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 unrighteous||Hab. 1:2-4||Rom. 3:9-20|
|Torah is powerless to maintain justice||Hab. 1:4||Rom. 2:17-24; 8:3|
|YHWH will demonstrate his righteousness by putting things right||Hab. 1:12||Rom. 1:16-17|
|Unrighteous Israel will be punished||Hab. 1:12||Rom. 3:5; 9:22|
|The idolatrous oppressor will also be judged||Hab. 2:4-20||Rom. 2:9|
|The righteous will not escape suffering during this period of wrath||Hab. 3:16||Rom. 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 doing||Hab. 2:4; 3:17-19||Rom. 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.
- 1D.J. Moo, The Epistle to the Romans (1996), 76.