Then the Lord replied:
“Write down the revelation
and make it plain on tablets
so that a herald may run with it.
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, he is puffed up;
his desires are not upright—
but the righteous will live by his faith—
indeed, wine betrays him;
he is arrogant and never at rest.
Because he is as greedy as the grave
and like death is never satisfied,
he gathers to himself all the nations
and takes captive all the peoples. (Habakkuk 2:2-5)
It’s not what you do that makes you a good person. It is what God has done to you. Paul quoted God’s words from Habakkuk, pointing out that the righteous live by faith, not by works.
Habakkuk lived in the time before the Babylonians came to punish Israel for their idolatry. He had wondered why God hadn’t done something about the wickedness of the Israelites; he saw the problems of idolatry—unfaithfulness to God—and oppression—injustice to people—that plagued his nation. Given the nature of God’s covenant with Israel, Habakkuk thought it peculiar that God hadn’t done anything and didn’t look like he was planning on doing anything.
God reassured Habakkuk that he had the situation well in hand: the Babylonians were coming to punish the Israelites. The news did not encourage Habakkuk, who rightly pointed out that the Babylonians were far worse than the Israelites and needed judgment themselves so much more. How could God use people so wicked to judge the more righteous Israelites? It made no sense to him, but he chose to trust God anyway.
Tablets were small, pillow shaped clay slabs that easily fit in the palm of a scribe’s hand. A scribe could write out the words easily and just as easily carry them with him wherever he went.
Just as God’s use of the Babylonians made no sense to Habakkuk, so salvation by grace through faith makes no sense to many of us. Jesus was punished for our crimes and now we get off scot free. There’s nothing we have to do, or even can do, to earn God’s love and salvation. We live by faith. It’s so unfair. But that’s how God is: he punished the righteous in order to save the unrighteous. It was the only way to save them. Just as Babylon had to punish Israel in order for God to save them.