Because Habakkuk sees nothing but evil in Judah and Jerusalem, he yet resolves to "stand at his watching post," to "station (himself) on the rampart." He will "keep watch to see what YHWH will say to me, what YHWH will answer to my complaint" (Hab. 2:1). Though YHWH has been silent up to now, Habakkuk is still convinced that YHWH will offer a reply. After all, it is YHWH's business to respond to chamas! Habakkuk is rewarded for his persistence.
Then YHWH answered me. "Write the vision; make it clear on tablets, so that even a runner can read it! For there still is a vision for the time. It speaks of an end; it does not lie. If it appears to delay, wait for it. It surely will come and not delay. Look at the proud! Their spirit is not right in them. (Very difficult Hebrew here.) The righteous will live in their faithfulness" (Hab. 2:2-4). Just what is this vision that Habakkuk is commanded by YHWH to write? Given what we have said above about the historical context of the prophecy, I would suggest that the vision is Habakkuk's certainty that no matter how dreadfully the Torah has been perverted by the evil Jehoiakim, no matter how grossly the poor and the needy have been abused in a land far from God, no matter how monstrously the conquering Babylonians will treat the people and land of Israel, yet YHWH will not forget them. Habakkuk is bidden to write this conviction so clearly that even a speedy runner will be able to rush by it and still read it!
If the text is read like that, then the famous 2:4b, "the righteous will live by their faithfulness," must mean that those who persist in believing and doing the things of YHWH will live, even in the midst of wickedness and cruelty. Though Martin Luther, quoting and adapting Paul's and the author of the letter to the Hebrews' adaptation of these lines (see Rom. 1:17, Gal. 3:11, and Heb. 10:38-39), made these words the very hallmark of his certainty of "justification by faith alone" and not by any works, and thus dividing himself from his understanding of the Roman Catholicism of the 16th century, leading to the Protestant reformation, for Habakkuk the words seem far simpler. He says that faithfulness to the Torah of YHWH and faithfulness to what the Torah demands in terms of justice and righteousness in the community of Israel will lead to abundant life in God. When I recall the rancor and bitterness engendered by Luther's break with the church of his youth and ordination, and the fantastic horrors produced by that split over the succeeding five hundred years, I long for Habakkuk's clearer and more straightforward claim. Those who are righteous live in and by their faithfulness to the Torah of YHWH, a YHWH whose deepest desire is for the people of God to live in shalom with one another, in righteousness and justice and peace. In that understanding, we today may make Habakkuk 2:4b a living mantra for our own lives in God.
Note: Allow me to remind my readers once again of an upcoming trip to the area of the Baltic Sea, leaving September 3, 2014, returning September 11. We will visit Copenhagen, Berlin, Tallin, Estonia, St. Petersburg, Helsinki, Stockholm. On the ship I will lecture on the book of Job. You may wish to read something of my thinking about the old loudmouth from UZ in my book Preaching Job, available from Cascade Press. For full details about the September cruise, go to: www.eo.travel. I would love to meet you there!