29. Silence/Speaking

Meditations in Ecclesiastes : 29 :  A Time for Silence or Speaking

Eccles 3:7 a time to be silent and a time to speak

I was at a barbecue, attended by about forty people I think, and I stood there at one point and looked around at the chattering that was going on. In some cases it was one to one, in other cases groups of three, four or five. One of the thing human beings do is talk – and talk a lot. Talking is the way we express relationship. It may be the very tentative opening words with a stranger, but even there we are seeing is some form of basic relationship can be formed, even for a few minutes. It may be the catching up on the news with someone you haven’t seen for a long time; you are re-establishing the relationship you have, distant though it often may be. With others it may be just the ordinary, every-day type of chatter, but talking goes on wherever there are relationships between human beings. We talk because we know things and we want others to know them as well. We talk because we don’t know things and we want to find out.

Today’s verse has an almost ominous feel to it. There are times when it is better to keep your mouth shut and times when you need to speak out. I think standing before God is often a time when it is best to keep quiet. I know that at the times in life when I have been most aware of the holy presence of God, I just wanted to keep quiet. Speaking words would have spoilt the sense of beauty and wonder that was there. When Isaiah saw the Lord his first response was an indication of the awareness of the sinfulness of his mouth: Woe to me!” I cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty.” (Isa 6:5). I always like Ezekiel’s wisdom in saying the least possible when the Lord asked him if the valley of dry bones could live: He asked me, “Son of man, can these bones live?” I said, “O Sovereign LORD, you alone know.” (Ezek 37:3). Smart move, Ezekiel.

Solomon understood this as well:A man of knowledge uses words with restraint.” (Prov 17:27). The more you know the more you realise how much you don’t know.  Elsewhere he said, When words are many, sin is not absent, but he who holds his tongue is wise.” (Prov 10:19). Be careful, our words may either reveal what we’re like on the inside or they may lead us into sin by speaking wrongly.  James understood this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak.” (Jas 1:19)

One of the dangers of being a Christian is that we so often forget these warnings and feel we have all the answers and so we impose those answers on all we come across. The trouble is that they may not be ready yet to receive them. Jesus taught, Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and then turn and tear you to pieces.” (Mt 7:6)  I understand that to mean, don’t pour out wonderful things of God to those who mock and deride and just haven’t got open hearts. If someone walked up to you and said, “I’m a communist,” or “I’m a Jehovah’s Witness,” we would immediately think, “Why are they saying that? They must want to impose on me their viewpoint of life.” Yet that is how many Christians act and speak. Yes, we do have the most wonderful news the world can receive, but are they ready to receive it.

If you’re an evangelist you’ll just scatter the seed of the Gospel anyway and your grace can cope with the rejection of many. For most of us, with our next door neighbour or the person we work with, our call is first to let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds,” (Mt 5:16) so that they will ask you about why you are like you are: Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.” (1 Pet 3:15) but even then, But do this with gentleness and respect,” so you keep the door open for further conversation if they are not ready to go far now. Peter was obviously very much aware of this, perhaps because the Gospels so often record him opening his mouth rashly. Is this why he speaks to wives: Wives, in the same way be submissive to your husbands so that, if any of them do not believe the word, they may be won over without words by the behavior of their wives, when they see the purity and reverence of your lives.” (1 Pet 3:1,2). Somebody once said something like, “Preach the Gospel at all times. Use words if you have to.”

For most of us, speaking out the Gospel is not so much a case of ‘when’ but ‘how’. We are always to be bearers of the truth, always to be witnesses to Jesus (Acts 1:8) but it is knowing how to say it. A brash and arrogant speaking the truth simply creates hostility. That’s why Peter spoke of doing it with gentleness and respect. Perhaps this is another of those times when we need to shoot up an instant prayer, “Lord, please give me wisdom, show me what to say” (Jas 1:5). Jesus taught, do not worry about how you will defend yourselves or what you will say, for the Holy Spirit will teach you at that time what you should say.” (Lk 12:11,12). There is so much more that could be said about when to speak and when to remain silent, but we will have to rest with this for now.

12. A Holy God

(We resume our series in Isaiah that we started several weeks ago)

MEDITATIONS IN ISAIAH – No.12

Isa 6:5 Woe to me!” I cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty.”

Part of our task, you may remember, in this set of meditations, is to see the same God in the Old Testament as is described in the New, especially in the light of the apostle John’s assertion that “God is love” (1 Jn 4:8,16). Now when we read Isaiah, chapter 6, you may think that is not immediately discernable, but I want to suggest otherwise. Come with me and see.

