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What does Paul mean by “The righteous shall live by faith”?

The question of the meaning of Habakkuk’s “the righteous shall live by his faith” (Hab. 2:4) came up in a comment on a recent post about Romans. My argument is that when Paul quotes this line in Romans 1:17, he is using it more or less in the same way that Habakkuk intended it, as identifying a pragmatic stance to be taken in the midst of historical upheaval and change. His argument is very different to the Reformed appropriation of the maxim in the service of a doctrine of justification by faith.

Habakkuk describes a moral and religious crisis in Israel. The wicked “surround” and oppress the righteous; the prophet is constantly confronted with violence and conflict; justice is perverted, and the Law is powerless to control or correct the situation. He asks YHWH how long before he will intervene to put things right (Hab. 1:2-4).

YHWH’s response is that he is about to judge and punish unrighteous Israel by sending the army of the dreaded Chaldeans: “O LORD, you have ordained them as a judgment, and you, O Rock, have established them for reproof” (Hab. 1:12).

Habakkuk is troubled by this and expresses his fear that the Babylonians will destroy Israel and go on “mercilessly killing nations for ever”. He goes to his metaphorical “watchpost” to wait for YHWH’s answer (Hab. 1:13-2:1).

YHWH then instructs the prophet to write the vision down: it may seem a long time coming, but it will certainly be fulfilled in due course (Hab. 2:2-3). It is unclear who the arrogant or “puffed up” one is—either the Babylonian invader or the oppressive Jew. But the positive statement is that “the righteous shall live by his faithfulness (ʾemunat)” (Hab. 2:4).

The word ʾemunah means “firmness, steadfastness, truthfulness, honesty, faithfulness, trust”. It is often used for God, especially in the Psalms. It is not directly associated with Law observance but typically stands in parallelism with “righteousness”: for example, “Righteousness shall be the belt of his waist, and faithfulness (ʾemunah) the belt of his loins” (Is. 11:5); or in contrast to falsehood: “falsehood and not truth (ʾemunah ) has grown strong in the land” (Jer. 9:3).

In the context of Habakkuk, the assurance is that the righteous person (perhaps Habakkuk, perhaps the “righteous” in Israel who are oppressed by the wicked) will survive the coming turmoil by virtue of his steadfast trust in YHWH. The righteous Israelite will no doubt keep the commandments, but this is not the point of the statement: ʾemunah designates a fundamental attitude of faithfulness and trust with respect to God. Habakkuk, in fact, shares Paul’s view that the Law has proved itself powerless to maintain justice and fairness among the people of Israel (Hab. 1:3; cf. Rom. 2:17-24; 8:3).

The contextual sense of ʾemunah is best captured in the closing lines of the prayer in chapter 3; it is the willingness to trust YHWH as he does what he needs to do:

Yet I will quietly wait for the day of trouble to come upon people who invade us. Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD; I will take joy in the God of my salvation. GOD, the Lord, is my strength; he makes my feet like the deer’s; he makes me tread on my high places. (Hab. 3:16–19)

So, to complete the eschatological argument, Habakkuk states what he has learned from YHWH: the idolatrous Babylonians, who have plundered many nations and built cities with blood, will in turn be judged and overthrown:

Woe to him who makes his neighbours drink—you pour out your wrath and make them drunk, in order to gaze at their nakedness! You will have your fill of shame instead of glory. Drink, yourself, and show your uncircumcision! The cup in the LORD’s right hand will come around to you, and utter shame will come upon your glory! (Hab. 2:15–16)

Paul makes reference to the saying in his foundational statement about the gospel, and I think we should assume that he fully understood and presupposed the narrative context:

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.” (Rom. 1:16–17)

Like Habakkuk he is deeply troubled by Jewish unrighteousness and expects Israel to face the wrath of God—they are “vessels of wrath prepared for destruction” (Rom. 9:22). He is convinced too that the powerful idolatrous civilisation that has for centuries opposed YHWH and oppressed his people will also come under judgment, resulting in political-religious régime change in the ancient world. As he says in Romans 2:8-9, there will be wrath and fury for those who obey unrighteousness rather than truth, tribulation and distress for those doing evil—“the Jew first and also the Greek”.

The “good news” in the midst of this, which revealed the fundamental rightness or righteousness or faithfulness of YHWH, was that a way of living or surviving or being saved through the coming period of wrath had been made available to those who believed that God has raised his Son from the dead and would in due course give him the nations as his inheritance (Rom. 1:16-17; cf. 1:1-4).

