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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament [1]

SILENCE. —‘Speech is of time, Silence is of Eternity. Thought will not work except in Silence; neither will Virtue work except in Secrecy.’ Carlyle’s words ( Sart . 151) are well known and profoundly true. The silences of great men are often more significant and self-revealing than their words. Silence has an eloquence that speech cannot rival. It is in silence that souls meet and strong emotions pass from one to the other. This is peculiarly true of Jesus, whose character can never be fathomed without a special study of His silences. The sayings of Jesus are limpid gems of ethical thought, flawless in their purity, enunciating principles of universal applicability. His deeds are the perfect expression of His sinless nature. But His silences are as essentially significant of the impression He made upon the world, for they reveal the spiritual atmosphere in which He lived and which determined His attitude to human life and to the problems of human nature.

1. For thirty years after His advent, Jesus was silent as to His mission. He allowed Himself ample time for the natural development of all His powers and faculties. He passed through the ordinary phases of childhood, boyhood, youth, and attained the maturity of manhood before He took up the burden of His brief career. It is the lesson of self-repression, of concentrated preparation for a great work. Jesus took no step He was obliged on maturer consideration to retract.

2. And before He took up His lifework there is a still deeper and more significant silence, the silence of the Temptation ( Matthew 4:1-11,  Mark 1:12-13,  Luke 4:1-13). Acts are but symbols, the true human drama is the drama of the soul. All epoch-making events have been lived through in some human soul before they emerged upon the arena of history. It was in the monastery of Erfurt that the Reformation was wrought out. It was in the cave of Manresa its victorious progress was stayed. And it was in the wilderness that Jesus lived His life, fought His tremendous battle with evil, faced every possible contingency of temptation, and came out victorious. In the silence of His own great soul was the campaign finished and the adversary baffled.

3. After the ordeal in the wilderness, Jesus began His active career, which was merely the symbol and seal of the victory already gained. The Synoptists are uniform in asserting that during the greater part of His ministry He was silent as to His Messiahship and His supernatural origin. His teaching, of which the Sermon on the Mount is a summary, is purely ethical. The first indication of any recognition of His true nature is to be found in the striking incident near Caesarea Philippi, and it is significant that it is the spontaneous acclamation of His own disciples. It is Peter who gives expression to the general feeling in the historic words, ‘Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.’ Peter’s confession draws forth the immediate injunction to the disciples that they tell no man that He was Jesus the Christ ( Matthew 16:20). This silence of Jesus as to His Messiahship was not merely, or mainly, from motives of prudence. It was because the only homage He valued was the homage that sprang from a real perception of the inherent Divineness of His character. He sought to draw out of men a recognition of His Divine nature by the sheer force of His Personality. It was the tribute of the heart, the spontaneous uprising of the spiritual instinct in response to His Godhood, that alone had ethical worth. The mere tribute of the lips, the result of convention or authority, was meaningless to Him. Jesus was silent in order that those who knew and loved Him, and in whose soul the Divine energy was working, might testify of Him.

4. The silence of Jesus regarding His miracles is significant of His own attitude towards them ( Mark 3:12,  Luke 5:14). Silence here cannot have been from prudential considerations, for miracles must undoubtedly have enhanced His reputation among the people, and it was His refusal to work miracles to gratify the Pharisees that formed the ground of their offence against Him ( Matthew 16:1 ff.). But Jesus knew how little miracles really proved. He knew that the faith given to Him merely on account of the physical marvels He did was on a distinctly lower level than the soul’s spontaneous recognition of His spiritual transcendence ( John 14:11). He was afraid that the unhealthy craving of a superstitious people would dull their perception of ethical truth.

