Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
A prayer of Habakkuk the prophet upon Shigionoth.III.
(1-15) A hymn describing a future self-manifestation of Jehovah on Israel’s behalf, accompanied by the signs and wonders of the early history. It is impossible to give the English reader an idea of the rhythmical structure of this beautiful composition. We will only observe that it is independent of the arrangement in verses, and that the poem (except in Habakkuk 3:7-8; Habakkuk 3:13, fin.) consists of lines each containing exactly three words.
(1) Upon Shigionoth.—This term points, not to the contents of the composition, but either to its metrical structure or its musical setting. See on the Inscription of Psalms 7. Inasmuch as this ode is throughout an account of the deliverance anticipated by prayerful faith, it is called not a Psalm, mizmôr, but a Prayer, t’philtâh.
O LORD, I have heard thy speech, and was afraid: O LORD, revive thy work in the midst of the years, in the midst of the years make known; in wrath remember mercy.(2) Thy speech.—Better, thy report, as in margin. The tone is that of Psalm 44:1, “We have heard with our ears O God! our fathers have told us . . . ” Jehovah’s doings at the beginning of the years are well known; the prophet seeks that they may be manifested again, now in the midst of the years. The petition “in wrath remember mercy,” is explained by Habakkuk 1:5 et seq. It implies—though Thy visitation be well deserved, yet mercifully limit its duration, as on former occasions.
God came from Teman, and the Holy One from mount Paran. Selah. His glory covered the heavens, and the earth was full of his praise.(3-15) Habakkuk describes the “Theophany” or self-manifestation of Jehovah, which is to introduce the desired deliverance. The Authorised Version has unfortunately rendered all the verbs in this section in the past tense, thus obscuring the sense of the poem. They all refer to a scene really future, but brought by the grasp of faith into the immediate present. In the Hebrew some of these verbs are in the future tense, others in the past used with the force of a present, the “prophetic perfect” as it is sometimes termed. Such a use of the Hebrew preterite is common in Biblical poetry, notably in the Book of Psalms. It is almost impossible to reproduce in English the slight distinction between these tenses. While, however, his eyes are thus fixed on a future deliverance, the basis of all Habakkuk’s anticipations is God’s doings in time past; the chief features in the portraiture are, in fact, borrowed from the Books of Exodus and Judges.
(3) God came.—Render “God shall come from Teman, and the Holy One from Mount Paran. Selah. His glory covers the heavens, and the earth is full of His praise.” Jehovah reveals Himself from the south: i.e., from Mount Sinai, as in Deuteronomy 32, Judges 5, Psalms 68. The southern country is here designated as “Teman,” i.e., Edom to the S.E., and “Paran,” the mountainous region to the S.W., between Edom and Egypt.
And his brightness was as the light; he had horns coming out of his hand: and there was the hiding of his power.(4) And his brightness was as the light. . . .—Better, And a brightness shall there be, like sunlight, and rays are at His side; and there [i.e., in this radiance] is the tabernacle of His power.
Before him went the pestilence, and burning coals went forth at his feet.(5) Before him went the pestilence. . . .—Better, Before Him shall go the plague, and burning pestilence shall go forth where He sets His feet. Kleinert remarks that it was with these angels of death that Jehovah revealed Himself in the south, and destroyed the armies of Sennacherib (2Kings 19:35).
He stood, and measured the earth: he beheld, and drove asunder the nations; and the everlasting mountains were scattered, the perpetual hills did bow: his ways are everlasting.(6) He stood, and measured the earth . . .—Better, He has taken His stand and measured the earth, He has looked and made the heathen tremble; and the primeval mountains are broken up, the ancient hills sink down; His goings are as of old; i.e., His proceedings are the same as of old time, when He brought up Israel from Egypt. God measures or parcels out the earth; and the usurping invader is put to confusion. The mountains are convulsed, as was Sinai of old. (Comp. Judges 5:5, Psalm 68:8.)
