The eighth of the Minor Prophets, who probably flourished towards the end of the seventh century B.C.
In the Hebrew text (i,1; iii, 1), the prophet's name presents a doubly intensive form Hàbhàqqûq, which has not been preserved either in the Septuagint : Ambakoum , or in the Vulgate : Habacuc. Its resemblance with the Assyrian hambakûku, which is the name of a plant, is obvious. Its exact meaning cannot be ascertained: it is usually taken to signify "embrace" and is at times explained as "ardent embrace", on account of its intensive form. Of this prophet's birth-place, parentage, and life we have no reliable information. The fact that in his book he is twice called "the prophet " (i, 1; iii, 1) leads indeed one to surmise that Habacuc held a recognized position as prophet, but it manifestly affords no distinct knowledge of his person. Again, some musical particulars connected with the Hebrew text of his Prayer (ch. iii) may possibly suggest that he was a member of the Temple choir, and consequently a Levite : but most scholars regard this twofold inference as questionable. Hardly less questionable is the view sometimes put forth, which identifies Habacuc with the Judean prophet of that name, who is described in the deuterocanonical fragment of Bel and the Dragon (Dan., xiv, 32 sqq.), as miraculously carrying a meal to Daniel in the lion's den.
In this absence of authentic tradition, legend, not only Jewish but also Christian, has been singularly busy about the prophet Habacuc. It has represented him as belonging to the tribe of Levi and as the son of a certain Jesus ; as the child of the Sunamite woman, whom Eliseus restored to life (cf. 2 Kings 4:16 sqq. ); as the sentinel set by Isaias (cf. Isaiah 21:6 ; and Habakkuk 2:1 ) to watch for the fall of Babylon. According to the "Lives" of the prophets, one of which is ascribed to St. Epiphanius, and the other to Dorotheus, Habacuc was of the tribe of Simeon, and a native of Bethsocher, a town apparently in the tribe of Juda. In the same works it is stated that when Nabuchodonosor came to besiege Jerusalem, the prophet fled to Ostrakine (now Straki, on the Egyptian coast), whence he returned only after the Chaldeans had withdrawn; that he then lived as a husbandman in his native place, and died there two years before Cyrus's edict of Restoration (538 B.C. ). Different sites are also mentioned as his burial-place. The exact amount of positive information embodied in these conflicting legends cannot be determined at the present day. The Greek and Latin Churches celebrate the feast of the prophet Habacuc on 15 January.
Apart from its short title (i, 1) the Book of Habacuc is commonly divided into two parts: the one (i,2-ii, 20) reads like a dramatic dialogue between God and His prophet ; the other (chap. iii) is a lyric ode, with the usual characteristics of a psalm. The first part opens with Habacuc's lament to God over the protracted iniquity of the land, and the persistent oppression of the just by the wicked, so that there is neither law nor justice in Juda : How long is the wicked thus destined to prosper? (i, 2-4). Yahweh replies (i, 5-11) that a new and startling display of His justice is about to take place: already the Chaldeans -- that swift, rapacious, terrible, race -- are being raised up, and they shall put an end to the wrongs of which the prophet has complained. Then Habacuc remonstrates with Yahweh, the eternal and righteous Ruler of the world, over the cruelties in which He allows the Chaldeans to indulge (i, 12-17), and he confidently waits for a response to his pleading (ii, 1). God's answer (ii, 2-4) is in the form of a short oracle (verse 4), which the prophet is bidden to write down on a tablet that all may read it, and which foretells the ultimate doom of the Chaldean invader. Content with this message, Habacuc utters a taunting song, triumphantly made up of five "woes" which he places with dramatic vividness on the lips of the nations whom the Chaldean has conquered and desolated (ii, 5-20). The second part of the book (chap. iii) bears the title: "A prayer of Habacuc, the prophet, to the music of Shigionot." Strictly speaking, only the second verse of this chapter has the form of a prayer . The verses following (3-16) describe a theophany in which Yahweh appears for no other purpose than the salvation of His people and the ruin of His enemies. The ode concludes with the declaration that even though the blessings of nature should fail in the day of dearth, the singer will rejoice in Yahweh (17-19). Appended to chap. iii is the statement: "For the chief musician, on my stringed instruments."
Owing chiefly to the lack of reliable external evidence, there has been in the past, and there is even now, a great diversity of opinions concerning the date to which the prophecy of Habacuc should be ascribed. Ancient rabbis, whose view is embodied in the Jewish chronicle entitled Seder olam Rabbah , and is still accepted by many Catholic scholars ( Kaulen, Zschokke, Knabenbauer, Schenz, Cornely, etc.), refer the composition of the book to the last years of Manasses's reign. Clement of Alexandria says that "Habacuc still prophesied in the time of Sedecias" (599-588 B. C. ), and St. Jerome ascribes the prophecy to the time of the Babylonian Exile. Some recent scholars (Delitzsch and Keil among Protestants, Danko, Rheinke, Holzammer, and practically also Vigouroux, among Catholics, place it under Josias (641-610 B.C. ). Others refer it to the time of Joakim (610-599 B.C. ), either before Nabuchodonosor's victory at Carchemish in 605 B.C. (Catholic: Schegg, Haneberg; Protestant : Schrader, S. Davidson, König, Strack, Driver, etc.); while others, mostly out-and-out rationalists, ascribe it to the time after the ruin of the Holy City by the Chaldeans. As might be expected, these various views do not enjoy the same amount of probability, when they are tested by the actual contents of the Book of Habacuc. Of them all, the one adopted by St. Jerome, and which is now that propounded by many rationalists, is decidedly the least probable: to ascribe, as that view does, the book to the Exile, is, on the one hand, to admit for the text of Habacuc an historical background to which there is no real reference in the prophecy, and, on the other, to ignore the prophet's distinct references to events connected with the period before the Bablyonian Captivity (cf. i, 2-4, 6, etc.). All the other opinions have their respective degrees of probability, so that it is no easy matter to choose among them. It seems, however, that the view which ascribes the book to 605-600 B.C. "is best in harmony with the historical circumstances under which the Chaldeans are presented in the prophecy of Habacuc, viz. as a scourge which is imminent for Juda, and as oppressors whom all know have already entered upon the inheritance of their predecessors" (Van Hoonacker).
