The Charge of the Light Brigade
There’s a scene from the movie Saving Private Ryan that gives a great illustration of waht we’re talking about today. If you haven’t seen it, it’s about a squad of soldiers who have been given the task of tracking down a paratrooper who is the last surviving brother of four servicemen. One of the main themes comes out as they argue with each other about what they are doing and why they are doing it.
At one point in the film, as they are marching along yet another difficult path, they are once again questioning whether or not saving one man at the price of so many is a reasonable order to follow. Shouldn’t they be fighting the enemy instead of risking? Shouldn’t they be somewhere else? What makes Private James Francis Ryan so important that we have to risk our lives for him?
As they walk along, talking together, one of the men quotes a line from Alfred Lord Tennyson’s famous poem, “The Charge of the Light Brigade” which goes: “Theirs is not to reason why, theirs is but to do and die.” Another soldier looks over and says, “What is that supposed to mean? We’re supposed to die, is that it?”. The Captain of the squad replies, “He’s talking about our duty as soldiers…. We all have orders, and we have to follow ‘em. That supersedes everything.” The questioning solider asks, “Even if you think the mission is [completely messed up]?” And the captain responds, “Especially if you think the mission’s [completely messed up].”
The Lord Tennyson poem that was quoted in the fictional movie was written following a real, historical event known as The Charge of the Light Brigade during the Crimean War. Tennyson had read the account of the battle in the newspaper and, as Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom, wrote a few verses. Each stanza tells a different part of the story, and paints a heartbreaking picture of a group of cavalry soldiers who, because of a miscommunication in the chain of command, weren’t set to pursue a retreating Russian battery, but into a full, frontal assault against a well prepared artillery group.
Let me read the first few verses of the poem:
Half a league, half a league,
Half a league onward,
All in the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
“Forward, the Light Brigade!
“Charge for the guns!” he said:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
“Forward, the Light Brigade!”
Was there a man dismay’d?
Not tho’ the soldier knew
Someone had blunder’d:
Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon in front of them
Volley’d and thunder’d;
Storm’d at with shot and shell,
Boldly they rode and well,
Into the jaws of Death,
Into the mouth of Hell
Rode the six hundred.
Flash’d all their sabres bare,
Flash’d as they turn’d in air,
Sabring the gunners there,
Charging an army, while
All the world wonder’d:
Plunged in the battery-smoke
Right thro’ the line they broke;
Cossack and Russian
Reel’d from the sabre stroke
Shatter’d and sunder’d.
Then they rode back, but not
Not the six hundred.
Is that how it’s mean to be for Christians? “Theirs not to make reply, Theirs not to reason why, Theirs but to do and die…” Are we allowed to ask God why? Because, to be honest, a lot of what goes on in this world seems like “Someone blunder’d”. But even a person of great faith, with long-standing trust in God, sometimes asks themselves, “Why, God?”.
We certainly ask this on a global scale every time we read the news:
- Why is there so much wrong in the world?
- Why are You allowing people to murder children?
- Why would you let North Korea have nuclear capabilities?
- Why is there so much sickness and death around us?
- Why isn’t the world more fair?
- Why don’t you just wipe out all the terrorists, abortionists, pornographers and evil?
- Why do you allow famine, plague, and natural disaster?
- Why do You allow false teachers into your church?
- Why won’t you send revival to our town, city or nation?
And of course, it’s not just global, it’s personal:
- Why did you make me how I am?
- Why did make my children to be the way they are?
- Why is my family suffering like this?
- Why can’t I find a job?
- Why would let me befriend, date, or marry this person if you knew they were going to hurt me?
- Why won’t you take away this temptation, addiction, struggle?
- Why does it have to be like this?
We have spiritual questions too:
- Why do good people suffer while evil people are prospering?
- Why doesn’t God answer my prayers?
- Why, when I’m doing my very best for God, do I experience such terrible treatment from others?
This is what Habakkuk is all about. The short book of Habakkuk gives us a chance to listen in on a conversation that a prophet is having with God during a time of great difficulty around him. He wants an answer, not just for Him, but for everyone. He was likely a priest, or a worship leader, in the temple, and he wants some kind of answer that he can bring to the people that keep coming to him and asking him what God is doing.
His world was a mess. Habakkuk lived during the time after King Josiah while the Prophet Jeremiah was alive. If you’ve done any reading in Kings of Jeremiah, then you know that it was some bad times. The Northern Kingdom of Israel, after years and years of rebellion against God, had already been nearly wiped out and taking into captivity by the Babylonians, and God was about to do the same to the Southern Kingdom of Judah.
