Sunday, October 2, 2022

Back Upon Their Heads

If you've been following along with us the past few weeks, you might remember that the prophet Habakkuk has been going through some pretty intense struggles. His book started out with his burning questions about Judah's internal mayhem after the collapse of reform. He was asking God why God was just sitting by, letting it happen (Habakkuk 1:2-4). So God pointed his attention outside, and said he was raising up the Chaldeans, a people who had recently taken control of Babylon (Habakkuk 1:5-11). But Habakkuk has a problem with that solution. The Chaldeans are enthusiastic idolaters and also messily violent. They're treating the world like a field of little pools to fish people out of and leave the whole place empty and barren. If God can't stand evil, how can he use a people like that to be his tool? How can Chaldean injustice be God's just way of bringing justice to Judah? If God chooses to use the Chaldeans anyway, does that mean the Chaldeans get a pass on everything they do in the process? And can they keep this up forever? If so, what does that then say about God (Habakkuk 1:12-17)?

Habakkuk laid these questions out, stationed himself to wait for an answer, and geared himself up to have it out with God in an argument (Habakkuk 2:1). But God doesn't take the bait. Instead, we heard last week, after a long wait, God is letting Habakkuk in on a secret revelation, one he wants Habakkuk to document for posterity. Because there are two ways to respond to what God is doing. The first is getting all puffy and huffy – priding yourself on being untouchable, and refusing to see God's justice at work. But the second way is faith – staying loyal to God on the basis of his revealed character, trusting that that character is what's driving things even when that's nowhere near obvious, and acting according to what he says (Habakkuk 2:2-4). The way this works out isn't going to be obvious for a while – but when the revelation is proven true, it won't be a moment too late.

And now the story continues. Now, as Habakkuk digests the principle at play, he's given a chance to eavesdrop on the future. God gives him words to listen in as the nations victimized by Babylon start talking as they dare not talk now in Habakkuk's time. And that comes in the form of five separate woes, taunting chants they come up with, mocking parables that bear out the wisdom of what God has already said (Habakkuk 2:6-20). This Sunday, we're only treating the first two of the taunts; we'll hear the others over the next three weeks.

In the first taunt, the victim nations drawn into Babylon's belly will mock Nebuchadnezzar for being a plunderer – “You have plundered many nations,” they say (Habakkuk 2:8). And they're hardly wrong! Nebuchadnezzar himself professes it with pride: “I had silver, gold, precious and valuable stones, copper, wood, cedar, anything that's valuable..., the yield of the mountains, the wealth of the seas, substantial tribute, lavish gifts brought into my city, Babylon.”1 He took that stuff, by force, from all the nations, taking and taking and taking. And in his eyes, it was only fair. The world was rightly theirs to use. Wasn't it a blessing for the nations to serve Babylon? In Nebuchadnezzar's eyes, all this tribute he demanded was only what was rightly due – security to ensure the blessings of Babylon's favor were kept. Nebuchadnezzar pictured himself as having “put the land in order and made the people prosper.”2 He said: “I spread a roof over them in the wind and a canopy in the storm; I made them all submit to Babylon. … I gladly gathered all of the people under its eternal protection.”3 Catch that? He thinks of himself as their protector. And with everything he thinks he's giving these nations, the tribute (however substantial) and the gifts (however lavish) are a paltry price to pay. The nations owe Babylon.

Or so that's what Nebuchadnezzar thinks! But Habakkuk overhears the nations as they wake up and smell the agenda – as they get wise to the propaganda. Babylon doesn't own the resources it's been taking: “Woe to him who heaps up what is not his own!” (Habakkuk 2:6). Instead, Nebuchadnezzar's been forcibly borrowing from the nations, and these mistreated nations have all this time, in their heart of hearts, been tallying up the interest. Nebuchadnezzar's been “loading himself with pledges” (Habakkuk 2:6). So “will not your 'debtors' suddenly arise, and those awake who will make you tremble?” (Habakkuk 2:7). Those Babylon sees as debtors will all of a sudden realize themselves as her creditors. The time's coming for them to rush in and crash the system. For it's said: “Whoever is greedy for unjust gain troubles his own household” (Proverbs 15:27). So everything Babylon has stolen is cursed, cursed to bring the city's downfall. The Chaldean king plundered it from them, so “all the remnant of the peoples shall plunder you” (Habakkuk 2:8). Whoever's left will band together and treat Babylon as she treated them. “Then you will be spoil for them! (Habakkuk 2:7).

