The Sound of Sheer Silence

The Sound of Sheer Silence

1 Kings 19:1-18

by Daniel Harrell

Most Christians know how to talk to God. We know we can pray, even if we don’t pray as often as we think we should. Perhaps we’d pray more if God talked back. Conversation is better as a two-way street. However we’re spending our Lent thinking about silence in Scripture, and God’s silence can be as quiet as it gets. Last week’s look at Esther featured a Lord so tight-lipped that neither his name nor a word is ever uttered from him or about him. While odd for the Bible, it’s more like our experience in modern life. Outside of Sundays and swearing, there just aren’t a lot of places where the Almighty ranks mention.

At the same time, the God of the Bible can be pretty loud. The Lord speaks from the very beginning of Scripture, making the world with his words and then redeeming the world with his word made flesh in Christ. He pounces on the church as fiery tongues at Pentecost, uses prophets to vociferously cajole and condemn, and undeniably booms atop mountains and hills with boisterous earthquakes, thunder and fire. The prophet Elijah presumed the Lord to be talking to him amidst all the clamor in this morning’s passage. But instead we read how the voice of God Lord spoke with the “sound of sheer silence.” Other Bibles describe it as a “light murmuring sound,” “a low whisper,” a “gentle blowing breeze,” or “thin silence.” It’s most famously known as a “still, small voice.”

We’d welcome such whispering in our own ears in answer to prayer. We encounter all kinds of hard decisions and trouble whereas a discernible murmur from God could go a long way. Elijah’s encounter provides hopeful assurance that God still speaks when we need something said.

1 Kings 19 comes on the heels of Elijah’s famous duel with the prophets of Baal. Visiting Israel last year, I stood atop Mt. Carmel where this legendary contest took place. You may remember the story: a bull was placed center court as each side then offered up prayers to their God to send fire for the grill. The numerous prophets of Baal the false idol pled and beseeched into the night with nary a spark. Elijah mocked their futility as so much bull-crap, and then, handicapping his entreaty by submerging the bull in deep water, shot up a single game-winning prayer from half court and FOOM! Slam dunk. Flames fell from heaven and burned everything to toast.

So convincing was Yahweh’s rout that Elijah fully expected the whole country to convert from their idolatry and jump on God’s bandwagon, including the infamous Queen Jezebel—Elijah’s chief nemesis and the instigator of Israel’s recent descent into unbelief. Surely Baal’s bracket-busting defeat would convince her too. But instead, the lopsided score only made her mad. She marched out her armies to make Elijah’s life like that of the prophets he’d killed.

Would the unsinkable and victorious Elijah be cowed by the threats of this villainous woman? You bet. He turned tail and ran for his life.

What’s happened? How could his single-handed bulldoze of 450 false prophets not translate into an aura of invincibility? Instead, our heretofore-hero cowered under a solitary broom tree showing symptoms contemporary psychology labels as clinical depression: a death wish, loss of appetite, excessive self-pity, and selective memory. An angel showed up as table-waiter twice with heavenly cakes to get Elijah back on his feet. Yet as disappointing as Elijah’s chicken heart proved, it also proved providential. His cowardly retreat mimicked Moses who’d run when Pharaoh threatened his life back in Egypt. Why does this matter? Deeply imbedded within Israel’s hope for national glory was the emergence of a second Moses, a super-star draft pick prophet who would finally save Israel from all their oppression and permanently establish them as God’s chosen nation.

Thankfully, Elijah’s cowardice wasn’t all that substantiated the comparison. Just as Elijah ordered the death of the 450 prophets of Baal, so Moses commanded 3000 idolaters to be killed after the golden calf fiasco in Exodus. Similarly, Elijah and Moses both ate food from heaven and spent forty days prior to their encounters with God on a mountain. In fact, it was likely the same mountain. Horeb and Sinai are different names for the same place. The cave from whence Elijah watched the Lord pass by here may have been the same cleft in the rock where the Lord passed by Moses. Furthermore, both Elijah and Moses anointed their successors, Elisha and Joshua, whose names mean practically the same thing: God saves. Joshua and Elisha are the Hebrew forms of the Greek name “Jesus,” who himself was anointed by John the Baptist, recognized as the New Testament Elijah. All of this is designed as a forecast for Christ as the true superstar; a point made apparent atop a high mountain where Moses and Elijah showed up to point to Jesus as the genuine game-changer.

