Neither denial nor despair

habakkuk
Statue of the prophet Habakkuk (or “Zuccone”), by Donatello

Walter Brueggemann has some timely thoughts in his book A Pathway of Interpretation (pp.85f.), where he turns his attention in one chapter to the poem that concludes the book of Habakkuk:

Though the fig tree does not blossom,
    and no fruit is on the vines;
though the produce of the olive fails
    and the fields yield no food;
though the flock is cut off from the fold
    and there is no herd in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord;
    I will exult in the God of my salvation.
God, the Lord, is my strength;
    he makes my feet like the feet of a deer,
and makes me tread upon the heights.

Habakkuk is believed to have been writing in the late 7th century BCE, as Babylon’s regional power increased and began to threaten the kingdom of Judah, culminating in the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BCE. Brueggemann writes:

There were in Jerusalem, perhaps, two prevailing moods. On the one hand there was, concerning the coming disaster, a sense articulated by Hananiah in Jeremiah 28, a refusal to be realistic about the coming calamity. On the other hand, there may well have been, as the calamity became clear and unavoidable, a sense of hopelessness that always lost.

This looming prospect of political and social catastrophe leads to two possible attitudes, both of which will be familiar to us today:

The twin temptations of denial and despair may have been very powerful in Jerusalem, denial rooted in Jerusalem theology, despair grounded in the awareness of Babylonian power.

“Against both temptations the poet speaks,” continues Brueggemann. In the first half of the stanza quoted above, Habakkuk is blunt in his rejection of denial: the disaster is going to happen, no use pretending otherwise or taking refuge in false comfort. But that is not the end of the story: Habakkuk drags us up out of despair with his insistent “yet,” his affirmation that Israel has not, despite appearances, lost their “ultimate resource and guarantor,” YHWH.

Brueggemann concludes:

The whole is an insistence when YHWH is confessed to be the primal actor in the life of the world, neither denial nor despair is appropriate. Either temptation makes perfectly compelling sense when “the world is without God.” The poem insists, to the contrary, that the world is not “without God.” YHWH is present as strength and saviour.

It is this “alternative rendering of reality” that is the role of this poet and prophet, and a continuing task for the church.

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