prophets yell because
their hearts are on fire.
they scream at the world
trying to wake us up.
they can’t help it.
God is in their throats.
O God, don’t sit idly by,
silent and inactive!
Don’t you hear the tumult of your enemies?
Don’t you see what your arrogant enemies are doing?
—the opening lines of a wartime prayer by Asaph
The Savior didn’t come.
The years passed, the echo of the promises faded away, and the longings remained. Israel’s perennial enemies thrived, and the Savior didn’t come. God’s people watched for him. They waited for him. They prayed and sacrificed and worshiped and dutifully flipped their calendars. And God answered all their longings with silence.
For many of them, the dream of harmony became harder and harder to hear beneath the noise of the years and the cries of their nagging doubts. Some stopped listening altogether. And with each passing year, more of God’s children gave up believing. The dream lost its footing in their souls, and the echo of God’s promise became thinner and fainter in their lives.
It seemed so much safer and saner to stay there on the seashore of reason than to chance the waves and enter the sea of faith. So God’s children became rational, realistic, reasonable, practical, pragmatic people who abandoned faith for sight and traded worship for religion. Over and over again they chose the knowledge of evil and the juicy fruit of the forbidden until hope itself began to fade away.
when i was young i drank cases and cases of dreams
because that was all i could afford. and it was the only
thing my grocer kept in stock.
but i never became drunk,
because i didn’t learn how to swallow them
For nearly a dozen centuries, God’s people, the Israelites, were caught in a cycle. They would listen to God for a while, follow him, worship him, call out to him, and then they’d drift away from him all over again. It wasn’t a conscious thing. It never is. They just became more and more entangled in their own goals and involved in their own lives, easing into compromise, ambition, and success.
And then during their times of prosperity and comfort, they became complacent. And forgetful. They let God’s story slip from their hearts as they pursued their own stories instead. They forgot to call on his name as they became distracted by making a name for themselves.
So God sent thorns of various names and shapes and sizes to prick them from their spiritual slumber and awaken them to his presence. He let them wander in the desert, he let their stomachs growl with hunger, he let their throats ache with thirst, he let their enemies oppress them, he let venomous snakes bite them, he let the clouds hold back the rain, and all the while, with angry voices and blunt words, the prophets and prophetesses bludgeoned the consciences of the Israelites. God’s spokesmen and spokeswomen tried to shake them up, to wake them up.
But for the most part, it didn’t work. The Israelites turned away from God. “They forgot God, their savior, who had done such great things in Egypt” (Psalm 106:21).
God coaxed them with his promises, he clobbered them with his threats, but still they wouldn’t turn back wholeheartedly to him. Even when he forgave them, restored them, protected them, and rescued them, they rejected him all over again, their souls fast asleep to his presence.
As in a fairy tale, they slept. Season after season, encircled by thorns. Sometimes they awakened for a brief moment and changed their ways and returned to their first love for a while, but then, all too soon, they closed their eyes once again and dozed off as the thorns encircled them and tightened around their hearts. The curse was winning.
Every generation has had people who have questioned whether or not God is real, but few people have ever questioned whether or not God is silent. There’s not a whole lot of question about that. God’s silence is all too real. It’s a deafening roar in our souls. Martyrs die whispering his name and receiving only death in response to their faith. Children helplessly watch their parents lose touch with reality through Alzheimer’s, begging God for a miracle that never comes.
Where is God in those times? Why is he so silent? If God really loves us with an everlasting love, with an unfailing and enduring and magnificent love, then shouldn’t he be more visible? Shouldn’t he splinter the silence more often?
Welcome to the riddle of the universe.
King David, the person God called “a man after his own heart” (1 Samuel 13:14), wrote these words: “My God, my God! Why have you forsaken me? Why do you remain so distant? Why do you ignore my cries for help?” (Psalm 22:1).
And you may remember Jesus echoing those words 1030 years later when he yelled them from the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46).
It’s such a big question, even Jesus didn’t know the answer. When a man named Job asked God why all the bad stuff was happening in his life, God was silent for thirty-seven chapters of the Bible. Finally God told him, “Who are you to question me?” And Job shut up rather quickly (see Job 38-40).
We yearn for God’s presence. We call to him. We scream at him. And we hear nothing. He answers our longings with silence. Sometimes his silence is unbearable—especially for those who choose to keep believing in him.
These words were found scrawled on the wall of a concentration camp:
I believe in the sun, even though it doesn’t shine,
I believe in love, even when it isn’t shown,
I believe in God, even when he doesn’t speak.
God’s silence offers us the choice—faith or sight. We can either abandon our faith or learn to trust in the dark. God leaves that choice up to us. And all the while he’s more interested in our faith in him than our ability to decipher his silences. The poet Coleman Barks wrote, “The only way we know the play of destiny and free will is to dance the mystery and die inside it.”
Jesus, Job, David, and that man in the concentration camp danced the mystery.
I can’t think of a single place in the whole Bible where God actually explained his silence. I can think of lots of times when people asked him to, but I’m not sure he ever did. I don’t know why God is so silent. I really don’t know. I do know that none of those men—David, Jesus, or Job—gave up on God. And God never gave up on them.
When you listen to a song, you only hear the harmony because of the emptiness between the notes. If the song is too full of notes, it becomes nothing but noise. To hear the harmony you have to let the silences have their place in the song. It’s like each note is a pearl upon a necklace and the silences are what strings them all together.
Maybe God knows that without his silences in our lives, we will never hear the melody of faith.
I think in every person’s life a day comes when faith becomes a choice. You can either give up on the silence of God or choose to trust him in the dark as Jesus did while he was dying on the cross.
In the end, most of the Israelites gave up on God.
And at last, God stopped sending his prophets. He stopped speaking to his people. The Old Testament ends with the word curse. And that terrible word echoed in the hearts of his people for four more centuries.
While God remained silent. As silent as the sky.
touching the unseen
love wants to split this moment
into half shells of sweet
almond juice. what’s holding
back my soul from opening up to
the song playing, there,
in the light before me?
ah, even fire cannot
stir a soul so fast asleep.
will i ever awaken enough
to taste the juice dripping
out of your promises,
landing soft and gentle on my soul?