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June 24, 2001
1 Kings 19:1-15a
By Tony Grant
I now invite you to turn in your Bibles to IKN chapter 19 and follow along as I read verses 1-15. Hear what the spirit says to us.
1 And Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and withal how he had slain all the prophets with the sword.
2 Then Jezebel sent a messenger unto Elijah, saying, So let the gods do to me, and more also, if I make not thy life as the life of one of them by to morrow about this time.
3 And when he saw that, he arose, and went for his life, and came to Beersheba, which belongeth to Judah, and left his servant there.
4 But he himself went a day's journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a juniper tree: and he requested for himself that he might die; and said, It is enough; now, O LORD, take away my life; for I am not better than my fathers.
5 And as he lay and slept under a juniper tree, behold, then an angel touched him, and said unto him, Arise and eat.
6 And he looked, and, behold, there was a cake baken on the coals, and a cruse of water at his head. And he did eat and drink, and laid him down again.
7 And the angel of the LORD came again the second time, and touched him, and said, Arise and eat; because the journey is too great for thee.
8 And he arose, and did eat and drink, and went in the strength of that meat forty days and forty nights unto Horeb the mount of God.
9 And he came thither unto a cave, and lodged there; and, behold, the word of the LORD came to him, and he said unto him, What doest thou here, Elijah?
10 And he said, I have been very jealous for the LORD God of hosts: for the children of Israel have forsaken thy covenant, thrown down thine altars, and slain thy prophets with the sword; and I, even I only, am left; and they seek my life, to take it away.
11 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:
12 And after the earthquake a fire; but the LORD was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice.
13 And it was so, when Elijah heard it that he wrapped his face in his mantle, and went out, and stood in the entering in of the cave. And, behold, there came a voice unto him, and said, What doest thou here, Elijah?
14 And he said, I have been very jealous for the LORD God of hosts: because the children of Israel have forsaken thy covenant, thrown down thine altars, and slain thy prophets with the sword; and I, even I only, am left; and they seek my life, to take it away.
15 And the LORD said unto him, Go, return on thy way to the wilderness of Damascus.
Amen. The Word of God. Thanks be to God.
In the movie, "Dead Poets Society," there is a scene where the teacher tells the class that they need to stimulate their minds by seeing things from a different point of view. He tells them to stand on top of their desks just too look at things a little differently.
Duke Medical Center neurobiologist Lawrence Katz recommends something similar. Shower with your eyes closed. Take a different route to work. Learn the Braille numbers in the elevator for the floors. Hold your nose and taste different foods to see if that changes the taste of food--It does by the way.
These "neurobic" exercises, recommended by Lawrence Katz are not to be confused with "aerobic" workouts. Neurobic drills involve one or more of your senses in a novel way. They engage your attention, break routine activities in unexpected fashions, and result in what can best be described as "brain training."
It's a neuro-psychological way of saying you can teach an old dog new tricks. The brain, yes even my brain, can be retrained. If you are righthanded, try using your left hand to go through your morning routine of combing your hair and brushing your teeth. Or try sharing a meal in silence and see how that affects the taste of the food. Or close your eyes as you get into your car and keep them closed as you find the keys and start the car.
These are among 83 neurobic exercises advocated by neurobiologist Katz. Of course, brains do age, and in time the connections of the cranium may thin out. Katz recommends mental exercise as a way to enrich those connections. These exercises use not only the five usual senses - vision, taste, smell, touch and hearing - but also what he calls the "sixth sense" of emotion. This use of the full range of the senses has potential to forge new connections among different sensory structures, and in the process retrain the human brain.
In our text, Elijah is clearly suffering not so much from brain cramp as from soul cramp. He needs some "Soul Retraining."
Today's lesson could be called "The Theophany on Mount Horeb." A theophany is an appearance of God.
Elijah was in deep trouble. Following his dramatic confrontation with the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel, King Ahab of Israel reported the murder of Baal's priests to his queen, Jezebel. Jezebel was the chief patroness of Baal worship in Israel. Her response to the news, predictably, was outrage; her words in verse 2 - "So may the gods do to me, and more also" - were a common biblical oath very likely accompanied by a gesture of throat cutting to reinforce the threat of her words.
