An Exegetical Study Of Habakkuk 2:4 As It Relates To Paul's Doctrine Of Justification By Faith

  • Discussion:
          -The Book of Habakkuk is a classic example of what we would call a theodicy. It serves as a defense of the goodness of God in the midst of evil. A theodicy aims to solve the paradox of His general providence in a world of pain and misery. How could an all-loving, all-knowing, all-powerful God allow people to go through bad things? Why do evil people seem to prosper while the righteous suffer, being continually trampled on? Why is perfect justice not always inflicted on evildoers in this world? Questions of this nature plagued Habakkuk's mind in the situation of his day. Countless other people throughout the course of history have asked the same.

          Habakkuk was troubled deeply by the corrupt society in which he lived. The laws of the prophet's own nation were not being enforced. Justice was not a thing to be found in that land. Faithlessness toward God abounded. Habakkuk wondered how a righteous God could be silent and allow these things to come to pass. Why does He stand by and do nothing? The prophet raised such questions not in a state of doubt, but faith. While God did not specifically answer the why behind that man's questions, the response given aroused a greater sense of perplexity than he originally had. How could a righteous God use Babylon, a nation more wicked than Judah itself, as an instrument of divine judgement?

          The underlying theme of the Book of Habakkuk is that we can place our trust in God because of His sovereignty. He is working things out for the good of those who love Him. Whether things seem impossible to us is irrelevant to God. He will right the wrongs of evildoers in His own perfect timing. His plan will prove satisfactory to us in the grand scheme or complete picture of all events when they are brought to a close. The Book of Habakkuk contains a passage that is quoted twice by the Apostle Paul in the context of our justification before God, particularly in Romans 1:17 and Galatians 3:11. 

         The Talmud has a passage which says that God gave to the Israelites through Moses six hundred and thirteen commandments. It is said David reduced that number to fifteen (Psalm 15). Isaiah is said to have further reduced the number of commandments to six (Isaiah 33:15), Micah to three (Micah 6:8), Isaiah again to two (Isaiah 56:1), and Amos to one (Amos 5:4). In contrast to the idea of justification by works of the Law, Habakkuk places emphasis chiefly on faith in God. The text being discussed is cited in its entirety as follows:

          "Behold, as for the impudent one, His soul is not right within him; But the righteous one will live by his faith." (Habakkuk 2:4)

          Habakkuk was told by God to write down a message of the ruination of the Babylonian Empire and the restoration of Judah. The king of Babylon would die as a result of being conceited. God would preserve a small remnant of Jews who were obedient to His commandments. The Babylonian army was brutal in conquest. Captured leaders were humiliated. A series of woes is pronounced on Nebuchadnezzar for his greed, covetousness, and cruelty. It is a truth that God judges people who are arrogant and presumptuous (Numbers 14:44). Habakkuk 2:4 contains a description true of human nature in that we fail to properly honor God. 

          The Babylonian Empire was stooped in moral corruption. It used threats and force to enrich itself monetarily (Habakkuk 2:6). Babylon pillaged and plundered other nations. It slaughtered innocent people and destroyed their homes (Habakkuk 2:8). These actions are denounced by God as being cruel. The Babylonians would pay by their own self-destruction. They were only setting themselves up to be punished by God. What did the Apostle Paul see in this passage that made it relevant to his teaching on justification in Romans and Galatians? Did he misunderstand the words of Habakkuk?

          Paul sees in this passage the foundation of the message of the gospel in which man is declared righteous by God apart from the merit of good deeds. The prophet's words are certainly broad enough to fit with Paul's application of them. The apostle's message could be paraphrased in this manner: "the one justified by faith shall live." He concerns himself with the reception of spiritual life. Habakkuk 2:4 is the only text besides Genesis 15:6 that brings together faith and righteousness in the Old Testament. Thus, we see the reason for Paul appealing to them in his argumentation against Law observance for justification in Romans and Galatians. A righteousness that comes by faith is antithetical to a Law righteousness.

          The Apostle Paul's point of emphasis in Romans 1:17 is that the person who has been justified by faith is to live a life of faith. We receive a righteousness from God that does not belong to us and is based on Christ's propitiatory work on the Cross. Spiros Zodhiates writes, "The expression "from faith to faith" is merely an intensive form meaning "faith alone"" (Hebrew-Greek Key Word Study Bible, excerpt on Romans 1:17). Paul was a Hebrew who used expressions in the manner of that found in the Old Testament. Phrases comparable to "from faith to faith" in Romans 1:17 from the Old Testament would include "vanity of vanities" (Ecclesiastes 1:2), "holy of holies" (Exodus 26:34), and "heaven of heavens" (Deuteronomy 10:14). Paul interpreted the Prophet Habakkuk's words which were originally delivered to a faithful remnant that appeared to be on the brink of utter destruction as being words of hope for lost humanity. The condition for Jews to receive blessings and protection from God under the Old Covenant is the same for Christians under the New Covenant: faith. A man cannot obtain a just standing before Him without faith. Faith, righteousness, and life are things that are intimately connected to each other. God is our source of comfort and security, whether we live or die.

