How Long?: learning to pray in difficult times with Habakkuk

“How long, Lord, must I call for help,
but you do not listen?
Or cry out to you, “Violence!”
but you do not save?
Why do you make me look at injustice?
Why do you tolerate wrongdoing?
Destruction and violence are before me;
there is strife, and conflict abounds.
Therefore the law is paralyzed,
and justice never prevails.
The wicked hem in the righteous,
so that justice is perverted.” (Habakkuk 1:2-4)

One of the most unique aspects of the prophecies of Habakkuk is that Habakkuk speaks directly to God instead of to the people of Israel. Unlike most of the prophets who are bringing a word to the people, Habakkuk does this indirectly, standing before God with his questions and relating God’s words to the people in response. His starting is a question: “how long?” This question arises many times in the Bible, but particularly in the Psalms.  In the Psalms, “how long?” is the prayer that cries out over the wrongs of the world again and again:

  • Psalm 6:3 – “My soul is in deep anguish. How long, Lord, how long?”
  • Psalm 13:1-2 – “How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and day after day have sorrow in my heart? How long will my enemy triumph over me?”
  • Psalm 74:10 – “How long will the enemy mock you, God? Will the foe revile your name forever?”
  • Psalm 89:46 – “How long, Lord? Will you hide yourself forever? How long will your wrath burn like fire?”

“How long?”’” is humanity’s question for God in the midst of wrong and violence. And that is exactly what Habakkuk sees: violence. With a parallel pattern common in Hebrew poetry, he throws together pairs of words that reflect what is before him:

  • Injustice and wrongdoing
  • Destruction and violence
  • Strife and conflict

But ironically, the source of this violence and wrongdoing is not where we would expect it in opponents like Assyria and Babylon. Instead, the violence and wrongdoing are within his own people. God’s people. It is because of this that, as he says in verse 4, “the law – torah – is paralyzed.”

Habakkuk’s “how long?” is the cry over the unexpected wrongs rising up within his nation as the truth of God is rejected and seems powerless in the midst of the troubles gathering around.

“How long?” is humanity’s question in the apparent absence of God, as we read in verse 2: “I call for help, but you do not listen?…I cry out to you…but you do not save?”

Many times our “how long?” is a cry for God to act that leaves us wondering if God is absent? We may wonder at times, as the troubles of our world and our lives boil around us, where is God and what is going on? In these times we may resonate with the German poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, who wrote: 

I feel as though I make my way 
through massive rock
like a vein of ore
alone, encased.

I am so deep inside it
I can’t see the path or any distance:
everything is close
and everything closing in on me
has turned to stone.

Since I still don’t know enough about pain,
This terrible darkness makes me small.
If it’s you, though –

Press down hard on me, break in
That I may know the weight of your hand,
And you, the fullness of my cry.[1]

The “how long” is our cry, even without understanding, to God. But the difference between faith and lack of faith in troubling times is what we see right here with Habakkuk. The difference is that faith turns toward God in the midst of the troubles instead of turning away from God.

Habakkuk allows the troubles around him – even within him – to push him toward God. And in this place, he—and we, with him—begins to hear from God. Real faith helps us to talk with God…not turn away from God… in the midst of trouble.

[1] “Vielleicht, daß ich durch schweren Berge gehe ,” Rainer Maria Rilke, Rilke’s Book of Hours, trans. Barrows and Macy, 127.

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