The Just Shall Live By Faith
Habakkuk 2:4 - Behold, his soul which is lifted up is not upright in him: but the just shall live by his faith.
The prophet Habakkuk was a minister to the southern kingdom of Judah and wrote in anticipation of the start of the fifth course of punishment and Judah’s impending Babylonian captivity. As part of the national covenant, the law of God promised that His nation would eventually be scattered among the heathen if God’s repeated warnings and chastisements were not heeded (see Lev. 26, Deut. 28). Since the final days of Joshua, the seeds of national rebellion toward Jehovah had been cultivated and nurtured by disastrous leadership, and this was only eclipsed intermittently by brief periods of revival and short-lived blessings under a few good men. Aside from short spans of reformation under the various judges, God’s mercy under David and Solomon, and the discontinuous reigns of a handful of kings, the punishments of the law had been Judah’s portion without reprieve.
It appears likely that Habakkuk’s ministry fell within the reign of Josiah. Josiah was one of the few exemplary monarchs of the southern kingdom that patterned his steps after the LORD in true Davidic fashion, but even the revival of his day was insufficient to reverse the tide of apostasy. His reforms, as noble as they were, fell short of losing Judah from her idolatrous stronghold, and divine judgment as legally prescribed was already in the making. The arrival of the great scattering that the law promised was now inevitable, and the time was nearing in which the LORD would fulfill His word in walk[ing] contrary unto [his people] in fury (Lev. 26:28) and they would be scattered among the heathen (Lev. 26:33).
Habakkuk’s first chapter, then, is devoted to the burden which he did see (1:1) concerning the bitter and hasty Chaldeans. Nebuchadnezzar’s terrible and dreadful (1:7) host would soon descend upon their dwelling places, and with swiftness, his leopard-like horses would overwhelm the beautiful land with the fierceness of evening wolves (1:8). It would be the Gentiles this time, led by the great king of Babylon, that would drive out the heritage of the LORD from His pleasant land; an unbecoming antithesis to Joshua’s day. Judah would then be scattered and removed until the land enjoy[ed] her sabbaths (Lev. 26:34) just as the law had said.
This judgment upon Judah was the direct consequence of her unfaithfulness to the law covenant, and her captivity under the thumb of the Gentiles was precisely what the law called for at this stage. Joshua had warned their fathers of this day. As the LORD had been faithful to bring them into the land under Joshua’s leadership, so He would be faithful also to drive them out when they violated the terms of the covenant.
Joshua 23:15 – Therefore it shall come to pass, that as all good things are come upon you, which the LORD your God promised you; so shall the LORD bring upon you all evil things, until he have destroyed you from off this good land which the LORD your God hath given you.
Faithfulness to the legal contract that Israel had chosen for themselves was now a divine responsibility as codified in the law. In Exodus 19, the nation had elected to be dealt with on a performance basis, and willingly (might I say, arrogantly) signed on to be dealt with just so. This was the choice of a stiff-necked people who were determined to be dealt with by their works, and though their inevitable failure under such a system was evidently shown to them by the LORD, they persisted in their choice. The consequences were detrimental. Rather than receiving the blessing of Abraham on the basis of unconditional promise that was confirmed by a one-party oath in Jehovah’s name, Israel’s transgressions caused the law to be added and brought a contingency into the way of blessing. The law introduced a two party agreement in which blessing was conditioned upon obedience, and it was, therefore, ordained by angels in the hand of a mediator (Gal. 3:19). Thus the law, yea rather, Israel’s inability to keep the law became a barrier to them receiving the blessing God had intended for them, and their history had proven that their merit on a conditional system would result only in the curse. According to the terms of this covenant, Habakkuk was told that Judah must receive judgment, and thus we are given to understand the LORD’s purpose in that which Habakkuk saw.
Now despite what the covenantal cursing clearly called for, Habakkuk the prophet was somewhat perplexed by how the LORD was choosing to execute its terms. Questions circled in his troubled mind. Why would God utilize a wicked nation worse than his own to judge his people? Why would the LORD permit the heathen, in arrogance, to run roughshod over His inheritance and allow the pollution of His own glory by giving it to idols? Judgment from the LORD is one thing, but judgment in which heathen idols receive glory is quite another! How can the LORD look upon these that deal treacherously and hold His tongue? This is the perplexity of Habakkuk’s heart, and these are the questions for which he desires an answer from the LORD as he closes chapter one.
Having received the knowledge of the LORD’s purpose in judgment and subsequently inquiring as to the justice of the LORD therein, Habakkuk begins chapter two by setting himself to watch what the Lord will say concerning His sin laden people and His ultimate purpose with them. It is in Hab. 2 that the prophet is given a vision from the LORD which promises the restoration and fulfillment of the kingdom calling of His nation, along with the declaration concerning the avenging of His cause upon the Gentiles. The LORD makes it clear that Judah's unfaithfulness under the covenant of the law in no way invalidates the promises made unto the fathers, and when the program had run its full course, the earth would indeed be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD as the waters cover the sea (2:14). The kingdom and Israel’s fullness therein would come despite their national transgressions. This is what Habakkuk was given to see, and on this basis, he concludes his prophecy with a kingdom psalm for the remnant that shall be partakers of the covenantal blessing.
