The Power of a Whisper

The Power of a Whisper


[Whisper]: “If you want to capture someone’s attention, whisper.” Did you hear that? Did that work? Did I grab your attention? Years ago Nuance perfume had an ad campaign with this catchphrase. Apparently, they were onto something for since then I’ve read that a teacher who whispers in a room filled with children is more apt to catch their attention than one who yells since little kids are curious to know what’s being whispered about. They can’t stand the thought of missing out on something or being left out of the loop. And as we’ll see, our morning’s passage similarly highlights the power of a whisper for it is by means of a whisper that the LORD God Almighty finally captured the attention of the prophet Elijah, his weary, depressed, discouraged, and disheartened servant.

In these few verses there’s so very much to take note of.[1] As the passage opens, we’re immediately provided with one of the reasons for Elijah’s discouragement for he, a prophet chosen by God to speak to his people, Israel, had been handed what was, in effect, a death sentence. As the passage opens we see that Ahab, one of Israel’s many evil kings had told his equally evil wife, Jezebel, about how Elijah “had killed all the prophets with the sword.” This event, recorded in the previous chapter, was the well-known contest between the god Baal, and his 450 prophets, and the goddess Asherah, and her 400 prophets[2] vs. the prophet Elijah and Yahweh, the one true God of Israel, the only God over heaven and earth. Despite the disproportionate odds and seemingly insurmountable circumstances, this was a contest that Yahweh and Elijah won. It was a short-lived victory, however, as now Ahab “told Jezebel everything Elijah had done.” Consequently she, who had introduced the worship of Baal to Israel in the first place, was determined to avenge his prophets’ deaths by putting Elijah to death. Talk about an about-face in the life of Elijah! As stated in verse 2, “Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah to say, ‘May the gods deal with me, be it ever so severely, if by this time tomorrow I do not make your life like that of one of them.’” If Jezebel was right, Elijah had less than twenty-four hours left to live. And he knew this wasn’t a baseless threat. It was an oath she intended to keep. For Jezebel didn’t simply have a score to settle but this cruel ruler had the power of King Ahab’s throne behind her.

And so it shouldn’t surprise us to learn that though he had been powerfully used by the LORD to destroy Baal’s prophets, Elijah nonetheless, verse 3, “was afraid and ran for his life.” He traveled south from Jezreel, where he was at the opening of this chapter,[3] down to “Beersheba in Judah” about 130 miles away. At Beersheba he left his servant and “himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness.” When he arrived, as we read in verse 4, “He came to a broom bush, sat down under it and prayed that he might die.” Elijah was spent emotionally, spiritually, and physically. Therefore he said to God, “I have had enough, Lord…. Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.” Elijah had reached the end of his line and therefore prayed that his life would end. This man who has come to be known as one of Israel’s greatest prophets, if not the greatest prophet, had no delusions about his own station in life. It was just the opposite. He saw himself as being “no better than” his “ancestors;” no better than those who had gone before him. Then, after praying, we read in verse 5 that “he lay down under the bush and fell asleep.”

Yet, “[a]ll at once an angel touched him and said, ‘Get up and eat.’” This miraculous encounter with one of God’s angels came with a miraculous provision for Elijah “looked around,” verse 6, “and there by his head was some bread baked over hot coals, and a jar of water.” In this act we see how the LORD, by means of one of his messengers, took the initiative and reached out to care for his tired, frightened, exhausted servant who “…ate and drank and then lay down again.” We don’t know how long Elijah may have rested but the next piece of information we’re provided in verse 7 is that “The angel of the Lord came back a second time and touched him and said, ‘Get up and eat, for the journey is too much for you.’” And so for a second time, the LORD had initiated by way of his messenger to provide sustenance for his servant. And for a second time Elijah “got up and ate and drank” (verse 8).

