From the November/December 2018 issue of Discern Magazine

What Should We Learn From God’s “Still Small Voice”?

What can we learn from Elijah’s encounter with God?

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Following one of the most dramatic passages in Scripture, one in which God acts decisively to reveal His power, we read that the prophet Elijah fled for his life. He left behind his country and his people to escape the murderous plot of the evil Jezebel, King Ahab’s queen (1 Kings 19:1-3).

She had threatened his life after a stunning display of God’s power on Mount Carmel and the subsequent slaughter of 450 prophet-priests of Baal, recounted in the previous chapter. It was Elijah who had orchestrated the executions in accordance with God’s law.

Coming to grips with Elijah’s all-too-human lapse of faith—even after an extraordinary demonstration of God’s supreme power—is merely the first step in understanding Elijah’s behavior after he fled. In fact, what happened next in 1 Kings 19 can be confusing.

God tells the prophet, who had traveled to Mount Horeb alone, to “stand on the mountain before the LORD” (verse 11). There Elijah waits expectantly for God to present Himself, witnessing “a great and strong wind” as well as an earthquake and a fire, yet we are told that God was not in any of them (verses 11-12).

What is going on here? Why would Elijah expect God to reveal Himself in a terrific wind or in an earthquake or in a fire? And what do we make of the “still small voice” in which the prophet finally hears God?

The answers become much clearer when we realize two things. First, we need to understand Elijah’s mind-set, and that means understanding the significance of the events of chapter 18. Second, we need to understand how events in the life of Moses, more than 500 years before, may have colored Elijah’s thinking.

Fire from heaven

The immediate context of Elijah’s flight from Jezebel is his confrontation with the 450 prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18:20-40). Elijah had directed Ahab to assemble them on Mount Carmel for a contest to decide who deserved worship.

The contest was cleverly arranged. Baal was supposed to be the god in control of fertility and rain. Elijah’s test, then, coming on the heels of a 3½-year drought (James 5:17), directly challenged the power and authority of this pretender to divinity.

Elijah had proposed that both he and the false prophets offer bullocks, but without actually igniting the fires. Instead, they were to rely on “answers by fire” (1 Kings 18:24). This may seem odd, but it was not without precedent. On at least three previous occasions, the true God of Israel had done that very thing.

The first recorded incident occurred at the inauguration of the Aaronic priesthood (Leviticus 9:24). The second happened after David had built an altar on the “threshing floor of Ornan the Jebusite” (1 Chronicles 21:18, 26). A few years later, as Solomon dedicated the new temple, which had been built on that same site, fire again “came down from heaven” (2 Chronicles 3:1; 7:1).

These three occasions were turning points in the history of God’s people. In each case, God acted dramatically to demonstrate His involvement in human affairs. Elijah saw his confrontation with the priests of Baal as a critical juncture in the history of Israel. It was a time for the people to choose God or Baal (1 Kings 18:21) and thus an appropriate moment for God to demonstrate His power.

And God did! During the contest, the hapless Baal worshippers repeatedly petitioned their god for hours, desperately seeking his attention through ritual self-mutilation and dancing. It was to no avail. There was only silence.

In contrast, Elijah soaked his offering in water, after which he offered a short prayer. What followed must have been a spectacular sight: “The fire of the LORD fell and consumed the burnt sacrifice, and the wood and the stones and the dust, and it licked up the water that was in the trench” (verse 38).

Elijah then commanded the people, who finally recognized the true God, to seize the prophets of Baal, and he ordered their execution.

This act infuriated Jezebel, prompting her to threaten Elijah.

Two mighty servants of God

Elijah fled to Beersheba. Leaving his servant, he went another day’s journey into the wilderness, where he asked God to take his life (1 Kings 19:4).

For whatever reason, Elijah had taken his eyes off the awesome power of God, instead allowing a mere human (though admittedly powerful, evil and vicious) to intimidate him.

