One of the psalms that I see most often quoted (other than the 23rd, of course) and that I hear referred to as a favorite is Psalm 46, a song attributed to the Sons of Korah. It begins “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble” and then moves to the line that I personally find the most compelling: “Be still, and know that I am God” (Ps 46:10). What exactly does being still before God mean? Surely it refers to more than a state of physical inactivity. More important, how do we achieve that stillness, especially in the hyper-charged age in which we live? I believe– and think the psalmist David for whom the Sons of Korah worked as temple musicians and choristers and worship leaders, would agree– that our stillness must be preceded and accompanied by silence.
David surely knew both solitude and silence; he knew tumult and the noise of war as well. Had David composed Psalm 46, he might have begun “Be silent, and know that I am God.” In Psalm 62, a first person psalm as the majority of his are, he does commence “For God alone my soul waits in silence; from Him comes my salvation” (Ps 62:1) in the translation that I most frequently use (ESV). Hebrew scholar and translator Robert Alter renders the line differently: “Only in God is my being quiet. From Him is my rescue.” I believe there are several aspects of Alter’s version that merit our attention. First is the substitution of the word quiet for silence. Denotatively the two words may be close in meaning, but connotatively quiet can carry with it a sense of peace that may be lacking in silence. In fact, a silent approach or response between parties– the so-called “silent treatment”– can be construed as disharmony, disrespect and distance. Second Alter points out the repetition of the word only, the “emphatic only” as he call it, six times in this short psalm, thus making us aware that we should regard it as a marker signalling us to pay particular attention to it when it appears. The ESV moves back and forth between alone and only in its translation and thus inadvertently loses that focus or point.
The fifth time only occurs is verse 5, a kind of refrain line. Here the ESV reads: “For God alone, O my soul, wait in silence.” Alter’s translation is more emphatic: “Only in God, be quiet my being, for from Him is my hope.” In that language, we can see the psalmist’s change of heart illustrated by a transition from a simple statement of affirmation to what appears to be almost an imperative or command — be quiet. There is movement from from rescue to hope as well. The former seems grounded in a particular deliverance, while the latter implies an everlasting promise.
The difference between silence and quiet can be profound, it seems to me. At times they occur in tandem, and at others they are decidedly at odds. At least that is my experience. Often as I struggle with particularly painful emotional or spiritual matters, I do so in silence. But the curbing of my speech and withdrawing into solitude does nothing to quell the turmoil in my head and heart. Surely that state of internal unrest is universal. David spoke of it directly. In Psalm 39 he declares: “‘I said…I will guard my mouth with a muzzle’…I was mute and silent; I held my peace to no avail, and my distress grew worse.” In human silence alone there is no guarantee of peace. In the instant, silent or not, there may be no immediate deliverance or resolution at all. Therein lies the importance of grasping the truth that David knew and that the Alter linguistic shift from refuge to hope so masterfully captures. In God is our hope, always and only our hope, even if or when He seems momentarily unresponsive to our desperate pleas or voiceless despair.
Look with me at the marvelous image David draws in Psalm 131, one of only four of the Songs of Ascent attributed to him. “O Lord, my heart is not lifted up; my eyes are not raised too high…But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child is my soul within me” (Ps 131:1-2). David’s frank confession of spiritual disquietude at the beginning of the psalm dissolves into an assured calm through the use of figurative language and an image that requires us to stop and ponder it. Does the psalmist mean a weaned child, we may naturally ask. Wouldn’t a nursing child better depict contentment? We are all familiar with a mother lifting a fussy baby to her breast to quiet the restless, hungry and crying infant who can be consoled no other way. Weaning, after all, would seem an opposite action, for it is the process that in a literal sense separates, turns a baby from dependence on maternal nourishment to other sources of it and begins to establish a child’s independence. But the weaned child who is quieted on his mother’s breast is the one who lies down there in perfect peace, knowing the mother in heart and spirit (not intellectually), having been enveloped, nurtured and protected, and surrendering to her still in absolute trust with the expectation that she will always be for him or her who she was.
The poignancy of this image came to life for me in the late 1980’s when I was on a short term mission trip in Guatemala with Wycliffe Bible translators. We journeyed deep into the mountains where linguists spent decades living with the indigenous people whose language tradition was solely oral. There they worked to make alphabets and grammars and to create a written language so that the people of those villages could hear and eventually read scripture in their own native tongue. Abstract terms, one Wycliffe worker told me, were the greatest challenge. Endeavoring to convey ideas like God’s love for us, for which there simply was not even a spoken equivalent, had been the most trying. She and the team struggled for months, testing words and phrases without success. They understood how critical it was to capture the concept correctly, but were at a dead end. Then one day as they walked through the market with the villagers who were their translation assistants, one suddenly pointed to the crowd of women, all of whom had their babies and even toddlers tied across their chests, and shouted out “he lays his head down on her heart.” So that became the verbal incarnation through which to express God’s changeless, eternal and abiding love made manifest to his precious children. David surely would have applauded that brilliant insight. As a weaned child, he declares, he laid his head down on His heart; and there in the absolute silence of that inviolable communion he quieted his soul.
The psalms, we are generally and correctly taught, demonstrate to us two primary ways to pray: through our lamentations and through praise and thanksgiving. Yet there is a third way, and that is in silence. Silent prayer transports us to a place and presence beyond what language can achieve or describe. A reverent silence can be the holiest and humblest prayer of all. Only in stillness can we lift it up; only when we lift it up, sometimes without uttering a single word, can we find that blessed stillness for our soul.
With these words I long to find entrance to that sacred speechless realm: Be still and be silent, O my heart and my soul, and thus draw near to Him, Who only is my salvation and my hope.