be the case, they are different from what he was uttering a chapter or two earlier. There are two petitions: first, that God would renew his deeds in the prophet’s day and, second, that God would remember mercy in the midst of the anticipated outpouring of his wrath.
The first request deserves special study. Notice how Habakkuk prays that God’s deeds, not his own deeds or desires, might be renewed. This is what “them” in the phrase “renew them in our day” refers to. Usually, when we pray to God for some specific project, we are asking God to renew our work. It is like building a castle of dominoes. So long as the structure goes up unhindered, we seldom think of God. We do not need him. But suddenly something jars the table a bit, and the dominoes tumble. Now we become alert to prayer. We say, “Oh, God, renew the work; the structure is tumbling.” Our interest is really on what we are building and not on what God may desire. We need to learn that God may not be interested in our little piles of dominoes. We need to come to the point where we say, “Renew your deeds; revive your work.”
We notice too that Habakkuk prays for revival. That is what the word “renew” or “renewal” means. To renew is not merely to refurbish something, like refinishing an antique. It is to do a new work. It is to make a new creature in Christ out of one who was an old sinner. Revival means to make alive. Formerly the people were spiritually dead. Now they are being made alive through God’s Spirit.
Earlier Habakkuk might have prayed for God to change his mind regarding the Babylonian invasion. So long as Habakkuk was thinking of his own work, he would have been concerned for that. Since the Babylonian invasion threatened the work he knew, he would have wanted God to turn the invasion aside. However, he has gotten his mind off his own work now and desires the establishment of God’s work instead. He knows that if God is sending the Babylonian invasion, he will build a new work out of the disaster of that invasion. At this point he is ready to write off the relative goodness of Israel and anticipate nothing less than a whole new beginning.
Notice, finally, that the prayer is for God to renew his work “in our day, in our time.” What day is that? What time is he referring to? Clearly, it is the day of the invasion. Habakkuk is asking for renewal in the midst of bad times.
The 1982 meetings of the Philadelphia Conference on Reformed Theology were on the theme of revival, and John Richard de Witt made the point that revivals usually begin in bad times. He used the text, “I will pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground” (Isa. 44:3) and then illustrated it from revival periods. “One thinks of what took place in the Reformation period, the greatest time of revival and reformation in all the history of the church. We know the condition of the church before the ministry of Martin Luther. Alexander VI, the Borgia pope, was in the Vatican. He filled the palace with his own illegitimate children and did not hesitate to lift them to positions of esteem and influence. (It was a far more reprehensible thing in those days for a minister of religion to be married than to keep a concubine.) Alexander VI was succeeded by Julius II, the warrior pope so pillared by Erasmus. Then came Leo X, the Medici pope who said, ‘God has given us the papacy; let us enjoy it.’ That was the attitude of the leadership of the church of Christ in those days. All across Europe the church was in a ruinous condition. People were superstitious and ignorant. They were looking here and there for answers to their spiritual problems. They sought answers in mysticism, the relics of the saints, holy days and the purchase of indulgences—but to no avail.
“There had been the distant rolling of revival thunder and dimly perceptible flashes of lightning in the ministries of men like John Wycliffe of England and John Hus of Bohemia, but it was not until the early sixteenth century that God had mercy on his church. Martin Luther arose, groping through the dry land of the religious teachings of his time with a thirst that would not be satisfied with anything short of the pure water that only the Lord Jesus Christ can give. Luther had been terrified by the righteousness of God. ‘I could not love a righteous God,’ Luther said. ‘I hated him.’ But Luther persisted in study of what he called ‘the dear Paul’ until he came to understand that ‘the just shall live by faith.’ Then he bestrode the Europe of his day like a colossus. With the mighty hammer of the Word of God he shattered the corrupt ecclesiastical establishment and held high the banner of the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ and his sole sufficiency to deliver his people from their sins. It was on dry ground that the water of God’s reviving Holy Spirit fell in the sixteenth century.
“Jonathan Edwards has something to say about this as well. Edwards succeeded his grandfather Solomon Stoddard as minister of the church in Northampton, Massachusetts. In Stoddard’s long ministry there had been five periods of quickening, but for many years after the fifth of those quickenings there was barrenness and aridity. Edwards speaks of the licentiousness which prevailed among the young people, the breakdown in family structure, the failure of family worship, the contentions, jealousies and divisions which marked the community. The situation of Northampton was marked by a spiritual need that only the Holy Spirit could remedy. And he did remedy it! There too the Holy Spirit of God came down and did his reviving work.
