Faith and Work During the Exile—Nahum, Habakkuk, ZephaniahBible Commentary / Produced by TOW Project
Nahum, Habakkuk and Zephaniah were active during the period when the southern kingdom began a rapid decline. Internal incoherence and external pressure from the burgeoning Babylonian empire resulted in Judah becoming a vassal state to Babylon. Shortly afterwards, an ill-advised rebellion brought down the wrath of the Babylonians in 587 BC, leading to the collapse of the state of Judah and the deportation of the elites to the center of the Babylonian empire (2 Kings 24-25). In exile, the people of Israel had to work out how to be faithful while separated from their key religious institutions, the temple, the priesthood, even the land. If, as we have seen, the first six books are about the effect of the people’s sin, these three—Nahum, Habakkuk and Zephaniah—are about the resultant punishment during this period.
Nahum’s chief contribution is to make it clear that the political and economic disaster is God’s punishment or disciplining of Israel. “I have afflicted you,” God declares (Nahum 1:12). Habakkuk and Zephaniah declare that an essential part of God’s punishment is that the people’s ability to make an adequate living is diminished.
The fig tree does not blossom, and no fruit is on the vines; though the produce of the olive fails and the fields yield no food; though the flock is cut off from the fold and there is no herd in the stalls. (Habakkuk 3:17)
All the traders have perished; all who weigh out silver are cut off. (Zephaniah 1:11)
This is seen not only in economic woes, but also in environmental problems (see below under Haggai: Work, Worship and the Environment).
Are contemporary political, economic, and natural disasters punishments from God? There is no shortage of people willing to declare that particular disasters are signs of God’s wrath. The 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan were attributed to divine punishment by both the Governor of Tokyoand the host of an MSNBC television news show. But unless we have joined the ranks of the Twelve or the other prophets of Israel, we should be very reluctant to declare God’s wrath in the events of the world. Did God himself reveal the reasons for the tsunami to these commentators, or did they draw conclusions on their own? Did he reveal his intent to a substantial number of people, well in advance, over many years, as he did with the prophets of Israel, or did it come to one or two people the day after? Were the modern-day declarers of God’s punishment forged as prophets by years of suffering alongside those afflicted, as Jeremiah, the Twelve and the other prophets of ancient Israel?
The punishment is of the people’s own making. The people have been working faithlessly, turning good materials of stone, wood and metal into idols. Work that creates idols has no value, no matter how expensive the materials or well-crafted the results are.
What use is an idol once its maker has shaped it—a cast image, a teacher of lies? For its maker trusts in what has been made, though the product is only an idol that cannot speak! (Habakkuk 2:18)
As Zephaniah puts it, “neither their silver nor their gold will be able to deliver them” (Zeph. 1:18).
Faithfulness is not a superficial matter of uttering praises to God while we work. It is the act of putting God’s priorities first in our work. Habakkuk reminds that “the Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him!” (Hab. 2:20). This silence is not merely a religious observation, but a silencing of our own broken ambitions, fears, and motivations, so that the priorities of God’s covenant can become our priorities. Consider what awaits those who defraud others in banking and finance.
“Alas for you who heap up what is not your own!” How long will you load yourselves with goods taken in pledge? Will not your own creditors suddenly rise, and those who make you tremble wake up? Then you will be booty for them. (Hab. 2:6–7)
Those who accumulate their ill-gotten gain in real estate—a phenomenon that seems constant throughout all the ages—are similarly traps for themselves.
“Alas for you who get evil gain for your houses, setting your nest on high to be safe from the reach of harm!” You have devised shame for your house by cutting off many peoples; you have forfeited your life. The very stones will cry out from the wall, and the plaster will respond from the woodwork. (Hab. 2:9–11)
Those who exploit others’ vulnerabilities also bring judgment on themselves.
“Alas for you who make your neighbors drink, pouring out your wrath until they are drunk, in order to gaze on their nakedness!” You will be sated with contempt instead of glory. Drink, you yourself, and stagger! The cup in the Lord’s right hand will come around to you, and shame will come upon your glory. (Hab. 2:15–16)
Work that oppresses or takes advantage of others ultimately brings about its own downfall.
Today we may not be literally crafting idols of precious materials before which we bow down. But work also may be idolatrous if we imagine that we are capable of producing our own salvation. For the essence of idolatry is that “its maker trusts in his own handiwork” (Hab. 2:18, NASB, cf. NRSV above), rather than trusting in the God by whose guidance and power we are created to work. If we are ambitious for power and influence because we think without our wisdom, skill and leadership, or work group, company, organization, or nation is doomed, then our ambition is a form of idolatry. In contrast, if we are ambitious for power and influence so that we can draw others into a network of service in which everyone brings forth God’s gifts for the world, then our ambition is a form of faithfulness. If our response to success is self-congratulation, we are practicing idolatry. If our response is thankfulness, then we are worshiping God. If our reaction to failure is despair, then we are feeling the hollowness of a broken idol, but if our reaction is perseverance, then we are experiencing the saving power of God.
Bob Robinson asks, "Can a Christian simply dedicate his or her life to loving God and loving neighbors, or does God demand from us a life that is extraordinary? What does it take to glorify God in today's world?"
There is another dynamic at work in the exile. Notwithstanding the emphasis of Nahum, Habakkuk and Zephaniah on punishment, people also begin to re-learn how to work in faithful service to God during this period. This is fully explored in Theology of Work Project articles such as Jeremiah & Lamentations and Work and Daniel and Work, but is also hinted at here in the Book of the Twelve. The key point of this is that even in the wretched circumstances of the exile, it is still possible to be faithful. As he watched the carnage around him, no doubt wishing he could be somewhere else, Habakkuk determined to stay at his post and listen for the Word of God there (Hab. 2:1). But more is possible than simply staying at one’s post, valuable as that may be. We may also find a way to be righteous and humble.
Seek the Lord, all you humble of the land, who do his commands; seek righteousness, seek humility; perhaps you may be hidden on the day of the Lord’s wrath. (Zephaniah 2:3)
There are no ideal places of work. Some are deeply challenging to people of God, compromised in all sorts of ways, while others are flawed in more mundane ways. But even in difficult work places, we may still be faithful witnesses to God’s purposes, both in the quality of our presence and the quality of our work. Habakkuk reminds us that no matter how fruitless our work seems, God is present with us in our work, giving us a joy that even the worst conditions of labour cannot completely overcome.
Though the fig tree does not blossom, and no fruit is on the vines;
though the produce of the olive fails and the fields yield no food;
though the flock is cut off from the fold and there is no herd in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will exult in the God of my salvation.
God, the Lord, is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer,
and makes me tread upon the heights. (Habakkuk 3:17–19)
Or, as the paraphrase by Terry Barringer puts it,
Though the contract finishes, And there is no work to be had;
Though there is no demand for my skills, And no one publishes my work.
Though the savings run out, And the pension is not enough to live on;
Yet will I rejoice in the Lord, I will rejoice in God my Saviour.
As verse 19 suggests, good work is possible even in the midst of difficult circumstances, for “the Lord is my strength.” Faithfulness is not only a matter of enduring hardship, but of making even the worst situation better in whatever ways we can.