“Woe to him who builds a city with bloodshed and founds a town with injustice! Is it not from the Lord of Armies that the peoples labor only to fuel the fire and countries exhaust themselves for nothing? For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord’s glory, as the water covers the sea.” (CSB – Read the chapter)
What kinds of accomplishments really matter? What is it that makes a certain accomplishment significant anyway? Is it the way we go about it? Is it the intent with which we pursue it? Whatever it is, we want to know that what we do matters. If we’re going to achieve this aim, though, we’ve got to figure out what it is that makes anything matter. Not hitting that mark in anything we do would be awful…a bit like judgment…just like Habakkuk describes here.
Here we are in the third of Habakkuk’s woes. This one is against the nation who “builds a city with bloodshed and founds a town with injustice.” What does this mean? I think this one is aimed squarely at the manner in which Babylon expanded its empire.
The army would approach a key town in a region and decimate it. Most of the inhabitants would be slaughtered. This accomplished two purposes for them. It cut down on the number of folks available to oppose them, and it mentally destroyed the idea of resisting in the rest of the population. But, whereas Assyria just left a swath of unqualified destruction in their wake, Babylon better understood that an empire was going to be easier to manage if there were functioning and loyal cities on the edges. The center could hold just fine, but if the edges collapsed, the heart was going to be threatened.
Once the majority were slaughtered violently and visibly, Babylon would insert their own, handpicked leaders to rule over what remained. These were to be loyal to the empire, but how they managed their local affairs was up to them as long as they did it well such that the supply quotas back to the capital were met without issue. What often happened, then, was what is common whenever a brutal nation vandalizes another and leaves relatively unaccountable leaders in their wake—a kind of thugocracy develops in which injustice for the weak and vulnerable flourishes while the wealthy, powerful, and selfishly enterprising thrive.
Think about the kind of situations the Nazi forces ahead of World War II created as they conquered one town and city after another. They killed all who resisted and established wildly corrupt and unjust situations in their wake. The various Soviet and communist forces of the 20th century did the same. So did the colonial powers of the 18th and 19th centuries, though often to a somewhat lesser extent as while their driving ideology was often misguided and unevenly applied, they were not fundamentally evil like Nazism or Marxism.
God doesn’t like this kind of thing no matter where or when it has happened. I don’t know about you, but I haven’t conquered any cities lately. I don’t have any plans on that for the future either. Is the full weight of these verses to simply allow us to shake our finger at nations and walk away smugly satisfied at our own righteousness? Yeah, I didn’t think so either.
The next couple of verses give us a clue as to how we can understand this with the additional understanding that we can only make any sense of this at all through the lens of Christ.
Look again at the judgment God speaks against the Babylonians here. “Is it not from the Lord of Armies that the peoples labor only to fuel the fire and countries exhaust themselves for nothing?” This isn’t really a judgment foretold as a reframing of something already happening as judgment. And the way that happens is with a rhetorical question. Isn’t this thing that’s already happening a judgment from the Lord? The implied answer by the Hebrew grammar is that yes, it is.
But what is the judgment exactly? In a word: Futility. Fires consume their fuel and are gone. People laboring only to fuel a fire is a picture of futility. The things they are doing are not ultimately accomplishing anything meaningful. Whole nations—in this case Babylon—are exhausting themselves in conquest to no end. Nothing will come of it. They will one day sit on the dustbin of history. Instead, the kinds of actions and activities that will last are those that bring glory to God and increase knowledge of Him “for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord’s glory, as the water covers the sea.” The only accomplishments that really matter, you see, are the ones that glorify the Lord and which expand that glory.
This is our connection point and connects us back to where we started. Why do you do the things you do? Are they intended to be for your glory or God’s. Be honest now. The heart is deceitful above all things and a world of evil. Who can understand it? Why do you do the things you do?
If you want your work to matter, do it to the glory of God. Everything else will eventually pass away and be forgotten. Everything else. Every accomplishment. Every achievement. Every success. Every triumph. All of it gone. Worthless. A futile waste of time. And is this not from the Lord Himself? If you want to matter, glorify the Lord. Exalt Christ. Delight the Spirit. It does not matter what you do, if God’s glory is the goal, it is significant. Set your sights on that and you accomplish great things even in the little ones.