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Though the fig tree may not blossom…

By Bernardo Serrano

We face a global commotion that is shaking the planet with the rapid expansion of the COVID-19 coronavirus, as it causes an alarming death toll, and forcing millions of people to remain confined to their homes in social isolation. Many Christians wonder and worry as if God were not listening to the cry of his people. I believe a reflection on the experience of Habakkuk can be helpful during this time of uncertainty.

Though the fig tree may not blossom,
Nor fruit be on the vines;
Though the labor of the olive may fail,
And the fields yield no food;
Though the flock may be cut off from the fold,
And there be no herd in the stalls—
Yet I will rejoice in the Lord,
I will be joyful in the God of my salvation.
The Lord God is my strength;
He will make my feet like deer’s feet,
And He will make me walk on my high hills.

(Habakkuk 3:17-19)

INTRODUCTION

One of the most troubling problems in the Christian experience is thinking that God does not answer our prayers the way we want or expect. We just notice silence as His response. This makes us doubt our faith and feel discouraged. Is God not listening? Are His hands paralyzed?

All of us have experienced the feeling that, on more than one occasion, God did not respond to us, that He was silent. We’ve thought that God had to see what we were going through, and yet seemingly did nothing. That He knew what was happening (because nothing is hidden from Him) but did not answer.

Today, with the help of the book of Habakkuk and the direction of God, we will try to understand why God seems to be silent at times, and what He wants from us in those times when we struggle but God seems to not care.

1. Getting Closer to Habakkuk

We know very little about Habakkuk. We don’t know who this prophet was nor where he was born nor when he died. There is no data on his life, the only thing we know about him is what this brief book of just three chapters says in poetic form.

The book of Habakkuk portrays his inner conflict over the silence of God, God’s response to the prophet, and the understanding of what his attitude should be in the midst of that apparent silence. The feeling that Habakkuk manifests is a feeling of confusion. He struggles with two seemingly incompatible realities.

On the one hand, he knows that God is just and almighty and that, with absolute sovereignty, He controls the course of history. On the other hand, he is seeing how his rebellious and wicked people (Judah) are punished by the Chaldeans, a people much more reprehensible than they (Hab. 1:12-17). He understands well that Judah is punished because of their sins (Hab. 1:2-4); but, why at the hands of a power that embodied the most inhuman injustice and cruelty of that time?

Habakkuk has no idea that a holy God has an active part in such an anomaly. Hence his deep unease. He cries for God, but God is silent. Sometimes God is silent, but he is not mute. Sometimes God is silent, but he does not remain so forever. When God is silent, He does not do it because He cannot speak, but because He does not want to speak at that moment, and because He has a plan for you for later.

In that standing before God and asking for an answer, Habakkuk is totally sincere, and he addresses the Lord to express his complaint:

O Lord, how long shall I cry,
And You will not hear?
Even cry out to You, “Violence!”
And You will not save.
Why do You show me iniquity,
And cause me to see trouble?
For plundering and violence are before me;
There is strife, and contention arises.
Therefore the law is powerless,
And justice never goes forth.
For the wicked surround the righteous;
Therefore perverse judgment proceeds.

(Hab. 1:2-4)

2. God’s Teaching to Habakkuk

I like Habakkuk’s honesty, his sincerity before and toward God. The prophet goes straight to the point, to tell God his complaint (and does not adorn it with religiosity) for what he feels is an unfair silence, a perceived carelessness of his plight; and that attitude of integrity leads him to stand before God and tell him that he will not move from there until he receives a response from Him (Hab. 2:1).

“How long?” Yet God does not leave Habakkuk in the torture of his misunderstanding. And finally, He breaks his silence by giving the prophet very specific answers. In the first place, Judah’s suffering is just retribution. Despite the fact that the Chaldeans, executors of His divine judgment, were more worthy of punishment than the people of Judah, God, in the exercise of His sovereignty, is going to use them as an instrument of His judgment (Hab. 1:12).

Second, God lets His servant know that the concern troubling him will not last forever. In due course, everything will change. This change will still take time, but –words of God– “even if it is late, wait for it, for it will surely come… and it will not take long” (Hab. 2:3).

Thirdly, Habakkuk must know that what he must do is not to speculate uselessly, but to trust and remain faithful, whatever happens, leaving everything in God’s hands. “The just shall live by his faith” (Hab. 2:4). Questioning God does not solve our problems; on the contrary, it aggravates them. Yes, of course it is good to expose them to him, but it is also very healthy to accept what he wants to teach us through that inner conflict we are experiencing.

Furthermore, Habakkuk had to learn to wait for God’s time. As he himself discovers, in the end everything will shine with the glory of God. In due course the unrighteous will have their due (Hab. 2:6-20). And the chosen people will be restored, richly blessed by their God.

3. The Change of Habakkuk

We could say that Habakkuk’s short prophecy begins with a complaint and ends with one of the most precious statements of trust in God. The famous poem of “Though the fig tree may not blossom…”.

The comparison made by the prophet when he says “…Though,” is that of a scene of a great drought, where the fig tree cannot blossom. But the fig tree never blooms. It begins by bearing fruit directly, but when it doesn’t rain, the dry tree cannot even bear a scant number of figs. We are obviously talking about a deep drought that leaves us without essential supplies: neither oil, nor wine, nor wheat, nor animals in the herds. And yet, here we are today, worrying that some supermarkets around the world are not carrying enough toilet paper!

In the difficult circumstances of our life, what is the attitude that will help us the most before the Lord? I think there are at least five very clear guidelines in this passage:

  1. Never distrust God and understand that if He has not yet acted in what we are waiting for, He has his reasons, and He continues to be the Lord of the world and, of course, of our lives and our circumstances.
  2. Keep waiting on Him. There is a great difference between knowing that God is Almighty to perform miracles and wonders, and what it means to apply Him to our lives and circumstances.
  3. Find strength in Him. If we have to keep waiting, let’s wait, because this will not last forever, one day it will be controlled; but in the meantime, let’s not fall into despair. God is faithful, He continues to be our strength, our rock and our place of refuge.
  4. With the strength of God, learn to walk with the problem. The expressions “deer’s feet” and “walk on high hills” speak to us of strength and liberation, with the Lord, we will walk above problems.
  5. Maintain an attitude of joy in the midst of the situation and enjoy life with God. It is the “Yet I will rejoice in the Lord”, in other words, “even if that happened and we did not have to eat, I will not lose the joy of knowing that God is by my side.”