“When God is Silent”
God speaks in Scripture to teach us his will. Through Bible study, we can determine what God wants and live by the words God has spoken. But what do we do when God hasn’t said anything about a subject? In other words, what do we do when God is silent?
In Numbers 9:1-5, God told Moses to let the people ‘keep the Passover at its appointed time. On the fourteenth day of the month, at twilight.’ But there were some who were unable to participate in the celebration because of ritual uncleanness (contact with a dead body). What about them? Had they missed out? In the absence of direct revelation from God, Moses exercised the only faithful option available: he waited for the Lord to speak (Num. 9:8). In response, God provided further clarification and the matter was resolved.
Moses provides us with a positive example. Before we act, before we speak on an issue, before we decide a matter, we must wait on the Lord to hear what he has said about it. Perhaps God has spoken on the issue and some careful Bible study clears it up. Or perhaps he hasn’t spoken directly on the issue but has provided some guiding principles to follow. But there are other issues about which God hasn’t said anything. Are we to see this silence as liberty to act as we please? Moses saw God’s silence as prohibitive and not permissive. God’s silence caused him to wait.
If Moses were to have invented a solution for the Israelites instead of waiting for God to tell him what to do, he would have been guilty of what the Old Testament calls the sin of ‘presumption.’ To act presumptuously is to act without proper grounds or adequate information. It is to go beyond what is allowed or appropriate. David prayed that God would keep him from ‘presumptuous sin’ which he called ‘great transgression’ (Psa. 19:12-13). The Hebrew word for ‘presumption’ (zed) means arrogant, proud, and insolent.
Aaron’s sons exhibited this spirit of arrogance when they offered ‘strange fire which [God] had not commanded them’ (Lev. 10:1-3). Notice, the text doesn’t say they offered fire which ‘God had forbidden them’ because to do anything other than what God has ‘commanded’ is out of bounds. The infraction may have involved them using coals from someplace other than the burnt offering altar, using the wrong kind of incense, or performing the ceremony at an unprescribed time. But whatever they did, their actions showed disdain for God’s holiness as God’s words after the incident reveal: ‘…I will be sanctified, and before all people I will be glorified.’
Other examples of presumption include Israel’s determination to fight against the Amorites despite Moses’ warnings (Deut. 1:43), the words of false prophets (Deut. 18:22), king Uzziah’s attempt to minister in the temple (2 Chron. 26:16-18), and the invention of a new cart to transport the ark of the covenant (2 Sam. 6:1-11). All were breaches of God’s will and all ended badly.
Obedience, on the other hand, is always commended. Noah, like Abraham and Moses (Gen. 12:4; Ex. 40:16), was rewarded because ‘he did all that God commanded him’ (Gen. 6:22). Noah wasn’t perfect any more than Moses or Abraham but he did show faith in God’s word. While we all sin and desperately need our Savior’s grace, it is possible to ‘please’ God without having a perfect moral record. God is pleased when we approach him with respect, listen to his words, trust those words and live by them. We are to live by faith (2 Cor. 5:7), faith in what God has said (Rom. 10:17). In fact, this trusting obedience is the only reasonable response to grace.
Avoid the irreverent attitude that views the silence of Scripture as permissive. Adopt the faithful attitude that waits on the Lord to speak before acting. ‘The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.’ (Deut. 29:29)