One of the first things I learned when I became an evangelical Christian in 1976, the year America elected a self-proclaimed “Born Again” Christian (Jimmy Carter), was that every Christian should expect to hear a “still small voice” from God. I learned this phrase from the King James Version (1611) of 1 Kings 19:12 long before I ever learned the location of the phrase in Scripture and long before I learned anything about the context of the phrase. I entered American evangelical theology, piety, and practice entirely naive about the history of the revivalism and Pietism. Rather, I was given to think that every Christian receives direct revelations from the Holy Spirit, specific guidance as to what to do in a given situation. Sometimes it was said or implied that whether one heard God’s “still, small voice” was determined by the degree of one’s faith. More typically, however, it was said or implied that hearing God’s still, small voice is a spiritual discipline not unlike proficiency in high-technology. The noise of life, perhaps our successes, it is said, can drown out God’s voice but if we quiet ourselves, if we attend to God, we can “tune out” the background noise and “tune in” to the Spirit’s still, small voice.
This question recently arose at a conference at which I spoke—I do not recall which one and it does not particularly matter. I try to collect the question and answer cards so that I can address those that we do not get to during the conference and this one was at the top of the pile on my desk.
That this use of 1 Kings 19 is so widely accepted is a testament to the pervasiveness of allegorical interpretation of Scripture among evangelicals and even among those who profess the Reformed faith. Beginning in the 3rd century (at least) there began to develop a way of reading Scripture that sought to ask and answer from a passage what it says about faith (doctrine), hope (eschatology), and love (ethics). These are good questions but the way by which the answers were often derived in the (late) Patristic and medieval periods were found wanting by the Reformers. They criticized this approach to Scripture because it sometimes assumed that a text must have embedded within it multiple senses. Second, they criticized it because it tended to ignore the literal or historical sense of the text in favor of one of the figurative (doctrinal, eschatological, or moral) senses. It was not that they did not know that there was a historical sense (the did) but that too often it was less interesting to them than the putative figurative senses. They were less interested in what the text intended to say in its original context or even in its broader redemptive-historical context.
The attraction of the figurative senses is as strong today as it was then. The real question behind the search for the figurative senses is one: what does the text mean to me or for me? It is one thing to ask, “What does this passage, taken in its original context, accounting for the intent of the human author—so far as possible—and the divine author–so far as the text allows us to determine it—teach us about what we ought to believe, for what we ought to hope, and how we ought to live?” and quite another to ignore the original context or worse, mention that context and then apply it as though the original context and intent is irrelevant. In some ways, the latter approach is even more dangerous because it is practical identical to the first but covers itself with a fig leaf of respectability. In truth, neither approach cares to allow original intent or the original context to govern how the text is understood and applied. To move from 1 Kings 19 to post-canonical “still, small voices” is an allegorical reading i.e., a figurative interpretation seeking a doctrine, of which Origen or Ambrose of Milan would be proud.1
I doubt that John Chrysostom used this text this way because he was so committed to the original intent and context of the text of Scripture. The first point to be made here is that neither you nor I are Elijah. This passage is not about you or me. It speaks to us about how God delivered Elijah but it is not about us. The proper approach to Scripture is not to haul it out of its context but rather, as Mike Horton has taught us, for us to seek to find ourselves in God’s story of redemption. 1 Kings 19 tells the story of the consequences of Elijah’s slaughter of the prophets of Baal, of the wrath of an ungodly ruler (Jezebel), and Elijah’s unbelieving response. Jezebel had sworn a covenant, an oath “So may the gods do to me and more also, if I do not make your life as the life of one of them by this time tomorrow” (1 Kings 19:2; ESV). This was a blood oath. This is the same sort of oath Yahweh himself had implied when he walked between the pieces (Gen 15). Elijah was terrified (v. 3). He knew what such an oath meant. He was depressed (vv. 4–8). It is in this context that Scripture says that the Word of Yahweh came to him (v. 9). The God of the covenant, who himself had sworn a covenant to redeem his people, queried him and Elijah laid out his complaint to the Lord, that he, Yahweh, was falling down on the job by allowing his prophets to be killed and persecuted (vv. 9–10). Yahweh responded by instructing him to stand on a mount “before Yahweh.” A great wind passed by, an earthquake shook the earth, and fire raged but Yahweh was said not to be “in” them. Counter intuitively, he was, however, in “the still, small voice.”
