There’s an old saying that goes, “As long as there are exams, there will be prayer in public schools.” And another, “There are no atheists in the trenches.” While I don’t necessarily agree with the conclusions of these sayings, their shared premise does have a point. We tend to look for God, not out of gratitude when things are good, but out of fear when things are bad. We often turn to God in times of crisis looking for answers to our problems. Few of us ever receive the immediate solutions we’re looking for, however. That doesn’t seem to be how God normally works. The best we tend to get is reassurance of God’s presence and hope for the future no matter how bleak the present looks. Today’s Old Testament lesson, which is comprised of selections from the first two chapters of the book of the prophet Habakkuk, presents a biblical example of this, and one that has had a lasting impact on Christian thought.
It begins by presenting the problem:
O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? Or cry to you “Violence!” and you will not save? Why do you make me see wrongdoing and look at trouble? Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise. So the law becomes slack and justice never prevails. The wicked surround the righteous – therefore judgement comes forth perverted. (1.1-4)
The situation in which Habakkuk finds himself seems to be the same as that of Jeremiah. Judah’s ruling classes have abandoned God’s law and are running ramshackle over the poor. There is no justice, and those who try to do right find themselves at the mercy of the merciless. Meanwhile, what appears to be God’s response to this, the invasion of Judah by Babylon, is an even worse fate yet. In a section our lesson today skips over, the prophet describes the horrors of Babylonian invasion in the strongest terms:
Dread and fearsome are they; their justice and dignity proceed from themselves. Their horses are swifter than leopards, more menacing than wolves at dusk their horses charge. Their horsemen come from far away; they fly like an eagle swift to devour. (1.7-8)
Like the Pharisee in last week’s Gospel, the Babylonians are self-righteous, convinced in their own goodness. Thus justifying their own rightness and judgments, they attack and destroy other countries like hungry and relentless predators. This hardly seems to be a solution to the problem of injustice in and around Jerusalem, but rather an intensification of it! Unsatisfied with this ‘answer’ to the problem of Judah’s injustice, the prophet waits:
I will stand at my watchpost, and station myself on the rampart; I will keep watch to see what he will say to me, and what he will answer concerning my complaint. Then the Lord answered me and said: Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so that a runner may read it. For there is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and does not lie. If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay. Look at the proud! Their spirit is not right in them, but the righteous live by their faith. (2.1-4)
Our reading ends with words that have resonated strongly throughout the centuries. The Apostle Paul quoted them twice in his letters (Romans 1.17; Galatians 3.11), in passages that later drove the Protestant Reformation: The righteous live by faith.
But once again we’re left with a rather unsatisfying answer here. Habakkuk complains to God about injustice at the hands of both local and foreign powers, and God replies, “The righteous live by faith”? What’s going on here?
I think there are two things going on here, both of which touch close to the heart of the biblical idea of what faith is. As I have said time and time again, in our Scriptures, faith refers not to intellectual belief but to an active and reciprocal relationship of trust and mutual accountability. We are called to be faithful to God — for Habakkuk this looked like obedience to the Law; for those of us who are Christians this looks like being transformed by the Holy Spirit into full human maturity and Christlikeness — and trust that God is faithful too. That is the essence of faith, and why faith and faithfulness are in fact identical to one another.
This thrust is unfortunately hidden by the way the lectionary cuts off the reading after verse 4. Ending the reading here highlights the message that was so important to Paul, and later to Martin Luther, but is unfortunate in terms of understanding God’s message to Habakkuk. Let’s look at the oracle again, but ending after verse 5 instead of verse 4:
Look at the proud! Their spirit is not right in them, but the righteous live by faith(fulness).
Moreover, wealth is treacherous; the arrogant do not endure. They open their throats wide as Sheol; like Death they never have enough. They gather all nations for themselves and collect all peoples as their own.
Once again, this is a pretty clear anti-imperial text. What we have here is not a contrast between a ‘believer’ and an ‘infidel’, but between those who are faithful and those who break faith, who are described as ”proud,” whose “spirit is not right in them”; they are rich off ill-gotten gain, they have become arrogant. And, in a stirring image, the faithless are described like a gaping, insatiable mouth, devouring the peoples of the world.
So then, the text is not proposing belief as a solution to the problems of the world, but faithfulness. Not because ‘good things happen to good people’, but because, as Audre Lorde famously put it, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” The only way to fight injustice is justice, the only way to fight violence is peace. The only way to fight the breaking of good faith is to keep good faith, to keep on showing up in our relationships as best as we can.
This is, of course, very hard. It doesn’t feel ‘realistic’. We might easily scoff and say, “Tell that to a Ukrainian whose village has just been invaded by Russia.” Or, “Tell that to an Indigenous woman whose children were taken from her.” And fair enough. The reality of life in a world of broken faith is that we are often sucked into cycles of violence or injustice against which we feel helpless.
I think that is why the use of singular adjectival nouns in this passage was so striking for someone like Paul. While we are probably right to interpret “the proud” and “the righteous” in a generic sense, these singular adjectival nouns were understood to be pregnant with meaning by the first century. In a world where might equals right, in which it often feels like doing the right thing would be a death sentence for oneself or one’s loved ones, Jews began to hope for the coming of someone who would find a way to embody the values of their people wholly and free them from the cycles of domination once and for all. So, there is good reason to believe that when Paul read Habakkuk 2.4, he interpreted it, “But the Righteous One will live by his faith,” or to switch the emphasis a bit, “by his faithfulness, the Righteous One will live.” As Paul Nuechterlein of the Girardian Lectionary writes:
Paul … puts the full focus of salvation on Jesus the Messiah. We are rescued from the powers of sin and death by the Messiah’s faithfulness to God’s mission of deliverance, enduring the humiliating death on the cross. Because of this, he will live. He will be raised from death and thus vindicated in his mission. “The Righteous One, by his faithfulness, will live.”
If we follow this interpretation of Paul’s interpretation of Habakkuk, God’s answer is not just to ‘have faith’, or to ‘remain faithful’ — though these are no doubt important things for all of us to remember in difficult times. Rather, it is not to forget that God is faithful and just, no matter how dark the days may be. As stuck as we may be in vicious cycles of violence and despair, God has acted decisively in Jesus to break those cycles.
So where does this leave us? It certainly leaves us without easy or pat answers. Far from being a platitude, the call to meet the world’s injustice with faith is a stirring and deep challenge for us, as much for us as it was for Habakkuk and Jeremiah — who as we saw a few weeks ago, was likewise given a message urging patient faithfulness against all odds.
But the thing is, this challenge is at least the right challenge. It sets our hearts and minds on the bigger picture. It demands that we ask ourselves, always, what being faithful looks like in the here and now — how we can act intentionally to show up for God, for our community, and for the good of the world.
May we all, this week and always, follow the example of Righteous One, who, by his faithfulness, found true life. Amen.