Though the fig tree should not blossom,
nor fruit be on the vines,
the produce of the olive fail
and the fields yield no food,
the flock be cut off from the fold
and there be no herd in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the LORD;
I will take joy in the God of my salvation.
GOD, the Lord, is my strength;
he makes my feet like the deer's;
he makes me tread on my high places. (Habakkuk 3:17–19)
One of the challenges of being cooped up in our houses is that it gives us extra time to worry. As we read the news, if we’re not careful, we can begin to imagine the worst-case scenario and let that fear drive us to anxiety and despair. God is so good to us that he gives us passages of scripture like this one that go with us to that place. But they don’t leave us there. They refocus our hearts on our only hope in life and in death.
I have a collection of books that I call my “desert island books,” because if I were ever to be stranded on an island, these are the books I would want with me. One of them is a collection of sermons by F.W. Boreham (what a horrible name for a preacher, by the way). Boreham preached a series of sermons on texts that were transformational in famous people's lives. The man that he chose whose life was transformed by Habakkuk 3:17-19 was a man named Walter Petherick. The only thing that makes Walter Petherick famous is that he lived through two of the greatest tragedies in history and repeated this text as true.
Walter Petherick lived in the 1600s. At forty-seven he found himself a widower trying to raise four children on his own. In 1665, the Great London Plague broke out – a plague that killed an estimation of one hundred thousand people. the plague was sweeping across London. It was a pneumonic plague – people were dying basically of pneumonia. They couldn't figure out the cause of it or the cure. Still, Christians, by-in-large, did not leave the city, and churches kept their doors open, mainly for funerals.
Petherick decided one day to take his children to church. It was devastating. They would pass by street after street where they would hear the wailing of bereaved parents and family members. On every street, almost on every door, there was a red cross signifying that someone had died from the plague there. Petherick made his way to church with his four children, and the preacher chose as his text that morning Habakkuk 3:17-19. He preached this text in the middle of the London Plague. Petherick said later, “that text had a mighty influence on me.” He went home later that afternoon and read scriptures with his children (something that wasn't really his regular practice) and he tucked them into bed.
As soon as he had put them to bed, he started thinking about that passage again and the sermon he had heard that morning. He was undone. He was panic-stricken. He began to fear that that night one of his children – maybe all of them – would die of the plague. He read the passage again. He went from bed to bed and he would pray over his child, “Oh, God do not take this sweet little boy from me.” He had no peace. He kept praying and he kept reading.
Eventually, Petherick remembered that he used to pray like that when he first became a Christian. He used to pray that way when he was first a husband and a father. He used to pray that God would make him faithful and that God would help him love his family in a way that would bring glory to him, that God would use him to extend his kingdom. But as the gifts multiplied – a wife and four children and wealth as a merchant – he heard described in the preacher's sermon what had happened to him. He had come to the point where he loved the gifts but he'd forgotten the giver. He cried out to God and said, “I have forgotten you. Do for me what you did for Habakkuk. There's still time for you to revive your love in me.”
And then, he said he couldn't explain it – he was still concerned of course to lose his children – but there was a peace that he could not explain. He looked out his window at the Thames and he said it was as calm as he had ever seen it. He said, “my heart was as calm as the Thames that night, calm in the assurance that my God was trustworthy. I was focused again on the giver.”1
Is it possible to have that kind of peace in this pandemic?
Nothing had changed in the geopolitical situation that Habakkuk was facing when he wrote this. The only thing that changed was that Habakkuk's vision had been taken off of the circumstances which made him embittered toward God and his eyes had been focused on God revealed in the coming Christ. That changes everything.
Habakkuk thought that God had changed sides. He thought that God was angry with him, that God was punishing him, but by the end of this book he's convinced that God loves him and loves him so much that he was purifying he and his people so that he could bring a redeemer through them and save the whole world. "I will rejoice in God my salvation," he says.
F.W. Boreham had a woman in his congregation named Jenny McNabb. He admitted that she was just a little too peppy for him sometimes – everything was positive; everything was going to work out.
Finally, Boreham said, “but suppose, Jenny...”
She said, "now pastor, you just stop that supposing thing. Next time you have a supposing come on your doorstep, you shut the door and bolt it. You don't let that supposing come into your house.”
Boreham said he learned later that that wasn't Habakkuk's attitude. Habakkuk opened the door to all the ‘supposings.’ Suppose the fig tree doesn't bud, the olive crop fails, and there's no food in the field. “Come on in,” Habakkuk would say. “Come on in to my house, every one of you supposings. Come in. Because you're all ultimately given to me by the sovereign Lord. He is the one who gives them. He may take them away, but I don't live by them. I don't live by the gifts; I live by the giver – my savior who gives me joy; my sovereign Lord who gives me strength.”
One year after God brought Walter Petherick to the realization mentioned above, he was sitting at his breakfast table and he was thanking God that all four of his children were still living. Then, little Henry Petherick came into the breakfast room yelling, “Papa, papa, the city is on fire!” It was the Great London Fire. One year after the plague in which one hundred thousand people had just been killed, the Great London Fire burst out, consuming 70,000 homes, numerous businesses, and 87 churches. Petherick’s response was not what Habakkuk's was initially – “How could you be fair? How could you not hear us? How could we cry violence and you don't listen?”
He said that even as he watched the fire cross over his warehouse and in an instant take away all of his earthly possessions and destroy his business – all except for the house he was living in – he said, “I had peace that passes all comprehension, because I remembered that God is my savior; the sovereign Lord is my strength. The Lord gives; the Lord takes away, but blessed be his name because he is the Lord. He seals all of his promises and his goodness to me ultimately in Christ, so that ultimately, I can lose nothing.”2
I know the people I am pastoring. There are those who have lost husbands and wives and fathers and mothers and possessions and businesses and honor. So, I can't write these things tritely. In fact, if it were left to my own wisdom, I would never write this at all. But what I'm repeating to you as I repeat it to my own heart is not the coping strategies of men. It's the truth of the Word of God who says to me and you, “Come to me. I've proven through the ultimate loss of my son for you that I love you and you can never be lost. All of my promises are yes and amen in him regardless of how our circumstances speak to the contrary. Come to me.”
1. Frank W. Boreham, A Handful of Stars (New York: Scriptura Press, 1959).