Have you ever heard someone teach that in order to hear from God you need to pray and then meditate, or be silent and wait for God to speak directly to you in “a still small voice”? Where does this idea come from? Should we expect to hear God audibly in a still small voice? Is God the only “still small voice” we might hear? How are you supposed to tell the difference? Is there a problem with this teaching? Well, at the very least, let us see what happens when we look to the Scriptures to complete the thought.
The only reference in scripture to this “still small voice” is found in 1 Kings chapter 19. Let’s look at how the passage is usually quoted/referenced by those who present this as THE way we should seek direction from the Holy Spirit:
1 Kings 19:11-13a (NKJV)
11 Then He said, “Go out, and stand on the mountain before the Lord.” And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind tore into the mountains and broke the rocks in pieces 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; 12 and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice. 13 So it was, when Elijah heard it, that he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood in the entrance of the cave.
The ESV translates the highlighted phrase “the sound of a low whisper”. I decided to see what the Hebrew says here using an online interlinear Bible:
If we look at the word-for-word translation (which is NOT the only way we translate any document, much less the Bible) it comes out “the voice of thin stillness”. The Hebrew really is a beautiful language, and some day I’d like to study it, but what we have here is an attempt to capture/describe the silence that fell after the fire. The point here is that I don’t see anything wrong with translating it “the voice of thin stillness”, “the sound of a low whisper”, or “a still small voice”. I think the latter allows a little too much room for springboarding, but as with all Scripture, I think we’ll understand this concept better if we look at the greater context. We’ll continue in NKJV for this next portion before switching back to the ESV.
1 Kings 19:1-18 (NKJV)
19 And Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, also how he had executed all the prophets with the sword. 2 Then Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, saying, “So let the gods do to me, and more also, if I do not make your life as the life of one of them by tomorrow about this time.” 3 And when he saw that, he arose and ran for his life, and went to Beersheba, which belongs to Judah, and left his servant there.
4 But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a broom tree. And he prayed that he might die, and said, “It is enough! Now, Lord, take my life, for I am no better than my fathers!”
5 Then as he lay and slept under a broom tree, suddenly an angel touched him, and said to him, “Arise and eat.” 6 Then he looked, and there by his head was a cake baked on coals, and a jar of water. So he ate and drank, and lay down again. 7 And the angel of the Lord came back the second time, and touched him, and said, “Arise and eat, because the journey is too great for you.” 8 So he arose, and ate and drank; and he went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights as far as Horeb, the mountain of God.
9 And there he went into a cave, and spent the night in that place; and behold, the word of the Lord came to him, and He said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
10 So he said, “I have been very zealous for the Lord God of hosts; for the children of Israel have forsaken Your covenant, torn down Your altars, and killed Your prophets with the sword. I alone am left; and they seek to take my life.”
11 Then He said, “Go out, and stand on the mountain before the Lord.” And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind tore into the mountains and broke the rocks in pieces 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; 12 and after the earthquake a fire,but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice.
13 So it was, when Elijah heard it, that he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood in the entrance of the cave. Suddenly a voice came to him, and said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
14 And he said, “I have been very zealous for the Lord God of hosts; because the children of Israel have forsaken Your covenant, torn down Your altars, and killed Your prophets with the sword. I alone am left; and they seek to take my life.”
15 Then the Lord said to him: “Go, return on your way to the Wilderness of Damascus; and when you arrive, anoint Hazael as king over Syria. 16 Also you shall anoint Jehu the son of Nimshi as king over Israel. And Elisha the son of Shaphat of Abel Meholah you shall anoint as prophet in your place. 17 It shall be that whoever escapes the sword of Hazael, Jehu will kill; and whoever escapes the sword of Jehu, Elisha will kill. 18 Yet I have reserved seven thousand in Israel, all whose knees have not bowed to Baal, and every mouth that has not kissed him.”
