MOMENTS OF SILENCE
"Just then his disciples arrived. They were astonished to
find him talking to a woman, but none of them asked him why he was doing it or
what they had been discussing." John 4:27
Sacred story has on record many crisis-hours of thrilling
interest. Such was the occasion when the old Judge of Israel sat by the
wayside 'trembling for the ark of God'—when the liberties of his country, the
safety of the sacred symbol of which he was custodian, and the fate of his own
family, were all involved in the momentous issues of the struggle. Such, too,
was the kindred occasion when David sat in an agony of suspense between the
two gates when the battle was raging in the woods of Ephraim, and when, with
parental feelings triumphing over the larger interests at stake, he inquired
in eager and anxious haste, "Is the young man Absalom safe?"
Few among ourselves, doubtless, in our individual
histories, have not known of similar seasons—when the telegraph flashed its
unexpected message of the distant bereavement, or the appalling
accident; or when in our own home we watched the herald symptoms of
dissolution gathering round some loved pillow—'life balanced in a breath'—when
hope and fear had for long days their alternate triumph, and when the
unmistakable indication was given by skilled watchers, which quick-sighted
affection too well understands, that recovery was hopeless.
Or, to take the converse of these; many doubtless can
recall experiences of a different kind—life's gladder recollections—bright
milestones and way-marks in the pilgrimage—momentous events enshrined in sunny
memories—the birth of a child—the return of a long-absent son or brother from
a far-off land—the first success in business—the triumph in some struggle of
honorable ambition; or, it may be, the electric message which conveyed the
cheering intelligence that the illness and danger of our friend was over, or
that he had come unscathed out of the fiery tide of battle, or was rescued
safe from some perishing crew. These, and such like, which each separate
experience doubtless has to suggest, form the "illi dies" of the old
Roman—days which he was used to mark with the white or black chalk, the
symbols of joy or sorrow.
But what season can be compared in its momentousness to the
great crisis-hour of a soul's conversion; an hour similar to that which
we contemplated in the preceding context—the triumph of light over
darkness—truth over error—life over death? What return so glad as the return
of the long lost prodigal to the heavenly Father's home? What day so
deservedly to be marked with the white chalk of gladness as the day which
records the soul's deliverance from everlasting danger and ruin? What
birth compared to that of an heir of immortality?
Is it to be wondered at, that such momentous epochs of our
earthly histories as those of which we have spoken, should, at the instant of
their occurrence thrill the spirit into silence? that the tongue in such
seasons of agitating emotion should be unable to speak—that utterance should
Is it a time of grief, overpowering sorrow? That
word "overpowering" expresses our meaning—the lips at the moment refuse to
tell out the secrets of the speechless, stricken, smitten heart. Sorrow is
always deepest, profoundest, where the mourners can exchange only silent
glances through irrepressible tears. Job's three friends, when they heard of
his aggravated woes, sat along with him upon the ground with torn mantle and
dust-covered heads for seven days and seven nights, "and none," we read,
"spoke a word unto him, for they saw that his grief was very great."
Or, is it some joyful occasion? Joy has its strange,
stunning moment, too. The receipt of sudden and gladdening information has
been known, for the time being, to paralyze into silence the overstrung
feelings, to hold fast for the instant the flood-gates of speech. Thought is
absorbed in itself.
Such is the picture we have now before us. The person
around whom gathers the main interest in this narrative, has owned that weary
pilgrim seated on the edge of Jacob's well, to be the promised Messiah, the
Savior of the world. She remains mute under the revelation which had been made
to her—she maintains expressive silence, or a silence that may have had its
outlet only in tears.
Jesus, her great deliverer, who had broken the bonds of a
lifetime in sunder and ushered her into glorious liberty, beholds, in this
signal triumph of His grace, the first-fruits of a vast spiritual
harvest in Samaria—the earliest trophy among the outcasts of Israel. Absorbed
in the musings to which such thoughts gave birth, He, too, preserves
The disciples have come up at the moment from their errand
to the neighboring town. The last, but most momentous words of the
conversation had possibly fallen on their ears—"I who speak unto you am He."
They could not fail to observe the effect of this disclosure. The woman's
profound but suppressed emotion; the pitchers and water-pots lying at her
side, now forgotten and unheeded. But though by their exchanged glances,
(still imbued with the old prejudices,) they marveled that their Master talked
with this forbidden Samaritan female, there was not a word uttered—all the
three parties were thrilled and spell-bound—the woman, a moment before
so fluent and talkative—the disciples, with their curiosity and
amazement excited at the violation of national and sectarian etiquette. But
whatever might be the workings of their inward thoughts, these are
suppressed—"They were astonished to find him talking to a woman, but none of
them asked him why he was doing it or what they had been discussing."
