● HOW DO YOU LIKE YOUR CRISES?
How do you like your crises? Do you like them sunny side up, or do you prefer them hard-boiled? Perhaps you’re more one for scrambled crisis or maybe you can swallow them raw. You learn a lot about a person according to how they approach a crisis.
It will tell you whether a person is an introvert or an extrovert, phlegmatic, choleric, or sanguine. A good old-fashioned crisis is probably the most effective personality test there is. But how we approach a crisis teaches us more than psychology. How we deal with crises sheds light on our deep commitments, settled habits, and what we really think about God.
Now, if we’re honest, we’ll admit that how we deal with crises is not, on the whole, very effective and often not particularly good for us. Whether you reach for another packet of Tim Tams, or NetFlix, or another beer, or perhaps all three at once, soothing frazzled nerves has only limited efficacy.
And this kind of day-to-day approach often just leaves the crisis in place. It’s still there to greet you in the morning and you’re no better equipped to get through it than you were the previous evening.
When crises come our way, and they will, we stand in need of something more. And this is what the prophet Habakkuk shows us at the end of his short book.
Habakkuk shows us a coping strategy that not only works but the strategy which will save us from the gravest danger that crises present. But before we get to this danger and Habakkuk’s coping strategy of choice, let’s attune ourselves to his crisis.
● HABAKKUK’S CRISIS
Habakkuk’s crisis is a crisis with a capital K. In the first two chapters, Habakkuk has been crying out to God about the wickedness of his people. God answers him, but the proposed cure seems worse than the disease. God tells Habakkuk that he will use the Babylonians to judge his people.
Now, Habakkuk can’t believe his ears. Apart from their reputation for cruelty, using the Babylonians as instruments of divine judgment is unthinkable. How could God do this? How could he use Gentiles, and Gentiles as bad the Babylonians, to judge his covenant people?
Precisely why this is so bad is perhaps a sermon for another day, but the point is that Habakkuk has been remonstrating against God’s so-called answer to his problem but God is not going to change his mind. The Babylonians are coming.
God reassures Habakkuk that he will restore his people after this, but for now he is going to hand over his people to their brutality and that’s that. And so, Habakkuk is worried. No, he’s terrified.
Habakkuk is overcome by the kind of fear that goes well beyond a purely mental state. He describes it in verse 16. “I heard, and I trembled within.” What did he hear? He can hear the earth rumbling under the hooves of the Babylonian cavalry.
It’s actually a remarkable bit of poetry. In the same way the ground underneath him is vibrating ever so faintly, Habakkuk’s lips are quivering. And as this gets louder, he begins to shake uncontrollably so that he has to sit down. It’s as if his bones no longer hold him up.
Have you ever felt that level of anxiety? I’m not sure that I ever have but I’ve had a taster. For about a decade I used to be plagued by a recurring dream. As many of you know, I was a musician before I went into pastoral ministry, and right at the end of my concert-playing days I had foolishly taken on a huge concerto for which I had far too little time to practice.
So, when it came time to rehearse with the orchestra, I simply couldn’t play my part. Naturally, I had to cancel the gig and ever since I’ve had this recurring dream reliving that experience of sitting in a rehearsal unable to play my part, except each time I had this dream it’s in a bigger venue with a more famous conductor.
This is the musical equivalent of the dream that you’re somewhere public with no clothes on. Although as soon as I say that, it makes me worry that that sorry eventuality might somehow get incorporated in the next iteration of my dream. But in any case, Habakkuk’s nightmare is much worse, and, of course, he can’t just wake up.
With each passing minute this chainsaw-massacre nightmare is one minute closer to becoming reality. And Habakkuk knows he will have to live through this or perhaps even die through this. The Babylonians are coming. So, what does he do?
● HABAKKUK’S COPING STRATEGY
Habakkuk does something that I think few us would ever think to do when we are facing a crisis. He begins to sing. You can tell that this is what he is doing by the superscript and subscript of the chapter.
In verse one it says, “On shigionoth.” Now, we don’t really know what this means but it is probably a tune. And at the end Habakkuk leaves instructions that this song is to be accompanied by stringed instruments.
And you can imagine how this song starts. With his quavering lips, his voice cracks on nearly every note. The rhythm wavers while he navigates his faltering melody. It’s actually not unlike your church music team, but we’ll get to that in a minute.
