Is God fair? (A Study of the prophet Habakkuk)

            When one thinks of fairness, one usually never thinks of politics. Politics is a dangerous enterprise for the health of the soul.  As we approach the upcoming election season, we are starting to see all sorts of caricatures of politicians by their opponents.  Politicians make all sorts of promises and their promises show favoritism more than fairness. Should politicians strive for fairness? 
During Abraham Lincoln’s political career, he was advised by criminal lawyer Lenard Swett. Swett has recently been referred to as Lincoln’s forgotten friend.  In a letter dated May 30, 1860, Lincoln wrote to his political advisor and friend,

It cannot have failed to strike you that these men ask for just the same thing—fairness and fairness only.  This so far as in my power, they and all others shall have.[1]  

According to Lincoln, it was his political and presidential obligation to strive to give fairness to all.  Lincoln did not do this perfectly, because no man can exercise perfect fairness. Fairness is a desirable characteristic of all those who hold positions of influence and one that will constantly be challenged by those who sit under that influence. 

            I saw this first hand when I ran the group home of unwed teenage mothers.  I cannot tell you how many times I heard from of the residents, “That is not fair, Mr. Dave.” I was, like Abraham Lincoln, trying with all my power to ensure that they had fairness, but in their eyes it did not always appear that I was being fair.  Is fairness objective or subjective? How do we respond when we see something that does not appear fair from our employers or leaders? What about God?  Is God always fair?  How should we respond when we think God is not being fair?

            We hope to answer that eternal question, “Is God fair?” through the little prophecy of Habakkuk.  We know nothing about Habakkuk outside of his name and that he was a prophet, verse 1, “The oracle that Habakkuk the prophet saw.” He is also called a prophet again in chapter 3:1. In this little book we see how one of God’s prophets responded when he believed God not to be fair.  So if you have ever thought, “God is not fair,” then you will see that you are not alone.

Is God fair to pass over sin?

            The book begins with Habakkuk questioning God for not listening to and hearing his prayers.  He sees sin among the people going unpunished and he is questioning God’s fairness of justice.  Verses 2-4,

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 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 saw violence and destruction towards God’s people and it appeared the Lord was doing nothing about it.  He believed the Lord was passing over sin and therefore, God was being unfair. 

            Have you felt that God was unfair because He allowed success to those who were committing serious sin? Or believed God was unfair because He was not answering your prayers? Maybe you have been praying for years for a wayward child and have seen no sign of change? Maybe your prayers for a job have been left unanswered? Or all you have gotten was silence as you face cancer?  It is a natural human response to question fairness.

            It is a common question for those struggling with the Christian faith to ask, “Why does God allow so much suffering in the world?” People look around and they see the wicked prosper and the sheer amount of evil and it causes them to doubt God’s goodness.  How would you engage with people who question God’s fairness?  Habakkuk took his questions right to God. God can handle our questions and our concerns, but we have to remember that God may give us answers that are difficult for us to handle. God responds to Habakkuk’s complaint in verse 5 and following,

“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. Their horses are swifter than leopards, more fierce than the evening wolves; their horsemen press proudly on. Their horsemen come from afar; they fly like an eagle swift to devour. They all come for violence, all their faces forward. 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 1:5-11)

God was not passing over sins, but He had already put a plan in place to execute justice upon the people by sending the Babylonians.

The Lord said, “I am doing a work.”  It is so important for us to always remember that God is always working to bring true fairness.  We may not see what God is doing or understand His ways, but that does not mean that He is not actively working to bring about justice. Habakkuk questioned God’s fairness, but God cannot overlook sin. Christian, take heart for God sees and knows all. He is always working for the good of His people and the glory of His name. 

And this should cause non-believers pause. God sees and knows all you are doing.  You may think that God is pleased with you because He is allowing you success in business or family, but He will not finally overlook your sin.  Paul wrote to the Romans,

He will render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury. There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. For God shows no partiality. (Romans 2:6-11)

The people in Habakkuk’s day were living for their own passions and pleasures, but they were going to pay for their actions through the destruction of the Babylonians.  God is fair for He will not pass over sin, but will ultimately and finally deal with all of it. 

Habakkuk understood God’s patience as acceptance.  I remember someone saying something in my presence that I disagreed with, but I chose to remain silent.  My friend believed that I agreed with their opinion, because of my silence.  He was wrong. Sometimes silence does not mean you agree, but you are waiting for a better time to deal with it. God answered Habakkuk, but he still questioned God’s fairness.

Is God fair to punish sin?

            Habakkuk wanted God to punish sin, but he did not believe that God would punish the sins of His people with an even worse nation.  See his response to God’s pronounced punishment,

Are you not from everlasting, O LORD my God, my Holy One? We shall not die. O 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 look at traitors and remain silent when the wicked swallows up the man more righteous than he? You make mankind like the fish of the sea, like crawling things that have no ruler. He brings all of them up with a hook; he drags them out with his net; he gathers them in his dragnet; so he rejoices and is glad. Therefore he sacrifices to his net and makes offerings to his dragnet; for by them he lives in luxury, and his food is rich. Is he then to keep on emptying his net and mercilessly killing nations forever? I will take my stand at my watchpost 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. (Habakkuk 1:12-2:1)

At first he did not approve of God not punishing the wicked and now he is complaining about how God is choosing to punish the wicked.

