By Chaplain Mike
Sometimes, as people of faith, we think we know the meaning of a Biblical text. By sheer repetition over the years, it becomes a reliable tool in our vocabulary, a clichÃ© of our faith. We stop thinking about it; we simply utter it at times we think appropriate. We don’t have to analyze it or explain it. And our friends smile and nod their heads. “Insiders” know exactly what’s being said. Familiar language forges connections between us, brings a sense of assurance about our place before God and in the world, and defines the boundaries for our lives.
Speaking the “language of Zion,” we fit comfortably among the citizens of Zion.
Except sometimes, we get it wrong.
And then we have a problem. For if we simply presume our perception is the final word, we stop studying. We stop thinking. We no longer seek God for further understanding. We fail to grasp that the matter requires ongoing contemplation. We think we’ve arrived. There is no more mystery. God and his Word fit just right in the compartments we have created for them by our assumptions. We go on repeating our clichÃ©s, we continue nodding our heads.
Sometimes this leads to theological misunderstandings that seriously pervert our comprehension of the faith. At other times, it leads to personal misreading of the Bible, causing us to miss a message that might enrich our walk with God.
How many times have you heard this: “God speaks to us in a still, small voice”?
The phrase comes from the King James Version translation of 1Kings 19:13.
1Kings 19:11-13 (KJV)
And he said, Go forth, and stand upon the mount before the LORD. And, behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before the LORD; but the LORD was not in the wind: and after the wind an earthquake; but the LORD was not in the earthquake: And after the earthquake a fire; but the LORD was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice.
Do you remember the story?
- Elijah had defeated the prophets of Baal in the great contest on Mt. Carmel (1Kings 18).
- Elijah then informed King Ahab that the drought God had brought on the land would end.
- Queen Jezebel became enraged at what Elijah had done, sent a message to him, and Elijah fled.
- Elijah ran to Beersheba, went into the wilderness, and asked God to take his life.
- Elijah fell asleep, and God’s angel ministered to him, giving him food, drink, and rest.
- With renewed strength, Elijah traveled 40 days and nights to Mt. Horeb (Sinai), where he lodged in a cave.
- There God questioned him and Elijah lamented that he alone stood faithful to God.
- God called Elijah to stand before him as he passed by on the mountain, and God passed by in wind, earthquake, and fire.
- After this display, when Elijah heard “a still, small voice,” he went out and had another conversation with God, during which God gave him further instructions.
I found a youth Bible lesson that teaches what most of us have heard with regard to this story and its description of “God’s still, small voice”. Here are some of the points of the lesson:
- To tune in to Godâ€™s voice we must tune out this worldâ€™s noise.
- God demonstrated the awesome power of â€œearth, wind and fireâ€ before whispering to Elijah in a gentle voice.
- Elijahâ€™s spirit was very fragile at this point, and God spoke to him gently.
- At this point in Elijahâ€™s life, he knew all about the big stuff, because God had used him to do mighty, spectacular things. Now God wanted him to be understand that He could work in a differentÂ way. Now God wanted himÂ to learn to listen for His quiet leading when the situation seemed hopeless.
Now these are points that promote piety, and as such, they are not wrong. I submit, however, that they do not represent what this text is saying.
We can dismiss the first one right away. 1Kings 19 has nothing whatsoever to do with “tuning out the world’s noise.” Yet I hear the phrase “still, small voice” used this way by Christians all the time. (Same with the verse, “Be still, and know that I am God,” but that’s another study.) The “noise” in this passage is God’s noise, a theophany and not the cacophony that arises from living in a busy, loud world. If the point of this passage were about tuning out noise, it would be something like, “Don’t listen to God when he yells at you; wait until he whispers.”
The other points are closer, but in my view, they still don’t arise from reading the text carefully. So what does it mean? Let’s rethink this text today.
As I have found repeatedly in my studies over the years, a clearer view comes when we first step back and get the “big picture” of what’s going on in this story, and then begin to work our way in to examine the details. Here we go.
FIRST: Elijah and Moses. The first thing to notice is that this story draws many parallels between the experiences of Moses and Elijah.
- As Moses confronted Pharoah and Egypt’s gods, Elijah confronted Ahab and Jezebel, and Baal worship.
- As Pharoah pursued Moses and Israel to destroy them, Jezebel sought Elijah’s life.
- As Moses and the people went into the wilderness, so did Elijah.
- As Moses became discouraged and asked God to take his life, so did Elijah.
- As God’s angel ministered to Moses and Israel in the wilderness and provided food and water, so God’s angel ministered to Elijah.
- As Moses and Israel traveled to Mt. Horeb, so did Elijah. (note the use of the number 40 here).
- As Moses complained to God on Mt. Horeb about Israel’s unfaithfulness after the golden calf incident, so did Elijah.
- As Moses was placed in a cave on Mt. Sinai to prepare for a theophany, so Elijah stayed in “the” cave (the Hebrew text specifies a particular cave, not just any cave).
- As God passed by Moses on the mountain and Moses could not stand the sight, so God passed by Elijah in glorious display.
- As God then gave Moses direction for the future, so God further directed Elijah after their encounter.
SECOND: The Encounter between God and Elijah. Further, we should notice exactly what takes place between God and Elijah on the mountain.
