The prophet Habakkuk was burdened deeply. He lived in a land filled with violence and devoid of justice, a land under oppression by a foreign enemy. It perplexed him that the God of Israel could allow His own people to be destroyed by pagans. So he protested that while God was too holy to look at wickedness, He was tolerating it in abundance.
Having voiced his vexing questions, the prophet ascended a rampart, his “watch tower,” to await God’s reply. When God answered, He instructed Habakkuk to write His words down: “ ‘Write the vision and make it plain on tablets, that he may run who reads it. For the vision is yet for an appointed time; but at the end it will speak, and it will not lie. Though it tarries, wait for it; because it will surely come, it will not tarry. Behold the proud, his soul is not upright in him; but the just shall live by his faith’ ” (Hab. 2:2–4).
These words, “the just shall live by faith,” are quoted three times in the New Testament. God was telling Habakkuk that the righteous person will live by trusting Him. This call to faith was a summons to trust God’s promise of redemption. The promise had been set for an appointed time by the determinate counsel of God. He called it an appointment that would not lie, for it was an appointment grounded in the truth of God Himself. It would not be broken because it could not be broken.
The divine instructions were simple: “ ‘Though it tarries, wait for it.’ ” This command could be attached to all of the promises of God. Throughout the Old Testament, God promised the coming of the Messiah. He had set an appointment for the Incarnation to occur in the fullness of time—the exact moment in world history that He had decreed from the foundation of the world. This decree made that of Caesar Augustus (Luke 2:1) pale into insignificance, except that it provided the context for the fulfillment of the ultimate plan of God.
When the moment came for Christ’s entrance into the world, Israel once again was under foreign denomination. It is clear from the New Testament that at the time of His Advent, the Old Testament church was not ready for Him. Four hundred years had passed since Israel had received its last prophetic word from God. The people had grown tired of waiting. In their eyes, the promised Messiah had tarried too long. The quaint promises of their ancient religion now appeared to be simply myths and legends, or even worse, lies.
For the most part Israel had been secularized. The people still maintained the trappings of religion—they still observed their annual festivals, and they still had a professional priesthood and the ministries of the scribes and Pharisees. But this external religion was empty. It was a hypocritical sham that Jesus quickly exposed.
Perhaps the saddest commentary on that day is found in the prologue to John’s gospel: “He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, and the world did not know Him. He came to His own, and His own did not receive Him” (John 1:10–11).
God invited Israel to a reception in honor of His Son. But they did not come. Instead, they fled from the receiving line. It was not the pagans who refused to receive Him. It was Israel, God’s own people, the people of the covenant, the people who possessed the promise of God, who would not receive Him.
Yet John indicates that despite this national apostasy, God preserved for Himself a remnant. This remnant was a small group of Jews who lived by faith. They were not secularized. They waited for the promise, even though it had tarried for centuries. Of these people John writes: “But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name: who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:12–13).