          Paul in Galatians 3:11 gives weight to Habakkuk 2:4 with the intent of making the point that one is justified in the sight of God on the basis of faith. He uses something other than the Law to make us right with Him. It is a life of faith that glorifies God. It is that kind of a life which brings honor to Him. The Apostle Paul's teaching of living by faith is to be contrasted with the Law's requirement of "doing" in order to have life (Deuteronomy 27:26; Leviticus 18:5). The latter way brings about death and is therefore of no avail to us in getting a righteous standing before God. The word "by" in the Greek of Galatians 3:11 means to be in the power or according to the nature of. We obtain a righteous standing before God by faith. We are freed from the guilt of sin by grace through faith. 

          Hebrews 10:38 is the third and final place of the New Testament which contains a citation of Habakkuk 2:4. The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews is unknown. The context of this passage is not justification before God but persevering in doing the will of God. There is a contrast in this verse between two types of people. The person whom God considers as righteous is one who longs for the fulfillment of His eternal promises which as of yet cannot be seen. They endure persecution and so secure for themselves an inheritance that cannot perish. The author in the next chapter proceeds to give examples of such people from the Old Testament who rejected worldly pleasure in favor of eternal blessings. All of the faithful will be richly rewarded by God in the life to come. The person who succumbs to persecution is regarded as one in whom He "takes no pleasure." That course of action is called apostasy.

          Some translations of the Bible use the word "faith" in Habakkuk 2:4 (New King James Version, English Standard Version, New American Standard Bible, etc.), while others have "faithfulness" (New International Version, New English Translation, etc.). Either choice of wording is acceptable in this context. The LXX Septuagint translation says, "the just shall live by my faith," as if God's faithfulness is in view. However, that reading of the text is not taken into consideration here. A man who has faith is one who trusts in God. Such a man's character is honorable and reliable. His ways are morally upright. Those who have faith in God will also believe His promises. They are loyal to His covenant. The Apostle Paul would have derived his understanding of faith from the Old Testament Scriptures. It would prove beneficial to us if we did the same. David W. Kerr, in the Wycliffe Bible Commentary, p. 876, writes:

          "...In most places in the OT where it [faith] is used it has the second meaning [faithfulness rather than faith], for example, in II Kgs 12:15; Jer 5:1. It is, however, worth noticing that the root of this word [Hebrew emunah] has already been used in Hab 1:5 in the sense of giving credence to God's word or promise. Moreover, faithfulness, even as an aspect of a man's character, does not occur in the void. Faithfulness must be exercised in relation to someone or something. In this case the individual is to be faithful to God, to God's word and covenant. He must rely firmly upon, or have a deep-rooted trust in God himself. The NT use is in complete agreement with this."

          The same author cited before comments further on the text of Habakkuk 2:4, p. 877:

          "...Paul, in comparison with Habakkuk, enlarges infinitely the scope of the word "live," for he applies it to life to come, to the sphere of salvation or eternal well-being in distinction from merely temporal well-being. That the apostle is justified in doing so will readily be granted by Christians, since the NT writers employ many forms and figures of the OT with a fullness of meaning far transcending that which they had for believers under the older dispensation. Finally, the antithesis between the principle of active faith and that of meritorious law-works as a means of salvation is, of course, a part of the apostle's own argument. It is a logical development from the nature of faith itself."

          The Concordia Self-Study Commentary, by Martin Franzmann and Walter H. Roehrs, p. 639, has the following note on the meaning of the word faith in Habakkuk 2:4:

          "The word faith occurs only once in Habakkuk (2:4); but his whole prophecy is a word of faith, faith agonized, questioning, seeking, finding repose in God, and jubilant, finally, in assurance of God's love, and all this in the face of the obstacle to faith posed by God's scandalously mysterious governance of history. When Paul quotes 2:4 in his thematic statement of justification by faith in Ro 1:17, it is only fair to assume that he is quoting with a consciousness of this original context of faith in Habakkuk. For Paul, as for Habakkuk, faith is confronted by an action of God which is offensively enigmatic, namely, the weakness and foolishness of the Cross; for both Paul and Habakkuk faith is faith without works, for both it is "quietly waiting" for God to do His saving work. For both, faith is not one aspect of man's existence before God but the whole of his relationship to Him."


This is great man. I like your exegesis. Thanks for posting. Together we can get the group going again.

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