You sit down on the couch with your morning coffee and begin to take part in the great American pastime of Facebook scrolling. There are many concerns going on in your life right now; from a situation at work to a relationship with a friend, and some turmoil with your family, and all you want is some type of encouragement. As you scroll you see that one of your friends has shared a Bible verse,
“For I am doing a work in your days that you would not believe if I told you” – Habakkuk 1:5
and it is just the thing you needed to hear as you head into the day. You share the verse on your own Facebook wall and smile that everything in your life is going to get better because God is doing a work in your day that you won’t even believe. Of course, there is one problem, one which should be considered before you take it a step further, and paint a copy of this verse on your wall at home.
Because while it is true that God is always at work, this may not be a verse that you would find to be quite as encouraging as soon as you read the very next line. It is difficult to understate how important it is to understand the context and background in order to properly understand Scripture. Not only does it help us avoid making mistakes, but often it helps us to understand the meaning of a verse that we may find troubling or confusing.
A Closer Look
In my previous post, we went through three steps to take when you are trying to understand the meaning and application of something from the Bible. The first step we are now going to walk through with a verse is the step of discovering the context and background. So, let’s take the verse from Habakkuk that was mentioned, and discover the context and meaning of the verse before we look for the timeless principle, and ultimately the application in our own life. First, we’ll quote our verse again, along with a little more of the context surrounding it.
“So the law is paralyzed, and justice never goes forth. For the wicked surround the righteous; so justice goes forth perverted. “Look among the nations, and see; wonder and be astounded. For I am doing a work in your days that you would not believe if told. For behold, I am raising up the Chaldeans [Babylonians], that bitter and hasty nation, who march through the breadth of the earth, to seize dwellings not their own.” – Habakkuk 1:4-6
A BROAD UNDERSTANDING
When you begin to examine the context of a verse, it is important to make broad observations first before you begin to look at particular details. Just as a scientist would discover the type of landscape he was standing in before examining a particular tree or insect, so we should see the different literary landscapes between a prophetic book and a gospel narrative.
Simply begin by asking questions such as, who is the author of the book, who is he writing to, what is the purpose of his message, is this book in the Old or New Testament, and what type of literature is it (Narrative, Poetry, Prophecy, Letter etc.). The Bible is made up of 66 books, and in most Bibles today there is a short introduction before each book, which is provided to answer many of these very questions. But if you want even more information on the background setting, the timeline, and historical context, it is extremely helpful to own a Study Bible which provides a great deal of this information before each book of the Bible.
With our own verse, we can observe that Habakkuk is one of the minor prophets, writing to the nation of Judah, about 100 years after the northern kingdom of Israel had already been conquered by the Assyrians. The book has a very unique structure in that it is a kind of conversation between Habakkuk and God, where the prophet questions the justice and sovereignty of God over the nations. Even with this broad context, we are already gaining some clarity to the meaning of verse five.
NARROWING THE FOCUS
Now that we have some insight on the broader picture surrounding the message in verse five, we can now begin to zero in on making observations about particular words, and phrases. You could very easily write an entire book on just the step of making observations, but don’t become overwhelmed at this point, just know that what this step really comes down to is slowing down enough to recognize details about the text, and to learn to simply ask good questions. This may seem labor intensive at first, but the more you take the time to intentionally break down a verse like this, you will find yourself making good observations without even thinking about it.
Learning to ask questions like, what is the subject of the sentence which shows what the verse is speaking about, or what are the verbs that convey some type of action. It also is good to look for words that are repeated for emphasis. Or even noticing when a book shifts from conveying information to giving a conclusion with a word like, ‘therefore’. These are just some basic ways of making observations. Then when you start to ask things like, what does this verse tell me about God, or what does this verse reveal about man, is there a sin to be avoided, a command to be obeyed, or a promise to be claimed? All of these are very helpful questions to be asking as we seek to understand the meaning of a verse.
COMING TO A CONCLUSION
In our own case, we can observe that the book opens with a complaint from Habakkuk directed toward God because he is questioning the justice of God by accusing Him of indifference to all the sin the prophet sees around him, and the apparent prosperity of the wicked. Our verse appears near the beginning of God’s response, and we can observe that God is “doing a work” in the “days” of Habakkuk, that will not even be believed in light of Habakkuk’s initial complaint. What that thing is, is that God indeed is just and not ignoring sin, and in fact, He intends to punish the Hebrews for their sin, but will actually use the even more wicked Babylonians to do so. We go on to read that Habakkuk does not like this response, but God asserts that He is sovereign, and though He will use the Babylonians to punish His people, He will also not let the sins of Babylon go unpunished. Without going into explaining the entirety of the book of Habakkuk further, what we can now do is attempt to summarize in our own words the meaning of the verse in its context.
Habakkuk and the Jewish people are to recognize that God is sovereign and in control, even though they might not understand His purposes. They are also to see that God is just and will not allow sin to go unpunished, even though He may work through means they do not understand.
These are just a few basic steps you can take, but keep in mind you are primarily trying to understand the verse in its original context, making careful observations about specific words or phrases that are meant to convey a message, and simply asking good questions of the text. In this step, we are not seeking how this verse applies to our own walk with Christ, but what the verse meant for the original audience. Once we understand what the verse meant for them, we can move forward to looking for the principle that should be taken away from our verse, which we will do in a future blog.