Man the Sinner. preached at KBCF Lighthouse Church on July 17, 2011. Scripture is from Habakkuk 1:12-2:1.
So we are in the middle of a sermon series based on this book, “What is the Gospel?” by Greg Gilbert a pastor at Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, DC.
Three weeks ago, I started it with an introduction to the book while also covering the first chapter, concerning the Word of God, by preaching out of 2nd Chronicles 34 which is the story of King Josiah and the Old Testament revival that he ushered in during his reign.
The result of that revival was the retrieval of the Book of the Law, which showed Josiah and the people of Judah just how badly they had gone of course in their relationship with God. Our point during that sermon was to show that God’s word is the ultimate authority over everything, and so it is the place where we must look in order to be able to answer the question “What is the Gospel?”.
Then last week, we started on the book of Habakkuk, which falls chronologically in line with 2nd Chronicles because Habakkuk, a prophet of Judah, the Southern Kingdom, was most likely active during the reign of Josiah, a time of spiritual fruit and maturity, but then he saw the decline and the return to apostasy of the people after Josiah died and his son Jehoahaz was made king.
Now, Habakkuk, remember has three major sections, the first two are complaints that Habakkuk makes to God, and God’s answers to each complaint. While the third is a prayer that Habakkuk offers up to God at the end of their “conversation”.
We covered Habakkuk’s first complaint in chapter 1 verses 2 to 4… then God’s answer to that complaint in verses 5 to 11. In these verses, we magnified characteristics of God – his righteousness and his wrath – as a way to make sense of the characteristic of God which most other people today usually magnify… that is, God’s love.
We saw that although love and wrath may seem at first to be at odds with each other, in fact, they complement and explain each other.
We cannot know how much God loves us without first an understanding of the wrath that God is saving us from. Conversely, God’s wrath, his punishment, is actually a loving act towards us, just as parents punish and reprove their children whom they love.
All of that corresponds to Chapter 2 of “What is the Gospel?” which concerns “God the Righteous Creator”.
Today then, we turn to Chapter 3 of the book, “Man the Sinner” and to the next portion of Habakkuk, found in chapter 1 verse 12 to chapter 2 verse 1. It is the 2nd complaint that Habakkuk makes to God, one that he actually makes in response to God’s answer to his first complaint.
Next week, we’ll look at God’s response to this, but for now, you will remember that in his first complaint, Habakkuk essentially says to God “You aren’t doing anything! You are idle. You’re letting wicked people do whatever they want and as a result, the ‘law is paralyzed and justice never goes forth’.”
To this, God answers, “No. Actually I have already been doing something. Something so great you wouldn’t believe it if you were told. I’m raising up the Babylonians and they will be my instrument of punishment and wrath against Judah.”
With that, let’s read how Habakkuk responds… Verse 12.
12: “Are you not from everlasting, O Lord my God, my Holy One? We shall not die.
O Lord, you have ordained them as a judgement and you, O Rock, have established them for reproof.”
Let me pause here for a second to explain what he is saying. The Hebrew word that our English bibles translate as “everlasting”, can also be translated as “ancient time” … I know for us, it carries this idea of “eternity”, and rightly so… Except for most of us, when we think of eternity, we probably think of the future, which is also perfectly fine. Certainly God is eternal, and we look forward to a future with him in heaven forever. But actually, in this instance, it just so happens to be looking at eternity from a past perspective.
When Habakkuk asks, “Are you not from everlasting?” What he is asking is: “Are you not from the ancient times… Are you not from the past?”. And that’s interesting here, because when coupled with the fact that he uses God’s covenant name “Yahweh” – that’s the word that is translated as Lord with all capitals in our Bibles – he is appealing to God’s covenant with his people, Israel, and how that has already played itself out in history
And so, even though at this point, Habakkuk is incredibly confused as to why God is going to allow these things to happen to them – that is, being taken over by the Babylonians, he maintains this confidence that Israel remains God’s covenant people, God will remain faithful to his promises, and leave a remnant behind. And so, he can say “we shall not die.”