Paul clearly had to reframe Habakkuk’s formula. The faith (pistis) by which the righteous person would live was more than steadfastness. It was faith in the eschatological significance of Jesus’ death and resurrection, it was a faith like that of Abraham in the coming future of God (Rom. 3:22; 4:16), which was the faith by which people would be publicly justified at the parousia.

But this faith had also to be a robust and resilient act of trust in—a waiting on—the God who was no longer prepared to overlook either the wickedness of his people or the idolatry and immorality of the Greek-Roman world, and had set in motion a course of tumultuous events that would culminate in the defeat of classical paganism and the rule of Jesus over the nations (Rom. 15:12). This is the aspect of the saying that the writer to the Hebrews brings out:

Therefore do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward. 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. (Heb. 10:35–39)

So Paul says that the faith that establishes their righteousness provides access to the grace by which they will “stand”, despite persecution and suffering, in expectation of eventually sharing in the glory that Christ will receive when he is finally acclaimed by the nations (Rom. 5:1-5).

The table sets out the parallel structure of the two eschatological narratives.

Israel is unrighteousHab. 1:2-4Rom. 3:9-20
Torah is powerless to maintain justiceHab. 1:4Rom. 2:17-24; 8:3
YHWH will demonstrate his righteousness by putting things rightHab. 1:12Rom. 1:16-17
Unrighteous Israel will be punishedHab. 1:12Rom. 3:5; 9:22
The idolatrous oppressor will also be judgedHab. 2:4-20Rom. 2:9
The righteous will not escape suffering during this period of wrathHab. 3:16Rom. 5:1-5; 8:17-39; 12:12, 14; 13:11-14
The good news is that the righteous will live because they trust in what YHWH is doingHab. 2:4; 3:17-19Rom. 1:17

In his commentary on Romans Moo argues that Paul changes the sense of the quotation quite significantly:

Hab. 2:4 is God’s response to the prophet’s complaint about God’s inaction and injustice. It instructs the person who is already righteous how to face the difficulties of life and, especially, the apparent contradictions between God’s promises and what takes place in history. In Paul, the quotation functions to characterize how it is that one can attain right standing with God and so live eternally.1

I think that this imputation of exegetical incompetence to Paul is unwarranted. He downplays the eschatological orientation of the saying in Habakkuk (the prophet is not instructing the righteous person “how to face the difficulties of life”) and ignores it entirely in Romans. This is my basic contention about the interpretation of the letter. The central thrust of Romans is not soteriological, certainly not in the sense attributed to it by modern evangelicals; it is not a disquisition on how to “attain right standing with God and so live eternally”. It is eschatological, and eschatological in the same sense that Habakkuk is eschatological: it asks about the condition of unrighteous Israel, overweening paganism, and the righteous people of God in the light of impending historical judgment.

  • 1. D.J. Moo, The Epistle to the Romans (1996), 76.


I think you have misread Habakkuk. He is not saying that the Law is powerless to defend Israel. He is saying that Israel has violated the law with violence, injustice, wrong, destruction, strife and conflict. Justice never prevails, the wicked hem in the righteous, justice is perverted, and because of this the law, Torah, is paralysed.

Habakkuk does not appeal to Israel to return to YHWH. It is too late for that. However, he does promise in 2:4 that the Torah’s promise of life will avail for the righteous person who is faithful (Deuteronomy 30:15-20). Faithfulness in OT terms, and in Habakkuk 2:4 in particular, is expressed by faithful observation of the law, in particular in relation to the kinds of violations that Habakkuk details in 1:1-4.

The significance of this is that when Paul refers to this verse in Romans and Galatians, he introduces a meaning which turns Habakkuk on its head. Instead of faithful Torah observance, he now says it means faith in Jesus (shorthand for the righteousness that comes through faith, not law, which is the argument running through Romans and Galatians). In short, Paul makes Habakkuk 2:4 mean the opposite of what 2:4 means in its OT context. There is a pattern for this kind of treatment of OT verses by Paul. He is introducing a radical rereading of the OT in the light of Jesus, and not simply joining up the dots of OT history into the NT period.

I think you are misreading Andrew here. He says, “the Law has proved itself powerless to maintain justice and fairness among the people of Israe”. He said nothing about the Law defending Israel. Nonetheless, the Law is powerless to enforce itself. If laws had power, we could outlaw being outlaws, then there would be no outlaws. The Law is powerless, and remains powerless over unfaithful people.

