How to Rejoice in Tribulations

by D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones

Habakkuk 3:3-19


     ‘WHEN I heard, my belly trembled; my lips quivered at the voice: rottenness entered into my bones, and I trembled in myself, that I might rest in the day of trouble: when he cometh up unto the people, he will invade them with his troops’ (verse 16). The prophet no longer has any theological or philosophical problems. He sees everything perfectly clearly; but he is only human after all, and seeing the judgments that are coming, he is filled with fear. How can he find inward peace when all these things are impending? How will he stand up to them? It is great comfort to know that these mighty prophets of God were but men like ourselves and subject to the same frailties as ourselves. We are inclined to think of them as men apart because of the greatness of their understanding. But if we do so we shall derive much less benefit from a consideration of their writings. Here, then, we get a glimpse into this man’s character. He is honest enough to tell us that when he heard what God had to tell him he trembled like a leaf. Our Lord recognized this same human frailty when He said, `the spirit indeed is willing but the flesh is weak.’ We should thank God for this distinction between lack of faith and the weakness of the flesh. God’s greatest men of faith often quailed physically at certain prospects which confronted them. To see the truth and understand the doctrines is most important, but despite this clear understanding we may still tremble physically. To do so under certain terrible conditions does not necessarily mean that you have no faith, though the devil will try to persuade you so. If ever you are so tempted, remember Habakkuk! Habakkuk understood perfectly, yet he trembled like a leaf through the sheer weakness of his flesh.


(a) The example of God’s servants

God `knoweth our frame; he remembereth that we are dust. He understands our’ human weakness, and has made wonderful provision for us. First of all, He graciously tells us that even His greatest servants have known something of physical fear combined with faith in His Word. We have seen that this was so with Habakkuk. But even Abraham, the man of great faith, knew at times what it was to be weak in the flesh. David, too, admitted that the flesh seemed to be failing him in spite of his faith. Jeremiah, like Habakkuk, was given a dark prophecy to deliver, and felt at times that he could not face the ordeal. The message was so terrible that, though in spirit he was ready to give it, his flesh naturally shrank from it. We get a glimpse of John the Baptist languishing in the prison, tired, suffering physically, and with these conditions reacting upon his spirit. We observe it even in the case of the mighty St. Paul. He tells us in the second Epistle to the Corinthians that his flesh had no rest. He was `troubled on every side; without were fightings, within were fears.‘ And when he preached for the first time in Corinth he did so `in weakness, fear and much trembling’. Such examples assure us that God understands us, and in His mercy will show us a way out of our difficulties.

(b) The gift of joy, not self-control

Now what can a man do in such a state of human weakness? What was there to sustain a man like this when the Chaldeans arrived and began to destroy the city? What was it that sustained the faithful remnant of the people of God when everything apparently was lost? It was not merely resignation or saying: `Well, there is no use crying over spilt milk, or getting alarmed and excited, because we cannot do anything about it.’ Nor was it just applying the principle of psychological detachment. It was not taking oneself in hand and saying: `The best thing is not to think about it! Go to the pictures, read novels and don’t think!’—a sort of escapism. Neither was it an attempt at being courageous. There is here no exhortation to courage. There is something infinitely greater than just making a mighty effort of the will and saying: `I am not going to whimper or cry, I am going to be a man.’ Habakkuk admits that his `belly trembled’, his lips quivered at the voice, and rottenness entered into his bones.

Now `psychological’ treatment differs greatly from the scriptural method. It is often sheer cruelty to a man who is in a state of uncontrolled fear to say to him, `Pull yourself together’. If he could, he would, and the trembling would stop. But the prophet is in a state in which he is unable to control his physical reactions. He cannot stop himself trembling, try as he will. The methods which the world offers at such a time are effective only for certain people, and at a stage when their help is hardly necessary. They are of no value when a person is in this stage of utter physical alarm.

Instead of mere resignation, or plucking up one’s courage, the Scripture shows that it is possible even under such conditions to be in a state of actual rejoicing: ‘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 no meat; the flock shall be cut off from the fold, and there shall be no herd in the stalls: yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will joy in the God of my salvation’ (verses 17, 18). The Christian claims nothing less than that. Your man of the world may, if he is in a physically good condition, school himself to a state of resignation. He may put on a courageous air as many did during the last war, and as many will continue to do. And that as far as it goes is a commendable spirit. But, in contrast to that, the Christian is assured that though he may be a person who is physically disposed to be thoroughly alarmed, he may experience not only strength but positive joy in the midst of danger. He may ‘rejoice in tribulation’ and be triumphant in the midst of the worst circumstances. That is the challenge of the Christian position. Herein we as Christians are to differ from the world. When hell is let loose, and the worst comes to the worst, we are to do more than ‘put up with it’ or `be steady’. We are to know a holy joy and manifest a spirit of rejoicing. We are to be ‘more than conquerors’, instead of merely exercising self-control with the aid of an iron will. We are to rejoice in the Lord and to joy in the God of our salvation. Such a time is a test for our Christian profession. If we are not then more than conquerors we are failing as Christians.