Wow, there are some truly awesome and wonderful things taking place in this passage. Things that point to earlier scriptures, too. However, before we can get into those wonderful treasures, we have to dispense with the false-gold of this “still small voice” distraction. I’d like to first draw your attention to the fact that the “still small voice” Elijah heard was not bringing the message or the command of the Lord; rather, it was how Elijah knew it was time to take action. Elijah didn’t move for the violent wind, the earthquake, or the fire because the text clearly states that the Lord was not in them. Upon hearing the still small voice, Elijah didn’t get his revelation or message from God, he recognized that the Lord was coming. He then covered his face and did what God had commanded him to do, “Go out, and stand on the mountain before the Lord“. Once Elijah was standing at the entrance of the cave, a voice came to him… the Voice of the Lord. And He spoke as He no doubt spoke in verse 9, and just prior to the signs and wonders in verse 11.
So, can God the Holy Spirit speak to us in a whisper? Yes, He is God. Is that the only way God speaks? Absolutely not. Does this passage mean that I should expect to God to speak to me in a whisper? Nope. In fact, since it’s the only time we have a reference to this in Scripture it should fall in the same category as God’s hand appearing and writing on the wall. So we can’t expect to hear from God? Yes, but not necessarily audibly or in a vision or a dream. God is not the only one capable of speaking, He’s just the only One we should be serving. By way of reminder, let us look at how we were warned by the Apostles:
1 John 4:1-6 (ESV)
1 Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world. 2 By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God,3 and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already. 4 Little children, you are from God and have overcome them, for he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world. 5 They are from the world; therefore they speak from the world, and the world listens to them. 6 We are from God. Whoever knows God listens to us; whoever is not from God does not listen to us. By this we know the Spirit of truth and the spirit of error.
Galatians 1:6-9 (ESV)
6 I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— 7 not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. 8 But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. 9 As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.
2 Corinthians 11:10-15 (ESV)
10 As the truth of Christ is in me, this boasting of mine will not be silenced in the regions of Achaia. 11 And why? Because I do not love you? God knows I do! 12 And what I am doing I will continue to do, in order to undermine the claim of those who would like to claim that in their boasted mission they work on the same terms as we do. 13 For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. 14 And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. 15 So it is no surprise if his servants, also, disguise themselves as servants of righteousness. Their end will correspond to their deeds.
Not only do we have to guard against false spirits, demons, and false prophets/teachers/apostles but we have our very own flesh to contend with. For our very flesh is fallen and actively seeks self-gratification working against the Spirit of God.
Galatians 5:16-21 (ESV)
16 But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. 17 For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. 18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. 19 Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, 20 idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, 21 envy,drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.
Our flesh, our selfish hearts, will plot and scheme to rationalize sinful behavior, or to self-indulgence. I highlighted here sensuality, idolatry, and sorcery to point out that the flesh also seeks out these things apart from demonic influence. Pantheism, panentheism, and eastern mysticism all serve man’s fleshly desire to deny the One True God of worship. This is a sickness in our flesh that will be once-and-for-all healed when by the grace of God and the blood of Jesus Christ we are given new bodies, free of the curse of sin and death. Until that day, we are to take up our crosses daily and follow Christ, by crucifying the flesh and its evil desires, and walking in the Spirit of God.
So, how do we hear from God? I do believe that God the Holy Spirit is always working in our lives and speaking to us, but I can also point you to the one method of communication that is available to everyone, infallible, inerrant, and sufficient… the Word of God in the Scriptures. Will always be an audible voice (whispered or thundered)? Nope. Can it be? Yes, it could be, but even if it is… you MUST search for it in God’s Word. There is no excuse, you MUST test the spirits, and the ONLY test of the Spirits is the Word of God. Jesus is the Word made flesh. Remember, the testimony of Jesus is the Spirit of prophecy!
If someone starts with “the Lord told me” and ends up twisting scripture, taking it out of context, or teaching or teaching something that cannot be found in scripture, it isn’t the Lord that spoke. If it is a prophecy that doesn’t come to pass, it wasn’t God (it could have simply been their flesh). If it is a prophecy/sign/wonder that does come to pass but they are teaching a false gospel, it isn’t God and is most likely demons. They are to be rebuked sharply, and if they do not repent they are to be rejected.
