What do you see?

 “Why do you make me look at injustice?
    Why do you tolerate wrongdoing?
Destruction and violence are before me;
    there is strife, and conflict abounds.
Therefore the law is paralyzed,
    and justice never prevails.
The wicked hem in the righteous,
    so that justice is perverted.”
(Habakkuk 1:3-4)

 “Then the Lord replied:

‘Write down the revelation
    and make it plain on tablets
    so that a herald may run with it.
 For the revelation awaits an appointed time;
    it speaks of the end
    and will not prove false.
Though it linger, wait for it;
    it will certainly come
    and will not delay.’”
(Habakkuk 2:2-3)

In the summer of 1978 I had the opportunity to do a short-term missions assignment in New Delhi, India while I was still a Hopkins student. Since it was just a bus ride away, when I had some time off I went south to Agra, home of the Taj Mahal.

According to Wikipedia, the cost of construction in 2020 terms of work completed in the mid-17th century is just under a billion dollars (yes, billion). I don’t have an opinion to offer on that fact, but there is no denying its incredible beauty.

And that’s from many vantage points. For example, according to Diana and Michael Preston (The Taj Mahal), there are sections of inlaid marble smaller than a business card that contain more than 40 slivers of semi-precious stone. So even if your nose is 10 inches away, you can savor the craftmanship from that perspective. I know it’s an overused word, but exquisite is the only word that does justice to the color and attention to detail.

The most common view is probably the straight-at-you view with the Taj at the end of the long reflecting pool. I went there at 7 a.m. and in the morning mist found myself already shoulder-to-shoulder with tourists and photographers at the end nearest the entrance.

This is a wordy way of saying that perspective is everything. Perspective, of course, has to do with what you see, but also what you can’t see when you change vantage points: you can’t see the fine detail in the Taj’s marble walls from the end of the reflecting pool, but you also can’t appreciate the beautiful symmetry and proportions of the building from a distance more suited to reading the directions on a can of spray paint.

Perspective was something important for the prophets, too. I did a simple search of “what do you see?” on Bible Gateway which yielded about a dozen examples of the Lord asking them this very question. Sometimes it was to call attention to Israel’s unfaithfulness; other times it was symbolic and evocative, inviting the prophet to see from an entirely new perspective.

Today, seeing and hearing are figurative expressions for comprehending the will of God. I don’t hear an audible voice when I pray; I don’t see PowerPoint projections in the air that show me God’s perspective on a particular situation. I’ll leave it for you to judge if that impairs my ability to do what I’m doing. I don’t think it does.

But seeing is also a matter of training and experience. When my podiatrist holds up an x-ray of my foot and points to this and then that and then there’s this over here, I have to take his word for it. I have 20/20 vision no less than he does, but all I see is blurs and shadows.

The things I see in the word, or how they apply to particular situations, are because I have an experienced, trained eye. I’d like to tell you I am some kind of profound thinker, but the truth is what I see stems from—are you sitting down?–use. From a lifetime of obedience, not a perfect record, of course, but a consistent forward progress.

Use leads to more light. But seeing or hearing does not come with a lifetime guarantee. Jesus said, “Therefore consider carefully how you listen. Whoever has will be given more; whoever does not have, even what they think they have will be taken from them” (Lk 8:18).

Which is why I have been stressing the importance of hearing from God in this hour. What you see and hear informs how you think, how you react, what you feel, speak and do.

The prophet Habakkuk struggled mightily with what he saw around him, and then God laid this gasper on him: “Look at the nations and watch—and be utterly amazed. For I am going to do something in your days that you would not believe even if you were told. I am raising up the Babylonians . . . to seize dwellings not their own” (Hab 1:5-6).

Well, thanks a lot. Consider yourself un-Followed and blocked on Twitter.

The prophet was already overwhelmed with the sorry state of the people of God. And now God, “whose eyes are too pure to look on evil” (1:13), Habakkuk took time to point out, was giving the Babylonians leave to do their worst (which they eventually did).

I can understand the prophet’s bewilderment. He was as human as I am, and as prone to complaining out of the distress of his heart. But if he knew the law, and I must assume he at least had a passing familiarity with the terms of the covenant, he would have recalled this:

“The Lord will bring a nation against you from far away, from the ends of the earth, like an eagle swooping down, a nation whose language you will not understand, a fierce-looking nation without respect for the old or pity for the young” (Dt 28:49-50). This was announced hundreds of years before Habakkuk’s time.

This was the covenant consequence of turning away from God, and Habakkuk should have had no problem seeing parallels between this description and his day. He certainly saw the problems; he balked at the consequences. He just couldn’t see this actually happening.

And this is the danger we face today. There is the every day reality we encounter, which the historian William Manchester describes as “confronted each day by the present, which always arrives in a promiscuous rush, with the significant, the trivial, the profound and the fatuous all tangled together” (A World Lit Only by Fire, p. 26, 1993 paperback edition). This is what we see up close, like the delicate stone inlays inches from my face.

And then there is the big picture that, for the church, must be informed by hearing from God today in light of biblical and church history. We have centuries of history at our disposal. “There is nothing new under the sun” (Eccl 1:9). “The unfolding of your words gives light” (Ps 119:130). That was written 30 centuries ago and is no less true today.

If we can’t look beyond the end of our nose, all we’ll see is an N95 mask and be reminded of the now. But “he also has set eternity in the human heart” (Eccl 3:11) and we can’t ignore that or, paradoxically, we’ll be as out of sorts as Habakkuk, oppressed by the present.

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