God had sent prophet after prophet – Joel, Isaiah, Micah, Naham, Zephaniah, Jeremiah – to warn the nation that they needed to repent or they would have to be disciplined. King after king rejected the prophets and continued to worship foreign gods, harm God’s people, reject God’s laws, and make alliances with pagan nations. The temple was desecrated, the political officers and religious leaders became more corrupt and people slipped into more and more sin.
There had been some bad kings in Judah, but also some good ones. Josiah was the last, good one and reigned for 31 years. After him came a steep slide that Habakkuk had courtside seats to watch.
After Josiah died, his son only reigned for three months before being overthrown by the King of Egypt, putting his brother Jehoiakim on the throne. Jehoiakim was such a fool that he banned the Jeremiah from speaking to him, and when he sent a scroll outlining God’s message to him, Jehoiakim burned it. Then the Babylonians, led by Nebuchadnezzar, defeated Egypt, sieged Jerusalem, and took Jehoiakim captive.
Habakkuk’s homeland was a nightmare, and he did what all people of faith should do when they are times of such difficulty and confusion – He prayed.
Let’s read Habakkuk 1:1-4:
“The oracle that Habakkuk the prophet saw. O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not hear? Or cry to you ‘Violence!’ and you will not save? 3 Why do you make me see iniquity, and why do you idly look at wrong? Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise. 4 So the law is paralyzed, and justice never goes forth. For the wicked surround the righteous; so justice goes forth perverted.”
King Josiah had made some great reforms, getting rid of pagan worship practices among the people and restoring the Law of God as the rule of life, but after he died in battle defending his people, the nation’s slide had been both precipitous and disastrous. King Jehoiakim was nothing like his father Josiah. He was brutal, unjust and seemed only to care about how big he could build his palace. He was so bad that he actually killed the Prophet Uriah for criticizing him (Jer 26:23) – not even the most wicked of kings had been so evil.
Look at the words Habakkuk uses: “violence, wrong, destruction, strife, contention, wicked…” Every level of his nation and life was corrupted, and he had been praying for a long time – and it only got worse. Certainly, he wasn’t the only one praying. There were others, no doubt, who were asking the same questions. But as he prayed, asking, “Why, God, why?”,this priestly worship leader, was given the chance to hear an answer.
Why Do you Tolerate Wrong?
His main question is found in verse 3: “Why do you make me see iniquity, and why do you idly look at wrong?”
He was saying, “God, I see it, and I know that you see it — so God… why aren’t you doing anything?”
Habakkuk was a good theologian! His book is quoted multiple times in the New Testament. He knows God. You can hear him saying, “God, I know you’re there, and I know you have power, and I know you hate evil, and I know you love your people, and I know that you answer prayer, and I know you’ve done miracles in the past, and I know that you have a plan… but I can’t see you doing anything! It really feels like you are being idle. Are you just standing there watching your people drown in sin, sorrow and pain? Are you like a lifeguard that refuses to get in the water to save a drowning man? Why won’t you do something? Are you asleep? Are you gone? Don’t you care?”
Have you ever asked questions like this? I know you have, because we all have. I have – many times. We get sick, or depressed, or someone we care about is hurt, or something terrible happens on the news, and we start out thinking, “Yeah, this is just a temporary thing. Most of my life is pretty good. I’m sure this will pass.” But it doesn’t. And it gets worse. And worse. And then more bad things happen. The pain is relentless, the loneliness is crushing, the temptations are overwhelming, the confusion is staggering, and it all seems totally hopeless, so we turn to God and say, “Ok, God… now’s the time to act.”
This feeling is so common that we read it over and over in scripture. David, more than a few times, cries out in pain and questions God:
“How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?” (Ps 13:1)
“How long, O Lord? Will you hide yourself forever?” (Psalm 89:46)
The Apostle Paul writes, describing his life on the road as a gospel preacher, not as one full of amazing joys, but that he feels as fragile as a clay pot. He says,
“…we have this treasure in jars of clay… We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies.” (2 Corinthians 4:7-10)
Habakkuk has been praying, and God’s not doing anything. He prays for peace and experiences only war. He prays for renewal and revival and sees only more sin. He cries out for the end of the violence, and it only gets worse. He prays for justice and is faced with more corruption. “The wicked surround the righteous” and “justice never” happens.
But is just biblical times, right? It’s not like Christians ever feel this way, right? We’re all passed that now! Health and wealth for everyone, right? Of course not.
I’m reminded of a song that deeply touched my own heart when I was going through some tough times. It’s called “Praise You in This Storm” by Casting Crowns. The first line echoes what I think we’ve all felt at times: “I was sure by now, God You would have reached down, and wiped our tears away, stepped in and saved the day. But once again, I say ‘Amen’, and it’s still raining.” I prayed. I trusted. I waited. And it’s still raining, God.
We cry out with Habakkuk, “O LORD, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not hear?”
It’s Right to Ask
First, I want to let you know that even though it may not feel like it’s doing anything, prayer is still the right place to start. David felt alone, afraid, surrounded and perplexed – so he called out to God to help him. Paul felt pressed, perplexed, persecuted, and struck down – but he brought it all to God. Habakkuk felt like his whole world was falling apart (and it was) – so his response was to cried to God to stop the pain and to give him some hope.
Humans need to bring our biggest questions to God. Where else can we bring them? When it comes to ultimate questions, like why things are the way they are, where else can we bring them other than the Creator and Sustainer of the universe, the One who knows beginning and the end? It’s right and good for us to ask these questions.
The world doesn’t do this. The human response to pain and suffering is fight or flight. Either wage war on that which is causing problems, or run away and hide from it. The spiritual response is the one that we are reading here – to stop and ask God, “What is going on here? Are you seeing this? What are you going to do about it?”
The world doesn’t believe God gets involved. They don’t see God getting involved in the affairs of men and therefore believe that He either doesn’t care or doesn’t exist. God isn’t working the way they want Him to, and so they dismiss him as absent. It’s easy to see why though. Most of us aren’t mature enough to really see God stepping into the world on a daily basis.
- Where is he when babies are murdered and teen girls are victims of human trafficking?
- Where is God when a corrupt government slaughters its citizens?
- Why doesn’t He speak when the atheists cry out “God is dead!”?
- Why would he allow his people to be murdered by the hundreds by Islamic terrorists or his churches to be burned to the ground?
Doesn’t he care?
The world concludes that the lack of God’s direct interference in stopping these evils means that God is either powerless or non-existent. But what is the Christian response?
Our response is to listen to God, and to read His word, and pray. What we do is to bring the question directly to Him and seek an answer to the question: “God, why is this happening?”
Now, In a moment I’m going to read God’s answer to this question, but I warn you, you’re probably not going to like it. What God does for Habakkuk is what He does for all of us at these times, if we let Him – He takes our eyes off of ourselves, and gives us a view of the bigger plan God has for the world.
Remember verse 3, “Why do you make me see iniquity, and why do you idly look at wrong?” Well as Habakkuk stood, praying and weeping, asking God these questions, God’s response was to scoop him up and give him a helicopter ride, thousands of feet above his little city. He gives Habakkuk something else to “see” and “look at”; a heavenly perspective of what is happening. God has not be idle. It’s an answer to Habakkuk’s prayer – but not the one he wanted.
Let’s read from verse 5:
“Look among the nations, and see; wonder and be astounded. For I am doing a work in your days that you would not believe if told. 6 For behold, I am raising up the Chaldeans, that bitter and hasty nation, who march through the breadth of the earth, to seize dwellings not their own.7 They are dreaded and fearsome; their justice and dignity go forth from themselves. 8 Their horses are swifter than leopards, more fierce than the evening wolves; their horsemen press proudly on. Their horsemen come from afar; they fly like an eagle swift to devour. 9 They all come for violence, all their faces forward. They gather captives like sand. 10 At kings they scoff, and at rulers they laugh. They laugh at every fortress, for they pile up earth and take it. 11 Then they sweep by like the wind and go on, guilty men, whose own might is their god!”
God didn’t owe Habakkuk an explanation, but in His grace, He decided to give him one anyway. God’s answer to Habakkuk was to give him assurance that God was absolutely at work in all that was happening, that He hadn’t been idle and he hadn’t forgotten them, and that there absolutely was a plan at work – but that plan was on a global scale and had infinite complexity.
God’s answer to Habakkuk’s prayer for peace and the end of violence and corruption wasn’t to magically bring peace, but to deal out ultimate destruction. Verse 5 says, “Look… and see; wonder and be astounded…. I am doing a work in your days that you would not believe if told.”
“See, Habakkuk, the reason your so confused is because your view is so finite. You are too small to comprehend what I’ve been doing, and what I’m about to do. There’s no way you’d be able to figure this plan out, and so I’m going to show you a piece of it. Yes, I’ve seen the error of my people’s ways. I’ve seen the corruption of their justice and religious systems. I’ve seen their sin and rebellion, and I intend to deal with it. ”
And the way God is planning to deal with it is a way none of us, especially Habakkuk, would ever have prescribed. He plans on taking the most pagan, evil, corrupt, self-centred, arrogant, nation in the world, led by a egomaniacal emperor named Nebuchandezzar, as a hammer to crush the wills of me people. The entire goal of the Chaldeans, who were closely associated with the Babylonians, was simple: take over the world by ruthlessly enslaving everyone in it.
God describes their brutality to Habakkuk in no uncertain terms. They are bitter, hasty, dreaded, fearsome, fierce, scoffing, devouring. If Habakkuk was complaining about the violence he saw now – just wait a few years until the Babylonians come through town. They will bring violence and terror with them like he’s never seen.
