This article originally posted on May 14, 2015 at thegospelcoalition.org
Silence is not highly valued in modern culture. When it comes to communication, it seems that we value quantity above all. And in our digital world it only gets easier to add your own voice to the cacophony. I recently read about a new book that suggests the act of writing is outstripping the act of reading in the digital age.
Whether e-mailing or snapchatting or podcasting or hash-tagging, we live in an age distinguished by noise. Not silence.
Church as Faithful Proclaimer
Of course, speaking is at the center of the Christian vocation as well. There is a range of biblical reasons to speak instead of being silent (e.g. Ps. 32:3; 35:22; 39:2; Jer. 4:19; Mt. 20:31; Lk. 19:40; Acts 18:9). Most importantly, we proclaim the gospel to the ends of the earth (Mt. 28:19-20). Paul asks, “How are they to hear without someone preaching?” (Rom. 10:14c).
Yet I want to dwell here on the ways that Scripture counsels God’s people to be silent, and the blessings that come with it.
Five Biblical Reasons to be Silent
Simply put, you can’t obey if you are not silent to listen. This is true on a physical level, but also a spiritual one. Scripture symbolically links our hearts with what comes out of our mouths (Mt. 12:34; Lk. 6:45). To extend the metaphor, only when we silence our heart are we in a place to hear—to receive God’s instruction—and obey.
Moses highlights this idea in one of his final speeches as he underscores Israel’s call to obey all of the Lord’s commandments (Deut. 27:1-10). That requirement is rooted in their identity as God’s people: no longer slaves, but God’s own inheritance (32:9). Moses puts an exclamation point on his speech with the sharp exhortation: “Be silent and hear, O Israel!” (27:9).
So God’s commandments and our obedience are hinged together by spiritual silence before the King. Conversely, disobedience is the uproar of indwelling sin as our heart denies who we are in Christ. This principle holds in a general way not just for God’s people, but all of his creation, including demons (Mk. 1:25//Lk. 4:35).
The silence linked with obedience also manifests self-control, a fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23). Obedience and self-control are inseparable, but distinct. On the one hand, lack of silence betrays a lack of self-control that otherwise governs faithfulness (Eccl. 5:2-3). Scripture warns that the wordy fool only gets into trouble and displays his or her ignorance (Eccl. 10:12-14; Prov. 12:23). The pragmatic but biblical solution for someone acting like a fool is self-inflicted silence: “Put your hand on your mouth” (Prov. 30:32).
On the other hand, being silent demonstrates our willingness to wait upon and serve others in love (Gen. 24:21; Job 29:21; Eph. 4:29). Silence is also the catalyst for godly self-reflection amid anger (Ps. 4:4). It attests to our resolve to endure difficulties with hope fixed firmly in the Lord (Lam 3:26-29). Silence also governs our ability to evaluate spiritual instruction carefully (1 Cor. 14:29-30), and interact shrewdly with the world without succumbing to its temptations (Ps. 39:1; Prov. 21:23).
It is possible to worship God in complete silence. One of Scripture’s most beautiful paradoxes is that wordlessness can speak clearly about God’s glory. We honor God when were are in awe of him. We are made in his image and therefore bring him glory in our humble silence, while every other creature is simply mute. Scripture is full of instances of silent awe prompted by wonder before God.
This kind of silence works two ways, both of which can bless God’s people. On the one hand, when Christians come to terms with the depth of sinful grievances committed against a holy God, Paul says that their mouths should rightly “be stopped” (Rom. 3:19). Silence is the only possible response in the face of God’s holiness and the coming judgment (Zeph. 1:7; Zech. 2:12; Mic. 7:16). On the other hand, we ought to be struck silent in light of God’s incredible redemption, worked out in his promised deliverance for his people (Isa. 41:1; cf. Lk. 1:20) and the reconciling work of Jesus Christ (Acts 11:18; 15:12). Silence even in corporate worship, where the church gathers to meet with God, facilitates the reverence that he is rightly due (Hab. 2:20).
As a parallel to wonder in light of God’s salvation, silence is a blessed product of the rest that we have in him. Knowing that God is our God prompts us to “be still” (Ps. 46:10). Even in the face of uncertainty and suffering, the psalmist can say, “For God alone my soul waits in silence; from him comes my salvation . . . for my hope is from him” (Ps. 62:1, 5). Even creation knows its Maker and comes to rest at his command, as when Jesus silences the storm (Mk. 4:39). When Israel faced the Red Sea on one side and Egypt’s army on the other, Moses inconceivably commands Israel to be silent. “The LORD will fight for you, and you have only to be silent!” (Ex. 14:13-14). So firm is our hope in God and his salvation that fear may be laid aside, and our silence can demonstrate and encourage rest in him.
Often when we think of wisdom we think of speaking, usually to give counsel. But many times wisdom should prompt just the opposite. Especially in the book of Job, we see the tension between the desire to give counsel and the need to be silent. The multiplication of words by Job’s friends does little to help (6:24; 13:13, 19; 33:31, 33). The high point of wisdom in their counsel comes in 2:13: “And they sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great” (cf. 13:5).
Silence as a form of wisdom is frequently encouraged in Proverbs too. It can help wisely avoid transgression (10:19) and manifest respect and understanding (11:12; 17:27). It is part of wise and even-handed interactions (29:11; cf. Amos 5:13). Silence is so powerful that it can even make the fool at least appear wise and intelligent (17:28).
Church as Silent Witness
Being silent is not only part of how we obey and glorify the King (Job 36:10-12). It is also how we bless others as we are lovingly quick to listen and slow to speak (Jam. 1:19). Silence is thus an unspoken virtue: part of the church’s vocation and the Christian’s delight.
Much more could be said on the topic. But now it’s time for practical application.
William Ross is a doctoral candidate in Old Testament at the University of Cambridge, where his research focuses on the book of Judges. He recently co-authored the Interpretive Lexicon of New Testament Greek (Zondervan, 2014), and blogs regularly at williamaross.wordpress.com. You can follow him on @WilliamARoss27