The Old Testament text for this Sunday is from the generally obscure book of Habakkuk [1:1-4, 2:1-4]. With that in mind, I thought it would be good to look at that text from a larger perspective.
To be more specific, I would like to look at the use of questions in the Old Testament. The text for this week, immediately after the introduction, has some pretty serious questions: ‘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 make me see iniquity, and why do you idly look at wrong?’
Are these questions important? Definitely!
Sometimes in the text, people are asking questions. And sometimes in the text, it is God who is asking the questions. More specifically, it is usually the LORD who asks questions. The name God is usually used when there are commands involved. The LORD is the One who interacts with his people. To ask a question is to show love and concern—and also patience.
Near the beginning of the book of Genesis, the LORD God has a whole series of questions. He asks the man where he is. He asks him who told him he was naked. He asks him if he ate from the tree that he was commanded not to eat. Then he asks the woman what she did.
Regarding the LORD’s dealings with Cain, he asks him why he is angry and why his face is sad. Then, after the murder, he asks Cain where his brother is. Finally, he asks him what he did.
Perhaps there is a reason that the questions asked by the LORD are not so frequent after that. Certainly, other questions will follow. But the answer to that final question—the same question to both the woman and Cain—is a significant fork in the road.
One can certainly go a lot of different places from there. It is also very easy simply to stay there and reflect upon one’s sinfulness, rather than see the wonderful answer in the gospel, God’s great gift.
One of the further questions by the LORD, farther ‘down the road’, was the following question that he asks himself(!) when talking to Abraham: ‘Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do…(18:17)?’ The LORD certainly showed concern and got involved in THAT situation.
That makes the dual question that comes up near the middle and end of Genesis quite appropriate: ‘Am I in the place of God?’ It was asked by both Jacob and Joseph (30:2; 50:19). And it is never ‘officially’ answered, but the LORD God certainly became even more involved after that.
The end of Genesis leaves the reader or listener with the following big question, although it is not stated literally: When will the children of Israel make it back to the ‘Promised Land’? What is worse is that, at the end of the ‘Pentateuch (the first five books of the Old Testament)’, the movement into the Promised Land has not yet happened. Yet they were SO close.
The historical books sometimes have questions like ‘Regarding this particular person, are not the details about him written in this other book?’ (See, for example, 1 Kings 16:27.) The second-last verse of the huge section of historical books has that question. (See Esther10:2.) I assume that the answers to those questions are all ‘Yes’. And that type of question is meant to keep the reader or listener going and learning more.
Now the so-called ‘Book of the Twelve’ is an interesting work. We usually call them the ‘minor prophets’, although one can easily misunderstand that title and think that their message is unimportant. They are only minor when compared to the ‘major’ prophets, the five books of Isaiah through Daniel. (By the way, near the very end of Daniel are some questions about the end times. At Daniel 12:6 is ‘How long shall it be till the end of these wonders?’ And at Daniel 12:8 is ‘O my lord, what shall be the outcome of these things?’)
These twelve important speakers for the LORD are arranged what in what was considered their chronological order, although there is a great amount of debate about when some of those writings came to be. One can say with some certainty though that the earlier prophets are near the beginning of the book, and the later ones are near the end.
Often the length of a work makes a difference in its placement. This is true in some of the ways that the New Testament documents were put together. With the earliest Greek version of the Old Testament (called the Septuagint), the order of the first three books is Hosea, Amos, and Micah (the three longest books that were among the earliest), all in decreasing order.
Below is the name of the prophet (in the order you are most familiar with), the APPROXIMATE century of the work (B.C.; this number is rounded and has been taken from The Lutheran Study Bible), and the number of verses in the work.
Hosea 8 197
Joel 9 73
Amos 8 146
Obadiah 6 21
Jonah 8 48
Micah 8/7 105
Nahum 7 47
Habakkuk 7 56
Zephaniah 7 53
Haggai 6 38
Zechariah 6 211
Malachi 5 55
There are questions throughout these books. Many of them are obvious and answered immediately. I am thinking particularly of Zechariah, when the prophet sees something, and then the question is asked, ‘What do you see?’ (See, for example, Zechariah 5:2.) But there are more significant questions as well.
The book of Jonah ends with a series of serious questions. The LORD does NOT destroy Nineveh, and Jonah basically asks, ‘Is not this what I said was going to happen when I was still at home?’ (For the record, there is no record of him asking this question.) Then the LORD essentially asks this same question two times: ‘Do you have a right to be angry?’ And then, at the very end, the LORD basically asks the following question: ‘Should not I be concerned about those in Nineveh?’
The book of Nahum also ends with a question (3:19c): ‘For upon whom has not come your unceasing evil?’ It is a short question, but that is the very end of the book, and so there is an element of uncertainty. And the very next book, Habakkuk, starts with those few but important questions that were mentioned above.
The fifth book of the group (Jonah) ends with a significant question and the fifth from the end (Habakkuk) begins with a significant question (and there is the question at the end of Nahum, right next to the beginning of Habakkuk). That ‘pattern’ may be a coincidence. But, whatever the structure, those questions are important, and they help to push the reader or listener forward to find some answers. And the answers to those important questions can be found in the New Testament more than the Old.