I saw the tents of Cushan in affliction: and the curtains of the land of Midian did tremble.(7) “I saw.”—Better, I see. Did tremble.—Better, are trembling. Probably the imagery is still borrowed from the Exodus story, the nations instanced being the borderers on the Red Sea—viz., Cushan (Cush, or Ethiopia) on the west, and Midian on the east side. A plausible theory, however, as old as the Targum, connects this verse with later episodes in Israel’s history. “Cushan” is identified with that Mesopotamian oppressor, “Cushan-rishathaim,” whom the judge Othniel overcame. (Judges 3:8-10). And “Midian” is interpreted by Judges 6, which records how Gideon delivered Israel from Midianite oppression. Both names thus become typical instances of tyranny subdued by Jehovah’s intervention. We prefer the other interpretation, because the prophet’s eye is still fixed apparently on the earlier history (see Habakkuk 3:8, et seq.), and a reference here to the time of the Judges would mar the elimactic symmetry of the composition. “Cushan,” however, is never used elsewhere for “Cush,” though the LXX. understood it in this meaning. “Curtains” in the second hemistich is merely a variation on “tents” in the first. (Comp. Song of Solomon 1:5.)
Was the LORD displeased against the rivers? was thine anger against the rivers? was thy wrath against the sea, that thou didst ride upon thine horses and thy chariots of salvation?(8) Was the Lord displeased?—Better, Is it with the rivers Jehovah is wroth? Is Thine anger against the rivers? Is Thy wrath against the sea?—that Thou (thus) ridest upon Thy horses, that Thy chariots (thus appear) for deliverance?
Of salvation.—Better, for salvation, or for deliverance. The allusion is obviously to Israel’s miraculous passage through the Red Sea and the Jordan. The “horses” and “chariots” which are here the symbols of Divine might, come in the more fittingly in view of Exodus 14 (see Habakkuk 3:14 seq.), where Pharaoh, pursued with “horses and chariots,” only to find Jehovah Himself arrayed against him.
Thy bow was made quite naked, according to the oaths of the tribes, even thy word. Selah. Thou didst cleave the earth with rivers.(9) Thy bow was made quite naked.—Better, Thy bow shall be bared, even the chastisements sworn by Thy word. Selah. With rivers shalt thou cleave the earth. God’s chastisements, which are compared in Psalm 21:12 to arrows fitted to the string, are here represented as a bow taken out of the case, and so “made naked,” or “bared.” The word matteh, “rod,” “stem” (hence, also, “tribe”), used to denote an instrument of chastisement in Micah 6:9, Isaiah 30:32, here apparently means the punishment, or chastisement, of heathen iniquities, which God has sworn (see Deuteronomy 32:40-41) to execute. On the term Selah see Psalm 3:4 note. With rivers shalt thou cleave the earth, i.e., the rocks shall send forth new watercourses at Jehovah’s bidding, so that “rivers run in the dry places.” (See Exodus 17:6; Numbers 20:11.)
The mountains saw thee, and they trembled: the overflowing of the water passed by: the deep uttered his voice, and lifted up his hands on high.(10-18) All the verbs in these verses are misrendered as regards tense. (See note on 3-15.)
(10) The mountains saw thee.—The earthquake at Sinai and the dividing of the Red Sea, the waters of which were lifted up “as a wall on the right hand and on the left” of Israel, lie at the basis of this description. This imagery, however, of sweeping floods and quaking mountains is usual in poetical accounts of Divine interposition.
The sun and moon stood still in their habitation: at the light of thine arrows they went, and at the shining of thy glittering spear.(11) The sun and moon stand still in their habitation—scil., where they were at the beginning of the judgment. Here, of course, Habakkuk has in mind Joshua 10:12-13. The rest of the verse is best rendered, at the light of Thine arrows which go abroad, at the bright glancing of Thy spear. Apparently, the conception is that the surpassing brightness of the theophany shames the heavenly bodies, which accordingly cease to pursue their journey.
Thou didst march through the land in indignation, thou didst thresh the heathen in anger.(12) Thou didst march.—Here the verbs are in the future, and are to be rendered accordingly.
Thou wentest forth for the salvation of thy people, even for salvation with thine anointed; thou woundedst the head out of the house of the wicked, by discovering the foundation unto the neck. Selah.(13) Thou wentest.—Here the verbs, though past, are best rendered by the English present.
