Still Small Voice



1 Kings 19:9-15a

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.


In the 1989 movie, “Dead Poet’s Society,” a teacher tells his 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 to 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. Hold your nose and taste different foods to see if that changes the taste of food--It does by the way.

These "neurobic" exercises 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."

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, 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. 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.

In the scripture from I Kings, Elijah is clearly suffering not so much from brain cramp as from soul cramp. He needs soul training. He needs to listen for a still small voice.

Today's lesson could be called “Theophany on Mount Horeb.” A “theophany” is an appearance of God.

Elijah is in deep trouble. Following Elijah’s 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. She was outraged. Chapter 19:2: “Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, saying, ‘So may the gods do to me and more also, if I do not make your life as the life of one of them by this time tomorrow.’” In other words, “You killed my prophets. I am going to kill you.”

Jezebel was a powerful queen, and she did not make idle threats. A couple of chapters later in I Kings, when Naboth dared to defy her, she had him murdered. In the chapter before us, Elijah knows who he is dealing with, and he runs. He fled first to Beer-sheba, a city in southern Judah, well beyond the reach of Jezebel, but he apparently did not feel safe even there. He kept going, continuing in 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 details in this event from the life of Elijah resemble similar details 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.

In Elijah's case, God spoke not in wind, earthquake, or fire but in a still small voice (v. 12). What is that? The Hebrew “qol demamah daqqah.” Revised English Bible translates it as: "a faint murmuring sound." The New American Bible has: "a tiny whispering sound."

In our world, in our culture, we live with noise. Some years ago I read about an anthropologist who went to live with a primitive tribe, to gather notes for a book. I have forgotten where I read this, and it does not matter. Anyway the anthropologist said, that the first thing that hits you out there in the bush is the almost complete lack of noise. In the thick brush of the jungle, you could be a few feet away from the tribe, and never know that they were there. In contrast, we live with lots of noise--the noise of cars, trucks and planes, radios, mp3 players, and TVs, I have sometimes thought that the reason young people like loud music is that it has got to be loud to be heard over the ordinary noise of our society.

We live with noise in another sense. Many voices are trying to claim our attention. That is what every TV program, every radio station, every book, every newspaper, is trying to do--Get your attention. And they all merge into a chaos of sound and turmoil, and sometimes we would like to turn it all off.

This includes even religious noise. Religious noise is talk about God. It is not talk with God. Elijah had been talking about God, trying to establish God as the God of Israel. He lost. That is why he is hiding in a cave on Mt. Horeb. He has not been successful in talking about God, but that is not what he wants anyway. Elijah is a true believer who wants to talk with God. He wants God’s real presence in his life. And God comes to him, as a barely discernable murmur.

One point the scripture is making is that God is not really found in human speech and human words. 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.]

God is not a collection of doctrines; when we talk about doctrine, we are talking about God. We are not talking with God, we have no connection with God. When we stop talking, and start listening, then God is there. God is there for us in the silence so still it deafens us. God is there for us in the light so bright that it blinds us. To come into the presence of God, we have to shut up. We have to give up on ourselves and learn to wait patiently for God’s revelation of himself. This is a strange attitude for us. Take your troubles to God, pour out your soul to the Lord, and wait. In God’s own time, in God’s own way, God will respond, and will give you an unearthly peace, even a taste of heavenly joy.

But let us get back to Elijah. Twice the the prophet is asked, "What are you doing here, Elijah?" (vv. 9, 13), 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 Israelites are the problem. 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; He is tired; He is beat.

But he is still all about Elijah. When he talks to God, he reminds God that he has been a great prophet and he complaines that he is overworked and underpaid. He feels underappreciated and undervalued. Now he is burned out. His soul is sagging. A modern therapist would surely prescribe Prozac.

God responds that Elijah 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 a still small voice. 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 go forth and serve the Lord (vv. 12-13).

Could he have perceived the full presence of God any earlier? Probably not. He needed the soulrobic exercises of 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.

God wanted Elijah perfectly focused on God. Most of the time, we are not really focused on anything much. Our attention is divided and shredded a thousand ways. We are preoccupied with family issues, career issues, health issues, and so on. We have a vague sense that God is somewhere in all of this, but we are not sure where. We need that still small voice that brings us into the presence of God.

Elijah prayed but he had been praying Elijah-focused prayers. He wanted God to kill Jezebel and convert Israel. That was what Elijah wanted. But he learns that it is Elijah that needs to be converted.

Elijah is dejected and depressed because he is self-centered, but notice this: Elijah’s feelings do not have anything to do with God’s presence. God is still there, and what Elijah needs to do is to listen for God, and listen to God.

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. She said that as the message from the license plate penetrated the toxic musings of her brain, she threw back her head and laughed. God had answered her need. Let Go. Let go and trust God. And Elijah would add: Listen for God.



"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.


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