In the next few verses, we read that God sent an angel to feed him and to send him to Mount Horeb (verses 5-8). The passage tells us that this special meal was to sustain Elijah for “forty days and forty nights” (verse 8). This is an important hint to what surely went through Elijah’s mind at this moment.

First, he was headed to “Horeb, the mountain of God.” This mountain, where Moses first encountered God in the burning bush (see chart for comparisons), is better known as Mount Sinai. When Israel encamped before the mountain, Moses also went without food and drink for 40 days and nights—twice!

As a man dedicated to the true God, Elijah must have seen the similarities between his experiences and those of Moses. Both had fled from hostile, tyrannical rulers. Both had journeyed into the wilderness. Both had become discouraged, asking God to take their lives. Both had eaten food provided by God, and both had fasted on their way to the summit of the mountain of God.

When Elijah had climbed the mountain, he entered a cave (verse 9) or actually “the cave” (The Expositor’s Bible Commentary). What cave could be intended other than the “cleft of the rock” into which God put Moses when he was on the mountain (Exodus 33:22)?

These experiences, paralleling those of Moses, could have led Elijah to expect God to reveal Himself just as dramatically as He had through wind and earthquake and fire so many years before. Coupled with the rather dramatic moments Elijah had already witnessed in his own life, it’s no surprise that he expected God to reveal Himself powerfully.

But that’s not what happened!

The still small voice

Unexpectedly, God spoke to Elijah in a “still small voice” (1 Kings 19:12, New King James Version, King James Version, Revised Standard Version). The New International Version translates it as a “gentle whisper,” and the Darby Translation, as a “soft gentle voice.”

Elijah needed to learn what we must all learn. Even though God may at times interact with us in extraordinary ways, He can just as easily interact with us through the ordinary.The point is, God chose not to speak to His prophet through fire and thunder this time. Elijah needed to learn what we must all learn. Even though God may at times interact with us in extraordinary ways, He can just as easily interact with us through the ordinary.

And that begs an important question we must all answer.

Are we so focused on moments of fire and smoke, thunder and lightning, wind and storm and earthquakes that we miss God’s message?

He most often instructs us as we read and study Scripture or listen to a sermon, particularly when we take the time to consider what we’ve read or heard.

He may also expect us to listen to the advice of a brother or sister in Christ, and to heed the counsel of one of God’s ministers. And then, of course, when what we want to do is at odds with God’s will, God may get our attention through a troubled conscience.

Are we paying attention?

For more on hearing God’s message, see our online article “Reading the Mind of God” and our study guide 7 Keys to Better Bible Study.



Parallels in the Lives of Elijah and Moses




 1 Kings 19:2-3

 Flight from hostile ruler

 Exodus 2:11-15 (after killing Egyptian)

 1 Kings 19:4

 Asking God to be killed

 Numbers 11:10-15 (after people demanded meat)

 1 Kings 19:5-8

 Miraculous meals

 Exodus 24:9-11 (Moses and 70 elders)

 Exodus 16:1-4 (manna)

 1 Kings 19:8

 40-day fast

 Exodus 24:12-18 (receiving tablets first time)

 Exodus 34:1-2, 28 (receiving tablets second time)

 1 Kings 19:8

 Mount Horeb/Mount Sinai

 Exodus 3:1 (“Horeb, the mountain of God”)

 Exodus 19:1-3 (“the mountain” in the wilderness of Sinai)

 1 Kings 19:9

 The cave/cleft

 Exodus 33:21-23 (cleft of the rock)

 1 Kings 19:11

 God passing by

 Exodus 33:18-23 (Moses asking to see God’s glory)

 1 Kings 19:11


 Exodus 14:21; 15:10 (crossing the Red Sea)

 1 Kings 19:11


 Exodus 19:18 (at Sinai)

 1 Kings 19:12


 Exodus 3:1-6 (burning bush)

 Exodus 19:18; 20:18 (at Sinai)

About the Author

Bill Palmer

Bill Palmer attends the Birmingham, Alabama, congregation of the Church of God, a Worldwide Association.

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