Silence is Golden
“Like golden apples set in silver is a word spoken at the right time.” -Proverbs 25:11 (bold emphasis added)
Silence is golden. I have said it. I have felt it. When spoken, the meaning was positive; the silence was truly cherished. When felt, the affect was negative; the silence was burdensome. While the expression is meant to hold a sentiment of peace, of relief, it can also have the adverse effect. Isn’t that true in all areas of life, in all meanings of words? We know what one thing is not only be what it comprises, but also by what it lacks. We know hot because we have felt cold; we know peace because we have sensed anxiety; we know love because we have experienced hate; we know grace because we have received mercy. Opposites are a part of everything; they are, by design, components of all that we know. It is because of this that I say there are times when the expression “silence is golden” takes on a whole new meaning. Sometimes silence should not be golden; sometimes “words spoken” are the true treasure.
The origin of this expression is uncertain. Some versions of this date back to Ancient Egypt, when nothing held greater value than gold. The first recorded use of the exact wording, however, dates back to 1831, when an English poet translated this phrase from a German poem. In this context, it expressed the value, the worth, of holding one’s tongue. Today, we think of it in much the same way. When my boys were young and they were down for the night, silence was golden; when a house full of children left after a birthday party, silence was golden; when a classroom of students left for the day, silence was golden; when I arose before others to walk on an empty beach, silence was golden. Yes, there are many times when I have spoken or thought these words because the silence that I entered into was greatly desired and, at those moments, was valued even more than gold! But then there are the other times when its occurrence took on a whole new meaning…and value.
To understand the flip side of this expression, we must identify the full attributes of gold. Yes, it is costly and therefore of financial worth; yes, when polished it shimmers and is attractive to the eye, but those are just two of its traits. Gold is also heavy and, in bulk, difficult to carry; gold is cold, dense, and impenetrable. When these characteristics are applied to the expression “silence is golden”, we learn that silence too can be burdensome, stony, and impermeable. For all of us, there have been times when what was needed was a word of approval, but the silence was golden; when encouragement was longed for, but the silence was golden; when fears surfaced, but the silence was golden; when grief was overwhelming, but the silence was golden. Perhaps we can identify times when we were the recipients of this silence and, just as likely, others can identify times when we were the dispersers of such silence. Were there times when praise was withheld, or hurts were ignored? Have there been occasions when forgiveness was held back or love was suspended? If so, the silence was golden. And what about silencing the Holy Spirit? Have there been times when the silence was so golden that its weight prevented the gospel from escaping your (my) lips? If so, we have laid hold of the other meaning of “silence is golden”.
To give both sides of this expression a fair representation, it is only right to share what Scripture has to say about when it is appropriate, and when it is apprehensible, to be silent. In Proverbs 13:3, Solomon writes, “The one who guards his mouth preserves his life; the one who opens wide his lips comes to ruin.” He adds to this, “He who restrains his words has knowledge…[and] even a fool, when he keeps silent, is considered wise; when he closes his lips, he is counted prudent” (Prov. 17:27-28). Yes, Solomon believed that, in some instances, silence was golden. Peter agreed with this view as we read in I Peter 3:10, “Let him who means to love life and see good days refrain his tongue from evil and his lips from speaking guile.” We know from these verses, and many others, that there are times when it is best to keep silent. I have heard it said…many times…that God gave us two ears, and one mouth so that we could listen twice as much as we speak. (Why, I am now wondering, have I been told this so much? Hmmm…could it be…have I, do I, talk too much? No need for a reply here…remember the prudent man closes his lips! Well, actually it is the fool who does, but then he is thought to be prudent so, it still fits. And now, as I continue to write within these parentheses, I feel convicted. Since writing is simply speaking through my hands, I am aware, with each additional word, that I definitely talk…and write…too much. If silence is golden, then those who live around me have been depleted of all non-verbal wealth.)
Where was I? Oh, yes…fair representation of the “silence is golden” expression! As stated above, there are definitely times when wisdom is shown, and grown, in holding back one’s thoughts. But, it is also true that there are times when silence must not be heeded because aptly spoken words are needed. Who can deny the verbally communicative nature of God? He didn’t think the world into existence, He spoke it into being; He didn’t send a mime to us from Heaven, He sent His Word wrapped in flesh…and He spoke to us! (John 1:1, 14); He didn’t pat the Samaritan woman on the head and pass her by, He took time to offer her the words of life. Then there are the accounts of Jesus speaking to Nicodemas, to the lame man and the blind man, to Lazarus as He called him from the tomb, and to the thief on the cross as He promised, “Today, you will be with Me in paradise.” (These accounts, and many, many more, are recorded in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.) These are but a few examples, but they show that Jesus preferred words to silence. In fact, the only times we read of Jesus choosing silence over speech was when was He in the midst of those who did not believe in Him as the Son of God. He knew their thoughts; He knew His words would no more penetrate their hearts than an arrow would penetrate a bar of gold. In those instances, the Word became silent. But when ministering to the Jews and the Gentiles, the believers and the yet-to-be-believers, Jesus spoke. Silence was not a component of His outreach plan; it was not the means through which He represented His Father to the world.
And so there it is: “Silence is Golden”. It can be of great worth when inserted at the right times, or it may be of great weight when injected at the wrong times. And for us, discernment is needed to determine when we are “to be, or not to be” silent. Silence can truly be a place of contentment as we enjoy the meditations that are most abundant during times of solitude. But we must also understand that silence can be a place of confinement where, brick by brick, the words left unspoken become walls that separate and isolate. We live in a world where value is equated with cost; the greater the cost, the greater the value. There are times when it cost us more to be silent, and the value of silence is golden. But then there are those times when the need for speaking is far more costly; it is then that the value of silence diminishes and the value of words rightly spoken is golden.