Posted by: reformedmusings | December 28, 2008

The Just Shall Live By Faith

Exhortation for the Lord’s Day, December 28, 2008

Old Testament reading: Hab 1:1-2:1
New Testament reading: Rom 1:14-18
Sermon Text: Hab 2:1-4; 3:16-19

A judge opened court with this announcement: “Gents, I have in hand two checks—a bribe you might call it—one from the defendant for $15,000, another from the accuser for $10,000. My decision is to return the $5,000 to the defendant, and decide the case strictly on its merits.”

In contrast, consider:
There is a huge painting hanging in the Supreme Court Building of Switzerland. It was painted by an artist named Paul Robert, and the title is “Justice Instructing the Judges.” In the foreground are the litigants—the wife against the husband, the architect against the builder, and the like. Above them stand the Swiss judges. How are these people going to judge the various litigations?
The artist’s answer is simply this: Justice (usually blindfolded, with her sword vertical as is common) is unblindfolded, with her sword pointing downward to a book on which is written “The Word of God.” — Illustration by Batsell B. Baxter

I have probably taught through Habakkuk more times than any other book in the Bible. It remains one of my favorites for primarily two reasons. First, Habakkuk is every man…and woman by extension. He is me and you – an ordinary fellow who sees injustice all around him and it bothers him. Which of us has never looked on an injustice, perceived or otherwise, and not wondered why God allows it to continue?

One has only to look at the evening news, open a newspaper, or read the blogs to see injustice seemingly prevailing. Perhaps someone less qualified that us receives the job or promotion for which we competed. Thieves break into an elder’s house while the family is on a Christmas vacation. Dictators live in luxury while their people starve and scrape the land to survive. Churches are burned and believers persecuted, tortured, and even killed. Have we not all cried out to God for either relief or intervention? Hear Habakkuk again (Hab 1:1-4, ESV):

O LORD, how long shall I cry for help,
and you will not hear?
Or cry to you “Violence!”
and you will not save?

Why do you make me see iniquity,
and why do you idly look at wrong?
Destruction and violence are before me;
strife and contention arise.

So the law is paralyzed,
and justice never goes forth.
For the wicked surround the righteous;
so justice goes forth perverted.

Habakkuk clearly saw evil prospering in his day and took umbrage at it. Why does it seem like the good suffer at the hands of the wicked? Why doesn’t God do something? Where is His justice? These are the questions that we ask, and they are the questions that Habakkuk asked so long ago. It seems like Habakkuk speaks for all of us down through the ages when he cried out to God.

Unlike today, back then God gave him a verbal response. He said that He will do a great work in Habakkuk’s day and all will be astounded. I can almost see Habakkuk’s momentary relief on his face – beaming with vindication. Then God explains that he’ll fix the injustice done in Judah by having the dreaded and fearsome Chaldean’s invade. These are men who take nations captive and whose god is their own might! That’s like telling us that He will deal with the injustices and ungodliness in America by sending in the Taliban to clean house. You can almost see the smile on Habakkuk’s face turn to a grimace. That’s clearly not the outcome Habakkuk envisioned.

Like Abraham and Moses before him, Habakkuk takes his case right back to God (Hab 1:12-17):

Are you not from everlasting,
O LORD my God, my Holy One?
We shall not die.
O LORD, you have ordained them as a judgment,
and you, O Rock, have established them for reproof.

You who are of purer eyes than to see evil
and cannot look at wrong,
why do you idly look at traitors
and are silent when the wicked swallows up
the man more righteous than he?

You make mankind like the fish of the sea,
like crawling things that have no ruler.

He brings all of them up with a hook;
he drags them out with his net;
he gathers them in his dragnet;
so he rejoices and is glad.

Therefore he sacrifices to his net
and makes offerings to his dragnet;
for by them he lives in luxury,
and his food is rich.

Is he then to keep on emptying his net
and mercilessly killing nations forever?

Surely even the unjust in Judah were more righteous than the wicked Chaldeans. Or so it seemed to Habakkuk…and to us. They go from nation to nation killing and pillaging seemingly without restraint…is there no end to it? How could God use them against His own people? How can God allow corrupt politicians and evil dictatorships in our day oppress His elect? How can he allow pirates to enrich themselves, or radical Islamic terrorists to slaughter thousands? Habakkuk retired to the tower to await God’s answer, just as we go to Him in prayer daily for relief and justice.

I believe that many Christians today believe that God will or should do a work in our day that will free us from whatever oppression that we see or experience. To put it in political terms, we act as if we believe, to borrow from Cal Thomas, that the messiah will come riding in on Air Force One. We’re not unlike the Jews of Jesus’ day who expected the messiah to clear out the Romans and bring Israel and Judah together back to the glory days of David’s kingdom. Well…don’t feel too badly – Jesus’ own disciples thought so even after three years under Jesus’ face-to-face teaching.

Which brings us to the second reason I like this book so much: God’s answer to Habakkuk in his situation also clearly answers us today in ours. Let’s turn to Habakkuk 2:1-4 and consider that answer:

I will take my stand at my watchpost
and station myself on the tower,
and look out to see what he will say to me,
and what I will answer concerning my complaint.

And the LORD answered me:
“Write the vision;
make it plain on tablets,
so he may run who reads it.

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.”

“The just shall live by faith.” it says in the familiar King James Version. What did that mean in Habakkuk’s context? Faith in what? The Hebrew word translated as faith here is munah, which more exactly means “faithfulness”. Moses used this word to describe God’s character and His actions in Deuteronomy 32:4, where he writes:

For I will proclaim the name of the LORD;
ascribe greatness to our God!

“The Rock, his work is perfect,
for all his ways are justice.
A God of faithfulness and without iniquity,
just and upright is he.

The psalmists often used this word in their praise of the Lord and His faithfulness as well. It is also used to refer to the character of the righteous who place their trust in God and His promises.

According to Mark Seifrid in the Commentary of the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, Habakkuk 2:4 would be best translated as “But the righteous one shall live by the faithfulness of the vision/Yahweh.” In other words, that faithfulness is to believe the word of the Lord—in this case, the vision of salvation given to Habakkuk. Thus, God’s admonition to Habakkuk refers back to Genesis 15:6 where Abraham believed God and it was credited to Him as righteousness. Even in the Old Testament, God used previously recorded Scripture to remind us of what we’ve already been taught.

This sense carries right through to the New Testament, where Habakkuk 2:4 is one of the most quoted OT verses. Paul uses it in Romans 1:17 and Galatians 3:11. It also appears in Hebrews 10:38. This verse formed the basis of the battle cry of the Reformation, which recaptured the gospel.

As we heard read earlier, Romans 1:16-17 says:

For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.
For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.”

Notice the wonderful symmetry between this passage and Habakkuk. In verse 16 and the first part of 17, Paul speaks of God’s revelation of our eternal salvation in Jesus Christ. This salvation is for all who believe, regardless of nation or ethnicity. God revealed it Himself through the faith that He gave us, as it says in Ephesians 2:8. Like Habakkuk, we have received a revelation of salvation against the backdrop of injustice and suffering. Paul points out that the righteousness of the one who believes is based on his faith in the promise of salvation in Jesus Christ. We must not only hear the revelation but trust in it as the faithful word of God.

In Habakkuk 2:2, God tells the prophet to wait though the fulfillment tarries, for the vision is sure. Likewise, although Jesus has come to earth (as we just celebrated) and then returned to heaven, the full consummation of creation’s salvation awaits His promised and sure return. Though He tarries, He will surely come again.

Further, in Galatians 3:10-14, Paul tells us:

For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.” Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for “The righteous shall live by faith.” But the law is not of faith, rather “The one who does them shall live by them.” Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”—so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith.