Jezebel was a powerful queen and queen mother, and not known for idle threats (If you want an example of her work,you might consider what she did to Naboth in 1 Kings 21). V3 says that Elijah took the threat seriously and fled for his life. He fled first to Beer-sheba, a city in the Negev desert traditionally reckoned as the southern boundary of the southern kingdom of Judah, far from Jezebel's reach. Pausing there briefly, the prophet continued farther into the wilderness on a forty-day journey (vv. 4-8), until he reached Mount Horeb, which is another name for Mt. Sinai, which is today often identified with Jebel Musa, a peak in the southern mountains of the Sinai peninsula. In this remote spot, in a cave, "the word of the LORD" came to him (v. 9).
A number of particulars in this event from the life of Elijah resemble similar events from the life of Moses. Like Moses, Elijah spends forty days and forty nights in the wilderness. Like Moses, Elijah is protected during God's manifestation by a rock enclosure. Like God's revelation to Moses on Mt. Sinai, earthquake and fire accompanied God's revelation to Elijah on Horeb. But the most significant element of both revelations was not the physical manifestations of the theophany, but the voice of God.
Sound of Silence
In Elijah's case, it is interesting to note that God spoke not in wind, earthquake, or fire but in the sound of silence (v. 12). The Hebrew phrase "qol demamah daqqah" has been variously translated (KJV: "still small voice," Revised English Bible: "a faint murmuring sound," New American Bible: "a tiny whispering sound," and J. T. Walsh, "sound of fine silence" [in The New Jerome Biblical Commentary]. "Qol demamah daqqah" and can mean anything from a low whisper to a high-pitched whine.
It may seem paradoxical to speak of the sound of silence. Perhaps we should say simply the lack of sound. But there is a theological point. God is not found in the noise of this world. In a sense God is not found in speech and words at all. The only language capable of expressing the presence of God is a language beyond words. In silence, we hear the still, small voice of the Divine.
In the early Christian monastic tradition of the Desert Mothers and Fathers, there is a story about the richness of silence. "One day, Theophilus of holy memory, the bishop of Alexandria, came to Scetis. And the brothers who gathered said to Abba Pambo: 'Say a word to the bishop so that his soul may be benefited here.' The old man replied: 'If he is not inspired by my silence, he will not be inspired by my words either.'" [Wayne Muller, How Then, Shall We Live? (New York: Bantam Books, 1996), 120.]
The divine mystery is not a collection of attributes and doctrines; rather, it is a silence so still it deafens us. It is light so bright that it blinds us. To become intimate with this mystery of mysteries, we have to "unknow" worldly knowledge. We have to give up our tendency to assault God as we would a problem in science. Instead, we learn to wait patiently for Gods revelation of himself. This is a strange attitude for us. It is a soul exercise. Take your troubles to God, pour out your soul to the divine mystery, and wait. In Gods own time, in Gods own way, God will respond, and will give you an unearthly peace, even a taste of heavenly joy.
Elijah's Spiritual Distress
But let us get back to Elijah. Twice the the prophet is asked, "What are you doing here, Elijah?" (vv. 9, 13), which can also be translated, "What is there for you here, Elijah?" and the prophet responds both times in identical language rehearsing the dire straits in which he, as a devoted servant of God, finds himself (vv. 10, 14).
Significantly, Elijah does not attribute his distress to Jezebel, the immediate cause of his flight, but rather to the apostasy of the Israelites as a nation. It is they, Elijah reports to the Lord, who have "forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword" (vv. 10, 14). Elijah is despondent. His senses are dulled, his emotions are frazzled. He needs some soul-training. So God gives him some spiritual exercises.
Notice how this works. An angel says, "Get up and eat." A cake and a jar of water are nearby. Elijahs sense of smell is stimulated, and he eats and drinks. This happens a second time, before the angel tells him to go to Horeb.
What happens at Horeb is an experience in sensory stimulation and sensory deprivation. He spends some of the time talking to God, mostly reminding God what a great prophet he's been and complaining that he's overworked and underpaid. It all adds up to being underappreciated and undervalued. Elijah's flamed out. His soul is sagging. He has nothing left. A modern therapist would surely prescribe Prozac.
God begins Elijah's soul-training by telling him he's is too much focused on Jezebel and Ahab and not focused enough upon God. God follows this with a wind so strong that it splits mountains and breaks rocks into pieces. Wind, earthquake and fire assault the prophet, but not the presence of God. All this is a prelude to the presence.
Then God comes, in the sound of silence. This is what finally connects the prophet fully with the LORD. When Elijah hears the silence of God, he wraps his face in his mantle and goes out and stands at the entrance of the cave, ready to receive his marching orders (vv. 12-13).
