An Introduction to Bible Silence
Note: This article is designed to be a gentle introduction to the concept and significance of Bible silence. It is not intended to answer every question or argument on this topic. A more detailed presentation and answering of objections is available in the article, Do The Silence of Scriptures Prohibit or Permit?
Have you ever heard someone ask, “Where is your Bible authority for that?” The very word, “authority”, suggests permission or justification. Therefore, this question implies the need for permission from God before we should do anything as individuals or as the church. In general, how would you respond to this question? A reply commonly offered is, “Where is the verse that says it’s wrong?” This response indicates an opposite attitude toward the Bible and God. The first questioner is looking for explicit permission, while the second person is only avoiding whatever is explicitly prohibited. This difference in attitude is most obvious in our interpretation of the Bible’s silence.
The Bible does not refer to many things specifically, such as: church buildings, instrumental music, song books, dance teams, water fountains, gymnasiums, and many other modern church practices. On these things, we might say the Bible is “silent”. But, how does God expect us to interpret this silence? What should it mean to us? Should we assume that silence gives us permission, implying that we should only avoid those things condemned? Or, should we assume that silence does not permit, implying that we should only practice that which has been authorized? Either choice presents some challenges.
Frequently, the question of Bible silence is presented as a dilemma, a problem with only two solutions. However, such presentation is a false dilemma, because it overlooks a third option, a middle ground. One extreme is that silence generally - if not always permits. Others would contend that silence generally - if not always prohibits. However, there is a third option that suggests the answer is not so simple, because the true answer depends on other factors. Silence alone is not telling, because it is simply that - silence, nothing, the absence of information. Silence only becomes meaningful, when it is observed with other relevant Bible facts. The purpose of this article is two-fold: to first show the error and unscripturalness of the notion that silence generally permits, and to second show the Bible’s case for a particular form of silence that does prohibit. (The extreme position that silence always prohibits is not examined here for brevity.) The first key to a proper understanding of Scripture is to realize that all cases of silence are not the same!
Two Kinds of Silence
There are two kinds of silence found in the Bible, and it is critical to recognize the distinction. Possibly the most prevalent type of silence in Scripture is that created by categorical or generic reference. In this case, the Scriptures address a topic with broad, general language without enumerating every possible specific application. For example, in regards to work ethic Christians are generally commanded to “work in quietness and eat their own bread” (II Thessalonians 3:12). Although the Lord did not specify every type of work imaginable by which we may provide for ourselves, our families, and others (I Timothy 5:8, 16; Ephesians 4:28), He did categorically or generically authorize most types of work, assuming whatever work we find does not violate some other directive. (For example, being a robber or any other career criminal would not be acceptable, because we are to generally obey the laws of the land, and we must not steal, Romans 13:1-5; Ephesians 4:28). Therefore, a person might honorably work as an engineer, machinist, accountant, pharmacist, clerk, nurse, teacher, doctor, and so on, even though the Scriptures are “silent” on these specific career options.
The second kind and most debated form of silence is that created by positive specific directives. In this case, the Scriptures specify a certain option, but they do not specifically forbid every other alternative. For example, in worship we are specifically authorized to “sing and make melody in your heart”, “on the first day of the week ... lay something aside”, “come together to eat ... the Lord’s Supper”, “continue steadfastly ... in prayers”, “teach and preach”(Ephesians 5:19; I Corinthians 16:1-2; 11:20-34; Acts 2:42; 5:42). However, we are not specifically forbidden from introducing mechanical instruments, dancing, incense, community fundraisers, fellowship meals, gymnasiums, entertainment, and many other popular modern acts of worship. Does the positive specific pattern of New Testament worship inherently exclude these competing options, or must the Lord forbid them before we will reject them? Many today proceed with these additions citing the absence of prohibition, arguing that silence permits. Is this fair, true, or Biblical? Let us consider one example from Scripture of someone, who attempted to act on God’s silence.
When Did I Ever Say?
