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.
The ‘still small voice’ of 1 Kings 19 is possibly the most frequently preached text from the books of Kings. Preachers love to point out that hearing God is often a matter of quietness, that God more often speaks in whispers than thunder, and that sometimes the most spectacular signs are the ones that pass by almost unnoticed. This is true, but often what passes by unnoticed is the biblical-theological significance of this moment.
Things had not been going well for the Northern Kingdom of Israel. The current king Ahab had married the Sidonian princess Jezebel, who was determined to do everything possible to exterminate the worship of Yahweh from Israel. This is the context of Elijah’s famous confrontation with the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel (1 Kgs 18:20‑46). Once and for all Yahweh would show them that he is God and that Baal is not. It was a ridiculous showdown—the odds dramatically stacked in Baal’s favour. Over 400 prophets of Baal, just one for Yahweh. Their offering dry, his drenched in water. But while their ritual cries and hours of pleading fell on non-existent ears, it took a simple prayer from Elijah and fire burst forth from heaven and consumed not only the offering, but the water, wood and the stone altar as well. The people repented! The prophets of Baal were put to the sword! Surely this dramatic display would be enough to finally put an end to idolatry in Israel? A campaign of shock and awe that would at last firmly plant the kingdom of God in the hearts of the Northern Kingdom!
But this repentance lasted only until Jezebel found out what happened. No sooner did the Israelites reach Samaria than they turned to Baal once again, and Elijah was forced to flee for his life. He went to Horeb (Sinai)—back to the mountain where it all began. Yahweh asked him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” (19:9). It’s a good question. What did Elijah hope to accomplish here? Perhaps a new beginning for Israel? Elijah knew that God would do what he promised—that he would build a kingdom from Abraham’s descendants. But how could that happen when everyone lay captive under a pagan queen worshipping foreign gods, Elijah alone left following Yahweh (19:10)? Might God send a strong wind to part the waters? Would he descend once more to claim this people as his own, in a blaze of smoke and fire, causing this mountain to shake a second time (cf. Exod 19:18)? But no; this time the Lord wasn’t in the wind, or the fire, or the earthquake.
Elijah’s lament was met with an unexpected response. Yahweh spoke not in further acts of power and wonders from heaven, but in a still, small voice. A remnant: 7000 in Israel who have not bowed the knee to Baal (1 Kgs 19:18); a small, broken few—cowering in caves from Jezebel; the downtrodden, the poor in spirit, the meek who will inherit the land. And something entirely new besides: for the first time in the Old Testament, a foreign king is to be anointed (“Messiahed”, 19:15), but this Messiah comes against Israel. This is the moment when God began to raise up the nations against his own people. The exile had begun.
The significance of this moment lies far beyond hearing God in our daily quiet times, because this is when we learn that the Old Testament is not a theology of glory. It’s not the story of a God who wins by overwhelming force. In this moment it becomes clear that the Old Testament is a theology of the cross. Israel must die. Yahweh’s land, his people, his temple and even his own glory will be handed over to the Gentiles, because no amount of winning was able to build the kingdom of God. But through this death Yahweh’s kingdom will come. The prophets must now learn not to despise the day of small things (Zech 4:10), because the time for calling fire from heaven has passed (Luke 9:54-55). God will now work through the faithful remnant, the suffering servant, the humbled Messiah, the foolishness of the cross. No longer in the earthquake, God will be heard instead in the rasping whisper from the cross: it is finished.