A Time to Keep Silence and a Time to Speak
C. E. Hocking, Cardiff
“INOPPORTUNENESS IS THE BANE OF LIFE”. The title of this
article is taken from a section in Ecclesiastes 3 designed to impress us with this fact among others. One commenting on this passage has said, "Every time comes to us charged with its own particular challenge and opportunity; and the wisdom of life is to discern the time".
Consider then the meaning of the couplet forming the title. First, there is "a time to keep silence", 3. 7. That is, there are occasions of deep sorrow and intense grief in the lives of individuals which render them speechless. We recall that time in Job's experience when his friends "sat down with him upon the ground seven days and seven nights, and none spake a word unto him: for they saw that his grief was very great", Job. 2. 13. Amos predicted in a season of national calamity that "the prudent shall keep silence in that time; for it is an evil time", Amos 5. 13. Have we not been reduced to tears and to silence, before our friends and our God, in connection with personal and individual problems as well as those which have affected the assembly?
The second and balancing part of our couplet states that there is a "time to speak", Eccles. 3. 7. When circumstances change for the better men become voluble with joy. As the Psalmist expresses it, "When the Lord turned again the captivity of Zion... Then was our mouth filled with laughter, and our tongue with singing . . . The Lord hath done great things for us; whereof we are glad", 126. 1-3. We, too, rejoice with them that rejoice, and give expression to our pleasure upon learning of the well-being of individuals or at the reviving of God's work corporately.
The words of our text suggest many more lessons by a wider application of their meaning. We shall consider each part of the couplet again in turn.
There is a Time to Keep Silence. "The man who can control his tongue has mastered his chief difficulty", or to put it in the words of James 3, "If any man offend not in word, the same is a perfect man, and able also to bridle the whole body", v. 2. Be done then with flattery, let it never pass your lips, for "a flattering mouth worketh ruin", Prov. 26. 28. Never give utterance to that which will cause trouble with individuals and strife in the assembly. The whisperer "separateth chief (bosom) friends", 16. 28, a tragedy not unknown among those who own the Lord's name. If some of the Lord's people had held their peace the assembly would have been the happier for "Where no word is, there the fire goeth out: so where there is no talebearer, the strife ceaseth", 26. 20. Better no tongue at all than a malicious and backbiting one, Eph. 4. 25, 31. Truly many have fallen by the sword but not so many as by the tongue. How often have we wished that we had remained silent rather than utter that hasty word or that we had considered the matter more fully before giving our answer. The Scripture says "He that answereth a matter before he heareth it, it is folly and shame unto him", Prov. 18. 13.
Perhaps some brethren would feel horrified at such abuses of the tongue, and yet unconsciously be guilty of distressing believers and quenching the Spirit in the assembly gatherings. James in his third chapter warns a teacher in the assembly, against abusing his privilege by speaking in a spirit of controversy, or by fostering division among God's people. Again there is the brother who hates a pause in expressed prayer or worship. To him a silent moment is an eternity, a sure indication of poverty. He would not agree that sometimes "speech is the small change of silence". Is the lengthy prayer embracing the whole world in minute detail your way of ensuring against "gaps"? Do we more readily announce a hymn to fill in, rather than wait upon the Lord and worship at His feet? How often do we participate when we have nothing to offer to God? Do we feel that it all depends on us, and not upon the Spirit? Even in New Testament times a prophet might be tempted to go on beyond that point when the Spirit would have him do so. Paul writes "If any thing be revealed to another (prophet) that sitteth by, let the first (prophet that had been addressing the assembly) hold his peace" . . . "the spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets", 1 Cor. 14. 30, 32. Brethren equipped of the Spirit publicly to pray, exhort or teach in the assembly today must respond to the Spirit's directing alone, and at the same time consider one another. Brethren sometimes seem insufficiently conscious that in the public gatherings of the assembly there is "a time to keep silence".
For fear that sisters might feel that what has been before us has nothing to do with them, we would point out that God's order for the churches today, as in New Testament times, is "Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak ... for it is a shame for women to speak in the church", 14. 34-35. For them this is "a time to keep silence". The woman is also to "learn in silence with all subjection. But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence", 1 Tim. 2.11-12. These verses form part of inspired instruction given through Paul with a view to our knowing how we should behave ourselves in the church of God, 3. 15. The subject engaging the apostle's mind in the Corinthian and Timothy passages is that sisters should not audibly lead in the assembly whether in prayer or the teaching of the Word. United singing of praise to our God by brothers and sisters is not in view. The brother, urged to silence because there was none to make intelligible all that which was inditing his heart, 1 Cor. 14. 27-28, would have freely joined in the singing of a psalm by the congregation. The gifted brother who was constrained to keep silent while the Spirit used another, 14. 30, would have wholeheartedly joined in the singing also. The sister subject to the Word of God will gladly express this by not giving an audible lead in the assembly, 14. 34-35, and yet, equally as wholeheartedly as these brothers, share in the congregational hymn singing.
Well might we all take up the prayer of the Psalmist, "Set a watch, O Lord, before my mouth; keep the door of my lips", 141. 3. But let us consider the other element of our couplet:
There is a Time to Speak. Whilst "speech is silvern" and "silence is golden" in some circumstances, the Scriptures remind us that "A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in baskets of silver", Prov. 25. 11 r.v. A word of encouragement at the right moment is of inestimable value. That young brother or sister showing the first signs of spiritual exercise and promise needs a "continue thou". The one slowing up in the Christian race needs to be urged to "press on". Those gifted of God may need to be reminded to "neglect not the gift", or even to "stir up the gift" that is in them. What more cheering to a Christian mother than to hear her children rise up and speak well of her; the appreciative word from the husband, "Many daughters have done virtuously, but thou excellest them all", is too often left unsaid, Prov. 31. 28-29. Timely advice to children and teenagers in particular, a voicing of divine standards and right priorities for the Christian, is a sacred duty for parents worthy of the family granted to them. Is there not a crying need today for Aquilas and Priscillas to open their homes to fellow Christians, and to seek to instruct them in the way of God more perfectly? Then there are the many weary ones whom we could serve, as did that matchless Servant of the Lord. He could say "The Lord God hath given me the tongue of the learned, that I should know how to speak a word in season to him that is weary", Is. 50. 4. In this very context we are taught the secret of such a timely ministry. We must have our ear open to the voice of God in order to open our mouth aright. We must all exhort one another, and provoke one another to love and good works.
The brother qualified of God must speak in the assembly as the oracles of God; the teacher must give himself to his work. Let us enjoy the spiritual and the eternal continuously; then, when we are together, there never will be a silence of poverty nor an utterance which is fleshly. Happy assembly!
The spiritual sister will be on the lookout for the right occasion to speak to her neighbour. She will be ready to tell others to "come see a man" that can revolutionize your life, and bring you into the life which is life indeed. She will speak to the children given to her so that in their later years they may confess that from a babe they had known the holy Scriptures. The aged sister, the real mother in Israel, will fulfil her ministry before God in counselling the younger women, yea train them, that their attitudes and conduct will bring only credit to the assembly testimony and pleasure to the heart of the Lord. The Christian nurse in touch with her Lord will use the occasion given by a passing remark to point the patient to the great Physician. In school, college, the shop and office, the Christian sister by her life and lip will witness brightly for her Saviour. She will be happy to tell the little ones in her Sunday School class that Jesus loves them, and will speak to older ones, too, about her Saviour. And what shall we say of visiting the sick, of speaking a sympathetic, kindly, cheering word?
Oh when will we all exploit adequately the countless opportunities to use the "time to speak"?