Sunday, October 23, 2022

Silence Before Him

It was a gorgeous spring day in Babylon – early in the new year, the fifth day of the great festival, the Akitu – so the sheshgallu, the high priest, had been busy since well before sunrise. Up at 2:00am to wash and pray before opening the gates to the other priests, waiting in the exalted courtyard of the Esagila temple while an exorcist cleansed the inner shrines... A long and busy morning. But now it was time to serve the god his lunch. The sheshgallu was in Marduk's shrine, standing before the statue that was the god's presence in his own house. Made of wood plated in gold and silver, crusted in gems and draped in the finest robes, Marduk – the idol that the sheshgallu believed was a god made present on earth – loomed large, as did the idol of Marduk's wife.1 And before these statues, they set golden trays stacked with sacrificial meat, bread, salt, and honey, as the sheshgallu offered wine and prayed. The sheshgallu believed, despite all evidence of his eyes, these statues ate and drank.

Hours passed. The statue of Marduk's son Nabu sailed in by canal from Borsippa, where King Nebuchadnezzar had gone to escort him to Babylon. Now the ritual was at hand. Leaving his prayers, the sheshgallu approached the king in the courtyard, leading him to Nabu's shrine, and taking Nebuchadnezzar's royal scepter and crown away, carrying them to Marduk's shrine and laying them there. Returning to the courtyard – this was the fun part – the sheshgallu slapped Nebuchadnezzar across the face, grabbed him by the ear, and dragged him back to Marduk's shrine, beneath the new cedar-wood roof that Nebuchadnezzar had sponsored there. The sheshgallu forced King Nebuchadnezzar to kneel before the mute idol and swear to it that he, King Nebuchadnezzar, hadn't humiliated Babylon or its poor in the way the sheshgallu had just humiliated him. Only then did the sheshgallu speak what the idol couldn't, assuring Nebuchadnezzar of his divine acceptance and investing him once again as king with scepter and crown before slapping him once again to draw tears as an omen of divine approval.2

This the Babylonians did every year, on the fifth day of an eleven-day Akitu festival centered around their idols – every year, that is, that the king was in town. For Babylon's final king, Nabonidus, moved away for ten years, and the festival couldn't be celebrated without him. Only in his last year did Nabonidus come back, celebrating the Akitu “as in normal times.” Desperate to defend Babylonia against his enemies, Nabonidus kidnapped the gods of other Babylonian cities, bringing them into Babylon for safekeeping and protection. But the omen that year proved false, and stuffing Babylon fuller of idols than usual was useless. Babylon fell anyway.3

That's what the prophet Habakkuk has been looking forward to. And it's good this morning to remember where the prophet started and where we are now. When we started his book, the prophet Habakkuk, probably a temple singer, was in deep distress because of all the stories of injustice he was seeing and hearing in Jerusalem. And he was crying out to God with his most burning, challenging questions about why all this was being allowed to just keep going on (Habakkuk 1:2-4). Habakkuk was in a place of real and deep pain. God gave him an answer – God told him to check out the foreign news, and see that God was raising up the Chaldeans – Nebuchadnezzar and his dad Nabopolassar – to turn Babylon into a ruthless power that would come and punish Judah for her national sins (Habakkuk 1:5-11). Habakkuk was horrified. He asked how a pure God could bring justice through an unjust tool, how God could heal his people with overkill, how God could fairly use Babylon to punish Judah when Babylon was so much worse in its cruelty and idolatry, and if Babylon's violence would continue until it destroyed the world (Habakkuk 1:12—2:1). Once again, Habakkuk is no calm prophet, chilling out in his meditative retreat. He's passionate and volatile, ready to throw down with the Almighty.

In return, God eventually gave Habakkuk a message to pass around, promising that all would become clear and that those who trust him, who give him their loyalty, were going to live – they'd have a chance to escape the destruction, and a new hope would arise (Habakkuk 2:2-4). Then God let Habakkuk eavesdrop on the future, on Babylon's victims one day rising up to taunt the empire as it dies. The Chaldean kings were plunderers of other nations, but that only made them debtors, and someday it'd be collected (Habakkuk 2:6-8). The Chaldean kings' thefts were evil profit that couldn't give Babylon security, no matter how many thick walls they built (Habakkuk 2:9-11). The Chaldean kings' forced labor to build Babylon better achieved nothing, because it'd all burn away (Habakkuk 2:12-14). The Chaldean kings' exploitation of other nations would lead to their humiliation when the cup of wrath came to Babylon at last (Habakkuk 2:15-17). All this, we've heard already.

