The Just Shall Live By His Faith: Habakkuk Considered

The book of Habakkuk is told in three short chapters. Habbakuk’s vision is described as a “burden” (per the King James translation) as Habakkuk is a troubled prophet of Israel. All around him he sees destruction and decay. His name likely comes from an early Hebrew word meaning “embrace.”  Unlike other prophets, Habakkuk has the gaul to question God in the text – “how long shall I cry, and thou wilt not hear!” (1:2). In the following lines, Habakkuk has an unusual exchange with God, wherein God shows Habakkuk how He will raise up the Chaldeans, and he condemns the imperial powers of Mesopotamia, in praise of the ‘just man in faith.’

We imagine Habakkuk as a broken man, crying out to heaven about the failures of Israel’s laws and of the impending violence he foresees for the people. Habakkuk looks around him and he sees a coming collapse of civilization, in a land that is immersed in banality. We are left to guess as to the timeframe of the text – perhaps Habakkuk prophesied the downfall of Assyria. Habakkuk is popularly considered to have been a contemporary of Nahum and Zephaniah.

As a reply to Habakkuk’s cries, God raises up the “bitter and hasty” nation of the Chaldeans (1:6) and He instructs Habakkuk to “write the vision” (2:2) that is revealed. Then, in the most significant section of the text, God says: “…the just shall live by his faith” (2:4). What does this mean? It is a quote that will later be addressed by Paul in his Epistles, and it foreshadows a new, existential religious ontology, whose primary objective is faith.

In the text, the “soul” of the enemies of Israel (perhaps Assyria or Babylon) are contrasted with the “just,” implying that the people of Israel must live independently and privately in faith, regardless of the evils of the world. To borrow from Augustine, the just man contains within himself the keys to the “city of God.” One must give unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and give unto God what belongs to God – and thus modern man becomes a kind of duality between political man and faithful man. Those who are just (sometimes translated as “righteous”) do not care for the dealings of the evil empires, but at the same time they are not revolutionaries. They dwell upon their faith in private. The new testament cites this quote at least three times in Paul’s Epistles, as the Christian reorientation from Judaism changes to a theology of faith alone. No longer will there be a particular ‘chosen people’ by God. Instead, the people of God need only to have faith and hope in God’s judgment; which is universally offered to all people.

Chapter Three of Habakkuk is unusual, as it is a song of prayer in praise of the power of God. It is notably absent from the recovered texts at Qumran, unattached to the first two chapters, but nevertheless is a beautiful poem of hope.

For this reading I used the King James Version.

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