We are enamored with noise. Ear-splitting crashing noise. Soft background noise. The noise of talking. The noise of busyness. The noise of escape. The noise of anything that keeps us from facing the reality of life that we are trying to avoid. While this noise can be a source of joy, blessing and life, it can also become a distraction from hearing and experiencing God. And that is a problem.
Habakkuk’s prophecy starts with Habakkuk’s questions of God. Habakkuk is concerned that Judah is filled with corruption, violence, greed and injustice and that God seems to be ignoring it. Habakkuk knows that God cares about these things and hates these things, so why isn’t God doing anything? The prophecy continues to be a recording of Habakkuk’s ongoing questions that ultimately reveal Habakkuk’s struggle with doubts about the nature and character of God.
As God walks with Habakkuk through his questions and concerns, we get no hint that God is upset with Habakkuk for asking these questions. God would rather have us ask questions that might seem to back God into a corner than to pretend that we don’t have the questions that will inevitably lead us into a corner of bitterness and resentment. In fact, I get the feeling that God uses Habakkuk’s questions to lead this prophet to a deeper experience with him, to lead Habakkuk into a deeper experience of faith and trust that eventually results in joy and peace.
By the time one gets to the end of the prophecy, Habakkuk declares (3:17-19):
Even though the fig trees have no blossoms,
and there are no grapes on the vines;
even though the olive crop fails,
and the fields lie empty and barren;
even though the flocks die in the fields,
and the cattle barns are empty,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord!
I will be joyful in the God of my salvation!
The Sovereign Lord is my strength!
He makes me as surefooted as a deer,
able to tread upon the heights.
God has used Habakkuk’s honest questions to help Habakkuk experience the joy of life with God. Not a joy that is contingent upon God doing everything that Habakkuk wants. Not a joy that is rooted in life being easy and comfortable. Not a joy that relies on God providing blessings or even the very necessities of life for that matter. But joy that simply understands that God is who he says he is—that he is good and merciful, that he is strong and powerful, that he knows what he is doing and that he acts only in holiness, righteousness and love—and that God can be trusted.
But how does Habakkuk come to this place? How does Habakkuk come to view God so differently? It’s not because his questions have been answered. It’s not because the world is now fixed. It’s not because the problems of evil have been eliminated. It’s because Habakkuk’s eyes and ears have been opened to the deeper reality of who God is. And how are Habakkuk’s eyes and ears opened?
Habakkuk 2:20 is the hinge point of this dialogue:
But the Lord is in his holy Temple.
Let all the earth be silent before him.
This is not just any kind of silence, as positive as that may be. This is the silence that comes from encountering God in his holy Temple. In the simplest terms, the idea of the Temple is basically telling us that God is present. And where God is present, silence is always an appropriate response.
Silence makes us feel uncomfortable, especially silence in God’s presence. We avoid silence in God’s presence because we are afraid of what God may say to us. We worry that he’s going to put his finger on things in our lives that we love but are harmful to us. Sometimes we would rather ignore the warnings in order to continue enjoying the poison. We also struggle with silence because it feels so uncontrollable. We can control noise and busyness; there is nothing to control in silence.
In the verses preceding this one, Habakkuk talks about idols made of wood and stone. Idols that cannot respond lead us to lots of noise—pleading, begging, cajoling our gods to listen, to pay attention, to help us, to do something. It’s all about trying to convince the gods to hear us.
Silence is the most profound means of smashing our idols. If you stand in silence before an idol, nothing happens. You’re just staring at a block of wood. Silence is not for the purpose of getting God’s attention; it is a call to pay attention to him. There is great power in silence. Silence gives us time and space to take honest inventory of our lives, to arrange our priorities, to hear God’s Spirit telling us that we are loved without saying or doing anything but simply because of who God is and who we are. In all of our noise, we so often miss this.
But silence isn’t the absence of sound or activity. Silence is worship. Silence is prayer. Silence is a spirit of openness to God. Silence is making time for God. Silence is actually like Sabbath. God-ordained Sabbath allows us to see things we didn’t see before. To see Yahweh for who he is. If we stop and look, we will see him. Our problem is that we are trying to look without stopping. Sabbath isn’t nothingness; it’s refocusing from 6 days of distraction—of being stretched and pulled by the priorities of idols of wood and stone. Silence is an act of surrender, giving up, abstaining, emptying. The discipline of silence prepares us for the word, the blessings God desires for us.
Think of a concert. Before the performance begins, the audience is talking, musicians are tuning their instruments; there’s a dull hum that fills the auditorium. When the conductor walks in, everyone becomes silent. Then the conductor lifts her baton and on the downbeat, beautiful music. The silence between the dull hum and the beautiful music is a significant part of fully experiencing the moment. The preparation for the notes is as important as the notes themselves.
Many translations and paraphrases of Psalm 65:1 reference praise with an emphasis on silence. Duke Bible scholar Ellen Davis once translated it as, “To you, O Lord, silence is praise.” It is indeed an act of worship.
This idea of silence, of worship, of prayer, of taking time to be open and available with God is at the heart of our yearly prayer vigil. For three weeks in November, we set aside time to pray. The prayer rooms have been prepared with guides and creative avenues of prayer. There are images to ponder and words that provoke confession, praise and intercession. There is music to sing and hear. There are boards on which to write our prayers and thoughts, our yearnings and struggles. But all of it is leading to one purpose—to set aside significant time to be with God. And in these moments, we come to know God in deeper ways, we come to hear God in clearer tones, we come to open our hearts in more honest expressions, we come to discover that in an upside-down world, there is joy in trusting God no matter what.