But the Lord is in his holy temple: let all the earth keep silence before him” (Habakkuk 2:20). How often have we heard these words read or sung at the beginning of a service? The silence enjoined by Habakkuk is not a literal silence but the silence of submission and acceptance which would not dare to voice any question or complaint against God.
There is, however, great value in literal silence—a value our generation may well have forgotten. In these days of roaring traffic, noisy factories, humming household appliances and megawatt stereos, an unexpected moment of silence can be almost frightening. The first option we demand for our automobiles is a radio/cassette player; and people going to the mountains or the seashore for a picnic seem more concerned about getting their ghetto blasters or portable TVs than they are about the sandwiches. One thing to be said for many of these people is that they are generous enough to share their sound with everyone within a mile’s radius. With all due respect, however, I think I prefer the selfish kind who, while walking, running or cycling, get their necessary sound from those little earphones that allow the rest of us to make our own selfish choices of what we want to hear—or not hear.
All of this lust for sound has even carried over into worship: we want sermons delivered with machine-gun rapidity and prayers prayed without a moment’s pause for thought. The silence during the Lord’s Supper has become so unbearable to some that they have eliminated it with live or recorded singing. Our generation would have been miserable in heaven when there was silence “for about half an hour” (Revelation 8:1).
Silence is the natural effect of many commendable emotions: awe, humility, controlled anger, sympathy, a stricken conscience, and reverence, as well as the submission and acceptance of superior wisdom advised in Habakkuk 2:20. Even love may be expressed by silence. Someone has said that the depth of a friendship may be measured by the time two individuals can be comfortable with no word exchanged. Our aversion to silence may reveal the scarcity of some of these qualities.
Silence increases objectivity as we escape the clamor of emotional appeals and subjective arguments and evaluate the real substance of things we have heard. Crooked salesmen do not like silence.
In a special way, silence seems to remind us of the presence of God. It is not in the city that Christians most often remark on the certainty of a creator; rather it is on a mountain peak, far above the noise below, where the stillness is broken only by sounds of God’s creation. Silence allows us to hear the voice of the Spirit—not in some miraculous way, but through reflection upon the law of God which we have laid up in our hearts (Psalms 119:11) and upon which we “meditate day and night” (Psalms 1:2). Meditation is best without distracting noise. Because of these qualities, silence may often be used effectively to calm bitterness and to avoid polarization of individuals in disagreement. The Quakers have become known as peerless mediators in numerous types of conflict; and periods of silence are among their favorite devices. Most of us talk too much and are too rushed to be successful as peacemakers.
Silence is an excellent tool in personal evangelism. A period of quiet reflection after the reading of a scripture gives the student time to reach his own conclusions about its message. It is amazing how effective the Holy Spirit can be in revealing truth to one whose mind is uncluttered by the explanations of “teachers.”
Silence can encourage decisions. Once, talking to a couple who had been attending services for many years, I was urging their obedience. As usual, they said they needed a little more time. “How much time do you need?” I asked. “You have had 20 years.” Silence followed. They said nothing. I said nothing. I determined that I would not speak until they did. The silence lengthened. It became almost embarrassing—it seemed so long. But it was finally broken when he said, “I’m ready; let’s go.” They died not long after that—saved by a decision which was spurred, not by what was said but by what was not said. I learned that there is, indeed, “a time to keep silence” (Ecclesiastes 3:7).
Silence facilitates private prayer. Perhaps it was a quest for such silence which led Jesus, rather often, to rise a long while before day to go out into a solitary place to pray. If He sought it, so should we.
— By Sewell Hall —
O Sabbath rest by Galilee!
O calm of hills above,
Where Jesus knelt to share with Thee
The silence of eternity,
Interpreted by love!
Drop Thy still dews of quietness
Till all our strivings cease;
Take from our souls the strain and stress,
And let our ordered lives confess,
The beauty of Thy peace.
—John G. Whittier