The feeling of hope is short-lived however… as he continues by accepting the fact that this is really going to happen… the Babylonians are really God’s chosen instrument of punishment. He says: “O Lord, you have ordained them as a judgement and you, O Rock, have established them for reproof.”
Now that second term he uses for God, “O Rock” evokes a desire for stability. The rock is supposed to be the protector of the covenant people, but here, the rock is actually establishing a nation to reprove his people by driving them into exile.
You can really see here how Habakkuk is struggling with what he knows about God, and what God had announced he would be doing. Right now, there’s still a hopeful tone in Habakkuk’s complaint, but as he progresses, it falls further and further into despair…
Verse 13: “You who are of purer eyes than to see evil and cannot look at wrong, why do you idly look at traitors and remain silent when the wicked swallows up the man more righteous than he?”
Now here is the meat of Habakkuk’s complaint. In which he echoes parts of his first complaint. Notice here, he says “Why do you idly look at traitors?”, which echoes verse 3 in which he asks “Why do you idly look at wrong?”. Then also, “the wicked swallows up the man more righteous than he.” Which again is similar to verse 4 where he says “the wicked surround the righteous”.
What we see here is Habakkuk essentially making the same complaint twice, but about two different groups of people. First about the people of Judah, and now, the Babylonians. “Why are you letting them go on being evil?”
Except here is the difference: the Babylonians are even more evil than the people of Judah had ever been. And on top of that, God is going to use these more evil people to punish the less evil people of Judah. This greatly perplexes Habakkuk, as he meditates on what he knows about God’s character (his righteousness and his holiness), and as he comes to remember the way God has in the past dealt with Judah’s apostasy. They deserved punishment, alright, but certainly it can’t come at the hands of these evil Babylonians can it?
The rest of the chapter is a metaphorical description of the tactics that the Babylonians use when conquering other nations.
Verse 14 sets up his metaphor: “You make mankind like the fish of the sea, like crawling things that have no ruler.”
Then he continues in verse 15 by explaining what Babylon does to the people that they conquer: “He brings all of them up with a hook; he drags them out with his net; he gathers them in his dragnet; so he rejoices and is glad.”
Here, obviously, the people of Judah are the defenseless fish that the Babylonians hook and catch with their nets. These helpless Judeans are violently caught in the nets of the Babylonians, and then they are taken away as captives to Babylon.
Verse 16 explains the attitude of the Babylonians: “Therefore he sacrifices to his net and makes offerings to his dragnet; for by them he lives in luxury, and his food is rich.”
They are idolatrous and prideful, and at this point, in verse 17, Habakkuk turns it back to God, asking: “Is he then to keep on emptying his net and mercilessly killing nations forever?”
Finally in Chapter 2, Verse 1, Habakkuk concludes his complaint concerned about receiving an answer from God. “I will take my stand at my watchpost and station myself on the tower, and look out to see what he will say to me, and what I will answer concerning my complaint.”
I like how Biblical scholar Kenneth Barker explains this: “That was part of the prophetic task. Not even a prophet could force God to answer what appeared to be a burning, immediate issue, even an issue defending God’s honor. All the prophet could do was sit and wait for God’s timing. That is Habakkuk’s action here.”
So in Habakkuk 1:12 to 2:1, Habakkuk makes a complaint about the Babylonians similar to the earlier complaint he makes about the People of Judah, he then describes the way the Babylonians work, that is, what he expects them to do to Judah. And finally, he earnestly awaits God’s answer..
So, now that we have examined the passage a little more carefully, I want to make 3 observations from the text which relate to our topic “Man the Sinner”.
The first one is this: Sin is ultimately a contradiction of God’s character.
I know that this isn’t such a shocking thing to us, certainly sin is everything that God is not. And we can see this so clearly in Habakkuk’s confession of God’s characteristics: Holy, Righteous, faithful from everlasting, and pure.
However, despite how obviously opposite God and sin are, we sometimes simply don’t take sin seriously enough.
