The Crux of the Prophecy
The first part of the Lord’s Second answer to Habbakuk
Based on sermons preached in PCC Worship Services, Mar-Aug 2014
Part 2 of 3

We started looking at the first part of the Lord’s second answer to Habakkuk recorded in chapter 2 verses 2-5. We saw the LORD’s instruction to Habakkuk to write the vision in verse 2 and the LORD’s instruction to Habakkuk to wait for the fulfillment of the vision in verse 3.

In this issue, we will consider the substance of the vision found in verses 4-5 of chapter 2. It has three parts. First, the proud cannot be upright, verse 4a. Second, the justified shall live by his faith, verse 4b. And third, the wicked will yet continue in their boastful ways, verse 5. Let’s consider each of them.

First, the proud cannot be upright. Verse 4a says, “Behold, his soul which is lifted up is not upright in him:” The word “behold” or “see” introduces the substance of the vision and calls us to give serious attention to it.

Behold what? Behold the one whose soul is lifted up. Another way to translate “lifted up” is “puffed up” or “inflated” or “swelled” or “bloated.” This is a graphic description of a proud person. His soul, the very core of his being, is lifted up in pride and arrogance and even presumption before the LORD.

Interestingly, the only other time that this Hebrew word “lifted up” is found in the OT is in Numbers 14:44-45, where we read, “But they presumed (that’s the word) to go up unto the hill top: nevertheless the ark of the covenant of the LORD, and Moses, departed not out of the camp. Then the Amalekites came down, and the Canaanites which dwelt in that hill, and smote them, and discomfited them, even unto Hormah.”

The Israelites, in their pride and presumption, tried to enter the Promised Land without the LORD’s presence and against Moses’ warning, and they were soundly defeated by the Canaanites. They presumed that they had the necessary resources and strength in themselves to accomplish the task but they were wrong.

Here in Habakkuk 2:4, the LORD says that the proud person is not upright in himself. The word ‘upright’ is literally the word ‘straight’ or ‘even.’ Pride leads the person astray and into ways which are crooked and evil. He is not upright in himself for two reasons. Firstly pride itself is sinful and hateful in God’s sight. He will be judged and condemned by God. But secondly, pride hinders a person from ever finding a righteousness that is outside of himself. The proud soul thinks that he has all the adequate resources for life and that he can make it based on his own merits alone.

In the immediate context, the proud person refers to the Babylonians, and in particular to their king. But what is true of the Babylonians is also true of everyone who is proud and who refuses to humble himself to seek that which only God can give. 

And so the second part of the vision in verse 4b goes on to say, “but the just shall live by his faith.”

One commentator says that this verse is the very crux and heart of the book of Habakkuk. It is quoted three times in the New Testament – Romans 1:17, Galatians 3:11 and Hebrews 10:38. We’ll briefly look at them later on.

In contrast to the proud soul who is not upright in himself, the just or righteous person lives by his faith. Now the word “just” or “righteous” refers not so much to one’s moral or ethical condition but rather to one’s legal standing or status before the Judge. It is this legal aspect of righteousness that is the focus in this passage. God is making known or declaring His judgment on the people and the nations so the legal sense of the word just or righteous should be kept in view.   

But now, what does the statement “the just shall live by his faith” mean? There are basically two options. First, it could mean that a person is justified or declared righteous by his faith and as a result of that declaration, he lives. Or second, it could mean that the person who has been justified continues to live by his faith.

The first focuses on the means or way in which a person comes to be justified whereas the second focuses on the way in which the gift of life continues to be received by the justified person.

Now both interpretations are theologically sound. A person is only justified or declared righteous by his faith and never by his works. And a justified person continues to receive the gift of life by his faith.

But from the grammar and the context, it seems that the second option is to be preferred. The words “by his faith” connect more naturally with the phrase “shall live” than with the phrase “the just.”

Furthermore, the concern of Habakkuk is not so much about how a sinful person is justified before God but about how those who have been justified can continue to live and receive the gift of life. The proud may go on for a season in a certain way but the righteous or just will live in another way, even the way of faith. We can translate the verse as “but the just – by his faith he shall live.” The emphasis here is on the fact that life is a gift of God and is to be received gratefully from Him, and faith is the hand or the instrument by which he receives this ongoing life from God.     

Now, let’s very briefly consider those three passages in the New Testament which quote Habakkuk 2:4. The first is Romans 1:17, “For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, The just shall live by faith.” This is the key verse of Romans and it provides the structure or framework of the book. Clearly, the apostle Paul understands that a person is justified by faith and that he continues to live the Christian life by faith.

