What do we do when God is silent? How do we have hope when it feels like he is absent? Listen as Alasdair Groves considers God’s seeming silence for 400 years of history between the Old and New Testaments, and how even then, God’s care is never diminished.
Hi, my name is Alasdair Groves, and I’m the host of Where Life & Scripture Meet, a podcast of CCEF, the Christian Counseling and Educational Foundation, where our mission is to restore Christ to counseling and counseling to the church. Let me start by telling you where I’m going today, or where I hope we’re going, which is towards some thoughts about God being silent, God seeming silent. Before we get there, though, I need to take you through the path that I took to get to this particular place.
I have just started reading through the Book of Numbers in my own devotional times. I do that in the morning. Obviously, the upside of doing personal time in the Bible and prayer in the morning is that it’s a great way to start your day. The downside is, especially when it’s dark outside and you haven’t woken up very long ago, you’re not exactly usually in the best head space to think a lot, and so, especially if you’re in a passage like Numbers 1, it’s not the kind of thing that just gets you sitting straight up in your chair with excitement. Let me read you a little bit of what I was reading the other day.
The Lord wants Moses and Aaron to take a census of the people to number them, thinking about how many can serve in the army, and he says, “It’s really quite a lot of Israelites for you to count by yourselves, so I’m going to have you get some assistance,” and so, starting in verse four, “One man from each tribe, each, the head family his family, is to help you. These are the names of the men who are to assist you, from Reuben, Elizur son of Shedeur; from Simeon, Shelumiel son of Zurishaddai; from Judah, Nahshon son of Amminadab; from Issachar, Nethanel son of Zuar; from Zebulun, Eliab son of Helon; from the sons of Joseph, from Ephraim, Elishama son of Ammihud; from Manasseh, Gamaliel son of Pedahzur,” and so on and so forth through the rest of the tribes.
I did get a little kick out of verse four and five of the following passage where God is sort of functioning as a human resources department here. He’s vetting the assistants, the VPs for the people of Israel who are going to assist in the carrying out of this mission. That’s always good when God is doing your interviewing and your vetting for you and he’s preparing people from the second of their birth to fill the roles that he has for them that he’s asking you to do, but, yeah, I’m going to be honest, this didn’t go anywhere terribly helpful for me, at least not quickly, and so I tried to slow down and say, “Okay. What can I take from this? What can I learn?”
Now, I have the advantage of having some training in Hebrew for my time in seminary. Actually, my mother teaches Hebrew at a seminary still, and so, mom, if you’re listening to this, please forgive both my pronunciation and any faults in some of my translation work here that occur, but I started to think about, “Okay what do we see in this list of names? What’s going on here?” and a couple things occurred to me. The first is that these are not Egyptian names. Now, if we review briefly our history of the people of Israel, they have been… Abraham is brought out of the land that he grows up and he is brought to, “A promised land I will show you,” says the Lord, and he gets to that land, but doesn’t really have a big stake there, so he and then Isaac and then Esau and Jacob are living as nomads, and Jacob, of course, leaves the family home and goes away and comes back, and Jacob ends up having 12 kids, and they all end up in the course of a famine down in Egypt where Joseph, one of the sons, saves the family and so really saves thousands of lives throughout all of Egypt because the Lord works in him and works through these dreams to show him that famine is coming and so on and so forth.
The people of Israel end up for 400 years in Egypt and, while that starts out well with Joseph saving lots of lives and people being grateful to him, a generation, of course, arises that does not remember Joseph and what has happened, and so, from the book of Exodus on, you’re really having Egypt as a very dangerous, deadly place for God’s people. They spent 400 years there in between the end of Genesis and the beginning, essentially, of Exodus. That’s a long time, and you would expect over the course of that time for the people to essentially be taken over, to be assimilated into and among the Egyptians. That would be a pretty natural thing to happen over the course of 400 years especially when you start getting oppressed and swept up into the society, into the culture of the Egyptians and taken over by them.
That doesn’t happen. These names are Hebrew names here 400 years later and, in fact, not only are they Hebrew names, but, if you listen to some of the names, I’m realizing names like Nethanel means the gift of God. Eliab means “my God is a father,” or “God is my father.” Elishama, “God hears.” Gamaliel, something along the lines of “I am the fruitful reward” or “God has given a fruitful reward.” These names are speaking to God who has been present for the last 400 years, God who has preserved his people, God whose intimate connection to his people is left here in this beautiful trace of the names that people gave their children.