(c) The encouragement of history

Now, what is it that makes this possible? The prophet finds his consolation in a right and Christian interpretation of history, to which reference has earlier been made. Whenever, in the Psalms, the writer faces situations such as we are envisaging, he invariably looks back at the history of God’s dealings with men and thus finds himself praising God and rejoicing. The prophet likewise here reminds himself of certain of the great facts in the long story of the children of Israel, concentrating especially on the deliverance of Israel from the bondage in Egypt, their passage through the Red Sea, their journey through the wilderness, the defeat of their enemies and their occupation of Canaan.

We too must learn to employ this method. It may be that this will be the only thing that will hold us in the days that lie ahead. As we look out upon the world today is there any cause for rejoicing but this? Whatever may come, if we should ever find ourselves in the fearful state so graphically described by the prophet, the thing to do will be to look back at history.

First, we must concentrate upon the facts and realize that they are facts. The prophet goes into great detail in telling us of the things that God had done—how He had divided the Red Sea, halted the sun, and controlled the very elements. There is no question that the facts of the biblical record need to be emphasized above everything else in these days. There are those who tell us that what is needed is a return to biblical theology and a new understanding of the teaching of the Bible. They talk a great deal about the wonderful re-discovery in recent years of the essential message of the Bible. This is the emphasis of what is known as the `Neo-orthodoxy’. Most of them use the term ‘myth’ to describe many of the historical facts, and they say that the actual history is really not important in itself. The events recorded do not ultimately matter. What matters is the teaching that is enshrined in the supposed facts. They suggest that the historical details of the Old Testament are not of the first importance, and that it is not really essential for you to believe the facts. What is important is to believe the message which is presented in that form. Hence, many of them do not believe that the children of Israel did literally walk through the Red Sea. They say that it is scientifically impossible. However, they agree that there is an important principle enshrined in the story, and the main thing is to understand that principle. The current term `myth’ implies that the `shell’ of history is unimportant; it is the `kernel’ of truth that matters. The actual facts presented may not be true in themselves but what they represent is true.

Now if that view is true I have no consolation at all. If God did not actually do the things recorded in the Old Testament for Israel, then the whole Bible may be just a piece of psychology meant to keep me happy. The Bible, however, plainly shows that my comfort and consolation lie in facts—the fact that God has done certain things and that they have literally happened. The God in whom I believe is the God who could and did divide the Red Sea and the river Jordan. In reminding himself and us of these things, Habakkuk is not just comforting himself by playing with ideas; he is speaking of the things that God has actually done. The Christian faith is solidly based upon facts, not ideas. And if the facts recorded in the Bible are not true, then I have no hope and no comfort. For we are not saved by ideas; but by facts, by events. The Christian faith differs from all other religions in that its doctrines are based upon facts. Buddhism, Hinduism and other faiths rest upon theories and ideas. In the Christian faith alone we are dealing with facts. We must reject as from the devil this modern theory about `myth’. The facts believed and accepted as such by our Lord are absolutely essential.

Having established the facts, we must reckon on the greatness of God’s power. The prophet reminds himself of the miracles that God worked in Egypt: `His brightness was as the light; he had horns coming out of his hand: and there was the hiding of his power. Before him went the pestilence’ (verses 4, 5). Then he speaks of the dividing of the Red Sea: `Was the Lord displeased against the rivers? was thine anger against the rivers? was thy wrath against the sea, that thou didst ride upon thine horses and thy chariots of salvation?'(verse 8). It is important to accept the fact that Pharaoh and his hosts were literally drowned in the sea. The story is not a mere allegory of deliverance but an event that actually happened and by which God displayed His power.

     There follow references to Mount Sinai, to the dividing of the waters of Jordan, and then there is that striking phrase, `The sun and moon stood still in their habitation’ (verse 11). God arrested the sun in order that the children of Israel might triumph. The God in whom we believe can act, and does act, how and when it pleases Him. Habakkuk is meditating upon the greatness and the power of God and the miraculous element in God’s dealing with His people. If the substance of these miracles is not true, where is our comfort and consolation? The facts are important because they reveal the greatness and the power of God, and the miraculous element in God’s dealing with His people.

