Preface to My Upcoming Habakkuk Commentary

I have not posted anything in a while, and with all my work recently being focused on my Habakkuk commentary, I thought I would share some of its fruits; this is an early draft of what will be the preface:


First things first, it is pronounced Ha-bak-kuk. With that out of the way, we can discuss what is really pressing: why in the world do we need another Old Testament commentary, and why one on an obscure book such as Habakkuk? The idea for this commentary emerged from the nexus of two experiences: first, as I studied Habakkuk intensively for a paper at Regent College, I found that the Holy Spirit was continually giving me insights into this wonderful book and a growing love for it. This, of course, birthed in me a desire to dig deeper and study the book further; in doing so, I experienced something rather unfortunate. Digging through piles (and I have the pictures to prove it) of scholarly and pastoral commentaries on the book, I discovered that none of them were seeing all the things I was seeing, and when they did, they failed to carry these insights to their logical conclusion. With one or two exceptions, every commentary I opened spent more time ripping apart the Hebrew text and declaring it unacceptable than wrestling with the text and trying to understand it as it is.

This meant that many commentaries ignored the questions that I was asking—leaving me with no easy answers—and so they spent very little time wrestling with the incredibly relevant theological conundrums facing Habakkuk. So, I did what seemed most practical to me: if no one else was going to answer the questions I had, I would answer them myself. This commentary is the result of my wrestling with the Hebrew text of Habakkuk, of going through it line by line, building a translation from the ground up, and incorporating the insights from the myriad of Commentators that have come before me.


The result is hopefully not a novel commentary: I am not interesting in being “new” or “innovative,” especially not for their own sake—as is commonly the case today. There may be some points in your reading of this commentary when you will find an insight that I have been unable to trace to another author, but these are rare and in as much as they are correct, all credit must go to the Holy Spirit for guiding my reading. In most cases, I have built on the insights of many godly men who have written about Habakkuk before me, my own contribution being merely the bringing together of their brilliance and applying it to our culture—sometimes setting their insights within my slightly different understanding of the purpose and context of Habakkuk.

I have ultimately sought to be faithful to God by honoring His word in my writing and thinking. My vision for putting my insights on paper is to see God’s people—pastors, scholars, and every Christian—growing in their faith and understanding of God our Father and His Son Jesus Christ. It would probably be wise to orient you to the various presuppositions that have led to this commentaries style and what to expect from it, lest you find yourself disappointed and left with no answer to the questions you would like answered.


In calling this a theological-exegetical commentary, I am purposefully putting a distance between myself and two common streams of biblical interpretation prevalent today. The first is that of “theological interpretation.” This title is used for many different approaches to reading the Bible, many of them not quite different from what I am attempting here, but there is among those who practice theological interpretation a growing number who are seeking to re-appropriate the allegorical interpretive method of the Church Fathers. One such author has written that he questions if there even is any objective meaning in the biblical texts. I am deeply troubled by this movement, for it in effect leaves man as the autonomous judge of right or wrong interpretation and right or wrong doctrine. For all its claims of antiquity, it is really a capitulation to post-modern tendencies in the church—clothed in ancient garb—and leaves the Christian in the same place as those addressed by Nietzsche’s madman:

What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Where is it moving to now? Where are moving to? Away from all suns? Are we not continually falling? And backwards, sidewards, forwards, in all directions? Is there still an up and a down? Aren’t we straying as though through an infinite nothing?[1]

In depriving God’s word of its authority to speak truth clearly, it is as if we have detached the earth from the sun and been flung to the outer reaches of space with no anchor to stop our flight. But I digress, even more pressing on my heart than this capitulation to the authority vacuum our society likes to propagate is the stripping of God’s word away from the people for whom it was intended. If Scripture is left in the hands of the elite only—those mature enough to probe the spiritual insights of allegorical “interpretation”—how then can the young man struggling with sin keep his ways according to God’s word (Psalm 119:9), how can he meditate on YHWH’s precepts (v. 15), think over them day and night (Psalm 1:2)? How can a man or woman be sanctified in God’s truth when it is inaccessible to them (John 17:19)?

