“My tongue clings to my jaws”

The fasting of the mouth—at times it is even possible to encounter God in silence. What does the Old Testament say about keeping silence? Some food for thought over the Passion season that has just begun.

The meaning of silence is not always clear. What it means to express can often be learned from its context, however. In the Old Testament, silence can signify helplessness (Psalm 94: 17) or passive waiting (1 Kings 22: 3). Sometimes human beings are called upon to be silent in order to calm them down (Numbers 13: 30). Those who keep silence are meek (Psalm 35: 20). Silence may also simply indicate unresponsiveness or a refusal to communicate (Psalm 58: 5; Proverbs 17: 28).

Becoming wise

Communication incorporates both speaking and hearing. And hearing, in turn, only works well when one is silent. Only when both elements are present in the right measure can information be successfully imparted—without silence there is no understanding (Ecclesiasticus 6: 33-35). By keeping silent, the listener shows attention, respect, and the willingness to absorb and reflect upon the knowledge that is offered. Silence is a prerequisite for developing composure and prudence, and for becoming wise. Like speaking, such silence is an active position. The Old Testament often prefers silence to speaking (Proverbs 10: 19), and if someone does have to speak, the discourse should be brief—just like those who are capable of keeping silent even though they may know something others do not (Ecclesiasticus 32: 8). The wise prefer to keep silent rather than insult or disparage others (Proverbs 11: 12). They know when criticism is appropriate and when it is better to say nothing at all (Ecclesiasticus 20: 1). It is also wise to keep secrets and refrain from giving false comfort (Judges 3: 19; Tobit 10: 6).

Being patient and keeping quiet

If one has nothing to counter the argument of another, it is best to keep silent, just as Aaron did when Moses explained to him why God had allowed his sons to die (Leviticus 10: 3). Those who feel guilty often keep silence because they are ashamed (Psalm 32: 3)—they feel that this is not the time to speak (Ecclesiastes 3: 7). Those who manage to keep silent will not run the risk of reacting prematurely, but can instead wait for an opportune moment to express their thoughts, just like Abraham’s servant, who observed Rebekah at the well (Genesis 24: 21). At the beginning of his rule, even Saul remained level-headed and kept silent when confronted with slander (1 Samuel 10: 27). Often, human beings are incapable of managing this on their own, and need the encouragement and reassurance of others in order to maintain their silence—like the people of Israel, who needed to be admonished by their leaders again and again that they were not to grumble, but rather continue to trust in God (Numbers 13: 30). This is absolutely necessary because it is precisely in the midst of silence that the word of God can develop to its full effect and bring salvation for His people (Wisdom of Solomon 18: 14–15). This is something that was also familiar to the author of the Psalms, who kept reminding himself to rest in the Lord and trust that God would help him (Psalm 37: 7).

The wrong kind of silence

There is a time and place for everything, as much for silence as for speaking, as Solomon relates (Ecclesiastes 3: 1–11). Silence and keeping still is not always the appropriate reaction. In times of danger it can be important to pray—and even cry out—to God (1 Samuel 7: 8). And opponents in war may misinterpret keeping still as capitulation (1 Kings 22: 3). Beyond that, those who have good news to share are not to keep silent (2 Kings 7: 9).

Speechlessness and death

Those who are incapable of speech are condemned to silence (Wisdom of Solomon 10: 21). In this case there is nothing positive whatsoever about keeping silence. That is also how Psalm 22: 14 describes the situation. Here the author expresses his absolute despair: “I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint; my heart is like wax; it has melted within me. My strength is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue clings to my jaws. You have brought me to the dust of death (Psalm 22: 15–16). At the end of life, all expressions of life fall silent (Judges 19: 28)—here we see silence as a herald of death. Silence is an expression of horror when war destroys all life in a particular place and only silence prevails there (Amos 8: 3). Life-threatening situations cause paralysis (Exodus 15: 16), and grief can be expressed not only in loud lamentation, but also in silence, as Job and his friends experience (Job 2: 13). It is in the same way that Jacob remains silent when he learns that his daughter Dinah was raped (Genesis 34: 5). In the Old Testament, the underworld is understandably portrayed as a place of perfect silence in which no further communication with God is possible: “The dead do not praise the Lord, nor any who go down into silence” (Psalm 115: 17).

When God keeps silent

Human beings can encounter God in one of two ways: either with praise, thanksgiving, and worship or in reverent silence (Psalm 65: 2). The God of Israel distinguishes Himself from the mute idols of other nations by communicating with His people through the prophets. He is not a God who keeps silent. However, when a human being temporarily has the impression that God is silent towards him, this leads to fear and despair (1 Samuel 8: 18). God punishes false prophets with His silence and thereby drives them to ruin (Micah 3: 7).

The believer who prays to God and receives no answer mournfully begs him not to be silent or distant from him in the face of lurking dangers (Psalm 35: 22). Here silence is not simply perceived as a matter of omission, but as a conscious act of God whereby He distances himself from the supplicant. Why does God remain silent when unbelievers threaten and torment the righteous (Isaiah 64: 11)? Such doubts are rebuked by the Almighty: “But to the wicked God says: ‘What right have you to declare My statutes, or take My covenant in your mouth? […] You sit and speak against your brother; you slander your own mother’s son. These things you have done, and I kept silent; you thought I was altogether like you” (from Psalm 50: 16, 20–21). After all, God does not remain silent forever, but ultimately shines forth in glory, and judges the enemy of His people (Psalm 50: 2–4). For Israel’s sake He will not remain silent, but will avenge evil deeds. It is in this knowledge that the believer can be calm and quieted in the security of God’s hand (Psalm 131: 2): even if God does not always answer, He will never cease to listen to His own and be there for them.

A longer version of this article originally appeared in issue 05/2019 of the New Apostolic Church’s spirit magazine.

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