During the nineteenth century, objections have oftentimes been made against the genuineness of certain portions of the Book of Habacuc. In the first part of the work, the objections have been especially directed against i, 5-11. But, however formidable they may appear at first sight, the difficulties turn out to be really weak, on a closer inspection; and in point of fact, the great majority of critics look upon them as not decisive. The arguments urged against the genuineness of chapter ii, 9-20, are of less weight still. Only in reference to chapter iii, which forms the second part of the book, can there be a serious controversy as to its authorship by Habacuc. Many critics treat the whole chapter as a late and independent poem, with no allusions to the circumstances of Habacuc's time, and still bearing in its liturgical heading and musical directions (vv. 3, 9, 13, 19) distinct marks of the collection of sacred songs from which it was taken. According to them, it was appended to the Book of Habacuc because it had already been ascribed to him in the title, just as certain psalms are still referred in the Septuagint and in the Vulgate to some prophets. Others, indeed in smaller number, but also with greater probability, regard only the last part of the chapter iii, 17-19 as a later addition to Habacuc's work: in reference to this last part only does it appear true to say that it has no definite allusions to the circumstances of Habacuc's time. All things considered, it seems that the question whether chapter iii be an original portion of the prophecy of Habacuc, or an independent poem appended to it at a later date, cannot be answered with certainty : too little is known in a positive manner concerning the actual circumstances in the midst of which Habacuc composed his work, to enable one to feel confident that this portion of it must or must not be ascribed to the same author as the rest of the book.
In the composition of his book, Habacuc displays a literary power which has often been admired. His diction is rich and classical, and his imagery is striking and appropriate. The dialogue between God and him is highly oratorical, and exhibits to a larger extent than is commonly supposed, the parallelism of thought and expression which is the distinctive feature of Hebrew poetry . The Mashal or taunting song of five "woes" which follows the dialogue, is placed with powerful dramatic effect on the lips of the nations whom the Chaldeans have cruelly oppressed. The lyric ode with which the book concludes, compares favourably in respect to imagery and rhythm with the best productions of Hebrew poetry. These literary beauties enable us to realize that Habacuc was a writer of high order. They also cause us to regret that the original text of his prophecy should not have come down to us in all its primitive perfection. As a matter of fact, recent interpreters of the book have noticed and pointed out numerous alterations, especially in the line of additions, which have crept in the Hebrew text of the prophecy of Habacuc, and render it at times very obscure. Only a fair number of those alterations can be corrected by a close study of the context; by a careful comparison of the text with the ancient versions, especially the Septuagint ; by an application of the rules of Hebrew parallelism, etc. In the other places, the primitive reading has disappeared and cannot be recovered, except conjecturally, by the means which Biblical criticism affords in the present day.
Most of the religious and moral truths that can be noticed in this short prophecy are not peculiar to it. They form part of the common message which the prophets of old were charged to convey to God's chosen people. Like the other prophets, Habacuc is the champion of ethical monotheism. For him, as for them, Yahweh alone is the living God (ii, 18-20); He is the Eternal and Holy One (i, 12), the Supreme Ruler of the Universe (i, 6, 17; ii, 5 sqq.; iii, 2-16), Whose word cannot fail to obtain its effect (ii, 3), and Whose glory will be acknowledged by all nations (ii, 14). In his eyes, as in those of the other prophets, Israel is God's chosen people whose unrighteousness He is bound to visit with a signal punishment (i, 2-4). The special people, whom it was Habacuc's own mission to announce to his contemporaries as the instruments of Yahweh's judgment, were the Chaldeans, who will overthrow everything, even Juda and Jerusalem, in their victorious march (i, 6 sqq.). This was indeed at the time an incredible prediction (i, 5), for was not Juda God's kingdom and the Chaldean a world-power characterized by overweening pride and tyranny? Was not therefore Juda the "just" to be saved, and the Chaldean really the "wicked" to be destroyed? The answer to this difficulty is found in the distich (ii, 4) which contains the central and distinctive teaching of the book. Its oracular form bespeaks a principle of wider import than the actual circumstances in the midst of which it was revealed to the prophet, a general law, as we would say, of God's providence in the government of the world: the wicked carries in himself the germs of his own destruction; the believer, on the contrary, those of eternal life. It is because of this, that Habacuc applies the oracle not only to the Chaldeans of his time who are threatening the existence of God's kingdom on earth, but also to all the nations opposed to that kingdom who will likewise be reduced to naught (ii, 5-13), and solemnly declares that "the earth shall be filled with the knowledge of the glory of Yahweh, as the waters cover the sea" (ii, 15). It is because of this truly Messianic import that the second part of Habacuc's oracle (ii, 4b) is repeatedly treated in the New Testament writings ( Romans 1:17 ; Galatians 3:11 ; Hebrews 10:38 ) as being verified in the inner condition of the believers of the New Law.
St. Catherine of Siena
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