The prophet Habakkuk charged the nation of Judah, and all the earth to be silent before the LORD, resident in his holy temple (Hab 2:20). The context of Habakkuk’s message was the imminent destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonian armies of King Nebuchadnezzar. The prophet’s admonition still has currency for the people of God today, as the nations continue to rage against God and each other. As we hush before the Lord in his holy temple, we are reminded that God is indeed holy! God’s holiness exposes our smallness, inability, frailty, and mortality. Our silence before God teaches us that God is sovereign in time and this assures the Christian that God rules human history as well. In our stillness we know that the LORD Almighty is indeed God and he will be exalted among the nations (Ps 46:10).
The silence of worship is equally important, perhaps even more so, than the noise of worship. Silence takes worship out of time and frames it in God’s eternity. Silence is valuable in Christian worship because it is disturbing, arresting. It makes us feel uncomfortable, helpless, vulnerable, we are no longer in control. The silence we spend in God’s eternity brings perspective to our life in several ways. First, theologically and practically, silence heightens communication with God because it provides opportunity to hear God’s voice. Silence encourages attentive listening, clearly hearing the word of and the word from God. Job recognized that silence was a conducive context for hearing and understanding instruction and counsel (Job 6:24; 29:21).
The silence of worship can also help form us spiritually, because in silence we learn obedience to God. Like young Samuel, we too may say, “Speak LORD, for your servant is listening” (1 Sam 3:10, NIV). Sociologically and missiologically, the silence of worship teaches us compassion for others because we are no longer attempting to “devour people with our words.”¹ Learning compassion, developing true empathy for others, is the seed bed for offering the sacrifice of doing good, of loving our neighbor, as we are sent out to serve the world from our corporate worship settings (Heb. 13:15-16; cf. Jas 1:27).
Lastly, the discipline of silence also instructs the worshiper in what it means to “wait upon the LORD.” The psalmist vowed, “For God alone my soul waits in silence” ( Ps 62:1, 5, NRSV). Waiting on the LORD in silence renews the physical and spiritual strength of the faithful (Ps 27:14; Isa 40:31), fosters genuine humility, instills practical hope that sustains the righteous in the present (Pss 130:5-6; 131:1-3), reveals the will of God to those who are patient (Pss 25:4-5; 37:7), and perhaps most important, silence reminds us that our times are in God’s hands—not our own (Ps 31:15).
¹ See Richard Foster, Freedom of Simplicity (New York: Harper & Row, 1981), p. 57 on renouncing speech to learn compassion.