Isaiah 6 is one of the relatively few instances in the Bible when we are given a deeper insight into God or into heaven. It happened as a clear event at a particular point in history: “In the year that King Uzziah died.” (6:1a). Historians tell us that this was 740BC. In that year something very special happened to Isaiah: “I saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted, and the train of his robe filled the temple.” (6:1b). Now we have to assume this was a vision because we are not told he was lifted up into heaven, but nevertheless it is very clear. We don’t need to go through the details of the vision here except to note that the emphasis that comes through the vision is God’s holiness.

Now the concept of ‘holy’ or ‘holiness’ is unique to God. It has no meaning outside of God. God, the Bible tells us, IS holy. In respect of Him it suggests being utterly different, perfect, entirely without flaw in any way. When it is used in respect of a person or thing, it means given over to or dedicated to God so that it may take on His characteristic of perfection.

It is this idea of holiness that produces in Isaiah such a strong response: “Woe to me!” I cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty.” (6:5). Something about the presence of the Lord, conveyed to Isaiah the Lord’s perfection and his own absence of perfection or, to put it another way, his uncleanness. Now this is a similar reaction to that which we find in Simon Peter when he realises something about Jesus in his boat (Lk 5), a sense of unworthiness to be in the presence of this One.

Now I don’t know if you ever watch adventure or sci-fi films but every now and then the hero finds himself (and it tends to be a man) before some great being, and the thing that is always conveyed is a sense of fear of what this great being might do to the hero. They have it in their power to, at the very least, kill the hero. That is quite a different experience from what we have here. Isaiah is filled with a sense of his own doom, certainly, but it is because of his own inadequacy, his own failures, his own sin – especially in the light of the perfection of the One before him. This guilt is what so many of us struggle with and, despite the protestations of atheists who don’t like this talk, it is the biggest problem that we wrestle with, as so many therapists or counsellors will testify.

So here is Isaiah with a problem. He is a sinner in the presence of a holy and perfect God and he realises that he is guilty of having said wrong things (his lips) which reveal what he is like on the inside. He is guilty. There is no question about it; justice demands his punishment, he feels. It is an instinctive response within him. He is doomed! But what do we find? “Then one of the seraphs flew to me with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from the altar. With it he touched my mouth and said, “See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.” (6:6,7). One of the angelic beings, who do the bidding of God, does something so that his guilt is taken away. Note that Isaiah didn’t do anything. It was done for him.

Now fire in the Old Testament has a double meaning. It is first the wrath of God that destroys sin but, second, it is also the work of God burning up and dealing with sin so that the sinner is freed. Thus we have in this vision a burning coal taken from the altar that was there, which is clearly a place of meeting with God where sin is dealt with. Thus the coal from this altar is taken to Isaiah and he is cleansed. An altar in the Old Testament is a place of sacrifice where a life is given up, a substitute for the sinner, and his or her sin is visually and graphically destroyed before their eyes. Thus Isaiah’s guilt is dealt with and he is freed from this feeling, so that now he can stand before God guiltless and is now available to be used by God to go and speak to His people, which is what follows.

Now of course in the Old Testament, there was no more explanation given than we have mentioned above, but the picture was very clear. Part of God’s design-rules (the Law) told the sinner who felt guilty how to deal with their sin. Take an offering and sacrifice it at the Tabernacle or Temple, as a substitute for their own life, and God would see it as a sign of their repentance and He would grant them forgiveness. It is only when we come to the New Testament that we see the eternal sacrifice offered for every person who wants to avail themselves of it, Jesus Christ the Son of God. He stood in as our substitute when he died on the Cross at Calvary. Only an eternal being could do that for the sin of every person who has existed and will existed, who want to avail themselves of this method of being freed from sin.

What do we have here in both Old and New Testaments? A picture of a loving God who realises, having given man free will and knowing man would exercise that free will wrongly, that man would be helpless to deal with his own guilt and for the sake of eternal justice, that guilt could only be taken by God Himself in the form of His Son. Thus we have possibly the most famous verse in the Bible: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (Jn 3:16) What we have here, is the God of love who is more concerned to reconcile sinners to Himself than He is to judge or destroy them. As He said through Ezekiel, “I take no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Sovereign LORD. Repent and live!” (Ezek 18:32. THIS is the God of both the Old and New Testaments, a God who reaches out to remove our guilt and reconcile us to Himself, a God who seeks to draw us into relationship with Himself so that we can be re-established in His blessings to enjoy the life and the world He has provided for us to enjoy! Hallelujah!