“The same was true of England in the eighteenth century. Bishop J. C. Ryle, in his Christian Leaders of the Eighteenth Century, tells of the great lawyer Blackstone, whose name will be familiar to any who have studied law. Early in the reign of King George III Blackstone visited the principal churches of London to see what was being preached. His report was that there was no more Christianity in the discourses he heard than in the writings of Cicero and that it was impossible to discover from what he heard whether the preachers were followers of Mohammed, Confucius or Jesus Christ. This was the scene upon which revival burst through the ministries of George Whitefield and John and Charles Wesley. God came down on a spiritual desert.”
That is the way God usually operates. So Habakkuk was in line with God’s normal way of acting when he prayed for renewal in the time of invasion and destruction soon to come upon Israel. Are our times bad? Is ours a spiritual desert? If so, it is now particularly that we can cry out for revival and be heard.
The last of Habakkuk’s requests is a simple one, but it goes to the heart of all we have been saying: “In wrath remember mercy.” What a great request to leave with God! What an effective request! What an appropriate way to win and be assured of God’s favor! God is the God of mercy, so to pray for mercy (even in the day of his wrath) is to plead for that which is central to his character.
If we would see a mighty working of the Spirit of God in our time, we must get to the point where we desire and earnestly pray for his mercy. We must pray for his mercy on us as a nation. On one occasion the Lord Jesus Christ told a story about a Pharisee and a tax collector. The Pharisee was proud of his spiritual achievements, so when he went up to the temple to pray he prayed like this: “God, I thank you that I am not like all other men—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.” The tax collector was aware of his failures and would not even look up to heaven. He prayed, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
This is precisely what the second and third chapters of Habakkuk are about. The Pharisee? He is the man who is “puffed up,” whose “desires are not upright” (Hab. 2:4). The tax collector? He is the “righteous” man who lives “by his faith.” He prays, “In wrath remember mercy.” It is this man who, so the Lord says, goes home “justified” (Luke 18:14; cf. vv. 9–14).
2. The Prophet says here, in the name of the whole people, that he was terrified by the voice of God, for so I understand the word, though in many places it means report, as some also explain it in this place. But as the preaching of the Gospel is called in Isa. 53, שמעה, shemoe, report, it seems to me more suitable to the present passage to render it the voice of God; for the general sentiment, that the faithful were terrified at the report of God, would be frigid. It ought rather to be applied to the Prophecies which have been already explained: and doubtless Habakkuk did not intend here to speak only in general of God’s power; but, as we have seen in the last lecture, he humbly confesses the sins of the people, and then prays for forgiveness. It is then not to be doubted but that he says here, that he was terrified by the voice of God, that is, when he heard him threatening punishment so grievous. He then adds, Revive thy work in the middle of the years, and make it known. At last, by way of anticipation, he subjoins, that God would remember his mercy, though justly offended by the sins of the people.
But by saying, that he feared the voice of God, he makes a confession, or gives an evidence of repentance; for we cannot from the heart seek pardon, unless we be first made humble. When a sinner is not displeased with himself, and confesses not his guilt, he is not deserving of mercy. We then see why the Prophet speaks here of fear; and that is, that he might thus obtain for himself and for others the favour of God; for as soon as a sinner willingly condemns himself, and does not do this formally, but seriously from the heart, he is already reconciled to God; for God bids us in this way to anticipate his judgment. This is one thing. But if it be asked, for what purpose the Prophet heard God’s voice; the obvious answer is,—that as it is not the private prayer of one person, but of the whole Church, he prescribes here to the faithful the way by which they were to obtain favour from God, and turn him to mercy; and that is, by dreading his threatenings and by acknowledging that whatever God threatened by his Prophets was near at hand.
Then follows the second clause, Jehovah! in the middle of the years revive thy work. By the work of God he means the condition of his people or of the Church. For though God is the creator of heaven and earth, he would yet have his own Church to be acknowledged to be, as it were, his peculiar workmanship, and a special monument of his power, wisdom, justice, and goodness. Hence, by way of eminence, he calls here the condition of the elect people the work of God; for the seed of Abraham was not only a part of the human race, but was the holy and peculiar possession of God. Since, then, the Israelites were set apart by the Lord, they are rightly called his work; as we read in another place, “The work of thine hands thou wilt not despise,” Ps. 138:8. And God often says, “This is my planting,” “This is the work of my hands,” when he speaks of his Church.
