Previous article in this series: December 15, 2022, p. 130.

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

In Habakkuk 1:12-2:1 Habakkuk had questioned God’s sovereign use of wicked Babylon to punish Judah. God’s answer to Habakkuk has two parts. God would tell Habakkuk in chapter 2:5-20 that Babylon would also be punished for its wickedness, especially its wickedness against Judah; but first, out of concern for His people, God tells Habakkuk that the just will live by faith. They, justified by faith, would experience God’s use of Babylon as chastisement, not as condemnation. Living by that same justifying faith through the difficult times ahead, they would continue to serve God and to enjoy His peace and blessing while in exile.

Because God’s people need to be reminded that they must live by faith, God tells Habakkuk to “Write the vision, and make it plain upon tables, that he may run that readeth it.” The vision is God’s word to Habakkuk, received in a vision, especially the words of chapter 2:4. The tablets on which the vision would be inscribed must have been something like the tables of stone on which the law was written, for the words “write” and “tables” are the same. Many speculate that the tables Habakkuk used were hung in the temple for all to read, but that we do not know.

There are several interpretations of the running and reading in the last part of the verse. In most interpretations of the phrase, those who read and run are God’s people in Judah. Habakkuk had to write the prophecy for them so that they would not miss it. Their running, then, is figurative. Habakkuk had to record his visions so that they would not be missed, just as an inscription written large enough would not be missed even by someone running past (Calvin). That interpretation is not supported by the Hebrew. Similar is the view of those who understand “runneth” to mean, “may read without difficulty and with understanding.”

Another interpretation is that Habakkuk is to write these things for Judah so that, even in the face of the coming of the Babylonian captivity, they would continue to run (we would say, walk) faithfully and in obedience to God and would also run to tell others of God’s grace to them. Reading Habakkuk’s words, they would not stop running. Those who read and run are still God’s people in Judah, but their running is not just a figure of speech but a reference to their obedience.

Others say that Habakkuk is himself the one who runs with the vision to God’s people having read it himself. He had to run as a herald to bring God’s message. This last interpretation is behind some of the modern Bible versions. The NIV has, “Then the Lord replied: ‘Write down the revelation and make it plain on tablets so that a herald may run with it.’”

We prefer the interpretation that emphasizes the purpose of the prophecy: Habakkuk was to write that God’s people in Judah might continue to obey and serve God, that they might run and not be weary, might be encouraged and not discouraged, either by the sins of Judah or by God’s chastisements. We, too, reading and realizing that the vision is still being fulfilled, must continue to “run with patience the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith” (Heb. 12:1, 2). The one who would read and run, then, was the believing member of the tribe of Judah, who, reading Habakkuk’s prophecy, would not falter in the face of the coming judgments.

Recording God’s word was important, for what God had said would not immediately come to pass: “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” (v. 3).

Many of the citizens of the nation at the time paid no heed to God’s words through His prophets, and the delay only hardened them in their unbelief and disobedience. Those who believed would not cease believing God’s word nor keeping His commandments, though the fulfillment of the prophecy was delayed. They would read and run in the days of Habakkuk, and they would read again and continue to run when God’s word was fulfilled and Jerusalem destroyed. Reading and running, believing and serving God, they would live by faith during the most difficult and distressing times.

After tarrying, the vision would be fulfilled. It would “speak, and not lie.” The word speak is to pant or puff, and the vision, God says, was panting and puffing, running and hastening, toward its fulfillment. There would be a delay, but even while delayed it would be hastening to its fulfillment, coming inevitably and quickly. In the end, it would not tarry. Babylon would come as the rod in God’s hand, and the just would have nothing left but their faith.

It is interesting that the verse speaks of the vision tarrying and not tarrying. Calvin explains:

We indeed make such haste in all our desires, that the Lord, when he delays one moment, seems to be too slow. Thus it may come easily to our mind to expostulate with him on the ground of slowness. God, then, is said on this account to delay in his promises; and his promises also as to their accomplishment may be said to be delayed. But if we have regard to the counsel of God, there is never any delay; for he knows all the points of time, and in slowness itself he always hastens, however this may be not comprehended by the flesh. We now, then, apprehend what the Prophet means.1

As Calvin suggests, the passage has application to us. We, too, waiting for Christ’s coming and the fulfillment of all promises in Him, experience the longsuffering of the Lord as delay and have to be reminded that “the Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some men count slackness” (II Pet. 3:9), and yet we see in the signs of Christ’s coming that He is coming quickly as He promised and is not tarrying.

Thus we too, no matter how difficult our own way may be and no matter how distressing things may be for the church, live by faith and not by sight, believing that the church, chosen of God and precious, redeemed by the blood of Christ and indwelt by His Spirit, cannot be overcome by the gates of hell. We must believe that we ourselves cannot be separated from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord, and believing, must go on unto perfection. As those whom God has justified, we can do nothing else.

