When faith is a struggle (Hebrews 10:37–39)

In this series, we’ve talked about losing faith, changing faith, searching for faith, and finding faith.

Habakkuk 2:4 underpins several NT discussions of faith: the just shall live by his faith (KJV) or the righteous person will live by his faithfulness (NIV). We’ve seen how this applies to Jesus’ faith, gospel faith, our faith and our struggle with evil.

Hebrews also quotes Habakkuk 2:4, right before the big “faith” chapter (Hebrews 11). But the quotation in Hebrews is problematic, different how Paul quotes it in Romans 1:17 and Galatians 3:11.

The differences are due to translation. As a sermon delivered in Greek, Hebrews uses the Septuagint (Greek translation of the Old Testament) just as most preachers use our English translations for sermons each Sunday.

But how are we to respond if Hebrews relies on a mistranslation? Does that mess with our faith?

Translation differences

Compare the quotation in Hebrews with the Hebrew Masoretic Text (MT) and Septuagint (LXX):

Hebrews 10:37-38 (NIV)
37 For, “In just a little while, he who is coming will come and will not delay.”  38 And, “But my righteous one will live by faith. And I take no pleasure in the one who shrinks back.”

Habakkuk 2:3-4 (NIV, translated from the MT)
For the revelation awaits an appointed time; it speaks of the end and will not prove false. Though it linger, wait for it; it will certainly come and will not delay. “See, the enemy is puffed up; his desires are not upright — but the righteous person will live by his faithfulness.

Habakkuk 2:3-4 (Lexham English Septuagint 2020, translated from the LXX)
Because there is still a vision for the time, and he will appear at an end, and not in vain; if he is late, wait for him, because one coming will be present, and he will not tarry. If he draws back, my life does not find pleasure in it, but the righteous one will live by my faith(fulness).

What Hebrews says doesn’t flow directly from the Hebrew Masoretic Text (MT):

  1. Was it the proud soul of the enemy that was not standing upright (MT), or is anyone who pulls back from God falling from God’s favour (LXX)?
  2. Whose faithfulness would decide their survival: the righteous person’s (MT), or God’s (LXX)?
  3. Was it God’s prophetic revelation that was yet to be fulfilled (MT), or was he (God) to appear (LXX)?

The right doctrine from the wrong texts?

A seminary student today would get marked down for doing what the preacher of Hebrews did. It doesn’t fit our academic expectations. Greg Beale has a book warning not to teach The Right Doctrine from the Wrong Texts (Baker Academic, 1994).

Now, I’m not going to harmonize away the differences. I’m going to ask you to think as they thought — to see faith as relationship rather than argument.

The puffed-up enemy with crooked desires in Habakkuk 2:4 is Babylon (named in 1:6). He takes nations that don’t belong to him (1:15-17). Habakkuk’s promise is that the proud enemy who rejects God’s authority will fall (woe in 2:6, 9, 12, 15, 19), while the faithful will survive to enjoy the Lord’s reign (3:1-19).

But it didn’t look like that at the time. The invader’s propaganda is that their gods are more powerful, so Israel/Judah is no longer God’s nation but Babylon’s. The temptation to give up on YHWH is the reason Isaiah spends so much time speaking against the Babylonian gods (Isaiah 40:19, 41:22; 42:8; 44:9; 45:16; 46:1 etc) and Jeremiah warns against trusting them: Come out of her, my people … For the time will surely come when I will punish the idols of Babylon; her whole land will be disgraced (Jeremiah 51:45, 47).

Read and run

Like Isaiah and Jeremiah, Habakkuk was not delivering God’s message to the enemy. He was writing the prophetic message plainly on tablets so God’s people would know how to run (Habakkuk 2:2). (NIV interpolates “a herald” since most individuals couldn’t read, but think corporately.)

The Lord’s message to Habakkuk was a signpost to his people, telling them which way to run when the nation falls. Would they run from Babylon’s apparent power, keeping faith with God? Or would they run from God, giving their allegiance to Babylon now that God’s nation no longer existed?

It’s easy to become jaded when your world falls apart, but if they gave up their faith they would find themselves on the wrong side of history. They should keep faith with God, for even if the promise seemed lost in the present it will not prove false … it will certainly come (2:3).

That’s the social context of Habakkuk’s message: a call to faithfulness for God’s people. The proud enemy would fall because of his crooked desires, but those who remained upright would live because of their faithfulness to the God of the covenant. That’s Habakkuk 2:4.

The converse is also true. Those who do right survive because of their faithfulness, but those who do wrong will be destroyed since they identified with the enemy and the enemy will be destroyed.

That’s the conclusion Hebrews 10:38 draws from Habakkuk 2:4. It’s the flip side of what Habakkuk said, a derivative rather than what was stated. That may be how the LXX understood Habakkuk too.

The message of Hebrews isn’t wrong. It doesn’t match our modern preoccupation with analytical precision, but it’s spot on in a relational worldview where faithfulness is the foundation.

Language is never precise

Let’s conclude with a bit of fun so we don’t take ourselves too seriously.

Take a simple sentence: “The comedian took a bow.”

What picture do you see? Was he wrapping up his performance for the present, or was she wrapping up a present? Is someone playing with arrows, or playing a cello? Or is the front of a boat missing now? 😊

Language is so ambiguous it’s a wonder we ever understand each other. Just this week I misunderstood a message about my grandson because I assumed the drama was happening at church when it was actually at school. I supplied the wrong context for the message.

Scripture is the word of God, in human language. Human language is imprecise.

I mean, we don’t even have a pronoun for God! Using it would be insulting, as if God was impersonal. But if we use a personal pronoun like he or she, someone may think God has a gender. He doesn’t, of course: the first page of the Bible explains that male and female are derived from God’s identity and represent his image, so God is not sexed. Human language is always imprecise, never adequate to describe God.

We pay lawyers to write contracts with verbal precision purporting to disambiguate every possible misinterpretation. Scripture doesn’t belong to that genre. It’s mostly narrative, the stories of people who encountered God.

That’s why we need humility. Some readers treat Paul as a dogmatic, argumentative writer. Maybe he comes across like that sometimes, but he also had a deep-seated trust in the Holy Spirit at work in people’s lives, a faith in God’s ability to lead us. As he said to the Philippians (3:15): if on some point you think differently, that too God will make clear to you.

When Scripture doesn’t match my expectations, it’s my expectations that need to change. If God disappoints us when he doesn’t prevent suffering (like the Babylonian invasion), let’s keep trusting God.

That what Hebrews was calling us to: we do not belong to those who shrink back and are destroyed, but to those who have faith and are saved (10:39).

What others are saying

Luke Timothy Johnson, Hebrews: A Commentary, NTL (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012), 273:

The Habakkuk citation depends entirely on the LXX rather than the Hebrew. The original Hebrew version contained a vision concerning God’s judgment, delivered to the prophet, who had taken his stand on the watchtower: “it will surely come; it will not delay” (RSV). Hebrews makes the present participle erchomenos (already in the lxx) both personal and specific by adding the definite article, thus forming, “the one who is coming.” As a result, the passage seems clearly to speak of the judgment to be carried out by the Messiah (for “the coming one” with reference to Jesus, see Matt 3:11; Luke 7:19; John 1:9; 3:31; 6:14), as Hebrews already stated Jesus would come to carry out (see 9:28).

Donald A. Hagner, Hebrews, UBCS (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2011), 175:

Here, however, the stress is upon the faithfulness of the righteous person: my righteous one will live by faith. That is, righteous people will live faithfully, their lives will be lived in accordance with their faith. These two emphases are complementary rather than contradictory. The possibility of our faith (whereby we are accounted righteous) and our faithfulness (whereby we live according to God’s will) are both based upon the faithfulness of God on our behalf. It is clear from the context and from the chapter to follow that our author’s stress here is on the necessity of faithfulness. It is this to which he calls his readers, lest they fall away in the midst of tribulation. If the righteous one should shrink back, even though under pressure, the Lord will not be pleased. The simple point is that God requires faithfulness or endurance of his people.

David A. deSilva, Perseverance in Gratitude: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on the Epistle “to the Hebrews”, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000), 368:

It is the LXX version of the Habakkuk oracle, and not the MT, that provides the author with the support he requires. The MT of Habakkuk 2:3 speaks of “a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and it does not lie. If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay.” The LXX version shifts the focus from the “vision” that will “come and not delay” to the “coming one”: “there is yet a vision for the end and it will come to light at last, and not in vain: if it/he tarries, wait for it/him, for the coming one will arrive and will not delay.” The ambiguity of the pronoun and pronominal suffix in 2:3b already invites a personal reading, which is then made explicit by the introduction of “the coming one.” A second significant difference sets the MT apart from the LXX. The MT of Habakkuk 2:4 reads: “Look at the proud! Their spirit is not right in them, but the righteous one lives by faith”; this is transformed by the LXX translators into “if he shrinks back, my soul has no pleasure in him, but the righteous one will live by faith.” The censure of the proud turns into a statement about the “coming one,” namely, that if he shows cowardice he will not be pleasing to God.

The author of Hebrews further transforms the meaning of this text by transposing the order of Habakkuk 2:4a and 4b (LXX). The phrase “if he shrinks back” applies no longer to the “coming one” but to those who wait for God’s deliverance. Those who await it in trust and firmness will “live,” while those whose hearts fail will not please God.

Mario M. C. Melendez, “Interpreting Faith in the Reformation: Catholic and Protestant Interpretations of Habakkuk 2:4b and Its New Testament Quotations” in Themelios 45:2 (2020) 305:

Though Luther and Calvin utilized somewhat different methods of interpretation, both understood faith to be a gift from God, intrinsically connected to the gospel. Neither Luther or Calvin abandoned the word “works” within justification, but rather tied the word directly with the actions of Christ. It is therefore permissible to say that Luther and Calvin understood Habakkuk 2:4b to point a believer’s faith toward the faithful actions of Christ as the savior.

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Author: Allen Browne

Seeking to understand Jesus in the terms he chose to describe himself: son of man (his identity), and kingdom of God (his mission). Riverview Church, Perth, Western Australia

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