Rethinking that ‘Still Small Voice’

And after the fire came a gentle whisper. When Elijah heard it he pulled his cloak over his face . . . (1 Kings 19:13).

A still small voice. That sounds nice doesn’t it?

Soothing. God’s voice caressing us, lulling us into a peaceful state of mind. Who wouldn’t want to hear such a voice? Who wouldn’t want to hear from God with such clarity? Let’s not be too quick to answer. Perhaps it’s time for a reality check. That voice that Elijah heard on Mount Horeb – maybe we’ve got it all wrong.

Our Bible translations don’t help us much here. We are told that on Mount Horeb Elijah heard a “still small voice.” That’s the King James Version, the familiar and time-tested phrase that captures the nature of the divine utterance. The “still” and the “small” stand in stark contrast to the bluster of wind and fire and earthquake, all of which were void of God’s voice and presence.

Translators seem to struggle for words that adequately describe what Elijah heard, the way holiness sounds when it speaks. One English version takes the “still small voice” and makes it a “gentle whisper” (NIV). Another translation says that it was “the sound of sheer silence” (NRSV). The New English Bible says that Elijah heard a “low murmuring sound” while the Jerusalem Bible calls it “the sound of a gentle breeze.”

Whatever this voice was – breeze, whisper, sheer silence – it caused Elijah to hide his face. That’s not the behavior of one soothed and lulled. That’s the action of one awed, convicted, fearful.

The Dreadfulness of God

I recall being outdoors on a construction site in the middle of an Oklahoma August. From time to time a gentle breeze would disturb the shade-less heat. Such a moment is a gift in southern Oklahoma, and the natural response is to lift your face, to catch as much of it as you can for as long as it lasts. That’s not what Elijah did. He covered his face when God spoke. The voice may have indeed been a whispering voice, breeze-like in tone and volume, but it evoked something deep in Elijah. It made him hide his face.

Mark Buchanan rightly states that

There is a dreadfulness about God. This is seldom said. We often cherish a pious delusion about ourselves: that we truly desire God and that all that’s lacking to pursue deepest intimacy with Him is adequate skill, sufficient knowledge, proper motivation. But is this so? Down in our bones, mingled with our blood, silent and potent as instinct, is a dread of God. This is primal fear. The voice of God, the presence of God, holds not comfort but terror. (Your God is Too Safe, 22-23).

Long before whispering to Elijah, God held another mountain top conversation with Moses. When Moses came down from the mountain the Israelites kept their distance from him. They told him, “speak to us yourself and we will listen, but do not have God speak to us or we will die” (Exodus 20:18-19). The voice of God would be too much.

Care and Courage

So back to the “still small voice.” Two things are required of us if we seriously want to hear it: Be careful and be courageous.

Be careful in your listening: This voice is not easily heard and it will not be found in the loud and obvious blustering of our culture or even of our churches. Loud and showy religion is one of Satan’s closest allies in keeping people deaf to God. Be careful in your listening.

And be courageous: When God speaks you may be undone. As the writer to the Hebrews reminds us, “it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Hebrews 10:31). The voice of God could change your life. It could change your plans. If you’re trying to hear God speak be sure you’re ready for what that might mean for your life. God’s words are never given to us as a mere lullaby.

What is truly amazing is that God wills to speak to us. The real question, as always, is whether we are willing to listen.


We will not take your voice lightly, O God. Help us to listen carefully, discerning your words and your will in the middle of our busy and noisy lives. And make us bold as we listen for what the Spirit says, ready to be changed and ready to respond in obedience as we follow your Son Jesus, in whose name we pray. Amen.


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