And what justifies that turnaround? Babylon's own behavior, as led by her Chaldean string of kings. For under first Nabopolassar and then his son Nebuchadnezzar, they've been going around producing... what? Is it 'eternal protection,' like Nebuchadnezzar's propaganda boasted? No! The result of their campaigns and control has been “human blood and violence to the land, to the city, and all its inhabitants” (Habakkuk 2:8). The gifts they promised are a lie. They don't put the land in order; they put the land into violence. They don't make the people prosper; they make the people bleed. That's what Habakkuk's hearing. Wherever they go, they wreck and wreck – and to Nebuchadnezzar the Chaldean, that's basically just another name for Tuesday. Nebuchadnezzar prayed to his idol, “May my offspring rule... forever.”4 But violence begets violence. His son Awel-Marduk lasted only two years before being assassinated, replaced by his non-Chaldean brother-in-law Neriglissar; then, even that man's child Labashi-Marduk was himself assassinated after a rule of just a month. Within six years of Nebuchadnezzar's death, his dynasty had been replaced. Never again would a Chaldean rule from Babylon.

That clinches the nations' first taunt. And the second is a lot like unto it. Here, they mock Nebuchadnezzar as a builder. Now, kings in the ancient world loved to build stuff. And Nebuchadnezzar in particular was building crazy. The inscriptions he left behind are all about how he renovated this temple or that temple that had fallen into disrepair, how he made things bigger and better, how he made Babylon tougher and more impregnable and even just fancier and nicer to look at. He describes how, with stone slabs he'd quarried from the mountains, he had the levels of one of Babylon's streets raised. Then, since that made the entrances of certain gates too low, he tore down the old gates and built them bigger and flashier than ever, with blue-glazed tiles and cedar doors and custom copper fittings. He did the same thing in building extra walls at the banks of the river, making Babylon a fortress city “so that no merciless enemy can come close,” he says, “to the outskirts of Babylon.”5 So where is Nebuchadnezzar getting the cedar and copper and the rest of these supplies? From his take, take, take!

And the nations, when they find their voice, are going to call him out on it, Habakkuk hears. “Woe to him who takes evil taking for his house, that he may set his nest on high, that he may be delivered from the hand of evil!” (Habakkuk 2:9). Nebuchadnezzar thinks that all his building is making Babylon strong and beautiful. He sees himself elevating her beyond reach, even though she's a city on a plain. He's concerned for her security, and he believes that with all this building he's been doing, he's assured it. No enemy can get close to Babylon. And it doesn't matter that he did this by evil taking – evil is a defense against evil. And that's why Nebuchadnezzar keeps “cutting off many peoples” (Habakkuk 2:10), mowing them down to size, keeping them under its thumb. Nebuchadnezzar believes he's being constructive, that this quest for glory will build a lasting house.

But what the nations taunt is that he's got it all backwards. Evil's no defense against evil. Evil begets evil. All he's 'constructed' is shame and suicide. “You have devised shame for your house by cutting off many peoples – you have sinned against your own soul,” against your own life (Habakkuk 2:10). Those lofty aspirations of security are a myth and a farce. The very projects Nebuchadnezzar builds bear testimony of its fundamental corruption, engraved in brick after brick after brick. “For the stone will cry out from the wall, and the beam from the woodwork will respond” (Habakkuk 2:11). The things Nebuchadnezzar builds cry out against him: “Woe to him who builds a town with blood and founds a city on iniquity!” (Habakkuk 2:12). Every Babylonian boast only deepens the disgrace that's coming when she's exposed for what she is – because in October 539 BC, Persia's army is going to wipe out the Babylonian resistance first outside the city and then take the city (so, at least, they'll say) without so much as a fight.6

So this, then, is God's long-awaited assurance in the midst of Habakkuk's questions and misgivings. Remember, the prophet was worried that the Chaldeans' status as God's chosen tool meant that God was overlooking the way they carried out that work, with all the violence and bloodshed they brought to it. Habakkuk worried that God's appointment meant God's endorsement, and that Babylon and her Chaldean kings therefore had a moral immunity over what they did to Judah and anyone else God chose to discipline by them. Now, Habakkuk has the definitive answer he's been pining for. And it's a no to his worries, a no to his fears, a no to his nightmares.

No, God raising up the Chaldeans to lead Babylon to supremacy for a time does not mean God overlooks the Chaldeans' sins, any more than the presence of the temple in Jerusalem meant that God was overlooking Judah's sins. You can be God's tool, carry out his purpose, but still be sinning in both what you do and how you do it – and so you can still be held to account. Just because God's plan harnesses and directs your bad habits, doesn't mean your bad habits aren't bad and won't bite you. And that, Habakkuk learns as he eavesdrops on the future, is going to be Babylon's story in the long run. They won't be mercilessly killing nations forever. The opposite is true. Everything they've been doing is just digging their hole deeper. Sooner or later, first the Chaldeans, and then Babylon the earthly city, and then one day Babylon the spiritual force, will all bury themselves in it. Their sins are against their very own soul, back upon their heads. Their evil deeds weave the noose they'll hang from.

