I have been studying the story of the prophet Elijah for a term paper in my Hebrew Bible class. It is a fascinating story for many reasons, and one that remains quite actively debated among Bible scholars.
What speaks to me most on a personal level is the theophany on Mount Horeb.
And behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind rent 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 a still small voice.
And when Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave.
1 Kings 19:11-13 (RSV)
To briefly put this passage in context, Elijah had recently obtained a spectacular miracle by calling upon God to send down fire to consume an offering (you really must read the whole story in 1 Kings 18:20-40). He had hoped to re-convert the people of Israel to faithful and exclusive worship of God via this spectacular display of power, and at first it seemed that he had succeeded. But it was a very short-lived victory and brought a death-threat from the infuriated Queen Jezebel, who had brought Baal-worship to Israel. When he realized his failure, Elijah went out into the desert, disillusioned and even suicidal.
Eventually, he came to Mount Horeb (aka Sinai), and like Moses before him, received the rare gift of a theophany–a manifestation of God’s presence. Phenomena such as tempest, earthquake, and fire were characteristic of a theophany–and exactly what one would expect. But to Elijah, God presented Himself in a very different and unexpected way: in “a still small voice.” It was in that tiny sound that the prophet perceived God’s presence.
It’s important to note that Elijah was not a person who much appreciated silence and stillness. He was a gutsy, intrepid, self-assured man of action. When he called upon God, God listened and acted. And Elijah expected God to act with power, as He did when He sent down fire to consume Elijah’s offering. Elijah wanted to shock and stun the people of Israel into straightening up their act, and he expected God to cooperate. But ultimately, that plan had failed, and Elijah wasn’t sure what to do.
In this scene, we see the prophet at his weakest and most human. Can we not see ourselves in him? I know I can see myself. I often expect God to act according to my expectations and my timing. Occasionally, He deigns to do so, at least on the surface. In fact, it rarely turns out the way I would like it to. And that doesn’t make me very happy!
What God teaches Elijah–and what He teaches to us all at times–is that His true essence and His true way are not found in earth-shattering power. Oh, He is mighty, very mighty! But true might is much more than mere brute force. We honor God’s true power when we fall silent and still and allow His still small voice to permeate our souls, our innermost beings. The truth is, that is a far more humbling, stunning, and awe-inspiring experience than any external tour de force we could ever imagine! The realization that God wants first and foremost to be Master of our souls is enough to make these souls of ours shiver and prostrate themselves!
Instead of wishing to exert power over others or over our circumstances, we should strive to submit ourselves to God’s power, lest our own hearts grow hard and turn away from Him. When we do so, we receive the greatest miracles of all: the life and love and grace that come only from our Lord and Master.