Monday, November 28, 2011

Habakkuk and God's Concern for the Environment

Habakkuk presents the living God as bring judgment upon the Babylonians.  In particular, chapter 2 presents five "woes" against this oppressor of God's people.  These five statements are instructive because they show us what kinds of things bring forth God's judgment.  They reveal what moves God--what he is concerned about.  One interesting item mentioned is found in v. 17:
For the violence done to Lebanon will overwhelm you, and the devastation of its beasts by which you terrified them, because of human bloodshed and violence done to the land, to the town and all its inhabitants.
This reference to Lebanon is evocative.  In the Old Testament Lebanon is known for its natural beauty and environmental artifacts.  The Dictionary of Biblical Imagery states some basic facts about Lebanon:
Lebanon is a region made up of two mountain chains, the coast fringing Mount Lebanon range and the lesser easterly Anti-Lebanon range, separated by the Bekaa Valley.  The biblical references are probably only to Mount Lebanon itself.  Here elevated heights, which reach up to ten thousand feet, give Lebanon majesty and glory (Is 35:2; 60:13) and reputation as being the "utmost heights" (2 King 19:23 NIV).  The elevation is responsible for a heavy rainfall, which falls on the height in winter as snow.  In places, the snow lasts all year (Jer 18:14).  The high precipitation and the slow melting snows, coupled with porous aquifers (Ezek 31:3-4, 7), ensure year-round fertility (Ps 104:16).
Chief among the wonders of Lebanon were its cedar trees.  These are majestic in beauty and size as they can reach a height of about 80-100 feet (A.C. Myers in The Eerdmans Bible Dictionary, [Eerdmans, 1987], p. 197).  These "cedars of Lebanon"are mentioned some seventy times in the Old Testament in a variety of settings.  It is for these trees that Lebanon is most famous.  Solomon made the cedars of Lebanon a subject of empirical study (1 Kings 4.33) and used these trees in the construction of the Temple (1 Kings 5.10).  Psalm 104.16 speaks of these cedars of Lebanon as "trees of the Lord" and in Ezekiel 31.8 the trees of Eden are said to be jealous of the cedars of Lebanon.  These trees speak of strength for in Psalm 29.5 when the psalmist wishes to highlight the power of God he speaks of him "breaking in pieces the cedars of Lebanon."  Their renown for beauty in sight and smell makes them useful as metaphors in the erotic poetry of the Song of Solomon (4.11; 5.15).

In all likelihood the reference in Habakkuk 2.17 to the "violence done to Lebanon"refers to the Babylonian destruction to this region.  F. F. Bruce explains that this phraseology "is best explained as the plundering of the forests of Lebanon of their cedar wood to further the conqueror's building projects" (The Minor Prophets: An Exegetical and Expository Commentary edited by Thomas Edward McComiskey [Baker, 1992, 2009], p. 871).  This mention of Lebanon and, most likely, its trees in a judgment oracle shows us God's concern for his creation.  This is further strengthened by the mention in this oracle of "the devastation of its beasts by which you terrified them."  Here God's concern for the animals of the region is manifested.  This is in accordance with what is found elsewhere in Scripture as Proverbs 12.10 demonstrates: "A righteous man has regard for the life of his animal."  O. Palmer Robertson also draws attention to another example of God's interest and notice of animals in a prophetic context:
The gentle downturn of the last phrase of the book of Jonah has memorialized forever the compassions of the Lord for the entirety of his creation.  Should not Jonah have compassion on Nineveh, a city with numerous people, "and also much cattle" (Jon. 4:11)?  God takes note when his lowliest creatures are terrified by the brutalities of insensitive human beings.  He hears the groanings of his entire creation, and will see that the whole created universe joins in the final redemption of mankind (Rom. 8:19-21).  (The Books of Nahum, Habakkuk, and Zephaniah [NICOT], [Eerdmans, 1990], p. 205)
In light of this reference to Lebanon and its beasts, Old Testament commentator Ralph L. Smith asks, "Is there an ecological message in this verse for us?" (Micah-Malachi [Word Biblical Commentary], [Word, 1984], p. 111).  This would seem to be the case.  God expresses his displeasure not only over the violence to people and cities but also to trees and beasts.  Needless and wanton destruction is not acceptable to God.

Perhaps the words of Francis Schaeffer best begin to capture what our attitude should be.  In his book Pollution and the Death of Man Schaeffer is attempting to lay out a theologically driven argument for care of creation.  He writes:
As a Christian I say, “Who am I?”  Am I only the hydrogen atom, the energy particle extended?  No, I am made in the image of God.  I know who I am.  Yet, on the other hand, when I turn around and face nature, I face something that is like myself.  I, too, am created, just as the animal and the plant and the atom are created.  (p. 30)

Therefore, intellectually and psychologically, I look at these animals, plants, and machines[1], and as I face them I understand something of the attitude I should have toward them.  I begin to think differently about life.  Nature begins to look different.  I am separated from it, yet related to it.

Notice the phrase “intellectually and psychologically.”  This is a very important distinction.  I can say, “Yes, the tree is a creature like myself.”  But that is not all that is involved.  There ought to be a psychological insight, too.  Psychologically I ought to “feel” a relationship to the tree as my fellow-creature.  It is not simply that we ought to feel a relationship intellectually to the tree, and then turn this into just another argument for apologetics, but that we should realize, and train people in our churches to realize, that on the side of creation and on the side of God’s infinity and our finiteness we really are one with the tree![2] (p. 31)

Christians, of all people, should not be the destroyers.  We should treat nature with an overwhelming respect.  We may cut down a tree to build a house, or to make a fire to keep the family warm.  But we should not cut down the tree just to cut down the tree.  We may, if necessary, bark the cork tree in order to have the use of the bark.  But what we should not do is to bark the tree simply for the sake of doing so, and let it dry and stand there a dead skeleton in the wind.  To do so is not to treat the tree with integrity.  We have the right to rid our houses of ants; but what we have not the right to do is to forget to honor the ant as God made it, in its rightful place in nature.  When we meet the ant on the sidewalk, we step over him.  He is a creature, like ourselves; not made in the image of God, but equal with man as far as creation is concerned.  The ant and the man are both creatures.  (p. 43)  (The Complete Works of Francis Schaeffer--vol. 5 [Crossway, 1982])
The God of creation cares for his creation.  He has uniquely crowned humanity with glory and honor (Psalm 8) but this doesn't deny God's concern for all the other parts of his creation.

[1] Schaeffer means here “mechanical functions” we share in common with animals.  He writes: “For example, we have a common lung system with dogs and cats.  This is not surprising.  Both man and these other creatures have been created by God to fit a common environment.  There is a common relationship in these mechanical functions, which relates man downward.  There are machine functions to man.” (p. 31)
[2] Schaeffer is very clear to deny any notions of “pantheism”: “Let us emphasize—this is not pantheistic;…” (p. 34)