October 25, 2014

Rethinking the Text: God’s “Still, Small Voice”?

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 cliché 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 clichés, 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 God’s voice we must tune out this world’s noise.
  • God demonstrated the awesome power of “earth, wind and fire” before whispering to Elijah in a gentle voice.
  • Elijah’s spirit was very fragile at this point, and God spoke to him gently.
  • At this point in Elijah’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 different way. Now God wanted him 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 19:9-10—God questions Elijah, and Elijah answers with a lament.
  • 1Kings 19:11-12—The Lord passes by in wind, earthquake, and fire. After the fire, there was “a still, small voice” (KJV).
  • 1Kings 19:13-14—God repeats the same question to Elijah, and Elijah answers with the same lament.
  • 1Kings 19:15-18—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 Elijah—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, ‘Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.’ 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 glory—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.

Conclusion
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 cliché.

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.

Comments

  1. I wanted to submit an additional thought to this, since the whole point of the post is to really look at and study what is going on in the text, and to not simply accept the interpretation that we hear all around us.

    One of my professors in seminary wrote a book on theophany, and he explores this passage in light of the other theophanic episodes in the OT and concludes, with a lot of really interesting evidence, that instead of the still small voice there is actually an intensification of the storm appearance. Instead of silence there is actually the opposite. He suggests that there is actually a textual issue that was missed by the earlier translators responsible for our current reading of the text.

    The whole book is a great read, and if you are interested in a little bit more technical study of theophany its worth your time.

    The book is called God at Sinai, written by Jeffrey Jay Niehaus, and you can find it easily at Amazon.

    Cheers

  2. Boethius says:

    I can not help but sigh after reading this piece. I think the criticism of how others interpret this passage is just so unfair. Everyone reads it. Everyone interprets it. Yes, we should pray and constantly ask for God’s clarity when we read His word.

    I must admit it was so much easier when I was RC because I did not have to think for myself and could just let the magisterium figure it all out for me.

    But, and there is a but here…….I am really glad for that community of people who nod when you say “still small voice” because we have read the same book. I just love hanging out with those people whether I think they have studied hard enough or not.

    If the lesson from this passage should be that Elijah was not alone…..then the “nodding” of people is evidence that God has sustained a remnant of His people, the people of the book. We have been grafted in the vine. We are not alone.

    • Enoch Chee says:

      Hmm… I don’t think this criticism of the common interpretation is unfair. I think it was written to be useful, to hopefully stem the tide of mistakes made by people listening for a still, small voice in their devotional time. In my experience, sometimes God does communicate in the still of the moment. Other times, there’s only delusion and imaginary voices. I’ve hurt people through this and seen other people hurt people because of this idea. So I think in this case, being correct really counts.

      As you say, though, community is important.

  3. Scott M says:

    Wow! Great posting Chaplain Mike!
    In my experience, I have always heard “God speaks to us in a still, small voice” as direction that God is directly speaking in that voice inside (ala Lion King or something). It promotes the gnostic idea that God is speaking to you directly through that “feeling” inside. I have seen people mistake that feeling for God speaking and leave job, and move, or whatever based on their feelings.

  4. Louis Winthrop says:

    I have mostly encountered the passage quoted in spiritual writings, as an indication that God speaks not in bombastic theophanies, but through the quiet promptings of conscience and intuition. Unfortunately, not everything that goes on in one’s head is likely to be this still, small voice, even if it is quiet, hence the importance of spiritual discernment. Certain denominations will point to the need to rely on church tradition or spiritual guidance (of an elder). Of course this doesn’t really solve the problem so much as relocate it. And then about half the Protestants reject these things because of sola scriptura. I suppose they would emphasize reading the Bible (perhaps as bibliomancy?) as a safeguard and, in practice, have a fair bit of informal extrabiblical guidance and tradition of their own.

  5. JoanieD says:

    Chaplain Mike, you write that God did not speak to Elijah, but you also write that “God gives further instructions to Elijah and reassures him (1Kings 19:15-18).” If God is giving instructions to Elijah and “reassuring” him, isn’t he speaking to him? I think many of us would love to hear some reassuring words directly from God.

    • He did speak to him, Joanie. My point was that he spoke to him before and after the theophany, not during it as he had in Moses’ experience.

      • JoanieD says:

        OK, thanks, Chaplain Mike. I will read 1Kings again at some time and think about what you have said.

  6. Hi Chaplain Mike,

    Thanks for linking to my kids Bible lesson. You make some excellent points, a couple of which caused me to dig a bit deeper and tweak the lesson. I appreciate having a professional Bible Guy critique my work! No, I am serious – scrutiny and critique can only make it better.

    Marty

    • Marty, thanks. I hope I wasn’t too harsh and that I didn’t come across as critical (in a negative sense). That was certainly not my intention. You do good work, and I love the way you’ve organized your lessons. Very helpful to those teaching the young. God bless your ministry.

      • You know, the only version I could find that translates the “still small voice” as “utter silence” is the New Revised Standard Version. Josephus, however, also describes the “voice” as “silence”. Your essay was helpful to me in that it pointed out that the “still small voice” was not the voice giving Elijah his instructions. It was just the “whatever” that got him out of that cave and ready to listen.