            It is almost as if in complete disbelief, Habakkuk bellows out, “You are going to do What!! The Babylonians!!! Are you serious?!!”  It was shocking to Habakkuk that God could use evil means to bring about His purposes.  Read 1:13 again, “You who are of purer eyes than to see evil and cannot look at wrong, why do you idly look at traitors and remain silent when the wicked swallows up the man more righteous than he?” He cannot believe that a pure and holy God could use evil.

Does this surprise us? Can God both be pure and holy while still using the lives of wicked men to bring about His purposes? Habakkuk saw these two things at odds.  How can God do this?  And indeed, Habakkuk has the right view of God’s character. He is pure and righteous.  And although he had the right view of His character, he did not understand how God displays His character.  The Lord heard Habakkuk’s complaint and gave His answer,

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; it hastens to the end—it will not lie. If it seems slow, wait for it; it will surely come; it will not delay. “Behold, his soul is puffed up; it is not upright within him, but the righteous shall live by his faith. “Moreover, wine is a traitor, an arrogant man who is never at rest. His greed is as wide as Sheol; like death he has never enough. He gathers for himself all nations and collects as his own all peoples.” (Habakkuk 2:2-5)
God is fair in His punishment of sin.  He will execute His justice, but He will do so in His own timing.  Justice may seem slow, but it will surely come. 

            And right in the middle of the Lord’s response, He mentions, “the righteous shall live by faith.” This is one of the greatest truths in the Bible that the righteous do not live by sight, but by faith. We live and make decisions on the reality of God’s Word and not on what we see around us.  Habakkuk did not understand what God was doing by sight.  He cannot see God’s hand, but God is telling him to trust His heart.  He wants His people to trust that even when they do not see His vindication, they can trust it will surely come.

This verse is quoted by Paul both in Romans 1:18 and Gal 3:11 showing how God is going to bring righteous to those outside of the law through faith.  Galatians 3,

For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.” Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for “The righteous shall live by faith.” But the law is not of faith, rather “The one who does them shall live by them.” Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”—so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith (Galatians 3:10-14).

Christ Jesus, the offspring of Abraham came so that the promised Spirit of God would be able to be received by faith for the entire world. And this idea of the blessing coming through Abraham to all the nations on the earth as God promised in Gen 12:1-3 is alluded to in Habakkuk.

            The second half of chapter 2 God shares how the Babylonians are going to be destroyed for their wickedness, but right in the middle we see a great promise. Hab 2:14,

For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.

God’s glory will fill the entire earth. This promise will only be fulfilled in Christ. It is only through faith in Christ that the Spirit of Christ will make God’s presence manifested throughout the earth.  The Lord is showing Habakkuk that the judgment He will render on Babylon is a foreshadowing to the final judgment on sin.  And we know the final judgment on sin is eternal hell. 

            God’s wrath against sin and the sinner will be fully realized in Hell with conscious torment forever.

And if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than with two hands to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. (Mark 9:43)

We may bristle at the reality of an eternal hell, but rightly understood it does not minimize God’s love, but maximizes it. John Lin aptly says,

The issue is not how God can allow there to be a Hell if He is a loving God. The issue is that if Jesus Christ would experience Hell for me, then truly He must be a loving God. It is not why would God allow hell, but why would God experience hell for me? And yet he did.[2]
We may not understand God’s punishment, Habakkuk sure didn’t at first, but the righteous will live by faith in God’s Word about God’s Son who experienced hell for you and me. 

Is God’s fairness praiseworthy?

Habakkuk responds to his interaction with the Lord in a 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)

Habakkuk remembers God’s work and asks Him to do his wondrous works again. So in the following verses (3-15), he recounts God’s power display against the nations reaching his climax in calling out God’s victory over Egypt,

You pierced with his own arrows the heads of his warriors, who came like a whirlwind to scatter me, rejoicing as if to devour the poor in secret. You trampled the sea with your horses, the surging of mighty waters. (Habakkuk 3:14-15)

God has been victorious and therefore God will be victorious again.

            Habakkuk ends a much different man than when we first encounter in chapter 1. He moves from complaining and questioning God to deeply trusting Him whatever the circumstances.  Listen to his deep trust in God’s salvation,

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 herd 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.

I memorized these verses in college and have often given strength to my soul as I have walked through the wilderness.  Our trust does not depend on our circumstances, but on His Word.  The righteous shall live by faith. 

            Is God’s fairness praiseworthy?  Absolutely yes, for God’s fairness is ultimately displayed in Christ who was crucified on a tree securing our redemption by becoming our curse.  So we can say, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Galatians 2:20) We may never understand God’s fairness, but I know we will never deserve it. So let us live by faith in Christ and take joy in the God of our salvation.