Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
Habakkuk’s doubts are solved by the Divine response. Judgment on Babylon’s numerous sins is indeed preparing: meantime, let the righteous wait on God in faith.
I will stand upon my watch, and set me upon the tower, and will watch to see what he will say unto me, and what I shall answer when I am reproved.(1) The Tower.—The practice of ascending a high place to secure an extensive view suggests the figure here. (See 2Kings 9:17; 2Samuel 18:24.) In a yet bolder metaphor Isaiah represents himself as appointing a watchman, who brings reports from his tower. We need not suppose that Habakkuk literally betook himself to a solitary height to wait for a revelation. Balaam, the heathen soothsayer, did so (Numbers 23:3), but his conduct throws no light on the customs of the Jewish prophets.
What he will say unto me.—Better, what He will say in me, and what answer I shall make to my complaint: i.e., of what solution of the perplexities I am deploring, Jehovah shall make me the mouthpiece.
And the LORD answered me, and said, Write the vision, and make it plain upon tables, that he may run that readeth it.(2) On tables.—Better, on the tables. The definite article probably indicates certain well-known tables on which the prophets were wont to inscribe their utterances for public edification. These tables may have been hung up in the Temple (Calvin) or market-place (Luther and Ewald).
That he may run that readeth it—i.e., the prophecy is to be inscribed plainly and legibly, so that the reader may “run his eye” quickly through it.
For the vision is yet for an appointed time, but at the end it shall speak, and not lie: though it tarry, wait for it; because it will surely come, it will not tarry.(3) For the vision is yet for an appointed time . . .—Better, For the vision is to have its appointed day, and it pants for the end. and it shall not disappoint, i.e., it pants for the day of completion, which shall do it justice. It longs to fulfil its destiny.
It will not tarry.—This translation is unfortunate. The prophet has just said that it will tarry. Nevertheless, he adds, men are to wait for it, because “it will surely come, and shall not be behindhand,” seil, on its appointed day. This and Habakkuk 2:4 are welded into the Apostle’s exhortation in Hebrews 10:37. The citation is not from the Hebrew, but is an adaptation of the equally familiar LXX. variant, ὅτι ἐρχόμενος ἥξει καὶ οὐ μὴ χρονίσῃἐὰν ὑποστείληται, οὐκ εὐδοκεῖ ἡ ψυχή μου ἐν αὐτῷ.
Behold, his soul which is lifted up is not upright in him: but the just shall live by his faith.(4) Behold his soul. . . .—Better, Behold his soul within him is puffed up, it is not upright. The soul of the Chaldæan invader is inflated with pride, self-dependence ousting from his mind all thoughts of God. It is therefore unsound and distorted. Habakkuk leaves the inference “and therefore it shall die” to be imagined, and hastens to the antithesis, “But the righteous man shall live by his faith.” The word live is emphatic. The reward promised to patient waitings on God is life—deliverance from destruction. How far the promise extends, and whether it includes that aspiration after future life which is plainly expressed by many Hebrew poets and prophets, we cannot determine. The student must be cautioned against such renderings as “he that is righteous-by-faith shall live,” or, “he that is justified-by-faith shall live,” which have been suggested by the Pauline quotations Romans 1:17, Galatians 3:11. If the adjective could be taken in this close collocation with the substantive, “he that is consistent in-his-confidence shall live” would be the only possible rendering. Thus whatever force we assign to St. Paul’s citation, here, at least, the words have no doctrinal significance. Their ethical importance is, however, undeniable. (See Introduction 4)
Yea also, because he transgresseth by wine, he is a proud man, neither keepeth at home, who enlargeth his desire as hell, and is as death, and cannot be satisfied, but gathereth unto him all nations, and heapeth unto him all people:(5) Yea, also. . . .—Better, Add, too, that wine is treacherous (and that) he is a braggart and cannot be quiet, whose appetite is large as (that of) Hades. The rest of the verse illustrates this last-named characteristic—restless, rapacious ambition. Two more charges are thus added to the gravamen of Habakkuk 2:4. Not only are the Chaldæans arrogant, but drunkards, and insatiably covetous. The former charge is expressed in a kind of proverb, “(It is a known fact that) wine is treacherous.” Perhaps the aphorisms of Proverbs 20:1 are in Habakkuk’s mind: “Wine is a mocker, strong drink is noisy.” The other charge, that of rapacity, also recalls the Book of Proverbs, where the insatiable appetite of death and Hades is twice described. (See Proverbs 27:20; Proverbs 30:16.) The charge of drunkenness is illustrated in Rawlinson, Ancient Monarchies, vol. 2, 504-507.
