Silence and Solitude in the Bible

“I am rather inclined to silence, and whether that be wise or not, it is at least more unusual nowadays to find a man who can hold his tongue than to find one who cannot.” Abraham Lincoln

Richard Foster in Celebration of Discipline defines the discipline of silence as “saying what needs to be said when it needs to be said”. An important aspect of silence and solitude, along with simplicity and frugality, is that we must deny ourselves some of this overload of sensation to listen to the voice of God in our spirit. Modern people, especially in Western Culture, eschew silence and solitude for several reasons:
1. They require great trust in God because, as Foster wrote, “the tongue is our most powerful weapon of manipulation.” We feel that if we are not shaping events in our favor, no one is.
2. We want to experience as much as possible, and the sensations available to experience today are essentially limitless.
3. We want to use every minute doing something that we can measure, such as making money or gathering experiences. With poor spiritual resources within, we seek to define ourselves in terms of outward things…money, accomplishments, fame, that can be quantified.

Bourgeois society is infected by monomania: the monomania of accounting. For it, the only thing that has value is what can be counted in francs and centimes. It never hesitates to sacrifice human life to figures which look well on paper, such as national budgets or industrial balance sheets.  Simone Weil (1909-43), French philosopher, mystic. “La Rationalisation” (written 1937; published in La Condition Ouvrière, 1951).

Albert Einstein provided a clever rejoinder :
“Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.” Albert Einstein

God does not define us by what we accomplish but by whose we are. He wants us to develop the spiritual resources we can only gain from Him, our ultimate source. The spiritual disciplines can help us do exactly that. The paper discusses silence and solitude as paths to the person and power of God.

What are silence and solitude?

As mentioned above, silence and solitude involve creating space in our lives to encounter God. Creating this space requires hushing our own grasping sinful natures and hushing the clamor of the world around us. Once this is done, we will be able to “say what needs to be said when it needs to be said”.

We create this space not to focus on ourselves but to focus on our Creator.

Silence and Solitude in the Old Testament

Stillness (חשה chashah – to be silent, to make quiet, to be inactive) is a common concept in the Old Testament. Sometimes it refers to inactivity in times when the people of God should be active (Judges 18:9, 1 Kings 2:3, 2 Kings 7:9, Isaiah 62:6) but other times it refers to peaceful trust in the Lord without work. Another commonly used term is דמם damam (to be silent). A third is הסה hacah (to keep silent, to hold your tongue).

Scripture Examples of Silence and Solitude in the Old Testament

Topic Citation Notes
Elijah in the cave 1 Kings 19:11-12 Shortly after the confrontation with the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel, Elijah fled south to the wilderness and encountered God in a cave. God came to him in the stillness, not in the noise.
Stillness in times of anxiety 2 Kings 2:3-5 Elisha was about to lose Elijah, his mentor for many years.  He encouraged the sons of the prophets to be still.
Stillness in times of insecurity Psalm 37:7-8 Rest in the Lord and wait patiently for him.
Stillness in times of trouble Psalm 46:10 Be still and know that I am God.
Waiting silently during adversity Psalm 62:1, 5 My soul waits in silence for the Lord for my hope comes from Him.
Hope for the future is in the Lord Psalm 131:2 As a young child is comforted by the presence of his mother, so the godly man is comforted and silent by the presence of God.
The wise restrain their lips. Proverbs 10:19 Where there are many words, sin is unavoidable.
Do the right thing at the right time. Ecclesiastes 3:7 A time to be silent, a time to speak
Admonition to silence Ecclesiastes 5:1-2 Be cautious in your words before the Almighty
Gifts of God in faith Isaiah 30:15 Salvation and strength in repentance and rest, quietness and trust
Silence in hard times Amos 5:13 Keep silent during times of evil
Be silent before God Habakkuk 2:20 The Lord is in His holy temple so let all the earth keep silent.
Be silent before God Zephaniah 1:7 Hold thy peace in God’s presence
Be silent before God Zechariah 2:13 Let all mortal flesh keep silent before the Lord.

Silence and Solitude in the New Testament
The Greek word σιγή sigē is commonly used for silence in the New Testament. A derivative of this (σιγάω sigaō) suggests a person keeping a secret or holding his peace. Another (φιμόω phimoō) suggests being put to silence.