I like how Greg Gilbert opens Chapter 3. He explains that he had once gotten a parking ticket, which he pleaded guilty to and paid off. He then says that despite that, he doesn’t really feel all that guilty about it, and that in fact, he was even a little bitter about it because it cost $10 more than a previous ticket he received…
I like this little anecdote because it’s something that I can really relate to, because during my last 2 years at University of Toronto, I drove and parked downtown all the time, and I made it a game to try to get away with as much free, illegal, parking as I could.
There was one particular spot where I liked to do this, because some days, I could get away with hours of “free” parking. It’s a small street beside Robarts Library… which did allow for free parking, but only for 1 hour… And so my game was, park as long as possible without getting a ticket.
I developed a little strategy for how to do this, mainly, I would start the day parked at the very back of the street, and every hour or two, I would move my car up a couple of spots, so that it would seem like it was a different car parked there. Most of the time, it actually did work, but once in a while, I would come down to move my car, but would find it had already been ticketed. Over those two years, I probably got something like 10 parking tickets…
Now of course, I was bummed whenever I got a ticket, and usually afterward, I would be really good about not parking illegally for a little while… But eventually, I would start up again…
Anyway, I figured that what I paid for those parking tickets would have been what I had paid for the parking. So it really didn’t matter all that much. Nonetheless, you can see that I really didn’t have much respect for Toronto’s parking bylaws.
And I suspect that a lot of people probably feel the same way. It’s something to joke and laugh about. But the problem is, when the same attitude begins to carry over to sin.
Gilbert writes, “Most people tend to think of sin, especially their own, as not much more than a parking infraction. ‘Yes of course,’ we think, ‘technically sin is a violation of the law handed down by God on high, and all that, but surely he must know there are bigger criminals out there than me. Besides, nobody was hurt, and I’m willing to pay the fine.”
How many of us sometimes think of sin in this way? Maybe it’s a personal sin that isn’t even visible. Or maybe it’s a small sin that doesn’t seem to matter all that much in the grand scheme of things. I’m not here to lob out accusations, or to make anyone feel guilty, but I know everyone here, by virtue of being human, has something – some sinful acts or attitudes that they are dealing with or have to deal with.
For me personally, apart from the illegal parking thing, I have issues when it comes to driving in general. My parents can attest to this, I can get kind of mean and aggressive when I’m behind the wheel… Especially when there’s a lot of traffic, which, well let’s face it, we’re in Toronto… that’s a lot of the time I’m driving.
I have, on more than one occasion, said or done something as a result of getting angry while driving. Again, my parents have seen this. But then, here’s the thing: even when I don’t say or do something as a result of getting angry, the attitude behind that anger in itself can get sinful.
You see how that works? Say and do something out of anger. Sin. Don’t say or do something out of anger.. but getting angry anyway (at least in an unrighteous way), still sin. And so, this area of my life is something I am continually having to bring to God.
Now I could look at this, especially the internal sin – the one that doesn’t result in aggressive or mean driving, and say, well it’s no big deal. There are drunk drivers out there, why am I, just because I don’t want to be stuck in traffic the one who is sinning? Or why can my sin even compare to… for example that 15 year old kid who ended up killing a that cop when he sped away while the cop reaching in to turn off the car’s ignition?
Well just as Greg Gilbert writes: “According to the Bible, sin is… the breaking of a relationship, and even more, it’s a rejection of God himself – a repudiation of God’s rule, God’s care, God’s authority, and God’s right to command those to whom he gave life. In short, it’s the rebellion of the creature against his creator.”
Yes sin always in contradiction of who God is… Even if it’s something we consider to be just a small sin. That brings us to my next observation…
Sin is not negated by worse sin…
Habakkuk complains to God that he is using an evil people, the Babylonians, to punish a less evil people, the Israelites. And while his argument on some level makes some sense, the fact of the matter is, sin is sin, and it needs to be punished.
Far be it for me to say, well I’m not paying that parking ticket because the officer who gave it to me is probably an adulterer, or maybe a fornicator. Why should I be punished by a worse sinner then me, especially when my offense is nothing more than a “traffic infraction”?