Okay, now I didn’t want to bring this to a close without looking at some of the fascinating things going on in our text. I’ll be switching back to the ESV but please note that you can always change the translation in the web links as well as open up your own Bible at your leisure.
What takes place in 1 Kings 19 is of great spiritual and historical significance. First, this takes place after God answered Elijah’s prayer that He show Himself to a rebellious people who had turned away after Baal. God completely consumed the sacrifice, the alter, and the water making perfectly clear that He is God. Then Elijah slew the prophets of Baal (450 men). Remember, though, that most (if not all) of these were Israelites who had turned away from God. This was judgement, according to the Law of Moses. Anyone who led the children of Israel to worship false gods, gods they did not know, gods that did not deliver them from Egypt was to be put to death. This is made clear in Elijah’s prayer and in the response of the children of Israel at Mount Caramel.
1 Kings 18:36-40 (ESV)
36 And at the time of the offering of the oblation, Elijah the prophet came near and said, “O Lord, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let it be known this day that you are God in Israel, and that I am your servant, and that I have done all these things at your word. 37 Answer me, O Lord, answer me, that this people may know that you, O Lord, are God, and that you have turned their hearts back.” 38 Then the fire of the Lord fell and consumed the burnt offering and the wood and the stones and the dust, and licked up the water that was in the trench. 39 And when all the people saw it, they fell on their faces and said, “The Lord, he is God; the Lord, he is God.” 40 And Elijah said to them, “Seize the prophets of Baal; let not one of them escape.” And they seized them. And Elijah brought them down to the brook Kishon and slaughtered them there.
Judgement came to the House of Israel. The people confessed the Lord as God. They fell on their faces in repentance. Judgement was dispensed. Elijah then asked the Lord to open up the heavens to bring the rain, and He did so. By all accounts, this should have been a sign of Israel turning back to God as in the time of the Judges. However, Ahab was a weak and evil king and Jezebel was unrepentant and sought to kill Elijah. Elijah flees Israel and stops in the land of Judah where he leaves his servant and then asks God to just kill him.
1 Kings 19:4-8 (ESV)
4 But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness and came and sat down under a broom tree. And he asked that he might die, saying, “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my fathers.” 5 And he lay down and slept under a broom tree. And behold, an angel touched him and said to him, “Arise and eat.” 6 And he looked, and behold, there was at his head a cake baked on hot stones and a jar of water. And he ate and drank and lay down again. 7 And the angel of the Lord came again a second time and touched him and said, “Arise and eat, for the journey is too great for you.” 8 And 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.
I his despair, we see that Elijah considers himself a failure. The role of the Prophet is to speak the Word of the Lord to His people, so that they will turn their hearts to God. Repentance is always the goal, whether by way of warning of impending judgement, or in the midst of tribulation to bring about repentance leading to salvation. The people repented after the fantastic display of God’s might, only for Jezebel to seek vengeance on Elijah. God sends him and angel, twice, to get him up and feed him, and to let him know his journey will be too great. Where is he going? To Horeb, the mount of God. Now this… is where it gets pretty awesome. Horeb is where Moses spoke to God and was given the 10 Commandments, the tablets of the Testimony. Why was he going there? To seek God and intercede for His people, Israel just as Moses did after they had worshiped the golden calf. Let’s start reading and I think you’ll smile at the parallels.
Exodus 33:12-23 (ESV)
12 Moses said to the Lord, “See, you say to me, ‘Bring up this people,’ but you have not let me know whom you will send with me. Yet you have said, ‘I know you by name, and you have also found favor in my sight.’ 13 Now therefore, if I have found favor in your sight, please show me now your ways, that I may know you in order to find favor in your sight. Consider too that this nation is your people.” 14 And he said, “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.” 15 And he said to him, “If your presence will not go with me, do not bring us up from here. 16 For how shall it be known that I have found favor in your sight, I and your people? Is it not in your going with us, so that we are distinct, I and your people, from every other people on the face of the earth?”