And is that so surprising in retrospect? How many books or movies are there about exactly that kind of thing? Where the arrogance and overreach of an empire or a scheme are exactly what brings that scheme or empire to fruitlessness in the end? Where the exploiters who elevate themselves out of reach suddenly discover that the long arm of justice can find its way to their cozy little nest after all? Where the cruelty of the villain is precisely what sets him up to not just taste-test his own medicine but to drown in it? It's a common trope.

And it's hardly unrealistic. In fact, it's a biblical theme. It isn't just about the history of Babylon, nor even about geopolitics and grandeur. It's a principle that applies at every level. What does the psalm say? “Behold, the wicked man conceives evil, and is pregnant with mischief, and gives birth to lies. He makes a pit, digging it out, and falls into the hole that he has made. His mischief returns upon his own head, and on his own skull violence descends” (Psalm 7:14-16). What does the proverb say? “Whoever digs a pit will fall into it, and he who rolls a stone, on him he'll have it roll back” (Proverbs 26:27). What does the prophet say? “As you have done, it shall be done to you; your deeds shall return on your own head” (Obadiah 1:15).

And that's what makes sin so stupid. I know, I know, we come up with all sorts of excuses for sin. Sometimes, we try to excuse our sin by saying that we're only getting even, so it isn't really sin after all. The other person was mean, so you'll be mean. After all, it's only fair – right? Wrong. Sin is a bloody, violent business that hurts civilization itself: two 'means' mean a weaker relationship, a weaker society, not a fixed or strengthened one. It does damage, even if we don't see it, even if we're blinded from it (Habakkuk 2:8).

Or sometimes, we try to excuse our sin by imagining nobody's looking. There are no witnesses around, so what harm could it do? But “the stone will cry out from the wall, and the beam from the woodwork will respond” (Habakkuk 2:11). Even the stuff around you, even the stuff you think you're making better, will bear testimony about it. You may think your sin is building you something to enjoy, something to take pride in, but it takes no pride in your sin. It doesn't enjoy being the fruit of sin. It protests, even if you can't hear it.

Sometimes, it's possible to sin and try to excuse it by claiming God's authorization. “After all,” Babylon might say, “am I not God's chosen tool of discipline? Then surely I have to do it, and must be okay doing it.” I've seen people go down this route. I've known people who, because they felt God was calling them to such a special task, would say that they didn't have to submit to authority or accountability – sin! But there have been countless tales throughout history, and in our own days, of people using God to justify ungodliness in all sorts of ways, figuring that God's ends surely justify the devil's means. “Why not do evil, that good may come?” (Romans 3:8). But “the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God” (James 3:18). Neither does any sin produce, of itself, a divine fruit. God's call, God's mission, are never blank checks for our vice to sign.

Nor can sin be excused by claiming that it has no consequences. Nobody stays on top forever, no matter what they think, no matter how high they think their nest is. “Do not be deceived,” writes Paul, “God is not mocked! For whatever one sows, that will he also reap” (Galatians 6:7). Nor can sin escape its eventual justice. It may seem like God is slow in acting, hence inactive and indulgent. Jesus told a story about a man thinking that: “If that wicked servant says to himself, 'My master is delayed,' and begins to beat his fellow servants, and eats and drinks with drunkards, then the master of that servant will come on a day when he doesn't expect him and at an hour he doesn't know, and he will cut him in pieces” (Matthew 24:48-51). One who presumes the Lord's delay is justification to misbehave with impunity will find out very abruptly and unexpectedly that that ain't so.

What's the takeaway, what's the bottom line? Sin never achieves profit (cf. Habakkuk 2:6). It always, always generates debt – the more sin, the bigger debt – and that debt will inevitably be called in (Habakkuk 2:7). Sin literally does not pay. It might feel enriching in the moment, but it makes you poorer than you were before. It's all borrowed at an interest rate too high to leave you standing when the creditors say time's up. Sin doesn't pay; sin makes you pay. Plus, sin never achieves security (cf. Habakkuk 2:9). It always, always puts you in greater jeopardy, greater vulnerability. Sin literally does not protect you, any more than it pays you, though it promises both through its lying teeth. And in the end, that jeopardy will always embarrass you, maybe even get you killed (Habakkuk 2:10). If not immediately, if not in a year or two years, then we know “we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil” (2 Corinthians 5:10). “But because of your hard and impenitent heart, you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God's righteous judgment will be revealed” (Romans 2:5).

