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Is Hearing from God a Formula to Follow?

By David Sheldon

Last Updated: December 10, 2020

When it comes to the subject of hearing from God, there are a couple of popular Bible verses frequently used. The first is Psalm 46:10a which says, “Be still and know that I am God.” The second is 1 Kings 19:12, “And after the earthquake, a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire, a sound of a gentle blowing.” Both of these verses have taken on a life of their own, perhaps like no other texts of Scripture.

There are two other articles on our blog regarding this subject of Hearing God’s Voice: the introductory one Hearing God’s Voice, as well as How Does God Speak? You should find both of those extremely helpful if you haven’t already had a chance to read them.

In this article, we will dig further into the subject by studying the two verses mentioned above, within their context. This should give us great insight as to their wonderful truths, as well as their frequent misuse. Many people use these verses to convey one of two things. They will say God speaks only in a gentle, whispering sort of way – through a “still small voice.” Or, they say we must be positioned in a particular way – silence or stillness – in order to hear God. But are these verses meant to be used as a formula or prescription to follow? Are they meant to be used as some “sedative” for us to hear God in a certain way? Do we need to employ techniques in order to hear God? You will find the answers to these questions in this article.

Be Still – Psalm 46:10

The phrase “Be still” is rather cliché in our current day. It comes from Psalm 46:10 which says, “Be still and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.” This verse is often construed to mean that we should “enter the silence”, “calm our spirits down”, “breathe deeply”, or “empty our minds;” and that these are to be done in order for instruction or direction to come from God.

But let’s take a look at this text more in depth. Reading the whole of Psalm 46 will help us know the context and thus understand the command to “be still and know that He is God.”

“God is our refuge and strength,
A very ready help in trouble.
2 Therefore we will not fear, though the earth shakes
And the mountains slip into the heart of the sea;
3 Though its waters roar and foam,
Though the mountains quake at its swelling pride. Selah
4 There is a river whose streams make the city of God happy,
The holy dwelling places of the Most High.
5 God is in the midst of her, she will not be moved;
God will help her when morning dawns.
6 The nations made an uproar, the kingdoms tottered;
He raised His voice, the earth quaked.
7 The LORD of armies is with us;
The God of Jacob is our stronghold. Selah
8 Come, behold the works of the LORD,
Who has inflicted horrific events on the earth.
9 He makes wars to cease to the end of the earth;
He breaks the bow and cuts the spear in two;
He burns the chariots with fire.
10 ‘Stop striving and know that I am God;
I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted on the earth.’
11 The LORD of armies is with us; The God of Jacob is our stronghold.”
Psalm 46:1-11 NASB

This Psalm is saying God is with His people and a refuge when it looks like things are overwhelming (v. 1). Therefore, don’t fear in the midst of troubles before God (v. 2). He is a sure foundation and an ever-joyful presence along with His mighty armies for His own people (vs. 4-7). Come and behold, look hard and long, at the mighty providential works of God (vs. 8-9) because there is no doubt He will be exalted among the nations (v. 10). God is a stronghold for His own people (v. 11).

Therefore, the context for “be still” is to know God has complete sovereign control over everything and you are absolutely incapable of changing any of it apart from Him. So we might say stop or surrender! Be silent in the midst of all of the commotion of the world! Know God is in charge over all of it! Come before God and don’t fret about the overwhelming events around you!

Does this verse say we are to imitate a certain technique or silently position ourselves in order to hear God?

Some teachings associated with this verse might have you think there is a “gateway of silence/calmness” into the unknown called God and, if you tap into it, you can know the unknowable. But there is no actual Biblical instruction that tells us these things. When someone teaches such things, you can rightly question if they are giving solid Biblical instruction.

Is Hearing From God a Formula to Follow?

Is Hearing From God a Formula to Follow?

The Still Small Voice – 1 Kings 19:12

The other verse often used in hearing from God is 1 Kings 19:12. We should look at this in more depth as well.

In the Old Testament, the prophet Elijah was used by God to call down fire and prove that God was God. He defeated and killed 450 prophets of Baal in 1 Kings 18:20-46. You can read the story here.