And history records that’s exactly what happened. After King Jehoiakim, Jehoiachin lasted only three months before Nebuchadnezzar kicked him out and appointed 21 year old Zedekiah to rule. He would be the last King of Judah.
He survived 11 years, surrounded by war and international conflict. Finally, he saw that things were getting too intense and called for the prophet Jeremiah’s help. Jeremiah told him that defeat was inevitable because God had decreed it. His counsel was that the king should surrender peacefully to Nebuchadnezzar (thereby also surrendering to God’s inevitable plan to discipline the nation) so it would be easier on him and the people. Zedekiah refused to relent and decided instead to try to defend the city against the huge Babylonian army. The response was one of the most brutal sieges in history. They killed his family, tore out his eyes, burned the palace, destroyed the buildings, tore down the walls of the city, killed thousands, took many prisoners, and left the poorest to die, starving in the streets.
That’s was the answer to Habakkuk’s questions. When he asked, “Why don’t you do something?” God’s answer was, “I am doing something. I’m going to make it way, way worse.”
Conclusion and Christ
We’ll get back to the conversation next week, but let me close with a few thoughts: Habakkuk was right to ask the question, “Why, God, why?”, but He had no right to presume that the answer was going to be a pleasant one. Sometimes God’s plans seem extremely difficult to us. Sometimes the Lord of the Universe works to accomplish His purposes in ways that are too hard for us to understand or believe.
We must be willing to say with the Prophet Isaiah said,
“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:8-9)
Tennyson said of the soldiers at the Charge of the Light Brigaded, “Theirs not to reason why, Theirs but to do and die”. That’s not what Christians believe. We are allowed to ask why. God encourages us to. Over and over in scripture we read about people who have their doubts about what God is doing, but take their doubts to God. To doubt is not the same as to stop believing. Warren Weirsbe said,
“A doubter questions God and may eve debate with God, but the doubter doesn’t abandon God…. Unbelief is rebellion against God, a refusal to accept what He says and does.”
That’s the difference. A Christian comes to God with their pain and their questions, and with the expectations of answers and comfort. And God is happy to respond by strengthen their spirit. But a Christian does not presume on the way God will answer their prayer. Sometimes the answer is the miracle we want, but more often it’s something we would never have seen coming, or ever desired. Sometime God’s will for us is more suffering, more pain, more frustration, more difficulty? Why? To break us.
He knows that the only way we are going to hate our sin, hate the sin of this world, and finally and totally trust Him, is if we go through the valley of the shadow of death. He knows that’s the only path that will lead us to find freedom in Him and through which He will receive the most glory.
This is most perfectly seen in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. When Paul was preaching to a group of Jewish people one day, they mocked his message about Jesus. No doubt they said things like:
- God would never come to earth to be one of us!
- God would never send the Messiah just to die!
- The Messiah would never identify with sinners!
- There’s no way that God loves sinners!
- God would never place the curse of sin upon Himself!
- There’s no way Jesus, the man who died on a Roman cross was doing God’s will.
- How could a condemned man be doing the work that would save people from sin and death forever?
- God doesn’t raise the dead!
And Paul’s final words, after sharing the message of salvation by the grace of God through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, was to quote a form of Habakkuk 1:5,
“Look, you scoffers, be astounded and perish; for I am doing a work in your days, a work that you will not believe, even if one tells it to you.” (Acts 13:41)
The lesson for us today is to remember that warning. It is ok for us to be astounded by God’s plan for our lives, and even troubled by it. But are we willing to relent and let God do what God wants to do? Remember Zedekiah? Jeremiah warned him to surrender! Stop fighting God and just accept what He is going to do. It will go better for you and everyone else if you quit fighting God! If you fight God, you will lose!
My encouragement to you is the same as Jeremiah’s and Paul’s. Relent to God. Talk to God, like Habakkuk did, and ask God why – and then when you get off your knees, trust God’s plan and do what He says – even if it’s something extremely hard like having to go through a long time of suffering. Maybe for a while, the only good thing you will have is the memories of what God has done in the past. Let that be enough for now.
Believe He knows what He’s doing and that His plan is better than yours. Stop fighting Him and all the ways he wants to save you, and start trusting Him. Exercise your faith by being willing to go where God wants you to go, even if you don’t want to. He will go with you. He will be with you every step of the way, and He won’t waste a moment of your pain.
Then, later, perhaps much later, you will see what He has been doing, and then you will be able to say, “God, you’re plan was good. I don’t understand all of it, even now. I would never have chosen it. But your plan was good, better than I would have come up with. I scoffed your plan, I fought against it, but you kept with me. God, you are faithful, and I’m learning to trust you. Help me learn from this and keep trusting you.”[audio