Book Review: Heath A. Thomas, Habakkuk (Two Horizons Old Testament Commentary)

Thomas, Heath A. Habakkuk. Two Horizons Old Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2018. 243 pp. Pb; $25.   Link to Eerdmans

Following the methodology expressed in his Manifesto for Theological Interpretation (written with Craig Bartholomew, Baker 2016), Thomas attempts to use academically rigorous exegetical, historical, sociological and literary dimensions of the text in order to draw out theological implications for contemporary readers. In other words, this is “biblical criticism recalibrated within the larger aim of hearing God’s address through the prophetic book” (4). Later in the introduction to the commentary, Thomas calls this a dialectic between systematic and biblical theology which he considers a “hard-won ‘thick’ analysis of a biblical text” (34).

Heath Thomas, Habakkuk CommentaryIn his 55 page introduction Thomas observes the obscure prophetic of Habakkuk is sometimes dismissed as too “hellfire and brimstone.” Rather than a “ragbag collection of unintelligible material,” Thomas suggests the book is theologically rich and “extraordinarily pertinent” to contemporary church life and culture (3).

Thomas reviews the “drama of Scripture” in order to introduce the historical context of the prophet. The commentary assumes the context claimed by the book: Habakkuk is living in the final years of the kingdom of Judah, specifically during the reign of Jehoiakim just prior to the fall of Jerusalem in 587 BCE (26). Thomas considers an earlier context in the reign of Manasseh or just after the death of Josiah. That the book mentions the Chaldeans and the imminent threat of exile favors a date around 587 BCE. He therefore understands the wicked and righteous in Habakkuk 1:2-4 are wicked Judeans oppressing the righteous.

Theologically, Thomas says, this context “pits the faithful prophet against his own people and culture” (27). A major theological point made by Habakkuk is that wicked nations will be swallowed up in their wickedness and “Yahweh will but them to rights. This is true…whether that nation is Judah, Babylon, or the United States” (30). Thomas revisits this interest in applying the words of the sixth century BCE prophet living through the final years of the kingdom of Judah to contemporary experience throughout the commentary. These asides are usually vague, allowing the reader to draw out the implications for their own time and cultural context. Habakkuk’s critique of evil in the leadership of Judah or Babylon is universal and speaks to every political climate in history.

The introduction concludes with a section on Habakkuk and the church. Here Thomas offers short surveys of the use of Habakkuk in the apostolic era (Romans and Galatians), patristic, Medieval, Reformation and modern periods, concluding with “Habakkuk today.” This final section includes one or two international commentaries, but this section could have been more robust. Although this would not fit into the Christian theology of the Two Horizons commentary series, the reception of Habakkuk in Judaism would have been a helpful addition especially given the interest in Habakkuk at Qumran.

The body of the commentary devotes one chapter to each of Habakkuk’s three chapters, Thomas sub-divides the material into several paragraphs in order to treat individual issues in the text. He comments on the Hebrew text and all Hebrew appears in transliteration. For the most part he only lightly touches on lexical and syntactical issues, although occasionally he draws on cognate languages for obscure vocabulary (Ugaritic, for example).

Two excurses appear in the body of the commentary, one on power of silence and the second on the power of memory. I comment only on the first excursus. Drawing on Habakkuk 2:20, “be silent, all the earth, before him,” Thomas offers a short reflection on “The Power of Silence (135-38). He suggests Habakkuk 2:20 is a “call for his people to recognize God’s power to vindicate the righteous and judge the wicked” (136). He moves quickly from this observation to the importance of contemplation as a spiritual discipline, “contemplation centers the church within God’s life so that she might live authentically as the body of Christ, rather than be conformed to the idolatrous patterns of this present word” (137). This is quite true and there is much to be said for the practice of silence as a spiritual discipline, especially in the context of suffering and injustice. However, in the context of Habakkuk 2:20, the climax of God’s judgment on the nations, perhaps this silence is “An overt eschatological hope is formulated whereby “the wicked are silenced in darkness” because “the LORD will judge the ends of the earth” (1 Sam. 2:9–10)” (G. K. Beale, Revelation [NIGTC; Eerdmans, 1999], 446). Rather than “be still and know I am God,” this text seems to say, “stand in silence before the Lord who judges from his holy temple.” Thomas’s interest in drawing theological implications from Habakkuk may go beyond the meaning of the text.

The final third of the book collects three essays on the theological horizons of Habakkuk. The first is somewhat typical of a biblical theology in that Thomas sets out the main theological themes of the book of Habakkuk: the destructive power of sin, waiting on the Lord, righteous suffering and God, Israel and the Nations. This unit also includes the New Testament use of Habakkuk, including a short interaction with Richard Hays’s view that Paul has an apocalyptic reading of Habakkuk 2:4b which makes the “righteous one” a messianic title. Thomas disagrees, arguing (briefly) Habakkuk 2:4b is not a prediction of a messiah but rather a pointer to the incarnation of God’s faithfulness in this present age. For Thomas, Habakkuk focuses on “faith in the faithfulness of God” (164). By this phrase he wants to draw attention to God’s faithfulness as the one who both judges the wicked and vindicates the righteous. With this emphasis “Habakkuk presses toward and eschatological hope” (168).

The second theological essay, “Centering Shalom: Habakkuk and Prayer” is in large part re-telling of the “drama of scripture common to the theological interpretation of Scripture. The bulk of the chapter describes shalom as the orderliness of creation, then shows how sin has destroyed the shalom of the original created order. Habakkuk’s laments are desperate cries to a Holy God in a world full of injustice because sin remains powerful. Yet “Habakkuk’s prayers do not shake an angry fist at God in the fashion of a petulant teenager moaning about the injustice of having to carry out the rubbish to the bin at the parent’s request. As Christian Polke rightly says, ‘To lament is not to whine’” (188).

In his third essay “Dead Ends and Doorways: Habakkuk and Spiritual Formation” Thomas addresses two common issues which prevent people from spiritual formation or even coming to faith in the first place. For many, the violence of God on display in a book like Habakkuk leaves no room for faith, and the silence of God in the face of great suffering in this world is the biggest stumbling-block to faith. Thomas argues that the book of Habakkuk addresses both of these issues by leading the reader to an overlooked form of worship, the lament. Although common in the Old Testament, lament is rarely practiced in the modern church. Thomas believes if the church slowed down and worshiped God through the form of lament it would avoid both “blissful naiveté” and “sterile ambivalence” (209).  By following Habakkuk’s lead in lament as worship, the church will see suffering through the cross and be open to a divine response.

Thomas’s Two Horizons commentary on Habakkuk is a model for the method of theological interpretation of Scripture. He does serious exegesis and pays attention to the historical and cultural context of this obscure prophet and is able to draw out implications for how the lives and breathes in contemporary culture.

 

 

NB: Thanks to Eerdmans for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

 

One thought on “Book Review: Heath A. Thomas, Habakkuk (Two Horizons Old Testament Commentary)

  1. Appreciate your careful review, including the comment of critique: “Rather than ‘be still and know I am God,’ this text seems to say, ‘stand in silence before the Lord who judges from his holy temple.’ Thomas’s interest in drawing theological implications from Habakkuk may go beyond the meaning of the text.” I have to agree that the move to broader biblical understanding(s) of “silence” implied a move away from this particular use of silence.

    Liked by 1 person

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