I’m thinking about Habakkuk today, an Old Testament prophet who had the audacity to ask God for justice. Habakkuk took a long hard look at systemic injustice in Israel—social division, violence, oppression. His depiction of the nation is one of total moral and social upheaval: “The law is ignored and justice is never upheld” (Hab. 1:4). Because justice has become so “perverted,” Habakkuk cries out to Yahweh for help.
If Habakkuk teaches us anything, he teaches us that it is good and right to pray for justice. But he also teaches us something else. Praying for justice is risky precisely because God might answer our prayer. Habakkuk didn’t realize just how broken the nation was and just how holy God is. As a result, he is surprised when God tells him that the entire nation would be implicated in God’s judgment on evil. It wasn’t a narrow group of sinners alone who would taste the coming judgment. The nation had to face a reckoning.
Habakkuk complains about this and wonders how such a judgment can be just. In response, God informs him, “The LORD is in His holy temple. Let all the earth be silent before him” (Hab. 3:20). This appears to be God’s way of saying that no one has a right to question God’s just judgment—not even the prophet. God is holy. We are not. Put your hand over your mouth if you feel tempted to dispute that.
When we pray for justice—and we must!—we have to realize that we are in the place of Habakkuk. We may be implicated in the justice we pray for in ways we haven’t allowed ourselves to consider. Shudder.
I am reminded of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address in which he recognizes that both sides of the Civil War, North and South, believed in the justice of their cause and prayed to the same God for relief. And yet Lincoln also realized that the war itself was a judgment on both North and South for their sins:
If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”
Let us pray for justice. And let us do it with eyes wide open to the fact that the one praying may be implicated in ways he never imagined. And when justice rolls down like a mighty stream, let us humble ourselves and say, “Why should any living mortal, or any man, Offer complaint in view of his sins?” (Lam. 3:39). “The LORD is in His holy temple. Let all the earth be silent before him” (Hab. 3:20). “The judgments of the LORD are true; they are righteous altogether” (Psalm 19:9).
So with tears in my eyes and a hand over my mouth, I am praying with Habakkuk today: “LORD, I have heard the report about Thee and I fear. O LORD, revive Thy work in the midst of the years, In the midst of the years make it known; In wrath remember mercy” (Habakkuk 3:2).