But to drive home that last point, the fourth woe, Habakkuk adds a final remark we didn't pay much attention to last week. Habakkuk condemns Babylon and its Chaldean kings for “the violence done to Lebanon” and “the destruction of the beasts that terrified them” (Habakkuk 2:17). This, the prophet says, is just as revealing of Babylon's cruelty as “the blood of man and violence to the earth, to cities and all who dwell in them.” What he here is getting at is the way Babylon's empire was awful for the environment. Mount Lebanon was covered in thick forests of the finest trees, cypress and cedar. The Lebanon cedar is its own species of pine tree that can grow for centuries and reach as much as 130 feet tall. It was prized for anything big or long you needed to build with solid beams. The psalms tell us that these forests belonged to God as one of his prize creations: “The trees of the LORD are watered abundantly, the cedars of Lebanon that he planted. In them the birds build their nests; the stork has her home in the fir trees. The high mountains are for the wild goats; the rocks are a refuge for the rock badgers” (Psalm 104:16-18). It was from these cedars that Solomon built parts of God's holy temple in Jerusalem (1 Kings 5:8-10), so every day when Habakkuk went to work there, there was cedar under the gold.

But for the same reasons Solomon wanted cedar and cypress, so did the Babylonians. Nebuchadnezzar bragged about how he sent his armies to Lebanon all the time to do battle and keep control of the forest, how he'd personally with his own hands chopped down “excellent cedars” from “Lebanon, the mountain of cedars, the luxuriant forest of Marduk of sweet smell.”4 Nebuchadnezzar not only attributed the forest to his idol in place of God, but he industrialized its harvest: “What no former king had done, I did: I cut through the high mountains..., I opened up passes, I prepared a passage for the cedars.”5 With his armies constantly traipsing over the Lebanon and needing to be fed, it was, Habakkuk protests, causing environmental havoc. Not only were woodland creatures losing their homes, but they were being butchered en masse to feed Babylon's troops. And the ancient forest was dwindling as centuries-old trees were cut down and hauled away like simple reeds.

And that, Habakkuk says, was an act of violence for which Babylon would one day have to pay. Today, in an age of mechanized logging industries, when we've destroyed nearly a fifth of the Amazon rainforest over the past six decades, when worldwide about thirty million acres of forests are lost each year, Habakkuk might say that Babylon's violent spirit has metastasized and is at large once again. The God he's talking about is a God who genuinely cares how his earth is treated – whether the forests and animals he made are being treated with respect. It's not that he forbids modest harvesting of the forests, or useful hunting of the animals who live there. But Babylon – and perhaps we – have violently crossed that line. And Habakkuk says that's like bloodshed.

But Habakkuk isn't done. He's moving into the fifth and final woe against Babylon and her Chaldean kings, and this time, idolatry's in his sights. That, after all, is part of what Nebuchadnezzar did with all these trees he was killing. That temple where the sheshgallu ministered, that shrine where Nebuchadnezzar knelt? The king had refinished its roof with the choicest cedars from Lebanon.6 So much of this awful environmental violence was in service, not just to the king's own ego or appetites, but to his favorite idols. Some of Babylon's idols were made out of cedar or cypress wood (Isaiah 44:14-17). And as part of that yearly Akitu festival, they'd make an effigy out of cedar wood on the third day and burn it on the sixth.7 The violence was in service to the idols.

And that's Habakkuk's last and latest target: to lampoon the idiocy of idolatry, “one of the dominant aspects of Mesopotamian civilization,”8 “for it is a land of images, and they are mad over idols” (Jeremiah 50:38). But Habakkuk asks: “What profit is an idol when its maker has shaped it, a metal image, a teacher of lies? For its maker trusts in his own creation when he makes speechless idols! Woe to him who says to a wooden thing, 'Awake!'; to a silent stone, 'Arise!' Can this teach? Behold, it is overlaid with gold and silver, and there is no breath at all in it” (Habakkuk 2:18-19). Is there anything as ridiculous as carving a statue out of the same wood you'd cook with, worshipping it, asking it to teach you, and trusting it in your time of need (Isaiah 44:16-17)?

Now, to be fair to them for a moment, the Babylonians weren't simpletons. They didn't believe that's all that was happening. When they made a new idol, like the idol of Marduk before which Nebuchadnezzar had to kneel, it was a complicated process. The craftsmen believed that they were working alongside the spirits of their gods, and once they'd done their work, they had to swear an oath that they hadn't done it – that the gods had made the statue without them.9 And it took a series of magic rituals to wash and open the mouth of the idol in order for it to come alive and become identified with the god it represented. Then, and only then, did the Babylonians believe the idol could eat and drink, walk and talk.

