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Habakkuk 2:20 has a powerful sound:

But Yahweh is in his holy Temple.
Let all the earth be silent before him.

I feel there are depths here that I am not plumbing. What is the connection here between Yahweh's inhabitance of his temple, and the silence of the world?—especially in the light of the context, in which idols have just been declared speechless (v 18)? Can someone provide an in-depth contextual exegesis of this verse?

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4 Answers

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Chapter two of Habakkuk is God’s answer to the prophet’s dramatic pleading with God which starts at the beginning of chapter 1:

2 How long, Lord, must I call for help, but you do not listen? Or cry out to you, “Violence!” but you do not save? 3 Why do you make me look at injustice? Why do you tolerate wrongdoing? Destruction and violence are before me; there is strife, and conflict abounds (NIV throughout).

Habbakuk bemoans the traumatic tragedy which is the Bablyonian conquest of Israel at the end of the First Temple period. Putting words in God’s mouth, Habakkuk gives a very clear description of why he is so angry toward God:

5 “Look at the nations and watch— and be utterly amazed. For I am going to do something in your days that you would not believe, even if you were told. 6 I am raising up the Babylonians, that ruthless and impetuous people, who sweep across the whole earth to seize dwellings not their own. 7 They are a feared and dreaded people; they are a law to themselves and promote their own honor. 8 Their horses are swifter than leopards, fiercer than wolves at dusk. Their cavalry gallops headlong; their horsemen come from afar. They fly like an eagle swooping to devour; 9 they all come intent on violence. Their hordes advance like a desert wind and gather prisoners like sand. 10 They mock kings and scoff at rulers. They laugh at all fortified cities; by building earthen ramps they capture them. 11 Then they sweep past like the wind and go on— guilty people, whose own strength is their god.”

This chapter continues with more complaints and pleading with God to be merciful:

12 Lord, are you not from everlasting? My God, my Holy One, you will never die. You, Lord, have appointed them to execute judgment; you, my Rock, have ordained them to punish. 13 Your eyes are too pure to look on evil; you cannot tolerate wrongdoing. Why then do you tolerate the treacherous? Why are you silent while the wicked swallow up those more righteous than themselves?

Then we have chapter 2 which begins:

1 I will stand at my watch and station myself on the ramparts; I will look to see what he will say to me, and what answer I am to give to this complaint.

The imagery used here is that of siege. Habakkuk sees himself as a watchman waiting for God to respond.

In chapter 2 God answers.

2 Then the Lord replied:

This is a tense and dramatic moment in the Bible.

Habakkuk’s claim against God is not unlike Job’s who also suffered "unjustly." Just like the climactic revelation at the end of Job, we are taught that an encounter with the Mysterium Tremendum engenders humility and silence. I think there is a lot of nuance in the response we find in Chapter 2, but the major idea about the relationship between God and human beings is summed up in verse 20:

The Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth be silent before him.

(It happens to be that I have a lot more thoughts related to the structure of this book as a whole and its place in the Bible which I recorded about a year ago and posted here.)

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I don't think that 2:1 is the image of a siege, but rather a watchman. If it were of a siege, than it would be that Habakkuk was being sieged by God, not the other way around (the ramparts are the battlements of the city). Nevertheless, a helpful answer due to the examination of the context/structure. +1 –  Kazark Sep 9 '12 at 23:07
    
@Kazark, that's a good point. I will make an edit. –  Amichai Sep 9 '12 at 23:08
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Not sure if this exegesis is ‘deep’. I take the connection to be this:

The Prophet has been showing the madness of thinking one can make an idol out of wood and then imagine that it will speak, for it is just something made by hands. In contrast to this God is real and His habitation is in heaven, and yet He has taken abode in his temple in Israel.

The LORD is in his holy temple; the LORD is on his heavenly throne. He observes the sons of men; his eyes examine them. (Psa 11;4)

The image I envision is like a bunch of insane people, running around in pitch darkness and in an insane asylum, creating idols and worshipping them. When the light of heaven is opened up, and landed upon the earth in his tabernacle, the insane people should stop and look at that door from where all the light and reason comes. The whole insane movements and scheming of men should abruptly cease.

