Below is John Calvin’s commentary on Habakkuk 3:17-19.
17. Although the fig-tree shall not blossom, neither shall fruit be in the vines; the labour of the olive shall fail, and the fields shall yield not meat; the flock shall be cut off from the fold, and there shall be no herd in the stalls
18. Yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will joy in the God of my salvation.
The Prophet declares now at large what that rest would be of which he had spoken; it would be even this – that he would not cease to rejoice in God, even in the greatest afflictions. He indeed foresees how grievous the impending punishment would be, and he warns also and arouses the faithful, that they might perceive the approaching judgment of God. He says, Flourish shall not the fig, and no fruit shall be on the vines; fail shall the olive. First, the fig shall not flourish; then, the fields shall produce nothing; and lastly, the cattle and the sheep shall fail. Though the figs produce fruit without flowing, it is not yet an improper use of [Hebrew characters], perech, which means strictly to bud.1 He means that the desolation of the land was night at hand, and that the people would be reduced to extreme poverty. But it was an instance of rare virtue, to be able to rejoice in the Lord, when occasions of sorrow met him on every side.
The Prophet then teaches us what advantage it is to the faithful seasonably to submit to God, and to entertain serious fear when he threatens them, and when he summons them to judgment; and he shows that though they might perish a hundred times, they would yet not perish, for the Lord would ever supply them with occasions of joy, and would also cherish this joy within, so as to enable them to rise above all their adversities. Though, then, the land was threatened with famine, and though no food would be supplied to them, they would yet be able always to rejoice in the God of their salvation; for they would know him to be their Father, though for a time he severely chastised them. This is a delineation of that rest of which he made mention before.
The import of the whole is – “Though neither the figs, nor the vines, nor the olives, produce any fruit, and though the field be barren, though no food be given, yet I will rejoice in my God;” that is, our joy shall not depend on outward prosperity; for though the Lord may afflict us in an extreme degree, there will yet be always some consolation to sustain our minds, that they may not succumb under evils so grievous; for we are fully persuaded, that our salvation in God’s hand, and that he is its faithful guardian. We shall, therefore, rest quietly, though heaven and earth were rolled together, and all places were full of confusion; yea, though God fulminated from heaven, we shall yet be in a tranquil state of mind, looking for his gratuitous salvation.
We now perceive more clearly, that the sorrow produced by the sense of our guilt is recommended to us on account of its advantage; for nothing is worse than to provoke God’s wrath to destroy us; and nothing is better than to anticipate it, so that the Lord himself may comfort us. We anticipate it, so that the Lord himself may comfort us. We shall not always escape, for he may apparently treat us with severity; but though we may not be exempt from punishment, yet while he intends to humble us, he will give us reasons to rejoice: and then in his own time he will mitigate his severity, and by the effects will show himself propitious to us. Nevertheless, during the time when want or famine, or any other affliction, is to be borne, he will render us joyful with this one consolation, for, relying on his promises, we shall look for him as the God of our salvation. Hence, on one side Habakkuk sets the desolation of the land; and on the other, the inward joy which the faithful never fail to posses, for they are upheld by the perpetual favour of God. And thus he warns, as I have said, the children of God, that they might be prepared to bear want and famine, and calmly to submit to God’s chastisements; for had he not exhorted them as he did, they might have failed a hundred times.
We may hence gather a most useful doctrine, – That whenever signs of God’s wrath meet us in outward things, this remedy remains to us – to consider what God is to us inwardly; for the inward joy, which faith brings to us, can overcome all fears, terrors, sorrows, and anxieties.
But we must notice what follows, In the God of my salvation: for sorrow would soon absorb all our thoughts, except God were present as our preserver. But how does he appear as such to the faithful? even when they estimate not his love by external things, but strengthen themselves by embracing the promise of his mercy, and never doubt but that he will be propitious to them; for it is impossible but that he will remember mercy even while he is angry. It follows –
19. The Lord God is my strength, and he will make my feet like the hinds’ feet, and he will make me to walk upon mine high places. To the chief singer on my stringed instruments.
He confirms the same truth, – that he sought no strength but in God alone. But there is an implied contrast between God and those supports on which men usually lean. There is indeed no one, who is not of a cheerful mind, when he possesses all necessary things, when no danger, no fear is impending: we are then courageous when all things smile on us. But the Prophet, by calling God his strength, sets him in opposition to all other supports; for he wishes to encourage the faithful to persevere in their hope, however grievously God might afflict them. His meaning then is, – that even when evils impetuously rage against us, when we vacillate and are ready to fall every moment, God ought then to be our strength; for the aid which he has promised for our support is all-sufficient. We hence see that the Prophet entertained firm hope, and by his example animated the faithful, provided they had God propitious, however might all other things fail them.
He will make, he says, my feet like those of hinds. I am inclined to refer this to their return to their own country, though some give this explanation, – “God will give the swiftest feet to his servants, so that they may pass over all obstacles to destroy their enemies;” but as they might think in their exile that their return was closed up against them, the Prophet introduces this most apt similitude, that God would give his people feet like those of hinds, so that they could climb the precipices of mountains, and dread no difficulties: He will then, he says, give me the feet of hinds, and make me to tread on my high places. Some think that this was said with regard to Judea, which is, as it is well known, mountainous; but I take the expression more simply in this way, – that God would make his faithful people to advance boldly and without fear along high places: for they who fear hide themselves and dare not to raise up the head, nor proceed openly along public roads; but the Prophet says, God will make me to tread on my high places.
He at last adds, To the leader on my beatings. The first word some are wont to render conqueror. This inscription, To the leader, [Hebrew characters] lamenetsech, frequently occurs in the Psalms. To the conqueror, is the version of some; but it means, I have no doubt, the leader of the singers. Interpreters think that God is signified here by this title, for he presides over all the songs of the godly: and it may not inaptly be applied to him as the leader of the singers, as though the Prophet had said, – “God will be a strength to me; though I am weak in myself, I shall yet be strong in him; and he will enable me to surmount all obstacles, and I shall proceed boldly, who am now like one half-dead; and he will thus become the occasion of my song, and be the leader of the singers engaged in celebrating his praises, when he shall deliver from death his people in so wonderful a manner.” We hence see that the connection is not unsuitable, when he says, that there would be strength for him in God; and particularly as giving of thanks belonged to the leader or the chief singer, in order that god’s aid might be celebrated, not only privately but at the accustomed sacrifices, as was usually the case under the law. Those who explain it as denoting the beginning of a song, are extremely frigid and jejune in what they advance; I shall therefore pass it by.
He adds, on my beatings. This word, [Hebrew characters], neginoth, I have already explained in my work on the Psalms. Some think that it signifies a melody, others render it beatings (pulsationes) or notes (modos;) and others consider that musical instruments are meant.2 I affirm nothing in a doubtful matter: and it is enough to bear in mind what we have said, – that the Prophet promises here to God a continual thanksgiving, when the faithful were redeemed, for not only each one would acknowledge that they had been saved by God’s hand, but all would assemble together in the Temple, and there testify their gratitude, and not only with their voices confess God as their Deliverer, but also with instruments of music, as we know it to have been the usual custom under the Law.
1The verb means to break forth either in buds, or germs, or shoots, and so to germinate, or to blossom. It is rendered by the Septuagint [Greek characters], shall bear fruit.
2No satisfactory conjectures have been made by any as to the my added to this word. Hezekiah says at the end of his prayer, Is. xxxviii. 20, [Hebrew characters], “and my neginoth will we sing,” or play, &c. Our version makes this my to refer to the ode or song he made to be played on the neginoth, supposed to have been a stringed instrument. In this case “my neginoth” means the song he made for the neginoth. Then we might render the words, –
For the leader; my song on the stringed instruments.