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The Triumph Of Unanswered Prayer

When The Answer Is Disaster

Dr. Erwin W. Lutzer | January 27, 2008

Selected highlights from this sermon

The prophet Habakkuk desperately sought the Lord, hoping that the injustice in the land would be remedied. The prophet’s prayer received a startling response: the country was going to be invaded. 

Habakkuk lived by faith and trusted in God’s care and control to handle the punishment of the wicked. Learning from Habakkuk, when we’re going through difficult times, we can praise God because He has everything under control.

Where then is God? We’ve all asked that question many times. We ask it when we see injustice in the world. We ask it when there’s poverty. We ask it when the rich exploit the poor. We ask it when there is injustice in the courts. We ask the question when people suffer and when Tsunamis come and when Katrina comes. We are always asking that question in our hearts. We ask, “Where then is God? Where is he? When injustice seems to be winning, when all those who are evil have their heyday, where is he?” Well, that’s the problem Habakkuk had. I always say it’s Habakkuk or Habakkuk depending on where you put the emphasis.

What I’d like you to do is to turn to that book in the Old Testament, and in order to find it go to where the division happens between the Old Testament and the New Testament and then go back about twenty pages. This morning I looked it up in the Bible that is in the pew and I think (if I remember correctly) it’s page 825, something like that, to help you find this little prophet (little only in the sense that it is a brief letter) that talks to us about our relationship with God and God’s relationship to us.

Well, let’s turn to what Habakkuk has to say, and I begin with his prayer in verse 2. “Oh 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.”
I’m praying to you, God, but where are you? How can you look upon this and see what is happening?

He had two problems with God. First of all, God appeared to be deaf. “Lord, how long will I cry for help (verse 2), and you will not hear?” Are you deaf? Must I shout? And the other problem was that he thought God was possibly blind. Verse 3 says, “Why do you make me see iniquity?” I see it, but do you? That was a charge that was leveled by God against the idols of the nations, and the charge was that the idols are blind and deaf, and there are times in our own lives when it appears as if that’s the way our God is too.

Now in this book of Habakkuk this prophet has a relationship with God where it’s almost like a telephone. He talks and God answers, and then he talks again – back and forth. It’s a little different than most of the other prophets because he’s not so much preaching as he is having a dialog with the Almighty, but the Almighty is speaking to him and so we’d better listen.

So that’s the prophet’s prayer, but what happens next is deep perplexity. Notice God answers him in verse 5 and says, “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. For behold, I am raising up the Chaldeans, that bitter and hasty nation, who march through the breadth of the earth, to seize dwellings, not their own. They are dreaded and fearsome; their justice and dignity go forth from themselves.” Notice the last part of verse 9, “They gather captives like sand. At kings they scoff, and at rulers they laugh. They laugh at every fortress, for they pile up earth and take it. Then they sweep by like the wind and go on, guilty men, whose own might is their god.”

Habakkuk, you don’t think I’m doing anything? I am. I am raising up a very evil nation by the name of the Chaldeans, or the Babylonians as we know them better, and I am doing something that you wouldn’t believe. They are going to come against you and if you think that Judah has problems now, look out because it’s going to get worse. That’s my answer to your prayer. What you might consider to be difficulty today is going to turn out to be disaster. What you think are tough times are going to end up being tragic times. I’m doing something, Habakkuk, and you’d better realize what it is.

Wow. How is the prophet going to respond to that? That isn’t exactly the answer that he was looking for. If you read the text and continue on, it’s almost as if, “Well, after that, I’m sorry I asked, quite frankly. I could have lived without this.”

We cry up to God for the United States of America and say, “God, you raised up this nation. Please bring righteousness. Please help us,” and God says, “Hey, I’m doing something. I’m doing something that is hidden but it will be revealed. I’m raising up a nation who is going to fly planes into some of your famous towers.” I’m raising up a media that is going to assault your values through technology. I’m raising up mediums that will spread the world and the earth with your pornography, and I’m raising up people who are going to understand that tough times are coming. As a matter of fact, I’m going to begin a recession and a lot of people are going to lose their jobs. That’s the answer to your prayers,” and we say, “God, did we hear you correctly? This is not what we were praying for.”

