AN INTRODUCTION TO THE BOOKS OF THE OLD TESTAMENT. by W. O. E. Oesterley, D.D., Litt.D.,& T. H. Robinson, D.D., Litt.D. Hon. D.D. (Aberdeen), Hon. D.Th. (Halle Wittenberg). © W O E Oesterley & T H Robinson 1934. First published SPCK. 1934. - This edition prepared for katapi by Paul Ingram 2003.


HOME | Place in the Canon. | Historical Background. | Structure and Contents. | Date and Authorship. | The Prophet and his Message. | The Hebrew Text and the Septuagint.


This book always occupies the eighth place among the "Twelve", its position being after Nahum and before Zephaniah.


The events against which we must see this prophet's work will necessarily be determined by the date to which we assign it. While we shall probably be right in placing Habakkuk in the age of Jeremiah, several scholars would put him as late as the time of Alexander the Great. [e.g. Duhm, Sellin.]

The foundation of the Macedonian power was the most sudden and spectacular of all the great events of the ancient world. Even the rise of Cyrus was slower and achieved less. In 334 BC, Alexander fought his first battle on Asiatic soil at the river Granicus. In the following year he defeated the full force of the Persian Empire at the battle of Issus. The next year he devoted to the subjugation of Syria and Egypt, meeting with serious opposition only at Tyre. And in 331BC he won, at Arbela, the battle that gave him undisputed possession of the whole Persian Empire. He seems, on the whole, to have favoured the Jews, and did no harm to Jerusalem or to the Temple. They submitted to him, and Jews were to be found in his armies. He also used them freely for purposes of colonization, and gave them special privileges in their new homes.

It will be necessary to bear these facts in mind when considering the date of the prophecies of Habakkuk.


The book of Habakkuk at first sight falls into two clearly distinguished parts.

The first, in chs.i-ii, comprises oracular matter, while ch.iii takes the form of a psalm.

The first oracular piece is contained in i.2-4, and forms a statement of the prophet's problem: Why does God allow iniquity to flourish? This is followed by a prediction of the coming of the Chaldaeans , "that bitter and hasty nation", in i.5-11. It may be observed that in verse 9 the subject changes from the plural to the singular. Since it is a nation that is contemplated, either construction is possible, but it seems a little strange, and it may be that we should take verses 9-11 as a separate piece. In i.12-13 we have the problem of the opening verses repeated, even more strongly and forcibly. This develops naturally, in verses 14-17, into a further complaint of the violence done by some enemy, presumably the same that is mentioned in verses 5-11. In ii.1-4 the prophet puts himself in the proper attitude of receptivity, and is assured that there is an answer to his problem: while the wicked will suffer, the righteous shall live through his fidelity. The exact meaning of verse 5 is not clear, but in the rest of the chapter we have a series of denunciations, each introduced with " Woe! " and each condemning a different sin, though the sinner may be the same in all. Thus, in verses 6b-8 the, man who violently steals land is threatened, in verses 9-11 it is he who builds his house by injustice, in verses 12-13 (to which is attached a sentence closely resembling Isa.xi.9) it is the city builder, in 15-16 the drunkard, and in 19-20 the idolater. Verse 17 is a curious appendix to the preceding piece - curious, because it has no reference to drinking - and verse 18 is an introduction to the two verses that follow.

Ch. iii in its present form consists of a psalm, which has been taken from a collection such as those, which were used for the construction of our present Psalter. It is, however, clearly an adaptation of an earlier poem for this purpose. The original piece consisted of iii.2-16, where we have a vivid description of a great theophany when Yahweh comes to destroy His foes. To this has been appended an expression of unshakeable confidence in Yahweh, by a pious reader of a later age (iii.17-19).


Of the Prophet and of his circumstances nothing whatever is known except what can be deduced from the book itself, and the evidence afforded by the text has raised very serious difficulties. The main problem may be simply stated. We have two threads running through the whole. On the one hand, we have the problem raised by the ruthless persecution of the righteous by a wicked tyrant, and, on the other, we have the judgement pronounced on the tyrant. As the text stands, the Chaldaeans, introduced in i.5-11, are Yahweh's instrument of vengeance on the tyrant, while, apparently, in the rest of the book they are identified with the tyrant himself.

