By Pastor Tedd Mathis
Then He said, “Go out, and stand on the mountain before the Lord.” And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind tore into the mountains and broke the 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 still small voice.
– I Kings 19:11-12 New King James Version
My guess is if you’ve been around the block a time or four, you’ve heard the phrase, “I’m waiting to hear the still small voice of God.” Do a Google search of ‘how to hear the voice of God,’ and you’ll find pastors, authors and conference speakers offering their keys on how to hear God speak directly to you. I’ll bet you dollars to donuts the experience of Elijah recorded in I Kings 19 gets referenced as proof their method is ‘biblical.’ I’ve come to believe that way of understanding I Kings 19 has some major deficiencies.
I suspect there are a lot of true believers who feel guilty and like failures because they remain uncertain if they’ve ever heard or rightly heard the still small voice of God. And many more have used this concept to twist and deny what is clear in Scripture.
Let me ask you to do something: read this essay, then go back and read I Kings 18-20. Here’s what you’ll see: ‘Still small voice’ is an arguably obscure phrase in this story about Elijah and there are other far clearer phrases about God speaking.
Further, the way the phrase ‘still small voice’ can be translated from the Hebrew has some breadth to it. The New American Standard Bible (the version I preach from) translates it: and after the fire a sound of a gentle blowing. The NRSV, the sound of sheer silence.
However we understand the wind, earthquake and fire and then the ‘sheer silence’ or ‘still small voice,’ the record is one of an unusual experience and conversation between God and Elijah. This text is a record of what happened to Elijah – it is descriptive. It is not a text that promises others will experience the same phenomenon nor is it prescriptive (i.e., if we pray the right way God will quietly speak back to you).
Let me point out something else from this chapter:
In verses 5 and 9, an angel of the Lord ministered and spoke to Elijah. If, based on this text, we ourselves should be hearing the still small voice of God, why shouldn’t we also expect angels to wake us up with breakfast and/or audibly urge us to eat when we’ve got a long journey ahead of us? Why shouldn’t those be normal ‘God things’ as well?
In verses 9, 11, 13, and 15, the LORD spoke directly to Elijah. I have no reason to believe this was anything other than an audible voice. If, based on this text, we should be hearing some whispery ‘small voice’ of God, why shouldn’t we also expect audible, explicit instructions from the LORD?
To put it bluntly, if we’re going to assume Elijah’s experience should be ours, why choose the most obscure, difficult to understand part of the story? Why not expect talking angels serving breakfast? Why not expect the audible voice of God to give us explicit direction?
The first few years of my Christian life I felt guilt and shame because I never heard God’s voice. Others claimed specific direction for their life upon hearing ‘the still small voice of God.’ When I tried to get silent — to hear directly from Him, I kept hearing ‘How do I determine which voice in my head is God’s! ‘At Bible college I poured out my heart to one of my profs. Dr. Eckman helped me with two things: How to interpret the Bible (historical, grammatical – using the principle it was not written to us but it was written for us). Second, how to make decisions based on the clear teaching and universally applicable truths of Scripture, not liver quivers, impressions, visions, etc. I thank the Lord for Dr. Eckman’s humble, steady confidence in Scripture and our sovereign promise-keeping God.
If this brief essay raises questions, I’d recommend the books referenced below. And as always, I’d be glad to visit with you.
Decision Making And the Will Of God by Gary Friessen
Just Do Something: A Liberating Approach to Finding God’s Will by Kevin DeYoung