Elijah the Prophet: The Still Small Voice
What is God?
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Of the entire cast of colorful characters that fill the pages of the Bible, none can match the sheer vitality and passion of Elijah the Prophet. What is probably the most dramatic incident of his dramatic career follows a victorious challenge to the king Ahab and a large crowd of idolatrous prophets whom Elijah made look like fools. He then had to flee for his life. He makes it to some place a day out of Beer Sheba where he begs for his own death, incongruously considering himself to be a failure. An angel appears and touches him and tells him to arise and eat. He sees food and water and he eats, drinks, and proceeds to lie down again. The angel wakes him again and tells him that he must eat again to prepare for a great journey. He eats again and begins a remarkable journey of 40 days and 40 nights until he comes to Horev, or Sinai, the mountain of God. He lodges in a cave until he hears the word of Hashem asking him ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’ In response to this puzzling question he answers, ‘I have been exceedingly zealous for Hashem, God of Hosts, for the Israelites have abandoned Your covenant and destroyed Your altars and killed Your prophets by the sword, and I alone remain and they want to take my soul’ (Kings I 19:9-10).
In response to this dispirited answer, the word of Hashem says to him, ‘“Go and stand on the mountain before Hashem”, and Hashem passed and a great wind ripped the mountains and broke the rocks before Hashem, but Hashem was not in the wind; and after the wind a great noise, but Hashem was not in the noise. And after the noise a fire, but Hashem was not in the fire; and after the fire a still, small voice. And when Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his cloak and went out and stood at the opening of the cave and the voice came to him and said, “What are you doing here Elijah?” And he answered, “I was exceedingly zealous for Hashem, God of Hosts, for the Israelites have abandoned Your covenant and destroyed Your altars and killed Your prophets by the sword, and I alone remain and they want to take my soul.”’
This incredible dialogue seems to end rather abruptly right at this point, when Hashem simply tells him to go to Damascus and anoint someone to be king of the neighboring nation of Aram. He is also to anoint a man named Elisha as his successor. But he never really left.
Jewish tradition has it that he never died. Jewish tradition has him appearing to Talmudic rabbis all over the place. He continues appearing to rabbinic and mystical figures up until modern times. He comes into the lives of very ordinary, non-rabbinic people also – helping them out just when they need it, giving them a message and then vanishing into the haze. He pops in at every circumcision – there is even a chair reserved for him at each one. He shows for after-dinner wine at every Passover Seder every year. What did he do to earn such an incredible reputation?
The story mentioned above may shed some light. It is a fascinating little story, of that there is no doubt. But we still have our questions. Why did Hashem ask Elijah what he was doing at that cave, if Hashem’s angel had already told him he was to go on a great journey? Why did Elijah answer the way that he did? What is this metaphor of God not being in the wind, the noise, or the fire? What’s with that ‘still, small, voice’? Was God in that voice? Finally, after this spectacular demonstration, when Hashem asks him the exact same question, he gives the exact same answer. Did he not learn anything from the demonstration?
Elijah, by this point in his prophetic career, is an old pro at miracles. He performs these miracles so routinely that it almost seems like a sideline to his main business of hassling Ahab and his b-word of a wife Jezebel for pushing idolatry and all kinds of other rotten things. By the time he’d finished with those false prophets he was fed up with the backsliding on-again off-again faith of the Israelites and wanted nothing more to do with them.
God did not agree. The angel wouldn’t let Elijah throw in the towel. He told him that it was time for a long journey. The angel never said where Elijah was to go; just that he would need enough food in him to take a long trek. Elijah’s 40 day and 40 night hike was obviously reminiscent of Moshe’s stays on Mt. Sinai communing with Hashem. It is also clear that it was not simply a coincidence that he ended up at Mt. Sinai. Nor was it an accident that he found his way to a cave where he heard the voice of God. He was clearly reliving Moshe’s experiences there. It was time for a recharge.
But when he finally starts the session, the first question Hashem asks him is why he came. This probably should have thrown him off guard a little. This was supposed to be a spiritual pilgrimage of sorts, so why is God acting like a psychologist. Perhaps this tells us something about spiritual pilgrimages. The first thing one should expect to hear from God is a question – ‘what are you doing here?’ Because that really is what a spiritual pilgrimage is all about. It is not necessarily about epiphanies and other spiritual highs, though those certainly are nice. It is about finding yourself spiritually. This applies to everyone, whether you are a spiritual novice or you are Elijah the Prophet.
