The Just Shall Live By Faith (Hab. 2:4)

By Mike Willis

Behold, his soul which is lifted up is not upright in him: but the just shall live by his faith (Hab. 2:4).

The prophet Habakkuk prophesied some 40-50 years before the Babylonians invaded and destroyed Judah. He faced difficult circumstances. The wicked were trampling the righteous under their feet and God seemed deaf to their cries. The message of the book of Habakkuk may be summarized in the statement, “the just shall live by faith.” This was a message of comfort to a troubled remnant. It is a message of such profound importance that it is quoted in three different places in the New Testament (Rom. 1:17; Gal. 3:11; Heb. 10:38). We will do well to meditate on its teachings.

The Historical Situation

The prophet was distressed by the wicked’s conduct and God’s not immediately responding to punish them. “O Lord, how long shall I cry, and thou wilt not hear! Even cry out unto thee of violence, and thou wilt not save!” (1:2) Because God did not act, the wicked became more brazened in ungodliness.

God responded to Habakkuk’s plea by announcing the following: “Behold ye among the heathen, and regard, and wonder marvelously: for I will work a work in your days, which ye will not believe, though it be told you” (1:5). He then proceeded to tell Habakkuk of his intention of bringing the Chaldean nation to destroy Judah because of its sin.

Rather than settling the matter for Habakkuk, this announcement created greater conflict for the prophet. Despite the wickedness which he saw in Judah, he knew that Babylon was more wicked than his mother country. He asked, how can God hold his tongue “when the wicked devoureth the man that is more righteous than he” (1:13)?

The prophet awaited God’s response. The Lord commanded him to write his vision on tablets for others to read when the prophesied destruction of Judah came. He then revealed his word, “Behold, his soul which is lifted up is not upright in him: but the just shall live by his faith” (2:4).

What Did This Mean?

The word “just” (from tsaddiq) means “just, righteous in conduct and character toward God.” The word “faith” (from emunah) means “firmness, steadfastness, fidelity; faithfulness.” The text is, therefore, saying that the man who will maintain his faithfulness will live (not only survive the calamity, but also maintain his relationship with God, not being separated from God by his sin,[dead in sin]). The prophet responded to this message of hope saying,

When I heard, my belly trembled; my lips quivered at the voice: rottenness entered into my bones, and I trembled in myself, that I might rest in the day of trouble: when he cometh up unto the people, he will invade them with his troops. Although the fig tree shall not blossom, neither shall fruit be in the vines; the labor of the olive shall fail, and the fields shall yield no meat; the flock shall be cut off from the fold, and there shall be no herd in the stalls: yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will joy in the God of my salvation. The Lord God is my strength, and he will make my feet like hinds’ feet, and he will make me to walk upon mine high places (3:16-19).

Here is the mountain top of faith. Homer Hailey described Habakkuk’s attitude as follows:

In this verse the prophet includes all means or resources of food and declares that though all fail, he will trust in Jehovah . . The prophet has enumerated every avenue of food peculiar to the Jews; and though all be taken away by the invader, he will continue to put his trust in Jehovah and to joy in Him. Here the peak of faith is reached; here is the faith by which men live. “Jehovah, the Lord, is my strength”; upon this he had learned to depend. The “I Am That I Am” will not fail or forsake him…. Faith is now victorious. The prophet’s questions have been answered and he himself has come through his perplexities a complete conqueror. The faith by which he came through victorious is the faith by which all will triumph (A Commentary on the Minor Prophets, pp. 295-296).

The faith which won the victory for Habakkuk is the faith which has sustained man through his troubles in every age of life. Job relied on such faith when he spoke in the midst of his troubles, “Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him” (Job 13:15). He did not know why he was suffering, but he had confidence in the God he worshipped and served.

The New Testament Application

We turn to look at the three places where this passage is quoted in the New Testament: Romans 1: 17; Galatians 3:11; and Hebrews 10:38. The first two may be considered together. In both Romans 1:17 and Galatians 3:11, Paul quoted Habakkuk 2:4 to show that man is justified before God, not on the basis of perfect law keeping, but on the basis of faith. The faith of these passages can only be understood when it takes the rich depth of meaning that is in Habakkuk 2:4. The “faith” of the Protestant dogma of “faith only” (in which a man is saved the moment he accepts Jesus as his personal Savior and in which he cannot fall from grace, resulting in no emphasis on faithful living to stay saved) does not grasp the meaning of either Paul or Habakkuk.

