Rev. Ronald Hanko, minister emeritus in the Protestant Reformed Churches and member of Covenant of Grace PRC in Spokane, WA

Previous article in this series: November 1, 2022, p. 60.

And the Lord answered me, and said, Write the vision, and make it plain upon tables, that he may run that readeth it. For the vision is yet for an appointed time, but at the end it shall speak, and not lie: though it tarry, wait for it; because it will surely come, it will not tarry. Behold, his soul which is lifted up is not upright in him: but the just shall live by his faith. Habakkuk 2:2-4

In Habakkuk 1:12-2:1 the prophet had expressed puzzlement over God’s use of Babylon, that “bitter and hasty nation” (1:6), to punish Judah. He understood that Judah deserved punishment and had himself wondered why that punishment seemed to be delayed. Babylon was a nation even more wicked than Judah, a nation wholly given to idolatry. It seemed to Habakkuk that though Judah could hardly be called righteous, in God’s use of Babylon, it was a case of the “wicked devour[ing] the man…more righteous than he” (1:13).

Habakkuk had given up all efforts to solve his difficulties through his own struggles and had turned the matter over to God. That is the point of chapter 2:1. Calvin calls the tower of which Habakkuk speaks, “patience that ariseth from hope,” and adds:

And the Prophet by tower means this, that he extricated himself from the thoughts of the flesh; for there would have been no end nor termination to his doubts, had he tried to form a judgment according to his own understanding; I will stand, he says, on my tower, and I will set myself on the citadel. In short, the sentence carries this meaning—that the Prophet renounced the judgment of men, and broke through all those snares by which Satan entangles us and prevents us to rise above the earth.1

The first part of God’s answer to Habakkuk in chapter 2:2-4 is the heart of Habakkuk’s prophecy. In the second part of God’s answer, verses 5-20, God would tell Habakkuk that Babylon, too, would come under His timely and just judgment; but more important is God’s word in verses 2-4, especially the words of verse four. That word of God, meant not only for Habakkuk but also for Israel, is a word of God for all ages and in all circumstances: “the just shall live by his faith.” The importance of that word of God can be measured by the fact that it is quoted three times in the New Testament: Romans 1:17, Galatians 3:11, and Hebrews 10:38.

The quotations from the New Testament show that the reference is to the wonderful Reformation doctrine of justification by faith alone. Galatians 3:11 says, “But that no man is justified by the law in the sight of God, it is evident: for, The just shall live by faith.” Paul in Galatians is dealing with that doctrine of justification by faith over against the heresy of justification by works and quotes Habakkuk to prove that we are justified by faith without works.

There are other aspects of our justification. God eternally decreed the justification of His people (Num. 23:21). Christ died for their sins and made a full atonement for their sins, the basis of their justification. But the words “live by faith” in the passage show that passage is speaking of justification by faith. When those who are saved believe God, He counts it to them for righteousness, imputing to them through faith the satisfaction, righteousness, obedience, and holiness of Christ. This is what the Westminster Confession of Faith calls our actual justification (11.4).

That the just live by faith means, then, that they are no longer under condemnation and in peril of the judgment of God, but have peace with God through the work of Christ, have the righteousness of Christ imputed to them through faith, and are counted for Christ’s sake as though they never had nor had committed any sin. They who, under the judgment of God, were as good as dead and who were reckoned so, are by faith reckoned among those who are able to live before Him.

Though the emphasis of the passage is on justification by faith, God, speaking to Habakkuk, certainly also means to emphasize the truth that it is out of that

justifying faith that those who are justified live their lives, facing trials by that same justifying faith, and living in all circumstances in the confidence that they are righteous before God.

They live believing that nothing can separate them from the love of God, that they are more than conquerors in the face of persecution and death. Even when all things seem to be against them, they believe that nothing can be against them. They live at peace with God, with themselves and with others, being justified by faith; and living by faith, their faith is not without works—is not dead, but alive.

They live by faith and not by sight in a wicked world, even when it seems as though the wicked prosper in their wickedness and the church will be swallowed up by wickedness. They live by that faith in their homes and in marriage, teaching their children and making God’s Word the focus of their lives, and making their homes and marriages different from the marriages and homes of the ungodly. They live by faith in their work, laboring for the kingdom of God and doing their work honestly and diligently, believing that Christ uses their work for God, as unimportant and menial as it may sometimes seem.

