In Wrath, Remember Mercy

Right before your eyes: It has been one of those nights when sleep eludes me. Images of Taliban mobs flood my mind, the scenes of muzzle flash from rifles, RPGs on men’s shoulders, women fleeing in terror, Christians praying for God to make them faithful amidst what awaits them. Pictures and stories unfold before my eyes. I see the weapons Islamists brandish, see the women and girls flee and hide in terror, smell the odors of Kabul and the rest of Afghanistan. (For those who have been, you remember well the pungent odors of Afghanistan.) I can see the black beautiful eyes of  the Afghani children. I see their tragedy—defenselessness amidst the horrors awaiting them. I see my fellow soldiers left behind by their own government. I see America being transformed into a spectacle. No wonder sleep has fled. It (this sleeplessness) is an inconvenience when compared to the horrors allowed and unleashed. I grieve for what we have become. Lord, have mercy. Church, have courage. 

The same pattern: In the Old Testament book of Habakkuk, set in the 600s B.C., the prophet of God Habakkuk addresses his nation when it was in chaos. The complaint that Habakkuk expresses may be summed up simply: Why does God allow such evils to befall this nation or any nation? Why does God allow wicked nations to seem to triumph over other nations (who are also wicked)? How does God’s providence explain this? Any thoughtful person grapples with similar questions today. Amidst the nations that rage and the peoples of the earth that plot evil towards one another and at God, how long, O Lord, and why? 

First, Habakkuk’s Question

O LORD, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not hear? Or cry to you “Violence!” and you will not save? Why do you make me see iniquity, and why do you idly look at wrong? Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise. So the law is paralyzed, and justice never goes forth. For the wicked surround the righteous; so justice goes forth perverted. (Habakkuk 1:2-4 ESV)

Second, the Position: 

Judah is being controlled and judged by Assyria and now Babylonian empires. Why? Because Judah, too, was wicked. God was using wicked empires (Assyria and Babylon) to judge another wicked nation (Judah) as demonstrations of His righteousness, His hatred of sin, His judgment of it, and of His—yes—providential care. In chapter three of his book, Habakkuk utters one of the most powerful statements in the Bible: “in wrath remember mercy” (Habakkuk 3:2b ESV). This is central to the Christian message. This gets to the heart of the matter: wrath and mercy, and what wrath and mercy have to do with God, with us, with questions of justice, evil, and providence. 

Third, the Answer

God, despite loud cries to the contrary, does answer questions about evil, about suffering, about theodicy, about providence. 

Look among the nations, and see; wonder and be astounded. For I am doing a work in your days that you would not believe if told. (Habakkuk 1:5 ESV)

God was raising up the wicked Chaldeans, “that bitter and hasty nation” (Hab 1:6) to wreak violence upon Judah. God told Habakkuk again even why He was judging:

Woe to him who builds a town with blood and founds a city on iniquity! Behold, is it not from the LORD of hosts that peoples labor merely for fire, and nations weary themselves for nothing? For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD as the waters cover the sea. (Habakkuk 2:12-14)

God was “doing a work” that He tells Habakkuk the people “would not believe if told” (Hab 1:5). Catch that? First, God was doing a work. Second, the people would not believe if told. 

So what must happen? The people must be made to experience it. Nothing teaches quite like suffering. My grandfather used to say that to me in his folksy wisdom. But that is biblical. Nothing teaches quite like suffering. 

Takeaway and encouragement: Habakkuk finally understood that the righteous shall live by faith (Hab 2:4). He makes the great confession in his prayer: 

O LORD, I have heard the report of you, and your work, O LORD, do I fear. In the midst of the years revive it; in the midst of the years make it known; in wrath remember mercy. (Habakkuk 3:2 ESV)

Habakkuk was answered by God. What was God’s response? Trust Him. Put your faith in God, in His way, in His justice, in His plan for the nations. Don’t trust in chariots and horses (Psalm 20:7). Trust the one true and living God. 

God was and is the God of both wrath and mercy. His wrath is poured out upon sin. And His mercy is poured out, too. Just like in Habakkuk’s prayer—“in wrath remember mercy” (Hab 3:2). God did, you see. Jesus the Christ took the wrath. And mercy flows to all who receive Christ alone as their Redeemer, Substitute, and only sufficient sacrifice for sin. 

A majestic hymn by the Gettys, “The Power of the Cross,” says it all:

This the power of the cross,

Christ became sin for us, took the blame bore the wrath

we stand forgiven at the cross.

CH Pirtle

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