Well, Habakkuk, God bless him, was just like we are, questioning God and wondering how in the world this could possibly be consistent with the God that he thought he knew, and he goes on now and he begins to dialog with God.
Look at his response in verse 12. You see Habakkuk’s problem is ours. He knows something about God and his attributes and he understands that. The problem is he can’t square that with what he sees in the world. It’s like our problem. God is love. Oh really? God is love, so there’s a young mother who dies of cancer, leaving children behind. I mean it’s the struggle of every human being who has ever come to believe in God. We can’t put it together, and what Habakkuk is saying in the next few verses is, “This seems to fly in the face of two of your attributes.”

The first attribute is holiness, or I should say justice. Verse 12, “Are you not from everlasting, O Lord my God, my Holy One? We shall not die. Oh Lord, you have ordained them as a judgment, and you, O Rock, have established them for reproof.” You who are of purer eyes than to see evil and cannot look at wrong, why do you idly (there’s that word again) look at traitors and are silent when the wicked swallows up the man more righteous than he?” He’s saying, “This creates a bigger problem for me than I had when I began praying.”

God, it’s inconsistent with your justice. Of course we are evil as your people. I’ve already admitted that there is no justice and there is violence in the land and your law is not being followed, but we’re not as bad as the Chaldeans, not as bad as the Babylonians. Of course we’re evil as a nation. We have our evils, but you know at least we don’t kill people who convert from one religion to another. We don’t condone the random terrorism of blowing up women and children randomly for political agendas. Yeah, we’ve got our problems but where not that bad. We’re better than they are, so how come you’re going to use them to judge us? How come you are going to use some wicked judges in this land and raise them up and justice is going to be perverted?

“God, it doesn’t make sense. It seems inconsistent with your justice and it seems inconsistent with your holiness. You are of purer eyes than to behold evil. How can you stand this travesty of your law being maligned by us as a nation, and how can you stand all this when you are of such pure eyes that you find it difficult to look at evil though you know that it exists?” That’s the question, so Habakkuk spills out his soul to God, and he pours it all out and says, “I don’t understand.”

Well, if you are following this, you know that so far we have looked at the prayer of Habakkuk, and the perplexity of Habakkuk, and now the posture. I like it every once in a while when all of the sequences in my messages actually begin with the same letter, and it worked out this time. I don’t do that too often, but occasionally – the posture of the prophet.

Habakkuk 2:1 says “I will take my stand at the watch post and station myself on the tower, and look out to see what he will say to me, and what I will answer concerning my complaint.” The imagery there is of a man who is on a rampart. He is looking into the distance to see if any enemy is coming into the city, and what he does is to continue so stare because he wants to be the first who is going to see it, and in the very same way, Habakkuk is saying, “I’m going to stand here on tiptoes in reverence. I am going to stand here because whatever God says I want to make sure that I get it right, and I can hardly wait to hear what he’s going to say.”

So God begins to speak and he says, “Habakkuk, I want you to write down the vision,” and you say, “Did he do it?” Yeah, that’s this book. You say, “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could stand on the wall of the city and see God and hear what he’s saying?” Well, just read the Word, and when you read the Word you get what God is saying.

You’ll notice verse 2 says, “And the Lord answered me: ‘Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so he may run who reads it. For still the vision awaits its appointed time… (That’s going to be critical in a moment).” Verse 4 says, “Behold, his soul (that is the soul of the unrighteous) is puffed up; it is not upright within him, but the righteous shall live by his faith.”

Okay. That’s a very famous verse, by the way, quoted three times in the New Testament. The righteous one shall live by faith, but I want to ask at this point, faith in whom? Well we know that that is faith in God, but faith for what? Times are hard. We’re in an economic crisis. There are those who experience sickness and poverty and we are in a desperate state as a nation morally and spiritually, so I want to know what I should have faith in God for. Hang on to that.

What follows now in the next chapter is not a direct answer to Habakkuk’s question as much as it is that God is affirming judgment for all who are wicked. Of course, we need to simply point this out. There are five woes that God gives in answer to Habakkuk’s prayer and question. Verse 6, “Woe to him who heaps up what is not his own.” Verse 9, “Woe to him who gets evil gain for his house, to set his nest on high, to be safe from the reach of harm!” Woe to that person. We’re living in a time when there are many people involved in a mortgage crisis, and I understand that part of the problem is predatory lenders who knew right well that those people could not pay, but because they were making money they signed them up anyway. “Woe to those who get evil gain for his house, to set his nest on high,” saying “As long as I’m okay I don’t care about anybody else.” Woe to them.

