Rethinking the “still, small voice” and “God told me”
It is all too common for evangelicals to say, “God spoke to me in a still, small voice” or “God told me.” Not in their minds, but audibly. And you might think only Pentecostals say this. No, Mark Driscoll for example, says it too. And he even proudly says, “I see things.” Beth Moore does too. And a multitude of other evangelicals.
Most Christians agree that God speaks to them in “a still, small voice,” because Elijah heard it too:
And he said, “Go out and stand on the mount before the LORD.” And behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind tore 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 the sound of a low whisper (1 Kings 19:11-12 ESV).
Various versions have “a low whisper” translated as “a sound of a gentle blowing” (NASB), “a sound of a gentle whisper” (NIV), “a sound of sheer silence” (NRSV), but “a still, small voice” (KJV, RSV) is the most well-known translation. From these translations, most Christians think that Jesus is romantically involved with us, whispering sweet nothings in our ears. Let’s look at these verses.
The Elijah Event
In 1 Kings 18, Elijah defeated Baal’s prophets on Mount Carmel. He then went to King Ahab to announce the end of the three-year drought, but Queen Jezebel was furious at him for killing her Baal prophets. So, in 1 Kings 19, Elijah fled to the wilderness, despairing about his life, and God sent his angel to nourish him with food, drink and rest, and encourage him that all is not lost. Elijah then traveled 40 days and nights to Mount Horeb (Sinai), where he lodged in a cave. God then asked him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” (verse 9) Elijah answered, “I have been very jealous for the LORD…” Then God sent a great wind, an earthquake and fire outside the cave, but Elijah didn’t find God in them. But after the fire, there was this “still, small voice.” Elijah then came out to the entrance of the cave, where the LORD asked him again, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” (verse 13). After Elijah answered with the same words after the first question, God gave him some more instructions.
In Hebrew, “a still, small voice” is qol demamah daqqah, a phrase which is mysterious at best to Hebrew scholars. The word qol is easy—”voice” or “sound.” The noun demamah is most often translated as “whisper” or “silence,” derived from the verb damah, which means “to be speechless.” The adjective daqqah is commonly known to mean “thin” or “small.” So, “a voice or sound that is a small whisper or silence.” Some even say “muted silence.”
But there’s is a different, yet mostly unknown, interpretation.
“A Still, Small Voice”?
The word qol can mean “voice” or “sound,” but it can also mean “thunder” or “thunderous voice,” especially in describing God’s theophany (appearing) during a storm. This is how qolot (plural) is translated in Exodus 19:16, “On the morning of the third day there were thunders and lightnings and a thick cloud on the mountain and a very loud trumpet blast, so that all the people in the camp trembled” (see also Heb 12:18). Jeffrey Niehaus, an Old Testament professor at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, concludes, “Whenever Yahweh appears in storm theophany in the Old Testament, the Hebrew word kol is properly and logically translated ‘thunder,’ ‘thunderous voice,’ or the like.”
As well, J. Lust, suggests different meanings for the two other words. In other ancient works, damamah most probably means a terrifying sound or a roar. Moreover, daqqah comes from the verb daqaq, which means “to crush, grind small,” like the “crushing” of an enemy, or a “crushing” storm (J. Lust, “A Gentle Breeze or a Roaring, Thunderous Sound?”, Vetus Testamentum 25, 1975, pp. 110-115). In Psalm 93:3, daqqah and qol are connected, and we see Lust’s interpretation, “the floods have lifted up their voice; the floods lift up their roaring.”
The parallels are many between the events in the lives of Moses and Elijah in their struggles against evil rulers are many. Their battles culminated in God’s theophanies at Mount Sinai, “the mountain of God,” more than 500 years apart.
- Both prophets confronted evil rulers and their pagan gods.
- Both evil rulers sought to kill them.
- Both prophets fled to the wilderness, and in desperation, asked God to kill them.
- Moses and Israel were nourished in the wilderness, as Elijah was.
- Moses stayed on Mount Horeb for 40 days and 40 nights, and Elijah traveled to the mountain in the same period of time.
- Both prophets were placed in a cave (Moses in a “cleft of the rock”) before God appeared to them in a theophany.
These parallels therefore must extend to the stormy theophany on “the mountain of God,” including the loud thunder. There is no place in these two parallel events for “a still, small voice.”