Afterwards, however, Queen Jezebel swore to take Elijah’s life! Elijah was afraid and he fled to Beersheba and then a days’ journey into the wilderness from there. He prays that God would take his life. The Angel of the Lord appears to him and sends him on a forty-day journey to Horeb, the mountain of God. (1 Kings 19:1-8 – Read here.) So we see Elijah, a mighty prophet used by God on one day, and shortly thereafter, so fearful and despondent that he wants to die.

Let’s pick up from there and read 1 Kings 19:9-14.

Then he came there to a cave and spent the night there; and behold, the word of the LORD came to him, and He said to him, ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’ And he said, ‘I have been very zealous for the LORD, the God of armies; for the sons of Israel have abandoned Your covenant, torn down Your altars, and killed Your prophets with the sword. And I alone am left; and they have sought to take my life.’
So He said, ‘Go out and stand on the mountain before the LORD.’ And behold, the LORD was passing by! And a great and powerful wind was tearing out the mountains and breaking the rocks in pieces before the LORD; but the LORD was not in the wind. And after the wind there was 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 a gentle blowing. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his cloak and went out and stood in the entrance of the cave. And behold, a voice came to him and said, ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’ Then he said, ‘I have been very zealous for the LORD, the God of armies; for the sons of Israel have abandoned Your covenant, torn down Your altars, and killed Your prophets with the sword. And I alone am left; and they have sought to take my life.’
The LORD said to him, ‘Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus; and when you have arrived, you shall anoint Hazael king over Aram. You shall also anoint Jehu the son of Nimshi king over Israel; and you shall anoint Elisha the son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah as prophet in your place.’ And it shall come about that the one who escapes from the sword of Hazael, Jehu shall put to death, and the one who escapes from the sword of Jehu, Elisha shall put to death. Yet I will leave seven thousand in Israel, all the knees that have not bowed to Baal and every mouth that has not kissed him.’” 1 Kings 19:9-18 NASB (I have emphasized certain of God’s words in bold type)

Observation of the text reveals a few important details. First, we see that Elijah is on the Mount of Horeb where God had sent him. The Lord speaks to Elijah in recorded words. This occurs at the end of verse 9, beginning of verse 11, end of verse 13, and verses 15-16. In both verse 9 and verse 13 the Lord asks Elijah the exact same question: “What are you doing here, Elijah?” And in both verse 10 and verse 14 Elijah gives the exact same reply: i.e. I’m zealous ….Israel has sinned….I’m all alone….I’m under attack.

Secondly, between these two conversations, Elijah is both before the Lord and yet the Lord passes by him. At this point, we must consider something. The text specifically states that God was not present in the wind, fire, and earthquake. Does that mean God was present in the gentle blowing? We will answer this as we continue.

Lastly, at the end of verse 12, there is a “still gentle rustling” …literally “the tone of a gentle blowing” (Keil & Delitzsch, Commentary on the O.T., Volume 3, p. 182). However, depending on the Bible translation, it might read “a still small voice” or “the sound of a low whisper”. Unfortunately, this can bring some confusion. Many people take this to mean that Elijah heard actual “gentle words spoken” in his inner most being. But a look at this word in another text of Scripture can help us interpret the meaning.

This same Hebrew word is used in Genesis 3:8-9. This is immediately after Adam and Eve succumb to the temptation of the Serpent and eat the forbidden fruit. Read both the KJV and ESV translations of this text.

“And they heard the voice of the LORD God walking in the garden in the cool of the day: and Adam and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God amongst the trees of the garden. 9 And the LORD God called unto Adam, and said unto him, Where art thou?” KJV

“And they heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God among the trees of the garden. 9 But the LORD God called to the man and said to him, “Where are you?” ESV

Is it possible to hear the voice of the Lord walking? No, that is not what is being said. It was simply that Adam and Eve heard the sound of God walking. Notice, after Adam and Eve hid, then God called to them in actual spoken words! Do you see the difference? With both Elijah and Adam and Eve, something was heard, and then God addressed them in clear, spoken words.

Many people interpret the passage in 1 Kings 19 to mean that God spoke to Elijah in a still small voice, in a gentle whisper. They say that since God spoke to Elijah this way, this must be how He speaks to us, too. But is that what the text states?

The text says that God passes by an already shaken prophet. God isn’t in the terrible wind, or earthquake, or fire. However, Elijah responds to what is translated as “a small voice” or “rustling wind” – and comes out of the cave. Afterward, God speaks His special instruction to Elijah, His prophet! But the text doesn’t state specifically that God is “in” the rustling wind. So, what is the reason for the sound?