Verse 12 says “Woe to him who builds a town with blood,” and verse 14 says, “The earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord,” and verse 15 says, “Woe to him who makes his neighbors drink,” and verse 19 says, “Woe to him who says to a wooden thing, Awake.” Woe to idolaters.

What is God saying here? God is saying, “Habakkuk, you have to get one thing clear. Okay? You have to understand this. It is not as if the violence in the land or the violence of the Chaldeans that they are going to bring upon the land (and they did), and it is not as if wicked people of any stripe, of any religion, or any country are ever going to get by. I know what’s going on and my standard of judgment and holiness has not changed one iota. What you must understand, Habakkuk, is that I am on a different timetable than you are. It’s a different timetable. Give me time.”

Did you notice that the vision talked about the time appointed, and we say to ourselves, “I want justice, and I want it today, preferably at least by tonight,” and God says, “I have my own timetable.” In fact, there’s a verse in Ecclesiastes that can be roughly translated, “Because the judgment against sin is not executed immediately, people think it is safe to do evil.” “I’m not getting caught,” they say. “I made my money (perhaps unrighteously – perhaps by cutting corners) but I got by. My friends got by. Everybody’s doing it and God is doing nothing.”

God says to Habakkuk, “I am doing something, and keep in mind I know exactly what is happening and judgment will come. When Habakkuk hears about God’s sovereignty and God’s judgment he says finally in verse 20, “But the Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him.”

Earlier in the first chapter he said, “Oh, God, how can you be silent when all this is going on in the world?” and now he begins to back up and to say, “Now it is my turn to be silent. As a matter of fact it is the turn of the entire world to know that God is in his temple, and in his presence our mouths have to be closed. We might not understand his ways, but it’s all under his control.”

So notice that we have moved now from the idea of his prayer to his perplexity to his position, and now I’d like to talk about his praise. We’re going to go through the text, and then I’m going to tell you what’s going on and then your life is going to be changed forever. You’ll never be the same if you are open to what God has to say to you today through his word.

He goes on in chapter 3 and he prays that in wrath God would remember mercy (the last part of verse 2) and then beginning at verse 3 and going on he begins to talk about what God has done in the past. As he’s contemplating the works of God, and the splendor of the heavens in verse 4 he says, “His brightness was like the light; rays flashed from his hand…. Verse 5, “Before him went pestilence, and plague followed at his heels.” He scattered mountains; you can look through this yourself and see the wonderful hyperbole that Habakkuk has regarding what God is doing. Most commentators believe that what he’s really talking about is the deliverance of the children of Israel from Egypt. You know it talks about the seas and the rivers opening and the pestilence that came upon Egypt, and so forth, and Habakkuk here is lost in wonder when he looks at the past and begins to think about what God has done. And then we conclude, and you’ll notice it says in verse 16 of chapter 3, “I hear, and my body trembles; my lips quiver at the sound; rottenness enters into my bones; my legs tremble beneath me.” Don’t you feel that way when things go bad and when we read the headlines? “Yet I will quietly wait for the day of trouble to come upon the people who invade us.” I am willing now to have patience, to let God do it on his schedule and his agenda and not mine. That’s what he’s emphasizing, and then this book ends with this unbelievable – almost surprising – burst of praise.

“Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herds in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will take joy in the God of my salvation. God, the Lord, is my strength; he makes my feet like the deer’s; he makes me tread on my high places.” And then he ends with a note to Jerry Edmonds. [laughter] It says right here, “To Jerry Edmonds, the choirmaster: with stringed instruments.” That’s right. It’s right there. [applause] This apparently was sung. This was sung.

What’s going on and what’s the connection between what Habakkuk is learning about God and suddenly this great burst of admiration and praise? What’s the connection? How can we move from all these questions to praising God? How can we make that transition? That’s the question.

There are two things that Habakkuk concluded about God, and he said, “If these things are true about God, I can praise even though everything that has been nailed down is being torn up and everything is falling in around me.” First, God is in control. The Chaldeans are coming? That’s scary. They were wicked; they were evil. They used to skin people alive. They were known for their violence. The Chaldeans are coming? God says, “I’m the one who is raising up the Chaldeans, that bitter and hasty nation that shall come against you. That is part of my work as a discipline and as a judgment for your sin, but I am in control.”

Have you ever wondered how strong the Chaldeans were? Have you ever wondered how strong radical Islam is? For example, have you ever wondered how much authority Pilot had over Jesus? Let me ask a different kind of question. Have you ever wondered how strong the devil really is? You say, “Yeah, I’d like to know.” Today I’m going to tell you.

