Sunday, June 12, 2016

A Study of Habakkuk 2:4b

I. Introduction
The book of Habakkuk consists of two question and answer sessions between the prophet and God followed by a woe oracle and the prophet's prayer. In addition to reviewing the historical background of the writing of the book, this paper analyzes God's response in the second round of discourse in Hab 2:4b.[1] What אֱמוּנָה  is and whose אֱמוּנָה it is in the original context and the uses of the verse in the NT are examined. The application section addresses the problem of a lack of explicit answer in this verse to Habakkuk's second lament and how it relates to Christian theology especially when dealing with the problem of evil.

II. Historical Background
Rast argues that Habakkuk’s questions resemble those of lament Psalms.[2] The difference is that while lament Psalms usually end with resolution of the problem, promise of deliverance and expression of gratitude, God responded to Habakkuk’s laments with messages of judgment[3] and the book ends with Habakkuk’s prayer of hope. Habakkuk ministered in the last days of Josiah and during the early reign of Jehoiakim.[4] Josiah’s early death in the battle of Megiddo in 609 put his reform to an end and as a result, Judah returned to a lifestyle of wickedness under Jehoiakim. Yahweh made it clear in his message to Josiah about the certainty of judgment on Judah (2 Ki 22:15-17). Nevertheless, Habakkuk expressed impatience in his first lament  due to Yahweh’s lack of action in the face of rampant rebellion against him manifested in the absence of respect to the law that naturally resulted in perversion of justice, oppression of the righteous and disintegration of society (1:3b-4). Two questions highlight the first lament: (1) why isn’t God doing anything to the evil that his people are committing (1:3b)? and (2) how long will God let this situation to continue (1:2)? Yahweh’s response that he would bring the Babylonians to punish Judah settles both questions on the solution to the problem of prolonged disobedience of his people, namely Babylon,[5] and when this solution would be executed, namely soon considering the geopolitical circumstances of the day.
Assyria started to decline since the death of Ashurbanipal in 633 BC and was replaced by Babylon as the world’s superpower after Nabopolassar conquered Niniveh in 612 BC with the aid of Cyaxares of Media. Nebuchadnezzar’s victory over the coalition between Necho II of Egypt and the remains of the Assyrian forces in the battle of Carchemish in 605 BC opened the entire Palestine for the Babylonians to advance south and exposed Judah under direct threat of their invasion. That same year God's judgment was fulfilled beginning when Nebuchadnezzar wasted no time but attacked Judah immediately that resulted in the first exile. Zedekiah's attempt to resist Babylon sealed Judah's fate as Jerusalem fell in 586 BC, less than 20 years after Carchemish and Judah was no more. Habakkuk’s concern to Yahweh’s response is expressed in another question under the second lament: why does God punish evil with evil? The primary issue here is why the punishment is so indiscriminate as to cause the righteous to suffer as well (1:17)?[6] Yahweh responded by first commanding that the vision he gave to Habakkuk be written on tablets.[7] Unlike the first response, there is no explicit answer to the second question. Other than saying that he would punish Babylon whose judgment is described under the woe oracle (2:6-20), he points out the contrast between the wicked and the righteous person in 2:4.

III. Literary Analysis
Andersen proposes that אֱמוּנָה means either "a quality of a truthful, reliable witness"[8] or "reliability in carrying out a task, steadfastness in relationship, being worthy of someone else's trust."[9]  The third person possessive masculine singular suffix וֹ refers to חָזוֹן, the vision God commanded Habakkuk to write in 2:2. So the point of 2:4b is that a righteous person lives in reliance on the reliability of God's revelation which implies the reliability of God himself being the giver of revelation.[10] Andersen also adds that the word is "closely associated with the divine חֶסֶד, mercy, righteousness and salvation."[11] Henry sees אֱמוּנָה as the faith by which a righteous person acts upon the word of God,[12] thus implying the person's exercise of trust on an object, namely God, a definition Andersen disagrees with.[13] Though Henry is not necessarily mistaken, Andersen's view is closer to the immediate context of chapter 2,[14]

The antithetical parallelism of v.4 predicts two possible responses to the message (i.e., the vision). The righteous will accept the message and rely on it; the wicked will pervert it (it will get stuck in his crooked throat). The message is received favorably by one who is already righteous. He does not become righteous by receiving it. It is part of the righteous person's mentality to trust God. Human faith (trust) is included in אֱמוּנָתוֹ only indirectly. If 'his' refers to God's reliability, it is his consistent upholding of justice, punishing the guilty, delivering the innocent.

Though Henry understands the correct use of Hab 2:4b,[15] it is easy when holding his view if one is not careful to think that the verse emphasizes reliance on the righteous person's faith instead of God's faithfulness. Reading the verse to mean that a righteous person lives by his faith may lead one to legalism, namely reliance on the performance of his or her own faith. There can be a serious implication of this error in soteriology and Christian life. The questions asked in D. James Kennedy's Evangelism Explosion can be used as a diagnostic tool, "If you were to die to now, will you be in heaven or hell? What would you say if God asks the question, 'Why should I let you go to heaven'?" An incorrect understanding of Hab 2:4b leads to the following answer. "I will go to heaven because I exercised faith in Jesus Christ that He died for my sins that I no longer have to bear the wrath of God. The decisive factor of my salvation lies in my decision to exercise this faith. The Christian life consists of and depends on my faith in God. I know I will make it in the end regardless of the circumstances since I have strong faith. The righteous like me will live by my faith." Though there is biblical content in this answer, it puts a lot of weight on self-performance betraying semi-Pelagianism.
On the other hand, a correct understanding of Hab 2:4b leads to the following answer. "I will go to heaven only because of God's loving-kindness by which he granted me the grace of faith to believe in the gospel about who Jesus Christ is and what He did on the cross for sinners like me. I can face anything in life not because I have great faith and rely on its performance, but because of God's trustworthiness, that he would certainly do what he promised in his Word, his faithfulness to sustain, take care of me and cause me to persevere to remain faithful to him to the end (John 6:37, 39; 13:1, Rom 8:29-31). God gave me the faith to believe the gospel through which I am justified (Rom 5:1). He gave me the faith to live faithfully in reliance on him and the fact that I exercise faith in him is an evidence of his faithfulness, the fulfillment of his promise to keep me faithful to Christ all the days of my life (Phil 2:12-13)." Ultimately, salvation from beginning to end depends on God's performance including the life lived in light of this salvation in Christ. The decisive factor is what God does through Christ; his trustworthiness, not self-performance. The seeming self-performance is an evidence of God's performance according to what he said he would do in his Word.
The NT quotations of Hab 2:4b in Rom 1:17, Gal 3:11 and Heb 10:38 have the same structure ( δὲ) δίκαιος (μου) ἐκ πίστεως ζήσεται. Notable textual differences are Rom 1:17 and Gal 3:11 omit the suffix וֹ (αὐτοῦ) and add the article while Heb 10:38 uses first person possessive singular suffix μου instead and omits δὲ.[16] Heb 10:38 quotes the LXX that uses Habakkuk manuscript where the scribe did not write ו long enough that it was interpreted as a י the first person possessive suffix.[17] Nevertheless this difference does not imply an error since it does not change the meaning compared to the original text in Hab 2:4b. Both μου and וֹ in Heb 10:38 and Hab 2:4b, respectively refer to God. Just as Hab 2:4b talks about the reliability of God's revelation, there is also a promise in the preceding verse in Heb 10:37b, "Yet a little while, and the coming one will come and will not delay" which the author of Hebrews urges his readers to rely on.
In Rom 1:17 and Gal 3:11, ἐκ πίστεως, the equivalent of בֶּאֱמוּנָתוֹ modifies δίκαιός, the equivalent of צַדִּיק since the context is justification by faith. So Paul’s point is the righteous, namely only those justified by faith or “the righteous out of faith” will be saved.[18] The question is whether Paul quotes Hab 2:4b out of context in Rom 1:17 and Gal 3:11. To answer this question, it is necessary to note the connection between justification by faith in Rom 1:17 and Gal 3:11and living in reliance on God's faithfulness in Hab 2:4b. The former is the root and the latter is the fruit. The former is implied in the latter and the latter is an evidence of the former. There is a presupposition of justification by faith in 2:4b, namely only those who trust God will be enabled to live faithfully to him in any circumstance.[19] [20] Habakkuk understood that the righteous person in 2:4b is someone who is righteous by faith. The concept of justification by faith, someone God declares righteous for trusting him is not foreign in the OT, perhaps the most eminent example of whom is Abraham (Gen 15:6). The OT faith looks forward to the fulfilment of God’s salvation whose details weren’t fully revealed. In the NT faith takes on a deeper meaning with the coming of Christ. The NT faith looks backward to the finished work of Christ on the basis of which only one can be made righteous with God by virtue of the imputation of the sinners’ sins on Christ on the cross and Christ’s perfect righteousness on them. Both OT and NT saints exercised their faith on the same object, namely Jesus Christ and are justified by the same faith. The evidence of their being justified by faith is that they persevere to live in reliance on God’s faithfulness in all circumstances, the point of Hab 2:4b. Hence in Hab 2:4b, as in Heb 10:38,בֶּאֱמוּנָתוֹ  (ἐκ πίστεως) modifies יִחְיֶה (ζήσεται) since the context of both passages is perseverance of the saints.

IV. Application: How to Respond to the Problem of Evil
When comparing God’s response to Habakkuk’s question in the second lament (see section II), it appears that God does not provide an explicit answer why he brings the wicked Babylonians to punish Judah and why this punishment affects the righteous adversely as well. The central message of God’s response is Hab 2:4b followed by the assurance that Babylon ultimately will be destroyed as well in the woe oracle. Why the lack of explicit answer? Rast identifies Habakkuk’s second lament as similar to Job’s in which God is put on trial.[21] The central question in Job is why God punishes Job without any obvious reason. At the end of the book after multiple rounds of heated exchanges between Job and his friends, God appears, not to answer Job, but to deliver a sharp rebuke against him (Job 38:2ff). The reason for this seemingly harsh response[22] is perhaps due to lack of reverence in some of Job’s language as the discourses progress (e.g., Job 3:1-10, 23, 7:17, 12:5-6, 19:7). In the end his question about why he was afflicted is never answered. Similarly, God doesn’t answer Habakkuk’s question except the response is not as stinging as that delivered to Job, perhaps due to Habakkuk’s less aggressive questioning posture. As Rast points out, Job’s and Habakkuk’s second lament deal with theodicy. The problem of evil asks that if God is good and in control or sovereign, why he allows evil to happen.
Scripture affirms the exhaustive foreknowledge of God, that God is the First Cause of all things including sin and evil.[23] On the other hand God is also holy and therefore cannot be the author of sin.[24] His sovereignty does not imply that he coerces creatures to act against their wills but his sovereign plan is carried out through their wills exercised freely according to their nature.[25] Therefore creatures, not God are responsible and guilty for the evil they commit. However, maintaining both attributes of God: his holiness and sovereignty involves tension. It is a paradox that God is both holy and designs evil. We know both are true since Scripture affirms them yet we do not know how this can be. Talbot remarks that the reason is because this is the case of a unique Creator – creature relationship in which God is the ultimate explanation.[26] It is this link between the sovereignty of God and human responsibility that comprises a mystery hidden presently to the world and is only known to God (Deut 29:29) that is the reason behind the lack of explicit answer to Habakkuk’s second lament. It is as if God said to him, “You already know the truth, that I am holy (1:12a, 13a) and I am sovereign over all things including in ordaining Babylon to punish my people (1:12b). There is nothing else to say but that you ought to live in reliance on my faithfulness (2:4b). Believe in all that I have revealed to you about who I am though you still have unanswered questions and do not be arrogant insisting that you need to know everything and I need to provide you all the answers now (2:4a).”
As an application for today’s use, the opposite of Hab 2:4b alluded in 2:4a[27] serves as God’s warning to those who refuse to affirm the truth about his attributes of holiness and sovereignty. Insisting that there must not be a tension, there cannot be a mystery in the problem of evil signals arrogance, a puffed up[28] soul that results in unbiblical theology by maintaining one attribute of God at the expense of the other. One extreme of the resulting unbiblical theology is Opentheism. In order for God to be holy and thus, not the author of evil, he cannot be sovereign. Talbot acknowledges a noble intention behind this assertion, namely Opentheists desire to acquit God of any wrongdoing.[29] Yet on the other hand, there is also insistence on human autonomy, God cannot force anyone to do anything. God’s sovereignty implies he forces creatures to act against their wills and reduces creatures to be mere robots.  Creatures have free-will in an autonomous sense and therefore it is necessary that God cannot know what is going to happen in the future. The future is decided by God and creatures. The most serious implication of Opentheism is that removing God’s attribute of sovereignty is equivalent to make him to be less than the true God and therefore not God at all. It is clear from passages such as Isa 41:21-24, 48:3-8 and 44:7 that what distinguishes God from idols is his foreknowledge and without this attribute God is reduced to an idol.
The other extreme of the resulting unbiblical theology is Hyper-Calvinism. Traditionally, Hyper-Calvinism is known from its characteristic of the denial of the necessity of preaching the gospel universally and that the unregenerate has a duty to believe in the gospel and repent.[30] The gospel is to be preached only to those who show signs of regeneration. Total depravity is used as an excuse for the inability and thus, the responsibility to believe the gospel and repent. The sovereignty of God nullifies human responsibility.  High-Supralapsarianism, a school of Calvinistic theories in which God’s decree to elect and reprobate comes first is another example of similar extreme to Hyper-Calvinism.[31] According to this view, “both election and reprobation are operations of mere sovereignty.” The implication is, “if God had reprobated man (who was initially) free from all sin, it would have been a work of absolute and autocratic power, but not a work of justice…It logically makes God the efficient producer of sin.”[32] In other words, the over-emphasis on the sovereignty of God in this case casts doubts on his holiness.
Hab 2:4b teaches the right Christian response to the problem of evil, namely reliance on God’s faithfulness an element of which includes the affirmation of divine sovereignty and holiness as well as creaturely responsibility. Despite some remaining mystery, believers ought to hold on to Scriptural truth about who he is. There cannot be any wrongdoing committed by God regardless of the outward appearance. He controls all events in history. He knows what he is doing and he does all things well for his glory first and most importantly and for the good of his people. And his faithfulness includes their preservation in Christ that causes them to persevere in holding on to the faith delivered to them  once and for all (Jud 3) to the end, demonstrated in faithful living to the glory and honor of their Risen Lord (2 Cor 5:15).

[1] וְצַדִּיק בֶּאֱמוּנָתוֹ יִחְיֶה, "But the righteous will live by his faith." (ESV).

[2] Walter E. Rast, "Habakkuk and Justification by Faith." Currents in Theology and Mission 10.3 (1983):169-170.

[3] Rast, "Habakkuk and Justification by Faith", 171.

[4] Willem A. VanGemeren, Interpreting the Prophetic Word (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990), 168.

[5] confirmed in 1:12, “O Lord, you have ordained them as a judgment, and you, O Rock, have established them for reproof.”

[6] Van Gemeren, Interpreting the Prophetic Word, 168-170. Also Matthew Henry, Commentary on the Whole Bible (McLean: McDonald, 1985), 1357-1358.

[7] לְמַעַן יָרוּץ קוֹרֵא בוֹ  Henry, Commentary, 1359. God commands Habakkuk to write on tablets legibly and with large characters so that he who runs may still be able to read it. Compare with Andersen: it is not a runner who reads but it is the reciter who runs. The reciter is not merely to write the vision down, but also to run with it to proclaim it. It is the prophet who runs. So the translation according to Andersen is "in order that he may run proclaiming (קוֹרֵא is qal participle) with it (again, in בוֹ, the third person possessive masculine singular suffix וֹ refers to the vision חָזוֹן as in 2:4b). Francis I. Andersen, Habakkuk (AYBC; New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001), 204-205. I think Andersen is correct.

[8] Andersen, Habakkuk, 206.

[9] Andersen, Habakkuk, 215.

[10] Andersen, Habakkuk, 205, 211, "The guarantee of life for the righteous is grounded in the reliability of God."

[11] Anderson, Habakkuk, 215.

[12] Henry, Commentary, 1360.

[13] Andersen, Habakkuk, 215. "In any case, אֱמוּנָה does not mean 'trustingness' as a spiritual virtue of which a human being is capable."

[14] Andersen, Habakkuk, 214.

[15] Henry, Complete Commentary, 1360. "The just shall live by faith; during the captivity good people shall support themselves, and live comfortably by faith in these precious promises while the performance of them is deferred. The just shall live by his faith, by that faith which he acts upon the word of God."

[16] Paul Ellingworth, The Epistles to the Hebrews (NIGTC, Grand Rapids: Eerdsman, 1993), 554. Manuscripts of Hebrews vary according to where μου is:
(a)     placed after δίκαιός, giving the meaning 'my righteous one will live by his faith'
(b)     placed after πίστεως meaning 'the righteous one will live by faith in me.'
(c)     omitted (Rom 1:17, Gal 3:11), μου does not add anything to the argument.

[17] Andersen, Habakkuk, 211.

[18] to be contrasted with justification by the works of the Law which no one can attain in Rom 3:18. Also see Ellingworth, Hebrews, 555, "Paul (Rom 1:17, Gal 3:11) takes ἐκ πίστεως with δίκαιός to give the meaning 'the one who is righteous, not by works but by faith will live.’"