I think the main point was that Andrew minimised the significance of the law in Habakkuk’s prophecy, especially in 1:1-4. I was restoring 2:4 to this context. Obedience to the law guaranteed life to the righteous, if not the nation. Faithfulness was expressed through Torah observance - so egregiously violated in 1:1-4. Hence the startling contrast with the way Paul uses the verse. It’s this I was highlighting. The contrast doesn’t figure at all in Andrew’s presentation.

Andrew T. corrected my misreading of Andrew’s ‘misreading’ of Habakkuk. On looking more carefully at what Andrew said about the law in Habakkuk, a different misreading by Andrew became apparent. He says “the law is powerless to control or correct the situation”. The ‘situation’ is Israel’s lawlessness as described in 1:1-4. But that is not what Habakkuk says. 1:4 cannot mean that violence paralysed the law (although this is what translations make it seem to say). It must mean that the law does not function because it is violated. Israel does not obey the law, and egregiously violates it. It is simply summarising the scene depicted, not exposing the powerlessness of the law.

Andrew carefully brings out the meaning of ‘faithfulness’ in 2:4. He says it is not used elsewhere of Torah observance, but then provides an example of a parallelism with ‘righteousness’. But neither is there any corroboration of his own assertion: that this ‘faithfulness’ is a belief in God’s future restoration of Israel.

If 1:1-4 is read as I have suggested (correctly, I believe), then the significance of ‘faithfulness’ as Torah observance by the righteous person becomes more compelling. This is the obvious and only way in which faithfulness could be expressed by a Jew at this time. The word does not lend itself to ‘faith’ in an eschatological outcome.

Andrew dismisses Moo’s interpretation of 2:4 as an “imputation of exegetical incompetence” by Paul. But this is just how Paul (and Jesus!) use other quotations from the OT. I’ve referenced these in a previous post. Paul is quite capable of taking an OT verse and making it mean the opposite of its sense in context. (1 Cor 15:55 is just one example). Paul also rewrites scripture for his own purposes (Romans 11:26). This is standard 2nd Temple exegesis, which Andrew should know about. Paul is re-reading OT verses, and the OT, in the light of Jesus. When Jesus does this kind of thing, he silences the Sadducees and astonishes the crowds (Matthew 22:32-33). It’s only “exegetical incompetence” if you exclusively impose modern grammatical-historical principles of exegesis on a people who knew nothing about it and had very different ways of interpreting the OT.

To return to the central issue, so far sidelined by Andrew, in part because of his misreading of 1:4 which drives his interpretation of Habakkuk, 2:4 is describing the favour shown to the righteous person on the basis of Deuteronomy 30:15-20, which is life on the basis of Torah observance. Paul reinterprets the same verse, the outstanding feature of which in the flow of the argument of Romans and Galatians being that it is not Torah observance which brings life, but faith in Jesus. In Paul’s argument, the two (law and faith) are diametrically opposed. Any exegesis which suggests Habakkuk and Paul are really saying the same thing contradicts Paul entirely.

My statement “the Law is powerless to control or correct the situation” is interpretive of Habakkuk’s poetic language but it certainly does not mean “violence paralysed the law”. My assumption is that he means that legal process has broken down because it has been corrupted by the wicked.

I did not say that ʾemunah is “a belief in God’s future restoration of Israel”. Rather, it refers to the quality that will ensure the survival of the “righteous” during the coming crisis. Likewise, “The word does not lend itself to ‘faith’ in an eschatological outcome” is a misunderstanding of my argument.

ʾemunah is nowhere used in the Hebrew scriptures with the sense “faithful observance” of the Law. It’s basic meaning is “steadfastness, reliability”. Neither of the commentaries I consulted (Robertson, Andersen) supports your claim that Habakkuk says that the righteous will live by faithful Law observance.

Faithful Torah observance is not the solution to the problem precisely because those in power do not enforce the Law justly. I would take Habakkuk 1:1-4 to mean that there are Jews in Israel who are righteous and keep the Law but are nevertheless abused and exploited by the rich and powerful and are not defended by the legal system.

One way to read Habakkuk 2:4b, therefore, would be as follows: the righteous person who keeps the Law but who is exploited by the powerful will survive the crisis of divine judgment (God putting things right) by trusting in YHWH. In other words, it is ṣaddı̂q (“righteous”) that refers to Law observance, not ʾemunah. Habakkuk is not saying that “the righteous person will live by Torah observance”; he is saying that “the Torah observant person will survive by steadfastly trusting in God”—assuming that “by his steadfastness” refers to the steadfast of the righteous person and not of YHWH.