17 And the Lord said to Moses, “This very thing that you have spoken I will do, for you have found favor in my sight, and I know you by name.” 18 Moses said, “Please show me your glory.” 19 And he said, “I will make all my goodness pass before you and will proclaim before you my name ‘The Lord.’ And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. 20 But,” he said, “you cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live.” 21 And the Lord said, “Behold, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock, 22 and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by.23 Then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back, but my face shall not be seen.”
I believe Elijah came to Horeb, and could have very well been in the very same cleft in the rock when the violent wind, the earthquake and the fire came. But God was not in those supernatural events (thought clearly He caused them). I say this because notice Elijah’s reaction when he recognizes the Lord in the sound of the silence… he covers his face with his cloak. God then speaks to Elijah, but begins by asking “What are you doing here, Elijah”? Let’s look at Elijah’s answer:
1 Kings 19:14 (ESV)
14 He said, “I have been very jealous for the Lord, the God of hosts. For the people of Israel have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword, and I, even I only, am left, and they seek my life, to take it away.”
Elijah believed himself to be the only faithful prophet left, and rather than be regarded as a true Prophet of God, he was being hunted. God’s answer makes it clear that judgement was not complete, and God is still in control.
1 Kings 19:15-18 (ESV)
15 And the Lord said to him, “Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus. And when you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael to be king over Syria. 16 And Jehu the son of Nimshi you shall anoint to be king over Israel, and Elisha the son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah you shall anoint to be prophet in your place. 17 And the one who escapes fromthe sword of Hazael shall Jehu put to death, and the one who escapes from the sword of Jehu shall Elisha put to death. 18 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.”
God doesn’t stop to explain Himself, He commands Elijah to anoint 3 individuals, Elisha (his successor), Jehu (king of Israel), and Hazael (king of Syria). God is not finished, and Elijah is not alone. God will preserve 7,000 in Israel who did not bow to Baal or kissed his idol. By this time, we see God already revealing His plan to bring judgement upon the house of Israel. Israel is divided into 2 kingdoms, and we know that Israel (northern kingdom) gets scattered by Assyria. Judah will go into Exile some time afterward. All pointing to the coming of the Messiah, the branch of David, the Christ. Remember John the Baptist?
Matthew 17:9-13 (ESV)
9 And as they were coming down the mountain, Jesus commanded them, “Tell no one the vision, until the Son of Man is raised from the dead.” 10 And the disciples asked him, “Then why do the scribes say that first Elijah must come?” 11 He answered, “Elijah does come, and he will restore all things. 12 But I tell you that Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but did to him whatever they pleased. So also the Son of Man will certainly suffer at their hands.” 13 Then the disciples understood that he was speaking to them of John the Baptist.
I believe that Elijah was discouraged and ran to Horeb to seek God, because he didn’t understand why after such an awesome and overwhelming miracle and ultimate demonstration of who the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel is… that still the people did not turn from their wickedness. There was no shortage of faith, he just didn’t see God’s full plan. He called the people to repent at Mt. Carmel, and John the Baptist called the people in the wilderness to repent and be baptized. The Word of the Lord had been spoken and recorded, either they would believe in the Word of the Lord by Moses and the Prophets, or they would not. Jesus made it very clear in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus.
Luke 16:27-31 (ESV)
27 And he said, ‘Then I beg you, father [Abraham], to send him to my father’s house— 28 for I have five brothers—so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment.’ 29 But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.’ 30 And he said, ‘No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ 31 He said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.’”
The Scriptures point to Jesus. The Law and the Prophets point to Him. The Holy Spirit testifies of Jesus Christ, and does not speak of Himself, but of what is spoken by God the Father and God the Son. We have the Word of God, and it is sufficient. Does God speak to us? Absolutely… and He will always point us to His Word. You don’t learn to recognize the voice of God by “intuition” or “feeling” or even by “signs and wonders”; rather, you learn to recognize the Voice of God by spending time in His Word. Ignore the mysticism, and turn to the Word of God.
I am not a cessationist, that discussion will come very soon, but I am also not willing to accept every wind of doctrine or allow every self-proclaimed prophet or apostle to take the Name of the Lord in vain. Not all prophesy, not all hear the voice of God audibly. Each person with a Bible, or access to the Internet, have access to the very Word of God preserved by the Spirit of God.