The “Voice of God” in Redemptive History
Meredith Kline offers an expanded analysis of this “thunderous” voice of God throughout redemptive history. After their sin in the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve “heard the sound [qol] 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” (Gen 3:8). The “sound” of God is not his footsteps, but the approaching thunder of God’s judgment. “What Adam and Eve heard was frighteningly loud. It was the shattering thunder of God’s advent in judgment,” Kline offers. (Meredith G. Kline, “Primal Parousia,” Westminster Theological Journal 40, 1977/78, 245-80)
Note the parallel structures of the Genesis 3 postlapsarian event and the Elijah storm theophany:
- Both were hiding when God appeared to them in theophanies.
- After the theophanies, both Adam and Eve and Elijah were confronted by God with a question.
- Both answered by justifying their actions.
- Finally, God gave them instructions (curses on Adam and Eve) about their future.
There’s no place for small footsteps of God in the Garden of Eden.
When David was about to battle the Philistines in the Valley of Rephaim, the LORD instructed him to wait until he hears “the sound [qol] of marching in the tops of the balsam trees” before he attacks (2 Sam 5:24). God’s voice is as the sound of a mighty marching army.
On Pentecost Sunday, Christ’s disciples not only saw “divided tongues as of fire” resting on each one of them, but also, “suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind.” The rushing sound was so loud that “it filled the entire house where they were sitting,” so that even those outside heard it, “And at this sound the multitude came together, and they were bewildered” (Ac 2:2-3, 6).
God’s Spirit did not appear to them in a still, small breeze.
John describes the voice of the Son of Man as “a loud voice like a trumpet” (Rev 1:10; 4:1).
But the most “thunderous” theophany of all is what Ezekiel heard in his vision of God while he was exiled in Babylon, “And when [the four living creatures] went, I heard the sound [qol] of their wings like the sound [qol] many waters, like the sound [qol] of the Almighty, a sound [qol] of tumult like the sound [qol] of an army” (Ezk 1:24). Ezekiel again compares the roaring sound to the qol of God Almighty (Ezk 10:5), and to “the qol of a great earthquake” (Ezk 3:12).
Even the psalmists attest to the thunderous voice of God, “The voice [qol] of the LORD is over the waters; the God of glory thunders, the LORD, over many waters. The voice [qol] of the LORD is powerful; the voice [qol] of the LORD is full of majesty” (Psa 29:3-4). “To him who rides in the heavens, the ancient heavens; behold, he sends out his voice [qol], his mighty voice [qol]” (Psa 68:33).
Therefore, “a still, small voice” in 1 Kings 19:12 most likely means “a roaring, crushing, thunderous sound.”
But, so what? What’s in this for me?
This text is not about “tuning out the world.” Nor is it about contrasting God’s mighty power with his small voice. Nor about God’s tender care for those who are hurting and vulnerable. Nor about how God uses different means of speaking to his people.
There are dangers connected to this “still, small voice” teaching. The first danger is the so-called “contemplative Christianity,” a form of mysticism which includes contemplative/centering prayer or transcendental meditation disguised in “Christian” camouflage. It is rooted in Eastern mysticism, wherein a person slows down and silences oneself in the midst of a busy and noisy culture to not only talk to God but listen to him as well.
The second peril to the Christian’s soul is that it has encouraged Christians to seek extra-Biblical “God told me” experiences, such as those popular in Pentecostal-Charismatic circles. The spectacular, the new, and the mystical experience of hearing God’s audible voice or even seeing visions trump the authority and sufficiency of the canonical Scripture. The pastor of a Christian Reformed Church even related his frightening experience of God telling him audibly one night that the Prayer of Repentance in the worship service is too long!
Thirdly, if God’s will can be found in the “still, small voice,” then there is no need to be a part of a church. One can discover God’s truths from mind-emptying, mind-altering contemplation, so why attend to the preaching of the Word and be nourished by the Holy Communion? Worshiping at home by listening to musical mantras, Joyce Meyer or Beth Moore, and self-communion are as valid anytime, anywhere that one feels like doing it.
The Elijah theophany is not about the “still, small voice” of God, but about his Almighty power, and therefore his people better listen to his Word. And his Word today cannot be heard after storms, fires or earthquakes. It is found in the inspired, inerrant, infallible Holy Scripture, sufficient for all doctrine, worship and life of a believer, “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Tim 3:16). All throughout redemptive history before Christ came, “at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets.” But today, “in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son” through the apostles, and now through his appointed pastors and teachers in the church (Heb 1:1-2).
No need to sit in a room for hours, tuning out the world, waiting for that “still, small voice” to reveal to us what shall be the latest and greatest, new and improved innovation in our church’s worship service.