Whatever you may say about the service today (if you’re listening by the Internet or the radio or however) finally you will find an answer to the question of how strong the devil is. Are you ready? He has as much power as God lets him have, and not one whit more. That’s how strong the devil is. [applause] He cannot even harass you unless it passes Jesus Christ’s test of control.

The devil wants to get to Peter, and Jesus says, “Simon, Simon, Satan has desired to have you that he might sift you like wheat, but he can’t get to you until I’ve passed off on it.” Once you understand this you will pray against Satan as we must and as we are instructed, but we will pray with great faith because we know that God is in control, and I will quote the words of Jesus to Pilot, words that I absolutely love. The words are, “Thou couldst have no power at all against me unless it were given to thee from above.”

The evil people that are harassing you, what is happening in your life, the injustice that you are enduring, the feeling that you are being marginalized and misunderstood - evil can have no authority over you unless it is given from above. God is in control, and that’s why we pray to God, and that’s why we have a day of prayer and fasting. It is because we believe that ultimately we must submit everything to God and we can come to God about anything because God is in control. Habakkuk realized that nothing was happening willy-nilly among the nations, nothing was happening in the raising up of leaders and the taking down of leaders, that God stands back of everything and he does not do evil, but through secondary causes he’s involved in everything that transpires on his planet. So that’s the first thing.

Secondly, when Habakkuk began to go over the story of the Israelites and their deliverance out of Egypt, he learned something else about God. He learned about the control of God, but he also learned about the care of God. He began to think of how God led them through the Red Sea, and how God dried up the Red Sea, and how God fed them, and how the mountains trembled, and how everything else began to happen under his sovereign control, and God delivered his people. He said, “Do you know what? I can also believe that God cares about me,” and Habakkuk finally realized something. He said, “Never again will I interpret the silence of God as the indifference of God.”

There are times when God is silent but that doesn’t mean that he’s not working. That doesn’t mean that he’s indifferent. It still means that the very hair of your head is numbered. It still means that he sees the sparrow fall to the ground, and that you, as a child of God, are number one on his list of things to take care of in the universe. He says, “I will accept the fact that there are times when God is silent, but he is faithful and he is working, and he cares about me.”

So in the last part of his book in verse 17 Habakkuk says, and we could translate it for our era something like this, “And though the refrigerator is empty, and though I may lose my job (or perhaps have because that’s exactly what Habakkuk is saying, that the only means of livelihood was what grew and, of course, the animals in the field), and though things should turn against me and what I have planned not come to pass, yet I will rejoice in the Lord my God. I will take joy in the God of my salvation, for the Lord God is my strength, and I will go on believing and trusting, no matter what.” That’s what the prophet is saying, and so it comes down to this. Do you believe in the care of God and the control of God? Do you believe that when God puts us through the kiln (through the furnace) he keeps his hand on the thermostat, and therefore we can be assured that nothing is happening randomly. It is directed toward an appointed end.

We have to understand that God is on a different timetable. God was saying, “Habakkuk, you are absolutely right about my holiness. You are right about my justice. You are wrong about the issue of time, because I am on a different schedule than you are.”

William Cowper struggled with insanity and tried to commit suicide. You say, “Well, who was he?” He was the man who gave us the wonderful line that “God moves in a mysterious way, his wonders to perform.” He also wrote the song, “There is a fountain filled with blood drawn from Immanuel’s veins, and sinners plunge beneath that flood, lose all their guilty stains.” I mention that because there are people who are genuinely saved who struggle with perhaps mental illness, with depression, with a sense of hopelessness. That’s why, by the way, we need the church. [That’s why we have TMC communities.] It’s because not a one of us can live the Christian life successfully on our own, and it’s not enough simply for you to be here, though that’s wonderful. You need to plug into our ministries. You need to get to know people. You need to become part of a body that helps you in your walk with God.

But I love what William Cowper wrote based on this text. “Though vine nor fig tree neither their wanted fruit should bear, though all the field should wither, nor flocks or herds be there, yet God the same abiding, his praise shall tune my voice, for while in him confiding, I cannot but rejoice.”

