That Silent, Shouting Voice

That Silent, Shouting Voice

Many of us are acquainted with the text that recounts the Prophet Elijah’s escape from the queen Jezebel which we find in 1 Kings 19:12-21. Undoubtedly, Elijah ran for his life at the deadly threats hurled at him from this evil monarch.

He was feeling desperate regarding the situation he was in. Feeling forlorn at all sides he sought some refuge into the wilderness (1 Kgs 19:4). The isolation that he felt inside him was enough to make him exclaim to the Lord in his utter distress: It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life; for I am no better than my fathers (1 Kgs 19:4). For him this perilous episode was too much to bear. Seen from a purely humanistic perspective Elijah was so broken that he awaited death as his way out of his living scenario. He just could not take it anymore!

It is very interesting that, despite the crisis he was in, the broken Elijah happened to be into what the Bible would term as a “providential place”, in other words the wilderness. The latter is that place wherein intense experiences such as the absolute need for food and water, isolation, danger and divine deliverance as well as transfigurative renewal, provided one’s openness to God’s action, can surely take place within oneself. The wilderness embraces all these factors of the downs of life but also it relays the transforming message that great promises, wonders and, yes, salvation, comes from the wilderness too. What a seemingly great contradiction this is that from the very locus of destruction comes strength, empowerment and hope at their best!

In Elijah’s story we notice that even if he was so distraught about what was happening to him, God kept caring for him, primarily and especially in that trying and crucial moment of his life. The Lord provided for him a broom tree (1 Kgs 19:5) under which he could rest. Not only that, but the angel touched him and told him: Arise and eat (1 Kgs 19:5). As he saw a cake baked on hot stones and a jar of water Elijah ate and drank, and la[id] down again (1 Kgs 19:6). The Lord, being the God of love, kept showing his divine faithful solicitude for his troubled servant. The text says that the angel of the Lord came again a second time, and touched him, and said, “Arise and eat, else the journey will be too great for you” (1 Kgs 19:7).

In front of such a great care shown to him from the Lord, Elijah humbled himself and accepted the Lord’s tender loving care for him. So much so that he arose, and ate and drank, and went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God (1 Kgs 19:8). But why did Elijah make his journey to the Horeb? From what he said to God we can easily detect that the prophet escaped to Mount Horeb, that is to that mountain of dryness or desolation (חרב horeb). The Horeb mountain is the same place where Moses fasted for two times forty days when he received the Law (Exod 3:1). Hence, the Horeb mountain is tantamount to purification of God’s servants.

In this deserted and dry place, Elijah was to engage into a great conversation with God outside the cave (1 Kgs 19:9-18). Thanks to this theophanic experience he would experience first hand what the Book of Deuteronomy says about Israel, the people of God: He found him in a desert land, and in the howling waste of the wilderness; he encircled him, he cared for him, he kept him as the apple of his eye (Deut 32:10).

The Lord knows that Elijah escaped. Twice He asked him: What are you doing here, Elijah? (verses 9. 13). As his Great Counselor God was helping Elijah to figure out where he was, for what reason he was standing there and what he was doing in that lonely place. We know that he was still running away. Fear practically terrorised him. 

Humanly speaking, Elijah thought he was in a safer place than before. The cave offered him more comfort than the broom tree. But was he really safeguarded and at peace internally? Spiritually, was he one with God? Or the cave was simply a human strategy to seek a temporary refuge? Was it the latter that he really needed to be really protected from his enemies or was it something or rather, Someone else, that is called for in this critical situation he was in? Let us not forget what the name Elijah, אֵלִיָּהוּ, Eliyahu, means in Hebrew, “My God is Yahweh”. So now, at this moment in time, who really was his God, the cave, which was on the Mount Horeb, or the Lord himself?

The soul searching question, What are you doing here, Elijah? (1 Kgs 19:9.13) is essential. God wanted to prepare him to hear his Word. God knew perfectly well that he was in great need of more instruction and insight in order to encounter Him and his real self. But, from God’s perspective, did Elijah truly comprehend why he was there? Did he have a clue of what was actually occurring? Did he realize that he was there so that God can restore his way of thinking and opening him up to his grace? Even if he was in a flight mode? Did Elijah consider that it was God who led him to this special place so that, in His providence, He can teach, cure and strengthen him? 

His response in verse 10: I have been very jealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the people of Israel have forsaken thy covenant, thrown down thy altars, and slain thy prophets with the sword; and I, even I only, am left; and they seek my life, to take it away illustrates that he did not understand at all! He was still feeling upset about his failure as he himself declared in verse 4: It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life; for I am no better than my fathers. His response clearly demonstrates that he was still full of his own self-importance and angry over the absence of collaboration from others, particularly, he erroneously thought, from the Lord himself. Moreover, his response portrays a certain bitterness since he had served the Lord so sincerely and remarkably and, nevertheless, he had to put up with rejection and exile.

How did the Lord react when meeting a shattered Elijah? He immediately helped him to get rid of the place that filled him with that destructive self-justification and supplied him with the wrong reason to be on the mountain. Thus, God instructed Elijah: Go forth, and stand upon the mount before the Lord (verse 11). By departing from and leaving behind the cave, his human strategy for refuge, Elijah was now open to encounter his real solution, God himself. As, after all, both Elijah’s name and Psalm 62:5-6 openly suggest: For God alone my soul waits in silence, for my hope is from him. He only is my rock and my salvation, my fortress; I shall not be shaken (Ps 62:5-6).

Interestingly enough the Lord was passing by to reveal Himself so as to aid Elijah mature in his faith. Just before Elijah leaves the cave altogether, four events happened. Three of them spectacularly. The text says: And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks 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. And when Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave (verses 11-13).

Yes! Elijah heard that gentle blowing, a faint whisper, a quiet voice, hushed and low, a silent shouting voice. When he encountered this דַקָּֽה׃דְּמָמָ֥ה ק֖וֹל (qôl demāmâ daqqâ), the silent shouting voice, he knew rightaway that it was God’s presence! So, God met him not in specatular ways as He did in other instances which the Bible itself recounts like Exod 19:16, 182 Sam 22:8-16Ps 18:7-15; 68:8Heb 12:18 but in that silent shouting voice.

Because, that paradoxical silent shouting voice taught Elijah that God’s voice is usually quite. Second, God’s calming, silent and loud voice gave Elijah a mission to accomplish, namely to anoint three men, two kings and his prophetic successor (see verses 15-16) Thirdly, God’s silent and shouting voice comforted Elijah when he was anxious and depressed. And, finally, God’s silent and shouting voice gently disciplined Elijah by leading him back to his way: Go, return on your way (verse 15).

This calming, stilling, silencing, whispering voice, had the power of crushing and breaking into pieces Elijah’s fear which was brought about by his ego. When he left his secure human refuge he could be renewed and live up to what his name actually means, “My God is Yahweh”. Elijah’s story strongly reminds me of what Cardinal Robert Sarah says in his profound, uniquely and beautiful book The Power of Silence: “Silence is more important than any other human work, for it expresses God. The true revolution comes from silence; it leads us toward God and others so as to place ourselves humbly and generously at their service”.

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Written by
Fr Mario Attard OFM Cap