In many ways, David was perhaps the greatest king of Israel. God declared David to be “a man after His own heart” (I Samuel 13:14). Yet, David was far from perfect (II Samuel 11:1-12:23). Although David often acted with the noblest of intentions (I Samuel 24:1-22; I Chronicles 11:18-19; 21:22-25), he was known at least once to have behaved presumptuously, which ultimately cost the life of another man (I Chronicles 13:1-14; 15:1-15; II Samuel 6:1-8). In the following passage, we find King David again acting somewhat hastily and being corrected by God:
Now it came to pass, when David was dwelling in his house, that David said to Nathan the prophet, “See now, I dwell in a house of cedar, but the ark of the covenant of the LORD is under tent curtains.” Then Nathan said to David, “Do all that is in your heart, for God is with you.” But it happened that night that the word of God came to Nathan, saying, “Go and tell My servant David, ‘Thus says the LORD: “You shall not build Me a house to dwell in. For I have not dwelt in a house since the time that I brought up Israel, even to this day, but have gone from tent to tent, and from one tabernacle to another. Wherever I have moved about with all Israel, have I ever spoken a word to any of the judges of Israel, whom I commanded to shepherd My people, saying, ‘Why have you not built Me a house of cedar?’”’ (I Chronicles 17:1-6, see also, II Samuel 7:1-7)
In addition to forbidding David from building the temple, the Lord also rebuked David for thinking he could or should have built Him a temple. In correcting David, the Lord Himself emphasized a proper respect for His silence: “Wherever ... have I ever spoken a word to anyone ... saying, ‘Why have you not built Me a house of cedar?’” (II Samuel 7:7). The Lord had authorized the construction of a tent, the tabernacle (Exodus 25:9-27:21). That was the pattern that God defined and His people had observed under His supervision: “For I have not dwelt in a house since the time that I brought the children of Israel up from Egypt, even to this day, but have moved about in a tent and in a tabernacle” (II Samuel 7:6). Alternatives to this pattern were not explicitly forbidden. Where was the verse that condemned building a temple for the Lord? Where was the verse that said the Israelites should only ever use the tabernacle?Nowhere in Scripture did God prohibit people from constructing a permanent house for Him. Moreover, God did not point to a passage that in any way precluded such a building. Instead, God pointed to the absence of positive authority in conjunction with His existing, approved pattern, which was the tabernacle! In light of God’s established pattern, the absence of further positive approval was necessarily prohibitive! This is the essence of a healthy respect for God’s silence in Scripture as established and articulated by God Himself - “Wherever have I ever spoken a word to anyone?”! If silence generally permits, then why did God chastise David with it?
The Failure of Good Intentions
If ever there was a man that could claim that he sought the Lord’s glory and operated according to a good heart, it would be David, who was divinely recognized as “a man after His own heart” (I Samuel 13:14). Even in the above instance, we see David’s noble, humble, and selfless heart shining:
Now it came to pass when the king was dwelling in his house, and the LORD had given him rest from all his enemies all around, that the king said to Nathan the prophet, “See now, I dwell in a house of cedar, but the ark of God dwells inside tent curtains.” (II Samuel 7:1-2)
Why did David want to build the Lord a permanent house, a temple? First, notice the occasion: David had been tremendously blessed with peace from war and unrest. No longer was he desperately roaming through countryside, dwelling in the rocky strongholds, while evading Saul or hiding from the Philistines (I Samuel 18-30). David was quietly resting each night in a secured house, and not just any house, but a “a house of cedar”, which would suggest both wealth and strength! This would have been a time of great thanksgiving from David, “the sweet psalmist of Israel” (II Samuel 23:1).
Second, David contrasted his own dwelling with that of the Lord (“I dwell in a house of cedar, but the ark of God dwells inside tent curtains”). This was an obvious disparity in honor, station, and glory. If there was ever any house that should have been exalted, it should have been the Lord’s house, because the Lord exalted King David, not David himself!
Third, the tent-like tabernacle was a suitable house of worship for a nomadic nation, who were wandering in the wilderness or conquering the land of Canaan. But, once the people settled, why would their house of worship not also settle? Their king had moved into a permanent dwelling. Why would they not honor God in a permanent dwelling? How better to extol, solidify, and promote the great and victorious God and the settlement of His people than a solid, stable, permanent dwelling?
David’s thinking was pure, humble, and sensible, but yet it was not the Lord’s wisdom or will (“You shall not build Me a house to dwell in.”)! David exhibited the sincerest of motives that were focused earnestly on the Lord’s glory, but his good intentions did not justify his plan. Well meaning intentions simply do not vindicate our actions. Our best of motives does not warrant, indicate, or guarantee God’s approval of our decisions. Only God’s Word is our standard and our judge; therefore, only it can authorize!
“He who rejects Me, and does not receive My words, has that which judges him -- the word that I have spoken will judge him in the last day. (John 12:48)Be diligent to present yourself approved to God, a worker who does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth. (II Timothy 2:15)All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work. (II Timothy 3:16-17)
Did David not have good intentions? Who can deny that David’s intentions were pure? Even the Lord acknowledged David’s noble heart in this very case:
“Now it was in the heart of my father David to build a temple for the name of the LORD God of Israel. But the LORD said to my father David, ‘sWhereas it was in your heart to build a temple for My name, you did well that it was in your heart. Nevertheless you shall not build the temple, but your son who will come from your body, he shall build the temple for My name.’” (I Kings 8:17-19)
If good intentions and pure motives make something right, then why was David forbidden from building the Lord a glorious house?
