In these verses Habakkuk describes a theophany, a visit from God. The scene is what took place on Mount Sinai when God gave the law to his people. He was able to find his people in the desert (this is the significance of him being described as coming from Teman and Mount Paran (v. 3a) – Habakkuk is not suggesting that God lived in those places).
It was an awesome occasion, likened to a sunrise, perhaps with lightning (vv. 3b-4). The Lord was on a march against the foes of his people and his weapons were pestilence and plague against their enemies (v. 5), as the Egyptians had experienced. Such was his might, it moved the mountains and hills (v. 6) and even powerful tribes were afraid (v. 7). God came like a warrior (note the mention of his chariot in verse 8 and his bow and arrows in verses 9 and 11).
The effect on the natural creation was immense (the rivers and seas were in ferment in verse 8, the mountains, sea and heavenly bodies were affected). Yet his battle was not with the created order, but with those who opposed his people (vv. 12-15, perhaps descriptive of the Egyptian army being destroyed in the Red Sea and the occasion when the sun and moon stood still during Joshua’s campaign).
Why is Habakkuk rehearsing what happened to Israel at the beginning of their history? One answer is that he is reminding himself of what God could do. Another answer is that in prayer he is reminding the Lord of what he did on previous occasions when his people needed him. And he is praying that the Lord should come and deliver his people and destroy their enemies. In doing so he found confidence for the future because he knew he could ‘quietly wait for the day of trouble to come upon people who invade us’. The Babylonians would yet be dealt with by God in his time.
As he thought of the great deeds of the Lord in the past, Habakkuk was overwhelmed by the might of the Lord. He found himself like Isaiah when he saw the greatness of God (Isa. 6). The prophet was moved to the depth of his being as he contemplated what God had done and what God could do. Greatness made him shudder, even when it was the greatness of grace.
The obvious lesson for us is to discover and memorise the details of the ways God has worked in the past. We have the records of such divine activities in the Bible and we also have them in the records of church history. Our fathers have told us of the great things God did in their times. When we read them and remember them, they become a great encouragement to our prayers.