By that justifying faith they enjoy peace and assurance and answer the accusations of their own conscience and of the world as Romans 8:33, 34 teaches them to do: “Who shall lay any thing to the charge of God’s elect? It is God that justifieth. Who is he that condemneth? It is Christ that died, yea rather, that is risen again, who is even at the right hand of God, who also maketh intercession for us.” Always and in all things the just lives by his faith.

This is evident in the example of Habakkuk who, through his questioning and perplexity, came by faith to the confession of chapter 3:17, 18, “Although the fig tree shall not blossom, neither shall fruit be in the vines; the labour 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.”

It is evident too that Habakkuk’s concern was for Judah and God’s people there. He was concerned among other things with God’s use of Babylon to chastise them and his concern must have been, then, that they would not survive and that God’s cause would be destroyed. In chapter 1 he mentions Babylon’s irresistible power and the speed and completeness of their conquests. Would they do to Judah as they had done to the nations? “They take up all of them with the angle, they catch them in their net, and gather them in their drag: therefore they rejoice and are glad. Therefore they sacrifice unto their net, and burn incense unto their drag; because by them their portion is fat, and their meat plenteous. Shall they therefore empty their net, and not spare continually to slay the nations?” (1:15-17). Habakkuk as prophet had to tell the faithful in Judah that, being justified by faith and living out of that same faith, they would get through those difficult times that were coming.

This emphasis on a living faith is evident also in Hebrews 10:38 where a living faith is contrasted with the drawing back of some, a reference to their lack of steadfastness in not holding fast their profession. They had forsaken the assembly of saints, had despised God’s law, and had fallen into willful sin (Heb. 10:19-35).

Habakkuk 1:4, part of the passage quoted in Hebrews, draws a contrast between those whose souls were lifted up and were not upright, who lived by sight, and those who lived by faith. The former were those who do not live their lives by faith. Calvin describes them thus:

The meaning then is, that a proof of this fact exists evidently in the common life of men—that he who fortifies himself, and is also elated with self confidence, never finds a tranquil haven, for some new suspicion or fear ever disturbs his mind. Hence it comes that the soul entangles itself in various cares and anxieties. This is the reward, as I have said, which is allotted by God’s just judgment to the unbelieving.2

In Hebrew 10:38, 39, those whose souls were lifted up and not upright were those who drew back unto perdition. Those who believe are different. They have peace in a world that knows no peace. They live a life of holiness in a world that hates holiness and a holy God. Their life is in every respect different from the lives of the ungodly. They do not draw back but go on unto perfection, following the examples of the great cloud of witnesses of Hebrews 11.

It must be so, for justifying faith is the gift of God and cannot be dead. It must be living, and living faith is not a faith without works. Those works never added anything to the righteousness of Christ, nor are they anything of which we can boast. They are only ever the fruit of God’s grace but, as fruit, are the proof and evidence of a justifying faith. Those who have faith are faithful, or, as the Westminster Confession of Faith has it: “Faith, thus receiving and resting on Christ and His righteousness, is the alone instrument of justification: yet is it not alone in the person justified, but is ever accompanied with all other saving graces, and is no dead faith, but worketh by love” (11.2).

The just live by faith in that by faith they are justified and without condemnation, but that justifying faith becomes the principle of their whole existence and of everything they do. Thus it was in the days of Habakkuk. Thus it was in the days when Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians. Thus it is today. Habakkuk’s perplexity was real, but he by faith was able to say, “Yet will I rejoice in the God of my salvation.” Judah would soon be carried into captivity, but those who lived by faith, even as they hung their harps on the willows, looked forward to the day when the Lord would turn again the captivity of Zion. In these evil days, seeing the end approaching and days of evil undreamed coming, the just still do and will live by faith, lifting up their heads and hands in the hope of Christ’s soon return.

God, through Habakkuk, says “Behold!” It is notable that the proud cannot be justified, for justification by faith leaves us with nothing in which to boast. Even more amazing, though, is the truth that the just live by faith. Their justification is a miracle. That their faith, the same faith that justifies them, upholds them, and governs their life is the work of the Spirit of God and is equally a miracle. By faith they persevere through many trials and enter finally the everlasting kingdom of God. Faith is the victory that overcomes the world (I John 5:4). By faith they subdue kingdoms, work righteousness, obtain promises, and stop the mouths of lions. Through faith they quench the violence of fire, escape the edge of the sword, out of weakness are made strong, wax valiant in fight, and turn to flight the armies of the aliens (Heb. 11:33, 34).

1 Calvin, Commentaries on the Twelve Minor Prophets, vol. 4 (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1950), 56-57.

2 Calvin, Twelve Minor Prophets, vol. 4, 72.