Most scholars place the book of Habakkuk near the time of the destruction of Jerusalem by the Chaldeans, also known as the Babylonians. This is based mostly on verse 1:6, which mentions God rousing the “Chaldeans” against the Israelites. Babylon had conquered Assyria a few decades earlier, and was now attacking neighbors such as Israel. Some might find it odd that the book of Habakkuk is called the “oracle that the prophet Habakkuk saw” (Hab 1:1), since English speakers tend to think that oracles are heard instead of seen. But the Hebrew word hazah, “saw,” means “to have a vision” in the prophetic sense. This visual language continues when God says to Habakkuk, “Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so that a runner may read it” (Hab 2:2).
The Book of Habakkuk begins with a dialogue between the prophet and God, with Habakkuk complaining, “O LORD, how long shall I cry for help …. The wicked surround the righteous — therefore justice comes forth perverted” (Hab 1:2, 4). Then God responds, “Look at the proud! Their spirit is not right in them, but the righteous live by their faith” (Hab 2:4). Habakkuk’s complaint raises the question of theodicy (from the Greek words for “god” and “justice”), asking why the wicked prosper at the expense of the righteous. In this case, “the wicked” could be outside invaders such as the Chaldeans, people who “surround the righteous” (Hab 1:4). The prophet is calling for God to assert divine sovereignty, along the lines of the words of Nahum, and God answers by calling for the righteous to trust God to work for a better future.
The phrase “the righteous live by their faith” (Hab 2:4) has particular significance for Christians, since the verse is used by the apostle Paul in his argument about justification: “For in [the gospel] the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, ‘the one who is righteous will live by faith’” (Rom 1:17). So who are the righteous? In Habakkuk, the righteous are people such as Job, who was “blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil” (Job 1:1). Such righteousness continued in New Testament people such as Dorcas, who was “devoted to good works and acts of charity” (Acts 9:36). Job and Dorcas were not self-righteous — holier-than-thou, self-satisfied, and smug. No, they were truly righteous, which means being in right relationships. And what does it mean to live by faith? In the Hebrew scriptures, Abram was the first to show faith in God. After God promised to give him an enormous group of descendants, “he believed the LORD; and the LORD reckoned it to him as righteousness” (Gen 15:6). Abram, whose name was changed to Abraham, was made right with God by his willingness to believe God. In the New Testament, the apostle Paul picks up on this and says, “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness” (Rom 4:3).
The Protestant Reformer Martin Luther made Paul’s insight the center of his theology, one which asserted that we are saved by the grace of God through our faith in Jesus. Luther wanted to be a good and righteous person, so he confessed his sins frequently, often daily, and for as long as six hours at a time. But after confessing his sins, he would leave the church and remember other sins that he needed to confess. This frustrated him, and he realized that he could not become righteous by human effort alone. Then he read the line in Paul’s letter to the Romans that says, “the one who is righteous will live by faith” (Rom 1:17) — a line based on Habakkuk 2:4. In a flash, Luther realized that he was not made righteous by his good efforts, but by his faith in Jesus Christ. “I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise,” said Luther. “This passage of Paul became to me a gate to heaven.” The Reformation began when Luther made this discovery about the role of faith in making us right with God. “If you have true faith that Christ is your Savior,” he said, “then at once you have a gracious God, [and] you should see pure grace and overflowing love.” Luther was inspired to preach the gospel, a word which means “good news,” because he saw that the gospel was “the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith” (Rom 1:16).
The words of the prophet Habakkuk inspired both Paul and Martin Luther, and they can inspire us today. In the time of Habakkuk, the invasion of the Chaldeans was coming and the present felt out of control. Similar distress was felt in the times of Paul and Luther, and in our time today. But through it all, God gives us “a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and does not lie” (Hab 2:3). Habakkuk’s vision speaks of the importance of righteousness and faith, in every time and place and situation. It tells us that God is in control, and that proud and arrogant people will not triumph in the end. Habakkuk’s message is that “the righteous live by their faith” (Hab 2:4), and that right relationships are based on trusting God. This is one of the Bible’s greatest hits because it reminds us that we can be right God and with the people around us when we live by faith.
1. When have you seen evil people prosper and righteous people suffer?
2. Where do you see examples of right relationships today?
3. What does it mean to you to be righteous and live by faith?
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