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The Sounds of Silence

In this information-overloaded world, with so many things demanding our time and attention, silence is often where the voice of God can be heard.
Silence, as a language of its own cannot be fully grasped, yet it is in silence one's ears are in tune to listen to the Spirit of the Holy One. There are many aspects to silence in the Bible. In some instances silence is representative as God’s voice and presence — interpreting silence as a sound or a thin whisper; other instances are intent on devotion and wisdom, and yet other reference silence as a sign of reverential respect (Habakkuk 2:20).

From a biblical and devotional perspective, it is often in silence when the believer's soul is shepherded. It is a time when the Holy Spirit communes in relationship with the believer, whether it be for correction (Proverbs 3:11-12; Hebrews 12:5-6), or direction, a word of peace or movement toward action.

For example, in the Bible, the desert encapsulates silence. God met and tested Moses, Abraham, David, and other leaders in the desert — a quiet place where one must depend on God for survival. In the silence of the desert experience, these soon-to-be leaders learned to hear from God, learned to lead, and learned and proclaimed trust. In silence, they learned obedience.

Silence is also noted in the Bible as a time when God speaks or fights on behalf of His people. Exodus 14:14 reads, "I will fight for you; you be still (or silent)." In essence, “I have this, sit down, watch, and be quiet!” There are times when God is the only one who can fight battles. In fact, at times, when the individual(s) becomes involved in what should have been God’s battle to navigate, skews into unfortunate and devastating results.

In 1 Kings, silence is not initially present in the experience of Elijah on Mount Carmel but comes later in the story. After the prophets of Baal wailed and pled all day with their god, God, in one fell swoop, destroyed the altar with a fire. The power and noise in this must have been overwhelming. After the show of force in this event, Elijah ran, fearing for his life. He ran all the ways south to Mt. Horeb. It was there that God appeared to Elijah. God did not appear in an explosion of fire as he consumed the altar on Mt. Carmel. God did not appear in a strong and mighty wind. He appeared in the sound of silence.

And he said, "Go out and stand on the mount before the Lord." And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind tore the mountains and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. And after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire the sound of a low whisper (a thin silence, 1 Kings 19:11,12).

The phrase in this particular text, 1 Kings 19:12, "קוֹל דְּמָמָה דַקָּה" (qol demamah raqqah) can be translated as a thin silence, a soft breath, or a gentle blowing. For this verse, silence is central. It is at the point of hearing the "thin silence" Elijah exited the cave, "13 And when Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his cloak and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave." In the silence, the passing of God, the quietness of the whisper, allowed Elijah to recognize God's voice and Elijah's ability to gain instruction. In this instance, the silence was necessary.

There is an old adage that refers to silence; “the still waters run deep." The headwaters of the Jordan River in Israel are noisy as they flow out of springs, down hills, and over rocks and boulders, but later, as they head into the Sea of Galilee and into the Dead Sea, they move calmly, peacefully. The depth of the Jordan's water exudes a particular type of gentle blowing or silence where one can contemplate and have "ears to hear." I can imagine Jesus walking the shore of the Jordan River when seeking wilderness moments to commune with God. Jesus craved the silence of the wilderness, for in this, He found rest, strength, wisdom, and encouragement, as storms would certainly come (Luke 5:16).

It is often after a storm, after the strong winds, after the quaking earth, and after the thundering noise, there is calm. After the death of Jesus, silent Saturday came. That day was Shabbat. In the first century, like today, Shabbat was a day away from the business of life, a time of rest and worship. It was and is a day set aside to commune with God. For the women at the tomb on that Sunday morning after the Crucifixion, after the day of seeming silence, they saw the result of the Friday storm. They saw Jesus’ resurrected body. It is from that point they determined the path they would take. What grew out of the silence of Saturday came plans for the recovery and expansion of the Church.

In silence one can “clean up” and reclaim that which has been ruined and seek direction for what needs to be. In the silence, one can hear.

Come and see the works of the Lord, the desolations he has brought on the earth. He makes wars cease to the ends of the earth; he breaks the bow and shatters the spear, he burns the shields with fire. Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth. The Lord almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress (Psalm 46:8-11, boldface added).

Take time to meet with God in the "thin silence." Take time to "be," to "be still," to "be still and know," and to "be still and know that He is God" (Psalm 46:10). It is likely that personal communion with God is expressed more often in quiet communication rather than a great show of noisy power, such as a strong wind, an earthquake, or in a fire.

God's voice is not always silent, for at times it "booms like the sound of many waters (Ezekiel 43:2; Revelation 1:15; 14:2, 19:6), or thunder as it does in John 12 and Revelation 14, and trumpets in Hebrews 12. God's voice is not always gentle, as it can bring a strong rebuke, as stated in Acts 26. One can be intimidated by God's great power, but He often seeks to engage the individual with His Spirit in peaceful silence, where one can "hear."

"For God alone, O my soul, wait in silence, for my hope is from him" (Psalm 62:5, ESV). "In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength" (Isaiah 30:15).

Amy Flattery

Amy Flattery is the director of the Center for Holy Lands Studies.