By the middle of the years, he means the middle course, as it were, of the people’s life. For from the time when God chose the race of Abraham to the coming of Christ, was the whole course, as it were, of their life, when we compare the people to a man; for the fulness of their age was at the coming of Christ. If, then, that people had been destroyed, it would have been the same as though death were to snatch away a person in the flower of his age. Hence the Prophet prays God not to take away the life of his people in the middle of their course; for Christ having not come, the people had not attained maturity, nor arrived at manhood. In the middle, then, of the years thy work revive; that is, “Though we seem destined to death, yet restore us.” Make it known, he says, in the middle of the years; that is, “Show it to be in reality thy work.”
We now apprehend the real meaning of the Prophet. After having confessed that the Israelites justly trembled at God’s voice, as they saw themselves deservedly given up to perdition, he then appeals to the mercy of God, and prays God to revive his own work. He brings forward here nothing but the favour of adoption: thus he confesses that there was no reason why God should forgive his people, except that he had been pleased freely to adopt them and to choose them as his peculiar people; for on this account it is that God is wont to show his favour towards us even to the last. As, then, this people had been once chosen by God, the Prophet records this adoption, and prays God to continue and fulfil to the end what he had begun. With regard to the half course of life, the comparison ought to be observed; for we see that the race of Abraham was not chosen for a short time, but until Christ the Redeemer was manifested. Now we have this in common with the ancient people, that God adopts us, that he may at length bring us into the inheritance of eternal life. Until, then, the work of our salvation is completed, we are, as it were, running our course. We may therefore adopt this form of prayer, which is prescribed for us by the Holy Spirit,—that God would not forsake his own work in the middle of our course.
What he now subjoins—in wrath remember mercy, is intended to anticipate an objection; for this thought might have occurred to the faithful—“there is no ground for us to hope pardon from God, whom we have so grievously provoked, nor is there any reason for us to rely any more on the covenant which we have so perfidiously violated.” The Prophet meets this objection, and he flees to the gracious favour of God, however much he perceived that the people would have to suffer the just punishment of their sins, such as they deserved. He then confesses that God was justly angry with his people, and yet that the hope of salvation was not on that account closed up, for the Lord had promised to be propitious. Since God then is not inexorable towards his people—nay, while he chastises them he ceases not to be a father; hence the Prophet connects here the mercy of God with his wrath.
We have elsewhere said that the word wrath is not to be taken according to its strict sense, when the faithful or the elect are spoken of; for God does not chastise them because he hates them; nay, on the contrary, he thereby manifests the care he has for their salvation. Hence the scourges by which God chastises his children are testimonies of his love. But the Scripture represents the judgment with which God visits his people as wrath, not towards their persons but towards their sins. Though then God shows love to his chosen, yet he testifies when he punishes their sins that iniquity is hated by him. When God then comes forth as it were as a judge, and shows that sins displease him, he is said to be angry with the faithful; and there is also in this a reference to the perceptions of men; for we cannot, when God chastises us, do otherwise than feel the accusations of our own conscience. Hence then is this hatred; for when our conscience condemns us we must necessarily acknowledge God to be angry with us, that is with respect to us. When therefore we provoke God’s wrath by our sins we feel him to be angry with us; but yet the Prophet connects together things which seem wholly contrary—even that God would remember mercy in wrath; that is, that he would show himself displeased with them in such a way as to afford to the faithful at the same time some taste of his favour and mercy by finding him to be propitious to them.
We now then perceive how the Prophet had joined the last clause to the foregoing. Whenever, then, the judgment of the flesh would lead us to despair, let us ever set up against it this truth—that God is in such a way angry that he never forgets his mercy—that is, in his dealings with his elect. It follows—
2 Habakkuk’s “prayer” is oriented to the past as the basis for his appeal for present help (cf. Ex 32:13; Ps 77:11; Ac 4:25–28). The noun “fame” (šēmaʿ; GK 9051) is normally used of secondhand information (e.g., Job 28:22; Na 3:19), suggesting a remoteness from the hearer’s own experience to the persons or events referred to (cf. Job 42:5). The Lord’s “deeds” (pōʿal) envisaged here corroborate this sense of remoteness, being associated with his sovereign power and preeminently with his “work” at the exodus—a primary anchor of Israel’s recollection, faith, and hope (e.g., Nu 23:23; Pss 44:1; 68:28; 77:12; 90:16; 95:9; 111:3), as is the cross to the Christian.