Even for salvation . . .—Better, even for the salvation of Thine anointed—scil., Thy chosen people, as also, perhaps, in Psalm 105:15. The rendering of the Authorised Version has the support of Aquila and the Quinta. It is a possible rendering, but few impartial Hebraists will deny that the other is preferable. In the last half of the verse two figures are blended—those of a house and a human body. Literally, it runs, Thou crushest the head of the house of the wicked (comp. Psalm 110:6), laying bare the foundation even to the neck. The obvious meaning is that the house or race of the Chaldæans is to be destroyed, “root and branch.”
Thou didst strike through with his staves the head of his villages: they came out as a whirlwind to scatter me: their rejoicing was as to devour the poor secretly.(14) Thou dost strike through with his staves . . .—Better, Thou dost pierce with his (scil., thine anointed people’s) spears the head of his (the enemy’s) princes, when they sweep by to scatter me abroad, when they exult as if to devour the afflicted secretly. The first clause is very obscure. Matteh means not only “spear,” but also “rod,” “stem,” “tribe” (see on Habakkuk 3:9); and the word which we translate “princes” may also, perhaps, mean “villages.” (See on Judges 5:7.) It is also uncertain to whom the possessive pronouns attached to these substantives refer the last clause we are reminded of several passages in the Psalms, notably, Psalm 10:9; Psalm 14:4; Psalm 17:12.
Thou didst walk through the sea with thine horses, through the heap of great waters.(15) Thou didst walk.—Better, Thou walkest. “Heap” is probably the correct translation of chômer here, as in Exodus 8:10. With this glance at the miraculous passage of the Red Sea (see Habakkuk 3:8) this prophetic poem comes to a sudden termination. The new paragraph begins with Habakkuk 3:16, not, as is indicated in the Authorised Version, with Habakkuk 3:17.
When I heard, my belly trembled; my lips quivered at the voice: rottenness entered into my bones, and I trembled in myself, that I might rest in the day of trouble: when he cometh up unto the people, he will invade them with his troops.(16-19) Habakkuk now reverts abruptly to the Divine sentence of Habakkuk 1:5 et seq., and describes with what emotion he meditates on the coming disasters, and on his own inability to prevent them. His anxiety is, however, swept aside by a joyful and overpowering confidence in God. These verses are a kind of appendix to the preceding poem.
(16) That I might rest . . .—Better, that I should be resting quiet in the day of trouble, when he cometh up against the people who is to oppress them.
Although the fig tree shall not blossom, neither shall fruit be in the vines; the labour of the olive shall fail, and the fields shall yield no meat; the flock shall be cut off from the fold, and there shall be no herd in the stalls:(17) Although.—Better, For. The conjunction connects this verse with what precedes, and explains Habakkuk’s affliction more fully. With the sword shall come famine, invasion as usual producing desolation.
Yet I will rejoice in the LORD, I will joy in the God of my salvation.(18) Yet—i.e., in spite of all the afflictions predicted in Habakkuk 3:17. We are reminded of St. Paul’s expression of confidence in Romans 8:37.
The LORD God is my strength, and he will make my feet like hinds' feet, and he will make me to walk upon mine high places. To the chief singer on my stringed instruments.(19) The Lord God.—This is an adaptation from Psalm 18:33. The “hinds’ feet” indicate the strength and elasticity of the prophet’s confidence; the “high places” are, as Kleinert observes, “the heights of salvation which stand at the end of the way of tribulation, and which only the righteous man can climb by the confidence of faith.”
To the chief singer—i.e., to the precentor, or presiding singer. The rubric may be interpreted either “To the precentor. (To be performed) on my stringed instruments,” or, “To him who presides over my stringed instruments.” The fact that the same direction occurs with the words in the same order in six Psalms perhaps favours the latter rendering in all cases. The preposition al would, however, in this case be appropriate rather than b’ On the terms used, see Psalm 4:1. It has been inferred from the use of the possessive pronoun, “my stringed instruments,” that Habakkuk was a Levite, and therefore himself entitled to accompany the Temple music. But see Introduction, § 1.