Habakkuk and the Purple Crayon*

The oracle that the prophet Habakkuk saw.  O LORD, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? Or cry to you “Violence!” and you will not save?  Why do you make me see wrong-doing and look at trouble? Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise.  So the law becomes slack and justice never prevails. The wicked surround the righteous– therefore judgment comes forth perverted.

I will stand at my watchpost, and station myself on the rampart; I will keep watch to see what he will say to me, and what he will answer concerning my complaint.  Then the LORD answered me and said: Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so that a runner may read it.  For there is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and does not lie. If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay.  Look at the proud! Their spirit is not right in them, but the righteous live by their faith.

Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4; Lectionary Text for Sunday, November 2, 2019

Why write?  

I don’t mean why think, or why wonder, or why put those thoughts and wonderings into words.  I mean, having managed to word the thoughts, why write the words?

Why ‘write the vision’?  Why ‘make it plain on tablets, so that a runner may read it’?

Sometimes, of course, it’s the writing that forms the thinking.  It’s the discipline of putting words on the page (or screen or tablet) that disciplines inchoate imaginings into clear question or answer or insight.

But what of those other times?  What when you’ve already wandered around the neighborhood murmuring aloud, rehearsing the wondering variously and thoroughly?  When you don’t need the writing as aid to thinking, why write?  What is gained, or changed, when the vision is written?  The spoken word is powerful, of course, but it dissipates.  The vibrations hang on the air long enough to hit the ear, and then they are gone.  The word lingers in memory, maybe, but memory is a chancy thing.  It shifts.  It loses.  And it doesn’t always remember what it has lost.

‘Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so that a runner may read it.’  

What is this vision that Habakkuk is to write?  Is it anything more than the phrase ‘the end’?  Is it the rest of chapter 2?  Might ‘the vision’ be the prophetic book itself which, after all, refers to itself as ‘the oracle’ (or ‘burden’) that the prophet ‘saw.’ So many words of sight and observation then follow:  ‘Why do you make me see wrong-doing and look at trouble?’ the prophet cries out to the LORD.  ‘I will keep watch to see what he will say to me,’ the prophet speaks, as if to himself.  Having seen the slackness of the law, the perversion of justice, the prophet sets himself to watch for the LORD.   

Maybe Habakkuk writes the vision because he cannot not know what he views without putting it to words.  Maybe Habakkuk writes the vision to fix what he sees, to resist the possibility of time dulling the gaze, shifting the vision in a sort of incremental creep.  No, this is not the law, Habakkuk protests, this is slackness.  No, this is not justice, Habakkuk writes, but its perversion. 

‘Write the vision…’  Inscribe it on a tablet.  Put it outside yourself.  Make it a material thing.  Turn it over and around in your hands, look at it from all sides, then hand it along to the appointed time to come.

Maybe Habakkuk writes the vision because I cannot see what he has seen without reading his words.  

I read his vision writ plain, and the ‘I’ inscribed on the tablet becomes the reading me.  Habakkuk’s sight becomes my own.  No, this is not the law, I protest, this is slackness.  No, this is not justice, I proclaim, but its perversion.  I ascend to the rampart that Habakkuk’s pen has inscribed.  Habakkuk’s pen has written this watchpost into being.  The lines of his script pile up like stones hewn and stacked into a tower.  My legs ache with the climb.  I put my hands on the stone ledge and lean forward to look out the window and down.  I have a different perspective from up here.  What lies at the base shows smaller but also more clearly.  Then I lift my head and gaze at the horizon.  I watch for the LORD.  I expect an answer.  I will wait to see what word comes.

There is still a vision.  I will see it.  Take in my hand the tablet on which it is written so plain that a runner can read it, so lasting that another can climb it.  Write it anew, build it into being, and hand it again along.

* Apologies to Crockett Johnson’s Harold and the Purple Crayon (1955)