Habakkuk’s appeal for “mercy” (rāḥam) is thus grounded in God’s covenantal commitment to Israel, displayed in the events of the exodus as a whole and sealed at Sinai (cf. Dt 4:31); it is no wishful or manipulative plea for help grounded merely in the desperation of the moment. However, it is also an admission of how far Israel has fallen away from the revelation of God’s character and ways, made “known” at the exodus. Not only do the “deeds” of that epoch represent secondhand knowledge, but the need to “renew” (hîyâ) them implies that their impact is facing extinction. Moreover, the imminence of “wrath” (or “turmoil,” rōgez; cf. v. 7), betrays the presence of sin, which the Lord is committed to judge in his people—a judgment rooted in the covenant no less than “mercy” (e.g., Ex 32:10–12; Dt 6:15; 29:20–28; 31:17; 32:22). This appeal for God’s covenanted “mercy” in the face of present distress and judgment echoes Psalm 77:9, with which this chapter has much in common (see Overview).
The Prophet Prays for the Sustaining of Life for the Believer (3:2)
2 a Yahweh,
b I have heard
c your report;
b I have feared,
c your work.
a In (the) midst
b of (the) years
c make him live;
a in (the) midst
b of (the) years
c make (him) understand;
a in (the time of) trembling
c remember mercy.
Now the prophet begins his song, a song to be rehearsed in the congregation of Israel throughout the dark years which Israel must soon begin to experience. The song comes as a response to the revelation given the prophet concerning the coming days.
In adopting this form for his word of acceptance concerning the future prospect, the prophet echoes a tradition as old as Moses. As the Lord anticipated the unfaithfulness of Israel after they had entered the land, he instructed Moses to write a song and place it in the mouths of the Israelites as a vehicle for instructing future generations (Deut. 31:19). It would be a song that could not be forgotten by the children to come (Deut. 31:21). So now as Habakkuk looks down the corridors of time, he too composes a song. He has heard the report about the Lord, and fear has come into his heart.
Several instances in the law book of Deuteronomy indicate the naturalness with which “hearing and fearing” may be regarded as the expected reaction (Deut. 13:12; 17:13; 19:20; 21:21). Is Habakkuk to be blamed for trembling at the revelation he had received? Clearly not. If fear is a natural reaction on the occasion of personal tragedy, how much more is it understandable that the prophet should react with a sense of awe and fear when he is informed that the favored nation of the Lord shall be utterly devastated? Even though he is assured that the righteous by faith shall live, he cannot but be awestruck at the judgment to come. As a matter of fact, the prophet’s response of fear at hearing of the Lord’s activity indicates that he accepts as true the message that he has received. In this case, fear is a significant indicator of the faith of the prophet.
Most translators and interpreters take the reference to your work in direct grammatical connection with the second half of the verse. But the poetic parallelism of the section as well as the pronoun attached to the verb in the second section of the verse (“make him live”) suggest that your work should be taken in conjunction with the first half of the verse. The prophet has heard the report about the Lord, and has feared his work. Under this construction, it is quite natural to see the reference to the work (pōʿal) of the Lord as referring to the announcement given earlier to Habakkuk: “I am working a work [pōʿal pōʿēl] in your days which you would not believe if told” (Hab. 1:5). Now the prophet has come to understand just how awesome is that work which the Lord shall perform, and he fears.
In the second half of the verse, the prophet formally enters his petition, a petition that must have been repeated many times over by the community of Israel as they celebrated this psalm of Habakkuk. No doubt the fervency of this rehearsal must have intensified as the day drew nearer when the Babylonians would overrun the land of Palestine and even Jerusalem itself.
The prophet sets his petition in (the) midst of (the) years. Twice he repeats this peculiar phrase, which occurs only here in the OT; then he parallels it with a second expression (in [the time of ] trembling remember mercy).
Scholars have offered various explanations of this phrase in (the) midst of (the) years. It does not likely refer to the boundary line between the OT and NT aeons. Calvin’s suggestion that it alludes to the midpoint of history between Abraham and Christ is more plausible, since this understanding would have greater meaning to Habakkuk as an old covenant prophet.
The quaint rendering of the LXX, “between the two beasts,” has provided the inspiration for numerous nativity scenes. This picture was filled out by Origen, who concluded on the basis of Isa. 1:3 that the two animals must have been an ox and an ass.
Most likely the midst of (the) years refers to the time between the two acts of judgment revealed to Habakkuk in the process of his earlier dialogue. In the time between the purging judgment that must fall on the house of God itself and the consuming judgment that must avenge God’s elect—in that crucial period before the destruction of God’s enemies—may the Lord be sure to preserve life.