The second trend in biblical interpretation that I seek to avoid is that of rampant historical criticism; those approaches that see a need to ground every interpretation not in the Scriptures God has given us, but in reconstructions of the audience, author, and purpose of the books making up the Bible. That is, the methods of interpretation that treat Scripture as a collection of historical documents whose primary value is a window into history by which we might just see what God has done and so maybe be able to re-appropriate that work for our lives today. This, like allegorical interpretation, severs us from our moorings and leaves us like a ship tossed about in the wicked seas of the Atlantic: how can we be sure that our reconstructions are accurate, are correct, that our preferred backgrounds are the right ones? This danger is compounded when we come to a book such as Habakkuk—or Hebrews, or Job—concerning which we know almost nothing about the author, the audience, the date it was written, or the situation within which it was penned. Now, this is not to say that historical background is not helpful in our interpretation of Scripture—surely it is!—but to guard against the error of making this context normative for our interpretation. Graeme Goldsworthy aptly addresses this point in relation to New Testament studies when he writes,

Among some contemporary scholars there is an emphasis on Jewish interpretations, including those of the Dead Sea Scrolls, as the background that explains much of the interpretation of the Old Testament in the New. While we may gain from the understanding of this cultural context, we need to remember that the New Testament itself and not its Jewish context is the norm, and that Jesus was not noted for his conformity to standard Jewish interpretation.[2]

The dangers here are innumerable, but just as with allegorical interpretation, Scripture is separated by an unbridgeable gap form the average Christian; only the elite professional scholar is sufficient to understand God’s revelation. Furthermore, the many different options available for supposed historical backgrounds has allowed many an interpreter to escape the awkwardness of an uncomfortable teaching by explaining it away against the background of his or her choice—often at variance with the backgrounds suggested by their interpretative allies and enemies.

All that to say, by calling this commentary a “theological-exegetical” commentary I intend to convey the heart of my approach to the Word of God. I have sought to perform solid exegesis, wrestling with the Hebrew text and the other versions, employing the best lexica and resources available, and staring at the text multiple times a day for months on end, and I have, above all, sought to justify my readings by the whole of Scripture. I have not based any reading of the text of Habakkuk merely on historical background. Where helpful, I have drawn on the wealth of data archaeology has uncovered, but I have only done so as a tool to illuminate the meaning I arrived at from a detailed search of the canon of Scripture, the Book of the Twelve (Minor Prophets), and Habakkuk. In many more cases than you would expect, I have arrived at syntactically and contextually appropriate readings for the difficult parts of Habakkuk without resorting to historical/archeological data.

This is what I intend by calling it “exegetical.” By “theological,” I intend to convey that I have sought to relate all of Habakkuk to the greater context of Scripture so to understand how it contributes to the worldview (systematic theology) and redemptive historical story (biblical theology) of the Bible. With John Frame, I affirm that theology is essentially application. Writing theology is not an attempt to say better something concealed by Scripture: by doing theology, we are trying to take what was clearly said in Scripture and clearly say it now in light of our cultural customs and questions. This is the goal of translation, theology, and commentaries; this is, therefore, what I have attempted to do here.[3]


Having bored you to death with this prefatory material, it is about time we turned to the matter at hand, the great gift God has given us in the book of Habakkuk. The Book of Habakkuk is breathtaking in the beauty of its poetry, the vividness of its language, and the horror of God’s deed (1:5) unveiled therein, yet like all good theology, it reaches a crescendo in the heartfelt confession of praise that pours from Habakkuk’s lips:


17Even when the fig tree does not bear fruit,

and there is no yield of the vine;

if the labour done for olives fails,

and the fields do not produce food;

if the flocks are cut from the fold,

and there is no cattle in the stalls,

18I myself will rejoice in YHWH,

I will exult in the God of my salvation.

19The Lord YHWH is my strength;

he sets my feet like a doe

and causes me to tread upon high places.



Before we begin our expository journey together, let us pray for God’s wisdom and discernment in our reading of Habakkuk,


O God of Truth,

I thank thee for the holy Scriptures,

their precepts, promises, directions, light.

In them may I learn more of Christ,

be enabled to retain his truth

and have grace to follow it….


By his aid may I be enabled to explore

all its truths,

love them will all my heart,

embrace them will all my power,

engraft them into my life….


Help me to gain profit by what I read,

as treasure beyond all treasure,

a fountain which can replenish my dry heart,

its waters flowing through me as a perennial river

on-drawn by thy Holy Spirit….


Then write thy own words upon my heart

and inscribe them on my lips;

So shall all glory be to thee

in my reading of thy Word![4]


Soli Deo Gloria,

J. Alexander Rutherford, June 15, 2016

[1] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, 120

[2] Graeme Goldsworthy, Gospel Centred Hermeneutics, 92

[3] John M. Frame, The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God, A Theology of Lordship (Phillipsburg, N.J: P&R Publishing, 1987), 81–85, 93–98.

[4] Valley of Vision, 346-347


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