This second time Elijah was genuinely—and I would say miraculously—reinvigorated for as we read in verse 8, “Strengthened by that food, he traveled forty days and forty nights[4] until he reached Horeb, the mountain of God.” Horeb, which most scholars believe to be synonymous with Mount Sinai, is the place upon which Moses received the Ten Commandments from the LORD. It’s no wonder it was known as “the mountain of God.”[5] When Elijah arrived there, verse 9, “he went into a cave and spent the night.” And while in that cave, “the word of the Lord came to him” and asked, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” Now the fact that the LORD asked this question of Elijah may indicate that going to Mount Horeb had been Elijah’s idea, not God’s. Regardless the disconsolate prophet of the LORD replied, “I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty.” Elijah’s very name means “my God is Yahweh” and throughout his life all he had said and done had been for Yahweh’s sake. He had indeed been zealous on behalf of the LORD God Almighty. Again, recall that not long before the events in this chapter occurred he had demonstrated that zeal and fearlessness in taking on the prophets of Baal and Asherah.

Yet despite this zeal, things hadn’t gone the way one would expect. From a common sense perspective, it would seem as though obedience to God should result in circumstances turning out favorably. Yet though Elijah had done what the LORD had asked and proclaimed his Word to the people of Israel, the nation he had made for himself from one faithful and righteous man, Abraham, that nation was now acting in abominable, faithless, and evil ways. To use Elijah’s own recounting to the LORD, “The Israelites have rejected your covenant, torn down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.” The Israelites no longer cared to hear what the LORD had to say to them. They had rejected the covenant the LORD had made with them and turned to other gods, Baal and Asherah. And they had gone on to remove any and all reminders there were of him—be they immaterial altars that had been set up to commemorate their relationship with the LORD or living and breathing prophets who had faithfully proclaimed God’s will to them. Again, the people had rejected the LORD’s covenant. They had torn down his altars. And they had put his prophets to death. Elijah was the only prophet left and now they were seeking to kill him, too.

What happened next is that the LORD reminded Elijah of who he was for Elijah was about to become a first-hand witness to God’s power, might, and majesty. As we read in verse 11 the LORD spoke to Elijah saying, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” As the LORD had done for his servant Moses when he had asked to see his glory,[6] so now the LORD was going to pass by before his servant Elijah. But unlike occurred with Moses, the LORD’s passing by before Elijah was preceded by three breathtaking events:

First, “a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord,…” Can you imagine such a display of power? It’s stated so matter-of-factly that it’s easy to miss. But imagine yourself witnessing wind that is so great and powerful that it’s able to tear apart mountains and shatter rocks. Last year Ron and I were eating out on our front porch when suddenly the sky grew dark, winds and rain appeared, and what we think was a microburst pulled down one of the trees across the street from our house into the river. Awesome—and frightening—as this was to witness, this was nothing when compared with what Elijah witnessed for what he saw wasn’t simply a strong gust of wind. It was wind that was strong enough to destroy mountains and rocks alike. It was a wind that must have been terrifying to see. And though the LORD was no doubt the cause of this wind, we’re told “…but the Lord was not in the wind.”

Next, “there was an earthquake,…”[7] Once more, it’s easy to dismiss the magnitude of what took place before Elijah’s eyes. Again I’ve been fortunate enough to only ever have experienced a mild earthquake—an earthquake so mild that I only later learned from a radio report that that was what it was for the apartment I was in shook a little, much like a house I later lived in shook each time a train went by. But to have a front seat to an earthquake is an altogether different experience able to elicit fear and terror. Yet despite this second expression of power and force that no doubt had been caused by God, we’re told again, “…but the Lord was not in the wind.”

God still wasn’t done for next, verse twelve, “came a fire….” We’re given no information what this fire was like but given the magnitude of the earlier expressions of force in both the wind and the earthquake it’s fair to assume that the fire was probably greater than that of the burning bush witnessed by Moses.[8] And perhaps not coincidentally, Moses had witnessed this burning bush on Mount Horeb, the mountain of God, the very place where Elijah now stood. Well, however great the extent of the fire the LORD caused to appear before Elijah, yet again we’re told, “but the Lord was not in the fire.”

Then, last of all, verse 12, came “a gentle whisper” or a “low whisper” or “a sound, a thin silence” or what many of us have memorized as “a still small voice.”[9] And this is the only time that the phenomenon described isn’t followed by “but the LORD was not in.” For, again, previously we were told that the LORD was not in the wind—or in the earthquake—or in the fire. And apparently, because the LORD had not been in the previous three phenomena, Elijah hadn’t heard him. But this time we’re told concerning the “gentle whisper,” verse 13, “When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave.” Apparently, though the LORD had told Elijah to “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by,” Elijah had chosen to remain inside the cave. For it was only when he heard the gentle whisper of the LORD that “he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave.”