The only place where Elijah and Moses don’t come off as identical twins is in regard to this “still small voice.” It’s puzzled translators for centuries. Why suddenly depart from the winning game plan? Part of the problem has to do with the Hebrew phrase itself. The words translated “sound of sheer silence” show up nowhere else in the Bible. There’s no basis for comparison. It’s why no two Bibles render it the same way.

The passage itself actually has God talking twice; Elijah repeats the same answer to the same question two times. The repetition is a literary device designed to focus attention on what falls in between; namely, the detail of Elijah’s mountaintop experience. The Lord commanded Elijah to go out and stand on Mt. Sinai and wait for the LORD was about to pass by. Then a great and powerful wind shattered the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind. After the wind came an earthquake followed by fire, all calling cards of God’s presence, except the Lord was not in the wind, earthquake or fire. Every other time in the Bible, whenever the Lord directly appears without mediation, he does so with ear-piercing pyrotechnics. Except here there is “the sound of sheer silence” or whatever it was, and when Elijah heard it, whatever that meant, he covered his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave.

This unusual deviation from the divine norm has been understood in various ways. In addition to comforting whispers from the Lord now and then, there’s the idea that God reveals himself in unpretentious ways, that contact with him only happens on the down low. Others infer a rejection of violence, that the silence of God trumps the noise of false gods or that Quaker worship, where silence is routine, is preferable to Episcopalian flamboyance or to Pentecostal ruckus.

In other traditions, that the Lord would speak in a “gentle whisper” specifically to Elijah gets generalized as divine protocol for God’s specific speaking to everyone else. A personal relationship with God presumes personalized communication; the way Google this week knew when my birthday was and had its home screen spell out Google with a birthday cake and candles. When I clicked on the cake up popped a whole page of Google’s information on me, which I have to admit gave me the creeps.

Not that God is Google, of course. But like Google, a word from the Lord is never intended to be private. Old Testament-style prophets from Moses to John the Baptist did enjoy what might be interpreted as exclusive communication from the Lord, but whatever they heard was always intended for general consumption. After Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit infused all believers and not just prophets, the paradigm shifted. Suddenly the whole body of Christ had ears to hear and carried prophetic as well as priestly responsibilities for each other.

This is a hallmark of congregationalism. When we gather we trust the Spirit of God among us in ways she’s not present when we’re alone. We believe that only together can we truly discern God’s will for our life. God’s spirit dwells in us, most evidently as congregations rather than individuals. It’s why we’re called the body rather than bodies of Christ. No one is a Christian by themselves. God’s spirit infuses our collective souls with collective wisdom, spiritual common sense and concern for each other, as well as with courage and mutual support to do the right thing. Congregationalism is not a democracy where everybody gets a vote, but a monarchy where Jesus is king. We submit ourselves to the will of the Lord rather than the will of the people. It’d be great if at times if God would thunder his will now and then or lick us with a few fiery tongues, but we walk by faith instead of by sight and sound, trusting Scripture to reveal what is good and right and pleasing to God.

Nevertheless, over the course of my pastoral career, I’ve had people describe the Lord directly telling them to commit scores of life-changing decisions from buying a big house to picking a spouse, the latter without the prospective pick having any inclination or interest. I’m tempted to push back and challenge these claims, but hearing God speak is hard to trump. Sometimes I get cheeky and ask what the voice sounded like. Maybe I’m just envious. That I challenge a special, direct word from the Lord for others has caused my own salvation to be called into question. I’ve been accused of opposing such central and vital tenets of Christian experience as divine providence (which I preached in favor of last Sunday), the conviction of the Holy Spirit, the introspective value of conscience or other intangible aspects of Christian spirituality. Who am I to outshout the still small voice of the Lord?

The real challenge arises from the passage itself. Why does Elijah parallel Moses in every other instance but this little one? Throughout the Bible, what we call theophanies—those divinely-initiated revelations of God—unequivocally occur in the context of intense loudness (thunder, fire, storm, earthquakes, blaring trumpets, bright light or supernatural angels). Why would it happen only here with hardly a sound?