Now it is in the midst of the vision of the kingdom glory and the avenging of the LORD’s cause upon the Gentile oppressors, that we find the declaration that the just shall live by his faith (2:4). For context, note especially the verses leading up to this statement.
Hab. 2:2-3 - And the LORD answered me, and said, Write the vision, and make it plain upon tables, that he may run that readeth it. For the vision is yet for an appointed time, but at the end it shall speak, and not lie: though it tarry, wait for it; because it will surely come, it will not tarry.
Habakkuk was commanded to Write the vision, and make it plain. This was to be done unto a certain end, for the purpose clause declares, that he may run that readeth it. Habakkuk was to write the vision plainly and make it evident to all readers that the LORD will avenge Judah's cause upon her enemies, and exalt the nation according to her covenantal calling. There was much heartache ahead for the nation in Gentile captivity, but the LORD would in no wise forsake Judah utterly. The fifth course of punishment would be protracted, and the prophesied restoration would seem to tarry long, but the word of the LORD hereby certified His undying purpose with Israel.
Furthermore, Habakkuk was instructed to write this vision in tables of stone that would not pass away. He was to make it plain, legible and permanent so that those that read it might run as a messenger thereof to declare the word of Jehovah to his fellows in the nation. This was to the intent that those that read and heard would be strengthened and emboldened in the face of oppression and persecution not to be ashamed of the testimony of the LORD concerning them. Though the enemy’s heart was not upright in him as he carried out the divine decree, the confidence of the faithful would remain in the word of the LORD and the just shall live by his faith.
The effectual working of the doctrine given to those Israelites was designed by God to keep them from the shame and the overwhelming despair that would threaten them as they waited upon the LORD with a promise that would not lie. At the heart of the matter being highlighted is the glory of the LORD. The doctrinal significance of that name, especially as it related to Israel’s covenants, was the prime issue that secured Israel’s future glory. On the basis of Jehovah performing in the nation’s stead, the kingdom purposes of God with them would yet be established in the land. It would be Jehovah’s truth and grace that brought this to pass when the work of the law had successfully wrought contrition in Israel and they were brought to see that salvation is of the LORD.
In this we see a number of important points when it comes to the matter of what characterizes justifying faith. As Paul makes evident with quotations of Hab. 2:4 in both Romans and Galatians, we see that no man’s justification is procured for him by the works of the law (Rom. 1:17; Gal. 3:11). Even in the midst of the chastening upon Israel as under the law in Habakkuk’s day, the hope of the just was not found in his law keeping, but rather in his faith in the LORD. It was by that name and all that it implied that the LORD Himself would act to bring His cause with Israel to pass. His work would be their hope, and nothing could be more evident at this stage in Israel’s history when the curses of the law had reached their climactic stage in the captivity, than that the works of the law were futile and vain in the matter justification before God. All that their works had merited them was judgment, wrath and the curse. Any Israelite at that time dealing honestly with the law of righteousness would have to come to the same conclusion that the Psalmist did when he said, there is none good, no, not one (Ps. 14:3). As the schoolmaster taught his unpleasant lessons of human inability and sin, the one that would be just was brought to the realization that his only hope would be found in the name of the LORD and he would cast himself in faith completely upon the only One who was able to do what the law could not. As the publican that prayed in Luke 18:13, the heart cry of the just would ever be, God be merciful to me a sinner, and thus the just [lives] by his faith.
The lesson there is what Paul draws on when bringing men to the faith of Christ as the only hope for justification in God’s sight. The works of the law have no place! If God’s own chosen nation was unable to be justified by it, then certainly no man in the present age will be either. The law is good if a man use it lawfully, for when he does he will be brought to realization that by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight: for by the law is the knowledge of sin (Rom. 3:20).
Gal. 3:10-11 – For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse: for it is written, Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them. But that no man is justified by the law in the sight of God, it is evident: for, The just shall live by faith.
It is on this basis of understanding that we are made to realize that our only hope is in Christ Jesus, our Jehovah, the Savior who functioned in our stead, was made a curse for us, and redeemed us from our dreadful plight. Faith in Him justifies sinners and it is that hope in which we rejoice as the just [who] live by faith!
Gal. 3:24 – Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith.
Published by Joshua Edwards
Joshua Edwards is an ambassador for the Lord Jesus Christ who is dedicated the to the communication of sound doctrine as set forth in the pages of God's word. He desires to have all men to be saved by believing the gospel of the grace of God, and thereafter to come unto the knowledge of the truth by establishment in the preaching of Jesus Christ according to the revelation of the mystery (Romans 16:25).