But Habakkuk, like other prophets, is making the point that this is all bogus, bunkum, a bunch of hooey! The Babylonians can play pretend about where the statue came from all they want, but the human craftsmen are the real makers, as anybody honest watching it could plainly see. And they can wash the statue's mouth all they want and say whatever magic words they please, but Babylon's gods are frauds, so the statue remains nothing more than that. It can't eat or drink – the sheshgallu could watch that gold tray until the meat rots and the bread gets moldy, but if he leaves it in front of Marduk, the idol isn't eating anything. Nor can it walk or talk – gussy it up in gold and silver and fancy robes all you want, it isn't going anywhere, and it won't say a word without a priest piping up for it. Because Babylon's religion is false, therefore can Habakkuk mock idolatry as idiocy. Nothing more is really happening than what the eyes can see. (Nabonidus would learn that the hard way.)

That's what reveals idolatry as so silly. Spiritually, the idols are totally hollow. They can't wake up, no matter what magic words you say, “for they were no gods, but the work of men's hands, wood and stone” (Isaiah 37:19). “The craftsmen are only human” (Isaiah 44:11). The gold and silver trap the wood or stone core, but it's a caged void of human making, an emptiness deader than the grave. It can't give life. It can't teach you how to live well. It has to be carried; it can't carry you (Isaiah 46:1-2). “If one cries out to it, it does not answer or save him from his trouble” (Isaiah 46:7). “They cannot do evil; neither is it in them to do good” (Jeremiah 10:5). It's blind and deaf and dead, and “those who make them become like them, and so do all who trust in them” (Psalm 115:8; 135:18).10 “They are worthless, a work of delusion; at the time of their punishment, they shall perish” (Jeremiah 10:15). They don't breathe; they don't live. And yet their own makers served them.

How easy it is to poke fun at it, with Habakkuk. But we, too, serve things we've made. Oh, we tell ourselves that, through some magic mumbo-jumbo, we've detached ourselves from their origins. We convince ourselves that some great power has come to inhabit these made things, and can help us or teach us. But Habakkuk hits us with his taunts anyway. For instance, there's the economy. It's the work of human hands, but we treat it like a god, make sacrifices to it, revere it, and let it shape our lives. The same could be said of a nation – the work of human hands, but we imagine it transcends its making. We sacrifice for it, we revere it, we think it will eat and drink, walk and talk, and rise up and teach us how to live by its constitution. And then there are the little things: our vacation homes, our creature comforts, our entertainments and diversions. These things have been made by people like you and me. Yet, the way we live, we act as if they came down from heaven to claim our adoration.

The problem in all these things, whether a physical object or a more complex one, is the same as the problem at the Akitu festival, or any other day in Babylon, for that matter. What humans manufacture is less than human life, and since the magic doesn't really work, the work of human hands doesn't become more than that. It stays breathless and empty. Whether a vacation home or a sport, whether the economic system or a political ideology or democracy or even America itself, these are things humans made. They remain smaller than you who are in the real image of God. They're made out of the same stuff you use from day to day. They can't actually eat what you're feeding them, can't actually drink what you're pouring out to them. If you try to sit at their feet as their student, all you'll learn is lies. If you call on them for help, they'll leave you high and dry, except insofar as real people also made in God's image step in to answer on their behalf. These things are trapped on the pedestal we've put them on. And all our sacrifices to them, all our service rendered as if to a god, is actually hurling resources – or even our own invaluable lives – into the spiritual abyss that lies at the heart of each and every empty nothing.

But the LORD is in his holy temple” (Habakkuk 2:20). That's the counterpoint here. Marduk isn't in his shrine – just a lifeless, breathless, spiritless statue in an empty room, glittering but dead. But the Living God is in his holy temple in Jerusalem, which is only a lower extension of his holy temple above the heavens. And even when (as Habakkuk foresees) the Jerusalem temple that Solomon built is destroyed, even when its cedar planks and cedar carvings burn in Babylonian flames, the LORD will still be in his holy temple, his heavenly one. And he is much bigger than human life. He is the Consuming Fire, the Creator of heaven and earth, the Teacher of all truth and righteousness, and the Helper in the time of trouble. He is the fullness fuller than the idols' void is empty. He made the hands we misuse to make the idols. He planted the cedars of Lebanon, he gives growth to the world, he gives life to the dead, and he outshines pure light. To him, and him alone, belongs adoration.