Habakkuk’s song begins as a kind of lullaby. He tries to calm himself. Verse 16: “Now, I must quietly wait for the day of distress to come against the people invading us.” If you’ve ever studied any Hebrew, you will know that, unlike English, Hebrew cannot specify modal verbs.
So, the translator needs to pick one that best suits the context. What that means is that the “must” in verse 16 could equally be “will” or “shall” or “might.” But I think the translators of the Holman Bible make a better decision than the NIV by choosing “must.”
Habakkuk knows that he simply must wait quietly for the hammer of God to fall and so he quietens himself. But this is no Stoic resolve. This is not simply an exercise in gritting his teeth. Nor is he resigning himself to whatever may come. You can tell because of what happens next.
While he sings he undergoes a transformation. Before he started singing he had jelly-legs. But as he sings, his knees stop knocking. And by verse nineteen we hear him exclaim, “The Lord is my strength; He makes my feet like those of a deer and enables me to walk on mountain heights!”
Habakkuk’s fear is gone. He rests completely secure. And look at the way he describes this. Before he was trembling so violently he couldn’t even stand up, but now he’s become like one of those goats that climb sheer rock faces.
And there’s more. Habakkuk is not just relieved of his fears. He’s overflowing with an irrepressible joy. In fact, the joy seems to be in direct proportion to the fear he previously felt. In the same way that his fears crippled him, so great is his joy that he says that nothing the Babylonians will do could dampen it.
Look at verses 17 and 18: “Though the fig tree does not bud and there is no fruit on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will triumph in the LORD; I will rejoice in the God of my salvation!”
How did this happen? How did Habakkuk go from jelly to joy? Well, we know that God did it. In verse 19 he says that it is God who made his ankles strong. But how did God do this? Did God just zap him? This detail is easy for us to overlook. It was singing that calmed his fears and seeded his joy. Singing.
Now, I think this creates a road-block for many of us. A lot of people don’t really like music and care even less for singing. Church singing is probably the worst because the songs are from a previous decade and the average music team is often a strange ensemble, often with no special ability, all of which can make church music strangely akin to the Kransky Sisters.
MPC excepted of course! The MPC music groups are nothing like the Kransky Sisters! I don’t think MPC has ever featured a washboard or a tuba on Sundays! I’m exaggerating, of course, but the point stands. The lameness of much church music makes it easier for us to miss the secret Habakkuk shares.
There is a chamber hidden deep in our psyche that singing has the power to unlock. And the key to this chamber is not just given to professional musicians or the churches that have amazing bands.
That’s why Psalm 100 talks about making a joyful noise before the Lord. And let’s be honest here. A lot of congregational singing can be truly awful. Someone once quietly confided to me one Sunday that church singing reminded her of a sheep bleating.
Yet even in such singing there is a secret power which does not derive from any excellence of execution. My grandmother knew this secret power. She was tone deaf but she would still sing. She had an arrangement whereby my grandfather would gently depress her foot whenever she needed a bit of musical sat-nav. And my grandfather knew this secret power even when Parkinson’s disease had robbed him of his voice. He still sang.
I have a very special memory of a friend with whom I used to go to church singing his heart out on all the wrong notes. It was the most beautiful thing you could listen to because in this you heard music’s secret power. Listen to what Luther once said about this secret power :
“I love music … it is a gift of God and not of man, for it creates joyful hearts, drives away the devil, creates innocent delight, destroying wrath, unchastity, and other excesses. I place music next to theology. This is well known from the example of David and all the prophets, who all produced poetry and songs.”
You see, Luther knew Habakkuk’s secret. He knew that singing holds a hidden power that can shift even the heaviest burdens. More importantly, he knew that God gave us this gift for this purpose. He explains further in his Lectures on the Psalms. Luther writes,
“It is the function of music to arouse the sad, sluggish, and dull spirit. Thus Elisha summoned a minstrel so that he might be stirred to prophesy (2 Kgs 3:15) … For in all these the listless mind is sharpened and kindled, so that it may be alert and vigorous as it proceeds to the task … And in this manner David here composed this psalm … so that he might have something to arouse him to stir up the devotion and inclination of his heart.”
Luther’s point is as profound as it is simple. Music calms fears and stir up joy. Music can do this where mere words cannot. And this is why Habakkuk opened his mouth to sing rather than simply to offer up prayer without a melody. And he knew he needed to do this, if he was going to get through his crisis.
● THE DEEPER REASON HABAKKUK SANG
But, and this is a big but, this wasn’t the only reason he sang. Habakkuk knew that it would be best for him if he sang, but he wasn’t just thinking of himself when he reached for his guitar.