Scripture Examples of Silence and Solitude in the New Testament

Topic Citation Notes
Jesus’ temptation Matthew 4:1-10 Jesus used 40 days of silence and solitude to encounter the Father.
Jesus’ solitude in times of sadness Matthew 14:13, 23 Jesus had just learned of John the Baptist’s execution.  His own would soon follow.
Jesus’ devotions Mark 1:35 Every day, Jesus arose in the early morning darkness to seek the Father.
Jesus’ instruction to the disciples on silence and solitude Mark 6:30-32 Jesus taught His disciples to use silence, solitude and rest to prepare them for future ministry.
Jesus’ solitude before major decisions Luke 6:12 The choosing of the disciples was probably the greatest decision of Jesus’ ministry.  He spent the whole night before choosing them in silence, solitude and prayer to seek the will of the Father.
The silence of amazement Luke 20:26 The Pharisees tried to trap Jesus in the question of whether or not to pay taxes to Caesar.  His answer silenced them.
The silence of expectation Acts 15:12 The Christians in Jerusalem silently waited to hear the testimony of Paul and Barnabas regarding the Gentiles.
The silence of expectation Acts 21:40 Paul’s enemies silent before his testimony
Paul’s training in the desert Galatians 1:13-17 Paul spent three years in Arabia immediately after his conversion, learning the ways of the Lord.
The silence of expectation Revelation 8:1 Heaven silent before the opening of the 7th seal

How do we practice silence and solitude?
1. Use the “little moments” of silence and solitude that we each encounter every day to reflect on the Lord; His nature, His love and His goodness. This may involve turning off the car radio, the home television, or the computer game.
2. Step away from commitments that do not contribute to our service to God in our lives.
3. Develop a quiet place in our homes for silence and solitude.
4. Keep our words few and full, stopping the frenetic stream of self-justification and explanation. Consider living one full day without words. I did this when I had a rare day off in Baghdad, Iraq, in 2004.
5. Quarterly, withdraw for several hours to ask the Lord to help you reorient life goals.
6. Combine silence and solitude with weekend study retreats.

In one of the stories of the sisters Mary and Martha in the Bible, Martha is scurrying about preparing dinner and Mary is sitting at Jesus’ feet learning from Him. Martha was cross at working alone and asked Jesus to tell her sister to help her. Jesus’ replied “you are worried and bothered about so many things; but only a few things are necessary, really only one, for Mary has chosen the good part, which shall not be taken away from her.” Luke 11:38-42
Jesus was not saying that Mary never had to help with preparations, nor that the basic work of life did not need to be done. He was saying that they needed far less than Martha imagined, and that some time needed to be devoted to encountering Him. God has the same message for us today.

Limitations of silence and solitude

“The whole value of solitude depends upon one’s self; it may be a sanctuary or a prison, a haven of repose or a place of punishment, a heaven or a hell, as we ourselves make it.” John Lubbock

Silence and solitude are not an end in themselves but a means to the end of a closer relationship with God. The Pharisees practiced some spiritual disciplines but did so for the purpose of looking good to others and thereby enriching themselves.

If silence and solitude end up focusing our attention on ourselves, they will turn out worse than if we had not practiced them at all. Self-focus is deadly.
In a study published in the Harvard Business Review, a computer program counted words used by writers. It found “when we analyzed poems by writers who committed suicide versus poems by those who didn’t, we thought we’d find more dark and negative content words in the suicides’ poetry. We didn’t, but we did discover significant difference in the frequency of the words like “I”.

Pronouns tell us where people focus their attention. If someone uses the pronoun “I,” it is a sign of self focus. If someone asks “what’s the weather outside? you could answer “it’s hot” or “I think it’s hot.” The “I think” may seem insignificant but it’s quite meaningful. It shows you’re more focused on yourself. Depressed people use the word “I” much more often than emotionally stable people. People who are lower in status use “I” much more frequently. (World Magazine, 25 Feb 2012)

Silence and solitude must focus on Christ, not on us.


God is the source and focus of all things in the universe. Our lives are filled with things that distract us from Him. Believers should practice the disciplines of silence and solitude as men in the Bible did, focused on God, to help us become more like our Lord. Silence and solitude can be paths to His person and power.

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