Sin is bad news. It's bad news to be in Babylon's shoes. But now let me tell you some good news as we wrap it up. Long ago, when Christians read these taunts of the nations, taunts against Nebuchadnezzar and Babylon, they saw in them something more than promises exhausted by the past, or even warnings for themselves today. They saw oracles of woe aimed at a spiritual Nebuchadnezzar and a spiritual Babylon. For “all that we said concerning Babylon and Nebuchadnezzar,” says St. Jerome, “can be applied to this world and to the devil.”7

Now, go back, listen to those taunts with that in mind, and you'll see why this is good news! Nebuchadnezzar wanted to gobble up the nations like a fish fry, but you can bet his hunger was merely the dimmest echo of the devil's. For “your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8). Nebuchadnezzar's greed pales next to Satan's. The devil's greedy for everyone and everything, but not a bit of it is his. The devil's got no birthright. The devil has not a penny to his rightful name. “The Thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy” (John 10:10). All he does is cheat and steal, murder and lie and counterfeit (John 8:44). He “heaps up what is not his own” (Habakkuk 2:6). He plunders the whole world so that it lies in his power (Habakkuk 2:8; cf. 1 John 5:19). He “takes evil taking for his house,” thinking that he profits, “to set his nest on high, to deliver himself from the reach of evil” (Habakkuk 2:9). The devil evilly takes people for his own “sons of the evil one” (Matthew 13:38), and thinks he's building himself a kingdom (cf. Luke 11:18).

But in the end, he's embarrassing himself, endangering himself (Habakkuk 2:10). St. Cyril puts it like this: “Satan is... ever amassing what is not his, and bringing upon himself heavier punishment.”8 All that stuff the devil does, that he thinks is hurting you? He's hurting himself even more with every move. The devil may have plundered the nations, but Christ plundered the grave, and now through Christ's victory, the nations can rise up and plunder the devil right back. Satan is plundered by the saints and their persistence in the truth. A life of faith, enduring to the end, and achieving heavenly glory, despoils the devil of more than he ever stole away. For “this is the victory that has overcome the world – our faith” (1 John 5:4), faith that clings to “the Son of God” who “appeared... to destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8). All the devil's evil is doomed to fall back on his own head! So may you be a plunderer of his plunder, redeeming what's been stolen and more, until at last God “crushes Satan under your feet” (Romans 16:20) – the fruit of all he's done, come back to ruin him. And in the devil's ruins, in the ruins of all worldly power that apes him, is peace at last. Thanks be to God! Amen.

1  Nebuchadnezzar II 002 ii.30-39, text and translation at <>.

2  Nebuchadnezzar II 002 ii.26-27, text and translation at <>.

3  Nebuchadnezzar II 011 iv.15´-21´, text and translation at <>.

4  Nebuchadnezzar II WBC x.38-40, text and translation at <>.

5  Nebuchadnezzar II 002 v.21—vi.56, text and translation at <>.

6  Cyrus Cylinder, line 17 (“[Marduk] had him [i.e., the Persian king Cyrus] enter without fighting or battle right into Shuanna [Babylon's southern quarter]”), in Irving Finkel, ed., The Cyrus Cylinder: The King of Persia's Proclamation from Ancient Babylon (I. B. Taurus, 2013), 5. See also Chronicle of Nabonidus for 539 BC, in Jean-Jacques Glassner, Mesopotamian Chronicles (Society of Biblical Literature, 2004), 237, where “the army of Cyrus made their entrance into Babylon without fighting.”  Some modern scholars, though, do not believe that these accounts can be taken at face value see, e.g., Stephanie Dalley, The City of Babylon: A History, c. 2000 BCAD 116 (Cambridge University Press, 2021), 262.  But other modern scholars have been less skeptical of the ancient reports see, e.g., Paul-Alain Beaulieu, The Reign of Nabonidus, King of Babylon 556-539 BC (Yale University Press, 1989), 230, who accepts that the Persian army entered Babylon, encountering no resistance,” and also D. J. Wiseman, Babylonia 605-539 BC, in John Boardman, et al., eds., The Cambridge Ancient History, 2nd ed. (Cambridge University Press, 1991), III/2: 249.  Still others choose to remain noncommittal see, e.g., Frauke Weiershäuser and Jamie Novotny, The Royal Inscriptions of Amel-Marduk (561-560 BC), Neriglissar (559-556 BC), and Nabonidus (555-539 BC), Kings of Babylon (Eisenbrauns, 2020), 13.

7  Jerome of Stridon, Commentary on Habakkuk 2:5, in Thomas P. Scheck, ed., Jerome: Commentaries on the Twelve Prophets, Ancient Christian Texts (IVP Academic, 2016), 1:202.

8  Cyril of Alexandria, Commentary on Habakkuk 2:6, in Fathers of the Church: A New Translation 116:352.

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