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A Still Small Voice

“Contemplative Prayer and the ‘Elijah Experience’
of 1 Kings 19:12”

By Pastor Larry DeBruyn

Elijah’s Mt. Horeb experience, when he heard “a sound of sheer silence” (1 Kings 19:12, NRSV), has stimulated a tradition of desert spirituality which pursues solitude in order to hear the voice of God. Practitioners of lectio divina (i.e., reading sacred things) also desire such encounters. They say:

“When we read the Scriptures we should try to imitate the prophet Elijah. We should allow ourselves to become women and men who are able to listen for the still, small voice of God (I Kings 19:12); the ‘faint murmuring sound’ which is God’s word for us, God’s voice touching our hearts. This gentle listening is an ‘atunement’ to the presence of God . . .”[1]

About Elijah’s experience of hearing God’s “still small voice” (KJV, NKJV), questions arise. Does 1 Kings 19:12 endorse contemplative spirituality? Was the prophet’s encounter with God in the cave on Mt. Horeb/Sinai a mystical “atunement”?

At first glance, the translation “a sound of sheer silence” (NRSV) seems oxymoronic. Mystics often describe their experiences in cryptic and self-contradictory phrases such as “mute language,” “dazzling obscurity,” “teeming dessert,” and “whispering silence.”[2] So at the face of it, the description of what the prophet heard—“the sound of sheer silence”—projects a mystic nuance about it. Nevertheless, it must be asked, how does sheer silence give sound? Other English versions grapple with the problem, and therefore, translate the Hebrew phrase as “a still small voice” (KJV, NKJV); “a tiny whispering sound” (NAB); “a sound of a gentle blowing” (NASB); “a gentle whisper” (NIV, NLT); “a soft whisper of a voice” (GNT); and more. To understand what happened to Elijah, we must look more closely at the context.

The Hebrew word for “sound” (qôl) normally means, and is predominately translated, “voice” in the Old Testament (See Genesis 3:8-10.). As this and other contexts bear out, “voice” can refer to the content of what is said (Compare v. 13 to Genesis 3:17; Exodus 3:18; Isaiah 40:3; etc.). That the “voice” was quiet contrasts to the violent theophany of the Lord’s earlier passing by the front of the cave (vv. 11-12a). God spoke to Elijah in a gentler way than He spoke to Moses and Israel at Mt. Sinai centuries earlier (Exodus 19:16ff.). Yet as suggested by the Hebrew noun (qôl), the “voice” possessed verbal content (KJV, NKJV, and RSV). But what did the “voice” say to Elijah?

Note in verse 9 that “the word of the Lord” came to Elijah, and was followed by the question, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” Verse 12 then mentions “a gentle whispering voice” (Hebrew qôl), after which the “voice” (qôl) repeats the question (v. 13), “What are you doing here, Elijah?” Note the progression. Verse 9 calls the Lord’s communication of the question “the word of the Lord.” Verse 12 does not directly state what the “voice” communicated to Elijah. But verse 13 specifies that the contents of the “voice” included the repeated question, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

All that the Lord communicated to Elijah in the cave remains unspecified. But that God continued to speak in a “voice” (v. 12 and v. 13) indicates continuity of His speaking to Elijah. The “voice” (v. 12) may have repeated the question (vv. 9, 13), and also included instructions for ministry (vv. 15-18). And in the storm’s aftermath, all this was gently delivered. God did not shout at the prophet!

The repeat of the word “voice” (qôl) in verses 12 and 13 indicates that what Elijah experienced was not contemplative, or subjective, communion with the divine, but rather that he received objective communication from God, the surrounding verses providing general commentary on what God said to the prophet.

One author describes Elijah’s flight to Mt. Horeb:

“The wanderer was alone, yet not alone. A voice he could neither mistake nor misinterpret had sounded in his ears the thrilling question ‘What doest thou here, Elijah?’ . . . Life (and none should know better than thee) is a great doing; not hermit inaction, inglorious repose, guilty idolatry. . . . ‘What doest thou here’—here in this desolate spot—away from duty . . .?”[3]

Ironic isn’t it, that the question the Lord repeatedly posed to Elijah contradicts the sense in which contemplative spiritualists mean to understand the “voice.” They use the prophet’s cave experience as a pretext for their retreating into the solitude of their “higher consciousness” to find mystical communion with the divine, but all the while God is asking, “What are you doing here?”

[1] Fr. Luke Dysinger, O.S.B., “Accepting the Embrace of God: The Ancient Art of Lectio Divina.” Online at http://www.valyermo.com/ld-art.html
[2] See William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience (New York: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1919) 420.
[3] J.R. Mac Duff, Elijah, Prophet of Fire (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1956 Reprint) 171.

Excerpted with permission from Church on the Rise: Why I am not a Purpose-Driven Pastor.