~ a five minute read

Speech–censored, uncensored? Right now, it’s a nexus of hot topics–to speak or not to speak is the question. Stuck with the Bible in my head (the default position, for good or ill), I’m remembering the way the Bible looks at speech. Language is a weighty matter. King Solomon, the wisest person ever to live, said this about speech: “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver” (Prov 25: 11). Choose words carefully, as carefully as weighing out gold nuggets.

Then there’s this: What about censorship? Are all words allowed? Do we reject some . . . like gems with flaws?

“Thus says the Lord,” is a phrase that, with variants, occurs hundreds of times in the Bible. At least once when God speaks, he affirms censorship: “‘It shall be in that day,’ says the Lord of hosts, ‘that I will cut off the names of the idols from the land, and they shall no longer be remembered” (Zech 13: 2a). Hundreds of years earlier, King David, it seems, had already received the message: “Their sorrows shall be multiplied, those who hasten after another [god], / Their libations of blood I will not offer, / Nor take up their names on my lips” (Ps 16: 4).

This is censorship, plain and simple.

But notice one or two differences from the givens of current debate. First, we have no sense of institutional or customary speech restrictions. Speech is simply to be respected, valued like gold. Then there’s this: In one case, God is the censor–in the other, the king.

Now you may be muttering, What do I care about a king? I’m a citizen, an American! Point taken.

However, notice that this king, the inimitable David, isn’t censoring anyone but himself. He’s laying down no decree, no law with dire consequences when broken. He’s just stating his intention. There’s also this: David isn’t just Israel’s most splendid king and the “man after God’s own heart,” or “the sweet singer of Israel,” as the Bible calls him. According to Dr. Luke, David is also a prophet: “Therefore, being a prophet and knowing that God had sworn to him with an oath to seat one of his descendants on his throne . . ..” (Acts 2: 30a). So David has this other credential, prophet. We have a reason to qualify his decision for censorship. He spoke for God, his words fit with divine communications.

So, what about free speech? What about censorship? Which should people who take the Bible seriously defend?

A couple of thoughts. First, it’s evident that censorship is biblically approved. But the examples above beg the question, who’s the qualified censor? In one text, God is the censor. But even when it’s a biblical human who comes out for censored speech, if he’s a prophet, we have to say that God is still in the picture. In addition, this prophet is only talking about self-censorship.

Is this all the Bible has to say?

Well, though the Bible has been a lifelong passion for me (say what you like about that), I can’t suggest I know the full answer to the question. For now, it’s perhaps useful to return to the quote above and look at the rest of what Zechariah said, speaking God’s words: ” ‘It shall be in that day,’ says the Lord of hosts, ‘that I will cut off the names of the idols from the land, and they shall no longer be remembered. I will also cause the prophets and the unclean spirit to depart from the land. It shall come to pass that if anyone still prophesies, then his father and mother who begot him will say to him, “You shall not live because you have prophesied lies in the name of the Lord.” And his father and mother who begot him shall thrust him through when he prophesies’ ” (Zech 13: 2-3). Censorship, consequences . . . life and death consequences.

But another question arises. Though these parents seem well-motivated, can we say they’re right to level that death threat? Seems a little excessive to me. It’s more than a little excessive. Apparently, they follow through!

These parents seem to be arrogating to themselves the very claim they’re censoring in their son. They condemn him for prophesying falsely. So far, so good. But to know that this is the case is to claim for themselves prophetic authority. They’re dead set certain their son is no prophet or is speaking fake prophesy–so certain, they’re ready to kill him! How do they know? Has God called them to be trumpets of the truth? Their confident tone suggests that’s exactly what they think. Are they right? Maybe their son is right. Maybe they’re speaking out of fear, social pressure, or the current dictates of human wisdom.

Looking again at what Zechariah writes, we see the scenario playing out, and it doesn’t work out too well for the prophets: “And his father and mother who begot him shall thrust him through when he prophesies. And it shall be in that day that every prophet will be ashamed of his vision when he prophesies: they will not wear a robe of coarse hair to deceive. But he will say, ‘I am no prophet. I am a farmer, for in my youth a man trained me to keep cattle’ ” (Zech 13: 4-5).

Every prophet is quashed, every prophesy squelched. Were there true prophets among the fake? We will never know because all were intimidated, suppressed to silence.

So what about the current debate? Are these things relevant? Perhaps so, in one or two points: Censorship is a biblical concept, but you better be God . . . or at least a prophet who speaks for God when you drape the Censor mantle over your shoulders. Add to that, you’d better be a true, not a false prophet though the qualification greatly increases the complexity of the topic. In fact, the whole thing hangs on another divine gift–namely, discernment. But that’s for another time.

There’s one more thing: If prophets, the true, as well as the false, are shut down by intimidation, we miss something important–that is, if you think hearing from God is important.

with thanks for the great image: ian-espinosa-wPbbShdlEWI-unsplash