Digging in Deeper: Habakkuk 2:4

***Well, I said there weren’t going to be any posts this week, but after much thought and prayer, I decided to not go to the training course as planned. While it would have been a small gathering, the health of my family and my church family was more important. I’ll be able to take the course again in a few months when all of this nonsense has prayerfully passed. That being said, let’s dig back into Habakkuk this morning by taking a look at the verse for which it is most famous.

“Look, his ego is inflated; he is without integrity. But the righteous one will live by his faith.” (CSB – Read the chapter)

This is easily the most well-known verse in the whole of Habakkuk’s collection of prophecy. It is quoted in three different times in the New Testament; twice by Paul and once by the author of Hebrews. But what does it mean? And, if you read this same verse in different translations, you’ll find several different versions of it. Is this even the right translation? Let’s talk about it.

The biggest part of this verse is obviously the second part, but context matters. We need to be sure we understand what Habakkuk meant in context before we even start thinking about what the whole thing means for us. So, what’s the context here?

Well, this is part of God’s second response to Habakkuk. Habakkuk’s first prayer was a complaint to God about the state of his people and God’s apparent lack of concern. Moral decay was everywhere he looked and it wasn’t getting any better. God responded to his prayer by revealing His plans to send the Babylonians to bring judgment to Israel.

This is not at all what Habakkuk had in mind. It’s far worse than what he could have imagined. But, the news doesn’t shock into him a cry of repentance. It leaves him crying out to God about the injustice of having a nation even more sinful than Israel be the tool God uses to judge them.

After waiting some unknown amount of time for God to respond to this second complaint, Habakkuk finally hears from Him. But, rather than giving him a straight answer to the question he actually asked, God promises an answer to come. In doing this, God assures Habakkuk of a future judgment for Babylon. It’s not going to come on Habakkuk’s terms or timing, but it will come.

That brings us to this verse. In what follows, rather than focusing on Babylon, God speaks a woe (a word of judgment) on the world as a whole. He warns all those who would live apart from His character. This verse marks the beginning of that judgment. It is presented using Hebrew poetic parallelism. The general form is two phrases set next to each other whose relationship helps the reader understand both of them. This is an example of antithetical parallelism. This is where the second statement is the opposite of the first. Let’s look at each phrase in turn and then we’ll talk about what it means for us.

For part of the first phrase, the Hebrew is notoriously difficult to translate. This is the phrase the CSB translates “look, his ego is inflated.” Most major translations go with some form of that. The basic image is of a person all swollen up from pride and not in a healthy way. This swelling of pride or ego is resulting in a lack of integrity. The person wants and does what is not right because he thinks he doesn’t need God.

The other option, admittedly a minority report, is represented by an online translation called The Net Bible (click here to see it). The scholars who assembled this translation understand the Hebrew to describe someone who is fainting as if from exhaustion. The idea here is that the person’s commitment to unrighteousness and a lack of integrity is wearing him out.

Honestly, I think this is a better understand of the Hebrew. That being said, I don’t think we necessarily need to rule out either option. It’s really a question of whether the unclear phrase is referring to the causes of a lack of integrity or the results of it. Both are true. A lack of integrity and evil desires generally come from pride and if we pursue that path it will wear us out. It will suck the life out of us.

Understanding that, we can set it against the other side of the verse. There is a person whose pride leads her down a path of ungodly character that will suck the life out of her. The one who is righteous, though, will live. How that living happens is another matter of debate. There is also a question about exactly what the living here means. Isn’t this fun?

Let’s start with the idea of this person living. The Hebrew here refers more literally to someone being preserved, not merely living. Well, this is a statement of judgment. The idea is that this righteous person will be preserved through judgment. God’s judgment is coming against the one who pridefully pursues a life lacking integrity. It is the one who is righteous who will make it through this judgment.

And how will this happen? Either by “faith” or by “faithfulness.” Which is it? Well, the relevant Hebrew word doesn’t ever refer to simple belief as such anywhere else in the Old Testament. Choosing that option–something a majority of major translations do–doesn’t seem to best capture the likeliest meaning of the text even though it rings with more harmonious accord to the New Testament teachings on faith. The Hebrew word here more often refers to a lifestyle flowing from faith, which is better characterized as faithfulness.

So, which is it? I think this is a place where another both-and is appropriate. The righteous person will be preserved through coming judgment by both right belief and right practice. The truth is that both are necessary. Neither is sufficient without the other. Habakkuk’s audience would have likely understood him more in terms of right practice or faithfulness because the only frame of reference they had was law-keeping as a means of being right with God. As Paul and the author of Hebrews would later understand through the lens of Christ, however, right action is not what makes us right with God. Right belief is the ticket into the kingdom. Salvation is by faith alone. Once we have that right belief in place, though, right action or faithfulness flows naturally out of us as a result. Without the evidence of faithfulness, our claims of faith are meaningless. Both have to be in place.

Let’s put all of this together and talk about what it means for us. God is speaking a word of judgment here. It is judgment in response to Habakkuk’s pointed demand for God to explain how it could possibly be just to have the evil Babylonians be used as the instrument by which He would bring judgment to Israel. God’s response is that they will receive their due. But this is set in the context of a larger perspective that the world as a whole–all people–will one day be held to account. Those who pridefully take a path that leads away from God’s way of life will find themselves running short on life. They will faint–a poetic way of referring to death–from exhaustion. The life of sin is exhausting.

The one who seeks being rightly related to God and others, though, will find life. That one will not face the judgment of God in the ways that the unrighteous will. The reason for this will be her right belief in God, her willingness to trust in Him, and her living out this trust through her life.

Again, Habakkuk’s audience understood all of this through the lens of law-keeping, but with the help of Paul and the author of Hebrews, we understand that he was talking about something entirely bigger than that. Life comes when we are willing to place our trust in God. Actions can’t get us there. Faith does. We place our whole trust in Him–in His character and nature and promises–and then live our lives accordingly.

If He is God and He is good, then we should be good as well. That is faith begetting faithfulness. If He is God and He is just, then we should practice justice in our lives. If He is God and He is holy, then holiness should be our daily goal. If He is kind, so are we. If He is truthful, so we are. Whatever it is that He is, if He is indeed God, the God who created and sustains us, when we owe Him our obedience and devotion–a commitment that is put on display when we do life His way and not our own. Faith to faithfulness. Both are fully in play.

Just like He promised Habakkuk, our just God will one day deal permanently with all evil and sin. All those who pridefully think they can live apart from God will be caught up in that judgment. All those who humbly trust in Him and seek out a right relationship with Him through Christ will receive life instead. Our circumstances may have changed since Habakkuk did his writing, but this truth has not. Faith leads to righteousness which plays itself out as faithfulness which leads to life. The only real question here is whether or not you want to live, really live, not just play at life any longer. The one who is right with God by faith will, by his faithfulness demonstrate his righteousness that leads to life. Let’s get started.

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