Behold, his soul is puffed up; it is not upright within him, but the righteous shall live by his faith. Habakkuk 2:4 ESV
By his faith – Paul made this verse one of the most important citations in the New Testament when he quoted the prophet Habakkuk as the summary of the letter to the Romans (Romans 1:17). This statement has become the centerpiece of Christian thinking about grace (and, of course, it is also at the heart of Jewish thinking about grace which is why Paul used it). But what it actually says isn’t quite so obvious, unless we read the Hebrew text first.
Here’s the problem. The Hebrew text literally says, “and the righteous by his faith shall live.” But without intonation and punctuation, we might read this in two different ways. It could mean that the righteous man will live by faith, that is, he will operate in the world on the basis of trust, or it could mean that as a result of his faith the righteous man will live, that is, he will continue to exist because he acts righteously. English translations assume one view or the other, so they aren’t much help. And the Greek text doesn’t help us much either since the LXX translates Habakkuk’s Hebrew as “but the righteous will live by my faithfulness.” Tim Hegg attempts to clear up this confusion when he says, v’tzadik b’emunato yicheyih [the Hebrew transliterated] in which the bet [the second letter of the Hebrew alphabet] functions to identify the means by which the righteous shall live. . . . Thus Paul understands the construction of the Hebrew text to be teaching that Israel, soon to be defeated by her enemies, has the choice of relying upon herself (proud, puffed up) or trusting in God. The one who is righteous will trust in God. Out of this trust the righteous one will live, that is, be preserved. The text clearly teaches that the one who is righteous lives on the basis of faith. Faith is the means by which the righteous draw near to God and find in Him a safe refuge.”
What does this mean for us? It means that the second of the two possible meanings is supported by the Hebrew text. That is to say, the one who trusts in God and acts according to that trust will be preserved – and this is what the Hebraic idea of faith is all about! Faith is not something that I have in my heart (or head), a sort of spiritual formula that allows me access to God. Faith is the result of living by God’s instructions regardless of my circumstances. For example, Daniel exhibited Hebrew faith when he refused to eat the king’s food even in captivity and when he continued to pray each day in spite of the king’s edict. Daniel was preserved because he acts according to God’s will. Faith was his trust to live in a particular way regardless of the outcome.
In Western thinking, faith is often defined as a certain set of theological beliefs or as a particular special relationship. This is static. It is as if “faith” were some sort of possession that I acquire. But in Hebrew, faith is the result of what I do, not the prize I put on the shelf. I have faith only when I am living in a certain way, walking in a certain path. Yeshua could say to Peter when he began to sink in the water, “What happened to your faith?” He didn’t mean, “Have you changed your mind?” He meant, “Why did you stop walking?”
The righteous live because they trust YHWH. They rely on Him. They count on Him no matter what. Oh, by the way, reliability is the proper definition of the Hebrew word emunah, a word that carries the ideas of both “faith” and “truth.”
So, today, how’s your faith? It’s easy to tell. Just look at what you’re doing and ask if it reflects relying on God no matter what.
Topical Index: faith, emunah, Habakkuk 2:4, Romans 1:17
 Tim Hegg, The Letter Writer, pp. 99-100, footnote 207.