Sometimes it takes someone from a Jewish background to interpret things in the Old testament we miss as Christians miss or take for granted. In this regard, my favourite Jewish theologian is the singer and songwriter Paul Simon.
On of the first songs Simon wrote and released with Art Garfunkel was the Sound of Silence. The Sound of Silence is a phrase taken from the Bible. If you have missed it, it is because it is not translated this way in the well known versions of the Bible. Only the NRSV has “the sound of sheer silence.”
This is how the Old Testament takes it. The Hebrew is ק֖וֹל דְּמָמָ֥ה דַקָּֽה (qol dmamah daqqah): “the sound (qol) of ‘lean’ (daqqah) silence (dmamah)”
I am being oblique here. What is the verse or verses I am talking about?
The verse is 1 Kings 19:11-13
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. And when Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his cloak and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. And behold, there came a voice to him and said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
The footnote of the ESV says the sound of a low whisper can be read as a sound, a thin silence. We are probably more familiar with the translation still small voice in the Authorized Version of the Bible and the words of the poet Whittier used in the hymn Dear Lord and Father of mankind.
God was not in the storm, earthquake or fire
The text says that God was not in the wind, earthquake or fire, but it does not say God was absent from them, how could he be? It clearly says that the wind broke rocks in pieces before the Lord. So was God totally absent in those signs? No. The text says God was not in the wind, eaethquake but that he was present.
Elijah would have expected God to speak through these signs. And why not? These were the signs of the presence of God, see Psalm 18 (storm), Psalm 68 (earthquake) and Isaiah 30 (fire). God appeared to Moses to give the law and there were earthquakes and lightning. God appeared as fire in the burning bush, also to Moses. Storm earthquake and fire was how Elijah would have expected to see God.
There is a theological word, theophany, which is used for a manifestation of God that is tangible to the human senses. Often this is a human form appearance, but it includes fire, storm and earthquake.
God is not in the still small voice.
The shocking part comes next. God is not in the silence or still small voice either. We get a lot of our theology from the Hymns we sing and Dear Lord and Father of mankind is a popular hymn. Im sure we It is hard to translate, as the sound of silence is an oxymoron. In any case silent is also implicit in the King James text. Telling a child to be still is an old way of saying be silent. But the text does not say god is in that silence, or still voice. But it is a sign to Elijah that it is time to get up and meet with God, which he does. It is only when outside the cave that God speaks to him.
So what can we make of this?
I am not saying that Whittier was wrong in his poem, he was using an English translation, so this is understandable. Nor am I saying that people that people who introduce contemplative prayer asking us to listen to God’s still small voice are wrong either. Not unless they say that God does not speak through noise, he does that too.
What I am saying is that we can spend too much time expecting God to speak in a way that he has done before that we can totally miss what he is saying to us. We could do the opposite of Elijah, concentrate too much on listening for God’s whisper that we miss him shouting. The words of God may speak instead through visions softly creeping in the nigh, or words written on subway walls and tenement halls.