Could he have perceived the full presence of God any earlier? Probably not. He needed the soulrobic exercises of smelling and tasting divine food, listening to God's voice, responding with emotion, feeling an earthquake and seeing a fire. In other words, God wanted Elijah to be fully present, to be all there - body, soul and spirit - before getting down to business.
Most of the time we are not all here or there! Our attention is divided and shredded a thousand ways. We are preoccupied by any number of stress points, issues that may include family, career, children, health, financial pressures and so on. We have a vague sense that God is somewhere in all of this, but we're not sure where.
Now we come to the main point of this lesson. Let us not wait until we are at the point of soul and brain exhaustion before connecting with the silence that ushers us into the presence of God.
Like so many of us, Elijah was in a rut, and he didn't use all the pathways available to him. He sought to escape his problems by fleeing Jezebel, wandering in the wilderness and curling up in the fetal position at the base of a tree. He was dejected, disheartened, dispirited and depressed.
He needed stimulation. God sent food, drink, word, wind, earthquake, and fire. God knew that Elijahs senses had been starved and that such starvation often leads to loss of brain function, not to mention soul function. So the Lord shocked him. Told him to get up and eat, listen to the word and the wind, watch the mountains and the fire and feel the earthquake. Then, and only then, would Elijah be able to sense the full presence of the Lord in the sound of sheer silence.
It took some stimulation to get Elijah's soul in shape. The same is true for us. We need internal rewiring, which is why we're challenged to shower with our eyes closed, feel the Braille numbers on an elevator or sniff a sack of sage while dialing the phone. All these activities can bring certain sensory channels back online and increase the number of brain pathways that are active and alive.
But what about antidotes to spiritual depression? Part of the answer of scripture is not unlike the advice any therapist might offer: Eat right, start exercising, and find quality time alone to process your inner thoughts.
But some additional retraining is needed. What Elijah and many of us lose sight of is that the world is not all about us; it is all about God. So, yes, we should eat right, and exercise, and do all that stuff, but we should also shut up and listen, listen for God.
Let me inject a note here in favor of an almost forgotten topic. Keeping the Lords Day. The most striking thing about keeping the Lord's Day is that it begins by not doing anything. The Hebrew word, shabbat, which we take over untranslated into our language, simply means, "Quit; stop; take a break." Whatever you are doing, stop it. Whatever you are saying, shut up. Sit down and take a look around you. Don't do anything. Don't say anything. Fold your hands. Take a deep breath.
If we are going to honor the Father, we must keep the Sabbath. We must stop running around long enough to see what God has done and is doing. We must shut up long enough to hear what God has said and is saying. All our ancestors agree that without silence and stillness there is no spirituality, and no God-attentive, God-responsive life.
We must stop and listen to the words we hear not in our head but in our hearts. There is an old proverb: "When your heart speaks, take good notes." In the New Testament, "heart" (Greek kardia) refers to the very center of physical and spiritual life, including thinking, emotion, desire, will and moral decision. To "listen with the ear of your heart" means to notice what God is seeking to reveal to you. This interior listening has a critical role in our spiritual development. As Blaise Pascal, the French mathematician and philosopher, said, "The heart has its reasons which reason does not know."
Amy Sullivan ["God on a Plate," Beliefnet, April 26, 2000] tells how God lectured her with the license plate of a car. "As I walked to work," She says, "self-absorbed as usual with such weighty, consuming issues as why I cannot figure out a career path, or why someone is playing kickball with my emotions, or why John Hoffmayer won the sixth-grade student-council presidency when anyone could see I was eminently more qualified for a political career. These are the sorts of thoughts that can develop into a full-blown pity party in your head, with your id and ego throwing confetti and dancing to "Fire and Rain" and everyone eating tubs of ice cream and commiserating."
She goes on to say, "From within this fog of recriminations and cries for justice, a heaven-sent message manifested itself: LET GO." The words appeared on the vanity license plate of a passing blue Mazda Miata. Sullivan said that she thought this was odd, because she is from Detroit, and she always assumed that God drove an American car, but never mind that. She said that as the message from the license plate penetrated toxic musings of her brain, she could only lean her head back to laugh. God had answered her need. Let Go. Let go and trust God. And Elijah would add: Listen for God. Amen.
"Cross-train your brain," Duke Magazine, May-June 1999, 50-51.Katz, Lawrence, et al. Keep Your Brain Alive. Workman Publishing Company, 1999.Knaster, Mirka. "Whole-body spirituality: using all your senses," Beliefnet, September 7, 2000.
If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant
Copyright 2000 York Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church
Last modified, 07/18/01