        I’m a volunteer lay “shepherd of children” (for every paid theologian out there are thousands of us!) Usually it takes me about 5 days to write a new lesson. I teach it, post it, and keep refining it if and when I learn more. So again, thanks.

  7. I think it’s a great comparison. When God offered to wipe out the people and build his nation from Moses, Moses interceded on the behalf of the people. Elijah seems to turn this around: no one is left but me…

    Regardless of the significance of the still, small, voice, the application is where things get lost. This story is not in the bible to teach us to listen for voices inside our heads.

    God can speak through earth, wind, fire, or small voices, but as stated in Hebrews 1:2, We know that God speaks through His Son. If we want to hear what God is saying, we should read and hear the words of the gospels. That is the crazy part: in this age of Christ-less and gospel-less Christianity, there is no shortage of people hearing still, small voices.

  8. Wow, I found this very insightful and also pertinent to me at this time in my life. Thanks for the thoughts.

  9. brendan says:

    Thanks Chaplain Mike, how about looking at Romans 7 for a “rethinking the text” post? I have often heard this section is Paul’s consternation about not doing what he wants to do as evidence for our continued struggle with sin. However, I once heard some one say its actually about Paul communicating the impossibility of following the Law as a means to please God since without Christ we are powerless to do so. I’ve read the passage more than a few times now and I’m having a hard time seeing which interpretation is more accurate.

    • As Romans probably has had more commentaries (or at least more significant commentaries) written on it than any other book of the Bible, from the Fathers to Luther and Barth and persons like Watchman Nee (The Normal Christian Life), I suspect there is no lack of “accurate interpretations” and arguments/defenses for the same from all sides. I even have my own nuanced interpretation, or did at one time. :)

    • That’s a good idea, Brendan. I’ll put it on the list. And, by the way, I do have a totally different take on that passage too!

  10. Awesome stuff Mr Mike.

  11. I’ve always understood this passage as more of a physical silence, not so much an ethereal, interior intuition. As an example, taking the life of Jesus as it is recorded in the Gospels as a hermeneutic, it is recorded that Jesus often went away to quiet, lonely and solitary places. Elsewhere, Jesus admonishes his followers in Mark 6:31 to “come away with Me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.” For further thoughts regarding this matter I would recommend reading Thomas Merton, specifically the latter portions of No Man Is An Island, (but anything really), wherein he states:

    ‘Those who love their own noise are impatient of everything else. They constantly defile the silence of the forests and the mountains and the sea. They bore through silent nature in every direction with their machines, for fear that the calm world might accuse them of their own emptiness. The urgency of their swift movement seems to ignore the tranquillity of nature by pretending to have a purpose. The loud plane seems for a moment to deny the reality of the clouds and of the sky, by its direction, its noise, and its pretended strength. The silence of the sky remains when the plane has gone. The tranquility of the clouds will remain when the plane has fallen apart. It is the silence of the world that is real. Our noise, our business, our purposes, and all our fatuous statements about our purposes, our business, and our noise: these are the illusion. God is present, and His thought is alive and awake in the fullness and depth and breadth of all the silences of the world.’

    Love that guy!!

  12. I once heard a pastor preach from this passage to say that because Elijah had complained, God was instructing him to anoint Elisha to replace him because his ministry was now over. This, of course, is incorrect; the most fruitful part of Elijah’s ministry was the part when he and Elisha ministered together.

  13. It’s quite concerning how often we read back into scripture the conclusions we have already come to. We have been taught that God leads us through internal impressions(“hearing God’s voice”), that we can miss this voice if we have too much “noise” in our lives, that hearing His voice is a learned skill, etc.

    Its no wonder we take passages like this and imbue them with meaning that was never there. I think some other passages like this are Isaiah 30:20-21 and John 10:1-18.

    I have no idea how often I’ve been so sure I was right about a particular verse’s meaning only later to be proven wrong. These are the things that should keep you humble in your approach to scripture.

  14. Brother Bartimaeus says:

    Great and thought provoking post, Chaplain Mike.  I agree that the whole “still small voice” thing is taken out of context, although most of the Bible probably is as well. I also worry that we equate the “stll small voice” as the kernal of meaning of the story. Here’s what the text indicated to me.
     
    I think the repeating question is an indication that Elijah doesn’t understand what God is asking (I love your interpretation that Elijah is looking for a “mountaintop experience”).  Why are you here Elijah? is what Elijah hears.  So he gives God an overly dramatic representation of situation.  Overly dramatic for example, since Obadiah is hiding one hundred of the Lord’s prophets in caves, so he’s certainly not the only faithful one left!
     
    But God humors Elijah and tells him not that He’s going to speak to him, but that He is going to show Himself to Elijah.  Then all havoc breaks loose, and the text is clear to indicate that God is not the destroying wind, God is not the earthquake, and God is not the destructive fire.  Since we know that God is passing by, we must conclude that God is the silence.  God may use all the grandeur he can muster to make his point at times, but it’s the silence that should remind us that God is present and working.
     
