There are a few popular Bible verses when it comes to the subject of hearing from God. 1 Kings 19:12 is one of them. It recounts the prophet Elijah’s encounter with God.
“And after the earthquake, a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire, a sound of a gentle blowing.” (NASB)
The phrase “gentle blowing” is also translated “gentle whisper” (NIV), “still small voice” (KJV & NKJV), and “low whisper” (ESV).
So, what was this sound/voice? Was it God whispering to Elijah?
Many people take this to mean that God spoke to Elijah in a gentle whisper and so that is how Christians will hear Him today. And, they say, we will know it is God’s whispering voice based on how familiar we are with Him.
Is this what 1 Kings 19:12 is actually teaching? Does God whisper gentle things to Christians through a still small voice? Moreover, is God’s main and only attribute His gentleness? Or, is this account of Elijah merely an example of God dealing gently with one of His prophets?
A closer look at this phrase “still small voice” is quite revealing!
Still Small Voice
The context of 1 Kings 19:12 will help us understand “still small voice.” Elijah, a mighty prophet, was used significantly by God one day, and shortly thereafter, he was so fearful and despondent he wanted to die (you can read 1 Kings 18 here and 19:1-8 here). 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.’ 1 Kings 19:9-14 NASB (emphasis mine)
The phrase “still small voice” comes from a Hebrew word that means “still gentle rustling.” It “…literally means ‘the tone of a gentle blowing’” (Keil & Delitzsch, Commentary on the O.T., Volume 3, p. 182).
This same Hebrew word is used in Genesis 3:8-9 when Eve succumbed to the temptation of the Serpent, and Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit. Looking at these verses can help us understand/interpret the meaning of the word. Read both the KJV and ESV translations.
“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 (emphasis added)
“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 (emphasis added)
These verses beg the question: Is it possible to hear the voice of the Lord walking? Of course not! That is not what is being said. Rather, Adam and Eve simply heard the sound of God’s presence in the garden. Notice, it was after Adam and Eve heard God walking and after they hid that 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.
So, what was the reason for this gentle rustling sound? Evidently it was what Elijah needed. God’s servant, fearful Elijah (can you believe it?), heard the gentle noise, came out of the cave humbly and ready to receive specific instruction from God. God knew it was going to be a difficult command to hear, so He met Elijah in the way he evidently needed.
Saying we should listen for God’s gentle whispers is confusing for two reasons. First, it gives a false sense that God has spoken only in calming and pleasant ways. This makes it way too easy to comfort ourselves with the “kind truths” of Scripture while ignoring those things that are hard to receive. If we choose to only hear those pleasant things, we give ourselves false assurance.
The second reason we should not listen for a gentle voice from God is because God does not speak to us outside of what He has already spoken in Scripture. Of course, like Elijah, we can be calm and quiet in God’s presence, but it is not required of Him to whisper sweet and pleasant things into our ears.
This brings us to another aspect we want to briefly touch on – why it is so important that we don’t try to dictate to God how or what He communicates to us.
This supernatural visitation by God, in the instance of Elijah on Mount Horeb, is called a theophany. There are instances earlier in Scripture of theophanies in this same location on Mount Horeb (aka Mount Sinai) with God sending similar phenomena.
- 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.
- Job 38:1 – God answers Job from a whirlwind.
- Psalm 68:8 – Sinai quaked at the presence of God.
- Psalm 104:4 “He makes the winds His messengers, Flaming fire His ministers.” NASB
In all these cases it was the same mountain and similar powerful displays as with Elijah. Yet in these instances, God is encountered amidst the catastrophic events – revealing His power and glory. But with Elijah, God’s purpose was different.
As a prophet of God, Elijah spoke for God and God spoke directly to him. You see, God decides to whom He speaks directly. Those times 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 then 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. The 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 on a regular basis (or anyone else in the Scripture for that matter).
That is not to say that God can’t or doesn’t 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
God may providentially provide in some manner to reassure us. But God does it. It is not if I do this, then God must do that. It is not some formula to follow. It is not us determining how God can speak into our lives so as not to disturb our “peaceful” or “serene” existence. Prophets often did not have very “peaceful” experiences in carrying out their obedience before God. It was a blessing that God chose to minister to Elijah in this way and send him on. Hopefully, we too have times when God deals with us in a reassuring fashion!
In closing, a reminder of certain Scripture gives 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 still 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
It is humbling and sobering to think that 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, thankfulness, and comfort – unto His glory!
*Many of the false techniques and teachings described in this article have come into many seminaries and multitudes of churches under the heading of Spiritual Formations. What they actually are is “contemplative spirituality” – teachings found in many traditions within the sphere of Christendom. They are based in an unbiblical view of the spiritual life of the believer that incorporates impressions, emotions, mysticism, etc. that is centered upon self. This in contrast to the truth of God as He is known in the objective Word of God, by the illumination of the Spirit of God to our minds and embraced by our hearts.