Deuteronomy 30:15-20 has a different situation in view. The instruction to Israel at the outset is that by keeping the commandments they will find life. Habakkuk is addressing a situation where the covenant arrangement has broken down because the powerful do not apply the Law justly. God’s solution to this breakdown of the covenant is the Babylonian invasion, but that raises the question of what will happen to the righteous, to those who have faithfully kept the commandments. The assurance given to them is that they will live by trusting in YHWH.

So I continue to think that Paul’s use of the saying is entirely consistent with Habakkuk’s: in the face of eschatological turmoil those who are righteous, right with God, will survive by persistently trusting in YHWH to sustain and defend them. The only difference is that Paul thinks that people are “justified” under the present conditions not by adherence to the Law but by their belief that God raised his Son from the dead.

The supposed instances of Jesus and Paul misinterpreting scripture are debatable, but in case, there is no reason to think that they always misinterpreted scripture.

I won’t address the Pauline passages here.

Matthew 22:32-33 is not a misinterpretation of scripture but an affirmation of standard Pharisaic belief: “By means of these words the mother of the seven encouraged and persuaded each of her sons to die rather than transgress the commandment of God. And this they knew as well: that those who die for the sake of God, for God now live, as do Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and all the patriarchs” (4 Macc. 16:24–25).

The reason for dwelling on the meaning of 1:1-4 is that it sets a context for the prophecy. In your previous post you were minimising the significance of the Torah in the prophecy by saying that it was only mentioned once.

In 2:4, in the context of the forthcoming Babylonian invasion, Habakkuk returns to “the righteous” who were “hemmed in” by “the wicked” in 1:4, and holds out to them the hope of life, if they remain faithful. It seems to me entirely natural to conclude that if the subject of 1:1-4 was the violation of the Law/Torah, through which it was paralysed/became slack (or even “ceased”) on a social/national level, then the promise of “life” to the faithful righteous in 2:4 is related to their personal loyal observation of the Torah.

You say that “ʾemunah is nowhere used in the Hebrew scriptures with the sense “faithful observance” of the Law”. But this is only on the basis of narrow word study. “The righteous will live by his faithfulness” points us to the central OT definition of “life” in Deuteronomy 30:15-20, where there is no suggestion that YHWH would set aside its activation for loyal Torah observers under certain circumstances, as you say. In Deuteronomy, the precondition of “Life” is simply “to walk in His ways, and to keep His commands, decrees and laws”. In fact you yourself say this, somewhat in contradiction of your own argument: “the Torah observant person will survive by steadfastly trusting in God”. You also say “the righteous person who keeps the Law but who is exploited by the powerful will survive the crisis of divine judgment”. That judgment was of course Babylonian invasion, a disaster for the wicked, but not, so Habakkuk says, for the righteous, who, as you say, keep His laws.

Robertson and Andersen may not have said that 2:4 means “the righteous will live by faithful Law observance”, but what are we supposed to deduce from that? David W. Baker (New Bible Commentary) says of the righteous in 2:4 “His deeds conform to God’s revealed will, and they are a credit to him and a model to the world”; “The righteous in Judah will not only act uprightly, their righteousness will be acknowledged by God. Life for the upright is directed by his faith. This word also has a breadth of usage … a trust which motivates one to obedience, being trustworthy or faithful in conduct”. This definition seems to me be the essence of Torah observation.

Your reference to 4 Maccabees 16:24-25 actually proves my point.The date of the book is debatable, but possibly as late as 130 AD. It was not included in the Tanach, the Hebrew bible, but that’s not to say it was not reflecting views held in the time of Jesus. But if you look at the passage which Jesus interprets, Exodus 3:6, there is no suggestion whatsoever that it is speaking of life beyond death for the patriarchs or anyone else. Still less is it speaking, as Jesus says it does, of the resurrection. Whether Jesus knew of it or not, 4 Maccabees is actually employing the self-same 2nd temple exegetical techniques which you argue against! Also, if 4 Maccabees (in particular the verses you quote) or its views were well known in Jesus’ day, why did the Sadducees in particular, and the crowd in general, show no awareness of it? It is far more likely that Jesus was outwitting the Sadducees and astonishing the crowd with his own novel demonstration of 2nd temple exegetical technique.

Jesus’ and Paul’s usage of this kind of exegesis is not, as you say, debatable, but very striking (though few modern commentators seem to have been struck by it). We’ll no doubt come to this - in fact I see that you already have your next post.