Habakkuk’s prayer that the Lord would make him live may represent a deliberate reflection on the vision for the eschaton which he had received earlier. The proud will not stand; but the just—he shall live! (Hab. 2:4). In other words, Habakkuk provides a prime example of one who is pleading the promises. Having received the word of reassurance that the justified (by faith) shall live by his steadfast trust, the prophet now makes this promise the focal point of his petition. By this form he encourages Israel continually to plead for life through all the dark years of judgment to come.
On a broader scale, the pattern of Habakkuk’s prayer provides the framework for understanding the present era. According to Peter, judgment must begin with the house of God (1 Pet. 4:17). This present era represents the time in which God continues to purify his own by many chastening judgments. In these circumstances, the believer must plead the promise that the Lord shall preserve the life of his own despite temporal calamities. Between the time of God’s chastening of his own and his bringing final judgment on his enemies, the cry must go up for the Lord to uphold his word and to sustain life for the believing. make him live, the prophet pleads. While the pronoun him attached to the verb could be taken to refer more abstractly to Israel as the one that God would preserve in life, the connection with the earlier monumental saying of Hab. 2:4 suggests that it is the just by faith whom the Lord shall preserve in life. Make him, the one who believes, to live.
The prophet also prays, make (him) understand. Standing in parallel construction with make him live, this verb has the same object, although it must be implied by the context. By this petition, the prophet asks that the Lord will make known to the believing the program and plan that he has designed. Even as Habakkuk had agonized in coming to an understanding of the mysterious ways of God and finally had rested his case in the light of the revelation provided him, so he intercedes on the behalf of others that the Lord will make plain to them the understanding necessary for survival in the midst of calamity.
Finally, the prophet pleads, in (the time of) trembling remember mercy. The term translated trembling (rōḡez) does not mean essentially “wrath” as it is rendered customarily (“In wrath remember mercy”—AV, NASB, NIV). Instead, the word indicates a condition of agitation, excitement, or disturbance. The term is prominent throughout this poem, occurring no less than four times (vv. 2, 7, 16). In this verse, it is set in parallelism with the phrase in (the) midst of (the) years, characterizing the time in which this prayer of Habakkuk is to function. It is a time of disturbance and agitation, a time when foundations shall be shaken. God’s own people shall go into exile. Trembling shall characterize even the most stable of human institutions.
In such a circumstance, the prophet prays that the Lord will remember to be merciful. For nothing but the undeserved mercy of God will prove sufficient to sustain people under such stress.
So the petitions of the prophet are threefold: that the Lord will preserve life, that the Lord will provide understanding, and that the Lord will remember mercy. Only the initiative of divine grace will prove sufficient under the calamitous circumstances which the believing shall face.
2. I have heard thy speech—Thy revelation to me concerning the coming chastisement of the Jews [Calvin], and the destruction of their oppressors. This is Habakkuk’s reply to God’s communication [Grotius]. Maurer translates, “the report of Thy coming,” literally, “Thy report.”
and was afraid—reverential fear of God’s judgments (Hab 3:16).
revive thy work—Perfect the work of delivering Thy people, and do not let Thy promise lie as if it were dead, but give it new life by performing it [Menochius]. Calvin explains “thy work” to be Israel; called “the work of My hands” (Is 45:11). God’s elect people are peculiarly His work (Is 43:1), pre-eminently illustrating His power, wisdom, and goodness. “Though we seem, as it were, dead nationally, revive us” (Ps 85:6). However (Ps 64:9), where “the work of God” refers to His judgment on their enemies, favors the former view (Ps 90:16, 17; Ps 90:16, 17, Is 51:9, 10).
in the midst of the years—namely, of calamity in which we live. Now that our calamities are at their height; during our seventy years’ captivity. Calvin more fancifully explains it, in the midst of the years of Thy people, extending from Abraham to Messiah; if they be cut off before His coming, they will be cut off as it were in the midst of their years, before attaining their maturity. So Bengel makes the midst of the years to be the middle point of the years of the world. There is a strikingly similar phrase (Da 9:27), In the midst of the week. The parallel clause, “in wrath” (that is, in the midst of wrath), however, shows that “in the midst of the years” means “in the years of our present exile and calamity.”
make known—Made it (Thy work) known by experimental proof; show in very deed, that this is Thy work.