Verse 3 shows that Habakkuk’s vision looks far beyond Habakkuk’s time to the end of all things. The end is not just the end of the kingdom of Judah but the end of the world. Then God’s church will suffer as never before, and as never before the just will have to live by faith. That end time will be the time of Jacob’s troubles, the days when the man of sin, of whom Nebuchadnezzar was only an image, will be revealed. Then the church will be scattered as it was at the fall of Jerusalem. It will be a time, when if it were possible, even the elect will perish. In those days, too, the just shall live by faith, enduring to the end, watching and waiting for the coming of the everlasting kingdom of God.

The tarrying and not tarrying, therefore, have reference to the vision’s ongoing fulfillment. In Habakkuk’s days, the vision would tarry for only a short time and then the Babylonians would come. That would not be the end of its tarrying. It would tarry again until the coming of Christ, and then through His obedience and sacrifice the righteousness that belongs to the just by faith would be provided and their patient waiting rewarded.

The vision is still tarrying, waiting for everyone who belongs to Christ to be justified and to live by faith. It will continue to tarry and not tarry until those days of the end arrive, so much like the days of Babylon’s coming to Judah. It will tarry until every one of God’s elect is justified, but in the meantime will not tarry, always hurrying to the end of all things. It will tarry while the just live for the last time by faith, watching for the soon coming of Christ and the eternal justifying of God’s own, but all the while it will be panting for the end. And those who are justified will continue to read Habakkuk’s words and continue to run in the way of God’s commandments. They will do so until the vision is finished forever. The vision, though tarrying for them, hastens to its appointed end, while they, believing in God, live by faith in all holy conversation and godliness, looking for and hastening unto the day of God (II Pet. 3:11, 12).

Hebrews 10:36-38, quoting Habakkuk 2:4, tell us that living by faith, the just will exercise their souls in patience, will do the will of God, and will receive the promise, for “yet a little while, and he that shall come will come, and will not tarry.” Just as the Old Testament fulfillment of Habakkuk’s vision would not tarry, neither will the New Testament fulfillment. He is near, even at the door, and when He comes, the just shall live forever with Him.

That need for justifying faith is more and more evident as we near the end. The church and believers in the church are few in number, a minority, like the 7,000 in the days of Ahab. They are despised and ridiculed by the world and often persecuted. They live in societies that do not tolerate Christianity, though those societies tolerate everything else and speak of discrimination as the greatest of all evils. Believers are what Paul calls “the filth of the world, and the offscouring of all things” (I Cor. 4:13).

They must know, therefore, that despised by men, they are acceptable to God; condemned by men, they are righteous in God’s sight, and not the filth of the world but the salt of the earth to Him, justified by faith in Christ, “a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people” (I Pet. 2:9).

They must continue to live by that justifying faith in a world that approves of and legalizes every kind of abomination, a world that is full of temptations and trials. They must raise their children, do their work, build their homes according to the Word of God, rejecting the thinking and the philosophies of the ungodly. They must be holy in a world that has filled the cup of iniquity. They can do that only by faith in Him who justifies them.

They must live by faith when the abomination that makes desolate stands in the holy place and when the time comes to flee to the mountains and dens of the earth. Only their faith will sustain them when they must give up everything, even their lives, for Christ’s sake. And because their faith is the gift of God and not a work of their own, it will survive those most evil of times that are coming. Not only must they live by faith, they shall live by faith.

What a comfort it is that in God’s Word to Habakkuk the vision pants, runs, hastens to the end. The times are always difficult for God’s people, especially the end times, but all things hasten to their appointed end. And what an end that will be, when all unrighteousness is destroyed forever, when God’s people are delivered forever from their enemies, and when after living their lives by faith and not by sight they see the things which eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man to understand (I Cor. 2), when they see His face.

Hebrews 11 records the examples of those who lived by faith in the Old Testament. Believing, they saved their households, were translated from this world to the next, offered acceptable sacrifice, lived as pilgrims and strangers, counted the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures of Egypt, and perished not with those who believe not. So it will be always, and always the vision tarries for them while at the same time rushing on to the end and not tarrying. Surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, we too read and run with patience the race that is set before us looking to Jesus, the Author and Finisher of our faith.

Habakkuk, bringing his concerns and perplexity to God, expected to be reproved (vs. 1). The reproof, if it can even be called a reproof, is mild indeed, as gentle and loving as a father’s reproof of his children when the child has hardly erred. It is much more of comfort than of a reproof, more of a call to faith than a correction. Habakkuk had cast his cares and those of the faithful in Judah upon God and had left them there, and God answers those cares with the great gospel truth of justification.

That truth answers all cares, for it is the truth that there is no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus, no condemnation when the whole world comes under the judgment of God. It is foundational to the truth that nothing can be laid to the charge of God’s elect, for it is God who justifies. All things must work together for their good and nothing can separate them from the love of God. It is the truth that Christ died and is risen again and is ascended to the right hand of His Father.

1 Calvin, Commentaries on the Twelve Minor Prophets, vol. 4, pp. 65, 66.