He knew it would work a transformation in his heart and this is what he needed to make it through his crisis, but this wasn’t the only reason or even the primary reason that Habakkuk sang.
Habakkuk sang because he knew that God has a claim on our feelings. He knew this but I think this is actually something we struggle with. We think of feelings as the part of our lives that we have little to no control over, and, because of this, feelings lie outside the area of our lives upon which God can legitimately place any claim.
This is why we find it virtually unintelligible that Paul could command the Philippian and Thessalonian churches to “rejoice,” even to rejoice “always” (Phil 4:4; 1 Thess 5:16). How can we possibly obey a command to feel a certain feeling?
Well, you can’t. You can’t will feelings into reality. That’s not how feelings work. Feelings are responses to what is going on around us and inside us. So, there is a very real sense in which you can’t just choose joy. Joy will or will not be felt according to whatever is going on around us and inside us. Yet we forget that of all people, Paul knew this.
Paul had seen a crisis or two. Five times he received the 40 lashes minus one, three times he was beaten with rods, once he was stoned, three times he was shipwrecked. He faced danger from robbers on his journeys, danger from the Jews, and on top of all of this he nursed relentless anxieties about the churches.
Paul knew very well that you can’t conjure up joy in the midst of a crisis. But Paul also knew Habakkuk’s secret, a secret that had been passed down among God’s people since the days of the Exodus.
Luke tells us of one occasion after Paul was beaten with rods and was languishing in prison, his swollen and bloodied lips began to quiver just like Habakkuk’s had so many years before and stammering words took flight on wings of song.
In the midst of his pain, Paul had not forgotten that there is a chamber hidden deep in his heart that singing had the power to unlock. And, like Habakkuk, he turned the key. And he didn’t just do this because he knew that singing would transform the walls of his prison. He did this for a much greater reason. He did this because he knew that joy was God’s due.
This is enormously important because there comes a point in life when you won’t really want to be comforted or quietened or heartened. The cost/benefit ratio is simply too great. Crises wear us down; they reduce us to despair or anxiety or sullenness. Singing simply costs too much and you’ve got nothing left to give.
And now we’ve come to the great danger that crises pose. This is the great danger: crises threaten to rob God of the praise that is his due, the fruit of lips that confess his name. They threaten to quench the Holy Spirit’s fruitfulness in this domain of our lives. They threaten to destroy the seasonal harvest of joy that the Spirit brings forth alongside the fruits of love and peace.
And Habakkuk knew this. Like Paul, he knew that he must “rejoice always.” And this explains why he begins his song with the words, “I must wait quietly.” Like Paul, he knew that he must allow God to calm his fears and seed joy in his heart once more. And so he sang.
● WILL YOU SING?
But will you sing? When we sing in times of crisis, it shows those around us something very, very important. It shows them that God is more worthy of our joy than whatever we may be experiencing is worthy of sorrow or fear or bitterness. It bears witness. It is a testimony, a profound witness to the fact that God has an even greater claim on our feelings than our crises and that we acknowledge that.
And singing confirms the fact that we cannot simply turn feelings on and off like a tap to meet this claim that God places on them. That is precisely why we need to sing. We need to sing in order for God to transform us in the way he transformed Habakkuk.
And this is why Christ’s church will always be a singing church. The church will always sing while it recognises that God is more worthy of our joy than our crises are worthy of sorrow or fear or bitterness. And whatever faults you might lay at Hillsong’s feet, it has deeply understood this. Christ’s church will always be a singing church.
Yes, there is a time for appalled silence. There are times when, like Job, our grief reduces us to appalled silence. But that period of silence is the fermata during which people of God draw their breath to sing once again. And Habakkuk’s song reminds us of this.
Habakkuk’s song reminds us that singing is one of the most precious treasures God has given his church. Luther could rank it second only to the Word of God.
And we need this reminder, not only because we are prone to forget but because the gift of song allows us to evade the gravest danger we face in any crisis. Crises threaten to rob God of the joy that is always his due. Singing is the gracious gift that allows the crushed, the anxious, and the fearful to meet this due.
As we reflect on this reminder, let us ask God that his gift of song would achieve his purpose among us even this morning. Let us ask God that he might create joyful hearts, drive away the devil, destroy wrath, and arouse sad, dull, and anxious spirits. Let us pray and then let us sing.