A deeper plumping might be to recognize that God in His temple was merely prefiguring the incarnation in Christ. Therefore, when the world proposes its ideas, faiths, wishes, and strivings after money, adultery, status, and misplaced respect, it is an insane asylum. When the gospel shines out from the tabernacle of Christ, the world should be silenced as it looks at the open door shining its light upon the asylum’s dark floors and hallways.

The silence is the result of insane madness encountering God, for all madness is desrived from not recognizing his presence in Christ, God's Holy Temple. This analogy extends to the invisible church who are Christ's extended temple.

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The Hebrew Word for Silence

The word here, הַ֥ס, "be silent" or "still" (has; qal: הָסָה, hasah; Strong's 2013), seems like a cognate of English "hush!" (Gesenius claims this is onomatopoeic; and though I see what he means, I find it ironic to claim such about silence.)

The Presence of Yahweh in His Temple

Thinking Biblical-theologically, Yahweh's presence in his temple is:

  • ...revelation of glory. It is in his temple, among his people, in the place where he is worshiped, that Yahweh makes himself known. As in Ezekiel 1, Isaiah 6, Exodus 34, Revelation 1, etc, this is an astounding, breath-taking glory that knocks one to the ground.
  • ...fulfillment of covenant. "I will be your God, and you will be my people." When God shines forth from his sanctuary, he judges the wicked nations and brings salvation to his people. Indeed, those should be articulated as the next two points.
  • ...a sign of impending judgment. Judgment is a major theme in Habakkuk.
  • ...a sign of salvation for his people. It prefigures the eschatological manifestation of the presence of God with his people in Christ.

More below.

The People and the Idols

There certainly seems to be a connection in this passage between the muteness of the idols and of the people. At the most basic level, it shows that both are humiliated before the glory of Yahweh. It may go further than that, though: a rebuke to idolaters, who become like what they worship (Psalms 115:8; 135:18; and elsewhere). Neither the nations nor idols are anything in the presence of Yahweh.

Silence Elsewhere in the Prophets

In Zephaniah the connection is made between silence and judgment:

Stand in silence [same word] in the presence of Yahweh the Lord, for the awesome day of the Yahweh's judgment is near. Yahweh has prepared his people for a great slaughter and has chosen their executioners. —Zephaniah 1:7

In the other "Z" prophet, Zechariah, the presence of Yahweh with his people (extended to include many of the Gentiles) and salvation for them is added onto that:

“Shout and be glad, O Daughter of Zion. For I am coming, and I will live among you,” declares Yahweh. “Many nations will be joined with Yahweh in that day and will become my people. I will live among you and you will know that Yahweh Almighty has sent me to you. Yahweh will inherit Judah as his portion in the holy land and will again choose Jerusalem. Be still [or silent; same word] before Yahweh, all mankind, because he has roused himself from his holy dwelling.” —2:10-13

Conclusion

Silence before Yahweh implies reverence and awe. It is an appropriate expression of fear of Yahweh. Silence and songs of praise are the two appropriate acoustic postures in the presence of the sublime. One ought not to be quick to make noise in the presence of the High King.

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This is a minor translation issue, here's the way I like it (Wikisource Habakkuk):

How is a statue useful? Because it's sculptor made it a mask, and a lying teacher: because the creator trusts his own creator over him to make idols dumb. Woe to he who tells the wood, "awake!", "Arise!" to the still stone. He will teach--- "Here it is wrapped in gold and silver." And there is no spirit within it. And to Yahweh, in his holy temple, the whole Earth mutes.

It is a thundering contrast between the silent stone and wood, where there is no sound despite the shouting of it's maker, and then comes God, and before him, it is we who are the silent ones. Because we are as dumb and futile to him as a wood statue is to its maker.

The parallel he makes is nice and deep, it's the relation of maker to the work which is made. He is likening all of us to the deaf and dumb statue, at least in relation to God.

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