A Faith to Live By

Habakkuk 2:1-4

Where it not for the apostle Paul, many Christians today would be blissfully unaware of this little book of prophecy.  In fact, it takes a great many folks in church forever to find it!  That is unfortunate because Habakkuk’s three-chapter book of prophecy is chock full of some of the most insightful and penetrating questions in all of literature (Carl Amerding).  Here are some of them:

  • Why don’t you do something?  Concerning God’s seemingly indifferent attitude toward the sin of His people.
  • Why are you going to use Babylon–a godless nation–to discipline your people, the people of Judah?  Asked of God when God informed the prophet that His chosen instrument to punish His people for their idolatry would be a nation of idolaters, the Babylonians.

If you have ever been baffled by the mysterious ways of God, then you’re in good company.  Habakkuk was in search of answers and the answer God gave him was, in some ways unexpected and, some might say, ambiguous:

[T]he righteous will live by his faith.  (verse 4b)

That is the verse that Paul made famous in his writings, quoting it both Romans and Galatians, and it is also referenced in Hebrews.  It’s also the verse that helped spark the Protestant Reformation.  So this small book, part of the Minor Prophets, is anything but minor, in fact, its influence has spanned the millennia.

1.  The man and his time

To help us understand verse four, it is helpful to understand the man who wrote it and the strange time in which he lived.  We know virtually nothing about the man, Habakkuk, except by way of his name.  “Habakkuk” has been associated with an Assyrian garden plan, and some scholars suggest that he was a Jewish captive living in Nineveh.  Others suggest that Habakkuk was actually a priest, like Jeremiah, his contemporary (James Gailey, Jr.).  As to its meaning, “Habakkuk” means “to embrace.”  Martin Luther comments:

Habakkuk signifies an embracer, or one who embraces another, takes him into his arms.  He embraces his people, and takes them into his arms, comforting them and holding them up, as one embraces a weeping child, to quiet it with assurance, that if God wills, it shall soon be better.

He was sensitive to the present condition and the future prospects of his people, whom he loved deeply.  Habakkuk was also in the mold of “Doubting Thomas,” as he is seen questioning God throughout, and God is seen answering him.

Like Nahum, Habakkuk seems to have contributed nothing of significance to the history of his people, except for this brief literary masterpiece that as influenced both is people and the Church for all time.

Habakkuk’s prophecy was written during the final, pitiful years of Judah’s decline, around 626-586 BC.  During this time, under the leadership of Josiah, Judah experienced its last period of both religious revival and material prosperity.  Also during this time, Nineveh fell, after having been given a century of grace by God (612 BC) and Babylon dominated all of Palestine, taking captive the residents of Jerusalem in 586 BC. when the city was leveled.  So, the prophet experienced it all during his lifetime, from peace and prosperity, to utter desperation and despair as he watched the mighty Babylonian forces approaching the beloved City of God.  It is likely that he did not survive the destruction of Jerusalem, although some scholars have suggested that he was, in fact, deported to Babylon, where he lived a short time.

Habakkuk, with his sensitive heart and keen intellect, was shown things by God that were disturbing, to say the least.

Look at the nations and watch—
and be utterly amazed.
For I am going to do something in your days
that you would not believe,
even if you were told.  (1:5)

2.  The occasion and purpose of his prophecy

Any prophecy is the result of a divine revelation given to a person, who in turns passes that divine revelation on to the people.  Such revelation and its ensuing proclamation are the results of the prophets burden of the conditions of the people themselves and of the nation as a whole.  Habakkuk, though, was slightly different than the rest of the prophets because rather than speak for God to the people, he spoke to God about the people, with God giving him divine messages.

We can learn a lot about the mindset of Habakkuk when we understand that he was moved to go to God for answers by his observances of people he referred to in these verses:

Therefore the law is paralyzed,
and justice never prevails.
The wicked hem in the righteous,
so that justice is perverted.

Your eyes are too pure to look on evil;
you cannot tolerate wrong.
Why then do you tolerate the treacherous?
Why are you silent while the wicked
swallow up those more righteous than themselves?  (1:4; 13)

Just who were these evil, vile people?  It seems Habakkuk had in mind two groups of people:  foreign invaders, the Chaldeans or the Babylonians, as referenced in 1:6,

I am raising up the Babylonians,
that ruthless and impetuous people,
who sweep across the whole earth
to seize dwelling places not their own.

But there were also home-grown Judean oppressors, who were bleeding their citizens dry with outrageous lending practices and idolatry.

This intolerable situation; immanent invasion and destruction from without, and decadence from within, led Habakkuk to see astounding things.

3.  The setting for God’s answer

Before God answers the prophet in chapter 2, we need to be aware of Habakkuk’s two complaints and God’s two responses in chapter 1.

  • Complaint #1:  The coming of the Babylonians.  God is about to judge Judah for their wickedness by using a wicked, idolatrous nation.  This was a big pill for the prophet to swallow.
  • Complaint #2:  Why would God use the Babylonians, a people even more wicked than his own people, to punish those comparatively less wicked?

That brings us to 2:1,

I will stand at my watch
and station myself on the ramparts;
I will look to see what he will say to me,
and what answer I am to give to this complaint. (NIV)

I will stand upon my watch, and set me upon the tower, and will watch to see what he will say unto me, and what I shall answer when I am reproved.  (KJV)

I will stand upon my watch, and set me upon the tower, and will look forth to see what he will say unto me, and what I shall answer as to my reproof.  (Darby)

This is an interesting verse because it shows how the prophet’s mind worked.  He is not addressing God here, he’s talking to himself and the Hebrew is quite ambiguous.  Habakkuk, after pouring his heart out to God, withdraws to “the watchtower,” or “ramparts,” a very lonely and quiet place where he could look out observe both the city and land around it.  The simplest and most logical way to interpret this verse is that Habakkuk, who has just complained to God is now going to wait to see if God will answer his complaint or if God will “put him in his place” for complaining.  Dunning sees in this verse the arrogance of a man who would demand that God answer his complaint.

4.  God’s answer in a vision, verses 2-3; 16-17

Then the LORD replied:
“Write down the revelation
and make it plain on tablets
so that a herald may run with it.
For the revelation awaits an appointed time;
it speaks of the end
and will not prove false.
Though it linger, wait for it;
it will certainly come and will not delay.
You will be filled with shame instead of glory.
Now it is your turn! Drink and be exposed!
The cup from the LORD’s right hand is coming around to you,
and disgrace will cover your glory.
The violence you have done to Lebanon will overwhelm you,
and your destruction of animals will terrify you.
For you have shed man’s blood;
you have destroyed lands and cities and everyone in them.

Those who have come against God’s people, whether the Babylonians or backslidden Jews, will not escape God’s justice; they will reap what they have sown.  The fulfillment of this vision, Habakkuk is told, will come at some point in his future.

There is are two great lessons here for believers.  First, God will not “bawl out” any believer with genuine questions.   It is true that too many questions weary God, but be assured God will let you know when to stop asking.  Second, God may answer your prayers immediately, but with an answer you least expected.  In Habakkuk’s case, God’s answer to his complaint would not be fully realized until the future.  Without the right heart, that could be a disappointing answer!

5.  The key, 2:4

See, he is puffed up;
his desires are not upright—
but the righteous will live by his faith.

This is one of the key verses in all of Scripture, and it the key to understanding the real message of Habakkuk.

First, there are two groups of people described in this one verse, and they serve to contrast each other.  The first group is “puffed up” and “his desires are not right.”  To whom does this apply?  The Babylonians?  The backslidden and wicked Jews?  Or both?  Since this verse is part of God’s answer to the prophet’s complaints about “the wicked” back in chapter one, God has in view both groups.  The Babylonians were a warlike people, driven by pride as their empire grew dramatically over a relatively short span of time.  They were prosperous, wealthy, strong, and led by Nebuchadnezzar, a young genius.

The backslidden Jews of Judah, who, in their own way were oppressing the citizens, would also find God’s justice in the very near future.

Both groups, those who snubbed their noses at God, would come to sure and certain end.

The second part of the verse concerns those who have faith.  The just, we are told, shall live by faith.  The word rendered “faith” is the Hebrew emunah, from a verb meaning “to stand firm.”  It is usually used in the Old Testament in the physical sense of “steadfastness” (Smith).   Another and perhaps more accurate way to translate emunah could be “faithfulness,” or “beliefs,” which is derived from the same root as emunah (Smith).

To help us understand the strength of the word emunah, there are two references that may enlighten us.

  • Exodus 17:12, where it describes the uplifted hands of Moses, which were “steady.”
  • 2 Kings 12:15, describing men who dealt “honestly” with people’s money.

In each of these cases, emunah is used to describe a steady, dependable action.  Because the New Testament applies this verse to the Christian faith, we know what God meant:  the just shall live obediently according to their faith in God’s Word.  Faith in God is far more than merely passively trusting in Him, it involves actively living out one’s life in a way that remains absolutely loyal to the teachings of the Bible regardless of the situation one is living in.

Cook makes a insightful observation:

In one short saying, the two general aspects of the prophet’s inquiry are dealt with; the pride and injustice of the invader are dealt with, and the just man is assured life, ie., preservation from evil and salvation on the condition that he hold steadfastly to the principle of faith.


The apostle Paul uses this verse twice in his teachings on the great doctrine of justification by faith.  Christians, then, who have been forgiven of their sins, set free from the bondage to that sin, now stand before God “just as though they had never sinned.”  If that is how we appear to God, that is how we must attempt to live our daily lives.

(c)  2009 WitzEnd

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