Yet even from the confines of the cave, Elijah had witnessed terrifying displays of power:

in a wind that tore mountains apart and shattered rocks;

in an earthquake that caused the earth to tremble;

in a fire that was able to burn anything in its path.

Yet what he could not withstand was the power of a whisper, the low whisper, the thin silence, the still small voice of his Maker and LORD. This whisper is what had finally caught Elijah’s attention and caused him to pull his cloak over his face. For what sinful human is able to stand before the presence of the holy LORD? Even Moses, when coming before the presence of the LORD in the burning bush, “hid his face, because he was afraid to look at God.”[10] And later in his life when he asked to see the LORD’s glory, God replied that he would cover him with his hand until he had passed by and Moses could see his back for his face must not be seen.[11]

Now in what follows we have a word-by-word replay of the word of the LORD coming to Elijah as we originally saw at the end of verse 9. For at the end of verse 13 “a voice”—and it’s fair to assume this is again the voice of the LORD—“said to him, ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’” The answer seems obvious, doesn’t it? What Elijah was doing there was fleeing for his life. What Elijah was doing there was fleeing to his LORD for, strengthened by the food twice offered him by the angel of the LORD, he had traveled forty days and forty nights until he had reached Horeb, the mountain of God. Again, the LORD had not beckoned Elijah to come to Horeb but Elijah had come from his own initiative, due to his fearing for his life. And by way of response the LORD had reminded his servant of his greatness by displaying his awesome power and might in a great wind, earthquake, fire, and finally, by speaking to him in a whisper.

Now some have suggested that Elijah had learned nothing from all of this for when questioned this second time he answered the LORD in the same exact terms he had earlier stated. Elijah recounted again for the LORD, verse 14, “I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, torn down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.” Now I don’t know if Elijah had learned nothing from his encounter with God on Mount Horeb but I certainly think it’s possible that there may have been a disconnect between the awesome power of this awesome God he had witnessed in nature with what Elijah was personally suffering.

Isn’t this what is sometimes at the crux of our faith challenges? That knowing that God is all-powerful as the Scriptures teach; and knowing that he is all-loving as the Scriptures also teach; we’re left wondering why an all-powerful and all-loving God allowed evil and sin and suffering to enter his once perfect and good creation. More specifically, knowing that God could alter our circumstances and alleviate our suffering but not seeing him do so at the moment we would like him to, can make us feel as though his power and love make no difference to our lives.

So perhaps this is why Elijah responded with the very same answer for, so far as he was concerned, his circumstances hadn’t changed despite his having witnessed God’s awesome power in the wind, earthquake, and fire and in his having heard God’s whisper causing him to cover his face with his cloak. In other words, despite all of these divine interventions,

the fact that Elijah had been zealous for the LORD hadn’t changed;

the fact that the Israelites had rejected the LORD’s covenant hadn’t changed;

the fact that they had torn down his altars hadn’t changed;

the fact that they had put his prophets to death hadn’t changed;

the fact that they now sought to kill Elijah, too, hadn’t changed.

So what good were the wind, earthquake, and fire the LORD had caused? What good was his whisper?

Yet after Elijah responded with the same complaint, the LORD continued to reach out, verse 15, by having Elijah return the way he had come and go to the Desert of Damascus. And though not part of our passage, what the LORD ended up having Elijah do once he got there was three anointings. The LORD had Elijah anoint:

Hazael as king over Aram (verse 15);

Jehu as king over Israel;

and Elisha to succeed him as prophet (verse 16).

By means of these three anointings Elijah’s enemies would be to death and the LORD would, verse 18 “reserve seven thousand in Israel—all whose knees have not bowed down to Baal and whose mouths have not kissed him.” In his kindness and compassion the LORD would provide Elijah the relief he so desperately sought.

