Previous article in this series: January 15, 2023, p. 175.
But the Lord is in his holy temple: let all the earth keep silence before him. Habakkuk 2:20
In Habakkuk 2 God is addressing the prophet’s concern over God’s sovereign use of wicked Babylon to punish Judah’s sin. Habakkuk had complained that Judah’s sin needed chastisement (1:2-4) and God had informed him that the Babylonians, a bitter and hasty nation, terrible and dreadful, were on the way (1:6-7). God would use them to punish Judah’s sin.
God’s answer only increased Habakkuk’s concern, for though Judah had sinned grievously, the Babylonians were even more wicked. And so, when Babylon came, the wicked would be devouring those more righteous than themselves (1:13). Worse, the use of Babylon seemed to conflict with God’s holiness. Was He not purer of eyes than to behold evil or look on iniquity (1:13)? God’s use of Babylon to punish Judah would be a blot on His holiness, would it not? Surely, Habakkuk thought, God could have found some more appropriate way to chastise His people.
Habakkuk’s concern reflects ours. We, too, see God using those who “come for violence” (1:9), those who are “bitter and hasty” (1:6) to chastise His people. We see the wicked “devouring the man that is more righteous than he” (1:13). We see that in our own denomination as well as in the history of the New Testament church. We will see it again when the last kingdom of man is established, no other kingdom in history comparable in violence, in bitterness against the church, in power to devour those who are more righteous. How can God’s sovereign use of the ungodly be reconciled with His own purity? Serious sexual misconduct, violent schism in the church, heretics who lead others astray and gain a following in the church, the antichristian kingdom: surely God’s use of such things and of those who perpetrate them to chastise His church is not in harmony with His holiness!
This has always been a problem for the faithful. Asaph complained of it in his day:
Thine enemies roar in the midst of thy congregations; they set up their ensigns for signs. A man was famous according as he had lifted up axes upon the thick trees. But now they break down the carved work thereof at once with axes and hammers. They have cast fire into thy sanctuary, they have defiled by casting down the dwelling place of thy name to the ground. They said in their hearts, Let us destroy them together: they have burned up all the synagogues of God in the land. We see not our signs: there is no more any prophet: neither is there among us any that knoweth how long. O God, how long shall the adversary reproach? shall the enemy blaspheme thy name for ever? (Ps. 74:4-10).
God’s answer in Habakkuk 2:2-4 shows His concern for His people. Before any mention of Babylon, He assures Habakkuk and the faithful in Judah that their justifying faith would sustain them and bring them through the dark times ahead: “the just shall live by his faith” (2:4). Justified by faith in Jesus Christ, they would not come under the righteous judgment of God, though they shared in Judah’s sins. Justified by faith, the coming of the Babylonians, though terrible, would be for them only the gentle rain of God’s chastising love and never the storm clouds of His destroying fury. Justified, their faith would sustain them and bring them through the years of Jerusalem’s destruction and their captivity, would bring them through washed and purified.
Now in 2:5-20, having reassured His people, God turns to the matter of Babylon’s wickedness, pronouncing five-fold woe on that evil nation. Babylon, too, would be punished, and would be punished for laying Judah waste! Her punishment would correspond to her crimes and would come for Babylon’s destruction of Jerusalem and the temple: “And I will render unto Babylon and to all the inhabitants of Chaldea all their evil that they have done in Zion in your sight, saith the Lord” (Jer. 51:24).
Babylon would suffer but Babylon’s judgment was not God’s main concern. Judah had to see His glory and holiness as that of the Lord, the God of His people. And so the chapter ends with an assurance that God, even in His use of Babylon, is righteous and holy, through fire and water the God who keeps covenant and remembers mercy: “But the Lord is in his holy temple: let all the earth keep silence before him.” God’s description of Babylon’s coming judgment is vivid and memorable, but the hope of seeing Babylon’s fall might not be the focus of God’s people. The faithful must look to Him, trusting in His sovereignty and perfect holiness as the Lord, their covenant God. Only then would they be able to live by their faith. Their faith could not rest in the coming judgment of the nations, but in God Himself, as the God of His people.
By the time God punished Babylon, Jerusalem would be destroyed and abandoned and the people for whom Habakkuk prophesied would be captives in Babylon. The temple would be desolate and it would still be some years before God kept His promise to bring them back to their own land. Many of those who believed God’s word through Habakkuk would not even live to see Babylon’s fall. Yet God would still be in His holy temple, the covenant God and justifer of His people.
This has application to us. We wonder what will happen to those who misuse and persecute God’s church and people. That is not our first concern. Our calling is not to wait for God’s judgment to come on those who trouble His church, or to delight in their downfall. We can leave their punishment in His almighty hands, though we may be sure that He is “of purer eyes than to behold evil” and that He will always punish evildoers. We must look in faith to Him, believing that even when His ways are not our ways, He is in His holy temple, enthroned in majesty and righteousness, far beyond our questioning or even our understanding, and always the Lord, Jehovah, who saves His own with an everlasting salvation.
