“I was dumb, I opened not my mouth; because thou didst it.” -Psalm 39:9
When so many of us read a verse like this, it’s almost never in isolation. We typically come across a passage like this when we are reading the Psalm as a whole, as when we do our daily Bible reading. We really don’t stop and ponder the meaning of it.
This is where the Puritans proved to be such a blessing. Like many of his contemporaries, Puritans like Thomas Brooks force us to stop and ponder a verse like this more deeply than we would otherwise. These godly men could take a passage of Scripture that is passed over far too often, and like squeezing water out of a sponge, they got far more out of it than initially meets the eye.
Indeed, Brooks’ entire treatise that we are considering, The Mute Christian Under the Smarting Rod, is an exposition of this verse.
The word for “dumb,” Brooks notes, means mute. It signifies that the writer’s mouth was bound shut. Why? Brooks answers, “He looks through all secondary causes to the first cause, and is silent: he sees a hand of God in all, and so sits mute and quiet. The sight of God in an affliction is of an irresistible efficacy to silence the heart, and to stop the mouth of a gracious man.”
The author is David. Brooks notes that as we reflect on this verse, we should not look at him as the mighty warrior king, but merely as a fellow Christian who is silent due to affliction under God’s hand. From this, Brooks concludes, “[I]t is the great duty and concernment of gracious souls to be mute and silent under the greatest afflictions, the saddest providences, and sharpest trials that they meet with in this world.”
But what type of silence is this? What motivates our muteness under affliction? Brooks offers seven possibilities:
First, it is not a stoical silence. That is to say, a silence motivated by austere strictness which Brooks calls “a sinful sullenness, is not the silence here meant.”
Second, it is not a politic silence. In other words, silence due to shrewdness or diplomacy.
Third, it is not a foolish silence that is motivated simply by not knowing what to say.
Fourth, it is not a sullen silence that comes from irritation or gloomy behavior.
Fifth, it is not a forced silence.
Sixth, it is not a despairing silence. Such a person “hath a hell in his heart, and horror in his conscience. He looks upwards, and there he beholds God frowning, and Christ bleeding; he looks inwards, and there he finds conscience accusing and condemning of him.”
Rather, the silence, or muteness, to which Brooks (and David) refer to is “a prudent silence, a holy, a gracious, silence.” In short, this type of silence before God has right and God-honoring motives.
What does this silence before God include? Eight things, by Brooks’ count:
1. This silence “includes a sight of God, and an acknowledgment of God as the author of all the afflictions that come upon us.”
So says the text: “I was dumb, I opened not my mouth; because thou didst it.”
Brooks says, “The psalmist looks through secondary causes to the first cause, and so sits mute before the Lord. There is no sickness so little, but God has a finger in it, though it be but the arching of the little finger…The sight of God in this sad stroke is a bridle both to his mind and mouth, he neither mutters nor murmurs.”
2. This silence “includes and takes in some holy, gracious apprehension of the majesty, sovereignty, dignity, authority, and presence of that God under whose afflicting hand we are.”
In other words, the hurting Christian is silent before God because he has a right sense of who God is.
Habakkuk 2:20: “But the Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth be silent.”
3. This silence, “takes in a holy quietness and calmness of mind and spirit, under the afflicting had of God. A gracious silence shuts out all inward heats, murmurings, fretting, quarrellings, wranglings, and boilings of heart.”
4. “A prudent, holy silence takes in a humble, justifying clearing and acquitting of God of all blame, rigor and injustice, in all the afflictions he brings upon us.”
“God’s judgments are always just; he never afflicts but in faithfulness. His will is the rule of justice; and therefore a gracious soul dares not [find fault unnecessarily] nor question his proceedings. The afflicted soul knows that a righteous God can do nothing but that which is righteous.”
5. “A holy silence takes in gracious, blessed, soul-quieting conclusions about the issue and event of those afflictions that are upon us.” This conclusion is based upon Lamentations 3:27-34.
In short, a Christian is silent when under affliction because he knows that they happened under God’s watchful eye.
Before moving on to the sixth item which the Christian’s silence before God concludes, Brooks offers five “soul-stilling conclusions” from the Lamentations passage to bring this point home:
a. That God’s providences work for our good.
b. The afflictions went upon us in God’s providence shall keep us “humble and low.”
c. The rod shall not always be upon the back of the righteous.
d. As Lamentations 3:32 states, “But, though he cause grief, he will have compassion according to the abundance of his steadfast love.” God does not forget us in our sorrows; instead, Brooks says, “Go will turn their winter’s night into a summer’s day, their sighing into singing, their grief into gladness, their mourning into music, their bitter into sweet, their wilderness into a paradise.”
e. Lamentations 3:33 states that God “does not afflict willingly.” God does not take delight in our afflictions; “it is a grief to him to be grievous to them.”
“God’s hand sometimes may lie very hard upon his people, when his heart, his bowels, at those very times may be yearning towards his people. No man can tell how the heart of God stands by his hand.”
6. The Christian’s silence before God in their affliction “includes and takes in a strict charge, a solemn command, that conscience lays upon the soul to be quiet and still.” As Psalm 37:7 states, “Rest in the Lord, and wait patiently for him.”
7. “A holy, prudent silence includes a surrendering, a resigning up of ourselves to God, while we are under his afflicting hand.”
Such a Christian, says Brooks, offers up this prayer to God: “Lord, here am I; do with me what you please, write upon me as you please; I give myself up to be at your disposal.”
Or as Luther said, “Lord, lay what burden you will upon me, only let your everlasting arms be under me.”
8. “A holy, prudent silence takes in a patient waiting upon the Lord under our afflictions until deliverance comes.”
In short, there are good reasons for Christians to be silent when they are afflicted because they happen under God’s providence. We remain under His watchful care, and He does not forget His own.