The point of the passage is that Yahweh defied Elijah’s expectations. He was no less sovereign than he had been when he slayed the prophets of Baal or when he had defeated Pharaoh. His point was that, despite Elijah’s unbelief and fear, he was fulfilling his promise. He was with Elijah. He was not done saving his people. He had not abandoned them. Elijah was wrong. He was not alone. There were yet 7,000 who had not bowed the knee to Baal (v.18).
The intent of the passage is not to teach a doctrine or practice of secret revelation or private guidance. The point of the passage is Yahweh’s faithfulness to his promises. Nothing in this passage suggests that we should be listening for a “still, small voice” from Yahweh. The point is the salvation comes in unexpected ways. It would be a far better application of this passage to say that Jesus is God’s still small voice. The Jews were looking for a Messiah with earthly, political, and military power. They would not accept a crucified and risen Messiah. Like the “still, small voice” God the Son incarnate was unexpected and unsatisfactory. People often ignore the fact that Elijah continued to complain after the “still, small, voice.” He wanted more.
At the conference the objection was made that God is still able to speak in still, small voices. Certainly but the objection misses the point. He is also able to use his prophets to slaughter false prophets, of chasing his prophets into the wilderness, and of using his prophets to install kings. He is also capable of speaking into nothing and making worlds. God is what he is. What God is able to do is beside the point. What matters here is what God has promised to do and what he has commanded us to do.
He has nowhere promised to reveal himself privately, directly, specifically apart from his Holy Scriptures. God’s Word written is sufficient for the Christian faith and the Christian life. Sola scriptura. Everything we need to know, to believe, is revealed in his Word. Everything we need to know to live the Christian life, all the guidance we need is in his Word.
The abuse of 1 Kings 19:12 presumes that Scripture is not sufficient. The truth is the God is not going to tell you directly, privately, through a “still, small voice” whether to attend this college or that, whether to take this job or that, or to marry this person or not. He has commanded us to work. He has told us to fulfill our vocation in this world, to love God with all our faculties and to love our neighbor as ourselves. Education is a good thing. Which school to attend is a prudential judgment. Which person to marry comes down to the way one answers some important questions: is your intended a believer? Are you prepared to live with and love this person for the rest of your life?”
Asking God for special, extra-biblical revelation is not only unwise, it marginalizes God’s Word and seeks to know what is secret, what is hidden (Deut 29:29) at the expense of what has already been revealed. Perhaps we seek extra-biblical revelation because we are dissatisfied with what God has already said?
Whatever the reason, believer know that you are free to live your life without the bondage of the “still, small voice.” Unless you are Elijah the Prophet (and you are not) there is no such thing. The good news is that God has revealed his Word and his moral will and we are free in Christ to follow that Word and to obey his will, in union with Christ, in communion with his church.
- “The Secret of Knowing God’s Will.”
- Audio: The Secret of Knowing God’s Will (1)
- Audio: The Secret of Knowing God’s Will (2)
- Audio: The Secret of Knowing God’s Will (3)
- Audio: The Secret of Knowing God’s Will (4)
1. I do not see the Fathers appealing to this text often. Tertullian appealed to it contra Marcion to defend the reality of divine manifestations in the OT. Matthew Henry uses the phrase to distinguish between the thundering of the law and the sweetness of the gospel. “Whenever it thunders let us think of this psalm; and, whenever we sing this psalm, let us think of the dreadful thunder-claps we have sometimes heard, and thus bring God’s words and his works together, that by both we may be directed and quickened to give unto him the glory due unto his name; and let us bless him that there is another voice of his besides this dreadful one, by which God now speaks to us, even the still small voice of his gospel, the terror of which shall not make us afraid.” Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible: Complete and Unabridged in One Volume (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1994), 782.