By Sigrid Fowler
All writers in Op Ed are here to inform and acknowledge issues of importance to our communities, however these writings represent the views and opinions of the authors and not necessarily of The Advertiser.
Were you once told, “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all” or counseled, “Silence means consent”? Both sayings have been weakened by overuse, but most will agree, I think, that silence can be potent. Saying nothing or writing nothing can be as powerful as the most carefully-chosen words. Silence communicates, and the Bible has quite a bit to say about it. In a time when the order of the day seems to be clamoring crowds, cries of pain and grief, angry confrontations, the overuse, abuse, and misuse of words, the topic rather stands out among other biblical subjects for its cogency in the face of current ills.
Silence in the Bible can be both positive and negative. Jeremiah speaking for God describes silence as evidence of divine judgment: “I will cause to cease from the cities of Judah and from the streets of Jerusalem the voice of joy and the voice of gladness, the voice of the bridegroom and the voice of the bride for the land will become a ruin” (Jer 7: 34). Isaiah 24: 1-13 also describes the silencing of joyful voices in a time of judgment. But an enemy can also be judged. Now, the silence of God’s people is both faith and obedience. Moses calms the Israelites, who are cut off from all escape—the Red Sea in front of them and Pharaoh’s army coming up from behind: “The Egyptians, whom you have seen today, you will never see again, ever. The LORD will fight for you while you keep silent” (Ex 14:14).
Sabbath, from a Hebrew word, “cessation,” reflects the blessings of quietness, peace, the absence of trouble, danger, alarm. The name Noah means “rest,” and offers a commentary on the life of a man rocked in a boat riding out a global flood that lasted a year. In fact, the stilling of stormy waters is another biblical theme—e.g., “He quieted the sea with his power” (Job 26: 12a). This is the language gospel writers use to describe how Jesus dealt with a storm. According to Mark, Jesus “rebuked the wind and said to the sea, ‘Be still,’ and the wind died down and it became perfectly calm” (Mark 4: 35-39). Luke writes, “He got up and rebuked the wind and the surging waves, and they stopped, and it became calm” (Luke 8: 24b). The disciples are astonished: “Who then is this, that he commands even the winds and the water and they obey him?” (Luke 8: 25). Matthew speaks of “a great calm” (Matt 8: 26b).
A lack of silence can reflect a lack of reverence, respect, or awe. Goaded by talkers, Job recalls the respect he once had: “To me they listened and waited, / And kept silent for my counsel. / After my words they did not speak again, / And my speech dropped on them. / They waited for me as for the rain” (Job 29: 22-23a). Jesus is transfigured on a mountain, three disciples with him. Peter speaks out of turn in overreaching foolishness, and he is silenced by the Father’s voice: “This is my beloved Son. Listen to him” (Mark 9: 7). Peter apparently learned his lesson. In his first letter, he speaks of “a gentle and quiet spirit” and says it is “precious in the sight of God” (I Pet 3: 4b). Habakkuk, a contemporary of Jeremiah, writes: “The LORD is in his holy temple. Let all the earth be silent before him” (Hab 2: 20).
But what about times when God seems to be silent? Job says, “When he keeps quiet, who then can condemn? / And when he hides his face, who then can behold him” (Job 34: 29a). In the boyhood of Samuel, the great judge and prophet who anointed the first kings of Israel, “word from the LORD was rare . . . visions were infrequent” (I Sam 3: 1b), yet God was clearly present, as Samuel’s story reveals. Elijah, after defeating the prophets of Baal, prays to end the three-year drought. Seven times he sends a servant to look out to sea for signs of rain. When a cloud “small as a man’s hand” at last appears, the prophet knows his prayer has been heard (I Kings 18: 42b-45). The silence of Jesus at the judgment seat of Herod Antipas astounds the Tetrarch (Luke 23: 9), but Jesus will break that silence—forever.
Silence? What now? The Almighty gives the psalmist a word for such times: “Be still and know that I am God; / I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth” (Ps 46: 10). To quietly, silently wait in God’s presence is an act of faith. Isaiah declares, “Those who wait for the LORD will renew their strength; / They will mount up with wings like eagles. / They will run and not be weary, / They will walk and not be faint” (Isa 40:31).