We rarely hear God speaking to us, in the sense of audible words.
But God nonetheless still often speaks to us—whether it be through a Scripture that set our hearts on fire, the words of a priest in the pulpit or confessional, a prayer or hymn that happens to address our deepest concerns and worries at just the right moment, or even the thoughts God stirs within us while contemplating the mysteries of the rosary or the lives of the saints.
Then there is radio silence.
For the devout Christian, this can be an agonizing experience. How should we respond when all we seem to get from God is silence? The Old Testament offers us much guidance on this issue, with many stories of what to do—as well as what not to do.
What not to do: Saul and the witch
The judge and prophet Samuel was dead, the Philistine forces were massing for war against Israel, and the future king and son-in-law he had persecuted, David, had gone over to their side. Saul, the king of Israel, asked for guidance from God. He received no answer. Not from dreams, priests, or prophets, as it says in 1 Samuel 28.
Then Saul did the unthinkable.
Saul could not accept silence from God. So he sought out the witch of Endor, asking her to conjure up the spirit of the deceased Samuel—in violation of his own ban on magicians and soothsayers. One nineteenth century Russian painter captured the chilling scene that ensued: Samuel emerges from billows of smoke, his ghostly white mantle set against a dark cave and his hooded face obscured from view, while Saul recoils back in horror.
When Samuel speaks, it’s words of dread: the Lord has departed from Saul, soon he will lose his kingdom too, and his death at the hands of the Philistines is imminent. Saul, who hadn’t eaten all day, collapsed on the ground.
This story is certainly a cautionary tale in what not to do. Certainly Saul would have been better off not resorting to the black arts of necromancy. And, while hopefully none of us would ever go to such extremes, the story is nonetheless instructive for us: God will speak to us on His own terms, not ours. Better to wait than take matters into our own hands, whatever form that might take in today’s world.
What to do: Job
In contrast to Saul, the Old Testament has several shining examples of those who waited in faith. One particularly stands out: Job.
The story is familiar: Job is a prosperous man who is a firm believer in God. Satan, convinced that he has faith only because of his material blessings, asks God permission to take it all away. God grants it. What happens next is a perfect storm of calamity and suffering: raiders carry off his oxen and donkeys, a burst of fire from heaven consumes his flocks of sheep, another band of raiders seizes his camels, and a hurricane-force wind kills the household of his eldest son. Then Job is stricken with boils that cover him from head to toe. Sitting on ashes, Job scrapes off the boils with pieces of pottery while his faithless wife tells him to “Curse God and die.”
Job himself is not denial about God’s silence in the face of his suffering. “He has cast me into the mire; I have become like dust and ashes. I cry to you, but you do not answer me; I stand, but you take no notice” (Job 30:20).
His faith nonetheless does not waver: “Slay me though he might, I will wait for him,” he says in Job 13:15.
Job endures God’s silence through the first 37 chapters of the book. It’s important to remember that this was not mere silence amid the ordinary course of affairs—it happened during a period of tremendous pain and suffering in the life of Job, a time when he was in dire need of God.
Finally, in Job 38, God speaks—and, at first, it is in the form of a rebuke. “Then the LORD answered Job out of the storm and said: Who is this who darkens counsel with words of ignorance? Gird up your loins now, like a man; I will question you, and you tell me the answers!
Where were you when I founded the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding” (Job 38:1-4).
At last, after a multi-chapter scolding, God restores all of Job’s possessions and grants him ten more children. Job’s patience had not been in vain.
What to listen for: Elijah on the mountain
As important as patience is, so is the ability to listen for God in the right way.
In 1 Kings 18, the prophet Elijah confronted Ahab, the Israelite king who had been led into idol worship by his wife Jezebel. Elijah challenges 450 prophets of the false god Baal to a contest: both he and they would prepare sacrifices on Mount Carmel but without setting any on fire. Instead, each would call upon the deity they served to send down fire from the sky to consume the offering.
