To Speak or Not to Speak?

By Sigrid Fowler

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Speech—censored, uncensored? Today’s nexus of hot topicsTo speak or not to speak is the question. Speech is a weighty biblical matter. Solomon, the wisest person ever to live, said this about speech: “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver” (Prov 25: 11). Choose words carefully, as carefully as if weighing out gold nuggets! But what about censorship? Do we allow all words or reject some, like gems with flaws? We find this: “‘It shall be in that day,’ says the Lord of hosts, ‘that I will cut off the names of the idols from the land, and they shall no longer be remembered” (Zech 13: 2a). Hundreds of years earlier, King David had already received the message God gave Zechariah. David says: “Their sorrows shall be multiplied, those who hasten after another [god]. / Their libations of blood I will not offer, / Nor take up their names on my lips (Ps 16: 4). In addition, no one uttered the holy name of God. These examples show restricted speech. It’s censorship, plain and simple. 

But one or two points depart from the givens of current debate. First, we find no sense of institutional or customary speech restrictions. Israel knows no politically incorrect speech. Speech is valued like gold; God’s name is revered, idols’ expunged. Then, in one case above, God is the censor, in the other, the king. A king? We’re citizens, Americans! True, but notice that this king, the inimitable David, is only censoring himself. He’s laying down no decree, no law with dire consequences if broken. He’s just stating his intentionThis too: David is more than Israel’s splendid king, the “man after God’s own heart,” “the sweet singer of Israel,” as the Bible has it. According to Dr. Luke, David is also a prophet: “Therefore, being a prophet and knowing that God had sworn to him with an oath to seat one of his descendants on his throne . . .,” says Acts 2: 30a. So David has this other credential, prophet. He spoke for God, his words fit with divine communications. Now, as to free speech v. censorship, where should people who trust the Bible come down? Yes, speech can be censored, but who is qualified to do that? In one text above, God is the censor. The human speaker also censors, but if he’s a prophet, God is still in the picture. Notice too that David is only self-censoring.     

Is this all the Bible teaches? I can’t say I know the full answer to that question. For now, I’ll just return to the passage from Zechariah to see the rest of what he said, speaking God’s words: ” ‘It shall be in that day,’ says the Lord of hosts, ‘that I will cut off the names of the idols from the land, and they shall no longer be remembered. I will also cause the prophets and the unclean spirit to depart from the land. It shall come to pass that if anyone still prophesies, then his father and mother who begot him will say to him, “You shall not live because you have prophesied lies in the name of the Lord.” And his father and mother who begot him shall thrust him through when he prophesies’ ” (Zech13: 2-3).  

Though these parents seem well-motivated, I’m not sure God thinks they’re right to level that death threat. Seems a little excessive. No, it’s more than a little excessive because they follow through! When these parents condemn him as a false prophet, they’re arrogating to themselves the very authority they’re censoring in their son. In their certainty, they assume a prophetic prerogativeThey’re dead set certain their son is no prophet and speaks fake prophesy. They’re so certain they’re ready to kill him! How do they know? Has God made them trumpets of the truth? Their confident tone suggests it’s exactly what they think. Who is right? Are fear, social pressure, the dictates of current human wisdom also at play?       

In Zechariah’s prophecy, things don’t work out so well for the prophets: “And it shall be in that day that every prophet will be ashamed of his vision when he prophesies: they will not wear a robe of coarse hair to deceive. But he will say, ‘I am no prophet. I’m a worker of the land, red with dirt from my youth’ ” (Zech 13: 4-5). All prophets are quashed, the true and the fake—shut down and silenced. What do these things add to the current debate? First, censorship is biblically affirmed—if you’re God, or at least a prophet who speaks for God when you take up that Censor mantle and the claim to absolute authority. This too: If all prophets are silenced, with no discernment as to true or fake, important things go unsaid., January 14, 2021.