“Billionaire Dies at a Fortuitous Time.” That was the headline of a 2010 article in the journal of the American Bar Association. It invites the question, “Is there really a fortuitous time to die?”
It’s likely, however, that lawyers—the main audience who reads the American Bar Association journal— understood the precise implications of this headline. People like us, the general non-lawyer population, understands a “fortuitous event” to mean a “fortunate” event, a stroke of good luck, something positive.
Attorneys, however, know that in legalese the word “fortuitous” actually means something can be positive or it can be negative—it just all depends because a “fortuitous event”, lawyers know, is actually “an unforeseen event that occurs by chance or accident from natural or man-made forces over which an affected person has no control.”
So whether positive or negative, fortuitous events are not something within our control.
So with that in mind, let’s return to the article with the fortuitous death headline, an article about the passing of 77-year-old Texas oil-pipeline billionaire Dan Duncan. His death was fortuitous, and in this case it was both negative and positive. Negative to Mr. Duncan, well, because he was the one who died. And negative to his family who lost their loved one. But his estate heirs had a positive from it nonetheless—thanks to a quirk in the U.S. estate tax law.
As it happened, Mr. Duncan died within a one-year exemption window from the estate tax. Had he died three months earlier, his estimated $9 billion estate would have been taxed at a rate of around 45 percent. If he had lived until the following year, the tax rate would have been 55 percent. But since he died within that window of exemption, his whole fortune went on to those to whom he had willed it. Talk about your fortuitous blessing.
But bear in mind if the quirk in the estate tax had worked the other way—that is, if he had died during a window when death taxes were higher than usual— the outcome would still have been fortuitous for the heirs. As already noted, according to the legal definition, a fortuitous event can have either positive or negative consequences.
Now it’s not my goal here to reinstate the original meaning of “fortuitous” but, because life throws all sorts of events at us that may not be as good or bad as we initially think, it’s a useful term because it helps us to see that events, whether they have positive or negative outcomes, can be blessings nonetheless, blessings when we see how God is at work even when we wonder if God is doing anything.
We all have had events happen in our life where at first we thought the event was a bad thing, but given time or twists in this way or that, turned out to be good things. Or vice versa.
A friend and his wife are fond of saying when something doesn’t go the way they planned, that they don’t know if it is a bad thing or a good thing. They say, “It’s just too early to tell.”
A classic biblical example of this is Joseph being sold into slavery by his brothers. That’s bad for sure. But later, when he reunites with his brothers after a widespread famine drove them to Egypt in search of food, Joseph says to them, “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today.” (Genesis 50:20). All of it becomes a fortuitous blessing.
The book of Habakkuk is also about a fortuitous blessing.
Little is known about the prophet who speaks in this book. Scholars aren’t certain as to when he lived, although they speculate it was in the late seventh century and early sixth century B.C. because that time included the final years of the kingdom of Judah just before the Babylonians conquered that nation and sent the people into exile.
Although the Babylonian destruction did not occur until 586 B.C., Babylon threatened Judah for years before the final blow fell. And that was likely the political reality under which Habakkuk lived.
That said, it should also be noted Habakkuk is different from the other biblical prophets in that he does not preach to the people. Instead, what we get from him is a sort of transcript of a conversation between the prophet and God.
And because of this style Habakkuk becomes, in many ways, our contemporary because he saw the oppression of the weak, endless litigation and quarrels, dishonest practices, immorality and careless worship, and asks God the same kind of questions many of us ask: Why do you allow evil and injustice to go unpunished? Why do you allow someone who is evil to inflict suffering on someone who is not evil?
Our text for today is Habakkuk praying about the perverse situation in Judah, opening with the prophet asking, “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen?” The prophet knew communal life in Judah was far from what God wanted, and it made Habakkuk wonder where God was, why God wasn’t doing something to make all these wrongs right.
It’s the same wondering we have today when we look around and see our world the way it is. Where is God? Why isn’t God doing something to make all these wrongs, right?
