Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

These verses in First Kings have long captured the imagination of interpreters, especially the phrase: “the still, small voice” or “a sound sheer silence” (19:12).

Prophet Elijah on Mount Horeb
Volterra, Daniele da, ca. 1509-1566. Prophet Elijah on Mount Horeb, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, Tenn. Original source:

June 19, 2016

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Commentary on 1 Kings 19:1-4 [5-7] 8-15a

These verses in First Kings have long captured the imagination of interpreters, especially the phrase: “the still, small voice” or “a sound sheer silence” (19:12).

What does that mean?

In the preceding chapters (1 Kings 17-18), Elijah is a prophet “in charge.” Everything seems to be going his way — confronting kings and followers of Baal, performing miracles, including raising the dead from their graves; he even calls lightning down from heaven. But now, in 1 Kings 19, we find Elijah intimidated by his opponents and filled with self-doubt, complaining that things are not going his way; he is perhaps even suicidal. One possible metaphor for this text is journey, a difficult journey.

It is Queen Jezebel’s charge that sets Elijah into motion toward Sinai (1 Kings 19:2-3). Why would he go there? Probably because the tradition associates that place in a special way with the presence of God. And Elijah needs to talk with God about his desperate situation. And so he leaves his home country (Beersheba is at the southern limits; 19:3), moves out into the wilderness (19:4-8), for forty days and nights, and then on to the Sinai area (19:9-18). A long time in the old sandbox!

The story of this God/prophet engagement is parallel in many ways to the stories of God’s encounters with Moses in the book of Exodus: God confronts Elijah with a series of questions and commands; a wilderness journey in flight from a threat to life; for forty days and forty nights; the laments of the prophetic figure; the divine commission to a task; God’s appearances at Mt. Sinai. Initially, Elijah stays in “the cave” (1 Kings 19:9, 13), probably the cave made famous by the Moses/God encounter (see Exodus 33:22). 

These verses focus on a direct encounter between a despondent Elijah and a persistent God, a God who refuses to let the prophet off the hook regarding his (often difficult) calling. Elijah, not unlike many an agent of God, exhibits deep discouragement at the negative developments with which he is surrounded. What he is going through in his ministry seems like failure and a danger to his health and, indeed, his life. He retreats into self-pity and seeks to escape from responsibilities.

Elijah complains (not unlike Moses, Numbers 11:14-15), voices his deep feelings to God that he has had enough of ministry, and expresses a wish to die (cf. the laments of Jeremiah, e.g., Jeremiah 20:7-18). Elijah is angry because he feels he is being left alone, with no other prophets around, and is even persecuted. And so he comes to Mt. Sinai — a place that Israel’s story associates with the bodily presence of God (e.g., Exodus 24:9-11) — to confront God “face to face.” God should have been taking care of him better than this! Elijah repeatedly claims that he has been “zealous” for the Lord (1 Kings 19:10, 14), and so God should have been seeing to his welfare more carefully!

On his journey, Elijah experiences strong manifestations of power in the world of nature — earth-splitting wind, earthquake, and fire (cf. Exodus 19:16-18). But God “was not in” these natural events (1 Kings 19:11-12). Such language is not intended to say that God is not actually present in these natural events (see 18:1, 36-39). Rather, God chooses not to reveal the divine self to Elijah in these particular occurrences. Instead, God speaks in the calm after the storm, especially to be contrasted with the tempest’s noise and turbulence.

What does it mean to experience a “sound of silence”? Is it contradictory? No — after all the activity and noise, for everything suddenly to become silent is an astonishing moment of sound — the sound of no-sound in the immediate wake of loud sounds. When a sound, even such a sound, can be heard, it may be interpreted as the word of the Lord. God is not confined to one way of speaking, or to manifesting the divine power in more “obvious” ways. God’s voice can be heard even in the silence. From this information, Elijah can take heart. In addition, God points out to Elijah that, contrary to his own pessimistic thinking, he is not the only faithful member of the community that is left! He is a part of a remnant numbering at least seven thousand (1 Kings 19:18).

In response to this devastating situation in the life of a major prophetic figure, the text is concerned to reveal something about the basic character of God. God is active in human affairs; God listens, speaks, and acts, and not only in “obvious” ways; God honors commitments made to chosen leaders and people. More specifically, God does not leave Elijah to wallow in his despondency. This God refuses to allow the prophet to stew in his feelings of dejection; God comes to him through a messenger, gets him going, but then sharply confronts him with questions. This God, having encountered Elijah’s initial response of self-pity, refuses to be content with that interpretation of the situation and finds a way to confront him more directly with the divine presence. And then, allowing him to state his self-pity in the very presence of God, recommissions him to his vocation, assures him that God is still at work through him, and promises him successors. God promises that God will not leave without ongoing witnesses.

In this arduous journey, the servant of God is not alone. The promise of God’s ongoing presence keeps ringing in his ears. Remarkable supplies are provided for new energies and encouragement along the way, and he is given a recognition that he is not alone, though it may often seem like it. Others also have this calling and will share the load, even though it seems likely to be a lonely journey even then. 

This journey may be accompanied by too many disappointments and frustrations and the way at times may be far too rigorous with too few moments of comfort. But it is a way of remarkable freedom, uncommon joy, and an incredible sense of fulfillment.