Our account this morning is a reminder of how very human, despite his being a great prophet of God, Elijah was. For in the midst of his fear and despair, he had been unable to see:

The LORD’s provision in being fed by an angel at the point at which Elijah wanted to die (verse 5);

The LORD’s provision in being fed by the angel of the LORD a second time and being strengthened so much that he was able to travel forty days and nights until he reached Horeb (verse 7);

The LORD reminding Elijah that he was still the LORD of the universe by displaying his awesome power in a great wind—and an earthquake—and fire (verse 11);

The LORD gently speaking to Elijah in a whisper (verse 12);

But now finally, the LORD guided Elijah’s path and assured him that he would put his enemies to death by way of a foreign king, Hazael (verse 15); a new king over Israel, Jehu; and a prophet who would succeed weary Elijah, Elisha (verse 16).

Now, finally, Elijah’s circumstances would change. The LORD had indeed been responsive to him. But Elijah, in the depths of discouragement and fear, had been unable to see it.

What about us? Can we relate even a little bit to what Elijah had undergone? Have we ever endured a time in our lives when we’ve wondered why God is so seemingly silent? Have we ever asked ourselves—have we ever asked God—why he doesn’t appear to be acting on our behalf? If you haven’t, then I’d like to humbly suggest you’re not being honest with yourself. For wonderful as life can be, ever since the time of the Fall God’s wonderful creation has been marred by suffering and death. And even those of us who know and love our Maker and LORD, aren’t spared the effects of that Fall this side of heaven.

But we, like Elijah, can take heart. For whatever Elijah may have done wrong, at one of the lowest points in his life, he knew enough to seek the LORD. He may have been wrong in thinking he had to go to Mount Horeb, the mountain of God, to find him, but at least throughout his ordeal, even in the midst of his despair, he turned to the LORD and told him about his discouragement and fear.

And we are reminded in this account, as David states in the opening of his song to the LORD in Psalm 19, “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.” This world that God has created points back to his majesty and greatness and when we are feeling discouraged, we can look to nature and be reminded of his goodness and greatness. Jesus similarly encouraged his disciples, “25 Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? 26 Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?”[12]

But we can also take heart in knowing that difficult though life may be at times, we are not alone. For God in Christ has given his Holy Spirit to seal[13] and indwell[14]  us and by that Spirit we’ve been united to our gracious Father, Son, and Holy Spirit now and forevermore. And so we are called to persevere and seek to be faithful to him, in good times and bad, until he returns. For through Jesus Christ’s sacrifice, one day evil and death will be judged and destroyed once and for all and all who know and love him will dwell in the house of the LORD forever.

And we can further take heart in knowing that the LORD has given us not only himself but each other so that we can love and care for one another this side of heaven. He has given us each other that we might, as Paul exhorts us, “Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.”[15]

And so, dear brothers and sisters, whether in knowing the love of our dear Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—or in knowing his love through sharing our lives and caring for one another—or enjoying the beauty of God’s creation—or the power of his Written and Risen Word—or the power of a whisper, let us today and always rest in the knowledge that the God who made us and all the world we see continues to rule all heaven and earth and by his Son will one day establish his Kingdom of peace forevermore.

Let us pray.

[1] See sermon preached on June 19, 2016 on I Kings 19:1–18, The Silence of God.

[2] 1 Kings 18:18–19: 18 “I have not made trouble for Israel,” Elijah replied. “But you and your father’s family have. You have abandoned the Lord’s commands and have followed the Baals. 19 Now summon the people from all over Israel to meet me on Mount Carmel. And bring the four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal and the four hundred prophets of Asherah, who eat at Jezebel’s table.”

[3] 1 Kings 18:45–46: 45 Meanwhile, the sky grew black with clouds, the wind rose, a heavy rain started falling and Ahab rode off to Jezreel. 46 The power of the Lord came on Elijah and, tucking his cloak into his belt, he ran ahead of Ahab all the way to Jezreel.

