The rabbis of the Talmud discuss the 613 precepts of Torah and how the prophets sought to distill them into just a few principles. David, in Psalm 15, lists eleven; Isaiah reduces them to six (Is. 33:15-16); and Micah refines them even further to three: “It has been told you, O man, what is good, and what the Lord requires of you: only to do justly, and to love mercy and to walk humbly before your God (Mic. 6:8). Then the discussion in the Talmud continues:
Isaiah came again and reduced them to two principles, as it is said, Thus says the Lord, Keep justice and do righteousness . . . (Is. 56:1). Amos came and reduced them to one principle, as it is said, For thus says the Lord to the house of Israel, Seek Me and live (Amos 5:4). To this R. Nahman b. Isaac demurred, saying: [Might it not be taken as,] Seek Me by observing the whole Torah and live? — But it is Habakkuk who came and based them all on one principle, as it is said, But the righteous shall live by his faith (Hab. 2:4).
It’s remarkable to hear the Talmud citing Habakkuk 2:4 in a way similar to that of the Apostolic Writings (see Rom1:17, Gal. 3:11, Heb. 10:38-39). In all these cases “faith” can be translated as “faithfulness,” which sheds light on the meaning of the verse. We might think of “faith” as mere belief, or agreement with certain key doctrines, but faithfulness implies more, namely loyalty to the Lord and his ways, staying true through life’s trials and changes. Faithfulness entails belief, but will also show up in our behavior and attitudes. We might call it faith-in-action. Such faithfulness is not portrayed here in contrast with Torah obedience, but as foundational to it. It does not negate the many other elements of a life pleasing to God, but underlies them all.
“Righteous” is another key word in this verse. So as we seek to practice the middah of righteousness, the Talmud and Habakkuk provide some major direction. Cheshbon Ha-Nefesh agrees with Yeshua himself in defining righteousness as treating others the way we want to be treated ourselves. Habakkuk reveals that such righteousness doesn’t arise out of keeping a detailed list of does and don’ts, or out of trying harder when we fail. We do need to put effort into righteousness, but it’s a relational effort before everything else, a matter of getting deeply in touch with Hashem and maintaining that connection through the way we treat others, in short of being faithful to the one who is faithful to us.
To paraphrase Habakkuk, The righteous person is the one who lives a life that is faithful to Hashem. Or to paraphrase from another angle, The one who faithfully stays right with God is really living.That’s righteousness, that’s faithfulness, and that’s life!