Do you see the problem here? When we start comparing sins, we can once again lose sight of the gravity of sin. I like how Amos 7 verse 8 deals with this. In that verse, the Lord says: “Behold, I am setting a plumb line in the midst of my people Israel.” Right before he pronounces his judgement against them.
A plumb line is a string with a weight attached to the bottom and it was used to see how straight a wall was… And so in Amos, this “plumb line” that God was setting in the midst of Israel is supposed to measure their uprightness before him… That plumb line is of course the Law, and by extension, God’s own character.
It’s a slippery slope to compare our sins with others. Because it begins with, “Well he’s more of a sinner than I am,” but it can easily turn into “Well, he’s a sinner and I’m not”.
Thankfully, Habakkuk never end up there. Notice in verse 13, he doesn’t absolve Israel of their sin. He doesn’t ask God, “why do you remain silent when the wicked swallows up the righteous.” But rather… “Why do you remain silent when the wicked swallows up the man more righteous than he?”
Final observation: At the heart of sin is idolatry.
This, we see in Habakkuk’s description of the Babylonians… In verse 16 he says, “Therefore he sacrifices to his net and makes offerings to his dragnet; for by them he lives in luxury, and his food is rich.”
When you look at sin and what has gone wrong with mankind, idolatry really is the creature’s ultimate betrayal of his creator: worshipping something from creation in the place of the creator. It is heinous, in every sense of the word, but then, also, when you think about it more carefully, it is also actually quite absurd.
Let’s turn, for example, at Isaiah 44:
Starting in verse 9:
All who fashion idols are nothing, and the things they delight in do not profit. Their witnesses neither see nor know, that they may be put to shame.
Who fashions a god or casts an idol that is profitable for nothing? Behold, all his companions shall be put to shame, and the craftsmen are only human. Let them all assemble, let them stand forth. They shall be terrified; they shall be put to shame together.
The ironsmith takes a cutting tool and works it over the coals. He fashions it with hammers and works it with his strong arm. He becomes hungry, and his strength fails; he drinks no water and is faint.
The carpenter stretches a line; he marks it out with a pencil. He shapes it with planes and marks it with a compass. He shapes it into the figure of a man, with the beauty of a man, to dwell in a house. He cuts down cedars, or he chooses a cypress tree or an oak and lets it grow strong among the trees of the forest. He plants a cedar and the rain nourishes it. Then it becomes fuel for a man. He takes a part of it and warms himself; he kindles a fire and bakes bread. Also he makes a god and worships it; he makes it an idol and falls down before it.
Half of it he burns in the fire. Over the half he eats meat; he roasts it and is satisfied. Also he warms himself and says, “Aha, I am warm, I have seen the fire!” And the rest of it he makes into a god, his idol, and falls down to it and worships it. He prays to it and says, “Deliver me, for you are my god!”
Do you see how absurd it is? You take a piece of wood, and one part of it you burn for firewood, so that you can keep warm and cook a meal. Then the other part you make an image and worship it as your god.. How do you know which one is which? Which part was meant to be burned and which one is meant to be worshipped?
Yes it does seem incredibly stupid to us. But again, as creatures are in rebellion against their creator, we will find that the default position is idolatry. It’s at the very heart of sin itself.
One of my favorite books is by Timothy Keller; It’s called “Counterfeit Gods”, and in it, Tim Keller is seizing an opportunity, brought about by the 2008 financial crisis, to do some teaching about idolatry, and to apply the idea to the 21st century.
Let me read to you how he describes it:
“To contemporary people the word idolatry conjures up pictures of primitive people bowing down before statues. The biblical book of Acts in the New Testament contains vivid descriptions of the cultures of the ancient Greco-Roman world. Each city worshipped its favorite deities and built shrines around their images for worship…
Our contemporary society is not fundamentally different from these ancient ones. Each culture is dominated by its own set of idols. Each has its ‘priesthoods,’ its totems and rituals. Each one has its shrines – whether office towers, spas and gyms, studios or stadiums – where sacrifices must be made in order to procure the blessings of the good life and ward off disaster.
