[Elijah] traveled forty days and forty nights until he reached Horeb, the mountain of God. There he went into a cave and spent the night. And the word of the LORD came to him: “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He replied, “I have been very zealous for the LORD God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, broken down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.” The LORD said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the LORD, for the LORD is about to pass by.” Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave. Then a voice said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” 1 Kings 19.8b-13.
As I was reading these verses this morning and, as always, loving them, I decided I wanted to write about them … but as I prepared to do so I suddenly had the feeling that I might have already done so, on this blog, a very long time ago; so I performed a search … Sure enough there it was, five years ago on 20 June 2008; and I was so blessed by what I read that I have decided to republish it this morning (slightly modified) for anyone who didn’t catch it the first time round.
After his victory of the prophets of Baal (2 Kings 18), Elijah is on the run from Jezebel who has threatened to kill him; and he has made a six week journey to Mount Horeb. Why Mount Horeb – otherwise known as Sinai? That’s the clue. Sinai is where Moses had his extraordinary earth-shaking encounter with God (Exodus 33) and maybe Elijah in all his doubt and despair and fear is seeking just such an encounter too, for we are told that, having arrived at the mountain, Elijah “went into a cave and spent the night” (1 Kings 19.9) Except that in the Hebrew it is not “a” cave but “the” cave – presumably the actual “cleft in the rock” where God had placed Moses as his glory passed by (Exodus 33.21-23). And if that was what Elijah had gone there for, then God certainly gave him what he wanted. He got a hurricane; he got an earthquake, he got fire … but, heart-stoppingly terrifying though it must all have been, Elijah had no sense of God making himself present in all that spectacular stuff at all.
Then, however, there came (to borrow a song title from Simon and Garfunkel) the sound of silence. It seems to me that that is a good way of translating the Hebrew expression that appears in this morning’s passage as “a gentle whisper” … there is the word qol — a voice or a sound — followed by demamah — calm, stillness, silence — which is qualified as daq — small, tiny, thin. The King James Version has “a still, small voice” and the Good News Bible has “the soft whisper of a voice”. All are legitimate ways of trying to convey the force of the Hebrew which is of a silence that was full of God’s presence and in which Elijah heard something — perhaps just the merest whisper of his name being called. At any rate, it was sufficient to draw him to the mouth of the cave where the whisper turned into a question and then into new direction for Elijah’s future.
How I often do I long for the spectacular in my encounters with God! And although at times he has granted me that, his preferred method of meeting with me too is in the sound of silence — that still small voice in my head and heart which I often question and which I often have difficulty in distinguishing from my own thoughts. But maybe that is why God prefers to speak in a gentle whisper. Because it means that I have to really listen if I am to hear him at all. It means I have to take time to be alone with him and to become focussed on him in order to get real insight into his thoughts about me and real direction for the future. A quick two minutes while I’m cleaning my teeth won’t do. Yet I so rarely take serious amounts of time to listen; and that is a very real challenge to me this morning (just as it was back in June 2008.)