The first two of Habakkuk’s three chapters consist of a dialogue between the prophet (Habakkuk 1:1-4, 1:12-2:1) and God (Habakkuk 1:5-11, 2:2-20). Habakkuk is unique in that he has the audacity to openly question the Almighty. First, the prophet is upset with God’s presumed indifference in the face of clear injustice (Habakkuk 1:2-4) and then he objects to the action God is taking (Habakkuk 1:12-2:1). God has seemingly sided with idolaters.
God responds by assuring Habakkuk that the perpetrators will face repercussions in the form of five woes (Habakkuk 2:6, 9, 12, 15, 19). The discourse concludes addressing the absurdity of idolatrous worship (Habakkuk 2:18-20). God gets the final word in the conversation, reassuring:
“But the Lord is in His holy temple.Contrary to popular belief and despite the apparent silence, God is in fact on the job. Yahweh is not a helpless bystander but is rather perched in a position of power ready to act.
Let all the earth be silent before Him.” (Habakkuk 2:20 NASB)
Specifically God “is in His holy temple” (Habakkuk 2:20 NASB). The temple in question likely indicates a broader spiritualized definition not limited to the Jerusalem temple (Micah 5:2).
Thomas Edward McComiskey (1928-1996) notes:
From early times the earthly sanctuary was believed to be a replica of the sanctuary of heaven. That the heavenly temple is in view here is suggested by the similar words of Psalm 11:4: “The LORD is in his holy temple; the LORD’s throne is in heaven”...It is from his heavenly throne that “his eyes behold, his gaze examines humankind” (Psalm 11:4); all human beings are therefore called upon to do him reverence. (McComiskey, The Minor Prophets: An Exegetical and Expository Commentary, 876)O. Palmer Robertson (b. 1937) defines:
The temple, from the time of its dedication by Solomon, was established as the source from which divine instruction and help would go forth. Even if God should have to chasten disobedient people, the consecrated temple would remain as the place where God would hear, forgive, and teach his people the good way (I Kings 8:36)...The temple stood in the midst of Israel as the place of his presence and his lordship among his people. The term for temple (hekal seldom describes the palace of an earthly king in Scripture. But it appears in a succession of narratives as the place from which God would rule in Israel, including the tabernacle in Shiloh (I Samuel 1:9, 3:3), Solomon’s temple (I Kings 6:1-2; etc.), Ezekiel’s temple (Ezekiel 41:1, 4, 15); and the temple constructed after the restoration from exile (Zechariah 8:9; Haggai 2:15, 18). From a new covenant perspective, the equivalent concept is applied to the body of Jesus Christ (John 2:19), the body of the individual Christian (I Corinthians 3:16-17), and the corporate community of the Christian church (Ephesians 2:21)...The essence of the idea of the Lord’s temple may be seen in the declaration in the book of Revelation concerning the absence of the temple in the new heavens and new earth. The Lord God Almighty and the Lamb will be the temple of the new Jerusalem (Revelation 22:21). The presence of God and Christ shall so permeate the final city that no need shall exist for a temple building. (Robertson, The Books of Nahum, Habakkuk, and Zephaniah (New International Commentary on the Old Testament), 210-11)The prophet’s truest encouragement comes from God’s very identity. Like Job (Job 42:1-6), Habakkuk needs to see God not only for what God does but who God is.
God’s capability is juxtaposed with the ineptitude of false idols who say and do nothing. Waylon Bailey (b. 1948) exclaims:
What a contrast! The idol sits where it is put without the ability to hear or to respond, but the Lord resides by his almighty power in his holy temple ready to respond to the needs of his people...The verse pictures the contrast between those who are no gods and the one who is in heaven ready to respond to human need and to human questions. Habakkuk himself knew from experience that he could take his questions to God’s temple in heaven. (Kenneth L. Barker [b. 1931] and Bailey, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuh, Zephaniah (The New American Commentary), 349)James Bruckner (b. 1957) concurs:
In Habakkuk 2:19 created wood and stone are worshiped but are silent when asked for guidance. But created wood and stone will speak by Yahweh’s word (Habakkuk 2:11). They will be God’s witnesses against those who have trusted in them and made them with unjust profits, at the expense of the earth, towns, and others’ blood (Habakkuk 2:8). (Bruckner, Jonah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah (The NIV Application Commentary), 234)In spite all of the nation’s misfortune, God is not powerless. The idolaters have not won.
