Faith in the Face of Adversity

By Marion Taylor
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The biblical prophet Habakkuk lived during the troubled last decades of Israel’s southern kingdom. “The Chaldeans [also called Babylonians] that fierce and impetuous nation” threatened to destroy God’s people. They would eventually triumph over Judah in 605 BC and control them for the next 65 years (Habakkuk 1:6). Habakkuk was confused by what he was witnessing and, like Job, he questioned God’s justice:

O Lord, how long shall I cry for help,
    and you will not listen?
Or cry to you “Violence!”
    and you will not save? (Habakkuk 1:2-3 NRSV)

Because Habakkuk was unable to find quick answers to his many questions, he took his stand on a fortress perch where he waited to receive a word from God. He watched to “see” God’s word, which came in the form of a vision. God assured him that justice would prevail. He reminded Habakkuk that unlike the proud Chaldeans who relied on their own strength, “the righteous live by their faith” (2:4 NRSV). Habakkuk’s understanding of faith is taken up in the New Testament where it is clearly associated with the gospel. Paul quotes Habakkuk 2:4b after explaining that the “righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith” (Romans 1:17 NRSV). So too, after reminding the Galatians that following the law does not bring salvation, Paul points out that salvation is only by faith in Christ, citing Habakkuk 2:4b to prove his point. The writer to the Hebrews also alludes to Habakkuk 2:4b when he encourages the faithful to have confidence and endurance in suffering: “For yet in a very little while, the one who is coming will come and will not delay; but my righteous one will live by faith. My soul takes no pleasure in anyone who shrinks back.” (Hebrews 10:37-38).

These key texts about the righteous living by faith became the cornerstone for the sola fidei (“by faith alone”) principle of the Protestant Reformation. In his commentary on Habakkuk, Luther underscores the importance of Romans 1:27: “for this is a general saying applicable to all of God’s words. These must be believed, whether spoken at the beginning, middle, or end of the world.” (Works XIX, 394-95).

The theme of faith continues in the final chapter of Habakkuk, which underscores the character of the God in whom we place our faith. The Lord God is the just and all-powerful Holy One whose glory covers the heavens, and whose praises fill the earth (3:2-15). Habakkuk’s renewed vision of God, the creator of the universe, assures him that he can trust God whatever happens. The prophet responds to this vision of God’s greatness with one of the greatest statements of faith in the face of adversity in Scripture:

Though the fig tree does not blossom,
    and no fruit is on the vines;
though the produce of the olive fails,
    and the fields yield no food;
though the flock is cut off from the fold,
    and there is no herd in the stalls,
18 yet I will rejoice in the Lord;
    I will exult in the God of my salvation.
19 God, the Lord, is my strength;
    he makes my feet like the feet of a deer,
    and makes me tread upon the heights. (Habakkuk 3:17-19 NRSV)

In her one volume commentary on the Bible, Anglican educator Sarah Trimmer (1741-1810) suggests that Habakkuk’s song in chapter three was meant “to comfort the Jews, and give them full assurance that God would not forsake them, but would again display his power in delivering them from the oppression of the Chaldeans.” She encourages her Christian readers to reflect on God’s mercies, especially “the wonders [God] has wrought for us in redeeming us by Jesus Christ” because these wonders give us great consolation and hope.[1]I find the book of Habakkuk especially comforting in these times of great uncertainty, distress, and fear. It encourages us to come to God with our questions and to stand, wait, and listen. God’s words to us from this little book are profound. They remind us that God is sovereign and that time will reveal God’s plans more fully.  What is more, they call us to put our faith in the Holy One, the Rock, who is absolutely sure, completely trustworthy, and faithful.

The faith we are called to includes intellectual assent, but involves much more and goes far deeper. Faith is, as defined by Benjamin Warfield, “the distinctive feature of the righteous [person], . . . [it] is a profound and abiding disposition, an ingrained attitude of mind and heart towards God which affects and gives character to all the activities.”[2]

May God give us such an abiding faith. It is this kind of faith that will sustain us through this time of uncertainty and always.

[1] Mrs. [Sarah] Trimmer, A Help to the Unlearned in the Study of the Holy Scriptures: Being An Attempt to Explain the Bible in a Familiar Way (London: T Bentley, 1805), 479.

[2] Benjamin B. Warfield, “Faith,” in James Hastings, ed., Dictionary of the Bible (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1936), 827.