Ver. 2.—§ 2. The proœmium, in which the prophet expresses his fear at the coming judgment, and prays God in his wrath to remember mercy. Thy speech; or, the report of thee; the declaration made by God in the preceding chapters concerning the punishment of the Jews and the destruction of the Chaldeans. The LXX., regarding the ambiguity of the Hebrew, gives a double rendering, εἰσακήκοα τὴν ἀκοήν σου, and κατενόησα τὰ ἔργα σου, “I heard thy report,” and “I considered thy works.” Pusey considers that both meanings are intended, viz. both what God had lately declared, and all that might be heard of God, his greatness and his workings. Was afraid. The revelation of God’s interposition makes the prophet tremble. Revive thy work. God’s work is the two-fold judgment spoken of above; and the prophet prays God to “quicken” and make it live, because, though it brings temporary distress upon his countrymen, it will also cause the destruction of their enemies, and re-establish the Jews and crown them with salvation, and make the glory of God known to all the earth. Dr. Briggs (‘Messianic Prophecy,’ p. 234) translates, “Jahveh, I have heard the report of thee; I fear, Jahveh, thy work. In the midst of the years revive him (Israel).” He explains God’s “work” to be his acts in theophany—his judgment, especially as in ver. 16, the cause of fear to the psalmist. In the midst of the years. The “years” are the period between the announcement of the judgment and its final accomplishment (ch. 2:3); the prophet prays that God would manifest his power, not merely at the extreme limit of this epoch, but earlier, sooner. This overthrow of the world-power forms, as it were, the central point of history, the beginning of a new age which shall culminate in the Messianic kingdom. Make known. Let all the earth know and acknowledge thy work. The LXX. have given two or more versions of this passage, one of which is remarkable. Thus they read, “In the midst of two animals (δύο ζώων) thou shalt be known; when the years draw nigh thou shalt be well known; when the time is come thou shalt be revealed.” The rendering, “two animals,” arises from a confusion of words; but many of the Fathers, who were conversant with the Greek Scriptures, saw herein a reference to the incarnation of our blessed Lord, as lying in the stable at Bethlehem between the ox and the ass, which was the mystical explanation of Isa. 1:3, “The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master’s crib.” Others interpreted the two animals of the two thieves between whom Christ was crucified; or of angels and men; or Jews and Gentiles; or the two Testaments; or Moses and Elias. Others again accented the word ζῶων so as to understand “two lives,” the present and the future, in the midst of which the Judge shall appear; or the life of Christ before his death and after his resurrection. There is a great truth underlying most of these interpretations, namely, that this magnificent hymn is concerned with the victories of Christ and his Church. In wrath remember mercy. When thine anger is displayed by sending the Chaldeans against us, remember thy mercy, and make a speedy end of our misery, and mitigate our enemies’ cruelty (comp. ch. 1:13; and vers. 9, 13, 18, 19 of this chapter). The LXX. gives a double version, “In the troubling of my soul, in wrath, thou wilt remember mercy.”
3:2. The prayer opens by reviewing God’s work in the past (I have heard the report), and continues with a review of the events at the exodus. It also predicts that God will once again powerfully deliver His people (see Pss 18; 144:5–8; Is 64:1–3 for similar uses of deliverance imagery). While some have understood these images as primarily focused on the Lord’s impending dealings with Judah and Babylon, the perspective of history demonstrates that this vision (cf. also 2:3) was not fulfilled then. Rather, it will yet be fulfilled in the Lord’s final, eschatological judgment.
This recollection is characterized by fear of the Lord. It contains the only petitions in Habakkuk’s prayer: that God would revive [His] work (accomplish Your promises), provide understanding (make it known), and in wrath remember mercy in the midst of the coming judgment.
 Boice, J. M. (2002). The Minor Prophets: an expositional commentary (pp. 417–425). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.
 Calvin, J., & Owen, J. (2010). Commentaries on the Twelve Minor Prophets (Vol. 4, pp. 135–140). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.
 Armerding, C. E. (2008). Habakkuk. In T. Longman III & D. E. Garland (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Daniel–Malachi (Revised Edition) (Vol. 8, p. 638). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
 Robertson, O. P. (1990). The Books of Nahum, Habakkuk and Zephaniah (pp. 215–218). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
 Jamieson, R., Fausset, A. R., & Brown, D. (1997). Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible (Vol. 1, p. 704). Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.
 Spence-Jones, H. D. M. (Ed.). (1909). Habakkuk (pp. 50–51). London; New York: Funk & Wagnalls Company.
 Rydelnik, M. A. (2014). Habakkuk. In The moody bible commentary (p. 1392). Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers.