“Behold, his soul is puffed up, it is not upright within him, but the righteous shall live by his faith.” Habakkuk 2:4 ESV
Behold – How would you summarize Paul’s entire message in a single verse? The question is important not only for theological reasons but also because your answer will reveal what you believe to be the central teaching of the gospel. Paul, the messenger to the Gentiles, is the guiding light for most of us. We are the Gentiles he intended to bring into the fold. So it’s appropriate to know what he was trying to communicate.
Most of us would probably say that Paul’s central message was, “Jesus died for your sins,” or something like this. But New Testament scholars will tell you that this citation from Habakkuk in the letter to the Romans is the central thought of Paul’s message. Paul is concerned with the life of the righteous. Yes, the death and resurrection of Yeshua play an enormous role in his concern (“to know Christ crucified,” for example), but the real issue is how we are to live after that event. And for that, Paul turns to the prophet Habakkuk. Since this verse is the key to understanding the entire letter to the assembly in Rome, it might be useful if we actually knew what it says in Hebrew. Far too often we have assumed that the English translation captures the thought of Paul and the prophet. What we will find is that due to the Greek influence this verse has been altered. What it really says is a far cry from the way we read it in translation.
Let’s start with the opening word, hinneh. It’s a very common word in the Tanakh (over 1000 times). Translating it as “behold” makes us think that it is nothing more than an introductory exclamation, sort of like us saying, “Look here!” But T. O. Lambkin points out that hinneh “emphasizes the immediacy, the here-and-now-ness, of the situation,” often in the prophets as a declaration of God’s will. That is the case here in Habakkuk. This verse is not what the prophet is saying. It is God’s speech communicated through the prophet. We need to take this to heart. God is telling us what it means to be righteous.
This is especially important. Why? For two reasons. First, whatever this verse actually means, God expects it to be true of the righteous. That implies that we who call ourselves righteous should be characterized by the substance of this verse. This is God’s definition. It better be ours as well. Secondly, you will notice the absence of any suggestion of forgiveness. This verse is about living a righteous life, not about being invited to share in the Kingdom. Our usual characterization of “saved” or “forgiven” may have far less to do with being righteous than we are led to believe. At any rate, Habakkuk tells us what God thinks about all this. “Behold” is God’s “look here and see” announcement. Are you ready to examine your definition of righteous and see if it matches God’s?
Topical Index: behold, hinneh, Habakkuk 2:4, Romans 1:17
 TWOT, Vol. 1, p. 220
THIS IS Today’s Word Number 4000. Hardly seems possible, but one day at a time, we have examined 4000 words.