Saturday, June 03, 2023

Mining the Minors: Habakkuk (9)

Psalm 110 and Isaiah 53 are among the most-quoted passages in the New Testament. However, if we break the quotations down to individual verses, Habakkuk 2:4 is also right up there, appearing on three separate occasions as evidence for three slightly different lines of theological argument.

Before we consider how the NT writers use it, however, we should probably consider the point Habakkuk was making in its original context.

Habakkuk 2:4 Considered

The prophet is perplexed at the state of the people of Judah. God’s earthly people have fallen into serious sin since the time of David and the nation is politically, socially and morally corrupt. Habakkuk looks around him and complains, “The law is ignored and justice is never upheld. For the wicked surround the righteous; therefore, justice comes out perverted.”

God responds that he is going to use the Chaldeans to punish his nation, which baffles the poor prophet even more. How can God use a people even more wicked than Judah as his instrument to discipline his own people? But despite his confusion, Habakkuk maintains his belief in the righteousness and purity of God and says, “I will stand on my guard post … I will keep watch to see what he will speak to me.” In light of the prophet’s faith, God responds again:

“As for the proud one, his soul is not right within him; but the righteous will live by his faith.”

Here, God is contrasting the righteous man in a nation under his judgment with the instrument of that judgment, a nation whose spirit was epitomized in Nebuchadnezzar prior to his own season of judgment described in Daniel, and later in Belshazzar, his successor. His “soul is not right within him” in pride and self-sufficiency. The fact that the God of Israel was directing the course of world events and allowing the Chaldeans to build an empire was lost on its rulers. They thought they were doing it in their own strength and on their own initiative.

Used, But Not Blessed

So Babylon was being used by God, but ultimately did not learn anything from the experience that would permanently transform the conduct or attitude of its people, or bring them into beneficial relationship with God.

In contrast to this spirit of self-sufficiency and blindness toward the sovereignty of God in the world, God seems to be saying the righteous individual in Judah would sustain himself through the judgment of his nation by continuing to view everything that happened to him with reference to the Lord. God would not let the faithful remnant in Judah down despite what they might have to go through because of their bloodline, national affiliation and unintentional and undesired association with evil. He was not talking about faith in Christ leading to individual salvation, but faith in the word of God given through the prophets about the ultimate restoration of Israel.

That’s not exactly how the NT writers repurposed Habakkuk’s words, but all their usages are equally valid, if different from one another.

Habakkuk in the New Testament

1/ Romans 1:17 quotes Habakkuk 2:4

In Romans, Paul is dealing with the subject of righteousness before God. He starts with God’s impending judgment of mankind, stating, “The wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all … unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness.” But first he makes it clear that the gospel is the solution to the problem of unrighteousness:

“… for in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, ‘But the righteous shall live by faith’.”

Do you want to be declared “righteous” rather than “unrighteous” with respect to coming judgment? Paul says faith is the way: Faith in Christ is God’s answer to the problem of man’s unrighteousness. This is true whether a man or woman was from a nation in a covenant relationship with God or from a nation outside the covenant.

His emphasis is on Habakkuk’s words “THE RIGHTEOUS”: all the righteous, regardless of ethnic origin.

2/ Galatians 3:11 quotes Habakkuk 2:4

In Galatians, Paul’s subject is faith vs. works. The believers in Galatia struggled with the concept of being saved by faith alone and had been enticed by false teachers who would have distorted the gospel by having the Galatians comply with some of the rules of Jewish Law as a basis for relating to God. Paul corrects this error by quoting our verse from Habakkuk:

“Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for ‘The righteous shall live by faith.’ But the law is not of faith …”

New context, new emphasis: Paul shows that faith, not law-keeping, is the way to Christian liberty instead of legal bondage, and that God is now dealing with man on the basis of grace, not law. He even goes as far as to say, “If righteousness comes through the Law, then Christ died needlessly.”

His emphasis is on Habakkuk’s words “BY FAITH”, as opposed to by works.

3/ Hebrews 10:37-38 paraphrases Habakkuk 2:3-4

The writer to the Hebrews is dealing with Jews, some of whom have genuinely believed and some of whom have gone along with an exciting new movement for a time, but are now reconsidering their position after being persecuted and harassed by Judaizers. The writer points them to Christ, who is in every way superior to the things the Jews relied on and trusted in. Then he too references our verse to encourage endurance on the part of those who really have believed:

“Yet a little while, and the coming one will come and will not delay; but my righteous one shall live by faith, and if he shrinks back, my soul has no pleasure in him.”

He contends that the preservation of the one’s soul depends on the exercise of faith. Without faith, a Jew who returned to his roots in Judaism risked eternal loss: “We are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed.”

His emphasis is on Habakkuk’s words “SHALL LIVE”, as opposed to shrinking back, returning to works-based Judaism, and being destroyed.

The writer to the Hebrews also makes use of a good deal more of the original context in Habakkuk, going back to the previous verse. But where the original passage speaks of a revelation that awaits an appointed time (concerning the destruction of Babylon), the writer to the Hebrews turns it into a messianic reference: “the coming one will come and not delay”. He also adds a line from the Septuagint translation of Habakkuk here, making reference to those who “draw back”, and how God will respond to them in displeasure.

4/ Acts 13:41 repurposes Habakkuk 1:5

Acts 13 gives us a summary of Paul’s Sabbath day sermon to Jews in a synagogue in Pisidian Antioch. He quotes G0d’s words to Habakkuk as a warning to the Jews about rejecting Christ:

“Look, you scoffers, be astounded and perish; for I am doing a work in your days, a work that you will not believe, even if one tells it to you.”

In its original context, we can see this passage has nothing to do with salvation by believing the gospel, and that is not what Paul is claiming. The “work in your days” of Habakkuk 1 is explicitly explained in the words “raising up the Chaldeans”. (The words “and perish” are not in the Hebrew Bible. They too come from the Septuagint translation, of which Paul apparently made regular use. The English version of Habakkuk directly from Hebrew is “wonder and be astounded”.)

So Paul’s argument in Acts is not that Habakkuk spoke about the danger of not believing the gospel, but rather that Habakkuk illustrates two important principles: (1) that God regularly does astounding, unbelievable things; and (2) that men are in danger of not believing him and perishing because of it.

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