He develops this twofold role of faith by dealing first with the faith that receives the gift of justification from chapters 1-5 and then the faith that receives the gift of sanctification from chapters 6-8. Or as one commentator says, “Faith serves as the origin of righteousness in justification, and as the framework for the continuation of righteousness in sanctification.” 

The second quotation in the New Testament of Habakkuk 2:4 is found in Galatians 3:11. The apostle Paul again quotes the verse when writing to the Galatians but his emphasis there is almost entirely on the first aspect or role of faith, namely, that a person is justified in the sight of God not by keeping the law but by faith.

The third New Testament quotation is Hebrews 10:38 where we read, “Now the just shall live by faith: but if any man draw back, my soul shall have no pleasure in him. But we are not of them who draw back unto perdition; but of them that believe to the saving of the soul.”

Here the emphasis is on the second function or role of faith. The author of Hebrews quotes Habakkuk 2:4 to stress to his readers the importance of persevering and continuing in the faith. He seeks to stir up his readers to receive the ongoing gift of life by faith, despite the many difficulties that they are faced with.

Now assuming that the book of Hebrews was not written by the apostle Paul, then we have two different authors of the New Testament quoting the same Old Testament passage with a different emphasis to make significantly different points. 

So to summarize verse 4 again, the LORD contrasts the proud soul who is not upright in himself with the just person who lives by his faith. All who are proud, regardless of whether they are Babylonians or Jews, cannot be right in God’s sight. In contrast, those who have been justified by faith will continue to live by their faith. 

Yes, God’s devastating judgment upon Judah would surely come to pass as ordained by God, and it appears that that would be the end of God’s covenant people. Israel was going to die. But God assures the prophet that the remnant of God’s people will not die but continue to live. By faith, they will survive the darkest hours of judgment.

We come now to the third part of the vision in verse 5, which we may summarize as the wicked will yet continue in their boastful ways. Verse 5 reads, “Yea also, because he transgresseth by wine, he is a proud man, neither keepeth at home, who enlargeth his desire as hell, and is as death, and cannot be satisfied, but gathereth unto him all nations, and heapeth unto him all people:”

The LORD goes back to talk about the proud and wicked person. Why? Well one reason is that His judgment upon them will not come to pass immediately. It will take place at the appointed time and the appointed time has not yet arrived. Meanwhile, they will continue in their boastful and ungodly ways, and they will even prosper and flourish in them, and so there is a need to talk about them.

Verse 5 begins with a mention of wine. The proud person transgresses under the influence of wine. Wine has the power to deceive and betray him. It blinds him to his true state. He ever lives in a state of delusion because of the intoxicating effects of wine.

We think of Belshazzar’s feast in Daniel chapter 5. King Belshazzar, the last of the Babylonian kings, was drowning himself in wine and having an idolatrous feast with a thousand guests. He had called for the vessels which had been taken from the Jerusalem temple to be brought out and used. And they were praising their gods of gold and silver.

But in the midst of their drunken and boastful celebrations, the handwriting on the wall appeared to reveal his imminent doom and destruction. That very night, Belshazzar was killed by the Medes and the Persians under Darius.

Now understand that what God is saying about the proud is applicable whether or not the person literally drinks wine. The main problem with such a person is that because of his pride, he is blinded and deceived as to his true standing before God until it is too late.

Verse 5 goes on to say that the proud person is never satisfied. He is not content to abide at home (which is a picture of rest and contentment), but he is greedy and covetous. His unholy desires expand like the insatiable appetite of hell and death, which is never satisfied.

And finally, he gathers to himself all nations and collects to himself all peoples. Earlier in chapter 1 verses 15-17, we saw the relentless and continual conquests of the Babylonians. They are not content with swallowing up one or two nations. They would take the whole world if possible. And so the LORD informs Habakkuk that the proud will have their day in devouring nations and prospering in their wickedness.

Habakkuk must thus have realistic expectations about the near and even the more distant future. He is not to expect instant judgment from God to fall upon them and neither is he to expect the instant deliverance of God’s covenant people from all their troubles. But what he is to do is to continue believing God’s promises and to receive, by faith, the gift of continuing life from God.

In the next article, we will consider some applications based on the first part of the Lord’s second answer to Habakkuk.

Linus Chua

… to be Continued, next issue