5. Very striking is the silence of Jesus to direct questions asked. He never ignores a question sincerely put, or even when it is put as a challenge, but He rarely gives it a categorical answer ( Matthew 11:3;  Matthew 16:1;  Matthew 21:23;  Matthew 22:16;  Matthew 22:34,  Mark 10:17,  Luke 13:13). He generally rises above the individual case and settles the general principle of which it is an instance. Jesus knew what was in men. He answers their thought rather than their words. Soul meets soul with no interposing medium of physical utterance. The sincere seeker after truth gets a truth deeper than he dreamt of, while the insincere casuist is put to silence.

6. There are various striking silences of Jesus to individuals which have each its own peculiar meaning.

(1) The silence of probation ( Matthew 15:23). When the Syrophœnician woman pleads with Jesus to cure her daughter, He answers her not a word. When she persists in her pleading, in spite of all dissuasion, He speaks, but the ethical position of the two is strangely inverted. The words of Jesus breathe the narrowness of Judaism. Those of the woman reflect the universality of the gospel. This silence of Jesus to her pitiful entreaty is the silence of probation. He recognizes her faith; and because He sees it will stand the strain, He tests it to the uttermost. See Syrophœnician Woman.

(2) The silence of horror ( Matthew 14:13). When Jesus heard of the death of John the Baptist, He said no word, but departed into a desert place to calm the tumult of His spirit in silence. The iniquity of the world He had come to redeem swept over the pure spirit of Jesus with such overwhelming force that utterance was choked, and His human nature had to seek, in silence, communion with the Father in order to regain its equanimity. It is a silence more eloquent than words of vehement denunciation would have been. It is the instinctive shrinking of a high nature from the grossness and baseness of sin.

(3) The silence of shame ( John 8:6). The Pericope Adulterae , though not in the original Gospel of St. John, must have belonged to a very early tradition. It is the birth of the Christian grace of modesty. When confronted with the woman, Jesus is silent, stoops down, and writes upon the ground. He averts His face from the shameful spectacle. He is filled with pity and sorrow for the woman who has lost the virgin glory of her womanhood, and with indignation against the men whose shameless indelicacy in exposing her fault shows that they utterly fail to realize in what the true gravamen of her offence consists. To the pure soul of Jesus the sin of the one is greater than the sin of the other. Hence His words, ‘He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.’ The rebuke strikes home, the sense of shame flushes their cheeks, and the woman’s accusers silently steal away.

(4) The silence of indignation ( Matthew 26:63,  Mark 14:61). Jesus, after His apprehension, was first led before Caiaphas, the high priest. Caiaphas sought to incriminate Him by bringing against Him witnesses who made garbled and irrelevant statements of words they had heard Him utter. The high priest urged Him to say something in His defence, but Jesus held His peace. It was the silence of indignation against the utter mockery of His trial and the attitude of the time-serving president of the Court.

(5) The silence of contempt ( Luke 23:9). Herod was a different type. He is the representative of superstitious profligacy. Herod was a weak man, with a conscience certainly, but a conscience that could be touched only by his superstitious fears. He liked to have a saint under his patronage, provided the saint would be pliable enough to leave his patron’s vices unrebuked. He had tried John the Baptist, but that experiment had failed, and now he would try Jesus. And so he questioned Him in many words, but Jesus answered him nothing. Here is apparently a seeker after truth to whom Jesus has nothing to say. It is not so. The gospel refuses the patronage of the vicious. Jesus has nothing to say to craven superstition seeking to condone its own vices by taking religion under its protection.

