September 26, 2022: A small and passing thing

Reading: Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4
The oracle that the prophet Habakkuk saw. O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? Or cry to you “Violence!” and you will not save? Why do you make me see wrong-doing and look at trouble? Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise. So the law becomes slack and justice never prevails. The wicked surround the righteous—therefore judgment comes forth perverted.I will stand at my watchpost, and station myself on the rampart; I will keep watch to see what he will say to me, and what he will answer concerning my complaint. Then the Lord answered me and said: Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so that a runner may read it. For there is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and does not lie. If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay. Look at the proud! Their spirit is not right in them, but the righteous live by their faith.

The absolute desolation of Mordor lay before Samwise Gamgee. That land that once was so lush and beautiful lay scorched and blackened, its riverbeds dried up save for some bitter pools. The epicenter of this horrible land was the tower Barad-dûr, home to the evil that sought to choke the whole world; and next to it, the great Mount Doom, volcanic and dangerous and the very place Sam needed to go—the only way to save the world.

The landscape J. R. R. Tolkien describes in his high fantasy novel The Return of the King would have been very recognizable to anyone who lived through the reign of the Babylonian Empire. It would have been especially familiar to our prophet Habakkuk, who lived during the total destruction of Jerusalem by the forces of Babylon. Decimation. Annihilation. Eradication. The grinding wheels of the Babylonian empire crushed Judah to dust.

Habakkuk is a short book. You could read it in about ten minutes. The first chapter is Habakkuk’s complaint to God over the impending (or recently perpetrated) destruction of Judah. He wonders, “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen?” Habakkuk waits and listens. We don’t know how long he listens but eventually God responds. In chapter 2, God reminds Habakkuk that though suffering and death cloak the world now, it will not always be so. Those who punish in turn will be punished.

As Samwise stood looking out over the suffocating, noxious, deathscape of Mordor, he looked up into the sky. “There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach.”

Whatever evil befalls us, however terrible it might by, it is not the end. It is not the final word. There is light beyond the darkness. There is hope beyond despair. There is life beyond death. And it is this faith that leads Habakkuk to sing his praises to God in chapter 3. Despite the waste that lays before him, he sings praise.

The singer Andrew Peterson beautifully conveys this hope-beyond-despair in his song “After the Last Tear Falls.” He sings:

“And in the end, the end is
Oceans and oceans
Of love and love again.
We’ll see how the tears that have fallen
Were caught in the palms
Of the giver of love and the lover of all;
And we’ll look back on these tears as old tales.”

–Jim Vitale

Great God of love, give us the hope that endures through despair. Give us the love that endures beyond death. Remind us that this shadow is a small and passing thing.