[19] Arthur W. Pink, An Exposition of Hebrews (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006), 641-642."The prophet is cited in proof that perseverance is one of the distinguishing characteristics of a child of God. He who has been justified by God, through the imputation of Christ's righteousness to his account, lives by faith as the influencing principle of his life. The one whom God has exonerated from the curse and condemnation of the law, is not him who has merely believed, but is the man who continues believing, with all that word includes, and involves. The use of the future tense 'shall live' announces and enforces the necessity for the continued exercise of faith. Those whom God declares righteous in Christ are to pass their lives here, not in doubt and fear, but in the maintenance of a calm trust in and a joyful obedience to Him. Only as the heart is engaged with God and feeds upon his Word, will the soul be invigorated and fitted to press onwards when everything outward seems to be against him. It is by our faith being drawn out unto things above that we receive the needed strength which causes us to look away from the discouraging and distracting scene around us. As faith lives upon Christ (John 6:56-57), it draws virtue from Him, as the branch derives sap from the root of the vine. Faith makes us resign ourselves and our affairs to Christ's disposing, cheerfully treading the path of duty and patiently waiting that issue which He will give. Faith is assured that our Head knows far better than we do what is good and best."

[20] Henry, Commentary, 1360. "This is quoted in the New Testament (Rom 1:17, Gal 3:11, Heb 10:38) for the proof of the great doctrine of justification by faith only and of the influence which the grace of faith has upon the Christian life. Those that are made just by faith shall live, shall be happy here and forever, while they are here, they live by it; when they come to heaven faith shall be swallowed up in vision."

[21] Rast, "Habakkuk and Justification by Faith," 172.

[22] God in essence tells Job, “You don’t question me. I question you (Job 38:2, 40:7). By my questioning you I will show that you don’t know what you’re talking about.”

[23] Ex 4:11, Deut 32:39, Judges 9:23, 1 Sam 2:6-7, 16:14-23, Job 42:11, Ps 139:1-5, 15-16, Lam 3:32, 37-38, Amos 3:6, Isa 31:2, 45:7, 46:10, Col 1:16, Rom 11:36, I use the term exhaustive foreknowledge of God and sovereignty of God interchangeably in this paper.

[24] Gen 18:25, 2 Chron 19:7, Hos 14:9, Ps 139:75, 145:17.

[25] The summary about the nature of the sovereignty of God is given in WCF III.1. “God from all eternity did by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass; yet so as thereby neither is God the author of sin; nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures, nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established.” It should also be added whatever God has decreed to come to pass will come to pass (Dan 4:35, Isa 46:10, Ps 33:11, Heb 6:17).

[26] Mark Talbot, “All the Good that is Ours in Christ: Seeing God’s Gracious Hand in the Hurts Others Do to Us,” 2005 Desiring God National Conference, October 8, 2005, Minneapolis, MN. Talbot’s conference address is available from, accessed April 5, 2013.

[27] Compare לֹא־יָשְׁרָה, not straight or upright (from יָשָׁר) in 2:4a with צַדִּיק in 2:4b.

[28] Henry, Commentary, 1360, "Those that either distrust or despise God's all sufficiency will not walk uprightly with him," Also Andersen, Habbakuk, 209, עֻפְּלָה presumptuous defiance of the Lord’s command, arising from self-trust and leading to death. Traditional “proud and arrogant” is probably the best that can be done.”

[29] Talbot, "All the Good." Opentheism is distinct from Arminianism in that the latter acknowledges God's foreknowledge, but not the same way Reformed theology understands it. As stated in the remonstrance of 1610 (The Canons of Dort, paragraph 5, in The Three Forms of Unity (Grand Rapids: RCUS, 2006), p.66), Arminians believe that God knew in advance before the foundation of the world who would believe and this act of believing foreknown by God is the ground for him to elect and thus, to save them. Though God knew who would and would not believe before creation, he did not influence them in any way. In other words, the act of believing is done autonomously. Consider the implication of the Arminian proposition. What it says is tantamount to that one's will exists before that person physically exists. That person's will is as eternal as God, but it is not God. It is part of that person. The corollary is that each person is eternal since part of him or her, namely the will always eternally exists even before the actual person is born.

[30] Sam Storms, Chosen for Life (Wheaton: Crossway, 2007), 159-161.

[31] Storms, Chosen for Life, 215.

[32] Storms, Chosen for Life, 217-219.

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