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Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament, by Carl Friedrich Keil and Franz Delitzsh, [1857-78], at

Habakkuk Introduction


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Person of the Prophet. - Nothing certain is known as to the circumstances of Habakkuk's life. The name חבקּוּק, formed from חבק, to fold the hands, piel to embrace, by a repetition of the last radical with the vowel u, like נעצוּץ from נעץ, שׁערוּרה from שׁער, etc., and a reduplication of the penultimate (cf. Ewald, 157, a), signifies embracing; and as the name of a person, either one who embraces, or one who is embraced. Luther took the name in the first sense. "Habakkuk," he says, "signifies an embracer, or one who embraces another, or takes him to his arms," and interpreted it thus in a clever although not perfectly appropriate manner: "He embraces his people, and takes them to his arms, i.e., he comforts them and holds (lifts) them up, as one embraces a weeping child or person, to quiet it with the assurance that if God will it shall be better soon." The lxx wrote the name ̓αμβακούμ, taking the word as pronounced הבּקוּק, and compensating for the doubling of the ב by the liquid μ, and changing the closing ק into μ. Jerome in his translation writes the name Habacuc. In the headings to his book (Hab 1:1 and Hab 3:1) Habakkuk is simply described by the epithet הוּביא, as a man who held the office of a prophet. From the conclusion to the psalm in ch. 3, "To the leader in the accompaniment to my playing upon stringed instruments" (Hab 3:19), we learn that he was officially qualified to take part in the liturgical singing of the temple, and therefore belonged to one of the Levitical families, who were charged with the maintenance of the temple music, and, like the prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel, who sprang from priestly households, belonged to the tribe of Levi. This is supported by the superscription of the apocryphon of Bel and the dragon at Babel, ἑκ προφητείας Ἀμβακοὺμ υἱοῦ Ἰησοῦ ἐκ τῆς φυλῆς Λευΐ́, which has been preserved in the Cod. Chisian. of the lxx from Origen's tetrapla, and has passed into the Syrio-hexaplar. version; even if this statement should not be founded upon tradition, but simply inferred from the subscription to Hab 3:19. For even in that case it would prove that בּנגינותי was understood in ancient times as signifying that the prophet took part in the liturgical singing of the temple.

(Note: There is not much probability in this conjecture, however, since the lxx have not understood the subscription in this sense, but have rendered it incorrectly τοῦ νικῆσαι ἐν τῆ ὠδῆ αὐτοῦ, which has led the fathers to take the words as belonging to the psalm itself, and to understand it as relating to the songs of praise which the church would raise to God for the deliverance which it had received. Theod. Mops. explains it in this way: "He sets us higher than all the rest, so that nothing else becomes us than to continue in the songs and hymns which are due to God, because, against all human hope, He has given us the victory over our enemies." Cyril of Alex. and Theodoret give similar explanations. Even Jerome, in his rendering "et super excelsa mea deducet me victori in psalmis canentem," connects the words with the preceding sentence, and interprets them as referring to the songs of praise which "every righteous man who is worthy of the election of God" will raise at the end of the world to the great conqueror "Jesus, who was the first to conquer in the fight." With such an explanation of the words as these, it was impossible to see any intimation of the Levitical descent of the prophet in the expression בּנגינותי)

On the other hand, the rest of the legends relating to our prophet are quite worthless: viz., the circumstantial account in the apocryphal book of Bel and the Dragon of the miraculous way in which Habakkuk was transported to Daniel, who had been cast into the lions' den, which is also found in a MS of the Midrash Bereshit rabba; and also the statements contained in the writings of Ps. Doroth. and Ps. Epiph. de vitis prophet., that Habakkuk sprang from the tribe of Simeon; that he was born at Βηθζοχήρ (Sozomenus, Χαφἀρ Ζαχαρία, the talmudic כּפר דכרין), a hamlet to the north of Lydda, near to Maresha on the mountains; that when Nebuchadnezzar came to Jerusalem, he fled to Ostrakine (on the promontory now called Ras Straki, situated in the neighbourhood of Arabia Petraea); and that he died on his native soil two years after the return of the people from Babylon, and was buried at the spot between Keila and Gabatha, where his grave was still shown in the time of Eusebius and Jerome (cf. Onomast. ed. Lars. et Parthey, pp. 128-9). For further particulars as to the apocryphal legends, see Delitzsch, De Habacuci proph. vita atque aetate commentat., ed. ii., Lps. 1842.