Evidently it is the result seen in the narrative, because Elijah comes out humbly from the cave. His servant, fearful Elijah (can you believe it?), is ready to receive specific instruction and be sent on his way to obediently carry out his ministry. God met him, in the way he needed, to then speak to him and move him forward.

God Chooses How He Reveals Himself

There are earlier instances in Scripture of theophanies – supernatural visitations by God – in this same location (Mount Horeb is also called Mount Sinai) with God sending similar phenomena.

• In Exodus 19:16 &19, God sends thunder and lightning and smoke and trumpet sound from the mountain to display His presence. This invoked fear within His people. In fact, Moses at one time speaks to God and God answers with thunder! The people of God tremble at His presence on the mountain.

• God speaks to Moses on that same mountain and delivers the Word of God – the Ten Commandments. It is such a frightful thing for the people of God that in Exodus 20:18 the people wish for Moses to speak to them and they will listen. God’s direct words are too much for them to handle.

• In Job 38:1 God answers Job from a whirlwind.

• In Psalm 68:8 it says that Sinai quaked at the presence of God.

• Psalm 104:4 says: “He makes the winds His messengers, Flaming fire His ministers.” NASB

Same mountain, similar powerful displays in these other narratives, but God’s purpose is different than with Elijah. In these, God is encountered amidst traumatic events which reveal His power and glory. God is seen as One who is to be honored and feared in His Holy Presence!

As a prophet of God, Elijah spoke for God, and God spoke directly to him. God chooses to whom He will reveal Himself and speak to directly. They have been few and far between. We don’t have theophanies today. We don’t have to wait for God to appear to us. We already have promises and commands in His Word which we hear with the ears of faith and obey. The same Holy Spirit who makes them known to us in the Word will encourage, comfort, strengthen, warn, rebuke, reprove, etc. for our sanctification.

This text of Scripture in 1 Kings 19 is not a prescription for how we hear God. It is a description of what happened to Elijah. And even for Elijah, the event was not some formula for God’s speaking to him (or anyone else in the Scripture for that matter).

God, indeed, may calm our weary hearts or get us away and alone with Him. Remember Jesus words:

“Come to Me, all who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 29 Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and YOU WILL FIND REST FOR YOUR SOULS. 30 For My yoke is comfortable, and My burden is light.” Matthew 11:28-29 NASB

He may providentially provide in some manner to reassure us. The issue here is that God does it, and it is not some formula. It is not the same thing as teachings that talk about you “entering the silence” or “emptying your mind” to hear some speech in the inner recesses of your own being, as if you are hearing directly from God. Or that He dare not “disturb”, what we have determined, to be our “peaceful” or “serene” existence. Often times prophets did not have very “peaceful” experiences in carrying out their obedience before God. It was a blessing from God that He chose to minister to His prophet, Elijah, in this way and send him on. Hopefully, we too have times when God deals with us in a reassuring fashion!

But, in closing, a reminder of certain texts of Scripture might give us a more sober and complete look at God. Hebrews 12 explains that we don’t go to Mount Sinai for salvation but, instead, we go to Mount Zion. There we find an overwhelming provision of grace through Jesus Christ, which is greatly reassuring. Together both of these mountains are indeed an overwhelming revelation of the holiness and salvation of the true and living God. (Read Hebrews 12:18-29 here.)

“Therefore, since we receive a kingdom which cannot be shaken, let’s show gratitude, by which we may offer to God an acceptable service with reverence and awe; 29 for our God is a consuming fire.” Hebrews 12:28

And that is in the context of: “And His voice shook the earth then, but now He has promised, saying, “YET ONCE MORE I WILL SHAKE NOT ONLY THE EARTH, BUT ALSO THE HEAVEN.” Hebrews 12:26 NASB

Humbling and sobering. God is working and revealing Himself, in the way He chooses, for our sanctification and to display His coming glory. All of the things God has said in His word, within their contexts, are written for us to receive, no matter our condition or state of mind. Sometimes they invoke awe and reverence. Sometimes they speak of serious judgments and cataclysmic events. Sometimes they soothe our troubled souls. No formula here. Rather, awe, humble submission, and comfort – unto His glory!

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