Singing a silent song

God of Zion, to you even silence is praise. –Psalm 65:1a, CEB

Recently, while beginning my study of Psalm 65, I was struck by the variety of ways the opening is rendered into English. As opposed to the Common English Bible, above, the New Revised Standard reads, “Praise is due to you, O God, in Zion.” The New International Version reads, “Praise awaits you, our God, in Zion,” while the New American Standard has, “There will be silence before you, and praise in Zion, O God.”

How do we make sense of this?

All of the above translations are attempts to render a mere six words in Hebrew, not one of which is a verb. Instead, the psalmist piles up four nouns (with two prepositions):





Not surprisingly, the translations all agree on the latter three. Together, they make sense. The psalm seems to be set in the context of the Jerusalem temple, where the people gather in God’s presence to praise him. They sing not only of his forgiveness and deliverance, but of his sovereignty over all the earth, including the gracious provision of the rain that makes the hills green and the crops thrive.

But the translators aren’t sure what to do with the word “silence.” The word is only used four times in the Old Testament, and all four of these uses are in the Psalms. Psalm 22, for example, is the one whose opening line is quoted from the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (vs. 1, NRSV). Feeling forgotten, abandoned, the psalmist continues: “O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest” (vs. 2). That final word, “rest,” is the same word can be translated as “silence” in Psalm 65. Similarly, Psalm 62:1 uses the word to describe a soul waiting upon God for his salvation.

The picture, in other words, is not of a people gathered to clap, sing, and shout in praise, even though the heading of the psalm clearly identifies it as a song. Rather, the psalmist seems to depict a soulful silence, perhaps a state of letting go and leaning into a state of quiet and wondrous worship.

It makes me wonder about the place of silence in our own life of faith.

. . .

Translators may be unsure of what to do with the word “silence,” but we ourselves are often unsure what to do with actual silence. Back in the day, when I had the privilege of presiding over communion at our church, I would ask the band to stop playing. There was only the quiet sound of the bread and cup being passed, the occasional cough or clearing of the throat, the faint rustle of people shifting in their seats. I did this because our lives are often filled with noise, motion, and activity. Even if we complain about our frenetic pace of life, we don’t necessarily know what to do with ourselves when the room goes quiet. So I made people sit with the awkwardness of it, inviting them to still their racing thoughts as they contemplated, perhaps for the first time, what it meant to hold in their hands the symbols of the broken body and shed blood of Christ.

I suspect the psalmist would have understood.

Interestingly, the rest of verse 1 says, “to you shall vows be performed.” Ahh, now there’s something more familiar. Something to do, an activity, an action. But I would submit that when the prophets condemned the people for their empty, rote religiosity, part of the reason was the separation of doing from being, of action from silence. So much of contemporary ministry and church life takes place in the context of what we might call a performance culture, in which we explicitly preach grace and freedom with our words, but implicitly size each other up according to who’s working the hardest for God and racking up spiritual bonus points.

Some believers who are constantly busy for God don’t know what it means to be silent before him, to be still, to wait with worshipful expectation. That is not, I take it, the life of Jesus as portrayed in the gospels — but it is the social reality of too many churches that purport to follow him as Lord.

So my question is this: what would silent praise look like for us? How might our souls learn a song of silence? And how might that silence be even more important, more primary to our relationship to God than all of our doing?

We will not, of course, stop “doing,” for there is indeed work to be done. But I hope we can begin to envision the fruit of work done from a deeper quietness of spirit.