There is disagreement over the reference to God’s temple. Some believe that the reference is to the temple of Solomon in Jerusalem. Others believe it is a reference to heaven. Psalm 11:4, using the same language, refers to heaven: “The Lord is in his holy temple, the Lord’s throne is in heaven” (cf. also Jonah 2:4, 7). The verse, then, is about God’s revelation of Himself in heaven as the God of His people. There He has chosen to live with His people forever as the Lord, Jehovah, the God of the covenant, and it is there His people find Him. The temple of Solomon, the place where God lived with His people in the Old Testament, would be destroyed by the Babylonians, but even then He would be in His holy temple as the covenant God of true Israel.
The silence enjoined is the silence of worship, of contemplating the majesty of God in faith. The whole earth is commanded to worship Him and to turn from their idolatry, but God has in mind His own people especially. They by faith will worship Him, and in worshiping Him, find that He is all their hope and their peace. God says here what we sing in Psalter #126, stanza 5,
Be still and know that I am God,
O’er all exalted high;
The subject nations of the earth
My Name shall magnify.
The Lord of Hosts is on our side,
Our safety to secure;
The God of Jacob is for us
A refuge strong and sure.
It is notable that God never explains His use of Babylon to punish and chastise Judah. He only, having spoken of Babylon’s coming judgment, assures His people that He is the Lord in His holy temple, and exhorts them to be silent before Him. What He says of His use of Babylon is similar to what He says of Pharaoh in Romans 9:17, “For the scripture saith unto Pharaoh, Even for this same purpose have I raised thee up, that I might shew my power in thee, and that my name might be declared throughout all the earth.” No more than with Babylon does He bother to explain the mystery of His ways with Pharaoh but says in Romans 9:20, “Nay but, O man, who art thou that repliest against God? Shall the thing formed say to him that formed it, Why hast thou made me thus?” Be silent!
And faith, finally, is silent. It does not tie itself up in knots through foolish efforts to explain God’s ways or to instruct Him, but lays its hand on its mouth and says, “Once have I spoken; but I will not answer: yea, twice; but I will proceed no further” (Job 40:5). That does not mean that faith remains troubled and distressed by questions it cannot answer. Faith rests in the sovereignty of God, as the justifier of His own. Faith rests when it enters God’s holy temple, and finds that His majesty and glory are the answer to all questions; that He is the answer to all our doubts and fears and questionings.
How we need to learn from God’s word to Habakkuk! We are usually so deeply troubled by circumstances in our lives and in the church that we cannot rest. But, instead of looking to Him, we focus on those who have troubled us, waiting for God to deal with them, and delighting in every indication that is He is doing so. Rather than resting in the truth that He is the Lord and is in His holy temple, we restlessly run hither and thither with our concerns, thinking of nothing but our own immediate need. Instead of silently remembering who He is, we continue to ask, “Why this? Why that? How can such things be?” And finding no answers to our questions, remain troubled.
Habakkuk 2:20, then, is the most important verse in verses 5-20. It tells us how the just “live by faith.” They live by faith when they believe in Him who justifies the ungodly. They live by faith when their faith is founded on God as its confidence and comfort. When they live by faith, they do not always have their mouths open, filled with questions and complaints, but in silence contemplate His majesty and sovereignty and grace. Living by faith, they do not engage in what someone has called “spiritual belly-button watching,” but by looking away from themselves to Him who sits enthroned on high. In Him, though they cannot answer for His mysterious ways, they find one in whom they can trust, for He is their justifier. Calvin says,
But there is another kind of silence, and that is, when we willingly submit to God; for silence in this respect is nothing else but submission: and we submit to God, when we bring not our own inventions and imaginations, but suffer ourselves to be taught by his word. We also submit to him, when we murmur not against his power or his judgments, when we humble ourselves under his powerful hand, and do not fiercely resist him, as those do who indulge their own lusts.1
Faith is silent in that it does not question God’s ways or complain of them, but faith is not silent in praising Him who sits enthroned in majesty. Faith always says, “Although the fig tree shall not blossom, neither shall fruit be in the vines; the labour of the olive shall fail, and the fields shall yield no meat; the flock shall be cut off from the fold, and there shall be no herd in the stalls: Yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will joy in the God of my salvation” (Hab. 3:17, 18).
Amazing that this word of God was given before Babylon even appeared as Judah’s chastiser. What a testimony to God’s sovereignty, and proof that “he doeth according to his will in the army of heaven, and among the inhabitants of the earth: and none can stay his hand, or say unto him, What doest thou?” (Dan. 4:35). Through fire and water He is the God of His people: “In a little wrath I hid my face from thee for a moment; but with everlasting kindness will I have mercy on thee, saith the Lord thy Redeemer” (Is. 54:8). He chastises, but even that is proof that He has freely forgiven them their sins. He alone does wondrous things. In Him alone we trust.
That is the heart of God’s answer to Habakkuk and through him to Judah. It is His answer to us when all things seem to be against us. When we are compelled to sing of the church, “Though with a scornful wonder men see her sore oppressed, By schisms rent asunder, by heresies distressed” (stanza 3 of “The Church’s One Foundation”), then we remember that the Lord is in His holy temple. Then, in humble silence we remember how He from His holy temple visited the sins of His people on a hill called Golgotha, and proved Himself there to be the Lord their God.
1 Calvin, Commentaries on the Twelve Minor Prophets, vol. 4 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1979), 132.