Donatello’s statue of Habakkuk has the air of someone burdened with serious questions. His searching gaze reflects a person who, as we see in the opening chapters of this prophetic book, is deeply troubled by the divine silence in the face of rampant violence.
In the text, the prophet complains that he has been engaged in protest for some time. The open mouth and tensed body of Donatello’s figure can be interpreted as a recognition of this protest. However, God has been unresponsive to his cry of ḥamas! (‘violence’ in Hebrew)—a distress call that should warrant an immediate response from anyone who is within earshot (see Job 19:7). The prophet concludes that the deleterious deity refuses to offer any aid, forcing the innocent to suffer helplessly. To make it worse, God’s lack of response promotes the slackening of Torah observance, paralyzing the course of justice.
Habakkuk’s remonstration brings forth a distinctive feature of the biblical discourses of expostulation. Unlike other tragic figures in ancient and modern literature, the prophet refuses to acquiesce to the caprice of fate or to the divine whim. He demands repair, and his demand recalls many servants of God, including Abraham, who interceded for the sinners of Sodom (Genesis 18:23–33); Jeremiah, who lamented on behalf of his generation (Jeremiah 8:18–22); and Job (Job 9:15–24).
The Lord provides a preliminary answer for Habakkuk and advises him to study the scenes of the international world. God is ‘rousing the Chaldeans’ (1:5). God is going to use them as the instrument of punishment. Their military might will dispense divine judgment. The divine answer leaves the prophet baffled, however. His question in verse 12 borders on sarcasm, when he says to God, ‘Are you not of old?’. The prophet finds God’s remedy neither to reflect a grasp of history nor to provide a durable resolution to the problem at hand. The prophet points out the irony of a perpetuation of violence being built into God’s administration of justice. To punish the wicked, the prophet argues, God seems to plan to call in those who are more wicked than they are.
Habakkuk is not going to let God off the hook easily. He is not going to settle for a facile argument that attempts to justify God’s way. The prophet climbs up the watch-post with determination and eagerness to receive a word from the Lord (2:1). God answers him again (2:2). In this exchange that simulates a conversation, God and the prophet are engaged in a shared project to defeat the injustice that threatens to prevail over the world. Hope is conceived and can then be conveyed to others, thanks to the prophet’s stubborn supplication.
God asks the prophet to ‘write the vision’ (2:2). The revelation will be plain and will be available to all who seek God. It has been heard in the countless locations where worshippers have gathered ever since—including the Temple in Jerusalem, the entrance of the Cathedral of Amiens, and the campanile of Florence Cathedral, where Habakkuk’s prophecies can be equated with the calling of the bells (the locations of the three artworks in this exhibition).
According to verses 3–4, the vision given to the prophet has to do with the end, which is sure to come even if it may seem to tarry. In the intervening period, ‘the righteous [shall] live by their faith’ (v.4b; the auxiliary verb added). Through the centuries, this counsel of faith has received several interpretations. For example, it may well be construed as a double-edged divine commandment that mandates believers to have faith in God and pursue their life with faithfulness.
Based on these verses, Moses Maimonides constructed his famous Thirteen Principles of Faith, each of which begins with ’ani ma’amin, echoing verse 4b. Over the centuries, the Jewish people have sung ’ani ma’amin to a number of tunes including the one that Rabbi Azriel David Fastag composed by humming it on the way to the death camp at Treblinka. The same tradition of ’ani ma’amin inspires Dion Futerman to illustrate the mournful prayer at the Western Wall in 2016. Grief is there, but the faithful shall not let go of hope, as the nineteenth-century Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav taught, ‘Do not despair. Do not despair. It is forbidden to despair’ ('Asur Lohayitiesh'). Even if the coming of the Messiah seems to tarry, the delay will not destroy the faith of the faithful.
Habakkuk the prophet juxtaposes the life of hope and faith with treachery, exploitation, violence, and a false sense of security in the world (2:5–13, 15–19). In sharp contrast to the pursuits of the wicked, the prophet lifts the final triumph of the glory of the Lord that will be plainly known ‘as the waters cover the sea’ (v.14), when the Lord’s presence will command silence over all the earth (v.20).