These legends do not even help us to fix the date of Habakkuk's life. All that can be gathered with any certainty from his own writings is that he prophesied before the arrival of the Chaldaeans in Palestine, i.e., before the victory gained by Nebuchadnezzar over Pharaoh Necho at Carchemish in the fourth year of Jehoiakim (Jer 46:2), since he announces the bringing up of this people to execute judgment upon Judah as something still in the future (Hab 1:5.). Opinions are divided as to the precise date at which he lived. Leaving out of sight the opinions of those who deny the supernatural character of prophecy, and therefore maintain that the prophet did not prophesy till the Chaldaeans were coming against Jerusalem after the defeat of Necho, or had already arrived there, the only question that can arise is, whether Habakkuk lived and laboured in the reign of Josiah or in the closing years of Manasseh. Many have found a decisive proof that he lived in the reign of Josiah in Hab 1:5, viz., in the fact that the prophet there foretells the Chaldaean judgment as a work which God will perform during the lifetime of the persons to whom his words are addressed ("in your days"); and they have inferred from this that we must not at any rate go beyond Josiah's reign, because the prophet is not speaking to the children, but to the adults, i.e., to those who have reached the age of manhood. But the measure of time by which to interpret בּימיכם cannot be obtained either from Joe 1:2, where the days of the persons addressed are distinguished from the days of the fathers and grandchildren, or from Jer 16:9 and Eze 12:25; but this expression is quite a relative one, especially in prophetic addresses, and may embrace either a few years only, or a complete lifetime, and even more. Now, as there were only thirty-eight years between the death of Manasseh and the first invasion of the Chaldaeans, the Chaldaean judgment might very well be announced during the last years of that king to the then existing generation as one that would happen in their days. We are precluded from placing the announcement in the time immediately preceding the appearance of the Chaldaeans in Hither Asia, say in the first years of Jehoiakim or the closing years of Josiah's reign, by the fact that Habakkuk represents this work of God as an incredible one: "Ye would not believe it, if it were told you" (Hab 1:5). Moreover, it is expressly related in Kg2 21:10-16 and Ch2 33:10, that in the time of Manasseh Jehovah caused His prophets to announce the coming of such a calamity, "that both ears of all who heard it would tingle" - namely, the destruction of Jerusalem and rejection of Judah. In all probability, one of these prophets was Habakkuk, who was the first of all the prophets known to us to announce this horrible judgment. Zephaniah and Jeremiah both appeared with the announcement of the same judgment in the reign of Josiah, and both took notice of Habakkuk in their threatenings. Thus Zephaniah quite as certainly borrowed the words הס מפּני אדני יהוה in Zep 1:7 from Hab 2:20, as Zechariah did the words הס כּל־בּשׂר מפּני יהוה in Zac 2:1-13 :17; and Jeremiah formed the expressions קלּוּ מנּשׁרים סוּסיו in Jer 4:13 and זאב ערבות in Jer 5:6 on the basis of קלּוּ מנּמרים סוּסיו וחדּוּ מזּאבי ערב in Hab 1:8, not to mention other passages of Jeremiah that have the ring of our prophet, which Delitzsch has collected in his Der Proph. Hab. ausgelegt (p. xii.). This decidedly upsets the theory that Habakkuk did not begin to prophesy till the reign of Jehoiakim; although, as such resemblances and allusions do not preclude the contemporaneous ministry of the prophets, there still remains the possibility that Habakkuk may not have prophesied till the time of Josiah, and indeed not before the twelfth year of Josiah's reign, when he commenced the extermination of idolatry and the restoration of the worship of Jehovah, since Habakkuk's prayer, which was intended according to the subscription for use in the temple, presupposes the restoration of the Jehovah-worship with the liturgical service of song.