Shall not all these take up a parable against him, and a taunting proverb against him, and say, Woe to him that increaseth that which is not his! how long? and to him that ladeth himself with thick clay!(6-20) The destruction of the Chaldæans has hitherto been only implied. It is now plainly foretold in a denunciatory song, put into the mouths of the invader’s victims. In this song there are five strophes, of three verses each, 6-8; 9-11; 12-14; 15-17; 18-20.
(6-8) Woe on the reckless rapacity which has spared neither life nor property.
(6) How long?—i.e., how long shall this continual annexation be witnessed?
That ladeth himself with thick clay.—Better, That accumulates to himself usury. So the Targum. The rendering “thick clay” originates in a false etymology of the word abtêt, which the student will find in Rashi’s Commentary. For the true derivation see Fürst’s Lexicon.
Shall they not rise up suddenly that shall bite thee, and awake that shall vex thee, and thou shalt be for booties unto them?(7) Bite.—This verb nâshac also means “to oppress with usury,” and this is its force here. Thy turn shall come, and men shall exact usury from thee. Similarly, the verb translated “vex” is, literally, to shake violently, in allusion to a creditor’s forcible seizure of his debtor. (Comp. Matthew 18:28.) The prediction of Habakkuk in these verses was fulfilled by the rise of the Medo-Persian power, and the capture of Babylon by the forces of Cyrus, cir. B.C. 538.
Because thou hast spoiled many nations, all the remnant of the people shall spoil thee; because of men's blood, and for the violence of the land, of the city, and of all that dwell therein.(8) Violence of.—Scil., violence wreaked on, both here and in Habakkuk 2:17.
Woe to him that coveteth an evil covetousness to his house, that he may set his nest on high, that he may be delivered from the power of evil!(9-11) Woe on the aggrandisement of the new dynasty by force and cunning.
(9) Woe to him that coveteth . . .—Better, Woe to him who accumulates wicked gain for his house, who sets his nest on high to save himself from the hand of evil—i.e., who gathers spoil from the nations, and stows it away in an impregnable treasure- house. The expression sets his nest on high finds more than sufficient illustration in the exaggerated accounts of Babylon given by Herodotus and Ctesias. The former gives 337½ feet, the latter 300 feet, as the height of its walls. The height of the towers was, according to Ctesias, 420 feet. There were 250 of these towers, irregularly disposed, to guard the weaker parts of the wall. The space included by these colossal outworks was, according to Herodotus, about 200 square miles.
The language of this verse recalls Jeremiah’s rebuke of Jehoiakim (Jeremiah 22:13 seq.). There, however, the sentence is on individual sin, here it is on that of a nation personified.
Thou hast consulted shame to thy house by cutting off many people, and hast sinned against thy soul.(10) And hast sinned . . .—Literally, and sinning in thy soul. All the time the Babylonian oppressor was plundering these peoples he was involving his soul in guilt. (Comp. Habakkuk 1:11.)
For the stone shall cry out of the wall, and the beam out of the timber shall answer it.(11) The stone shall cry out.—Every stone in those giant walls reared by the enforced labour of captives cries aloud to accuse the Babylonian. Every spar out of the woodwork attests the charge.
