The Gift of Silence
Posted by Nathan Betts, on December 1, 2017
Topic: Just Thinking Magazine
Before offering a narrative of Christ’s birth, the opening chapter of the Gospel of Luke recounts a dramatic conversation between a priest called Zechariah and the angel Gabriel. One day Zechariah was serving in the temple when the angel Gabriel appeared to him. Zechariah was very afraid, but Gabriel spoke to him saying, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great before the Lord” (verses 14-15). Indeed, this son, later identified as John the Baptist, would be the one to prepare people for the coming of Jesus.
Yet instead of rejoicing over the promised fulfillment of a deep longing and prayer, Zechariah objects, “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.” So Gabriel responds by explaining to Zechariah precisely to whom he is speaking and also by citing the authority on which he bears this news:
“I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I was sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. And behold, you will be silent and unable to speak until the day that these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time.” (Luke 1:19-20)
One only needs to read further in this chapter of Luke’s Gospel to find out that this promise from the Lord is soon fulfilled. Elizabeth and Zechariah have a baby boy—and it is only after Zechariah writes, “His name is John,” that he is able to speak again.
There are many aspects of this story that are remarkable. First is the context in which the story takes place: the people of Israel, of whom Zechariah and Elizabeth are a part, have not heard from God for a period of roughly 400 years! When Gabriel appears to Zechariah, it is highly likely that this is the first time Zechariah has heard from God in such a way.
To make theological matters even more complicated for Zechariah, Gabriel’s second statement, after telling him to not be afraid, is “Your prayer has been heard.” There is deep irony in this statement primarily because of the theological background to this conversation. For all of Zechariah’s life, he has never heard God’s voice like this. The very act of God verbally speaking to him would seem preposterous. Therefore, it is understandable why Zechariah questions Gabriel. Zechariah and his people have prayed to God, many for their entire lives, and they have never heard a verbal response—or perhaps anything. How could Zechariah be sure this was truly a message from the Lord? This encounter undoubtedly marks a watershed moment, not only for Zechariah but also for God’s people and the entire world. God would speak now and man would be silent.
God’s silence is often a challenge to Christian belief. One point I glean from the early part of this story is that God’s silence does not necessarily imply that God is inactive. In Israel’s case, God had been silent for years, yet in this angelic encounter, nearly the first words of instruction from the Lord are, “Your prayer has been heard.”
For those of us who are immersed in the urgency of the digital world, we would do well to heed the implicit lesson of patience found in this story. God had been silent for a long time, but God was listening. There are times in our lives in which we do not hear God’s voice. Gabriel’s words tell us that although we might not hear God speaking, God is still listening. Silence does not mean inactivity.
After Zechariah objects to the seemingly audacious promise given from the Lord, Gabriel points out that it is not on his own authority that he speaks, but God’s. Implicit in Gabriel’s statement is the reality that God is bringing help to Israel, not because of what Zechariah or Elizabeth have done, but rather because of who God is. Historically speaking, God is the one who helped, rescued, and saved Israel countless times. The people of Israel knew this history well, and they also knew why God had reached down and helped them. As the prophet Micah declares, “Who is a God like you, who pardons sin and forgives the transgression of the remnant of his inheritance? You do not stay angry forever but delight to show mercy” (Micah 7:18). This much was clear in the mind of Israel: God’s salvation came only because of God’s character. God’s saving power came, not because of humanity’s effort, but because of God’s nature to save.
Gabriel then tells Zechariah that he will be silent. This is what strikes me most about the story: Gabriel appears to Zechariah in a time during which the people of Israel had not heard from God in years. The Lord speaks to Zechariah and tells him that God will act and fulfill his promise, but while He does so, Zechariah will be silent.
I have often wondered why God caused Zechariah to be silent. Some suggest that it was a type of punishment. Perhaps it was. Whether one believes that or not, I am convinced that the act of silence was pointing to something deeper and far richer than merely one man receiving a punishment from God for not believing in Him, and here’s why: Though they sometimes forgot, the people of Israel knew that God had helped them. They knew why God had helped them, and they also had learned how God had worked in history. Over time they had realized that God’s grace and salvation would be worked out through quietness and trust. Israel’s strength lay not in activity and being busy, but in silence. This was how God worked.
Zechariah’s silence is a symbol of God’s salvation. Zechariah’s son, John, spent his life preparing people for Christ, the means by which people could be saved. But before John came, the Lord visited his father through Gabriel, telling Zechariah that God had heard his prayer and was going to rescue his people—not in a flurry of human activity, but in a way in which people could only watch Him work and hear Him speak.
Perhaps one of the vital lessons we can learn from Zechariah, and the entire story of Christ’s coming, is to prioritize silence before God. At the very least, being quiet will remind us of a greater time, one of the greatest in history, when God spoke and humankind was there—there only to watch, listen, and receive.
Nathan Betts is a member of the speaking and writing team at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries.