The world of Habakkuk

Before we begin to dig deep into the chapters of Habakkuk, we need to take a short detour and explore the world in which it was written. The Bible is not only our spiritual compass, but a credible historical record, full of different literary styles, and is a philosophy book. Discovering all these aspects of the Bible is important for our growth – it will enhance our comprehension of Habakkuk.

Habakkuk, the man

We know little of the person Habakkuk; the only definite fact that we have is that he was a prophet in Judah. It is most likely that Habakkuk lived during the reign of King Josiah (640 B.C. – 609 B.C.) and King Johoiakim (~607 B.C.). Based on context clues in the Bible, it seems he wrote in the period between the time when Babylonians (also known as the Chaldeans) conquered the Assyrian Empire (605 B.C.) and when Babylonians conquered Jerusalem (597 B.C.). Habakkuk probably lived to see the initial fulfillment of his prophecy when Jerusalem fell.

Habakkuk’s prophecy is dated just before King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon overthrew Judah in 597 B.C. (which would also be the same time Daniel was taken to Babylon). 

Habakkuk’s name bears witness to the cultural influences that existed in his time. The meaning and origin of his name is unclear; it can either come from the Hebrew word Chabaqquwq meaning “embrace” or the Assyrian word hambakuku, which is an Assyrian plant (this would suggest Assyrian assimilation with the Israelite people).       

The book opens with “The burden which the prophet Habakkuk saw”; the lack of introduction (such as identifying his father or the place of birth) would suggest that he was well known at the time and needed no introduction. The “book” he writes is very personal. Unlike the other prophetic books, Habakkuk is not verbally relaying a message to the people of Judah, but instead is having an intimate conversation with God.

Habakkuk’s sudden entrance and exit in the Bible leaves us wondering who this bereaved, yet faithful long-suffering man could have been. We know that he was a prophet and man of prayer; he wrote poetry; he poured out his heart to the Lord; he accepted hard answers. Habakkuk was a man who experienced a rare glimpse of God and wrote it down for us to read and be astonished.

Literary Style

There are several sections in Habakkuk that mirror the Psalms, in particular the lament with which the prophet opens. Though Habakkuk does not follow the pure outline of a lament, you will be able to identify a few of the elements as you read through Habakkuk.

First, you need to know a lament is a genre of psalm in which the speaker defines a crisis and appeals to God for help. There are typically five elements:

1) invocation or cry to God,

2) an explanation of the tragedy (often called a complaint),

3) a petition to God to save,

4) statement of confidence in God, and

5) resolution to praise God.

Historical Events

Two important historical markers frame Habakkuk’s prophecy: the great Babylonian (also known as Chaldean) victory over Assyria at Carchemish in 605 B.C. and the second Babylonian invasion of Judah in 587 B.C. The desperate conditions in Judah arising from internal and external threats makes Habakkuk question his faith in the goodness of God and he wrestles with difficult theological questions about divine justice.

This video was a wonderful job summarizing world events and literary content of Habakkuk. We’ve also included detailed historical events further down in this article as well, if you’re interested in reading more.

Historical Context: Israel’s current oppression under Assyria

The book was written in a time of Israel’s history where the children of God were under the leadership of corrupt kings and even worse, the constant threat of Assyrian oppressors.

It is important to note that Habakkuk is a prophet to Judah, which was the southern kingdom of Israel. The northern kingdom had already fallen to Assyria and only Judah remained free from foreign conquest.

Note: Israel had split into two kingdoms after King Solomon’s death (1 Kings 12:1-24); the southern portion comprised of the tribes of Judah and Benjamin, which included the capital, Jerusalem. The northern kingdom, known as Israel, consisted of the remaining tribes and in 722 B.C., the Assyrians conquered Israel. 

The challenge for us, modern individuals in Western Civilization, is to understand the depth of despair and suffering the Israelites faced under the Assyrian reign. I specify Western Civilization because the Assyrian/Syrian’s brutal war crimes detailed in the Bible are still regularly committed so they have been proscribed by the Geneva Conventions. The war crimes still happen today in third world nations!

The brutality of the Assyrians is simply astonishing. Their creative demonstration of torture and death exalts the evil that crouches at the door of a man’s heart. Great warrior kings ensured that their cruelty was engraved in stone monuments for all to remember. Such an inscription was preserved for us in the annals of King Assur-Nasir-Pal.

Warning – the below inscription is graphic.

[1.90] who had revolted against me and whose skins I had stripped off, I made into a trophy: some in the middle of the pile I left to decay; some on the top [1.91] of the pile on stakes I impaled; some by the side of the pile I placed in order on stakes; many within view of my land [1.92] I flayed their skins on the walls I arranged; of the officers of the King’s officer, rebels, the limbs I cut off.[1.116] their riches, oxen and sheep, I made plunder; much booty I burned with fire; many soldiers I captured alive;[1.117] of some I chopped off the hands and feet; of others the noses and ears I cut off; of many soldiers I destroyed the eyes;[1.118] one pile of bodies while yet alive, and one of heads I reared up on the heights within their town; their heads in the midst I hoisted…

Text Source: Annals of Assur-Nasir-Pal
Published work: "Babylonian and Assyrian Literature"
Translator: Rev. J. M. Rodwell, M.A.
Publisher: P. F. Collier & Son, New York
Copyright: Colonial Press, 1901 

Historical Context: Babylon is rising to power

In the beginning of 600 B.C., the Babylonian empire began to exercise its military prowess under King Nabopolassar and his son, King Nebuchadnezzar. Assyria, in rapid decline, felt the growing pressure from the expanding Babylonian empire. Babylon had successfully captured Assyria’s capital Nineveh, so the Assyrians were forced to establish a new capital at Carchemish (located in Northern Syria). In a desperate attempt to refortify their kingdom, Assyria enlisted the help of Egypt and their king, Neco. Egypt was eager to impede the Babylonian conquest and gladly marched to meet up with their allies in Syria; however, Egypt’s journey required marching through Judah.