God says, “Where you are you can live differently.” Now you say, “Well, Pastor Lutzer, I just don’t see the connection.” Now here’s what we’re going to do. In the next three or four minutes God is going to bring deliverance to hundreds of you who are listening when I explain what commitment means because, you see, here’s what we do as Christians. We hear a message like this and then we pray and we say, “Oh God, I pray that things will work out. I pray that this will happen,” and we’re just fidgeting and we don’t pray in faith because we keep praying over and over again, and don’t see anything, and we get even more nervous. God says, “You’re praying and that’s fine, but what you aren’t doing is you don’t understand the meaning of the word commitment.”

The best way to illustrate it is with the life of Joseph. The Bible says Potiphar committed all the matters of his house to Joseph, and then it says he concerned himself with nothing that was happening in his house. Now it turns out that Potiphar’s wife tried to derail Joseph, and even then Joseph was faithful, but here’s the point. He so committed himself, the Bible says, to what Joseph was doing – he had such confidence in Joseph, that he concerned not himself regarding the matters of his house. Could you imagine what would happen if we committed ourselves to God like that?

I talked to somebody yesterday via e-mail who is struggling with anxiety. He believes that maybe he won’t be able to earn enough money for his family. Years ago a young medical student met with me and said, “I am so full of anxiety I can’t even sleep because I think I might flunk out of medical school.” I said, “That’s no problem. We can take care of all that right now. What you need to do is to commit yourself to God in such a way that you take the burden from your heart, transfer it to God and say, ‘God, you are fully in charge. I’ll do the best I can, but this is yours and not mine.’” He said, “I can’t do that, because if I do, God might let me flunk medical school anyway.” I’m saying, “Yeah, but how would you like to flunk - at peace or not at peace?” [laughter] “You know, you can go through it joyfully or you can go through it with – you know it depends. Sure, there’s no guarantee you’re going to pass medical school, but why not enjoy it either way,” and he left filled with anxiety. I never did discover whether or not he passed. I hope he did, but if he didn’t, how can you go wrong to simply transfer that burden from your shoulders to God in such a way that you say, “God, as of this moment I no longer concern myself with what is going to happen, because that is your business and my confidence is in you.” See, what God is saying is “You pray, you pray, you pray. Don’t you think it’s time to trust?” And when you trust you continue to pray, but you pray very differently. Your prayers are filled with praise and adoration. You say, “Even though the worst time should come, I will still rejoice in God.” You can’t get by that by just praying. You can only get it by that transfer of trust to God.

Now I need to tell you from my own experience I know you can’t do this in this meeting. You can start, but what you need to do is to take out an hour at least minimally – maybe longer – when you are alone with God, and then you say, “God, I’m here for serious, serious business because I can’t bear these burdens, and you never intended me to, so what I am going to do (maybe get down on the floor on your face before God in silence, and by the way, if you were not here last week and you did not get one of those bulletin inserts, those cards that tell you how to seek God, we do have some extra ones over at the Connection Corner I understand) is spend time in silence. I’m going to agree with you about everything and I’m going to make a commitment of my life and my future to God that is so complete.” Oh, I tell you there’s going to be a struggle. The devil is going to be there saying, “Yeah, but what if God doesn’t come through? Yeah, you have to look out for yourself,” but stay there as long as you need to. Bring your lunch unless you want to fast, and leave it in God’s hands so that you can say, “Even if the fig tree doesn’t blossom, even if the crop fails, even if my job is curtailed, even if there isn’t enough money, even if the relationship doesn’t work out (deep sigh), I will still rejoice in God because it’s not my burden. It’s his.”

And then we think of the verse of Scripture that says, “Casting all your care upon him, for he careth for you.” Get rid of that burden. A woman caught a bus carrying a heavy suitcase. She could scarcely hold it. The bus stopped and she was so glad. She got in the middle of the bus and continued to hold it up. Somebody said, “Put it down.” She said, “I am glad the bus is carrying me. I can’t expect it to carry my suitcase too.” That’s the way we are. Listen, if you’re on your way to heaven, you’re on the bus. All right, put down the suitcase, and begin to do it right now, and let us pray.

Father, bring deliverance to your people. Bring the same faith that Habakkuk had, because, Lord, we’re going through difficult times. All of us have challenges. All of us have a future that is very, very unknown. All of us have issues that we bring to church and we keep in our homes. All of us have that, oh God, we pray, and I ask in Jesus’ name that we might be able to say, “Though the fig tree rots, we will continue to trust you.” Grant that, oh God, we ask in Jesus’ name. Amen.

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