Friday, November 20, 2020

The righteous shall live by (God's) faithfulness - Part 3 (Hab 2:4; Rom 1:17; Gal 3:11; Heb 10:38)

One benefit of discussing your theological reflections with others (both Catholic and Protestant) is that, through their feedback, you can often further refine your original conclusions. In the case of Paul's mysterious appeal to the obscure text of Habakkuk 2:4 in key junctures of Romans and Galatians, I have come to write this unexpected Part 3 of this The Righteous Shall Life By Faith series (Part 2 is HERE). This time, I will try to bring the truths of the prior reflections together to form a fully cohesive understanding of why Paul appealed to such an obscure OT text if his goal was to make a convincing argument to his audience, both friend and foe.

First, let us recall that in Galatians 3:11, Paul says: "It is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for “The righteous shall live by faith." I'll be honest, there is nothing obvious about how this brief phrase from Habakkuk evidently proves faith justifies while the law does not justify. I'm sure that if other folks were honest, they would admit this phrase is more mysterious than it is clear. Most commentaries that I have come across take the very simplistic approach of saying something akin to "Habakkuk says faith gives life, so that's all there is to salvation." Sorry, but I think that's an immature approach to the text, and is full of problems. For one, we already noted in Part 2 that "faith" in Hab 2:4 is more accurately translated/understood as "faithfulness," and nothing in the text or context suggest a person is incapable of doing good works or that everyone is unrighteous (e.g. God did not consider Habakkuk as unrighteous). And the way Hab2:4 is quoted in Hebrews 10:32-39, "you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God you may receive what is promised," there is nothing in Paul's lesson here that in any way suggests faith alone or "once saved always saved". (Protestants have shamefully and intentionally avoided the rule of "Scriptures interprets Scripture" by refusing to take Hebrews 10:38 into consideration when interpreting Romans 1:17 and Galatians 3:11.)

On top of that, there are many texts in the Bible that link having life, righteousness, etc, to obeying God's commandments, e.g., Proverbs 4:4; 7:2; 11:19; Eze 18:22; as well as very relevant passages similar in nature to Habakkuk, such as Ezekiel 14:12-14,
And the word of the Lord came to me: “When a land sins against me by acting faithlessly, and I stretch out my hand against it and break it, and send famine, and cut off from it man and beast, even if these three men, Noah, Daniel, and Job, were in it, they would deliver only their own lives by their righteousness, declares the Lord God.
The plain logic here is that when the bulk of the people turn to evil for a sustained time, then even the most righteous saints in OT history wouldn't be able to intervene, and rather such saints would only spare their own life by their righteous behavior. So do we really think that Paul was so intellectually weak that Paul simply mined the OT until he found a text that sounded good to him? Any Jew would laugh at pulling out such an obscure OT text such as Hab 2:4, and they would easily throw a number of OT texts against Paul. Surely we cannot mock Paul's intelligence and gift of the Spirit by thinking he couldn't make a convincing argument! So we are forced to do some reflection and thus discover why Paul's appeal to Habakkuk 2 is actually a pretty solid argument.

To begin finding a satisfying answer, I think we should consider the key phrases which Paul uses when he appeals to Hab 2:4. First, as noted above in Galatians 3:11, Paul says Hab 2:4 somehow demonstrates that 'works of the law do not justify'. Second, in Romans 1:17, Paul says Hab 2:4 somehow demonstrates that 'the righteousness of God is revealed'. I think the answer that addresses both is a proof text along the lines of showing the Mosaic Law was broken and thus put the Israelites in a hopeless condition, yet which nonetheless God promises to rescue/save His people. The book Habakkuk was written to address the national punishment coming upon Judah for its unfaithfulness to the Mosaic Covenant, which did not contain any provision for atonement of major sins. Yet, despite providing no means of un-breaking the Mosaic Law, somehow throughout the OT prophets we are told God promises to rescue His people. This can only mean the Works of the Law do not justify (in the sense of saving a person from their sins and giving them spiritual life or even heaven). It also means that God's Righteousness, that is His promises to correct the issue of sin and bring about salvation, is promised in the prophets to come about in His due time by some other basis than the Law. Thus, when Paul brings up Habakkuk 2:4 to his Jewish opponents, they are reminded of their national disobedience to the Mosaic Law, requiring punishment since the Law does not allow them a second chance, while at the same time promising them a second chance at living through some other merciful provision apart from the Works of the Law. This "other merciful provision" is only revealed at the time of the Apostles, wherein Jesus arrives to deal with sin, and this message is known simply as the Gospel.

This would also explain why in both contexts, Romans 1:16-18 and Galatians 3:10-13, Paul quotes Habakukk right in the middle of talking about God's "wrath" due to disobedient behavior and "curses" for breaking the Law. Habakkuk, and the OT prophets as a whole, are precisely about God's wrath due to breaking the Law. But within Habakkuk and the OT prophets as a whole, there are also prophecies about how God will still have mercy and save. 

It is also possible that Paul was saying that Habakkuk was speaking of a time when it wasn't even possible to practice the Mosaic Law since the Israelites were now in exile and thus couldn't even live out the works of the Law due to living under pagans. Both then and in 70AD, the Temple was destroyed, meaning the Israelites couldn't even carry out their routine Levitical duties regarding sacrifices, purification, holidays, etc. Thus, they must live some other way than by the Law if they want to continue their religion and relationship with God, and that way must be common to both Gentiles and Jews (e.g. not restricted to the geographic land of Jerusalem). Within the context of Christianity, we are also living among the pagans, namely those outside forces that are constantly trying to persecute us, which we must suffer for now and persevere in faithfulness to God.  
Next to reflect upon what Habakkuk meant by "live," we should be able to at least assume this "life" was something more than just earthly comfort, since at the time of exile there was no comfy life on the horizon. If Habakkuk himself was going to suffer exile, he certainly wasn't "living" in any satisfying manner. Thus, his "faith(fulness)" had to be leading to some other kind of life, such as life in heavenly paradise. Just as the Jew was for the foreseen future going to endure life in a fallen world (i.e. Babylonian exile), so too Christians for the foreseen future are going to live life in a fallen world, and thus our faithfulness during this time must be looking to something more than earthly comfort.

One final point to consider is that, as with other posts on this blog, we see in Habakkuk 2:4 that the Greek OT (LXX) text contains inspired elaborations upon the Hebrew OT text. Consider the two OT texts of Habakkuk 2:3-4 and how they differ:
Greek Habakkuk: (3a) For the vision is yet for a time, and it shall shoot forth at the end, and not in vain: (3b) though he should tarry, wait for him; for he will surely come, and will not tarry. (4a) If he should draw back, my soul has no pleasure in him: (4b) but the just shall live by my faith.

Hebrew Habakkuk: (3a) For still the vision awaits its appointed time; it hastens to the end, it will not lie. (3b) If it seems slow, wait for it; it will surely come; it will not delay. (4a) Behold, his soul is puffed up; it is not upright within him, (4b) but the righteous shall live by his faith.
For both texts, verse 3a is pretty similar, Habakkuk is given an prophecy of the future by God. In verse 3b, is not immediately clear if this is the return from Babylonian exile or if it is a prophecy of the arrival of Jesus, or perhaps both. The Greek rendering of "he" will come sounds a lot life the arrival of Jesus, either first or second coming, though "it" can mean the same thing, as in 'this prophecy will come to fulfillment'. In 4a, there is a remarkable difference in texts, though I maintain we should always assume differences in texts are merely difference in wording rather than in essential meaning (especially since the Hebrew terms can often be more broad in meaning). In this case of 4a in both, it seems certain that the prideful person whose soul is puffed up in the Hebrew text is to be understood as the one who draws back and has God's favor removed in the Greek. And given that, it means the (already) righteous individual of 4b is going to live by faithfulness. If there is any question as to whose faithfulness, you could read it either as God's Faithfulness, and thus more accurately God's Righteousness, or as man's faithfulness to God's commands. But even here, perhaps both God and man's faithfulness is in view. Thankfully, we have the New Testament book of Hebrews, chapter 10, that gives a better look at this:
Hebrews 10: 19 We have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, 20 by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, 21 and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22 let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. 23 Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, 25 not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.

26 For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, 27 but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries. 28 Anyone who has set aside the law of Moses dies without mercy on the evidence of two or three witnesses. 29 How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has trampled underfoot the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace? 30 For we know him who said, “Vengeance is mine; I will repay.” And again, “The Lord will judge his people.” 31 It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.