[4] This is the same amount of time that Moses spent on Mount Sinai both times he was given the Commandments. See Exodus 24:15–18: 15 When Moses went up on the mountain, the cloud covered it, 16 and the glory of the Lord settled on Mount Sinai. For six days the cloud covered the mountain, and on the seventh day the Lord called to Moses from within the cloud. 17 To the Israelites the glory of the Lord looked like a consuming fire on top of the mountain. 18 Then Moses entered the cloud as he went on up the mountain. And he stayed on the mountain forty days and forty nights.; The post-Golden Calf giving of the Commandments is recorded in Exodus 34:27–28: 27 Then the Lord said to Moses, “Write down these words, for in accordance with these words I have made a covenant with you and with Israel.” 28 Moses was there with the Lord forty days and forty nights without eating bread or drinking water. And he wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant—the Ten Commandments.

[5] See also Exodus 3:1: Now Moses was tending the flock of Jethro his father-in-law, the priest of Midian, and he led the flock to the far side of the wilderness and came to Horeb, the mountain of God.

[6] Exodus 33:18–23: 18 Then Moses said, “Now show me your glory.” 19 And the Lord said, “I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the Lord, in your presence. I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. 20 But,” he said, “you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.”21 Then the Lord said, “There is a place near me where you may stand on a rock. 22 When my glory passes by, I will put you in a cleft in the rock and cover you with my hand until I have passed by. 23 Then I will remove my hand and you will see my back; but my face must not be seen.”


[7] When the LORD discloses himself to Moses in conjunction with giving him the Ten Commandments, he does so by way of fire and what might be interpreted as an earthquake—Exodus 19:18 noted below states that “the whole mountain trembled violently.”

[8] Exodus 3:1–6: 1 Now Moses was tending the flock of Jethro his father-in-law, the priest of Midian, and he led the flock to the far side of the wilderness and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in flames of fire from within a bush. Moses saw that though the bush was on fire it did not burn up. So Moses thought, “I will go over and see this strange sight—why the bush does not burn up.” When the Lord saw that he had gone over to look, God called to him from within the bush, “Moses! Moses!” And Moses said, “Here I am.” “Do not come any closer,” God said. “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.” Then he said, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.” At this, Moses hid his face, because he was afraid to look at God.; See also Exodus 19:18–19: 1Mount Sinai was covered with smoke, because the Lord descended on it in fire. The smoke billowed up from it like smoke from a furnace, and the whole mountain trembled violently. 19 As the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses spoke and the voice of God answered him.; Exodus 20:18: When the people saw the thunder and lightning and heard the trumpet and saw the mountain in smoke, they trembled with fear.; Exodus 24:17: To the Israelites the glory of the Lord looked like a consuming fire on top of the mountain.; Deuteronomy 4:11–12: 11 You came near and stood at the foot of the mountain while it blazed with fire to the very heavens, with black clouds and deep darkness. 12 Then the Lord spoke to you out of the fire. You heard the sound of words but saw no form; there was only a voice.; Deuteronomy 5:23–27: 23 When you heard the voice out of the darkness, while the mountain was ablaze with fire, all the leaders of your tribes and your elders came to me. 24 And you said, “The Lord our God has shown us his glory and his majesty, and we have heard his voice from the fire. Today we have seen that a person can live even if God speaks with them. 25 But now, why should we die? This great fire will consume us, and we will die if we hear the voice of the Lord our God any longer. 26 For what mortal has ever heard the voice of the living God speaking out of fire, as we have, and survived? 27 Go near and listen to all that the Lord our God says. Then tell us whatever the Lord our God tells you. We will listen and obey.”

[9] As per the Revised Standard Version and King James Version translations, for example.

[10] Exodus 3:6b.

[11] Exodus 33:22–23: 22 When my glory passes by, I will put you in a cleft in the rock and cover you with my hand until I have passed by. 23 Then I will remove my hand and you will see my back; but my face must not be seen.

[12] Matthew 6:25–26. See parallel in Luke 12:22–24: 22 Then Jesus said to his disciples: “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat; or about your body, what you will wear. 23 For life is more than food, and the body more than clothes. 24 Consider the ravens: They do not sow or reap, they have no storeroom or barn; yet God feeds them. And how much more valuable you are than birds!

[13] Ephesians 1:13–14: 13 And you also were included in Christ when you heard the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation. When you believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, 14 who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession—to the praise of his glory.

[14] I Corinthians 6:19–20: 19 Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; 20 you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies.

[15] Romans 12:15.