In churches that celebrate the Reformation, we usually hear this verse thrown about: “The righteous shall live by faith.” It’s a compact little creed. A good word.
But, for most of us, we have no idea of the harrowing, violent, 7th century BC context in which this phrase was born.
In the late 600’s BC, Babylon was rising as the biggest, meanest dog on the cosmic block. The world superpower. With horses swifter than leopards and keener than wolves, these warriors tear through the earth, destroying every opponent. Fortresses only make them laugh and sneer. They swoop down like eagles on their prey. And now Jerusalem, God’s city, is about to be in their talons.
The prophet Habakkuk spies them coming. And he cries out to God (1:1-4; 12-17). He asks, “How long?” He laments that the Lord is sitting on his hands, letting this wicked and unjust enemy maul everything and everyone in sight. Why is God silent when this evil nation swallows up the peoples? Where is the Lord, the God of Israel, in their hour of deepest need?
Finally, Habakkuk says that he will stand like a watchman on the tower to wait and see how God will respond (2:1). And the Lord’s answer soon arrives. He says to record the vision he’s about to give. In fact, for good measure, write it in huge block letters so that you can read it on the run.
Then God says two things. Two very important things. He makes a contrast between the person of unfaith and the person of faith.
First, the man of Babylon, the evildoer, the unbeliever, the worshipper of false gods, is puffed up. The Hebrew word is related to a tumor, which is swollen, malignant, about to burst and ooze its poison everywhere. This man of unbelief has a soul like a massive, cancerous tumor. Nothing is right within him (2:4a).
Second, the righteous, the believer, the one whose God is Yahweh, will live by his faith (2:4b). His trust is in the true God, and the true God is his trust. This verse, “the righteous will live by his faith,” is quoted directly in the NT three times (Rom 1:17; Gal 3:11; Heb 10:38). That doesn’t happen with many OT verses. So, yes, it’s kind of a BIG DEAL.
But—and this is my main point—remember the context in which this bold word is spoken: the righteous will live by his faith, by what he does not see, because his eyeballs tell him that all hope is shot to hell. His eyes see the Babylonians coming, with murder in their hearts, blood on their tongues, and untold destruction in their wake.
What do Habakkuk and Israel have? Nothing but the word of God. Nothing but the promise of God. Nothing but God himself. They have the vision that Yahweh gives, the words of hope he utters. And that, amazingly, is enough.
Their eyes see an open yawning grave but their ears hear the faint whispers of Easter.
So, this Reformation (and all times), when we hear this verse, “The righteous will live by his faith,” remember that it wasn’t penned by a theology professor in some German university. It wasn’t conceived in a lazy, pacific environment by someone engaged in deep religious reflection about life and whatnot. No, it was uttered by God when his people faced a violent, ferocious enemy bearing down on them with bloody swords and flesh-piercing spears. It was a word that whispered life and hope when everything else screamed doom and death.
The Gospel of Christ, the Good News, is that the righteousness of God is ours by faith. When the Babylons of our own evil deeds, shameful acts, and soul-destroying decisions bear down and beat down on us, when all hope of salvation and life and peace seems shot to hell, we live by faith in the Savior who forgives, redeems, restores—and has kicked Satan’s ass once and for all.
We stand, with Habakkuk, like a watchman on the tower, our hands shading our eyes, scanning the horizon. We see ourselves surrounded by enemies. Death stalks on every side, even within us. But we wait, we hope, we are all ears. Because those ears hear the word of God that says he is for us, he is with us, he is mighty to save. And by faith in that word that comes from the Father, through the Son, and in the Holy Spirit, we live.