Blind Leading the Blind
Reading the above passage again, please notice that David did not act entirely on his own or without advice or counsel. David consulted Nathan, a prophet of God (II Samuel 7:2-4)! However, the prophet did not warn or correct David. Furthermore, the prophet was implicitly corrected by God in His response to David. How could a prophet of God mislead? It is not supposed to be possible (Deuteronomy 18:19-22)! Yet, prophets were men, and if they provided their own human counsel, they could fail just like uninspired men, which is what Nathan did here. Nathan personally concluded that David’s plans would please the Lord, since the Lord had previously shown approval to David in general:
Then Nathan said to the king, “Go, do all that is in your heart, for the LORD is with you.” (II Samuel 7:3)
Therefore, we should take notice and learn: Even well-known, respected, and cherished spiritual advisors may lead us astray, if they do not speak from the Word of the Lord! If the advice from an inspired prophet of God needed to be reinforced with authority from God (“Thus says the LORD”), how much more important is it to require Bible authority from uninspired men, who would counsel us today? Just because our preacher, pastor, bishop, parent, or friend tells us what he thinks is God’s will, we should not simply assume that it is God’s will, regardless of how much love, esteem, or respect we hold for him or her. Instead, we must be like the noble-minded Bereans:
Then the brethren immediately sent Paul and Silas away by night to Berea. When they arrived, they went into the synagogue of the Jews. These were more fair-minded than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness, and searched the Scriptures daily to find out whether these things were so. Therefore many of them believed, and also not a few of the Greeks, prominent women as well as men. (Acts 17:10-12)
Again, if the Bereans were divinely commended for double-checking the apostle Paul, how much more critical is it for us to double-check uninspired men today? Who will ever teach us with so great a reputation for integrity, sacrifice, and endurance as the apostle Paul (II Corinthians 11:16-33)? And, yet even his words were compared with established Scripture! Beware the teacher who expects you to accept him as an authority, just because he said so, especially apart from the established will of God (Galatians 1:6-8)!
Let us not forget our Lord’s somber warning:
“Let them alone. They are blind leaders of the blind. And if the blind leads the blind, both will fall into a ditch.” (Matthew 15:14)
The proper interpretation of Bible silence is hotly debated, although it need not be. The Scriptures themselves - even God Himself personally articulated His expected and correct rule for interpreting His silence. When contrasted with an established Bible pattern (for example, the tabernacle), silence or the lack of further approval necessarily prohibits (“Wherever have I ever spoken a word to anyone?”)! Contrariwise, if silence is always permissive, then why did God use it to correct and limit David? Why did He not point to the passage to be violated by David’s plan? Therefore, we conclude the absence of additional authority in conjunction with existing authority necessarily excludes us from going further and practicing what is not authorized. In such cases, Bible silence is limiting! Furthermore, we have also seen from the same passage the utter failure of good intentions to justify our presumptuous plans. And, we have also received warning not to entrust the interpretation of God’s Word to any man. We need to be like the noble-minded Bereans and study God’s Word - the Bible - for ourselves, because men, even good intentioned men, may inadvertently lead us into the ditch (Acts 17:11; II Timothy 2:15). But, into the ditch we will both fall regardless of anyone’s intentions, if we are not careful to study the Bible for ourselves!
The Lord’s correction of David in I Chronicles 17:1-6 and II Samuel 7:6-7 has been recorded for all of us to learn (I Corinthians 10:11; Romans 15:4). The Lord corrected David, as He still corrects and warns each of us today through this inspired account. Will we heed the correction, like David, or will we proceed with any of our potentially unauthorized plans that we may have added to the Lord’s revealed pattern? Please, let us pause, meditate, and pray as we consider this passage and reflect on our own hearts and decisions. The pure heart is ultimately exonerated in how it receives correction, as did David. Will we be presumptuous, or will we prove ourselves to be a “a man after God’s own heart”?
... If you still have questions or are not persuaded, please study the verses and thoughts found in our follow-up article, Do The Silence of Scriptures Prohibit or Permit? It demonstrates this same point from a multitude of passages, showing that a proper respect for Bible silence is upheld all throughout the Bible! And, that article also takes the time to answer common objects to each proof-text. Also, please feel free to contact us with any feedback, suggestions, comments, or questions.