“For still the vision awaits its appointed time; it hastens to the end—it will not lie. If it seems slow, wait for it; it will surely come; it will not delay. ‘Behold, his soul is puffed up; it is not upright within him, but the righteous shall live by his faith.'” (Habakkuk 2:3-4 ESV)
After Habakkuk spoke his complaint, he waited on the Lord for a further reply. He wanted good news. He wanted words of encouragement. So he waited on Yahweh to answer. He did not worry and fret. He did not shout or yell or repeat the same phrases or complaints or petitions over and over. He realized that God had heard and would answer. And He did. The answer He gave was meant to provide His people, then as well as now, with practical help that would sustain them through trying times while remaining faithful to the Lord.
The righteous people of Judah were about to face devastation which they had never known before. The very foundation of their world was about to crumble. They were going to lose everything: their homes, fields and maybe their lives. Their families would be torn apart and exiled to a land a thousand miles away, enslaved and abused by idolatrous and cruel pagans. Since there was no way to avoid this, what possible hope could they have? What good news would make these circumstances more endurable? What would the Lord give them to help them to remain faithful without falling into despair or turn away from Him? According to Habakkuk the righteous will live by faith. They will walk in obedience because they believe what God says will happen even though the evidence of their eyes and their experience say different.
Now this explanation of the righteous will live by his faith in context differs in some way from our understanding of what it means for the righteous to live by faith. Our understanding of that phrase derives from Martin Luther’s proclamation that our salvation depends on God’s work not ours. Luther’s understanding of the verse was based on its reinterpretation by the apostle Paul in Romans 1:17 and Galatians 4:10-14.
Paul knew the practical meaning of the passage, that the righteous must live by faithful obedience to God’s word, trusting in His promises even in the midst of turmoil. This is the right way to live because it is God’s way. Yet under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit Paul explained the fuller meaning of the verse, a meaning which liberates us from the tyranny of keeping the Law. We no longer have to worry that God will condemn us. He offers mercy, forgiveness, wisdom and strength to those who come to Him knowing that without His help, no one can live a life of righteousness even if he or she wanted to. We can live in righteousness but we only as we rely on Christ. The words the righteous will live by faith mean that salvation does not depend on our good works, our piety or even our keeping of the law, or failure to do so. Salvation is by faith in the righteousness of Christ, in His atoning work on the cross. The benefits of His work are granted to all those who are humble and broken and who surrender themselves to His will.