What are the gods of beauty, power, money, and achievement but these same things that have assumed mythic proportions in our individual lives and in our society? We may not physically kneel before the statue of Aphrodite (the goddess of love beauty), but many young women today are driven into depression and eating disorders by an obsessive concern over their body image. We may not actually burn incense to Artemis, but when money and career are raised to cosmic proportions, we perform a kind of child sacrifice, neglecting family and community to achieve a higher place in business and gain more wealth and prestige.”
Here we have the modern equivalence of the absurdity of idolatry: beauty, power, money and achievement. All part of creation, and all sought after as the “ultimate goal” in life.
And yes, again all other sin tend to flow from this idolatry, the desire to lift up something or someone out of creation over the creator. Adultery? The love of sex. Theft, from the love of money. Murder… For any number of idolatries.. Maybe the love of power or achievement.. Maybe wanting to get rid of a rival.
You look for example at this whole News of the World business… Everyone know what I’m talking about? That tabloid in the UK, that was caught tapping the phones of murder victims, politicians, and the families of 9/11 victims. They placed the love of achievement above everything else, and decided they would d anything to get it.
Here’s the thing… Everyone here is guilty of this. Everyone has some sort of idol in their lives that they have a tendency place in importance above God. Beauty, Power, Money, and Achievement are just the obvious culprits of idolatry. But really, anything can become an idol… even things that we might consider to be good: family, love, even ministries. If something, no matter what it is, is elevated to take the place of God in our hearts, then that thing has become an idol. And sin flows out from it.
So, sin is ultimately a contradiction of God’s character. It is everything that he is not.
Sin does not negate lesser sin. There is only one plumb line, and that’s the law, the character of God.
Finally, at the heart of sin is idolatry, which is taking something or someone from creation and elevating it above the rightful place of the creator in our hearts.
This is the condition of Man the sinner. This is what has gone wrong… And because of that judgement must fall on humanity.
Let me read what Greg Gilbert says in “What is the Gospel?”
“One of the most frightening statements in all the Bible is in Romans 3:19. It comes at the end of Paul’s indictment of all humanity – first the Gentile, then the Jew – as being under sin and utterly unrighteous before God. Here is what Paul says, as the grand conclusion of the matter: ‘Every mouth [will] be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God’.
Can you even begin to imagine what that will mean? To stand before God and to have no explanation, no plea, no excuse, no case? And what does it mean to be ‘held accountable to God’? The Bible is very clear, as we saw it in the last chapter, that God is righteous and holy, and therefore he will not excuse sin. But what will it mean for God to deal with sin, to judge it and punish it? Romans 6:23 says, ‘The wages of sin is death.’ In other words, the payment we earn for our sins is to die. That’s not just physical death, either. It is spiritual death, a forceful separating of our sinful, wretched selves from the presence of the righteous and holy God.”
With rebellious creatures, there really is no other fitting punishment than death. Now, and in the past, in most countries, regardless of the form of government, whether dictatorship, democracy, monarchy, or whatever, there has always been one crime that seems to get equal treatment. It’s the crime of treason, and in most countries today, it’s still punishable by death. In fact, the only reason why it wouldn’t be punishable by death in a country, like here in Canada, is because there is no death penalty. But guaranteed, it would still be punishable with life imprisonment. What’s so bad about treason? Well, it is the crime of trying to overthrow one’s government, one’s sovereign, and rightful ruler.
Sin is the ultimate treasonous act against God. Against his rightful rule and authority over us. A right that he solely has as Creator over his creation. And so in our rebellion, we deserve death. But.. there is hope. And Lord willing, that’s what we’ll talk about next week.
For now, let’s do what Habakkuk does, and wait eagerly and expectantly..
“I will take my stand at my watchpost and station myself on the tower, and look out to see what he will say to me, and what I will answer concerning my complaint.”