The prophet Habakkuk recorded his brief but piercing message around 600 BC, just before the southern kingdom of Judah was defeated by Nebuchadnezzar, and many of its people were carried away into captivity in Babylon. Contemporary prophets such as Jeremiah and Zephaniah included earnest calls to repentance in their challenges to the people of Judah. But Habakkuk had none; it was too late. Captivity was coming, and it was inevitable. There had previously been a revival under young king Josiah, but sadly it did not last long. The worship of Baal had been reintroduced, and with it came a resurgence of injustice in society, under kings Jehoiakim and Jehoiachin. Habakkuk was distressed about the moral and spiritual condition of his people, and entered into a vigorous dialogue with the Lord about it. Why did wicked men get away with robbery and violence? How long were they going to go unpunished? To his amazement, the Lord told him that He was going to use the even more wicked nation of Chaldeans (Babylonians) to punish them. This worried Habakkuk even further. Why was He using them as His agents to punish Judah? As he went up into his watchtower, the Lord set his mind at rest by revealing that they wouldn’t get away with it. Justice would finally be done.
Shining through all this gloom are a number of bright spots, like sun gleaming through gaps in the clouds, or like gems against a dark backdrop. Perhaps the brightest of these was God’s ultimate answer, received by Habakkuk, as he puzzled in his watchtower: “The righteous shall live by his faith” (Hab. 2:4 NIV). This remarkable verse represents one of the greatest statements in the whole of the Old Testament, and might well be regarded as a central theme of the whole Bible.
In context it stated that the pride of the Chaldeans would be their eventual undoing. This “ruthless and impetuous people” (Hab. 1:6) would themselves be punished (Hab. 3:16). Their eventual downfall was sure after the Lord had used them for His judicial purposes. Wickedness always carries with it the seeds of its own destruction. in contrast, the faithfulness of the righteous, the godly and upright remnant of Israel, would be their salvation. Their upward-looking faith would allow them to trust God, even in the worst possible circumstances of national disobedience and departure. The remarkable verse, “The righteous shall live by his faith” (Hab. 2:4), is quoted three times in the new Testament, each with a slightly different emphasis and with an up-todate and more specific meaning. Let’s look at each of them.
Romans Stresses “The Righteous”
“I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: ‘The righteous will live by faith’” (Rom. 1:16-17).
This passage, from Paul’s letter to the Romans, accentuates the idea of righteousness. God now deals with people on exactly the same basis, irrespective of ethnic group. The message of the gospel is the same for all. A just God is able, through Christ’s atoning death, to give people a perfect standing before Him. His righteousness is “imputed” (put to their account); it becomes theirs through faith in Christ and His finished work on the cross of Calvary. They in turn become justified, and so in a position to live in accordance with the divine pattern revealed on the pages of Scripture. This is achieved through the principle of faith, evidenced by those who have faith. The Christian life is a faith-journey from start to finish.
Hebrews Stresses “Will Live”
“‘But My righteous one will live by faith. And if he shrinks back, I will not be pleased with him.’ But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who believe and are saved” (Heb. 10:38-39).
Faith is not just a single event, exercised at some point of time in the past; it is a way of living. And the only life that pleases God is the faith-life. Belief in God and His righteousness is something for a lifetime – for the long haul. A life like that of a Jew who comes to the very brink of embracing Christianity through faith in Christ, but then draws back into the ritual of Judaism, brings no joy to a loving God. On the other hand, a life of one, Jew or Gentile, who accepts and believes and values God’s promises, and perseveres to the end, is one from which He can derive great pleasure.
Galatians Stresses “By Faith”
“All who rely on observing the Law are under a curse, for it is written: ‘Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law.’ Clearly no one is justified before God by the Law, because, ‘The righteous will live by faith.’ The Law is not based on faith; on the contrary, ‘The man who does these things will live by them.’ Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: ‘Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree.’ He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit” (Gal. 3:10-14).
People cannot be justified by their own works. The Jewish nation tried it, back in the time of Moses, and failed miserably. “We will do everything the LORD has said” was their bold assertion (Ex. 19:8), made by all the people together. But they couldn’t keep their promise and fell under the curse of the Law. The Law doesn’t ask people to believe; it insists they obey. But Christ through His death on the cross has removed the curse of the broken Law. Now only blessing remains to those who accept His offering on their behalf, believing on Him in simple faith and trust.
Habakkuk’s Message Is For Today
Habakkuk, looking from his watchtower more than 25 centuries ago, had it right, as he saw captivity inevitable for Judah as a result of their disobedience. His message has not become dated. in today’s equally sinful world, shattered by earthquakes, tsunamis and ethnic violence, faith is still the basis of a lifestyle which is pleasing to God. There is no acceptable alternative. We are not capable of earning our eternal salvation by doing good deeds, however meritorious. We must accept it as an undeserved gift from God. The good deeds of compassion and justice will follow in due course, as we model our lifestyle on the perfect example our Lord has left us to follow.
By Ian Livingston
With permission to publish by: Sam Hadley, Grace & Truth, 210 Chestnut St., Danville, IL., USA. Website: www.gtpress.org