We know nothing about Habakkuk except that he was a prophet to whom the words of the book named after him are attributed. But that is more than enough. The “I” who speaks in Habakkuk is possessed of a faith that dares to challenge God, wait on God, and trust in God all at the same time. The God who responds to Habakkuk describes a future that is going to get worse, not better. History will remain a theatre of destruction and violence. But the hunter will become the hunted, the wheels of justice will turn, and deliverance will not fail to arrive.
As we shall explore, the book of Habakkuk describes scenes of violence from beginning to end. The agents of destruction vary. The smashing of skulls is constant. Violence calls forth violence. The ultimate avenger the book attends, the terminator of the cycle, is the God whom the prophet addresses. No Age of Aquarius is promised. No pie in the sky. The grasp of history the book encapsulates is realistic and hopeful at the same time.
History is the place where sin abounds, but where sin increases, grace abounds all the more (Romans 5:20).
What is progress? What progress does Habakkuk envision? Walter Benjamin captures the flow of history as understood by faith since Habakkuk and before. Here is Benjamin’s Thesis IX on the concept of history:
My wing is poised to beat,
I would gladly turn back;
though if I stayed for endless days,
hapless I would remain.
-- Gershom Scholem, “Greetings from Angelus”
There is a
painting by Klee entitled ‘Angelus Novus.’ An angel is depicted who looks as if he were about to distance himself from something which startles him.
His eyes are peeled, his mouth hangs open, his wings are spread.
This is how the angel of history must look. His face is turned toward the past. What appears to us as a chain of events he sees as one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreck upon wreck; it hurtles all before his feet. He would like to pause, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise which has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm carries him irresistibly into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of wreckage before him grows to heaven. This storm is what we call progress.
The “storm” of which Benjamin speaks is the subject matter of the book of Habakkuk. Never once does the book of Habakkuk pretend that history is progress except insofar as it is a chain of judgments of which the last is more severe than the next-to-last. As the dust of death descends on his surroundings, the prophet’s response is deafening, counter-factual, an embrace of God to which his back is not turned. After protesting disaster and hearing of impending counter-disaster, this is how the book ends (3:16-19):
and my bowels quaked,
my lips quivered at the sound.
Rot enters my bones,
I quake where I stand
while I wait for a day of distress
to rise against the people who attack us.
the fig tree does not bud
and no yield is on the vines,
the olive crop fails
and terraces produce no food,
though flocks are cut off from the fold
and no herd is in the yards,
rejoice in the Lord
I exult in my saving God.
My Lord God is my strength!
He made my feet like the deer’s
and makes me stride upon the heights.
The translation of the Hebrew I offer is indebted to existing versions: NJPSV; NRSV; REB; NAB; NJB; and TNIV.
Walter Benjamin’s 1940 Über den Begriff der Geschichte "On the
Concept of History" is available online, here. See
idem, Gesammelte Schriften I (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1974) 691-704. Scholem's poem on the Klee painting, a stanza
of which Benjamin quotes, was written for Benjamin's twenty-ninth birthday -- July
15, 1921. In a letter dated September 19, 1933, ten years after Scholem’s
immigration to Palestine, he sent it to Benjamin again. My translation of the
stanza is indebted to that of Richard Sieburth found in Gershom Scholem, The
Fullness of Time: Poems (Jerusalem: Ibis, 2003). The translation of the rest
of Thesis IX of “On the Philosophy of History” is indebted to that
of Lloyd Spencer – once available online, but no longer. Spencer’s translation
depended on earlier translations like that of Harry Zohn, Walter Benjamin, Selected
Writings, Vol. 4: 1938-1940 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003) 392-93.
Here is Klee's painting:
To be continued. For a pdf of this post, go here.
This post is part of a series: