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Apart from what can be inferred from this book, we know nothing of the prophet who assembled it. But from the things described, we can see that he was a contemporary of Jeremiah, Nahum, and Zephaniah. The book is delivered sometime between 612 B.C. and 599 B.C.—before Babylon attacked Jerusalem, but after Babylon had become a hegemonic power.
“Behold, his soul which is lifted up is not upright in him: But the just shall live by his faith” (Hab. 2:4).
Summary of the Text
In the first place, the structure of the book takes a chiastic form.
A How long must I wait for justice? (1:2-4);
B A great army is coming (1:5-11);
C Why are the less wicked punished by those who are more wicked (1:12-17);
D The just will live by faith (2:1-5);
C’ All wickedness will be put to rights (2:6-20);
B’ A great army from YHWH is coming (3:1-15);
A’ I will wait for justice (3:16-19).
Looking at the flow of the book in another way, we can see this: Habakkuk complains about the predominant corruption (1:1-4). God answers him by saying the Babylonians are going to come in to mete out His judgment on Judah (1:5-11). Habakkuk’s second complaint is that God is using evil men to judge men who are less evil (1:12-2:1). God answers him again by asserting that Babylon will be judged in due course (2:2-5). The next section consists of a series of woes pronounced against Babylon. Think of it as five strokes of a sword—the plunderer plundered (2:6-8), the proud conqueror shamed (2:9-11), the building of the builder is burned (2:12-14), the one who forces someone to drink will be forced to drink shame (2:15-17), and the silent idol remains silent before God (2:18-20). The book then concludes with a grand poetic statement of the prophet’s trust in God (3:1-19).
New Testament Commentary
One portion of this book is quoted three times in the New Testament, and all to the same effect. Paul takes it as his theme for the book of Romans, and we have seen that the verse he uses is at the chiastic hinge of the book of Habakkuk. “For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, The just shall live by faith” (Rom. 1:17). Paul highlights what the prophet highlights. He makes a similar point in the book of Galatians, which is dedicated to the same theme that the book of Romans is. “But that no man is justified by the law in the sight of God, it is evident: for, The just shall live by faith” (Gal. 3:11). The author of Hebrews is urging his readers not to give up, not to forsake their duty to persevere. Keep running the race. And why?
“Now the just shall live by faith: but if any man draw back, my soul shall have no pleasure in him” (Heb. 10:38).
But the first chapter of Habakkuk is also quoted by Paul when he is presenting the gospel to unbelieving Jews. Remember what the original context of Habakkuk was about, and notice how Paul applies it here to the unbelief present in his generation.
“And by him all that believe are justified from all things, from which ye could not be justified by the law of Moses. Beware therefore, lest that come upon you, which is spoken of in the prophets; Behold, ye despisers, and wonder, and perish: for I work a work in your days, a work which ye shall in no wise believe, though a man declare it unto you” (Acts 13:39–41).
The Great Theme
The difficulty is the problem of evil, and when God promises to deal with that evil, the next difficulty comes in understanding the need for faith—because God rarely deals with these problems in the same way that we would. We know that God does it right by definition, and yet at the same time our moral sense tells us that something is quite wrong. Believing the universe is governed by absolute goodness is the only possible basis for thinking anything could be wrong with it now.
“Although the fig tree shall not blossom, Neither shall fruit be in the vines; The labour of the olive shall fail, And the fields shall yield no meat; The flock shall be cut off from the fold, And there shall be no herd in the stalls: Yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will joy in the God of my salvation” (Hab. 3:17–18).
By Faith Throughout
Return to the first chapter of Romans. The just shall live by faith. Paul teaches us the doctrine of forensic justification, and this justification is punctiliar—it happens at a point in time. One moment a man is unjustified, and the next moment he is justified. But when he crosses that great border between the land of shadows and the land of the living, the faith that enabled him to cross that border does not evaporate. It does not disappear. It does not float off.
“For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, The just shall live by faith” (Rom. 1:17). This is a process that encompasses all of life, by necessity. This new life is inaugurated by faith, it is continued by faith, and it culminates in faith. It is by faith from first to last.
But faith requires an object, otherwise we are dealing with the nonsensical exercise of trying to have faith in our faith. Faith is the natural and ordinary response to the perceived faithfulness of God. When God and His Word are seen as faithful, then faith cannot be kept from appearing.
“Through faith also Sara herself received strength to conceive seed, and was delivered of a child when she was past age, because she judged him faithful who had promised” (Heb. 11:11 ).
“So then faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God” (Rom. 10:17). Believing is a verb that requires a direct object, and that direct object must be whatever God has said or done regarding the moment in which you are believing.