But the possibility is not yet raised into a certainty by these circumstances. Manasseh also caused the idols to be cleared away from the temple after his return from imprisonment in Babylon, and not only restored the altar of Jehovah, and ordered praise-offerings and thank-offerings to be presented upon it, but commanded the people to serve Jehovah the God of Israel (Ch2 33:15-16). Consequently Habakkuk might have composed his psalm at that time for use in the temple service. And this conjecture as to its age acquires extreme probability when we look carefully at the contents and form of the prophecy. Apart from the rather more distinct and special description of the wild, warlike, and predatory nature of the Chaldaeans, the contents retain throughout an ideal character, without any allusion to particular historical relations, such as we find for example in great abundance in Jeremiah, who prophesied in the thirteenth year of Josiah, and which are not altogether wanting in Zephaniah, notwithstanding the comprehensive character of his prophecy. If we look at the form, Habakkuk's prophecy still bears completely the antique stamp of the earlier prophetic literature. "His language," to use the words of Delitzsch, "is classical throughout, full of rare and select words and turns, which are to some extent exclusively his own, whilst his view and mode of presentation bear the seal of independent force and finished beauty. Notwithstanding the violent rush and lofty soaring of the thoughts, his prophecy forms a finely organized and artistically rounded whole. Like Isaiah, he is, comparatively speaking, much more independent of his predecessors, both in contents and form, than any other of the prophets. Everything reflects the time when prophecy was in its greatest glory, when the place of the sacred lyrics, in which the religious life of the church had hitherto expressed itself, was occupied, through a still mightier interposition on the part of God, by prophetic poetry with its trumpet voice, to reawaken in the church, now spiritually dead, the consciousness of God which had so utterly disappeared." On the other hand, the turning-point came as early as Zechariah, and from that time forwards the poetic swing of the prophetic addresses declines and gradually disappears, the dependence upon the earlier predecessors becomes more predominant; and even with such thoroughly original natures as Ezekiel and Zechariah, their style of composition cannot rise very far above simple prose.

2. The Book of Habakkuk contains neither a collection of oracles, nor the condensation into one discourse of the essential contents of several prophetic addresses, but one single prophecy arranged in two parts. In the first part (ch. 1 and 2), under the form of a conversation between God and the prophet, we have first of all an announcement of the judgment which God is about to bring upon the degenerate covenant nation through the medium of the Chaldaeans; and secondly, an announcement of the overthrow of the Chaldaean, who has lifted himself up even to the deification of his own power. To this there is appended in ch. 3, as a second part, the prophet's prayer for the fulfilment of the judgment; and an exalted lyric psalm, in which Habakkuk depicts the coming of the Lord in the terrible glory of the Almighty, at whose wrath the universe is terrified, to destroy the wicked and save His people and His anointed, and gives utterance to the feelings which the judgment of God will awaken in the hearts of the righteous. The whole of the prophecy has an ideal and universal stamp. Not even Judah and Jerusalem are mentioned, and the Chaldaeans who are mentioned by name are simply introduced as the existing possessors of the imperial power of the world, which was bent upon the destruction of the kingdom of God, or as the sinners who swallow up the righteous man. The announcement of judgment is simply a detailed expansion of the thought that the unjust man and the sinner perish, whilst the just will live through his faith (Hab 2:4). This prophecy hastens on towards its fulfilment, and even though it should tarry, will assuredly take place at the appointed time (Hab 2:2-3). Through the judgment upon the godless ones in Judah and upon the Chaldaeans, the righteousness of the holy God will be manifested, and the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord (Hab 2:14). Although the fact that the Chaldaeans are mentioned by name leaves no doubt whatever that the judgment will burst upon Judah through this wild conquering people, the prophecy rises immediately from this particular judgment to a view of the universal judgment upon all nations, yea, upon the whole of the ungodly world, to proclaim their destruction and the dawning of salvation for the people of the Lord and the Lord's anointed; so that the trembling at the terrors of judgment is resolved at the close into joy and exultation in the God of salvation. There can be no doubt as to the unity of the book; and the attempt to interpret the threat of judgment in ch. 2 by applying it to particular historical persons and facts, has utterly failed.

For the exegetical works on Habakkuk, see my Einleitung in das alte Testament, 302-3.

Next: Habakkuk Chapter 1