Sir Godfrey Gregg D.Div
“Be still, and know that I am God: I will be exalted among the heathen, I will be exalted in the earth.” Psalm 46:10
There are certain voices which we never hear except when everything is silent. They reach us as a revelation of the stillness. Sometimes on a summer afternoon one gets away from the city or the village and climbs up the grassy hillside till all the noise of human life is lost, and it is often then that there breaks upon the ear a certain indistinguishable murmur as of the moving of innumerable wings.
Travelers tell us that there are rivers flowing beneath the streets of the ancient city of Shechem. During the hours of the day, you cannot hear them for the noise of the narrow streets and the bazaars. But when evening comes and the clamor dies away and the dew falls on the city, then quite audibly, in the hush of night, you may hear the music of the buried streams.
There are many voices like those hidden waters. You can only hear them when things are still. There are whisperings of conscience in the heart which take only a very little to drown. There are tidings from the eternal Spirit who is not far away from any one of us; tidings that will come and go unnoticed unless we have learned the grace of being still.
The Art of Being Still
And yet the very element of stillness is one which is conspicuously lacking now. We have been taught the art of exercise, and we have lost the art of being still. A recent writer, in a brilliant essay on the music of today, tells us that we are living nowadays under “the dominion of the din.” And whether or not that is true of music, of which I am not qualified to speak, it is certainly true of ordinary life. Our forefathers may have had imperfect ideals of Christian service. They may have tolerated social abuses which we would never tolerate today. But they had one element in their Christian life in more abundant measure than we have it, and that was the blessed element of silence. What peace there was in the old-fashioned Sabbath–what a reverent stillness in the house of God–what a quiet and peaceful solemnity in worship at the family altar! And if today we cannot but be conscious that something of that old spirit has departed, we know that something precious has been lost. It is gain to be immersed in service. It is a high ambition to be energetic. “Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with all thy might.” And yet the Bible never says to us, “Be energetic, and know that I am God.” It says, “Be still, and know that I am God.”
Indeed, we are so in love with noise today that stillness is commonly looked upon as weakness. And it is well to remind ourselves occasionally that often the very opposite is true. When the rain beats against the window pane, we are awakened by its noise. But the snow falls so silently, that never an infant stirs within its cradle. And yet the snow may block up every road quite as effectually as a landslide and dislocate the traffic of a kingdom. Set a thousand digging shovels to work, and you produce a certain effect upon the soil. But when the frost comes with her silent fingers and lightly touches field and meadow with them, in a single night that silent frost will work more effectually than a thousand shovels.
God does not work in this strange world by hustling. God works in the world far more often by a hush. In all the mightiest powers which surround us, there is a certain element of stillness. And if I did not find in Jesus Christ something of that divine inaudibility, I confess I should be tempted to despair. When Epictetus had had his arm broken by the savage cruelty of his master, he turned around without one trace of anger, and said to him quietly, “I told you so.” And when a heathen satirist taunted the Christians, asking what nobler thing their Master did, one of them answered, “He kept silence.” There is a silence that may speak of weakness. There is another silence that is full of power. It is the empty husk that rattles in the breeze. It is the brook and not the river that makes the noise. And it is good that we should remember that when we are tempted to associate quietness with weakness, as perhaps we are all tempted nowadays.
The Stillness of Absorption
There is, of course, a certain kind of silence which is only the outward sign of self-absorption. It does not indicate that a man is hearing anything; it just means that he is withdrawn into himself. I have heard runners say that in long races they have been oblivious to every sound. There may have been a thousand voices cheering them on, and yet they seemed to run in a great silence. Perhaps all of us have had hours such as that–hours of suffering or of intense activity–when we felt ourselves alone in a deep solitude. That is the stillness of absorption. It is not the stillness to which our text refers. It is another quietness that it speaks; the quietness which is the basis of communion. For there are times when we never speak so eloquently, and times when we never hear so finely, as when the tongue is silent and the lips are closed and the spirit is the one interpreter. A love that has no silence has no depth. “Methinks the lady doth protest too much.” There are people whose love we instinctively distrust because they are always telling us about it. And perhaps it is simply because God is love, in all the glorious fullness of that word, that we have to be still if we would know Him.
Indeed, there is often no surer sign than the silence that the heart has been reached and the depths been broken up. In their greatest hours, men are seldom noisy. I have watched sometimes an audience at a concert–for to me the audience is more interesting than the music–and I have watched the listless attention which they gave to music that reached no farther than the ear. And then perhaps there was some perfect melody, some chord which had the insistence of a message, and it was as if a voice had cried out loud, “Be still, and know that I am God.”
I read this book written by Charles Reade, in one of the best of his novels, tells a story of some Australian miners. He tells how they traveled through a long summer Sunday to hear the singing of a captive thrush. And they were reckless men familiar with riot, but when they heard it, there fell a hush upon them, for it brought back memories of childhood again and of England where they had been boys. In a greater fashion that is true of God. We do not clamber to Him by the steps of logic; we reach Him by the feelings of the heart. And it is just because, when the heart is moved profoundly, there falls upon it a silence and a stillness, that we are bidden in our text to be still and know that He is God.
Probably that is the reason, too, why great silences have a divine suggestion. Great silent spaces speak to us of God. I remember a year or two ago visiting the cathedral in Manhattan. I suppose it is the most magnificent example of Gothic architecture in the world. And I recall vividly, as though it had happened yesterday, how, passing in from the crowded city streets, the thought of the presence of God was overwhelming. I knew He was present in the teeming city. I knew He was present in the crowded street. I knew that where the stir and traffic were, the infinite Spirit was not far away. And yet it is one thing to know, and it is quite another thing to feel, and in the calm and solemn quiet of the cathedral, I felt that God was there. That is what spiritual men have always felt under the silence of the starry sky. That is why they have always thought of God when they lifted up their eyes unto the hills.
Our noisy, talkative life is like the surge breaking on the edge of the shore, and away beyond it is the silent ocean carrying the message of infinity. We lose our sense of God in a big city far more readily than lonely dwellers do. And we lay the blame of that upon a score of things–on the strain of business, on our abundant pleasures. Perhaps there is a deeper reason than all these; it is the loss of the ministry of silence: of the field and the meadow and the hill; of the solitude’s which are quivering with God. Spare your compassion for the Highland dweller. The man may be far richer than you think. It may be he has kept what we have lost in the keen and eager zest of city life. It may be he has kept, in all his poverty, those intimations of a present God which are given where a great silence is, as of the lonely field or meadow.
Why God Makes Silences
As I close by suggesting that this is the reason why God makes silences in every life; the silence of sleep, the silences of sorrow, and then the last great silence at the end. One of the hardest things in the world, as you all know, is to get little children to keep still. They are in a state of perpetual activity, restless, eager, questioning, alert. And just as a mother says to her child, “Be still,” and hushes it to sleep that it may rest, so God does sooner or later with us all. What a quiet, still place the sickroom is! What a silence there is over a house of mourning! How the voices are hushed, and every footstep soft, when someone is lying within the coffin. Had we the choosing of our own affairs we should never have chosen such an hour as that; and yet how often it is rich in blessing. All the activities of eager years may not have taught us quite so much as that. There are things which we never learn when we are active. There are things which we only learn when we are passive. And so God comes, in His resistless way, which never ceases to be a way of love, and says, “Be still, and know that I am God.” If that is so with the passive hours of life, may it not be so with the passive hour of death? What is death but the Almighty Father saying to our talking lips, “Be still”? And I for one believe that in that stillness we shall awaken to know that He is God, in such a love and power as will be heaven.