Maybe it didn’t. God spoke to Elijah alright, but did you know that the two adjectives rendered in our passage as still (or whispering or silent) and small (or gentle or sheer or thin) are actually homonyms of other words? You remember homonyms? Homonyms are those words that share the same sound but have different meanings. Such as wait as in “hang around” and weight as in mass—though not mass as in Catholic communion, but mass as in a unified body of matter. Not that it matters. Words like mass and matter are trickier ones from a textual standpoint because they are also identical in spelling—like bear “to carry” and bear the grizzly. Or like hide as in “hide your face” or hide as in pelt, not like when you pelt someone with a snowball, but like the hide of a bear. You get the idea. Interestingly, the word translated “still” or “whispering” is a homonym for “wail” or “lament.” At the same time, the word translated “small” or “thin,” is homonymous with the word meaning “make thin” or better “to crush, grind or break into pieces.” So you see, it’s a very short distance between “still small voice” and its Hebrew homonym “wailing, crushing voice.”

Imagine Elijah to be in that cave when the Lord passed by and the text instead read, “…Elijah had a ball.” What could that mean? Well, it could mean that Elijah upon watching the Lord pass by had a really awesome time. Or it could mean that Elijah decided to throw a huge soiree complete with orchestra and dancing just to mark the occasion. Or it could also mean that Elijah happened to have in his possession any one of a variety of recreational orbs used to play games like baseball or basketball or even ping pong. How would you know which of the homonyms’ meaning was meant?

The context should provide significant clues. We read “a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the LORD.” Note before the Lord as in “in front of” or “preceding” the Lord. “But the LORD was not in the wind (nor in the subsequent earthquake or fire). However “not” in this case should be understood as meaning not yet rather than never. After all, storm, earthquake and fire preceded and announced God’s coming to Moses atop Mt. Sinai too. You can see where I’m headed. What accompanied earthquake, wind and fire in Moses’ case? It was not a still small voice, but the wailing, crushing word of the Lord.

One reason translators across centuries have opted for “still small voice” is to denote a contrast with the preceding natural disturbances, rather than a “wailing, crushing voice” that would have exceeded those disturbances. The rationale is that nothing could be louder than earthquakes or hurricane force winds ripping rocks apart. But why not? If things were as loud as they must have been, what else but something louder could have ever gotten Elijah to so hide his face and come out of that cave? Imagine driving to the airport with your sunroof open. You got the music blasting and the kids in the back screaming. Traffic is blaring and air rushing by overhead. You wouldn’t be able to hear yourself think. All of a sudden one of those low-flying planes flies by overhead. The subsequent boom would be enough to make you let loose of your steering wheel to cover his ears. You can imagine the same with Elijah. The sunroof of his cave was open when the earthquake, wind and fire made their ruckus; but it was God’s sonic boom that caused Elijah to let loose of all he was doing and cover his face. He knew who was knocking.

What did the crushing lament of God’s voice say? Elijah had shirked his job as a prophet. He’d lost faith in God’s power. Yahweh thundered his crushing complaint: “WHAT ARE YOU DOING HERE?! GET BACK THERE AND DO WHAT YOU’RE SUPPOSED TO BE DOING! ANOINT GOOD KINGS AND ELISHA AS YOUR SUCCESSOR! PURIFY MY PEOPLE FROM THEIR SINFUL WAYS! DO YOUR JOB! GET BACK WHERE YOU BELONG!” So Elijah went. I’ll bet he ran.

God has spoken. We believe the word became a body of flesh in Jesus Christ who dwelled among us, telling but also showing what living a life in God looks like. God’s word became a body of people too, inspired by the spirit who dwells in us, infusing our collective souls with collective wisdom, spiritual common sense and concern for each other. God’s word became a body of text too, and for us who read it and heed it, it is a bright light unto our feet and a loud sound for our path. Does God still speak in other ways? Surely he can. But I do believe that if God ever does speak especially, specifically and directly to you, I think you will definitely know it. In the meantime we trust that the Lord mostly lets the Bible do all his taking these days. If we want to know for I sure what God wants he’s written it down. Maybe one of the reasons God remains so otherwise silent is to send us back to the Bible to read it and obey what it says. If, like Elijah, you’re running from this obedience, hiding under your own broom tree, fearful and uncertain and making excuses for your behavior; then hear the word of the Lord: “WHAT ARE YOU DOING HERE?! GET BACK WHERE YOU BELONG!”