Israel-Hamas War: a pastor’s reflection

A few months back, I was preparing a sermon about the Old Testament book of Habakkuk. As I studied the text, I was surprised at how the truths about God and his ways with Israel and its enemies may be relevant to what is happening in the ongoing Israel-Gaza War. Let me explain.

The prophet’s lament

Habakkuk was a prophet who lived in a dark period of Israel’s history. He ministered during the reigns of the last three kings of the southern kingdom of Judah. The nation was rotten to the core: violence, destruction, injustice, idolatry, strife and wickedness. The prophet was deeply affected and lamented to God in prayer. It seemed God was deaf to his pleas for God to intervene and reform society. Here is his honest complaint to God (Habakkuk 1:1-4 NLT):

How long, O Lord, must I call for help?
    But you do not listen!
“Violence is everywhere!” I cry,
    but you do not come to save.
Must I forever see these evil deeds?
    Why must I watch all this misery?
Wherever I look,
    I see destruction and violence.
I am surrounded by people
    who love to argue and fight.
The law has become paralyzed,
    and there is no justice in the courts.
The wicked far outnumber the righteous,
    so that justice has become perverted.

I like the honest lament of the prophet. Perhaps we need to lament over the tragic wars in Myanmar, Ukraine, Israel-Gaza in our prayers.

I also like that Habakkuk actually bothered to patiently wait for God’s answer. I admit I speak more and listen less in prayer, in most of the decades that I have been a Christian. I am learning more and more to listen, to watch, to discern God’s notifications. I am learning to unmute my spiritual notifications button.

God’s inconceivable reply

God’s reply got Habakkuk puzzled and upset! God said to him: “I am raising up the Babylonians, a cruel and violent people. They will march across the land and conquer other lands. They are notorious for their cruelty and will do whatever they like” (Habakkuk 1:6,7).

Habakkuk must have thought, “Did I hear God correctly?” Is God going to discipline his chosen people, with whom he made a covenant of love, through a more violent, cruel, and unrighteous nation?

O Lord my God, my Holy One, you who are eternal—
    surely you do not plan to wipe us out?
O Lord, our Rock, you have sent these Babylonians to correct us,
    to punish us for our many sins.
 But you are pure and cannot stand the sight of evil.
    Will you wink at their treachery?
Should you be silent while the wicked
 swallow up people more righteous than they? (Habakkuk 1:12,13)

God’s ways are usually different and higher than our ways. What is unthinkable, unfathomable to the prophet is a real possibility with God! How can a holy God use an unrighteous people to punish a more righteous people? How can God allow this to happen to his chosen nation, his covenanted people?

9/11 a judgment of God

I was at home when 9/11 happened. I remember it vividly. After a tennis game, in the master bedroom, cooling down before I bathed, on the TV, before my eyes, I saw a plane ploughed into one of the World Trade Centre towers. What movie was this? I then noticed that a news reader was relaying news of the Al Qaeda attack on the New York buildings. I was shocked.

In the aftermath of this terrorist attack,  a few preachers proclaimed that this was God’s judgment on America for its idolatry and sins. There were major reactions and objections to the message of judgment: how can a righteous God use a violent, cruel, terrorist instrument to punish a nation that believed in God. Same reaction as Habakkuk’s. In the light of what we have read in Habakkuk, why isn’t it possible that those preachers may be speaking God’s word?

What about October 2023?

What about October 2023? Was God using Iran and its proxy, Hamas, as an instrument to discipline a nation he has chosen and loves? Is not this unthinkable thought a possibility? Hasn’t modern Israel broken its covenant with God too? Israel is very much a secular nation that has left its holy roots to pursue its idols. Even if half the population claims to be Orthodox, they practice a form of religion that doesn’t please God.

God clarifies Habakkuk’s ethical dilemma

It did not take long for God to shine his light on Habakkuk’s ethical dilemma. God’s reply to Habakkuk was that the Babylonians would also be punished for their violence and cruelty – in due time. God’s judgment will come upon the Babylonians for their aggression, greed, pride, sadistic humiliation of people, and idolatry. God assured Habakkuk that this would definitely happen even if the vision awaited fulfillment for a long period (70 years later the Medo-Persians would topple the Babylonians).

In the meantime, the righteous will have to keep faith in God, and if they do so, they will live: “the righteous will live by faith”. The answers of God to Habakkuk’s complaint and protest brought him out of his doubts and distress to a place of peace and contentment. He was now convinced that God was Sovereign over all nations, small or superpower. His ways were higher than his ways or thoughts. He is worthy of complete trust and he would rest in him.

Even while the wars around us continue to increase in intensity and tragedy, and it angers and frustrates us, we will do well to remember the book of Habakkuk, and learn to lament and finally to trust in God to act in sovereignty, holiness, and justice. Take comfort in this apt song by Lauren Daigle: “Look Up Child”

Where are You now
When darkness seems to win?
Where are You now
When the world is crumbling?

Oh I, I hear You say
I hear You say

Look up child, Look up child,

Where are You now

When all I feel is doubt?
Oh, where are You now
When I can’t figure it out?

Oh I hear You say
I hear You say

Look up child,
Look up child,
Look up

You’re not threatened by the war
You’re not shaken by the storm
I know You’re in control
Even in our suffering
Even when it can’t be seen
I know You’re in control

A Prayer of Hope

My heart cries out to you Papa for the conflicts in the U.S., the war in Ukraine and Myanmar and Gaza. Come Oh God, and save your people and cause wars to cease when your Son returns in glory and power to judge the world and establish the new heaven and the new earth. Fill your people with hope Father. Whenever we read or watch the news, our hearts are broken at the fake news, this fallen world, all the confusion and conflicts. There is no peace, but we do not want the external stormy world of hopelessness to control the temperature of our faith and the stability of our deep peace. So Father, send your Spirit afresh, the dove of heaven to fill our hearts with peace and the purity of worship. Let no one say that you have abandoned the church or this rebellious world. Let no one say you are unrighteous and untrue. Let the world know that you are sovereign and there’s no other God in all the universe. Amen.

(a tongues & interpretation prayer excerpt from my journal entry on 18 May 2024, a day before Pentecost)

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