On Sunday morning, Pastor Elroy walked us through Habakkuk chapter 2. It contains that Romans 1:17 famously quoted text "The just shall live by faith." Elroy pointed out the two senses of this text - God's faithfulness and our trust in Him. I'm thankful for a church that exposits the scriptures.
I grew up in a Lutheran church where we all watched the 1953 classic Louis de Rochemont black-and-white biography of Martin Luther. I knew from a young age that this verse was the turning point for his life, from a life of slavish monkish practice into the freedom that comes from trust in Christ. As a child, we earned rewards for memorizing scriptures, but "The just shall life by faith" was in Lutheran vocabulary so often, that it seemed a little like cheating to get a 'prize' for reciting it.
There are, of course, a few other words in Romans 1:17, including "... as it is written,..."
In all my adult years of church-going, I have never heard a sermon on the text that Paul is quoting. Habakkuk is a short book, and a little obscure. Whenever it showed up on my devotional reading list, I tried the (childish) trick I had always used with the prophets - rush through the unpleasant to get to the uplifting "the just live by faith" and the encouraging "GOD, the Lord, is my strength; he makes my feet like the deer's; he makes me tread on my high places."
Several years ago, a friend recommended a very wonderful book by Richard B. Hayes "Echoes of Scriptures in the letters of Paul." (and I recommend it to you). It was the first time I was invited to think about what Paul meant by "as it is written" before quoting this obscure Hebrew prophet/poet.
There is some uncertainty about exactly when Habakkuk is writing, but it has to be after Isaiah. And given the deplorable conditions, it must come after the time of good king Josiah's reforms. By the time of Habakkuk's 'burden', life in Judah has turned ugly: "Destruction and violence are before me, strife and contention arise. So the law is paralyzed and justice never goes forth." Habakkuk 1:3b-4a. Early on, Habakkuk clearly demonstrates a fear that the Babylonians must come soon, a reality that Isaiah had revealed to Hezekiah over a generation before (Isaiah 39:6). Soon after Josiah's death, Nebuchadnezzar II had defeated the Assyrians and Egyptians at Carchemish in 605BC, and nothing now stood between him and invasion of Jerusalem. The Babylonians were already known for their skill at siege warfare, "9 They all come for violence, all their faces forward. They gather captives like sand. 10 At kings they scoff, and at rulers they laugh. They laugh at every fortress, for they pile up earth and take it." Habakkuk 1:9-10.
Habakkuk is in turmoil. How could a good God allow this aggressive, cruel, idol-worshipping nation to subjugate his beloved Zion? Where were all the promises that David would have a son to sit upon the throne "forever" (2 Samuel 7:13). Worse, as Habakkuk asks in this turmoil, "why do you idly look at traitors and are silent when the wicked swallows up the man more righteous than he?" Habakkuk 1:13. Life in Judah is unbearable. How much worse to be besieged by a nation that makes an art of starving nations into submission. A man who fully believes and trusts in God is in anguish because he of what he believes: the Sovereign God who created heaven and earth merely by breathing out a word is now going to allow what seems incomprehensibly evil.
The people of God have always faced this challenge to their faith - a good God allowing human evil. Many both OT and NT writings wrestle with a believer's perspective on what is at stake. The technical term is "theodicy" - vindicating a sovereign god who is good despite the continued evil and suffering in the world.
This is the context for the verse that captures our attention, the one that Paul quotes in Romans and Galatians, the one that reverberates throughout the reformation. "The just shall live by faith." As you slog through Habakkuk 2, it's almost a puzzling throw-away. But only until you realize what you are truly looking at.
Habakkuk is struggling with the suffering that continues under the twisted rule at home and the judgment coming from abroad. Judgment must come on his nation that has spurned God's covenant love. But how shall a righteous one 'live' and continue to be faithful under such dire circumstances? Chapter 1 has poured out Habakkuk's complaint, and Chapter 2 begins with a promise to wait to hear what God will say. That enigmatic verse comes in the middle of God's reply - "the righteous shall live by his faith."
What makes it such a curious verse has to do with the pronouns - *his* faith - and the differences between the Hebrew text and the Septuagint translation. The Septuagint, also called the LXX, is the Greek translation of the Hebrew text that occurred sometime around the 2nd century BC. I'll quote Hays, as we say, at length:
"In the Hebrew text of Habakkuk, God's answer to the prophet is an exhortation to keep the faith: "The righteous one shall live by *his* faithfulness," that is, in the end, God will reward the person who remains faithful. The LXX however has reinterpreted the dictum as a promise about the character of God "The righteous one shall live by *my* faithfulness," that is, God's own integrity in preserving the covenant with Israel will ultimately be confirmed. As Paul allows the quotation to reverberate into the text of Romans he elides the crucial personal pronoun, so that we hear only "the righteous one shall live by faithfulness." (Hays page 40)
This isn't the place, and I'm not the person, to elaborate on the issues in textual criticism that lie behind Hays' insight. Suffice it to say that the NT writers are handling the text faithfully, and that both senses of the verse are attested in the NT. It is also entirely consistent to the NT to say that anything that is 'of me' that is good must have come from the good God and not the sinful me. So the double meaning makes perfect sense to believers.
It's a powerful verse, and quoted three times in the NT. The first two are in Paul's writings: Romans 1:17 and Galatians 3:11, and both without the "his" pronoun (i.e. "the just shall live by _ faith.") If you want to better understand the technical/linguistic background for why Paul can quote it this way, have a look at Beale & Carson "Commentary on the NT use of the OT" page 608. But once you do, you can see how useful it is to consider how "from faith to faith" connects to "live by faith." We truly are justified by faith. That is, we live both by God's faithfulness and by the believer's own faith and trust, itself a gift, in God.
The epistle to the Hebrews adds another dimension. He backs the quote up to the prior verse in Habakkuk (verse 3) which in the ESV reads "For still the vision awaits its appointed time; ..." The writer to the Hebrews quotes the LXX to show that the vision is of "the coming one" - the Messiah. Hebrews 10:37 " yet a little while and the coming one will come and will not delay." This view, plain in the LXX, nicely connects with the promise in the Hebrew text of Habakkuk that God himself will bring justice and will not delay; in Habakkuk Chapter 3 God does indeed come upon the scene. It is this promise that the writer to Hebrews is calling us to be faithful to.
Habakkuk's oracle calls believers to be faithful despite the violence in the world and the judgment that is coming. The writer to the Hebrews echoes Habakkuk's call in the context of faithfulness to Christ in the face of persecution. Both writers promise that God will come and will not delay. So that just as John the Baptist asked *from prison* in Matthew 11:3 "are you the coming one, or should we look for another?" Jesus answered that he is indeed the fulfillment of all the promises in the OT.
Justification by faith, a cornerstone of the Reformation, remains a key doctrine of grace. But how much fuller it is than simply a casual intellectual assent of forensic righteousness. In the midst of an increasingly troubled world, we find peace with God and look with hope for Christ's return 'having been freely justified by his grace."
"Yet a little while, and the coming one will come and will not delay; 38 but my righteous one shall live by faith, and if he shrinks back, my soul has no pleasure in him." Hebrews 10:37-38/Habakkuk 2:3-4
Hebrews 10:39: But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who have faith and preserve their souls.