It does seem, at times, as if God is not hearing our prayers, not working and responding. But we know God always is. Chapter two show this to Habakkuk when he gets his answer, although, it’s not what Habakkuk wants to hear. God tells Habakkuk the Babylonians would be used to right Judah’s wrongs.
Naturally, that divine response alarms Habakkuk. But, beyond that, it raises a larger issue: Why would God use people who were even less righteous than the people of Judah to right the Judahites? Sure, Habakkuk knew his people were far from behaving as God wanted them to, but, from the prophet’s point of view, the Babylonians were much worse. The Judahites at least gave lip service to God, even if their follow-through was abysmal.
The Babylonians, however, didn’t worship God at all. They were a brutal, pagan nation. Which is why Habakkuk asked his second question: “Why do you look on the treacherous, and are silent when the wicked swallow those more righteous than they?”
As far as Habakkuk was concerned, Judah’s defeat at the hands of the Babylonians was fortuitous only in the calamitous, negative, sense. He wasn’t comforted by God’s answer to his question about this. In time, God said, the Babylonians would be defeated as well. But God’s answer pointed to a larger settling of the scores and of righting the wrongs— an ultimate fulfillment of all things righteous and good.
God told Habakkuk, “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.” And it was in that context that God told Habakkuk that the righteous need to live by faith and trust God knows what God is doing.
In other words, God was telling Habakkuk he would continue to live in a time when justice would be hard to find, but he should trust the vision of a fully just time yet to come. “If it seems to tarry, wait for it. It will surly come.” This meant, for Habakkuk, living by faith meant carrying on in belief that God’s vision—God’s plan for the world—would become a reality even when he couldn’t see how.
So, with all that, we have to ask, was the Babylonian conquest of Judah a good or bad thing? If you were one of those killed in the invasion or marched off into captivity, you’d be hard-pressed to label it good. Yet from the perspective of history, it can look different.
For one thing, separated from the temple, which now lay in ruins in Jerusalem, the Jews could no longer offer sacrifices, but they continued to worship God, which helped them discover that their religion was not dependent on location and the temple. The captives came to understand that Judaism was a faith that could survive and be practiced in any setting and culture.
There was also an increase in literary production. Much of the Old Testament was produced or put into its final form during the exilic period. The history of Israel in the Promised Land was completed (Deuteronomy-2 Kings). The sayings of the prophets to that date were written down and preserved.
Add into all this, there was a significant reduction in idolatry.
So the answer to the question was the conquest good or bad, the answer is, “It was a fortuitous blessing.”
It seemed negative at first, it was hard to understand, it was frustrating, it caused God’s followers to wonder where God was, but it shows how God was still at work, and how God’s vision really did become a reality.
Sure, for Habakkuk and others it seemed to tarry, and the waiting seemed as if it would never end. But it was not yet the appointed time.
But when the appointed time came, God’s vision was clearly seen.
All of this becomes a prelude, of course, to God’s vision for redemption to be made manifest through Jesus. It is as the Apostle Paul would write centuries later; the exiles were learning the truth that, “All things work together for good for those who love God.” (Romans 8:28).
And therein is the lesson for us. We often simply cannot see the positive side of many things at first… and I would contest we may never see them in this life.
But we who have given ourselves to God are called to by faith, to trust and believe that what befalls us is always in the hands of God; that what causes us to cry out for help is always in God’s hand; that what makes us wonder if God is even there is already being tended to by God.
Yes, it is hard to have this kind of faith—especially with the way things unfold in the world today. Yes, it is hard to wait for it.
But when we let ourselves rest in the truth that God’s vision always comes, then we can find that we can wait in faith; and no matter the fortuitous circumstances that befall us—positive or negative—God is always at work blessing all of God’s children.
So may we know God’s is at work to bring forth God’s vision. And the time now, like the time we wait for, is filled with justice, rightness, and blessings. Amen.