Reflections on Habakkuk (1): Though the Fig Tree Should not Blossom

One of my favorite books in the Bible is Habakkuk. Its a very unique book – short, rich in content, and dealing with the deep themes of God’s sovereignty, judgment, mercy, idolatry, suffering, faith, and joy. Many have compared it to the book of Job. I am doing some study on Habakkuk and will be posting random reflections and insights that I have on it over the course of the next several weeks/months. For now, I will just give my broad outline and then a brief comment.

Brief Outline

I. Habakkuk’s dialogue with God (chapters 1-2)
___1 Superscription (1:1)
___2 Habbakkuk’s first complaint: Lord, why the injustice? (1:2-4)
___3 God’s response: judgement through the Chaldeans (1:5-11)
___4 Habakkuk’s second complaint: Lord, how is that an answer? (1:12-2:1)
___5 God’s response: judgment on the Chaldeans, and the triumph of God’s purpose in the world (2:2-20)
II. Habakkuk’s song/prayer of worship (chapter 3)
___1 Superscription (3:1)
___2 Renew your deeds of old! (3:2)
___3 The power of God’s anger (3:3-15)
___4 The joy of faith (3:16-19)

Comment

One of the most striking things about Habakkuk is Paul’s quotation of 2:4 (“the righteous shall live by faith”) in Romans 1:17 and Galatians 3:11 to bolster his argument that one becomes righteous in God’s sight by faith, not works. Before we interpret “the righteous shall live by faith” in Paul in Romans 1:17 and Galatians 3:11, however, we must interpret “the righteous shall live by faith” in Habakkuk 2:4, since Paul was a thoughtful exegete of the Old Testament and considered the Old Testament texts he quoted in their historical and literary context. So what did it mean to “live by faith” in the historical and literary context of Habakkuk?

With regard to historical context, Habakkuk prophesied to Judah during the late 7th century B.C., during the transitional period between the Assyrian and Babylonian powers. The primary event looming on the horizen at this point in Judah’s history was the terrible destruction of Jerusalem and the temple by the Babylonians in 587/6 B.C, with which Habakkuk’s prophecy has much to do (see especially 1:5-11). Whatever “faith” the righteous live by in 2:4b, it is a faith which must be exercised even in the midst of this unthinkable tragedy.

We must also interpret Habakkuk 2:4 in its literary context, including at least the rest of Habakkuk’s prophecy; especially illuminating in this regard is 3:16b-19:

Yet I will quietly wait for the day of trouble
to come upon people who invade us.
17 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,
18 yet I will rejoice in the LORD;
I will take joy in the God of my salvation.
19 GOD, the Lord, is my strength;
he makes my feet like the deer’s;
he makes me tread on my high places.

I would put it like this this: the faith of 2:4 is explicated, qualified, and given expression, in the vigorous joy and strength of 3:16b-10. Amazingly, this is a joy and strength which is exercised even in the midst of the terrible circumstances of v. 17, namely, the loss of fig, fruit, olive, field, flock, herd. These elements constitute what one commentator calls “the mixed substinence characteristic of Hebrew farming” and symbolize prosperity, flourishing, and joy; their absence thus entails significant loss. So, to put it all together: the faith by which the righteous live (2:4) is a faith which results in joy and strength despite suffering (3:16b-19), even suffering as terrible as the Babylonian exile (1:5-11).

One of the broader theological issues at stake here is how we understand the term “faith” in Paul’s usage in Romans 1:17 and elsewhere. If we understand faith as a mere intellectual assent to truth, or some generic positive orientation to God, we not only run into problems with James 2:14-26: we also run into problems with Paul, not least because of the Old Testament theological background from which he drew. For Habakkuk, on whom Paul draws when discussing justification by faith alone, the kind of faith by which “the righteous shall live” is tenaciously patient (3:16b), exuberantly joyful (3:18), and unshakably strong (3:19), even in the midst of unthinkable suffering and confusion (3:17; cf. 1:5-11). It is a faith that exults (3:18) and dances (3:19) in God “though the fig tree should not blossom” (3:17).

This is what it means, then, for Habakkuk, for you, and for me, to have faith in God: “He makes my feet like the feet of a deer.”

One Comment

  1. Hi Gav – Great discussion of a great book! I do think that Paul understood very well the larger connotations of faith in Habakkuk when he quoted it – a gritty, enduring faithfulness which continues to trust even in the upheaval of ch. 3 of Hab. That’s very Pauline.

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