Various attempts have been made to solve the problem thus created. Some have assumed that the original prophecy has received numerous additions and interpolations, to which its present confusing character is due. [e.g. Marti.]

Budde seeks to elucidate the question by placing the description of the advancing Chaldaeans (i.5-11) after ii.4, thus producing a continuous development of thought. The Chaldaeans are not now the oppressive tyrant, but only the instruments of Yahweh's vengeance. To this it has been objected that the description does not fit the Chaldaeans at all, for they were not a comparatively unknown people, as is suggested by the way in which they are introduced, nor did they move from west to east as is implied in i.9.

A most interesting theory has, therefore, been worked out by Duhm, and is accepted by Sellin and others. On this view the appearance of the Chaldaeans is due to textual corruption, and it is really the victorious Greeks under Alexander the Great whom the prophet has in view. The whole is to be dated shortly after the battle of Issus (333BC). Instead of "Chaldaeans" in i.6 we should read "Kittians" (properly Cypriotes, but possibly used of Greeks in general), and in ii.5 instead of "wine" we should read "Greek". [The two words in Hebrew are very similar.]

It may be said at once that both these textual changes are easy, and no objection could be raised to them if the theory were justified on other grounds.

It is further pointed out that Alexander, alone among the conquerors of the ancient world, can be spoken of as having subdued so many nations, and that his habit of building cities as centres of Greek influence is referred to in ii.12-14. We may regard these as the main points in an attractive and brilliant theory.

When we look further into the matter, however, we are less certain that Duhm has found the right solution to the problem. It is by no means clear that the advancing conqueror is moving from west to east. The word for "east (wind)" is in the accusative, it is true, but in a Semitic language the accusative does not necessarily imply "motion towards". The Septuagint actually had "from the east", which may be an interpretation or (more probably) a difference of reading. There is no evidence whatever to suggest that Alexander ever ill-treated the Jews, and their later experiences with the Persian Empire, especially under Artaxerxes Ochus, would tend to make them welcome a new conqueror as a deliverer.

There is, moreover, evidence to show that the term "nations" might be applied to different clans or groups of people resident in Palestine, perhaps even in Judah. [Cp. Jer.iv.7, 16.]

Even if this were not deemed a sufficient explanation of the use of the plural, there remains the possibility that the text has been modified in an eschatological sense. We should do well to examine the matter afresh before committing ourselves to a fourth-century date.

A great deal of the difficulty has been due to the feeling (perhaps an unconscious feeling) that the book was originally written by a prophet as a single, continuous whole. As soon as we remember that it, like other prophetic books, is a collection of oracles made, possibly, long after the time of the prophet to whom they are ascribed, a large part of the problem disappears. We do not need Budde's reorganisation of the text, for there is no reason to believe that the priority in the book Of i.5-11 points to priority in the actual delivery of the oracles concerned.

Further, we may remark that much of the language of the book suggests the age of Jeremiah, if not actual dependence on the utterances of that prophet.

The main problem of the book is raised in Jer..1ff. The description of the "Chaldaeans" can hardly fail to remind us of the foe whom Jeremiah envisaged, [Cp. E.g., Jer.iv.13, v.6; Hab.i.8.] while the condemnation of the tyrant in Hab.ii.9, 12, inevitably recalls the judgement pronounced on Jehoiakim in Jer.x.13ff.

These last passages also suit a domestic tyrant rather than a foreign oppressor, and we are faced with the possibility that the prophet was troubled by a wicked ruler as well as by a heartless conqueror - not necessarily the same person.

One of our difficulties is certainly that the oracles have been modified before their inclusion in the present book. We cannot regard ii.14, for instance, as the original conclusion of the oracle, which begins with verse 12, since it appears also as the final sentence of the great Messianic passage in Isa.xi.1ff. We may go so far as to suspect that most of the "Woes" in ch.ii consisted originally of a single short sentence, which has been modified, either by a collector or, more probably, before it came into his hands. We have, then, to find a time at which a cruel opponent, probably a foreign conqueror, overwhelmed a righteous man, and about the same time, the country suffered from the exactions of a ruler who erected magnificent buildings at the expense of his people.

Is there any period that fits these facts better than the years 608BC and those which followed?