Woe to him that buildeth a town with blood, and stablisheth a city by iniquity!(12-14) “Woe on the extension of Babylon by oppression and enforced labour.
Behold, is it not of the LORD of hosts that the people shall labour in the very fire, and the people shall weary themselves for very vanity?(13) In the very fire . . . for very vanity. The preposition is the same in both clauses, and means “for an equivalent in.” The sense is sufficiently conveyed if we render “labour only for the fire . . . weary themselves all for nothing.” The same expressions occur in Jeremiah’s denunciation of Babylon (Jeremiah 51:58). Both prophets predict that Jehovah shall render all this compulsory service fruitless. Jeremiah adds the explanatory clauses, “the broad walls of Babylon shall be utterly broken, and her high gates shall be burned with fire.”
For the earth shall be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD, as the waters cover the sea.(14) With the knowledge.—Better, as concerns the knowledge. See the same promise in Isaiah 11:9. It is here introduced in contrast to the short-lived glory of Babylon. The enslaved nations raised the Babylonian palaces only for the fire to destroy them. But Jehovah’s glory shall be made known all the world over, and shall not be effaced.
Woe unto him that giveth his neighbour drink, that puttest thy bottle to him, and makest him drunken also, that thou mayest look on their nakedness!(15-17) Woe on the cruel invader who has made the world drink of the cup of wrath.
(15, 16) Woe unto him.—It is possible that wanton outrages committed by the debauched Babylonian soldiery in the hour of triumph are here meant. And this is in accordance with the mention of drunkenness as their special sin in Habakkuk 2:5. But we much prefer to treat the language as figurative. The invader has made his neighbours drink the cup of his cruel anger till they have reached the depths of shameful degradation. He, too, shall drink “of the cup of the fierceness of the wrath of Almighty God” (Revelation 16:19; see also Psalm 76:8, Jeremiah 25:26, Lamentations 4:21); and then foul shame, as of a man stupefied with drink, shall take the place of glory and dignity.
Puttest thy bottle.—It is possible to render, pourest out thy wrath, and this makes the metaphor less obscure.
For the violence of Lebanon shall cover thee, and the spoil of beasts, which made them afraid, because of men's blood, and for the violence of the land, of the city, and of all that dwell therein.(17) For the violence of Lebanon. . . .—Better, For the violence done to Lebanon shall overwhelm thee, and the destruction of the beasts which it frightened away. The rest of the verse is a refrain taken from the first woe, that of Habakkuk 2:8. The “destruction of beasts” points, we think, to a raid on the cattle feeding on the sides of Lebanon. But more than this is probably included in the phrase the violence done to Lebanon. Habakkuk probably foresees how the invader will cut down the cedar forests in Lebanon to adorn the palaces of Babylon. (Comp. Isaiah 14:7-8.) All these outrages shall in due time be Avenged on himself. Some commentators, however, explain the expression as a bold synecdoche, Lebanon representing the Holy Land (of which it was the beauty), or even the Temple, both of which Nebuchadnezzar laid waste.
What profiteth the graven image that the maker thereof hath graven it; the molten image, and a teacher of lies, that the maker of his work trusteth therein, to make dumb idols?(18-20) Woe on him who neglects Jehovah to worship dumb idols of his own making.
(18) A teacher of lies.—Not the false prophet, but the idol itself, as pointing out false ways in opposition to God, the teacher of truth.
That the maker . . .—Better, that he who frames his image trusts in it, so as to make dumb idols. Dumb nothings is, perhaps, the literal translation of e’lîlîm ill’mîm, and the words are chosen for their similarity of sound.
But the LORD is in his holy temple: let all the earth keep silence before him.(20) But the Lord.—And while all this false worship prevails, the true World-ruler abides, and His presence is in His temple at Jerusalem. To Him the prophet’s eyes are now turned. He ceases his denunciations of the invader, and finds solace in the glorious anticipations of the lyrical ode (Habakkuk 3:1-15) which follows.