Here, Paul makes it clear that we aren’t saved by what we do, but rather by what we believe. Indeed, the law shows us our utter incapacity to obey. But the righteous shall live by faith, by believing what God has promised and resting in those promises. God promised to regenerate our hearts of stone into hearts of flesh, to forgive us based on Jesus perfect sacrifice on the cross, to justify us by imputing Christ’s perfect righteousness to us, to sanctify us through the work of His Holy Spirit in us, and to glorify us for the sake of His Son – and all for His glory. We are saved by grace alone, through faith alone, because of Christ alone. Like Abraham and Habakkuk, we are to rest on the truth and surety of God’s word. And let’s face it, God has a perfect track record.

Both Habakkuk and Paul recognized this upon reflecting on God’s call to faith. Although assured of even tougher times ahead, Habakkuk finishes his prophesy with a song of praise to God (Hab 3:16-19):

I hear, and my body trembles;
my lips quiver at the sound;
rottenness enters into my bones;
my legs tremble beneath me.
Yet I will quietly wait for the day of trouble
to come upon people who invade us.

Though the fig tree should not blossom,
nor fruit be on the vines,
the produce of the olive fail
and the fields yield no food,
the flock be cut off from the fold
and there be no herd in the stalls,

yet I will rejoice in the LORD;
I will take joy in the God of my salvation.

GOD, the Lord, is my strength;
he makes my feet like the deer’s;
he makes me tread on my high places.

Just as He promised Habakkuk that the Chaldeans would be used to judge the wicked in Judah, they later swept through the country. Perhaps Habakkuk even lived to see the day, as he was a contemporary of Jeremiah. Yet he praised God, knowing that, though he may not live to see it, God promised salvation to His people and would deliver them. Habakkuk trusted that promise – he lived by faith. And sure enough, the Chaldean’s also met their end, just as God promised.

Likewise, Paul lived in a time when a great empire, one that conquered all it could see and worshiped its own strength, ruled over the early Christian world. Christians were persecuted and murdered for their faith. Paul himself would be murdered for his faith. Yet, Paul could write from Death Row as the last recorded words of his life:

But the Lord stood by me and strengthened me, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it. So I was rescued from the lion’s mouth. The Lord will rescue me from every evil deed and bring me safely into his heavenly kingdom. To him be the glory forever and ever. Amen.

Paul lived by faith to the very painful end, giving glory to God.

So, like Habakkuk and Paul, here we sit in a world full of oppression and injustice. Those who should be upholding the law pervert it. Like in both ancient and New Testament Israel, things are likely to get worse before they get better. Yet, God is faithful, merciful, and just. Remember that, as Isaiah tells us in his chapter 55:

For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD.

For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.

“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven
and do not return there but water the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,

so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.”

Jesus came at great cost to Himself, that His elect may have eternal life. Salvation will not come riding in on Air Force One, it came 2,000 years ago as a babe in a manger. God has not given us the mission of saving the world, but sent His Son Jesus Christ to save His elect. We are not called to fix every injustice in the world, but to do justice ourselves. We are not called to bring heaven to earth, but to trust that Christ will return to renew His creation. We are simply called to trust in God’s promise of salvation in Jesus Christ for His elect, live obedient lives of gratitude in the power of the Spirit, and spread His gospel to an unbelieving world, whether here in Arlington or at the ends of the earth. We plant and we water, but God brings the harvest.

In the end, Habakkuk was a changed man. He learned to trust in God, who works out all things for His glory. Although, perhaps like us, Habakkuk started out questioning God’s justice, he came to realize that God is sovereign and that His justice is beyond our comprehension. His ways of preserving and purifying His elect are mysterious to us, yet God calls us to faith in the midst of injustice and suffering. Like Habakkuk, we are to live every day trusting in He who holds all things in His hands, ordains all that comes to pass, and will come again to judge the living and the dead in perfect justice.

The just shall live by faith. Glory be to God!



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