The good Josiah overwhelmed by the cruel Egyptian king, and followed by Jehoiakim - these would fit the circumstances, as no others known to us would do.

[We need to remember that it was the democratic & ethical features of Josiah's government that appealed to the prophetic mind rather than his religious policy. It is here that Jehoiakim was so strongly contrasted with his father. Cp. Jer.x.15-17.]

It must be admitted that there are still several problems left for solution. We do not know that the Egyptians offered sacrifice to their nets (i.16), but we do not know that Alexander did so either. We may make the same remark of the "violence done to Lebanon" (ii.17).

Archaeology may some day be able to throw real light on these problems, but at present we are completely in the dark. In the meantime, the end of the seventh century BC is probably the period which best suits the conditions of most of the oracles included in this book, though there are certainly later additions. The final Woe (ii.19-20), for instance, can hardly be pre-exilic, since it breathes the spirit of Deutero-Isaiah.

The dating of the psalm in ch.iii is more difficult. Duhm and Sellin regard it as the crown and climax of the book, and therefore attribute it (except the final verses, 17-19) to the prophet himself. But this conclusion is necessarily based on the very improbable hypothesis that the prophet himself was responsible for the book in practically its present form. If the book, as we now have it, does lead up to the poem, it is the collector or compiler who is responsible for this arrangement and the fact gives us no clue to the authorship. There is, however, little or nothing in it that makes a pre-exilic date impossible, though the combination of a theophany with an historical retrospect would be more natural from the pen of a post-exilic writer.

In any case, the final compilation of the book cannot be placed earlier than the beginning of the fifth century.


We know nothing, as we have said, of Habakkuk except what we can gather from the book itself. Even his name is somewhat of a puzzle. Apart from all questions of date there are two points in which the book is important.

In the first place, we have in ii.1 a very valuable light on the methods of the canonical prophet.

All prophecy, at least until a comparatively late post-exilic period, was based on a peculiar psychological condition to which the name ecstasy is often given. It was characteristic of the false prophet as well as of the true, but the former often, if not always, resorted to artificial means for its production: music, drugs, mass excitation, or other methods. As far as we know, the true prophet, represented by those whose words have been handed down in our Bible, eschewed such means of producing the necessary condition. At the same time, he could do something at least to prepare himself for its reception; he could place himself in a mental attitude in which it might occur. Sometimes, even then, the phenomenon was delayed (cp.ii.3); Jeremiah, on one occasion, had to wait ten days before receiving the communication that he and his people sought (Jer.xlii.7). But, while we should, perhaps, have guessed this, we have nowhere else so clear an indication of it as in this prophet's statement that he will "stand upon watch" and post himself on his "tower".

Of far greater importance is the question, which Habakkuk asked. Given a righteous and omnipotent God, how are we to explain the injustice of the world? Why are the guilty not punished at once, and the righteous rewarded? This problem could have arisen nowhere except in the Israel that had learnt of Yahweh's moral character from the eighth-century prophets. But, given their teaching, it was bound to arise sooner or later. Unfortunately, we do not know what the prophet's real answer was. It seems to be offered to us in ii.4 - "the righteous shall live through his fidelity". But what does this mean?

Are we to understand that the righteous would survive all his disasters, if he were only faithful, and would, in the end, attain the vengeance and the prosperity that he sought? Or is it implied that a righteous man's real life consists, not in the things that befall him, good or bad, but in his character and spiritual qualities-in fact, in his fidelity? To some the latter may seem to be too advanced a doctrine even for a Hebrew prophet, but it is a possibility that cannot be ignored.

We should not expect to find a complete answer in Habakkuk, whether his date be the seventh or the fourth century BC, for the problem is one with which the human mind still grapples unsuccessfully.

But he was one of the first to ask the question, and the search for an answer, even if not wholly successful, has led man into some of his greatest discoveries in the realm of things divine.


The text has not been particularly well preserved, and there are places in which conjectural emendation seems inevitable.

Illustrations may be cited from i.3, 9, 11, ii.4, etc., while the psalm (ch.iii) is in many places obviously corrupt.

The versions, especially the Septuagint, sometimes provide us with a clue, though not as often as in some of the other prophetic books. The Septuagint, for instance, seems to have a better reading in i.6, 15; iii.10.