The false prophets call upon Baal all morning. “But there was no sound, and no one answering. And they hopped around the altar they had prepared. When it was noon, Elijah taunted them: ‘Call louder, for he is a god; he may be busy doing his business, or may be on a journey. Perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened’” (1 Kings 18:26-27). The frustrated prophets become frenetic: their cries to Baal grow louder and they start cutting themselves with swords and spears until they are soaked in blood. And still silence.
Then Elijah makes his move. In order to preempt any skeptics who might accuse him of setting the fire himself, Elijah has water poured over the altar three times until it overflows. He then calls on God. Fire storms down from the sky, burning up the offering, along with the entire altar.
But in the next chapter, Elijah’s encounter with God couldn’t be more different. Under pursuit from an irate Jezebel, he flees into the wilderness. At one point, angels minister to him with food, but then Elijah wanders for forty more days in the dry desert. Finally, he stumbles into a cave at Mount Horeb. God asks him why he is there. Elijah says he has been “most zealous” for the Lord while the rest of Israel has fallen away. Elijah is told to climb the mountain where God will pass by.
“There was a strong and violent wind rending the mountains and crushing rocks before the Lord—but the Lord was not in the wind,” 1 Kings 19:11 reports. Then there was an earthquake, but God was still not there. Next there was fire, but this time, God was not involved.
Instead, God came to Elijah in “a whistling of a gentle air,” as the Douay-Rheims translation puts it—or a “still small voice” as it reads in other translations.
As we read this story, we ought to ask ourselves: Are we listening for the wrong thing? Are we too busy expecting fire and thunder from God that we miss out on the “still small voice”?
Silence: the paradox of prophecy
No doubt there are many reasons why we experience silence, but one seems particularly prominent near the end of the Old Testament. In the prophetic books silence becomes a necessary part of the phenomenon of hearing from God. This may be clearest in the case of Ezekiel.
In Ezekiel 1, the prophet is granted one of the most spectacular visions of God in the Bible—surely an incredible way to begin his ministry. In the second and third chapters, Ezekiel is formally commissioned by God to be His mouthpiece to Israel.
But then, immediately after receiving his commission, Ezekiel is rendered mute: “I will make your tongue stick to the roof of your mouth so that you will be mute, no longer one who rebukes them for being a rebellious house” (Ezekiel 3:26).
Muted, Ezekiel begins his prophetic ministry, through a series of actions that represent the disordered relationship between the Israelites and God. He then witnesses a series of fantastic visions. It is not until sometime later, recorded in Ezekiel 33, that God opens his mouth: “The hand of the Lord had come upon me the evening before the survivor arrived and opened my mouth when he reached me in the morning. My mouth was opened, and I was mute no longer” (Ezekiel 33:22).
Why God is silent
How are we to understand this? The story of Elijah suggests that sometimes silence is a necessary preparation for hearing God’s voice. That could be a factor here, although there is another, more obvious explanation: the Israelites had, once again, fallen away from the faith and therefore had become unworthy of hearing from God, according to St. Jerome.
The stories of Ezekiel, Elijah, and Job both point to several reasons for God’s silence. In the case of Job, silence was part of the divine plan to test the faith of Job. The story of Elijah suggests that sometimes silence is necessary to hear the gentle whisperings of the Holy Spirit. And the ministry of Ezekiel indicates that silence can be God’s response to the faithless of His people. In all three cases, silence is an essential element of God’s communication.
The greatest silence of all
The silence God expressed through Ezekiel was nothing compared to what was coming.
About 150 years after Ezekiel died, Israel saw the last of the prophets: Malachi, whose ministry lasted until 425 BC. And then, all went quiet.
The silence lasted 400 years.
When God finally spoke again, it was in the most profound and richest way possible. It wasn’t simply through another series of prophetic words. It was the Word. It was the Word made flesh. Was not the Incarnation worth the wait?