Nothing is known of Habakkuk the man beyond that which can be gleaned from this little book. Even his name is enigmatic. It may be a Hebrew word meaning “embrace,” but it has been traced also to an Akkadian root meaning a garden plant (see standard critical commentaries). It is evident from his book that he was a passionate, caring individual who used his considerable theological acumen to reason his way, under divine direction, to conclusions that continue to influence the church. This book traces his theological journey through social concern and personal plan to redemptive faith.
The controversy over the date of Habakkuk centers on the interpretation of one word in 1:6: “Chaldeans” (“Babylonians” in NIV). Who were these “ruthless and impetuous people” whom God raised up to punish Judah? Early in this century, Duhm, Torrey, and others (see standard critical OT introductions) used complex textual emendations in suggesting this was a reference to Alexander's conquests in Asia between 334 and 331 b.c. They dated the prophecy in the late fourth century b.c. But the lack of textual support for this interpretation, enhanced by the discovery of a text of Habakkuk in 1947 among the Dead Sea Scrolls (1QpHab), supports the traditional view that “Chaldeans” referred to the Neo-Babylonian Empire that dominated Mesopotamia between the fall of Nineveh (612 b.c.) and the rise of the Persians (539 b.c.). Thus the NIV's interpretative “Babylonians” in 1:6 is justified, and the book may be dated to the late seventh and early sixth centuries b.c. Habakkuk's ministry should most likely be dated between Josiah's death (609 b.c.) and the deportation of Jerusalem's nobility to Babylon in 597 b.c.
This period of Judah's history began with great hope and confidence in the future. Josiah's revival of Deuteronomic theology and covenant faithfulness had begun in earnest in 621 b.c. (2Ki 22-23). These domestic events were fueled in part by the decline of Assyria, for centuries the single most dominant world empire.
But this age of hope ended as suddenly as it began. After the fall of Nineveh, Josiah became entangled in the international machinations and was killed by Pharaoh Neco in 609 b.c. Neco's hand-picked replacement, Jehoiakim, was a weak leader who allowed Josiah's reforms to lapse. Judah soon fell back into pagan practices and immorality that resulted in the injustice and lawlessness so objectionable to Habakkuk (1:2-4). Egypt and Media were significant world powers, but it was the Chaldean hegemony at Babylon that would soon dominate the scene and play a fatal role in Judah's history.