The Sheer Sound of a Still Small Voice

"God speaks to us in a whisper," or so said an Episcopal priest I once knew. It was one of his trademark sayings, and the idea was obvious enough: if we want to discern the voice (will) of God in our lives, we had better listen carefully, because it won't come with any amplification.

While I can't say so for sure, my hunch is that all this came from a reading of 1 Kings 19. In this passage, Elijah, alone on Mount Horeb after fleeing for his life from the rage of Queen Jezebel, encounters a series of awe-inspiring events—a great wind, an earthquake, and a fire—but each time, we are told, God was not in the particular force of nature. And then, after the fire, in the words of the King James Version, comes a "still small voice."

The narrative goes on to say that at this point Elijah "wrapped his face in his mantle" and went out from where he had been hiding. Then he hears a voice that speaks to him, asks him a question, and gives him direction about what his next move should be.

The story as found in the KJV seems a bit disjointed. Elijah hears a voice, steps out from the cave, and thenhears a voice that speaks to him about what he is doing and where he should be going. Is it the same voice? Was God just sort of clearing his throat the first time?

Some light can be shed on this by considering how this same story is rendered in a newer translation, the New Revised Standard Version. There, the Hebrew words that in the 17th century were translated as "still small voice" are rendered as "the sound of sheer silence." Based on my layman's knowledge of Hebrew, it makes sense: qol can be translated as "voice," but also simply as "sound"; daq can mean "thin," "small," "fine" or "sheer"; while demamah can mean "whisper," but also suggests "stillness" or "silence."

My guess is that four centuries ago, when the scholars of the day were translating the King James Version, the idea that Elijah encountered the sound of sheer silence was probably just a little too out-there for them to grasp. So they opted for "the still small voice," ignoring the fact that this translation makes the overall narrative seem awkward and repetitious.

Read the NRSV, and it's much clearer: Elijah, having already encountered the voice of God, retreats into a cave but is called out to where "the Lord is about to pass by." Then comes the excitement: the wind that could split mountains; the earthquake; and the fire. And then: sheer silence.

It is in hearing the silence that Elijah responds to, and thus is able to hear and respond to, the voice of God.

So what does this mean for you and me?

Obviously, few if any of us will ever be looking for an encounter with God in windstorms, earthquakes, and fire on the mountain. Furthermore, I doubt if you or I or anyone reading this will ever have to run for our lives because a wicked queen is out to get us. But if we decided that our lives are just not very much like Elijah's, we would be in danger of missing the point. The drama of Elijah's experience serves as a kind of metaphor or symbol of any troubled life. We all are on the run, in some way. Perhaps we're running from something like Elijah, or maybe desperately trying to reach something. And while we're running, we're going to encounter plenty of times when it seems that the wind is ripping rock apart, or the ground beneath our feet is shaking, or everything seems to be going up in flames.

The author of 1 Kings does not mean for us to assume that God is not present in the chaotic moments of our lives. But there does seem to be a message that such moments may not be the most optimal times for discerning how God's call is beckoning us forward.

Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, made a similar point when he suggested that moments of crisis are not the best times for making important decisions. For example, when a marriage hits a rough spot, the temptation to bail out can be powerful. But Ignatius would counsel patience precisely at such a time. Wait until things have calmed down, and then listen for the voice of God. Careful spiritual discernment should be about mindfully weighing options, not putting out fires (or surviving storms and earthquakes).

What's interesting about the story of Elijah and the sound of sheer silence is that Elijah had a conversation with God when he first arrived on the mountain. And then, after the wind and fire and the silence, he and God have pretty much the exact same exchange. There is some grist for discernment there as well: God's deep stability is not easily swayed, not by storms or quakes or conflagration. The silence not only empowered Elijah to listen for the word of God, but it enabled him to hear something he already knew.

This silence—that can bring us to the place where we can hear God—is always available to us. It rests after every storm, earthquake, and fire. Indeed, this silence opens up between each and every thought that will ever dance across your mind. The voice of God might come to us as a still small voice, or it might be the equivalent of the fabled "heavenly two-by-four" that God will use if we are particularly resistant to God's leading. But no matter how subtle or insistent the voice of God might be, it always emerges out of the sound of sheer silence, which makes learning to listen for the silence in our lives a pretty smart idea.