The Righteous Shall Live By Faith

The following is an exposition of Habakkuk and the quotation of Habakkuk 2:4 in Galatians 3. It was written for my advanced hermeneutics class, thus the confusing big words here and there. Don’t worry if you find it boring. It’s not supposed to be particularly interesting, just jam-packed full of interpretive considerations. enjoy! 

Theological Themes

There are a few theological themes I glean from this text, and they all revolve around salvation, or to be more specific, sparing one from judgment. From Habakkuk’s point of view, he is pleading to God to be spared, with the other righteous people in Israel, from the oppressive force of the Chaldeans (Babylon) and God is responding to that plea.

Literary Genre

The genre for chapters 1 and 2 is prophetic oracle (1:1 – “The oracle that Habakkuk the prophet saw.”) Chapter three is a psalm that Habakkuk prays to God.


The message of the book can be summarized from Habakkuk’s point of view as if he were saying, “Even in the midst of utter destruction, I will rejoice in the God of my Salvation.” Habakkuk’s message is for Israel to rejoice in God’s salvation, even though they are being destroyed by Chaldeans, because God is true to his word and he will resurrect them in the end to live in His kingdom.

Analysis of Habakkuk

Sections of the Book:

  1. Habkkuk’s prayer for and realization of God’s judgment (1:1-2:1)
  2. God’s message of judgment for “him” (2:2-20)
  3. Habakkuk’s prayer in and joy in spite of God’s judgment (3:1-19)

Section 1: Habakkuk’s Prayer for and realization of God’s Judgment

The message in this section is simple. Habakkuk questions God’s judgment and justice.

Habakkuk recounts his cries to Yahweh that he would see the violence, iniquity, destruction, and wickedness that surrounds the righteous, and the implicit cry is that God would do something about it. A question that needs answering from the get-go is one of definition. Who is Habakkuk identifying as “the wicked” and as “the righteous”? Are “the wicked” the Chaldeans whom God is raising up in verse 6 or are they unrepentant Israel who is causing God to raise the Chaldeans? Are “the righteous” the remnant of Israelites still following God, or is this a general term Habakkuk uses to describe all genetic Israelites in his day? I think the best interpretation is that the righteous are the believing remnant, and the wicked are the unrepentant Israelites.

After this cry, God answers Habakkuk by telling him that he will punish the wicked in Israel by raising up the Chaldeans, and one specific leader of the Chaldeans, who is swift and fierce in his destruction taking whatever he pleases. Habakkuk, realizing this, questions God’s method of judgment, wondering if “the wicked” will prosper forever. Here “the wicked” seems to now refer to the Chaldean king, the one whom God just finished saying would be raised up, the assumption is, to judge Israel.

Section 2: God’s Message of Judgment for “Him”

God then answers Habakkuk’s questioning, and the message of this section is clear: “He” (whoever “he” is) will get what’s coming to “him,” and in contrast, “the righteous shall live by faith.”

This section will be exposited in greater detail later.

Section 3: Habakkuk’s Prayer In and Joy In Spite Of God’s Judgment

Chapter 3’s message is simple: God is powerful and great to be feared, yet rejoice in the Lord, the God of salvation. Habakkuk sings a prayer to the Lord, extoling him in the midst of seeing great devastation, which he attributes to God, but ultimately comes to a place of peace. He rejoices in God, though everything around him is death and destruction. He rejoices in the God of his salvation.

Exegesis of Habakkuk 2:4

Two main sets of questions that need to be answered are as follows: (1) Who is the “he” in 2:4 whose soul is puffed up and is not upright within him? Is it the same “he” who receives a myriad of woes in 6-20? (2) What is the meaning of “the righteous shall live by his faith”? Both “shall live” and “faith” are in question. Is it a purely eschatological or temporal life? Is it “faith” or “faithfulness”?

The “He” in 2:4ff

The first set of questions can make one’s head spin. There is no clear subject to which the first “his” refers, in “his soul is puffed up and proud.” The nearest antecedent is the still ambiguous “he” in verse 2: “he may run who reads it.” It’s reasonable to guess that the “he” from verse 4 who is proud and has a puffed up soul is the unrighteous, or wicked, portion of Israel who is soon to be judged by the Chaldeans. Another reasonable possibility is that the “he” refers to the Chaldeans themselves (or at least to their leader, or even to demon who is behind their leader). It seems undeniable that the “he” in verse 4 is the same “he” who is receiving scoffing taunts from all the peoples he collects because there is no new character introduced before these taunts begin. Therefore, allowing the rest of the chapter to inform us, it seems slightly more likely that the “he” is the Chaldean leader.

The Chaldean leader determination comes from descriptive phrases of “him” like, “you have plundered many nations,” and, “show your uncircumcision.” These two phrases would seem to indicate that the “he” in question is (1) a non-Jew since he’s uncircumcised, and (2) a member of the marauding Chaldeans described in chapter 1. However, both of these arguments can be answered from the other point of view by saying that these are unbelieving Jews who show their uncircumcised hearts by getting drunk in public and who enslaved other people-groups while living the life of luxury in Jerusalem. All of the descriptions of this “he” in verses 5-20 could be easily applied to unrepentant Jews who have scorned God and begun worshipping idols. That being said, the fact that the “he” is singular, makes me lean toward the idea that this unrighteous “he” from verses 5-20 is the leader of the Chaldeans. This conclusion is further supported by chapter one, because the singular masculine is used all through the description of the one from Chaldea who will execute God’s judgment on Jerusalem.

“The righteous shall live by his faith”

The second set of questions is even more confusing. The phrase “shall live” is fairly ambiguous in English and as far as I can tell equally so in Hebrew. Three possible meanings could be reasonably taken: (1) Given the context of Habakkuk, it would seem that God is telling Habakkuk that certain people will be spared from this utter destruction coming from the Chaldeans. Habakkuk, and other faithful Jews, will live through the Chaldean siege. (2) However, a second possibility is that God is giving Habakkuk an eschatological promise that some of the people who are here and now (in Habakkuk’s time) destroyed by the Chaldeans will live again. “Shall live” then could be clarified in English with the phrase “shall be resurrected.” Habakkuk and other faithful Jews are going to die at the hands of the Chaldeans, but shall be resurrected in the eschaton. (3) A third possibility is that God is merely painting a distinct contrast for Habakkuk. Where the “he” is puffed up and proud, the righteous on the other hand live their life more humbly, with a description contrary to pride: faith. I believe the first two options are more viable readings than the third, and the second makes the most sense when Paul’s quotation of this passage is taken into account. More on this later.

“The righteous shall live by his faith

I must admit upfront that I don’t know Hebrew well enough to determine the best translation of any Hebrew words, but based on context, in each possibility it seems better that emeth be translated as “faith” rather than “faithfulness.” The reason for this lies in the question, “What is the object of the faith or faithfulness?” Yahweh must be the one the righteous’s faith is in. If it is translated as faithfulness it seems to put emphasis on the actions of the righteous one, as opposed to the reason behind the actions of the righteous one. In all translations it is faith in Yahweh that allows the righteous one to “live” (whether eschatologically, temporally through the Chaldean destruction of Jerusalem, or by the virtue of humility.) The emphasis in every option should be on Yahweh’s actions for the righteous, not on the righteous’s actions for Yahweh. “Faith” communicates this emphasis better than “faithfulness.”

Use in Galatians Three

Now that we have a clearer grasp of the range of viable meanings of the phrase in the original context, we can visit the passage in Galatians in which Paul quotes Habakkuk 2:4. Paul has, up to this point, been constructing an argument for justification by faith as opposed to works of the law. He begins by telling the Galatians how astonished he is that they have fallen away from the true gospel so quickly and then defends the source of the gospel as a revelation from Jesus Christ. He makes it abundantly clear that he was a follower of the law to the letter, but the freedom he experienced from the gospel changed his perspective. He began living in freedom from the law by grace and opposing those who tried to reinstitute the law in any way, either intentionally or unintentionally. He even opposed Peter for this.

He then begins his extended explanation of the contrast of law and faith. He makes it clear that no one will be saved by works of the law; they will only be saved by faith. In the midst of making this argument he says, matter-of-factly, “Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for ‘the righteous will live from faith,’ but the law is not from faith, rather, ‘the one who does them will live in them.’” What does Paul mean by the phrase, “the righteous will live from faith”?

One assumption I am willing to make is that he means the same thing Habakkuk meant, because the Holy Spirit would not inspire Paul to contradict an earlier inspired author. That said, there were three possible meanings we determined Habakkuk could have: (1) the righteous Jews would be spared imminent death from the Chaldeans (2) the righteous Jews would be killed by the Chaldeans but be resurrected in the eschaton, or (3) the righteous living faithfully was merely a contrast to the proud unrighteous. One of these three senses must fit into Paul’s argument.

Obviously, the first option cannot fit. Paul has no imminent army bearing down on him. This leaves option two and option three. As stated previously, option three is very weak given the context of Habakkuk, so it is far less likely than option two. This leaves option two as the strongest and most likely sense both Paul and Habakkuk intended. Paul is saying that in the eschaton, the righteous will be resurrected, just as the righteous in Habakkuk’s time will be resurrected in the eschaton and the reason they will be resurrected is their faith.

This fits with Paul’s argument as he is discussing the gospel of grace. He explains this in Ephesians by saying that “it is by grace we are saved through faith.” Paul is arguing the exact same thing here as in Ephesians 2: that in the end times God will resurrect the faithful, the righteous, and allow them to live in His kingdom. He will not resurrect them on the basis of how they followed the law; rather he will resurrect them on the basis of their faith. This is the argument of Paul, this is the promise to Habakkuk, and this is the gospel. It is by grace we are saved through faith.

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