This is where Habakkuk ends up, as he works his way through Babylon's woes. Babylon's bankruptcy reveals its brokenness in the idols. But, though Babylon may for now look like the top dog, even now “the LORD is in his holy temple,” waiting on his people's repentance, prepared to render his verdict and carry out his sentence.11 Habakkuk started with so many burning questions, so many barbed challenges, so many doubts and objections and teary lamentations. Now, Habakkuk's heard what lies in store for Babylon. So to Habakkuk as well as to Nebuchadnezzar, the word goes out: “The LORD is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him” (Habakkuk 2:20). Cut the Akitu; shush the sheshgallu! Silence the mumbo-jumbo, the objections, the outcries!

If I had to paraphrase the word Habakkuk uses for 'keep silence,' it'd be in three words: “Shush; sit; stay.” That is what everyone should do, what the entire world should do, in response to the LORD being in his holy temple. But it's not the end. It's a new beginning. This is an expectant silence, a silence that brings to a close all those past doubts and reservations, but which opens the doors of faith and hope and even love. It's a stillness in the presence of a Living God, a God who is vibrant and active in the way that no idol could even pretend to be. The silence is the silence when we “stand in awe of the God of Israel” (Isaiah 29:23), when we cross the threshold into a world we never knew so as to approach the Consuming Fire “with reverence and awe” (Hebrews 12:28).

This is the LORD who will achieve justice. And for that reason, we set aside our fleshly striving. We stop sacrificing to our idols and slaving for our sins. We stop our meaningless chatter. We stop our empty promises. For the LORD is holding court. The LORD has banged his gavel. The LORD has the floor, and not we ourselves. And the LORD, the Living God, bids the world approach his bench. This is what the cedars of Lebanon were for – for Solomon to build a house where that could truly, physically, bodily be done. And though that house is about to end in Habakkuk's time, the LORD is still in his heavenly temple and still commands silent awe from the earth. For this is the LORD who is about to do a new thing, a thing worthy of our contemplation.

And the Living God enthroned in heaven is also in his church, his living temple, of which we each are living stones (1 Peter 2:5), and which this house is hallowed to signify. “Behold, I am doing a new thing” (Isaiah 43:19), for “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation: the old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Corinthians 5:17). The same LORD is in his holy temple here. So then “be silent, all flesh, before the LORD (Zechariah 2:13). Let us shush ourselves, sit and stay in awe of the Living Lord, the Almighty. Quiet yourself. Render to him your attention, your adoration. Watch in humble hope and reverent contemplation, as we rest ourselves by faith in him who alone profits eternally, and not in the works of our hands. Silence before him!

1  Michael B. Dick, “The Mesopotamian Cult Statue: A Sacramental Encounter with Divinity,” in Neal H. Walls, ed., Cult Image and Divine Representation in the Ancient Near East (American Schools of Oriental Research, 2005), 50, 52.

2  This description of Day 5 of the Akitu festival is taken from Julye Bidmead, The Akitu Festival: Religious Continuity and Royal Legitimation in Mesopotamia (Gorgias Press, 2014 [2002]), 70-86; cf. Stephanie Dalley, The City of Babylon: A History, c. 2000 BC – AD 116 (Cambridge University Press, 2021), 236.

3  Chronicle of Nabonidus, year 17, in Jean-Jacques Glassner, ed., Mesopotamian Chronicles (Society of Biblical Literature, 2004), 237-239. See discussion in Paul-Alain Beaulieu, The Reign of Nabonidus, King of Babylon, 556-539 BC (Yale University Press, 1989), 222-224.

4  Nebuchadnezzar II, inscription WBC 2, ix.13-16. <>.

5  Nebuchadnezzar II, inscription WBC 2, ix.33-38. <>.

6  Nebuchadnezzar II, inscription 002, iii.18-35. <>.

7  Julye Bidmead, The Akitu Festival: Religious Continuity and Royal Legitimation in Mesopotamia (Gorgias Press, 2014 [2002]), 54-59, 86-87.

8  Paul-Alain Beaulieu, The Pantheon of Uruk During the Neo-Babylonian Period (Brill, 2003), 5: “Cult statues were indeed worshiped as if they were the animated bodies of the gods. They were fed, dressed, adorned, taken in procession to other sanctuaries, and acted as full participants in various rituals.”

9  Michael B. Dick, “Prophetic Parodies of Making the Cult Image,” in Michael B. Dick, ed., Born in Heaven, Made on Earth: The Making of the Cult Image in the Ancient Near East (Eisenbrauns, 1999), 38-40.

10  See discussion in Gregory K. Beale, We Become What We Worship: A Biblical Theology of Idolatry (IVP Academic, 2008), 70.

11  Heath A. Thomas, Habakkuk, Two Horizons Old Testament Commentary (Eerdmans, 2018), 134-135.

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