The third truth is that the God with whom we have to do is a God who is true to His word and keeps His promises. `Thy bow was made quite naked, according to the oaths of the tribes, even thy word. Thou didst cleave the earth with rivers’ (verse 9). The prophet, in reminding himself of the facts and of the power of God, is also assuring himself that, in these events, God was but keeping His word and fulfilling the oath given to Abraham, and repeated to Isaac and Jacob. God had said they were His people and that He had certain purposes for them, and so, though they seemed to be overwhelmed in Egypt, He brought them out and sustained them in all their troubles.

We now see clearly the divinely provided way to deal with the fear which we cannot control ourselves. We look back and think about God. When the prophet did this, he began to feel better. He forgot his nerves and, in contemplation of the mighty, miracle-working God, he was so filled with wonder that he began to rejoice. He then felt he could face whatever might come. In spite of everything he could rejoice in the Lord, and joy in the God of his salvation. Such a God, he knew, would not forget him, and such a God would certainly bring him through.


These are the facts which the prophet Habakkuk remembered for his own consolation. But we today are in a still more wonderful position than Habakkuk. We can add to the history, we can supplement the facts adduced by the prophet. We are in a position to see how everything that God revealed to him was literally fulfilled. The Chaldeans were indeed raised up; they did destroy the Israelites; the Israelites were carried away captive into Babylon. But, in due time, God turned upon the Chaldeans and destroyed them, and brought back the remnant of Israel to Jerusalem. The city was re-established and the temple was rebuilt.

We can go further. We can look at the facts of the mighty salvation that God has worked out in Christ. We may rejoice especially in the fact of the Resurrection. If ever a situation seemed absolutely hopeless it was when the Son of God was crucified on a tree and buried in a grave. The disciples were dejected, for indeed the end seemed to have come. But God acted in the miracle of the Resurrection. He showed that He was still God and that, with Him, nothing was impossible. The Resurrection of Jesus Christ is not an idea; but a literal, historical fact. If it is not, there is no gospel. We do not believe merely in some persistence of life beyond the grave. We do not merely say that Jesus still lives. We declare that He literally rose from the grave in the body. Everything depends on the truth of this.

Consider some further facts. The Jews persecuted God’s people cruelly, and were warned that if they persisted in so doing they would be finally destroyed. They had been warned in the Old Testament; ‘they were warned again by John the Baptist and by Christ Himself. When they persisted in wrong-doing, God destroyed their city in A.D.70. The temple was cast down and the people were scattered among the nations, where they still remain. The events of A.D.70 must never be forgotten. Never forget, either, what happened to the Roman Empire which persecuted the Christian Church and tried to destroy her. But it had been clearly revealed in the Book of Revelation and elsewhere that terrible disaster would overwhelm them and that they would be destroyed. It literally happened as anyone may read in the history of the Roman Empire. These events could be supplemented by many others down the centuries. The story of the Christian Church in the Middle Ages, the story of the

Protestant Reformation and the persecution of the Protestant Fathers illustrate the same principle. . . . In the great stories of the Covenanters and of the Puritans are found further illustrations of the same great principle. By reviewing these things we, like Habakkuk, will be able to rejoice in the Lord in spite of circumstances.

Over and above all other facts is the most glorious fact of all, the fact of Jesus Christ Himself. We are given the details of His earthly life in the Gospels so that we may have consolation in times of trouble. Above all remember that the Son of God Himself has been through this world. He knows all about the contradiction of sinners against Himself. Though He was the Son of God He knew what it was to be tired, to be weary, to be faint in His body, to sweat drops of blood in agony. He knew what it was to face the whole world and all the power of Satan and hell massed against Himself. ‘We have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin’ (Hebrew 4:15). He knows all about our weakness and our frailty. The incarnation is not a mere idea but a fact: ‘The Word was made flesh’. And in our agony and weakness we can always turn to Him with confidence knowing that He understands, He knows, and He can succour. The Son of God became man in order that He might be our perfect High Priest and be able to lead us to God.

My hope is built on nothing less 

Than Jesu’s blood and righteousness.

I dare not trust my sweetest frame 

But wholly lean on Jesu’s Name.

When darkness seems to veil His face

I rest on His unchanging grace; 

In every high and stormy gale 

My anchor holds within the veil.

His oath, His covenant and blood 

Support me in the ‘whelming flood. 

When all around my soul gives way 

He then is all my hope and stay.

On Christ the solid Rock I stand.

All other ground is sinking sand.

So, come what may, `I will rejoice in the Lord, I will joy in the God of my salvation’.

[pages 66-76]


Taken from D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ book “From Fear to Faith,”


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