Here, the leaders of the 12 tribes 400 years later, the parents of those leaders sometime in the last century of that time in Egypt, have given their little boys names that say things like, “God hears. God gives gifts. God is a father.” That familial language… that’s a bold thing to say, “God is my father.” This particular sudden awareness that God’s people 400 years later are still naming their children in ways that radically emphasized their connection to him, it took me somewhere that has always actually bothered me and gave me a different window. It’s always bugged me that there’s these 400 years in Egypt that we don’t hear about. It has always felt to me like God abandoned his people for 400 years. That’s lovely that the exodus happens, and it’s lovely that Moses has raised up and the people do eventually get out and they make their way to the Promised Land, and God has been faithful to His promise, but my heart has always gone out to the people in the 400 years in the middle who lived in Egypt whose stories we do not hear, and the feeling is one of God being silent, of God being absent. Why did he abandon his people in this foreign land? Why do we not have the deliverance from Egypt happening 10 minutes after Joseph dies and his children are now in Egypt alone without their connections?
What was so helpful… I don’t know the answers to why 400 years. I don’t know what exactly the Lord was doing or any of the stories, but what was so encouraging to me was, here, we have this wide gap of silence in the story of Scripture and what we know. Here’s the thing we know. Not only is God working plans that will lead to Jesus Christ, the redeemer of all his people for all time, but, even in those 400 years, he is preserving, he is walking with, he is keeping, he is among his people in such a way that these are the names that they’re giving to their very children. He has been faithful. He has been present. He has been there.
That’s true in this time of silence. It’s true in the exile that will happen later in the Old Testament. It’s true after the end of the Old Testament in another 400-year gap before, suddenly, the Incarnate Word of God explodes on to the scene. It’s true at the cross where all eyes suggest God is absent and God is silent, and yet, over and over again, we see he has been present and, of course, at the cross more than anywhere, we see both his absence and his silence and his presence, his active, preserving, loving presence.
It’s been very helpful for me to realize that there are no true silences, no true absences in the story of God’s love for his children. There are no gaps where he doesn’t care or their lives and their stories don’t matter. The God who stores our tears in a bottle is the God who knows our name and who shapes our names and our circumstances and will always be among us. Sometimes, we will listen and we will hear silence. We will look around, and we will not see him or what he is up to, and we will not know what to make of our circumstances, but here’s what we do know. We serve, we love, we walk with the God who preserves his people and will always leave traces, will always leave stories. There will always be an ability to at least look back and say, “God was there. He was active. There were ways in which He was close in which he was befriending me, and I didn’t even see it. I didn’t know what it would look like. I didn’t know what was happening at the time.”
Sometimes, the absence of God, that’s the silence of God, is as simple as, “I’m sort of in a spiritually dry stretch. I am not getting much out of Scripture. I read the words on the page in the book of Numbers, and it doesn’t jump out to me with a lot of excitement or interest.” Sometimes, it’s on the other end of the spectrum. It is severe sufferings. It’s the loss of a dream that you had cherished, a good dream, a dream for your family and your children, a dream for a ministry, a dream for what it might look like to be empty nesters with your children well-launched into life when something intervenes and significantly compromises that time just as you were planning this sweet time as a couple. Sometimes, it’s church conflicts. That’s maybe the place where I have heard people especially in counseling speak the most of the sense of just dismay at God’s seeming absence. I am watching this church, these people that I love and care about and have walked with. I’m watching things burn down or break down or this deep sense of betrayal or hurt or lack of reconciliation. How can this be, God? Where are you? Why are you not here? Why aren’t you doing something? Why aren’t you giving us words? I look to you, and I don’t find you. I don’t hear you. I can’t see where you are. The whole spectrum from the mildest sense of not getting much out of Scripture to the most severe forms of physical, relational, circumstantial pain that we can know as human beings.
When he is seemingly distant, seemingly absent, seemingly silent, we have the confidence that he is the God who hears. He is the God who gives gifts. He is the God who will be our father, and there will be a testimony to that. There will be a story. Our stories are never forgotten. God never turns away. He never actually abandons. He never leaves us without a place in his story that he is telling.
Let me just take a moment and finish by praying for you, if that’s particularly you today, feeling the silences of God. I would love for these words to be an encouragement, and I ask him right now to be your help and to be present.
Lord, we pray that, especially for brothers and sisters who are listening to this and who are hearing these words, whether these are encouraging to their heart today or whether it’s just one more thing that sounds true, sounds good, but is not invigorating and refreshing to my soul, I simply pray that You would be present, knowing that you will be present. I pray in particular that some trace, some sign, some awareness, some mention of your presence, some little sense of the name that you would give to yourself, that you would put on your child. I pray that they could somehow taste or see in the very near future some little glimpse that you never abandon, that you always stay with your children.
I pray this in your name. Amen.
Alasdair is the Executive Director of CCEF, as well as a faculty member and counselor. He has served at CCEF since 2009. He holds a master of divinity with an emphasis in counseling from Westminster Theological Seminary. Alasdair cofounded CCEF New England, where he served as director for ten years. He also served as the director of CCEF’s School of Biblical Counseling for three years. He is the host of CCEF’s podcast, Where Life & Scripture Meet, and is the coauthor of Untangling Emotions (Crossway, 2019).