The Prayer of Habakkuk is a song that describes a grand vision of God, shining forth in glory upon a mountain. It refers back to the events of the Exodus – and points forward to the coming of the Messiah. The prayer, also known as the ‘Canticle of Habakkuk’, is now used as part of the Church’s worship.
Habakkuk was one of the Twelve Minor Prophets. In his short book, he covers a number of themes. This includes the question of why God allows suffering, as well as his judgment upon those who practice violence and exploitation. He describes the recent conquests of the Babylonian army, which means his book was probably written just before they invaded Israel.
In some ways, the Prayer of Habakkuk – which is found in chapter 3 of the book – stands on its own. The song draws upon images from the Exodus, when God revealed himself in glory on Mount Sinai and rescued his people from the Egyptians. Using poetic language, Habakkuk describes God going into action in his own day to save his people and destroy their enemies.
However, in Christian tradition, the song was also often interpreted as a mysterious reference to the Transfiguration of Christ. This was when Christ was glorified before his disciples on a mountain, his face shining as brightly as the sun (Matthew 17:1-8). A line in the Prayer of Habakkuk (according to the Catholic Douay-Rheims translation) reads: “Thou wentest forth for the salvation of thy people: for salvation with thy Christ.” (3:12). This was understood, along with Habakkuk 2:3, as an ancient hint to the coming of the Messiah. (cf Hebrews 10:37)
This painting of the prophet Habakkuk, by the Gothic Revivalist Nathaniel Westlake, reflects that view. It’s found on the sanctuary ceiling of St Thomas of Canterbury, in St Leonards-on-Sea and dates to 1908-1911. It forms part of a wider scheme of the Transfiguration of Christ (shown here). The bearded prophet is holding a Latin scroll that quotes a line from his prayer (3:4): “His brightness was like the sun; rays came forth from his hand.”
Habakkuk’s gaze is towards the scene of the Transfiguration, which his scroll cryptically refers to. The image sits alongside three other Old Testament prophets who were also understood to hint at the future Transfiguration of Christ – King David, Isaiah and Malachi.
See the full image:
Where to find this work of art
St Thomas of Canterbury, St Leonards-on-Sea
Read the relevant passage