Read: 1 Kings 19
He said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the LORD, for the LORD is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces 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; and after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence” (1 Kings 19:11-12, NRSV).
Is it just me, or does the prophet Elijah strike you as someone who is seriously depressed?
I know it’s dangerous to diagnose someone from a distance—especially a distance of 3000 years—but the symptoms are staring us right in the face. In spite of the fact that Elijah has just come off what is arguably the peak of his prophetic career, this chapter finds him running for his life. Gone is the confident, sarcastic, swash-buckling prophet who defeated the 850 prophets of Baal and Asherah in the previous chapter. Here, Elijah is meek as a mouse. He has lost his appetite, just wants to sleep, and has lost all interest in his “daily activities.” While it doesn’t quite count as “suicidal ideations,” asking God to end it all for you comes pretty close.
God is not open to this suggestion, however, and spirits Elijah off to Mt. Sinai for a little lesson in perspective. Unimpressed by Elijah’s lament (“I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away”), God rustles up an impressive series of special effects. Yet God is not “in” any of them. Instead, God’s presence shows up in the least likely of places: in the “sound of a faint whisper” (my translation).
Why should we care how this obscure little Hebrew phrase gets translated? Because if we get it wrong, it’s impossible to get God’s point. And as it happens, it’s a very important point—especially now.
Everyone assumes that God’s power will come through the earthquake, wind, and fire. Those, after all, are the usual suspects in any self-respecting theophany. But this passage—when translated literally—reminds us that God’s power can also be made manifest in weakness.
While I’m usually a fan of the NRSV (I’ve made generations of students buy it), the NRSV’s translation of this phrase is spectacularly misleading. Even in the new “updated edition,” they render the relevant phrase as: “a sound of sheer silence.” At the risk of revealing my age, I think this translation is under the influence of Simon and Garfunkel. Sure, it alliterates nicely, but it completely misses the point.
So, what’s the point? Elijah thinks he’s alone and powerless. He feels like his voice is no bigger than a whisper—and a faint one at that. God’s point is that the Lord of the universe can work through faint whispers.
That, it seems to me, is a particularly important point—not just for Elijah, but for us. “I alone am left!” we whimper as our denominations shrink and our voice gets drowned out by all manner of noise. “What difference will my one vote make?” we wonder in the face of super PAC politics.
This story suggests that we need to get over ourselves. So what if we’re little more than a faint whisper? God can work through that.
Ponder: Elijah seems to miss the point in v. 14. (His answer is precisely what it was before God’s demonstration.) What can we learn from what God says to him in vv. 15-18? Are we really as alone as we think we are?
Pray: Speak through the earthquake, wind, and fire Thy still small voice of calm.