Silence, Suffering, and Worship Coram Deo with Reference to Sonderegger

We ought to be silent before the LORD God! I have once again come to the so called ‘Minor Prophets’ or more Tanakhnic the ‘Book of the Twelve’ and have been reminded of a verse or two that simply has never left me from the time that I first read through these sections of Holy slaughteredlambWrit with attention over twenty years ago now (and continuously since then). The theme is silence before God, simply because he is God and alone inhabits his holy temple; the whole earth ought to be silent before him!

“But the Lord is in His holy temple. Let all the earth keep silence before Him.” Habakkuk 2.20

“Be silent in the presence of the Lord God; For the day of the Lord is at hand, For the Lord has prepared a sacrifice; He has invited His guests.” Zephaniah 1.7

I love this concept, and mandate! It conjures for me this idea that God is truly omnipotent (to use that ancient language), and that he is the One in control; not me, not my problems, and definitely not this earth or world system that ‘appears’ to structure it. God is God, and for that reason alone we ought to sit with our hand over our mouth in prone prostration (if not physically all the time, at least attitudinally). This idea of God’s immensity, to the point that I am left speechless, brings health to my broken and aching bones; it lets me know that I am not reliant on politicians, teachers, doctors (of any kind), et al. to order my life aright. I am contingent and fully dependent upon the One who outsources any resource I might conceive of on my own, and this is universally true not just for me but for the theater of God’s total creation (whether that creation recognizes it or not – so there is an objective mind independent of God’s reality that He is whether we recognize it or not … and in this I find total peace and comfort).

To help me brighten this theme up even more let me appeal to my new favorite theologian, Katherine Sonderegger. She “coincidentally” just happens to be writing on this same theme as I am currently reading through her new Systematic Theology, Vol. 1. I am going to quote her at serious length (just know I am doing this for you reader, you need to read what she has to say on this at length and let it penetrate the depth of your soul; you need to hear this as much as I do, we all need it!)

… It is the searing, personal encounter with the Living I, the God who is. Before the free Holiness of this God, His sovereign, personal Power, we fall silent. “I have heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes,” Job says as he too finally falls silent before the Lord (Job 42:5-6). Our silence is the terrible correspondence, in human scale, to the personal Freedom of God. In its own frightening incompatibility, this is faith’s compatibilism: that in our anguished silence, the Aseity of God, His very own Mystery as infinite I, is signaled and buried deep.

Thou hast given us up to be butchered like sheep and hast scattered us among the nations. Thou hast sold thy people for next to nothing and had no profit from the sale. All this has befallen us, but we do not forget thee and have not betrayed thy covenant; we have not gone back on our purpose, nor have our feet strayed from thy path. Because of thee we are done to death all day long, and are treated as sheep for the slaughter.

So Abraham Herschel begins his remarkable book, The Prophets, with this searing citation from Psalm 44, dedicated to the Jews who were murdered in Shoah. Just this psalm erupts in the middle of the apostle Paul’s hymn to divine consolation in Romans 8, a lament in the very heart of the highest confirmation of the Lord’s Presence and benevolent Power. Just so may we dare to imagine our Lord Jesus Christ when He falls to the ground with great terror and shuddering lament in the night of His arrest. He carried a psalm on His lips as He leaves the supper, St. John tells us, preparing to encounter in prayer the Lord who will expose Him to the taunts of neighbors, to the mockery and contempt of all around, and make Him a byword among the nations, and the peoples shake their heads at Him (cf. Ps. 44:13-14). It has been a commonplace of patristic and medieval exegetes to explain our Lord’s grave terror in Gethsemane as an expression, natural to the flesh, of flight before certain cruelty and death. And so indeed it is! But something more terrible is here. As the people Israel remained faithful to the covenant and its Lord, so Jesus Christ Himself Israel and an Israelite, remains faithful, the faithful Witness, even as the torrent of God breaks over Him, sending Him down, broken and stretched out upon the earth. There are, to be sure, many elements at work in the problem of suffering; but this is the brutal core. To trust God, to believe and rest in His Promise, to rely and call upon His Goodness and to be broken on God: that is the serious heart of this problem that makes all else stand in the shade. The element of sacrifice, so closely intertwined with atonement and with sacrament, takes its point of departure from this terrible and holy self-giving of Christ on the cross. “The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise,” (Ps. 51:17). And in all this suffering, the very Word of God is mute, and opens not His mouth, like a lamb led to the slaughter.[1]

In a world full of its own self-generated noise and clamor this is not the score being heard in the heavenly repose of God’s own triune life. There is a silence in His life, a silence that characterizes the Son’s relationship to the Father, a silence that speaks of God’s own character; and we would do well to participate in Him through Christ in that way. We would do well to understand that we are constantly being given over to death for His sake that we might also experience the life that He has always and eternally shared among Himself (Godself). At some point the gift of gab just isn’t a gift (at least not in the Kingdom of the Son); at some point being silent is all that is left to do before a Holy God. Jesus demonstrates this for us in His vicarious humanity (true humanity) at the cross; He commits Himself into the Father’s hands and is quiet, we ought to as well.

[1] Katherine Sonderegger, Systematic Theology: Volume 1, The Doctrine of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015), Loc. 3568, 3575, 3582, 359 Kindle Edition.

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2 comments

  1. Silence has been a topic that I’ve received from multiple sources recently and your blog only confirms the depth of wisdom in it. Silence before God is healing and a deep therapy. Thanks for sharing

    cal

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  2. Good, Cal! Me too! It has been a theme in multiple areas of my reading lately.

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