This article looks at the meaning of Habakkuk 2:4 in its context, and as it is used in the New Testament, as it points to the nature of biblical faith.

Source: Lux Mundi, 2005. 3 pages.

Why So Difficult?

high mountain

So often we would like to see a little more of God and of the way in which he saves us. But he asks us to believe in him. That is the only way to (eternal) life. Faith is all about the things we cannot see. Why does it have to be this way? What is the good in that?

“But the righteous will live by his faith” (NIV). This is undoubtedly the most famous text in Habakkuk. No less than three times are these words from Habakkuk 2:4 quoted in the New Testament. Paul refers to them in Romans 1:17 and Galatians 3:11. The writer of the letter to the Hebrews quotes them in chapter 10:38. These words became famous because of the role they played in the life of Martin Luther. He experienced them as an enormous liberation: you are cleansed of all your sins, if only you believe in Jesus Christ.

In this article I first want to say something about the meaning of these words in their original context in Habakkuk. Then I describe how they are used in the letter to the Hebrews and by Paul. At the end I will try to answer the question: why does God keep asking us to believe in him?

In Habakkuk🔗

The righteous one in Habakkuk is a child of God who is being threatened. Life is made impossible for him by lawless people (Hab. 1:4). But more suffering follows when the Lord sends the Chaldeans. The Chaldeans are arrogant and just as insatiable as death. Mercilessly they kill and slaughter peoples and nations (Hab. 1:7, 10-11, 13-17; 2:4-5).

It is to such a threatened righteous one that the Lord says that he must patiently wait for God’s intervention (2:3). This is the only way in which his life can be safeguarded. Even though the injustice carries on, he should keep a level head. He must remain true to His God. He must yield to the One who will intervene at the proper time. That is the trusting faith which the Lord demands in Habakkuk 2:4: “But the righteous will live by his faith” (NIV).

In the New Testament🔗

The letter to the Hebrews is addressed to people who are dealing with suffering and persecution (cf. Hebr. 10:32-34). The writer encourages them to persevere and to keep waiting for the second coming of Jesus Christ. They must not recoil, but keep on believing, even though they cannot see what they believe (cf. Hebr. 11:1). The writer underlines his call for perseverance by quoting words from Habakkuk 2:3-4. The readers can only be saved through faith (Hebr. 10:36-39).

Thus, the context in which the letter to the Hebrews quotes Habakkuk 2:4 resembles the context in Habakkuk itself. God’s children, living among people who frustrate them, must wait for God’s coming with full confidence.

When the apostle Paul quotes Habakkuk 2:4, he is dealing with questions that are quite different. He writes in Romans 1 that there is but one gospel, through which people can be saved. Jews as well as gentiles stand guilty before God (Rom. 3:19). There is only one way in which they can be acquitted, that is, justified: only through faith in Jesus Christ (cf. Rom. 1:16-17; 3:21-4:25).

In Galatians 3, Paul writes that nobody can share in Abraham’s blessing through the law. There is, after all, no one who really keeps the law. The same holds true for all peoples, including the Jews: one can only be justified before God by faith. It is what Habakkuk already wrote: “The righteous will live by his faith.” (Gal. 3:11).

the word faith

The background against which Paul makes use of these words differs considerably from the original context in Habakkuk. Briefly, the difference comes down to this: for Habakkuk the question is how a righteous person can survive among lawless people; for Paul the question is how lawless people, who stand guilty before God, can become righteous. (cf. Rom. 4:5).

God Alone🔗

So the two contexts and questions are quite different. At the same time, however, there is a clear connection, for there is only one way to life. Both for the righteous, the faithful children of God in Habakkuk’s time, as well as for guilty Jews and gentiles in Paul’s time. The only way in which they can be saved is by surrendering to God in faith. Their only security is God. They are completely dependent on His intervention. Man cannot provide the solution, only God can do that.

That was true in Habakkuk’s time, when the Chaldeans invaded the country. They made things worse than they already were. Nobody could do anything against them. Nobody except God could save the righteous from this threat.

The same was true in Paul’s time and now, for anyone who stands guilty before God. They can only be saved by God’s intervention through Jesus Christ. God Himself had to do something impossible through His Son: carry out a plan of salvation by which guilty people could be acquitted (cp. Rom. 4:5 with Prov. 17:15)!

God Himself at the Centre🔗

As sinful people we can only be saved by faith. That is what Paul teaches us. The book of Habakkuk shows us something of what that faith involves. Habakkuk himself demonstrated the trusting faith which the Lord asks of the righteous.

When the Lord sent the Chaldeans to restore order, Habakkuk was totally confused about what his God was doing. But he refused to break with him. He kept calling on him as the Lord, holy God. He remained convinced that the eyes of the Lord were too pure to look on evil (Hab. 1:12-13).

When the Lord had showed him his coming in a vision, Habakkuk’s inner being was shaken and he stood trembling. But he kept looking forward to God’s coming. He even prayed for it. What’s more, he kept rejoicing and exulting in the Lord, even when all possibilities of life disappeared. (Hab. 3:2, 16-19).

Habakkuk did not rejoice in what he saw with the naked eye or in what he could touch with his hands. He rejoiced and exulted in his God! The Lord himself, the God who would save him, was enough reason for him to shout for joy!

God was at the centre of Habakkuk’s trusting faith. It was all about him and what He meant to Habakkuk. If you realize that, you can understand something of why God keeps asking us to believe in Him. It is not because God is unwilling to show us something. It is certainly not because God wants to make things difficult for us. It is because he wants to be served by people who love him for who he is. God himself wants to be our everything. He became everything for us in his Son Jesus Christ. In what Christ did, God proved that Habakkuk rightly called on him as ‘the God of my salvation’ (Hab. 3:18). This is what we are supposed to live out. By remaining faithful to him in all circumstances and by waiting on him in trusting faith. That is how God wants to bring us to (eternal) life. That is how he wants to deal with us. He is after our hearts.

rescueing person

Questions for Study or Discussion🔗

  1. What sort of life is meant by the statement ‘the righteous will live by his faith’? Is this about survival in this world, or about eternal life or both? See also Deuteronomy 30:15-20 and John 17:3.
  2. Which elements in the prophecies of Habakkuk have to do with the coming of Jesus Christ?
  3. What are you now: a righteous person or a lawless one?
  4. Why is believing both easy and difficult at the same time?
  5. God asks that we believe in things we cannot see. How can you explain to a nonbeliever that this is in fact something very beautiful?

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