December 18, 2017

Straight Cuts: “The Just Shall Live by Faith” (Habakkuk 2:4b)

Mike Harding

This inspired text penned by the ancient prophet Habakkuk is quoted three times by two NT authors. In the NT, the prophet’s profound utterance comprises the “soul of Pauline theology.”[1] Boice comments, “This is a great text. It could even be called the great text of the Bible. To understand it is to understand the Christian gospel and the Christian life.” Nevertheless, this text presents several challenges. First, does “just” refer to forensic righteousness, ethical righteousness, or both? Second, does “faith” refer primarily to an active sense of steadfast trust or a passive sense of faithfulness?

Though the word translated “just” often refers to the righteousness of God, the majority of times it is used in reference to man. The question is whether it is valid to categorize “just” in Habakkuk 2:4b as ethical righteousness. In the context of Habakkuk’s prophecy, “just” implies a practical conformity to an ethical standard, namely God’s. Hill concludes that “the fundamental idea” of the word is “conformity to a norm which requires to be defined in each particular case.”[2] In this “particular case,” Habakkuk contrasts the “wicked” with the “righteous” (1:4, 13), indicating that an ethical/ moral concept of righteousness is primarily involved here. The waw-adversative in 2:4 indicates a contrast between one who is righteous and one who is arrogant.

However, ample support exists for interpreting “righteous” with a judicial sense as well. O. Palmer Robertson argues, “The concept of righteousness … in the OT develops a distinctive flavor in that it is bound inseparably to the idea of judicial standing. … Considering the legal bond lying at the foundation of Israel’s covenant relation to God, how could it be otherwise?”[3] Vos echoes this idea by insisting that a “judicial substratum” is to be observed throughout the whole assortment of contexts where “righteous” occurs. Though the primary intention of Habakkuk seems to be ethical, this does not preclude the idea that those who are ethically righteous conduct themselves as such on the basis of a judicially imparted righteousness in accordance with the paradigm of Abraham’s belief and subsequent judicially righteous standing (Gen 15:6).

It is clear that “just” has two aspects. Habakkuk apparently assumes the judicial aspect based on OT usage and the paradigm of Abraham’s belief in Genesis 15:6, but emphasizes the ethical or religious aspect in order to warn the unrighteous of their impending doom and encourage genuine faithfulness for those who are true followers of Yahweh.

The second tension is whether “faith/faithfulness” is active or passive. “By his faith” modifies the verb “shall live.” “Faith” is, therefore, crucial to the survival of individuals (“his faith”) who are genuinely righteous (both forensically and as a result ethically righteous). Though “faith/faithfulness” carries a basic meaning of “firmness, steadfastness, [and] fidelity” (BDB; Gesenius), the meaning of the term and its importance for Habbakkuk 2:4b should be determined largely from its use in the Hebrew Bible. Bryant has examined every occurrence of this term in the OT. He concludes, “The primary meaning is that attribute of God, closely associated with hesed (covenant faithfulness), which denotes steadfastness, unwavering faithfulness, loyalty to Yahweh and His Word.”[4] The prefixed preposition (“by his faith”) presents “faith” as the instrumental agent of the life provided in the passage.

On the other hand, the active sense of “faith” is derived from the hiphil form of “believe,” which means “trust.” This relationship of the noun to the verb supports an active sense, indicating a “trust” that places unreserved reliance upon something outside of itself (Gen 15:6). “It must be carefully maintained that neither the Old nor the New Testament separate[s] faith from its fruits of faithfulness. The distinction between faith and faithfulness is somewhat artificial, for … in the long run they are the same thing. The Bible knows nothing of a true faith which does not hold fast its confidence to the end” (Bryant).

In summary, the antithetical parallelism in Habakkuk 2:4, 5 contrasts the character and destiny of the righteous (in both the forensic and ethical aspects) with the unrighteous Chaldeans and ungodly Judeans. The unrighteous/unjust individual displays a heart lifted up in pride, a wickedness of life, and his/her destiny is that of death and eternal destruction. The righteous one believes in Yahweh, is accepted by Him on the basis of imputed righteousness, and as a result is upright in life, destined to life in its fullest sense of divine favor.

Habakkuk 2:4b is justifiably used by Paul to support his argument for forensic justification by faith in an active sense (Rom 1:17; Gal 3:11) since “righteous” and “faith” are such theologically loaded terms. Since Habakkuk primarily emphasized the ethical and volitional aspects of righteousness and faithful faith respectively, the writer of Hebrews is equally justified in applying Habakkuk 2:4 to persevering faith and progressive sanctification (Heb 10:28). Neither the OT nor the NT separates faith from faithfulness or a righteous standing from righteousness. Faith in the Biblical sense of Habakkuk 2:4b is by its very nature faithful, without which no man can please the Lord (Heb 11:6).


Mike Harding, FBFI Board Member, pastors First Baptist Church of Troy in Troy, Michigan.

(Originally published in FrontLine • November / December 2006. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.).

  1. S. L. Johnson Jr., “The Gospel That Paul Preached,” BSac 128 (1971): 327. []
  2. Greek Words and Hebrew Meanings, pp. 82–83. []
  3. Robertson, “‘The Justified (by Faith) Shall Live by His Steadfast Trust’ – Habakkuk 2:4,” Presbyterion 9:62. []
  4. H. S. Bryant, “The Meaning of Habakkuk 2:4” (Unpublished Bachelor of Divinity Thesis, Grace Theological Seminary, 1966): 20–26. []


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