The Short Message and the Long Obedience
Imagine for a moment that you are a citizen of Ukraine back before anyone has any idea that Russia is going to invade your country. As a follower of Jesus, you notice some things in your society that trouble you — some fast dealing and unjust actions by some of your fellow citizens that take advantage of other people, and they seem to be getting away with it. So, you pray, saying, “Lord, how long are you going to let this go on, with bad people making good people suffer?”
And then God answers you: “They aren’t going to get away with it for long. Vladimir Putin’s troops are coming, and they will disrupt everything.”
You are thunderstruck! “Oh no, Lord! Why would you allow a country that is worse than ours to invade us?”
At the time of this writing, we don’t yet know how Putin’s move against Ukraine will end, but if you substitute Judah for Ukraine and Chaldeans (Babylonians) for Russia, you basically have the prophet Habakkuk’s circumstances. He knew some of this fellow Judahites were not living up to the covenant with God and were mistreating others, and he wanted God to intervene. But when God told him the Babylonians were marching against Judah, Habakkuk was overwhelmed with dismay. The prophet had wanted God to turn up the heat a bit on the Judahite wrongdoers, but not to dump them out of the frying pan and into the fire! As Habakkuk put it, “Why would you look at the treacherous or keep silent when the wicked swallows one who is more righteous?” (1:13).
No analogy is perfect. We’re not suggesting that the Ukrainians were doing wrong or that God had inspired Putin to grab Ukraine in response. But the dismay of the Ukrainians over Russia’s actions is not unlike Habakkuk’s alarm regarding the Babylonian aggression in his day.
All of that takes place in the first chapter of the book of Habakkuk. As Chapter 2 opens, the prophet describes himself as standing at a watch post, meaning that he is waiting for God’s answer to why he would allow the Babylonian bad guys to overrun the Judahite not-quite-as-bad guys. God does get back to him, but not with an answer, for God does not explain his actions to Habakkuk (just as God seldom supplies any of us with “explanations” about his deeds.) But he does give Habakkuk the assurance that he can continue, even in the face of trouble.
The single most important statement in God’s response to Habakkuk’s question is in 2:4b: “the righteous live by their faith.” But God preceded those six words by telling Habakkuk to write down “upon tablets” what God is about to tell him (2:2).
Habakkuk was instructed to write what God was about to say, “so that a runner may read it.” One way to understand that instruction is that God wanted his message to be written plainly and briefly enough that a person could read the message at a glance — on the run. In our day, when one church purchased a portable sign to put in front of their building to broadcast occasional messages, a member of the congregation whose business did a good bit of advertising on highway signs urged that the messages be kept short. He told of studies that show that drivers spend no more than a few seconds looking at a roadside ad, so it’s best to limit sign messages to six or seven words.
There’s something to be said for important messages that can be boiled down to just a few words. If nothing else, that makes it possible for more people to remember them, and, it is to be hoped, apply them in the appropriate circumstances.
The most important part of God’s response to Habakkuk’s question was the message that “the righteous live by their faith.” In the NRSV, that message is just six words long, right in line with the wisdom of keeping roadside communications brief. And at least two well-known “runners” read that sign and changed the course of human history as a result.
One is the apostle Paul, for whom these six words became the foundation for his understanding of justification by faith. (Paul quotes God’s message to Habakkuk in Romans 1:17 and Galatians 3:11).
The other “runner” was Martin Luther, who, based on his reading of Paul’s interpretation of Habakkuk, launched the Protestant Reformation.
And the words “the righteous live by their faith” are still an expression of the daily walk of every follower of Jesus.
But brief messages also have their limitations. We can remember them okay, but what in terms of daily living do they mean? And sometimes, adding more words doesn’t help. Faith, as you no doubt know, can mean belief in a doctrine, but does that help when the Babylonians are at our city gates? Faith can also mean trusting God, and that suggests we believe in ultimate good outcomes somewhere in a hazy future, with the full coming of the kingdom of God. But sometimes, that doesn’t change immediate outcomes, which can be dreadful.
In the original Hebrew, the word rendered in English as “faith” in this passage, is 'emûnâ, which also carries the meaning of “faithfulness.” In fact, the NRSV acknowledges that meaning in a footnote to the live-by-faith verse. Thus, the heart of God’s response to Habakkuk’s question could be translated “the righteous person will live by steadfast endurance” (eight words) or, as the Revised English Bible renders it, “the righteous will live by being faithful” (seven words).
At first glance, God’s response, “the righteous will live by being faithful,” doesn’t track with Habakkuk’s question about the Babylonians. But on a longer look, it’s the divine response that the prophet — and the people to whom he presumably repeated God’s response — probably needed to hear. An explanation of why God was using the Babylonians to punish Judah might have been interesting, but how would it have helped the Judahites when the Babylonian hordes were overrunning Jerusalem, killing their defenders and setting fire to their homes? The response God did give — that faithfulness would enable them to get through the troubles that could not be avoided — was of far greater use than an explanation.
In effect, God was telling Habakkuk that during the period when the wicked Babylonians would be in control and God’s promise to restore Judah was not yet fulfilled, Habakkuk was to trust God’s assurance and rely on God’s strength to persevere. This command, shorthanded as “the righteous will live by being faithful” was the main point of the vision God gave to Habakkuk.
However, while still not answering Habakkuk’s why-use-the-Chaldeans question, God did tell the prophet two more things as part of the vision. One was that, eventually, the Babylonians would themselves be defeated. Verse 8 of Chapter 2 should be read as addressed to the invaders: “Since you yourself have plundered many nations, all the rest of the peoples will plunder you. …” This essentially happened in 539 B.C., when the Persians conquered the Babylonians.
The other thing God told Habakkuk was about a much longer-range future, a state of things that is still to come when “the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD, as the waters cover the sea” (2:14).
In the meantime, “the righteous will live by being faithful.” In other words, by relying on God’s strength, they will persevere. It must be acknowledged, however, that perseverance is not a popular topic in today’s culture. Pastor and author Eugene Peterson writes: “One aspect of the world that I have been able to identify as harmful to Christians is the assumption that anything worthwhile can be acquired at once. We assume that if something can be done at all, it can be done quickly and efficiently. … There is a great market for religious experience in world; there is little enthusiasm for the patient acquisition of virtue, little inclination to sign up for a long apprenticeship in what earlier generations of Christians called holiness.”
Peterson borrows a phrase from the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche to give us a way to think about what perseverance in the Christian life is and describes it as “a long obedience in the same direction” (another seven-word phrase!). The apostle Paul had something like this in mind when he told the Galatians, “Let’s not get tired of doing good, because in time we’ll have a harvest if we don’t give up” (Galatians 6:9).
We’ve already noted that Paul repeated the main line of Habakkuk’s vision about the righteous living by faith/faithfulness in two of his letters — Romans and Galatians — using it as a description of the Christian life in general. Habakkuk’s vision-phrase also appears in Hebrews 10:38, but there, the author of Hebrews used it to encourage Christians to be faithful when facing persecution. The Hebrew author introduced the Habakkuk verse with these words of his own: “You need to endure so that you can receive the promises after you do God’s will” (Hebrews 10:36, emphasis added).
Do you see the common thread in all of this? Life may be hard and bring things that are difficult to face. We may have questions about these troubles for which no answers are forthcoming. Sometimes evildoers will seem to come out on top. But steady faithfulness to God, enduring trust in God’s assurance, persevering reliance on God’s strength, a long obedience in the Lord’s direction, holy living every day — whatever terms we use to say it — is the way to go through the difficulties of life that cannot be avoided.
Eventually, Habakkuk himself said as much: “Though the fig tree does not blossom, and no fruit is on the vines; though the produce of the olive fails, and the fields yield no food; though the flock is cut off from the fold, and there is no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD; I will exult in the God of my salvation” (3:17-18).
The long obedience of faithfulness is not an experience of constant buoyancy. In each of us, faithfulness may ebb and flow in our minds and hearts and emotions. Our fragile faithfulness will need tending time and again, especially when we are facing great losses. It will need the support of fellow Christians and a caring congregation. It will need to be rethought and held onto. But with God’s help, we will live by faithfulness.