The passage in Hebrews 10:38 has virtually the same context as does Habakkuk. The Christians of Hebrews 10 were witnessing the destruction of the Jewish state and suffering persecution from their own Jewish brethren. The writer exhorted,

Cast not away therefore your confidence, which hath great recompense of reward. For ye have need of patience, that, after ye have done the will of God, ye might receive the promise. For yet a little while, and he that shall come will come, and will not tarry. 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 (Heb. 10:35-39).

The faith which saves and sustains man is a faith with implicit trust in God that results in persistent obedience to his will, regardless of whether or not one can perceive God’s full intentions at the time of obedience.

Lessons From The Text

1. Don’t allow circumstances to cause us to quit persevering in faithfulness to the Lord. The prophet’s resolve was to trust in the Lord in spite of the adverse circumstances through which he must suffer. Like the prophet, we need a faithfulness to God which will maintain its obedience regardless of what faces us. We need to obey God when our brethren encourage us and when they discourage us; to obey God when multitudes are obeying the gospel and when multitudes persecute us; to obey God in poverty and in wealth, in sickness and in health.

2. God’s purpose is not clearly understood by looking at today’s circumstances. The Lord’s purpose for Israel in the Babylonian captivity was corrective discipline (1:12). Viewing the situation centuries later, a person can see that God’s chastening of Judah resulted in her survival as a nation and people; in contrast, the Babylonian nation was utterly destroyed with no surviving remnant. Jehovah’s disciplining of Judah was an act of his mercy and grace. But, those who lived through the period could not perceive this.

Living in a brief moment of time between two vast eternities, man is incapable of comprehending God’s purposes and plans. He looks at the skirmish; the Lord sees the war. He sees the tree; God sees the forest. Recognizing the limitations on my insight and knowledge should keep me from murmuring against my God. Humbly I should submit to his providential government of the world in full reliance that he knows better than me what is best for mankind.

3. God can use the wicked to accomplish his good purposes. God’s use of the wicked Babylonians shows that God can bring good out of the conduct of wicked men. The wickedness of those who crucified Jesus was used by God to accomplish his purpose of redemption.

4. The knowledge of God’s glory will cover the, earth. In Habakkuk 2:14, the prophet foretold, “For the earth shall be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.” The passage does not say, “‘For the earth shall be filled with the glory of the Lord,” but “For the earth shall be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord.” The actions of God would cause men to know the glory of the Lord. When the Lord rose up to destroy that wicked Chaldean nation, the knowledge of the Lord’s glory filled the earth.

The knowledge of the Lord’s glory has filled the earth in what he has done through his Son, Jesus Christ. His glorious grace, marvelous mercy, and kingly kindness have become known to man through his sending of Jesus Christ to die for our sins.

5. Man should show reverence for God. As the second chapter of the book came to a close, Habakkuk contrasted the deaf and dumb idols with Jehovah. “Behold, it is laid over with gold and silver, and there is no breath at all in the midst of it. But the Lord is in his holy temple: let all the earth keep silence before him”(2:19-20).

Our God is a living God! He is not the figment of man’s imagination, myth, or a leftover remnant from an obsolete society. He lives and reigns over his creation! That being so, man should show him reverence: “let all the earth keep silence before him.”

Our assemblies for worship should attest that we hold God in reverence. We come together, not to exalt a preacher or song leader, but to praise God. Our conduct in the assembly should be one of reverence, not characterized by acts of sacrilege.


May we humbly bow in reverence before our God and humbly accept the circumstances in which we live, maintaining our faithfulness to him through them all. May we draw assurance of our ultimate victory from the statement of the prophet Habakkuk: “The just shall live by faith.”

Guardian of Truth XXXIII: 3, pp. 66, 86-87
February 2, 1989