Many scholars, including some evangelicals, believe the apostle Paul violated the original meaning when he quoted Hab 2:4 as “the just shall live by faith” in Rom 1:17 and Gal 3:11. Several modern English translations render ’ĕmûnāh in Hab 2:4 as “faithful(ness), fidelity”: JPS, REB, TEV, GW, NLT, NIV (2011), NET. Some interpret Habakkuk as even saying the opposite of what Paul says, that righteousness comes through keeping the law. Does ’ĕmûnāh in Hab 2:4 mean “faith” or “faithfulness”?
Habakkuk 2:2 announces a vision the prophet was supposed to write down so that its message could be spread by a runner. Verse three specifies that the vision is “for the appointed time” and it “testifies about the end,” that is, that it speaks of the eschatological future (cf. Dan 8:19; 11:27,35).
The first half of v. 4 speaks of Babylon’s arrogance and that they are “without integrity.” This is amplified in v. 5, which describes their insatiable appetite for power and possessions. Then the vision in vv. 6–20 recounts the ruin that is coming on Babylon. The second half of v. 4 offers, as a contrast to Babylon, “the righteous one” (tsaddiq) who “will live by his ’ĕmûnāh. In the context of v. 3 and chap. 1, the righteous one is part of a believing remnant who believes the vision, who is waiting on God’s deliverance from the wicked (cf. 1:4, 13). Whereas the arrogant one will die as a result of his insatiable greed, the righteous one will live as a result of his ’ĕmûnāh (to “live” [chayah] does not mean to “conduct oneself in a certain manner” but to “survive”).
Now what does ’ĕmûnāh mean? A word study shows that the word elsewhere means “faithfulness, integrity, reliability.” Nowhere else does it clearly mean “faith.” Unfortunately, a simple word study does not really resolve the issue. In Paul’s quotation of Hab 2:4b in Rom 1:17 and Gal 3:11 he has “(but) the righteous one will live by faith.” The context in both places is clear that Paul means “faith” and not “faithfulness.” Did Paul not know the Hebrew of Hab 2:4? Or did he see something we are missing?
Another complication with a simple word study is that the root אמן, from which ’ĕmûnāh is derived, has no derivative that means “faith.” In fact, according to James Barr, “there is no word in the OT in Hebrew meaning ‘faith’ or ‘belief’; that is to say, there is no noun form representing nominally the act indicated by the verb he’emin ‘believe’—a fact which is widely known and acknowledged” (The Semantics of Biblical Language, 173). Therefore, if Habakkuk wanted to say “The righteous one will live by his faith,” there was no better word than ’ĕmûnāh for him to use, especially if the author of Habakkuk wanted to allude to Gen 15:6, which according to C. F. Keil is “impossible to mistake.” The root אמן is found in Gen 15:6 in its verbal form, along with a form of the word tsaddiq—“Abram believed [he’ĕmin] the LORD, and He credited it to him as righteousness [tsĕdāqāh].” My proposal is that Habakkuk used ’ĕmûnāh with the meaning “faith,” which could be inferred from the parallel passage in Gen 15:6.
Another piece of evidence is a commentary on Habakkuk found at Qumran (1QpHab). In the comments on 2:4 is a clause that seems to mean “because of their toil and their faith in the teacher” (Barr, 202; Andersen,Habakkuk, 214). This provides evidence for the interpretation “faith” in Hab 2:4 at least as early as the second half of the first century BC.
Another argument for “faith” as the meaning for ’ĕmûnāh in Hab 2:4 is the context. The topic of v. 3 is the vision, which “will not lie. Though it delays, wait for it, since it will certainly come and not be late.” The “righteous one,” then, would be one who waits for, i.e., believes, the vision, or the God who gave the vision. He is the one who, like Habakkuk, takes his questions to God and watches for an answer. So Hab 2:4, it seems, does teach salvation by faith after all.
E. Ray Clendenen is senior editor of Bible and Reference Publishing at B&H Publishing. He served as associate general editor of the Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB), and associate editor of the HCSB Study Bible and the Apologetics Study Bible. He has taught Hebrew and Old Testament for Philadelphia Biblical University, Criswell College, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary. He is general editor of the New American Commentary series and the NAC Studies in Bible and Theology and is the author of Malachi (New American Commentary).