In Ecclesiastes 3:1–8, King Solomon affirms that God is sovereignly in control and at work in our individual lives. God has a time and a purpose for everything that happens (Romans 8:28). With “a time to be silent and a time to speak,” Solomon focuses our attention on human speech.
A theme often dealt with in Scripture is the idea of life having appropriate times to be silent and times to speak. In wisdom literature, the fool is portrayed as one who talks too much and always at the wrong time, but the wise person knows when to be silent and when to speak: “The lips of fools bring them strife, and their mouths invite a beating. The mouths of fools are their undoing, and their lips are a snare to their very lives” (Proverbs 18:6–7).
Proverbs 10:19 warns, “When there are many words, sin is unavoidable, but the one who controls his lips is prudent” (CSB, see also Psalm 39:1). In severe adversity and evil, “the prudent keep quiet in such times” (Amos 5:13; see also 2 Kings 2:3, 5). “Those who guard their mouths and their tongues keep themselves from calamity,” advises Solomon in Proverbs 21:23. “Even fools are thought wise if they keep silent, and discerning if they hold their tongues” (Proverbs 17:28).
Jesus exemplified the wisdom of silence when He stood before Pontius Pilate (Matthew 27:11–14). To His followers, Jesus said, “You must give an account on judgment day for every idle word you speak. The words you say will either acquit you or condemn you” (Matthew 12:36–37, NLT). For this reason, James taught those who genuinely want to be godly examples in the church to learn to control their tongues (James 3:1–12).
The apostle Paul stressed the importance of letting our “conversation be gracious and attractive so” we might “have the right response for everyone” (Colossians 4:6). The proper word spoken at the right time, “how good it is!” says Proverbs 15:23. Our words contain “the power of life and death,” states Proverbs 18:21. What we say can either save lives or destroy them (Proverbs 12:6).
A time to be silent is sometimes associated with grief and mourning. Often the best comfort to offer a person suffering through a tremendous loss is to sit with him or her in silence. When Job’s three friends heard of the tragedy he had suffered, they came and sat with him for a week in silence. They recognized that Job’s anguish was too overwhelming for words (Job 2:11–13).
Silence is golden, says the proverbial expression, but there are times when God’s people must speak. The Bible commands us to speak out against injustice (Isaiah 1:17; 10:1–3). Believers are not to keep silent about their faith in Jesus Christ (Acts 4:17–20; 2 Corinthians 5:18–20; 1 Peter 3:15).
When the Jews faced national annihilation, the brave Queen Esther recognized her God-appointed purpose and time to speak. Her cousin Mordecai urged, “For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father’s family will perish. And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?” (Esther 4:12–14). Esther obeyed, risking her life to save her people. She knew it was “a time to speak,” and she received God’s abundant blessing.
Solomon’s emphasis on “a time to be silent and a time to speak” ought to remind us that it’s generally wise to keep our mouths shut, let our words be few, and learn to control our tongues (Ecclesiastes 5:2). Still, we must discern when it’s time to speak out on the Lord’s behalf (Isaiah 58:1) for the glory of God (Joshua 6:16; Psalm 34:1; Luke 19:37–40) and the building up of His church (Ephesians 4:29; 5:17–21).