Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, the image of an eagle evoked majesty and grandeur, nobility and power. One of the ways the Lord is described was as a mother eagle carrying Israel on God’s wings, and as protective and nurturing of the young nation.
Habakkuk features two kinds of eagles – the kind that soars with God, but also the kind that seeks to soar above God, without God.
Nevertheless, in spite of this evocative imagery, Habakkuk is best remembered as the deer which nimbly “tread upon the heights,” escaping, in the end, the trampling horses of Babylon.
Remember that scholars place Obadiah, Habakkuk, and Zephaniah as contemporaries of Jeremiah and Ezekiel during the reigns of the evil kings Jehoiakim and Joiachin in Judah, ruling from 608-597 BC.
Nahum, a sixth contemporary prophet, had already been dragged into captivity by the Assyrians, along with the rest of Israel. All of these prophets spoke forth the Word of the Lord during the time of Judah’s destruction, at the end of the seventh and beginning of the sixth centuries BC.
Though she did not write a book of her own, it is possible Huldah, who had prophesied during King Josiah’s time, was also still living. There may even have been a short span of time during Zedekiah’s reign of 597-586 BC when these seven prophets were still preaching as God raised up Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi, whose most active time of prophesying came after Judah was taken into Babylonian captivity, 586 BC.
The Bible offers no details about who this prophet was, or where he came from, only that he was named Habakkuk, and that he was a prophet. However, context still provides a few clues.
- The book of Habakkuk is a series of five oracles concerning the Chaldeans (or Babylonians). Since the Chaldeans came to power in 612 BC, and this is where Habakkuk’s book begins, Scholars surmise his ministry was active that year.
- Christian commentators group Habakkuk as an early contemporary with Jeremiah and Zephaniah. However, because Jewish scholars do not, it is possible his timeframe is a bit earlier.
- His name seems to have no parallel in Hebrew. Two possibilities offer either an Akkadian etymology as the name of a fragrant plant (khabbaququ) or the Hebrew root word for “embrace” (חבק).
- His prophecy regarding the rise of Babylon, which eventually would take Judah into exile, placed Habakkuk in the southern kingdom. He also spoke of God’s temple and addressed his final prayer to the temple worship leader, narrowing the location of his ministry to Jerusalem.
Twice in his book he is given the title “The Prophet.” This first appears in the introductory sentence added later by those who collated the prophetic books, “The oracle that the prophet Habakkuk saw.” The second time occurs in the third chapter, “A prayer of the prophet Habakkuk according to Shigionoth.”
The Hebrew Scriptures indicate there was a school of the prophets first recorded during the judge and prophet Samuel’s time:
Then Saul sent messengers to take David. When they saw the company of the prophets in a frenzy, with Samuel standing in charge of them, the spirit of God came upon the messengers of Saul, and they also fell into a prophetic frenzy.1 Samuel 19:20 (NRSV)
The “company of prophets” under Samuel’s charge are thought to have been Levites being trained in their roles of service to the tabernacle, leading in worship, and in teaching and counseling the people. It is clear the Spirit of the Lord was upon them, and that Samuel was their instructor.
The company of prophets who were in -Bethel- came out to Elisha, and said to him, “Do you know that today the Lord will take your master away from you?” And he said, “Yes, I know; keep silent” . . .
The company of prophets who were at -Jericho- drew near to Elisha . . .
When the company of prophets who were at Jericho saw him at a distance, they declared, “The spirit of Elijah rests on Elisha.” They came to meet him and bowed to the ground before him. They said to him, “See now, we have fifty strong men among your servants.”2 Kings 2:3, 5, 15-16 (NRSV)
Centuries later, after the prophet Elijah’s mountain-top experience with Almighty God, Elijah founded an academy for prophets, presumably pulling students from among the 7,000 people God had informed Elijah had been set aside. With at least two satellite schools, one in Bethel and one in Jericho, and a fairly large contingent of fifty prophets to accompany Elijah and Elisha to the Jordan River, it seems these institutes were thriving despite the influence of Jezebel and her Ba’al worship.
Elisha had been first among Elijah’s students, and soon the mantle of leadership would be passed to him.
When Elisha returned to Gilgal, there was a famine in the land. As the company of prophets was sitting before him, he said to his servant, “Put the large pot on, and make some stew for the company of prophets.”2 Kings 4:38 (NRSV)
Following in the founder Elijah’s footsteps, Elisha continued to teach and expand the companies of prophets.
There are other indications of these institutes. It is possible Amos was making a reference when he pointed out his lack of credentials, saying to King Amaziah, “I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son.” Also, because the book of Isaiah spans about 150 years, it is possible that after the first scroll was penned by the prophet Isaiah, the later scrolls were added by those who had been under his tutelage and carried on his traditions. Because Isaiah was a priest, it is not unlikely his students, like Samuel’s, were also priests and Levites.
In light of these ancient and well-established communities, it is thought probable Habakkuk had received training in a school for prophets, become proficient in the Law of Moses, possibly the rest of the historical and wisdom scriptures, and in scribal work, and had made this his profession. It is even possible Habakkuk was a Levite or priest himself, accustomed to leading worship music, based upon the last line of his book, “To the leader: with stringed instruments.”
With many thanks to a really wonderful resource on YouTube called “The Bible Project,” let us begin our study of Habakkuk with this overview.
[Cover Illustration: The Prophet Habakkuk | The Jewish Museum / James Tissot, Public Domain]