“Behold, his soul is puffed up; it is not upright within him, but the righteous shall live by his faith. “Moreover, wine is a traitor, an arrogant man who is never at rest. His greed is as wide as Sheol; like death he has never enough. He gathers for himself all nations and collects as his own all peoples.”~ Habakkuk 2:4-5 (ESV)
By the third century, Simla, a Jewish rabbi, had documented a total of 613 mitzvahs (or commands) from Moses (365 prohibitions and 248 positive commands).
King David included a mere 11 commands in Psalm 15:
O LORD, who shall sojourn in your tent? Who shall dwell on your holy hill? He who walks blamelessly and does what is right and speaks truth in his heart; who does not slander with his tongue and does no evil to his neighbor, nor takes up a reproach against his friend; in whose eyes a vile person is despised, but who honors those who fear the LORD; who swears to his own hurt and does not change; who does not put out his money at interest and does not take a bribe against the innocent. He who does these things shall never be moved.~ Psalm 15:1-5 (ESV)
These are the fruits of the righteous, indeed!
Isaiah reduced them even further. Isaiah’s list is only six traits:
“Who among us can dwell with the consuming fire? Who among us can dwell with everlasting burnings?” He who walks righteously and speaks uprightly, who despises the gain of oppressions, who shakes his hands, lest they hold a bribe, who stops his ears from hearing of bloodshed and shuts his eyes from looking on evil, he will dwell on the heights; his place of defense will be the fortresses of rocks; his bread will be given him; his water will be sure.~ Isaiah 33:14-16 (ESV)
Micah was determined to be even more barebones; he outlines three primary characteristics of the righteous:
He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?~ Micah 6:8
And then we come to Habakkuk, who is famously concise. He has gotten to the very core of the righteous man: “The righteous shall live by his faith” (Habakkuk 2:4).
After the last study and having moved right through chapter 2 in a single message, I felt this nagging desire to circle back to this critical text for further study. Its importance can’t be underestimated. It isn’t the heart of the gospel, but it closely resembles the aorta, the body’s largest artery carrying oxygen-rich blood to the body. The heart of the gospel is the person and work of Jesus Christ—His perfect life, His substitutionary and sacrificial death for sinners. And yet, like the aorta, it is sola fide—by faith alone—through which salvation flows. Yes, Habakkuk 2:4 is rich with significance and pregnant with truth.
We have in this verse three common Hebrew words (righteous, live, and faith) with massive ramifications. My effort and aim is to open up both the significance and the truth of these words, “The righteous shall live by his faith.”
In our last study, we saw something of the value of these words contextually. This was a balm to Habakkuk amid the rapidly approaching storm of God’s judgment blast. These were words of comfort to God’s man, God’s prophet and were intended to be words of hope to all God’s people—the remnant in Judah in Habakkuk’s day and the remnant of saints in our own day. We also saw the historical worth of these three Hebrew words in the life of Martin Luther and in the birth of the Protestant Reformation. But today’s focus is going to be more on the experiential significance of this verse.
Habakkuk was that righteous man living by his faith. You, dear Christian, are that righteous one living by his or her faith. The heritage of righteousness from generation to generation, from the days of Adam and Seth and Enoch and Noah down until our day, is faith. It is the heritage of faith. The faithful people from every age have been those people of faith—walking by faith, suffering by faith, working by faith, parenting by faith, loving by faith, dying by faith.
This is who we are, brothers and sisters. When you boil us down—when you get to the essence of Christian living—you find it is simply the life of faith. This means that even when things don’t add up, you live by faith. Even when circumstances have you pinned against the wall, you walk by faith. Even when you can’t make sense of things, you can’t explain a six-day creation, you can’t fully grasp why God saves one and passes over another, you keep on trusting, you keep on believing. For “blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20:29).
The Christian life starts with faith and by faith.
The Christian life continues or perseveres by faith.
The Christian life ends, the ending without an end, in and by faith.
Welcome to Christianity. Welcome to a life of faith.
So, consider with me God’s word to Habakkuk here and the implications of these abundantly important words. Calvin summarizes it by saying, “The Prophet means to show that nothing is better than to rely on God’s word, how much soever may various temptations assault our souls.”Do you rely on God’s Word, dear one? Are you one who lives by his faith?
Put yourself in Habakkuk’s sandals this morning. Imagine the turmoil in the man. He begins with lament and complaint. He has fallen into a “by sight” mentality. As best he can see, God is either unaware or unconcerned when it comes to Judah’s sin, injustice, and violence. Everywhere he looks he sees evil and devastation. Nothing is going right. Wrong seems to be the constant victor. And Habakkuk is perplexed, bordering on despair.
And then God comes and responds and declares His doings. But it is all for judgment. Babylon is the instrument, and Judah is the target. How can this be? Habakkuk cries out once more. And here amid God’s turmoil-silencing reply, we have this lonely little truth, “The righteous shall live by his faith.”
The fourth and fifth verses of chapter 2 are coupled together and consist of nine total lines. Some translations capture that well and some do not. And there, tucked away in those nine lines—lines filled with the pomp and perversions of an evil Babylon—we see these blessed, glorious words: “The righteous shall live by his faith.”
A remnant of three Hebrew words, much like the remnant of the righteous in the earth, a remnant surrounded by the proud. This is Habakkuk’s reality, and it is our reality. And so, God speaks words of deep comfort to His prophet and to His people today.
There are five noteworthy truths we need to see.
First, there is a clear dividing line in these verses. The dividing line separates humanity into two categories. And this is nothing new, of course; there have always been only two slices of humanity. In our text, God clearly distinguishes between the unrighteous (“His soul…is not upright within him”) and the righteous (“The righteous shall live by his faith”).
The key characteristic of the unrighteous ones is their pride. They are a people “puffed up” and arrogant. They don’t need God and are fully reliant on their own strength and skill. Habakkuk 1:11 says of them, “Whose own might is their god!” But not so with the righteous. Rather than possessing a proud and self-reliant soul, the righteous possess a believing, trusting soul. Pride is clearly contrasted with faith. The notupright are contrasted with the upright. The unrighteous are doomed to judgment and death. The righteous are destined to life!
We see this theme throughout the Scriptures. I am reminded of the Pharisee and the tax collector who both went to the temple to pray. The Pharisee proudly prayed, his prayer barely getting ten feet off the ground. In his self-flattery, he exalts himself above the rabble of Jerusalem. He even puts down the lowly tax collector — also there to pray. Then the camera shifts to one worth filming, the tax collector, to himself, unable to even look in God’s direction. There he stands, beating upon his chest, praying with all that is in him: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner” (Luke 18:13). Men of pride on one hand, men of faith on the other.
And God hears the tax collector’s prayer. It takes wings to the throne of grace, and down comes God, His Savior, with pardoning mercy to wash that sinner clean.
The proud ones go home presumptuous, puffed up, and passed over. The believing ones go home justified. Two types of people—people who live, and people who die. People who trust in God, and people who trust in themselves. This is truth for all time. It was no truer in Habakkuk’s day than it is in our day.
Second, God speaks these words amid coming judgment. God won’t destroy His own, His righteous ones. No, they will live! This is no promise of length of days to the righteous; rather, it is the promise of life both here and hereafter.
Here is what God brings to Habakkuk’s remembrance: “Even when the fruit trees don’t blossom and the vines bring forth no fruit, even when the herds are depleted and dead, even when a ruthless army approaches and my very life is threatened, yet will I rejoice in God!”
This is how faith behaves. Living by faith ultimately means basing the whole of our life taking God at His Word! We act upon what God has spoken, and we do so with confidence simply because God has said it. And we do so even when circumstances seem to contradict what God has spoken. This is part of what makes the position of this verse so thrilling. God is saying, “Ruthless Babylon is coming for Judah, my dear prophet. But the righteous shall live by his faith.” Destruction stands at the door, wrath is waiting, and sight says, “Run! Flee in fear!” But faith has something other than circumstance in view. With the eyes of faith, God’s people see past the threats and terror. They look instead to God’s own word, and they embrace it as a reality more certain than a host of armed soldiers thirsty for destruction. This is a beautiful illustration of what real faith is and does.
Faith says with Asaph, “My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever” (Psalm 73:26). Faith acts with Abraham, “By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was in the act of offering up his only son, of whom it was said, ‘Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.’ He considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back” (Hebrews 11:17–19). Against all odds, faith is able to rest in the promises of God, who cannot lie and cannot change.
Third, faith sees well into the future rather than focusing on the present. This was imminently important for Habakkuk, who knew judgment was coming. It is crucial we grasp this in our day as well. Only with the eyes of faith can we trust God when He says, “For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lordas the waters cover the sea” (Habakkuk 2:14). With his eyes, Habakkuk sees the world filling up with injustice and violence and evil. That is the present reality, but it is not the forever reality because God is at work. His kingdom is coming, and His glory is advancing.
God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform;
He plants His footsteps in the sea
And rides upon the storm.
Deep in unfathomable mines
Of never failing skill
He treasures up His bright designs
And works His sov’reign will.
Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take;
The clouds ye so much dread
Are big with mercy and shall break
In blessings on your head.
Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
But trust Him for His grace;
Behind a frowning providence
He hides a smiling face.
His purposes will ripen fast,
Unfolding every hour;
The bud may have a bitter taste,
But sweet will be the flow’r.
Blind unbelief is sure to err~ God Moves in a Mysterious Way, William Cowper, 1774
And scan His work in vain;
God is His own interpreter,
And He will make it plain.
Unbelief simply can’t have this perspective. Only the eyes of faith will have a long view.
So, what you see now isn’t the end of the story. God has promised us a future with Him, a new home in a new creation, and glory—abundant, weighty glory. It is written. God has spoken. Take God at His Word.
Think of Abraham’s sojourn. God had called him out of Ur to journey to the promised land, but all the while, Abraham, walking by faith, a pilgrim and a stranger and a sojourner, was “looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God” (Hebrews 11:10).
Are you looking “forward” based on what God has said? Do you really believe that the way things appear to be today, even chaos in certain places, isn’t the way it is going to be forever? Can you hear the rushing waters of the glory of the Lord? Because God has said that the end of the matter is that the knowledge of His pervasive glory will cover the earth. It isn’t simply that Babylon will be destroyed. It isn’t just that abortion will come to an end. It isn’t even God’s sure judgments coming upon the wicked. No, dear Christian, there is something more central to God’s grand story. The Lord omnipotent conquers. His glory will be displayed for all to see. And “the righteous shall live by his faith.”
Fourth, living by faith means willing submission to the Lord. Those not upright will never willingly submit, but the upright ones gladly bow the knee to their God and King. This is where the chapter closes.
But the Lordis in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him.~ Habakkuk 2:20 (ESV)
Faith knows something that the world doesn’t know. God is reigning over the earth, and He isn’t troubled or perplexed or weary. God has never called in for reinforcements; He doesn’t need backup. He is meticulously, sovereignly, and perfectly ruling, just as He always has and as He always will. The eyes of faith see this. We peer into that holy temple and see the Lord. And the believing heart is quieted, comforted, kept.
I hear, and my body trembles; my lips quiver at the sound; rottenness enters into my bones; my legs tremble beneath me. Yet I will quietly wait for the day of trouble to come upon people who invade us.~ Habakkuk 3:16 (ESV)
So, people of faith, knowing that God is God, surrender to His rule and submit to His authority. With joy we desire to be ruled by so good a God, so loving a Father. His kingdom come. His will be done. This is where God brought Habakkuk, to this kind of understanding, to this kind of peace.
The result of faith working accomplishes within us a settled assurance that God has us and is working all things for our good. Thus, even when our flesh trembles and our insides quake, we trust and keep on trusting. Even when so many of our brothers and sisters throughout church history slept their last night in London’s Tower, only to awake the next morning to their execution, they could actually sleep that night in peace—all by faith.
Faith embraces God’s hard providences for the joy set before us. Submission is easy when things are easy, but faith fuels submission when things are hard. We are crushed but not in despair (2 Corinthians 4:8). This isbelievingsubmission.
Robert Bruce, the great Scottish minister of four hundred years ago, on the day of his death in 1631, ate an egg for breakfast. He enjoyed it so much that he asked his daughter, Martha, to prepare him another. Then, hesitating, he said, “No, there’s no need. My Master is calling me. Bring rather the Bible. Turn to the eighth chapter of Romans and put my fingers on the words, ‘I am persuaded that neither death nor life…shall separate me from the love of God, which is in Jesus Christ my Lord.’” Martha did this immediately. “Is my finger on it?” Bruce asked her. Being assured it was, he turned to his daughter and said, “Now, God be with you my dear daughter. I have breakfasted with you, but I shall have supper with my Lord Jesus Christ this night.” And soon he was dead.
Even with death knocking on our door, the Christian trusts and submits to the will of God knowing it’s best for us. It is the grand statement in Habakkuk 2:4 that undergirds the whole of chapter 2 and, in a real sense, the whole of the book. If ever there was a key verse in a single book of the Bible, it is right here: “The righteous shall live by his faith.”
Fifth and lastly, this verse is cited several times in the New Testament. How did the apostle Paul and the author of the epistle to the Hebrews understand this verse?
For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.”~ Romans 1:16-17 (ESV)
It is quite clear that Paul saw the verse’s significance. Not only does he cite the verse twice (here and in Galatians), he cites it in the very thesis of the entire book of Romans. And, of course, the emphasis that follows in the first chapters of this great epistle is that this kind of faith is a justifying faith. Indeed, Romans 1:17 speaks of a faith that justifies.
But Paul will cite Habakkuk 2:4 in one other epistle.
So then, those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith. For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.” Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for “The righteous shall live by faith.”~ Galatians 3:9-11 (ESV)
Paul is battling in this epistle against false teaching.
Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?~ Galatians 3:2-3 (ESV)
Paul had preached to the Galatians sola fide, justification by faith alone. False teachers had then crept in, commending to the church the necessity of Judaism’s law keeping: So on the heels of your justification, the real way to live and to grow is through the works of the law. Paul writes this epistle to correct this error.
For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.~ Galatians 5:1 (ESV)
So, it seems that the citation of Habakkuk 2:4 in Galatians is part of Paul’s defense against this false teaching. Here Paul speaks of a faith that sanctifies.
And then lastly, we have a third citation in the book of Hebrews:
For you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God you may receive what is promised. For, “Yet a little while, and the coming one will come and will not delay; but my righteous one shall live by faith, and if he shrinks back, my soul has no pleasure in him.” But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who have faith and preserve their souls.~ Hebrews 10:36-69 (ESV)
Here the author utilizes Habakkuk 2:4 to speak of a faith that perseveres. We are not those who shrink back and are destroyed. Rather, we who walk by faith are those who press on. We persevere. We endure to the end and are saved.
Thus, the faith Habakkuk spoke of in his day is the same faith believers throughout the world and throughout all time have known. It is a justifying faith, a sanctifying faith, and a persevering faith. It is faith that the righteous live by.
Praise God for the gift of faith.
John Calvin, Commentaries on the Twelve Minor Prophets: Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai (Edinburgh: University of Minnesota, 1848), 4:70.