His Holy Temple

Every Sunday morning of my youth, the words fell from the pulpit like the solemn tolling of a bell: “The Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him.” They set the tone for the morning’s worship, an orderly, serious activity. After all, the Creator God was here, here in this narrow, red brick, white-steepled building we called Bethel Christian Reformed Church.

For the fourteen years that I attended Bethel, the morning service began with this somber call to worship, and though I am not sure what the intent of the consistory was in choosing these opening words, to me they always meant the same thing: “God is here in this building.” It is not a bad thing, is it, for a boy to grow up with a sense of the presence of God as close as the light fixtures of the church sanctuary?

When the Lord says these words to Habakkuk, however, he is not talking about a building. Habakkuk has complained to God that evil flourishes in the world, that God uses the wicked Babylonians “to swallow up those more righteous than they.” God replies with five oracles of woes that will befall the Babylonians. But halfway through this litany of woes, he pauses to say that “the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord,” and then at the conclusion of this series of woes, God says, “The Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him.” Clearly, the holy temple of this text is the whole grand amphitheater of creation.

Somewhere along the road to adulthood I came to understand that all of creation was the Lord’s temple, and with each year that I live, the realization becomes more meaningful to me. I thought of it again on a recent fall day as I was driving through the rolling Iowa countryside. Green alfalfa fields, tawny cornfields, and bean fields in seven different shades of gold, all were aglow in the low-angled, early morning sunlight. And over everything hung autumn’s deep blue scrim of sky. I thought of pulling over, falling to my knees in the ditch and shouting, “Holy.” Instead–there was that class to teach back at the college–I recited, “The Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him” and turned off the radio.

But as I drove on, I had a second thought. I remembered that this green and golden agricultural landscape came with a cost. I remembered the words of a graduate of my college now working for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources: The (mostly) Calvinist farmers of Sioux County rank first in the state of Iowa in the production of feeder cattle, hogs, and sheep, second in milk cows and corn, third in soybeans; they also rank first in environmental violations and second in fish kills. Some of the waterways cannot regularly sustain aquatic life.

Among the evil deeds described in Habakkuk 2 is “the violence done to Lebanon” and “the destruction of animals.” This violence against Lebanon included the destruction of its vegetation, especially its splendid forests. “Habakkuk,” the Lord seems to say, “I am deeply offended at the abuse of my temple.”

Everywhere the creation is degraded. Here in Iowa, we have polluted the temple in our zeal for more bushels of grain per acre, more wealth, and cheaper groceries. I wonder sometimes whether generations of farmers who may have seen the temple of God as a building in which they worshiped on Sunday failed to see the land they worked the other six days as the temple of the Lord. Perhaps all of us should bow our heads in silent penitence as we consider how we have polluted the holy temple of our Lord. But by God’s grace, that silence may become the silence of wonder and praise as we lift our heads to taste and see and hear and smell the handiwork of our Creator God.

David Schelhaas is professor of English at Dordt College in Sioux Center, Iowa, and a member of the editorial board of Perspectives.