(6) The silence of self-containment ( John 19:9). Pilate, again, represents another and a higher type. To him Jesus opened Himself more fully than to any of His judges. He recognized in him one whose instincts were those of a capable and genuine ruler, and He sympathized with the dilemma in which Pilate was placed. Though the final decision rested with Pilate, he was the least guilty of all who were responsible for the tragedy of Calvary ( John 19:11). In Pilate’s soul a great struggle was going on. He was looking for a way of escape from a difficult situation, but he dared not take the only way that true magnanimity required. He dared not be true to his own high function of asserting the impartial justice of Imperial Rome, and the result was moral ruin. It is always so with Jesus. To the soul that once recognizes His claims no half measures are possible. It is all or nothing—absolute loyalty or a treason that leads downwards to the pit. And Jesus had a clear perception of the character of the Roman ruler, who alone had insight enough to recognize the essential greatness of his prisoner. One imperial soul met another. On the plane on which they met there was no difficulty of intercommunication. Jesus has no hesitation in asserting His royalty and His claim to be the Revealer of eternal truth. Pilate has culture enough at least to understand what He means, and his scepticism is the scepticism of sadness and perplexity rather than of scorn. But when Pilate, struck with the largeness of soul displayed by Jesus, touches on the higher mysteries, He is silent. To the question, ‘Whence art thou?’ Jesus has nothing to say. It is not that He fears to commit Himself. It is simply that He cannot give an answer that would be intelligible to Pilate.

(7) The silence of self-absorption . There have been many commentaries on the seven words of Jesus on the cross, but His silence there is as striking as His speech. Jesus has nothing to say to the jeers and mockery of the infuriated people, or to the taunts of priests and Pharisees. He is self-absorbed. For the self-hood of Jesus is His mission, His purpose, the idea of His life. And even in the agony of the cruelest death the malignity of man has ever devised, He is not shaken out of this self-absorption. His words have all reference to the central idea which constitutes His earthly existence. Pity for sinning humanity, love for those whose hearts are His, His attitude to the Father with whom all along He has realized His oneness,—these are the emotions that dominate His soul. There is not even the faintest trace of anger against those who have wreaked their vengeance upon Him. There is scarcely even a consciousness of their presence.

7. It is instructive to note the different valuation put upon speech and silence by Jesus and those who surrounded Him. Jesus silenced the Sadducees when they propounded to Him knotty points of theology ( Matthew 22:34), and suffered not the demons to speak ( Mark 1:34). But when the multitude rebuked the blind men who cried importunately to Him at the gate of Jericho, Jesus listened to their appeal ( Matthew 20:31); and when the disciples sought to silence the mothers who brought their children to be blessed, Jesus encouraged them with one of His most striking and characteristic sayings ( Matthew 19:13,  Mark 10:13,  Luke 18:15). And, further, He who in the earlier part of His career carefully concealed His Messiahship from the people, on the critical occasion when He made His triumphant entry into Jerusalem gave an emphatic refusal to silence the acclamations with which He was hailed by the people.

Literature.—Carlyle, Sartor Resartus  ; Maeterlinck, Treasure of the Humble  ; E. A. Abbott, Philochristus  ; Seeley, Ecce Homo  ; the various Lives of Christ; W. M. Taylor, The Silence of Jesus (1894), p. 105; H. P. Liddon, Passiontide Sermons (1891), p. 153; W. W. Sidey, The Silent Christ (1903); A. Maclaren, The Holy of Holies (1890), p. 255; Phillips Brooks, The Light of the World (1891), p. 124.

A. Miller.

Vine's Expository Dictionary of NT Words [2]

A — 1: Σιγή (Strong'S #4602 — Noun Feminine — sige — see-gay' )

occurs in  Acts 21:40;  Revelation 8:1 , where the "silence" is introductory to the judgments following the opening of the seventh seal.

 Acts 22:2 1—Timothy 2:11,12Quietness.

B — 1: Φιμόω (Strong'S #5392 — Verb — phimoo — fee-mo'-o )

"to muzzle," is rendered "to put to silence" in  Matthew 22:34;  1—Peter 2:15 . See Muzzle , Peace (hold), Speechless , Still.

B — 2: Σιγάω (Strong'S #4601 — Verb — sigao — see-gah'-o )

"to be silent:" see PEACE (hold), No. 1.

King James Dictionary [3]

SI'LENCE, n. L. silentium, from sileo, to be still.