Now Neco, king of Egypt, raised an army, and marched to the river Euphrates, in order to fight with the Medes and Babylonians, who had overthrown the dominion of the Assyrians,  for he had a desire to reign over Asia. Now when he was come to the city Mendes, which belonged to the kingdom of Josiah, he brought an army to hinder him from passing through his own country, in his expedition against the Medes. Now Neco sent a herald to Josiah, and told him that he did not make this expedition against him, but was making haste to Euphrates; and desired that he would not provoke him to fight against him, because he obstructed his march to the place whither he had resolved to go.But Josiah did not admit of this advice of Neco, but put himself into a posture to hinder him from his intended march. I suppose it was fate that pushed him on this conduct, that it might take an occasion against him; for as he was setting his army in array,  and rode about in his chariot, from one wing of his army to another, one of the Egyptians shot an arrow at him, and put an end to his eagerness of fighting; for being sorely wounded, he command a retreat to be sounded for his army, and returned to Jerusalem, and died of that wound; and was magnificently buried in the sepulcher of his fathers, when he had lived thirty-nine years, and of them had reigned thirty-one.  Josephus; Antiquities of the Jews Book 10; chapter 5
While Josiah was king, Pharaoh Neco king of Egypt went up to the Euphrates River to help the king of Assyria. King Josiah marched out to meet him in battle, but Neco faced him and killed him at Megiddo. 2 Kings 23:29

It is not clear why King Josiah denied Egypt passage through Judah. Whatever the reason, King Josiah’s decision was costly as he died in battle. Israel’s skirmish with the Egyptians delayed King Neco from reaching Carchemish in time to help Assyria. Babylon crushed most of the Assyrian resistance and was able to deal a crippling blow to the delayed Egyptian army. The Assyrians were ultimately defeated in 605 B.C. and their capitol fell.

Historical Context: Israel’s internal corruption

The book of Habakkuk not only laments the Gentiles’ wickedness and persecution, but the wickedness of God’s own people. Although there had been a temporary revival under King Josiah, the Lord made it very clear that Judah’s inescapable punishment was a result of the evil done by generations of depraved Israelites.  It would be particularly distressing for Habakkuk to see Josiah’s revival followed by a sharp degeneration of spiritual growth. The book of Kings and the prophet Jeremiah provide insight into ungodly leadership in Israel.

“Nevertheless, the LORD did not turn away from the heat of his fierce anger, which burned against Judah because of all that Manasseh had done to provoke him to anger”. 2 Kings 23:26
So Jehoiakim gave the silver and gold to Pharaoh; but he taxed the land to give money according to the command of Pharaoh; he exacted the silver and gold from the people of the land, from every one according to his assessment, to give [it] to Pharaoh Necho. Jehoiakim [was] twenty-five years old when he became king and he reigned eleven years in Jerusalem. His mother's name [was] Zebudah the daughter of Pedaiah of Rumah. And he did evil in the sight of the LORD, according to all that his fathers had done. 2 Kings 23:35-34
"[As] I live," says the LORD, "though Coniah the son of Jehoiakim, king of Judah, were the signet on My right hand, yet I would pluck you off; "and I will give you into the hand of those who seek your life, and into the hand [of those] whose face you fear--the hand of Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon and the hand of the Chaldeans. Jeremiah 22: 24-26

While Israel and Judah suffered greatly under the Assyrian oppression, Judah’s own government and religious leaders were equally oppressive to their own people.

Burial Place of Habakkuk

Two countries lay claim to the tomb of Habakkuk: Israel and Iran.

According to Jewish tradition, the burial place of Habakkuk is on a hillside in the Upper Galilee region of northern Israel, close to the villages Kadarim and Hukok, twelve miles north of Mount Tabor (how cool is that!). Tradition dating as early as the 12th century AD holds that Habakkuk’s tomb is at this location; however the tomb may also be of a local sheikh of Yaquq, a name related to the biblical place named “Hukkok” (mentioned in Joshua 19:34), whose pronunciation and spelling in Hebrew are close to “Habakkuk”.

A mausoleum in Tuyserkan, Iran also claims to be Habakkuk’s burial place. According to Iran, Habakkuk was a guardian in the temple and he was captured by the Babylonians when Jerusalem fell; he remained in prison for some years until he was freed by Cyrus the Great. He then went to Ecbatana and remained there until he died. He was buried nearby in what is today Tuyserkan.

Habakkuk: A Journey of Suffering © by Rachael McMullen