    So then God asks again, “What are you doing here?” Meaning, I’ve just shown you that I’m all powerful, I’ve shown you that I’m always present, and thus I’ve got everything under control.  So what are you still doing HERE Elijah?  There’s work to be done and I need you out THERE doing the part I’ve given you, not HERE, hiding in this cave!

    Peace

  15. dumb ox says:

    “Sometimes you can hear the Spirit whispering to you,
    But if God stays silent, what else can you do
    Except listen to the silence? if you ever did you’d surely see
    That God won’t be reduced to an ideology”
    – Bruce Cockburn

  16. Enoch Chee says:

    Can I steal this for a sermon someday? I will advertise imonk =)

  17. WenatcheeTheHatchet says:

    What is easy to miss in the discussion about “the still, small voice” is that if you look at what God instructed Elijah to do through the rest of Kings you’ll see that ELIJAH DIDN’T DO THOSE THINGS! (see 2 Kings 8-9) The tasks were not accomplished before the Lord took Elijah away and established Elisha as his replacement. Elisha annoints one of the men and he delegates the other annointing to another.

    Perhaps the most pious distraction from what the text says is not just the “still, small voice” stuff but forgetting that Elijah, despite getting pretty specific instructions from the Lord, is never shown having actually done those things. Yet God took him up in a chariot of fire. The greatest and most flamboyant of the prophets was still, in the end, a failure in terms of getting Israel to turn back wholeheartedly to the Lord.

    Elijah was happy to serve the Lord when things went his way. When he was the center of attention and able to lay the smackdown he was happy. When confronted with the REAL principality and power at work he was terrified. And when he is instructed to quite literally pass the mantle of royal and prophetic leadership to others he balks. Sure, he annoints Elisha but doesn’t annoint the kings. It’s as though Elijah was, even after this mountaintop experience, still clinging to executing the job description on his own terms. Elijah’s problem was that he was so committed to HIS ministry and role he couldn’t really accept that the final stage of his ministry was to step back and give others the work the Lord had appointed for them to do.

    Since you mentioned Elijah and Moses I believe it’s pertinent to mention something.
    At the Transfiguration Christ spoke with both Moses and Elijah and both Moses and Elijah had, in the end, completely failed in their assigned missions due to disobedience. Moses was not allowed to enter the promised land and a whole generation of Israel died in the wilderness. God appointed Elijah to annoint kings and he didn’t annoint them and was taken up by the Lord. Yet as both law-giver and prophet Christ accomplished for us what both Moses and Elijah could not and did not.

    Interesting article and a helpful reminder that when we get truncated explanations of biblical texts we can miss important themes in scripture.

  18. dkmonroe says:

    I don’t know if it is so much that this passage has been misinterpreted as much as people have just tried to draw some “action plan” from it that is not necessarily there. My understanding has always been that Elijah was basically freaking out, running in fear of Ahab and Jezebel, and God uses the display of the elements, followed by the silence, to get his attention. God is not “in” the wind, the earthquake, or the fire, but God is more powerful and more to be feared than all these things, and certainly more to be feared than Ahab and Jezebel. I liken it to Isaiah 7 1-9, where God tells Isaiah not to be afraid of “two smoldering stubs of firewood”, Rezin and Pekah.

    I think it’s pretty clear what’s going on, the problem is people have tendency to take certain dramatic passages of Scripture and try to formulize them. I was once in a Sunday school class where the teacher was seizing on what I considered to be a fairly parenthetical detail of a passage (can’t remember which one) and was asking, “What does this mean? What’s the lesson here for us today?”, and I offered that the passage in question wasn’t a parable and that we shouldn’t necessarily think that every detail of a historical or personal narrative contains some little Easter egg lesson in it. At least one person appreciated the comment! :)

    • Great points! Reminds me of the oft-abused phrase, “How can we APPLY this (point, lesson) to OUR LIVES?” I don’t like a current model of teaching/preaching which starts with ME and radiates outward (ex: Joel Osteen, though he says some good things). I like the model that starts with God’s Word, firmly roots it in history and geography and goes outward from there. (If that makes any sense.)

  19. I have probably heard more sermons in my life based on 1 Kings 19 than on any other passage in Scripture, OT or NT — and I have never heard what was presented here. Thank you, Chaplain Mike, and may your tribe continue to increase.

  20. Heh.

    I told the story of Elijah in the religious ed class I teach at a local school. I had several weeks to tell the story, so I broke it up into its natural divisions.

    Anyway, when I got to this part I really exaggerated the fire, wind and earthquake. Then I dropped the volume and almost whouispered that God spoke to Elijah in the silence. There’s nothing like a dramatic drop in volume to get 11 year olds on the edge of their seats.

    Then I said, ‘Do you know what God said?’ They sat there, wide eyed and open jawed. ‘Do you really want to know?’

    The kids just about screamed at me. ‘Yes! Tell us!’

    I whispered, ‘I’ll tell you next week.’

    They didn’t like me that much after that. And when I got there next week they couldn’t wait to get the next episode. ‘WHAT DID GOD SAY TO ELIJAH???’

    I wasn’t very nice. ‘Oh, nothing much. Just that it was time for him to retire.’

    Hee hee. This must be why kids hate church.