1. In a general sense, stillness, or entire absence of sound or noise as the silence of midnight. 2. In animals, the state of holding the peace forbearance of speech in man, or of noise in other animals. I was dumb with silence I held my peace, even from good.  Psalms 39 . 3. Habitual taciturnity opposed to loquacity. 4. Secrecy. These things were transacted in silence. 5. Stillness calmness quiet cessation of rage, agitation or tumult as the elements reduced to silence. 6. Absence of mention oblivion, Eternal silence be their doom. And what most merits fame, in silence hid. 7. Silence, in used elliptically for let there be silence, an injunction to keep silence.

SI'LENCE, 5 t.

1. To oblige to hold the peace to restrain from noise or speaking. 2. To still to quiet to restrain to appease. This would silence all further opposition. These would have silenced their scruples. 3. To stop as, to silence complaints or clamor. 4. To still to cause to cease firing as, to silence guns or a battery. 5. To restrain from preaching by revoking a license to preach as, to silence a minister of the gospel. The Rev. Thomas Hooker, of Chelmsford in Essex, was silenced for non-conformity. 6. To put an end to to cause to cease. The question between agriculture and commerce has received a decision which has silenced the rivalships between them.

Webster's Dictionary [4]

(1): ( v. t.) To restrain from the exercise of any function, privilege of instruction, or the like, especially from the act of preaching; as, to silence a minister of the gospel.

(2): ( v. t.) To cause to cease firing, as by a vigorous cannonade; as, to silence the batteries of an enemy.

(3): ( v. t.) To compel to silence; to cause to be still; to still; to hush.

(4): ( v. t.) To put to rest; to quiet.

(5): ( n.) The cessation of rage, agitation, or tumilt; calmness; quiest; as, the elements were reduced to silence.

(6): ( interj.) Be silent; - used elliptically for let there be silence, or keep silence.

(7): ( n.) Absence of mention; oblivion.

(8): ( n.) The state of being silent; entire absence of sound or noise; absolute stillness.

(9): ( n.) Forbearance from, or absence of, speech; taciturnity; muteness.

(10): ( n.) Secrecy; as, these things were transacted in silence.

Hawker's Poor Man's Concordance And Dictionary [5]

There is a great and extensive meaning in this word as used by the Hebrews. It doth not simply mean where nothing is spoken, but a certain complacency and delight. Thus the Lord himself is said by the prophet to rest in his love, or as the margin of the Bible renders it, he will be silent in his love. ( Zephaniah 3:17) In relation to the ordinary silence of the Hebrews, I refer to the word Salutation. Siloam This was a pool under the walls of Jerusalem, between the city and the brook Cedron. The prophet Isaiah speaks of it as the waters of Shiloah. ( Isaiah 8:6) The name is derived from Shiloah, meaning sent. (See  John 9:1-41 throughout.)

Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary [6]

This word not only signifies to refrain from speaking; but also in the style of the Hebrews, it is taken for, "to be quiet, to remain immovable." As for example: "Sun, stand thou still upon Gibeon," in Hebrew, be silent. "And the sun stood still, and the moon stayed,"  Joshua 10:12-13 , or were silent, at the commandment of Joshua.

Holman Bible Dictionary [7]

 Habakkuk 2:20 Psalm 94:17 Psalm 115:17 Lamentations 2:10 Matthew 22:34 Revelation 8:1

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia [8]

sı̄´lens  : Five Hebrew roots, with various derivatives, and two Greek words are thus translated. The word is used literally for dumbness, interrupted speech, as in   Lamentations 2:10;  Psalm 32:3;  Ecclesiastes 3:7;  Amos 5:13;  Acts 15:12;  1 Corinthians 14:28;  1 Timothy 2:11 ,  1 Timothy 2:12 the King James Version (the American Standard Revised Version "quietness");   Revelation 8:1 , or figuratively of the unanswered prayers of the believer (  Psalm 83:1;  Psalm 35:22;  Jeremiah 8:14 ); of awe in the presence of the Divine Majesty ( Isaiah 41:1;  Zechariah 2:13 ), or of death ( 1 Samuel 2:9;  Psalm 94:17;  Psalm 115:17 ).