In Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies, Marilyn Chandler McEntyre observed: “Silence is hard to come by. . . . We surround ourselves with ubiquitous means of filling or simply obliterating it. . . . But if we are to care for the work that words do, we must be willing to open up silences in our minds and in our days. Our words matter only to the extent that they have been allowed to germinate and take root in silence.”
Given this, silence can be a gift. And it was a gift God gave to Zechariah, though we are not accustomed to reading the narrative in this way. In today’s reading, in response to Gabriel’s announcement that he and his wife would finally have a child, for which they had long prayed, Zechariah responded doubtfully, “How can I be sure of this?” (v. 18).
As a punishment for his lack of faith, and as a sign of the truth of the angel’s message, Zechariah was told he would be “silent and not able to speak” until his son’s birth (v. 20). He was immediately kophos or mute, as we see in his inability to pronounce the blessing (v. 22). But kophos can also mean deaf (or both mute and deaf), and we can infer his deafness from the text since his neighbors had to make signs to him to figure out how to name the child (vv. 61–63). In addition, they were amazed at his response, which they wouldn’t have been if he had heard all that had been said.
From this perspective, God gave Zechariah a precious gift of time—nine months. Nine months in a perfect cocoon of silence—to repent of his lack of faith, to prepare spiritually for parenthood, to praise God for answered prayer, and to meditate on the prophecy that his son would be filled with the Spirit and bring people back to the Lord.
The book Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies by Marilyn Chandler McEntyre is well worth reading. One chapter is titled, “Cherish Silence,” but most of the book deals with words and language. How does the Creator of language intend for us to use it? And in what ways does that differ from how words are used in contemporary society?