In 722 bc, the ten tribes of the Northern Kingdom of Israel fell to the Assyrian army under Shalmaneser. Instead of turning to God, King Hoshea of Israel had turned to Egypt for help, and that went about as well as you might expect. The Assyrians continued to expand their empire, and in 714, they attacked King Hezekiah and Judah. Hezekiah turned to the Lord, and Judah was miraculously delivered.
However, many years and many kings had come and gone since faithful Hezekiah. The influence of the faithful king Josiah had disappeared, and Judah was becoming just as bad as her sister Samaria had been. Few in Judah remembered the promises of God: blessings for the righteous, and judgment for disobedience. Fewer still remembered the plan of God – the chosen people were to be a light to the nations, the means by which God spread His reign of peace throughout the world.
This is the situation when Habakkuk enters the picture: The Northern kingdom is gone, having fallen because they neither obeyed God, nor believed in Him. The Southern kingdom had fallen into disobedience as well, and it wasn’t clear whether or not they had a king who could save them by turning the nation back to Yahweh. Habakkuk initially seems to be praying for a new Hezekiah, a new Josiah, to come and lead the people back to obedience and trust in God. Israel had fallen, but that was okay. God’s plan would continue through Judah. When Judah faced her enemies or her own disobedience, God provided a faithful king to lead her, and Habakkuk calls on God to do it again.
But when God responds with a message of judgment instead of deliverance, Habakkuk is utterly confused and bewildered. He isn’t wondering about his personal salvation, or even about God’s justice and righteousness. What Habakkuk can’t understand how the plan of God can be fulfilled if Judah, the last of the faithful tribes, is destroyed. How will the nations be reached? Who will represent God on the earth when the last of His people are crushed? Has God replaced His plan for world-wide glory with a neverending cycle of violent men being destroyed by even more violent men? Evidently it takes something more than being a member of God’s chosen people to be spared from the judgment of God. How then can God’s people be saved so that the nations can see the glory of God? The heart of the book of Habakkuk is God’s powerful and amazing response to the prophet’s concerns.