The Prophet’s Song for the Choirmaster

By Isaac Meyers

Published June 06, 2003, issue of June 06, 2003.
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First Day:

EXODUS 19:1-20:23;

NUMBERS 28:26-31,

EZEKIEL 1:1-28 & 3:12;

Second Day

DEUTERONOMY 15:9-16:17, NUMBERS 28:26-3, HABAKKUK 2:20-3:19.

* * *

Shortly before the Babylonian Exile in 587 BCE, Habakkuk in his workshop meditates on the visions he has seen: Babylonian soldiers storming westward toward the Kingdom of Judah, driven by the wrath of God himself; a human flood as massive and grave as Noah’s — an unanswerable judgment on the Jewish nation’s unforgivable sins. It is Habakkuk who has provoked the burden of his prophecy. Addressing God, he demands, “How long will I cry, and you not hear…? The law is slacked…!” (1: 2-4). God is not long to answer: “Behold, I will raise up the Babylonians… who shall march through the breadth of the land, to possess dwelling-places that are not theirs” (1:6). Again Habakkuk presses God, this time to know the punishment the Babylonians will themselves receive. But for the remainder of this dialogue, God speaks and the prophet takes dictation: “Write the vision, and make it plain upon tables….” (2:2). Eighteen of the fieriest verses of rebuke in the entire Bible follow: “For the stone shall cry out of the wall, and the beam out of the timber shall answer it. Woe to him that builds a town with blood, and establishes a city with iniquity!” (2:11-12). Habakkuk now learns that a prophet’s eloquence, his mental clarity, is his personal downfall, because the better he speaks God’s words, the more fiercely they burn the speaker. They quickly burn Habakkuk into silence: “But the Lord is in his holy sanctuary; let all the earth hush before him” (2:20). Habakkuk is left much reduced and weak; the fury of God’s word has driven his self out of the text. Here his prophecy ends; he can bear no more.

But later he wrote a song, which was appended to the two prophetic chapters, and this is something very different. This chapter, Habakkuk 3, is a beautiful and unified psalm that testifies to human power to speak with God and yet live, to submit to the divine and stay sane — sane and even creative. It begins with a prayer for mercy, then describes God’s might, not just as displayed in the preceding prophecies, but in a dazzling theophany: God as a warrior, striding over the earth, riding over the sea, bringing retribution and salvation. Habakkuk is a composer, and he does not hesitate to score his psalm with musical directions — selah — in the body of the text.

We read this song as the haftarah (additional reading) on the second day of Shavuot, zman matan Torateinu, the commemoration of the giving of the Torah. Ezekiel 3, like the haftarah of the first day of Shavuot, features a theophany like the one on Sinai. These formal and thematic links justify well enough the placement of the haftarah.

But I see a broader and more psychological connection between Habakkuk 3 and matan Torah. In both cases God appears not just in glory but in terror; at Sinai he thunders as he gives the law, and in Habakkuk’s prophecies he thunders for the sake of that law, which we, inevitably, have perverted. If we can for one moment imagine that we ourselves were at Mount Sinai (and the Midrash says we were there), we can well understand Habakkuk when he writes, “I heard, and my stomach roiled, at the sound my lips quivered; rottenness entered my bones, and I tremble where I stand…” (3:16). Rashi reads verse 3:2, “Lord, I have heard the report of thee, and am afraid,” as a cry of dismay in the face of God’s justice; it was a cry that began at Mount Sinai.

Yet, amazingly, 3:18 surges into joyful song — “But I will be glad in the Lord, I will rejoice in the God of my salvation” — and continues into 3:19: “The Lord God is my strength and makes my feet like deer, and He will make me walk on my high places….” And lastly, nothing could express simple, stubborn confidence in the future better than Habakkuk’s final brief professional note, “For the Choirmaster. With my string-music” (3:19). After all that — after the threatening promise of the Torah, the terrible and true signs — can he still live with his faith, and even, in full knowledge of that horrific wave of destruction gathering force to bear down from the East, continue in his work? His answer is yes, of course. Of course he can; that is his weakness and his strength; he is human.

Isaac Meyers lives in Manhattan and is associate editor of the Sheep Meadow Press.

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