The Bible says God speaks. God spoke to Eve, Abraham, Moses, Jeremiah, Mary, Paul, and other biblical figures. Sometimes I wonder if they literally heard an audible voice or if they just sensed God telling them something. Either way, Scripture encourages the church to listen for God’s voice. I want to suggest that the story of Elijah at Mt. Horeb in 1 Kings 19 reveals four key insights about listening to God.
First, God speaks to individuals in a personalized way.
In the Hebrew, verse 9 says Elijah went to the cave, not just a cave. This signals that he went to the exact place where Moses encountered God in Exodus 33. Moses heard God speak when there was an earthquake and a fire. But this time God came to Elijah in a new, distinctive, and personalized way. Just as God called Elijah by name, God also knows your name. God knows you intimately and completely and communicates with you in a personal fashion.
Second, we are more likely to hear God if we listen attentively.
Elijah retreats to a quiet place of solitude. Verse 13 says he “went and stood in the entrance of the cave.” This indicates an intentional posture of listening. Picture Elijah on his tiptoes, sticking his head out of the cave, pro-actively listening for what God had to say. This is a key aspect of prayer. We don’t just talk to God; we also open our ears to hear what God is saying to us. We can be attentive to God’s voice by reading the Bible prayerfully and by giving God a chance to speak whenever we pause to speak to God.
Third, we can hear God through silence.
Verse 11 says God was “passing by,” which means God was going to tell Elijah something. A forceful wind shattered the rocks, but God wasn’t in the wind. An earthquake struck, but God wasn’t in the earthquake. A fire ignited, but God wasn’t in the fire. Then came the sound of a “gentle blowing,” as one translation puts it. God spoke in the stillness after the storm. God didn’t shout. God didn’t scream. God whispered ever so softly. Sometimes we want God to speak as loudly as thunder or as clearly as a message written in the clouds. But God often speaks subtly, even silently. Although the King James Version famously says it was a “still, small voice,” the Hebrew is best translated the “sound of sheer silence.” God spoke through silence. And the very next verse says Elijah heard it. How can anybody hear silence?
I interpret this in light of the blue whale, the largest animal ever to grace the earth. Blue whales speak to one another across miles of ocean. Their vocalizations are incredibly loud, measuring between 155 and 188 decibels. That’s louder than a jet plane. The upper end rivals a rocket launch. The crazy thing is, a blue whale could swim by your boat talking up a storm, and you not hear a thing. You see, while blue whales speak at high decibels, they speak at low frequencies, between 10 and 40 Hertz. The lowest frequency humans can normally detect is 20 Hertz. When we hear things like that at super low frequencies, we don’t hear them as much as we feel them. So when the blue whale speaks at low frequencies, we can’t hear it like a normal human voice. Our only chance is to feel it, to sense it’s deep vibrations.
Similarly, God often speaks in a way that we can’t hear with our ears but we can sense with our soul. We can feel God communicating with us in the spiritual rumblings deep in our gut. Perhaps the phrase about the sound of sheer silence indicates that Elijah didn’t hear an audible voice of God, but instead sensed soft rumblings in his soul that he interpreted as the divine voice.
Fourth, if we truly hear from God, God will probably send us on a mission.
God says to Elijah, “Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus, and anoint Hazael king over Aram.” Elijah didn’t get a clear word from God until he encountered God personally, listened attentively, and felt God’s voice rumbling in his soul. But once he did get a word from God, the word was, “Go!” If we listen to God very much, we will probably hear God say “go” as well. Who knows what God would have us “go” and do in 2017, if we would but listen expectantly to the subtle divine voice?
Pastor Noel Schoonmaker
First Baptist Church, Murfreesboro, TN