32 But recall the former days when, after you were enlightened, you endured a hard struggle with sufferings, 33 sometimes being publicly exposed to reproach and affliction. 34 For you had compassion on those in prison, and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one. 35 Therefore do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward. 36 For you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God you may receive what is promised. 37 For [as Habakkuk says],

“Yet a little while, and the Coming One will come and will not delay;
38 but my righteous one shall live by faith,
and if he shrinks back, my soul has no pleasure in him.”

39 But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who have faith and preserve their souls.
11:1 Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. For by it the people of old received their commendation.
Within this text, we see Paul touch upon many of the themes we've already discussed. We see Paul talking about God's Judgment that is coming, and the reward for those who are obedient. We see that the Mosaic dispensation did not provide for forgiveness, and thus when it was broken there was only wrath to look forward to, while the New Covenant has more opportunities for mercy and greater rewards...though also greater punishments as well. We see that Hebrews definitely is looking to the Greek Habakkuk, showing that what was in mind was "the Coming One," that is He Who Is Coming, which can only be God, in Jesus Christ.

Paul was thus quoting Habakkuk as a prophecy of Jesus' Second Coming (or at least the judgment in AD70, or both), while we are in a time of exile, and the Mosaic Law has expired, leaving us to live by new Covenant rules and regulations. This applies to the Jew and Gentile alike, and thus "from faith to faith" means there is an analogy of our conditions found in the lesson of the OT conditions of Habakkuk and the Babylonian Exile. To me, this is a far more satisfying explanation of Paul's proof text than a mere surface level reading of a few words.


Talmid said...

Awesome stuff, Nick. The idea that St. Paul was using this random verse to argue for sola fide really don't seems compeling when you look things up. This happens a lot, some verses get so quoted than you just tend to take the common interpretation for granted. Again, thanks for looking these famous verses up.

But a small thing: On your view St. Paul is using the fact than Israel would be forgived while the Mosaic Law could not atone for great sins as evidence than there would be a new covenant. Could not a jew back them read him and respond: "we already were forgiven by our sins when we got back from Babylon and that did not need a new covenant, why would we need it now?" From what i know, while jews do agree that you can be forgived outside the Law they don't see that as evidence of a new covenant of grace like the one we christians have.

Talmid said...

This jewish view seems to me not as good with combining God mercy and justice, of course, but that is a diferent thing.

Nick said...

I have had that same question myself over the years: Why did God continue to use the Mosaic Law after it was broken multiple times? Why would they need a New Covenant if God was going to tolerate murder, idolatry, etc, in the OT and keep giving them another chance? I'm not sure. Perhaps we could say that by the time of the Prophets, there was a shift or further development in how the Law was applied. For example, even after they came back from Babylon, they lived by the Law but couldn't fully practice it since they were under Roman subjugation. The Jews couldn't even put Jesus to death per their own Law's instructions, but rather had to turn to the Romans and use pagan justice.

We also can clearly see that the early OT was (at least on the surface) a lot more focused on earthly comforts, whereas as you progress into the middle and late OT the notion of an afterlife and such becomes more explicit (e.g. the Maccabean Martrys were clearly looking towards the Resurrection). This shift also came along with the Prophets revealing more about God's mindset and plans for the future.

The Covenant with Moses was heavily based upon living in a geographic area, which as we can clearly see was less and less a reality as the Israelite history progressed. With the loss of the Ten Tribes, never to be seen again and mixed heavily with the pagan genealogy, you would have to conclude the Mosaic Covenant was never going to be lived out as it was originally delivered. And of the two 'good tribes' of Judah/Benjamin, their sins caused them to be heavily wiped out so that there was only a small percentage who went back after Babylon. So again the Mosaic Covenant isn't what it was originally. By the time of Jesus, the Mosaic Covenant was only partially being kept, and the Pharisee class had even put a heavy spin on various laws so that Jesus had to say they weren't even keeping the Law properly. So we probably could say that the Old Covenant wasn't actually operational which is why Jeremiah even had to say while they were in Babylon that a New Covenant was needed:

31Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, 32 not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband. 33 For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.

Talmid said...

That makes sense, Israel failure to keep the Mosaic Covenant really forced things to change a lot, as seen in their history. I can see that it slowly begun to weaken, with its end being in the temple destruction by the romans(technically it ended on the Cross, but i'am talking about making it visible). The Parable of The Bad Tenants is probably my favorite take on this.