Rabbi Nachman. 'Asur Lohayitiesh (Heb.)', Songs of Rabbi Nakhman of Breslov (Jerusalem: Gal paz)
1 The oracle of God which Habakʹkuk the prophet saw.
2O Lord, how long shall I cry for help,
and thou wilt not hear?
Or cry to thee “Violence!”
and thou wilt not save?
3Why dost thou make me see wrongs
and look upon trouble?
Destruction and violence are before me;
strife and contention arise.
4So the law is slacked
and justice never goes forth.
For the wicked surround the righteous,
so justice goes forth perverted.
5Look 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.
6For lo, I am rousing the Chaldeʹans,
that bitter and hasty nation,
who march through the breadth of the earth,
to seize habitations not their own.
7Dread and terrible are they;
their justice and dignity proceed from themselves.
8Their horses are swifter than leopards,
more fierce than the evening wolves;
their horsemen press proudly on.
Yea, their horsemen come from afar;
they fly like an eagle swift to devour.
9They all come for violence;
terror of them goes before them.
They gather captives like sand.
10At kings they scoff,
and of rulers they make sport.
They laugh at every fortress,
for they heap up earth and take it.
11Then they sweep by like the wind and go on,
guilty men, whose own might is their god!
12Art thou not from everlasting,
O Lord my God, my Holy One?
We shall not die.
O Lord, thou hast ordained them as a judgment;
and thou, O Rock, hast established them for chastisement.
13Thou who art of purer eyes than to behold evil
and canst not look on wrong,
why dost thou look on faithless men,
and art silent when the wicked swallows up
the man more righteous than he?
14For thou makest men like the fish of the sea,
like crawling things that have no ruler.
15He brings all of them up with a hook,
he drags them out with his net,
he gathers them in his seine;
so he rejoices and exults.
16Therefore he sacrifices to his net
and burns incense to his seine;
for by them he lives in luxury,
and his food is rich.
17Is he then to keep on emptying his net,
and mercilessly slaying nations for ever?
2I will take my stand to watch,
and station myself on the tower,
and look forth to see what he will say to me,
and what I will answer concerning my complaint.
2And the Lord answered me:
“Write the vision;
make it plain upon tablets,
so he may run who reads it.
3For still the vision awaits its time;
it hastens to the end—it will not lie.
If it seem slow, wait for it;
it will surely come, it will not delay.
4Behold, he whose soul is not upright in him shall fail,
but the righteous shall live by his faith.
5Moreover, wine is treacherous;
the arrogant man shall not abide.
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.”
6Shall not all these take up their taunt against him, in scoffing derision of him, and say,
“Woe to him who heaps up what is not his own—
for how long?—
and loads himself with pledges!”
7Will not your debtors suddenly arise,
and those awake who will make you tremble?
Then you will be booty for them.
8Because you have plundered many nations,
all the remnant of the peoples shall plunder you,
for the blood of men and violence to the earth,
to cities and all who dwell therein.
9Woe to him who gets evil gain for his house,
to set his nest on high,
to be safe from the reach of harm!
10You have devised shame to your house
by cutting off many peoples;
you have forfeited your life.
11For the stone will cry out from the wall,
and the beam from the woodwork respond.
12Woe to him who builds a town with blood,
and founds a city on iniquity!
13Behold, is it not from the Lord of hosts
that peoples labor only for fire,
and nations weary themselves for nought?
14For the earth will be filled
with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord,
as the waters cover the sea.
15Woe to him who makes his neighbors drink
of the cup of his wrath, and makes them drunk,
to gaze on their shame!
16You will be sated with contempt instead of glory.
Drink, yourself, and stagger!
The cup in the Lord’s right hand
will come around to you,
and shame will come upon your glory!
17The violence done to Lebanon will overwhelm you;
the destruction of the beasts will terrify you,
18What profit is an idol
when its maker has shaped it,
a metal image, a teacher of lies?
For the workman trusts in his own creation
when he makes dumb idols!
19Woe to him who says to a wooden thing, Awake;
to a dumb stone, Arise!
Can this give revelation?
Behold, it is overlaid with gold and silver,
and there is no breath at all in it.
20But the Lord is in his holy temple;
let all the earth keep silence before him.