Elijah’s answer is a little disconcerting. He replied that he came because he was fed up with the Israelites’ backsliding. Hashem’s response to this is as confusing as it is dramatic. What is the meaning of the wind, the noise, and the fire? Perhaps it is Hashem’s way of telling him that he’s getting a little too overworked about problems that he cannot solve. The wind can split mountains and shatter rocks, but Hashem is not in it. Such a wind is all about power and control. It’s about breaking things down instead of building them up. This is not where Elijah should look for God. The same goes for the noise and the fire. They are incredible displays of might and energy, almost divine in their appearance. But not quite. At the end of the day, a great sound and a fire, like the wind, are natural forces. God doesn’t need to shout in order to make His voice heard. He doesn’t not to shatter rocks or wills or personalities. God may not desire to be found in those things.
Where is God found? In a still, small voice – no razzle-dazzle, no sound and light show, no splitting mountains or seas. What is this image? What is this image?
God is found in strange places. God may be found in thunder or in fire. God may be found in the splitting of the sea or in a burning bush. But God is not only found in those places. Sometimes, God is found in the small and quiet things. Sometimes God’s voice comes out clearer when the volume is turned down and there is nothing except silence. Sometimes those moments of stillness have more power than the most powerful blast. Sometimes they have more energy than the wind or a fire. God is not always found in the heat and the power - for these things tend to drown out the voice of God more than they reveal it. The still, small voice may not be the voice of God, but it is the ambiance for hearing the voice of God.
Following this revelation, Elijah wraps himself in his cloak. He is ready to go out again and hear the voice. The voice comes again, and asks him the exact same question, ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’ One would expect that Elijah would not give the same answer that he gave before. That answer was filled with wind, and trembling, and hot air. It wasn’t the sound of silence. He gave the exact same answer, word for word, as he gave the first time. He didn’t get the message. Tough as this is to believe, it’s explicit in the text. Elijah just didn’t get it. Elijah was not ready to hear the message of the still, small voice. He was still Elijah the Prophet, but he never seems to have learned this crucial idea.
But why does he show up all over the place, popping into people’s lives when they are least expecting it and somehow giving them the message that they need at the time that they need it? Is this also a way for him to make up a fault he never corrected during his natural lifetime? Perhaps it is an opportunity for Elijah to finally and eternally put his experience at Mt. Sinai to practice. Perhaps Elijah would become the perpetual ‘still, small voice’ – the voice that silently visits people when they aren’t really paying much attention and slips them some subtle message of whatever it is that they really need to hear. He may speak so silently and still that we usually do not sense that he is there. But sometimes we might catch a shadow of a shadow of his presence and what it was. Those are the moments of the still, small, voice. Those are the moments that Elijah comes and makes up for lost time.
Perceiving the Image
We may not be prophets like Elijah, and we likely aren’t zealous firebrands like him. But, like him, we do need to take a spiritual journey every once in a while. We need to remind ourselves that God is difficult to find in the loud noises and the explosions of power. High energy environments may be great for excitement and thrills, but they usually don’t do much for one who is looking for God. To get somewhere in the spiritual world may require occasionally journeying to stillness in the physical world. It won’t be easy to leave the lights and the fire and the ruckus. We tend to pay attention to the excitement and pretty much disregard the quietude. We get too tied up into the subjects of our own zeal and ignore to the silent voice that asks us questions like, ‘What are you doing here?’ It may ask this question repeatedly, until we finally catch on that the question is important and we cannot overlook it any longer.
The still, small voice may not be God. But it is a spiritual power that roams the world looking for people who are willing to pay attention to it. It is another of God’s messengers. It is an image that works not with power but with silence and stillness. It behooves us all to try to hear this voice, even if it means leaving the hustle and bustle of the world and the incessant chatter on the web. Sometime what we need is not action but inaction. Sometimes we need to listen to the sound of our own breathing, or to the soft patter of thoughts as they float through the mind. Sometimes we need to feel the pulse of nature in its purest and subtlest rhythms, like the growth of a tree or the tinkle of ripples on a pond. The senses all crave subtlety, but we usually feed them a steady diet of thrills. The next time you feel like you’ve just got to get away from it all and rediscover who you are, you might consider the path that Elijah journeyed for but couldn’t fully accept when he found it - the still, small voice.
Most of us feel uncomfortable in silence and stillness. Perhaps we sense our own vulnerability to the image of God that lies within that stillness. Like Elijah, we don’t want to hear what silence can tell us. Are you ready for silence?
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