The Sound of Silence
By: Rev. Phil Dieke, Associate Pastor of Disciple and Digital Ministry

“...but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence.”
1 Kings 19:12

The story of Elijah has to be one of the most well known narratives in the Hebrew Bible, right there along with Moses and the burning bush. If Moses was the story we teach kids with flannelgraph, then the story of Elijah was the one we told kids as they got into middle and high school. Turns out Elijah battling the prophets of Baal is hard to flannelgraph! (If you’re unsure why, go back and read 1 Kings 18.)

The story, as I remember it being told in youth group, was all about Elijah’s loyalty, bravery, and strength. All about his heroic efforts to stand for God, to make a mockery of the prophets of Baal, and even slaughter them. My adolescent, William-Wallace-loving heart was drawn to this warrior prophet. I remember a sense of pride reading of his victory. Then a bit of confusion as to why he felt the need to flee from Jezebel. Then a sense of wonder that God would appear to Elijah while he was roughing it in a cave (spelunking is common practice in Southwest Missouri, so I could relate). As the story was told, Elijah was the archetype. We should all strive to be like him.
As I reread the story of Elijah, it turns out we overlooked a lot of the narrative in youth group. That, or I was so caught up with the fires and massacre, that I overlooked some really key elements to the story.

Later in life, as I began to better develop spiritual practices, this story became a critical justification to seek out silence. The wind, earthquake, and fire became metaphorical representations of the chaos present in my life. I need only look past the chaos to find God in the “still, small voice,” or the “sheer silence” as the NRSV translates it. After all it was Thomas Keating who said, “Silence is God’s first language; everything else is a poor translation.”
Thus, to have an Elijah-type encounter with God, I must not be distracted by the big flashy things. I can’t expect a burning bush, for “the Lord was not in the fire.” Instead, I must become fluent in God’s first language. To truly hear from God, I must familiarize myself with silence.
Though this has been a wise and healthy practice for me — one that I do not regret, and one that has allowed me to grow way more than my youth group understanding of this text — the more I study the passage the more I realize this, too, overlooks key elements of the story. To emphasize silence in this story may seem worthy, but it also may be just as detrimental as the William Wallace version of Elijah. Is silence really the key player, the key element, of this narrative?
Maybe it is. There has been plenty of ink spilled trying to understand this “still, small voice.” Maybe silence is critical to the understanding of the Elijah narrative, but... maybe not. If not, what is?

Take some time to read 1 Kings 19:1-18. As you read, and possibly re-read it, ponder these questions:
  • What preconceived notions do you bring to this story?
  • What aspects have you emphasized? 
  • What aspects have been left out or simply missed?
  • What specific word or phrase is catching your attention?
  • How is the text helping you ground yourself in everyday holiness?

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