And the third and greatest of all, surrenders Himself more
than all, to the significant stillness of that still hour. As if unaware of
any human presence, His eye and His heart seem arrested by some theme of
distant but magnificent contemplation. "The noise of archers in the places of
drawing water" is for the moment hushed; every bow is unstrung, every rope and
pitcher is at rest; the subordinate actors in the scene stand gazing on one
another, while their Lord still remains seated on the curb-stone of the well,
gazing on the fields of living green waving all around Him in that expanse of
plain, and allowing these, as we shall afterwards see, to be the expounders
and interpreters of His own heart's joy.
Very possibly the disciples, even already, were no
strangers to similar moments of absorbed contemplation on the part of their
divine Master; and though they understood not the nature of these mysterious
communings, they felt that they dared not, or would not, intrude on their
sacredness. The aged Apostle and Evangelist, when he wrote this last Gospel,
seemed to have a vivid recollection of more than one such solemn spellbinding
being put upon otherwise familiar and confidential communion. Amid the waste
of memory, he then recalled these moments of repression and significant
silence at the well of Sychar; and at the close of his history, he again
records a similar inhibition put upon himself and his fellow apostles on the
occasion of the final interview on the lake-shore of Gennesaret: "None of the
disciples dare ask him, Who are you?"
Thus, we repeat, it would appear as if they were
accustomed, at special occasions, to put a restraint on their needless
curiosity. And yet, at the same time, they had learned to repose a perfect
unwavering confidence in the wisdom and rectitude of their Master's doings;
they knew full well that even in these silent cogitations there were wrapped
up unrevealed purposes of love and mercy. "None of the disciples dare ask him,
Who are you? knowing that it was the Lord." These purposes might be
mysterious. The well, like the earthly symbol at their feet, might be
deep; yet no man said, "What do you seek?"
Although already led so far to anticipate the subject in a
previous chapter, let us yet again draw the one great lesson from the words
which head the present—the duty of silence under the divine dispensations.
Often, like the disciples at Sychar, have we reason to marvel at the
Lord's doings. Their marvel on this occasion arose from a poor reason, a mere
sectarian and rabbinical prejudice—that their Master, who was of the tribe of
Judah, should break through Jewish conventionalism by holding converse with a
female, and that female one of the excommunicated Samaritans.
They would, before many weeks had passed, cease their astonishment. They would
have their prejudices rebuked, and their Lord's wisdom and grace vindicated.
Often have we, though in our blindness, greater reason than
they had to marvel at His ways. Providence is often spoken of as a dark
enigma. God's name, as He declared it to Manoah, is "Secret." He gives no
account to any of His matters. "I the Lord dwell in the thick darkness." 'He
plants his footsteps in the sea.' These footsteps are untraceable on the
varying billows. They are like the wake of the vessel furrowing a momentary
depression in the ocean; the dark waves close over, and not a vestige of love
or wisdom is discernible—"Your way is in the sea; Your path in the deep
waters, and Your footsteps are not known."
Blind unbelief, arraigning the rectitude of the divine
dispensations, is prone to ask, "What do You seek in this catastrophe?" That
sudden ruin of my worldly business and prospects—the heart would sincerely
prompt the inquiry, 'What do You seek in this?' The pillaging of dearer
household treasure—'What do You seek here?' "All you who know His name say,
How is the strong staff broken, and the beautiful rod!" 'The beautiful rod,'
the budding branch, the infant blossom—'What do You seek here?' These cradles
emptied; these dimpled smiles turned into pale marble! Why has death not taken
the seared and withered drapery from the autumn branch, but stripped the green
sapling? Why not taken the browning leaves of the decaying rose, rather than
the incipient bud, before the summer sun had fallen on its tints, or extracted
Or, stranger still, "The strong staff broken!" What do You
seek here? The beautiful rod is missed for its beauty, but the
strong staff is missed still more for its strength. Where is the wisdom in
taking away the crutch from the arm of the feeble—the prop from the
tottering steps of old age? Why thus lay the axe at the root of
manhood in its glory? "How is the strong staff broken?" Such (say as we
please) is the wailing soliloquy of many a crushed and sorrowing heart under
the mystery of the Divine dealings. But the duty, the delight, the
prerogative, the triumph of faith, is to be silent. "They were astonished to
find Him talking to a woman, but none of them asked Him why He was doing it or
what they had been discussing."
To ask no reason, no "why or wherefore;" to lie in devout
submission under the inscrutable chastisement, owning, though we may be unable
to discern, the faithfulness of the great Chastener, who often thus
hides Himself and keeps silence, just in order to elicit unquestioning faith
and implicit trust. What did David say, under a complication of dark
individual and family trial? "I was dumb with silence; I held my peace even
from good."—"I was dumb, I opened not my mouth, because You did it." What did
Aaron say under a trial deeper, sadder, more overwhelming still? He said
nothing—"And Aaron held his peace." What did a Greater than earthly priest or
king, say in moments of mysterious suffering? "He was oppressed, and He was
afflicted, yet He opened not His mouth: He is brought as a lamb to the
slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so He opens not His
How often is this duty of silence under the dealings
of God, inculcated in sacred Scripture. "Rest in, the Lord, (margin, "be
silent to the Lord,") and wait patiently for Him." "Truly my soul waits (or is
silent) upon God." "Be silent, O all flesh, before the Lord." Or, yet again,
in the sublime and striking prophecy of Habbakuk; the prophet, though appalled
by the divine judgments impending on the nation and which the divine lips had
themselves uttered, resolves to be silent, and to say not, "What do you seek?"