Habakkuk’s critique can be paraphrased by the question “Where are you?” The answer is that God is seated where the Almighty is supposed to be; where Yahweh has always been.
What does Habakkuk need from God? How does God respond to those needs? What do you need from God? Is it acceptable to challenge God like the prophet? Have you, like Habakkuk, ever wondered where God was amidst gross injustice? Do you believe that God is active in the world? Where do you picture God residing?
The conversation ends abruptly as, given God’s position, the text admonishes to “be silent” (CEV, HCSB, NASB, NIV, NLT), “keep silent” (ASV, ESV, KJV, NKJV, NRSV, RSV) or simply “quiet” (MSG). The word (Hebrew: hacah) is actually more forceful. It is an onomatopoeic interjection that can be pronounced, in Hebrew, much like the English “Hush!”
This command is given to all the earth (Habakkuk 2:20), not just Judah (his followers). This audience includes the prophet. The question and answer portion of the program has concluded. The prophet who thought that God was silent is himself silenced by the Almighty.
Marvin A. Sweeney (b. 1953) comments:
The final statement in Habakkuk 2:20 points once again to YHWH as the ultimate power of the universe by calling for silence throughout the entire earth as YHWH’s presence is manifested in the holy Temple...Such a call for silence appears also in Zephaniah 1:7, Zechariah 2:13; and Psalm 46:10, and appears to accompany a theophany in which YHWH’s presence is manifested in the Temple. Priests performing the sacrifices and other rituals of the Temple worked in silence before YHWH’s presence, indicated by the opening of the doors of the Temple to expose the Holy of Holies where the ark resided (see I Kings 8:1-11), because human voices are not able to replicate the divine speech of the angels who serve YHWH in the heavenly realm. The metaphor of silence indicates a demonstration of respect for YHWH, and coneys the “otherness” of holy divine speech by the angels who praise YHWH in the heavens. (The Twelve Prophets (Vol. 2): Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi (Berit Olam), 478)David Prior (b. 1940) denotes the fitting conclusion:
Habakkuk 2:20’s imperious summons to silence in the presence of the one true God is an apt conclusion to the questioning of the prophet, the agonizing of the people and the chattering of the pagans before their idols. It also marks the only appropriate way to respond to the LORD’s pronunciation of five woes on Babylon. There is nothing more to say or be said. In the light of God’s word of judgment, it is right that ‘every mouth...be stopped’ (Romans 3:19). (Prior, The Message of Joel, Micah & Habakkuk (Bible Speaks Today), 260)
Ironically, the command to silence evokes praise. Though a gap (in which the prophet could reflect in silence) may exist between chapters 2 and 3, the book continues and concludes with a psalm of praise (Habakkuk 3:1-19) addressed to the Lord who saves his people (Habakkuk 3:13). Habakkuk’s final chapter sits in stark contrast to the book’s first two units, evidence that God’s affirmation has had a profound effect on the prophet.
Habakkuk 2:20 marks the bridge from despair to praise. James D. Newsome (b. 1931) pinpoints:
The whole of the psalm in Habakkuk 3 resonates to the nature of God as a transcendent and awe-inspiring Deity. But there is a special sense in which Habakkuk 2:20 has communicated to generations of Jews and Christians the reverence and respect due to God, especially in moments of worship. (Newsome, The Hebrew Prophets, 99)Do you find God’s words to Habakkuk assuring (Habakkuk 2:2-20)? Has God ever converted your complaints into worship? Why does God silence Habakkuk? Is there a place for silence in communal worship? When are you silent before God?
“Silent solitude makes true speech possible and personal. If I am not in touch with my own belovedness, then I cannot touch the sacredness of others. If I am estranged from myself, I am likewise a stranger to others.” - Brennan Manning (b. 1934), Abba’s Child: The Cry of the Heart for Intimate Belonging, p. 58