- 1Kings 19:9-10â€”God questions Elijah, and Elijah answers with a lament.
- 1Kings 19:11-12â€”The Lord passes by in wind, earthquake, and fire. After the fire, there was “a still, small voice” (KJV).
- 1Kings 19:13-14â€”God repeats the same question to Elijah, and Elijah answers with the same lament.
- 1Kings 19:15-18â€”God tells Elijah to return and gives him specific instructions about how to proceed.
Did you notice? Nothing changes from before God’s theophany to after his “passing by.” God asks the same question. Elijah gives the same response. Whatever “the still, small voice” is, it apparently didn’t communicate anything to Elijah or change anything about the situation.
THIRD: The Details of the Conversation between God and Elijah.
- God asks Elijah, “What are you doing HERE?” (1Kings 19:9, 13)
The Lord is asking Elijah why he came to Mt. Horeb (Sinai) and why he went to that specific cave. It’s important to see that this whole journey was Elijah’s idea, not God’s. Elijah decided to flee Jezebel. Elijah decided to run all the way from Mt. Carmel to Beersheba (the entire length of Israel!) and then go into the wilderness. In 19:7, the angel says, “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.” What journey? The angel didn’t tell him to take a journey, but his words reveal that Elijah himself had a further journey in mind. His plan had not been simply to go into the wilderness, but to go to God’s mountain.
Why? Why did Elijah want to go back to Mt. Horeb (Sinai)? “What are you doing HERE, Elijah?” God asked him.
- Elijah replies, “I have been very zealous for the Lord…the Israelites have forsaken your covenant…I alone am left” (1Kings 19:10, 14).
Elijah went to Mt. Sinai because he thought he was the only faithful follower of the Lord left. He saw himself in the same dilemma as Moses faced after the people had sinned with the golden calf. With this in mind, Elijah went back to the place where Israel’s first prophet had met with God, where God had shown his glory and spoken to Moses, where the covenant was restored, where God had cut new tablets of stone for the people, where God answered Moses’ prayers and gave Israel a new start. Elijah was hoping God would do the same in his day, and start over again with him.
- The Lord passes by with spectacular display, but DOES NOT SPEAK to Elijah (1Kings 19:11-12)
The Lord, as it were, “plays along” with Elijahâ€”to teach him a lesson. He takes Elijah through all the same experiences as Moses had. You have Elijah in the cave. You have the Lord “passing by.” You have spectacular displays of glory, here in earthquake, wind, and fire. One big difference: the Lord is not in any of this! When God passed by Moses, he proclaimed his Name to him, and Moses bowed down and worshiped (Exodus 34:6-8). God spoke. In contrast, when the Lord passed by Elijah, he said NOTHING. He didn’t communicate a thing.
And then, there was a silence. This is a better translation than “a still, small voice.” Absolute silence. Not God speaking to Elijah in “a gentle whisper,” but no sound whatsoever. Here’s how NRSV puts it:
1Kings 19:11-13 (NRSV)
He said, â€˜Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.â€™ Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence.
This phrase is not describing some secret, tender, quiet communication between God and Elijah. It’s describing “the calm after the storm,” the intense silence that came after the bombastic display of God’s glorious power. It was not God whispering to Elijah but a silence that got Elijah’s attention and caused him to come out of the cave. Only at that point did God speak to him again.
- God repeats the same question; Elijah repeats the same answer (1Kings 19:13-14)
“What are you doing HERE, Elijah?” Why have you come to Mt. Sinai?
“Because I’ve been zealous for you, but the Israelite have forsaken you. I’m the only one left!” I’m like Moses, God, in the days of the golden calf. I’ve come back here because it’s all hopeless now, and we need you to clean the slate and start all over again. I need another one of those “mountaintop experiences,” like you gave Moses.
In other words, nothing has changed. Same question as before. Same answer. Elijah’s bright idea of traveling all the way to Mt. Sinai, of hiding in the cave, of having the Lord display his gloryâ€”none of it changed anything. Elijah still felt alone. God had not intervened.
- God gives further instructions to Elijah and reassures him (1Kings 19:15-18)
Instead of granting some kind of supernatural new start to Elijah and Israel, the Lord simply gives Elijah some things to do. God told the prophet to return to his work, the work he’d been called to, like anointing kings and taking care to make sure the prophetic ministry would continue in the next generation.
Along with the work, God gave him some promises. The Lord himself would take care of the future results of his work. The Lord himself would make sure a faithful remnant of his people always remained. It wasn’t up to Elijah, and it wasn’t required for him to have some kind of spectacular revelation and revival on the mountain.
The story of Elijah on Mt. Horeb is so much richer than our common understanding of the “still, small voice,” which we have accepted as a Christian clichÃ©.
This narrative is not so much about how God speaks to us, as it is about why God DID NOT speak to Elijah, and what he told him to DO instead.
On a personal level, this story challenges our false expectations of God intervening in spectacular new starts (through us, as if we were Moses!) and thinking we must relive the experiences of others.
It is, instead, a call to simply go back to work, doing what God has called us to do, relying on his promises; trusting that the work is his and not ours to define and achieve.
“The New and Improved Moses’ Revival” has been canceled. Everybody back to work.