He resolves to wait for further disclosures of the divine will—"I will stand
upon my watch, and set myself upon the tower, and will watch to see what He
will say unto me, and what I shall answer when I am reproved."
And what is God's first message to him? It is simply to
continue silent—to wait. "The vision is yet for an appointed time, but at the
end it shall speak and not lie: though, it tarry, wait for it; because it will
surely come, it will not tarry." He compares and contrasts this silent,
patient waiting, with the restless invocations of the heathen to their dumb
idols—calling upon them not to be silent, but to speak—"Woe unto him that says
to the wood, Awake; and to the dumb stone, Arise, it shall teach." But, he
adds, "The Lord is in His holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before
Him." And then this silence is only broken by the prophet's sublime prayer, in
the first part of which he dwells on the mystery of God's dispensations, only
that he may wind up with his grand profession of faith and trust and holy joy!
Blessed it will be for us, amid all these 'frowning
providences,' if, instead of presuming in a spirit of unbelief and distrust,
to ask, "What do You seek?"—we are ready to hear the voice of the Unknown and
Invisible saying, "Be still, and know that I am God!" The dutiful servant
asks no reason of his Master—he does his appointed work in silent obedience.
The loyal soldier asks no reason of his commanding officer for what he
may think the hazardous and fatal movement in the day of battle; he obeys in
prompt and willing silence. The faithful workman asks no reason for
these crude gashes in the quarry; he is content to wait until builder or
sculptor fashions the unshapely block into symmetry and beauty. We are apt,
with Joseph, in our blind ignorance, to say, "Not so, my Father;" but, like
aged Jacob on that same occasion, God refuses our erring dictation, our
unwise counsel, saying, "I know it, My son; I know it."
It is the grandest triumph of faith thus to confide in the
divine leadings in the dark—when the Almighty's wings are not bright
and refulgent with love and mercy and goodness, but rather projecting a
mysterious shadow—then, yes, then does faith vindicate its own strength and
reality, when it can utter this song in the night, "How excellent is your
loving-kindness, O God; therefore the children of men put their trust under
the SHADOW of your wings."
If at any time we be called to stand by some broken
cistern; nothing to draw with—the rope of fond affection snapped—God's
judgments 'a great deep'—be it ours to seat ourselves speechless by the brink
of the shattered fountain—not marveling, not asking questions, not saying in
querulous skepticism, "What do You seek?" "knowing that it is the Lord."
When Jacob crossed the brook Jabbok, (to revert, in
closing, to an incident in the life of the old Patriarch, more than once
already referred to,) he met, under a clear midnight sky, an angel-form—this
same Redeemer. "There wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day."
There was to that solitary human wrestler a strange mysteriousness in the
apparition of the magnificent visitant. He had struggled with him in the
darkness; put his thigh out of joint; made him a cripple for life. But in this
case, unlike the disciples at Sychar, Jacob dared not be silent. In
irrepressible eagerness he asked him, and said, "Tell me, I ask you, your
name?" And the other said, "Why is it that you do ask after my name?" The
wrestling angel did not satisfy his curiosity by revealing his history. But he
blessed him there, and sent him away, with the new name of "Israel."
Oh, how often is this true! God meeting His people in the
brooding darkness of their night of trial—wrestling with them; and if they, in
the deep mystery of their sorrow, are tempted to ask, "What do You seek?" He
does not answer directly—He does not answer as they would like Him to answer,
by desisting from the struggle. But He does better. They come out from the
conflict maimed and crippled and heart-stricken it may be, but with a new name
and blessing—as princes who have had power with God and prevailed.
"Come, O Traveler unknown,
Whom still I hold, but cannot see,
My company before is gone,
And I am left alone with Thee;
Wrestling, I will not let You go,
Until I Your Name, Your Nature know.
"'Tis love! 'Tis love You died for me!
I hear Your whisper in my heart!
The morning breaks, the shadows flee;
Pure universal Love You are!
To me, to all, Your affections move;
Your Nature and Your Name is love!
"The Sun of Righteousness on me
Has risen, healing in His wings;
Withered my native strength, from Thee
My soul its life and support brings
My help is all laid up above;
Your Nature and Your Name is Love!
"I know O, Savior, who You are;
Jesus, the feeble sinner's Friend!
Nor will You with the night depart,
But stay and love me to the end!
Your mercies never shall remove,
Your Nature and Your Name is Love!
"Lame as I am, I take the prey,
Hell, earth, and sin, with ease overcome;
I leap for joy, pursue my way,
And as a bounding deer fly home!
Through all eternity to prove, Your
Nature and Your Name is Love!"
—Charles Wesley, 1742.