the silence of god

On a recent Q&A one of the viewers asked about God’s silence:

My question is: why has God gone so quiet? Just a few thousand years ago he appeared to people quite regularly. He turned rivers to blood, he parted seas, he flooded the world etc. He provided us with people like Moses, Jesus & Mohammed who had direct lines of communication. These days the only time you hear from God is through TV evangelists. You know, it’s almost as though the more educated we get, the less God wants to do with us. So, why has God gone so quiet?

John Lennox suggested that the problem was not that God was silent, it was that we aren’t listening. Now, of course, there’s something to this, but it got me thinking about Elijah’s encounter with Yhwh in 1Kings 19 again. It is a fascinating passage and the source of the “still, small voice” which prompted generations of preachers to proclaim that God’s preferred mode of communication was this mysterious whisper.1

They were, however, wrong. Read on for more…

Here’s the passage in Hebrew with English translation:

1 ויגד אחאב לאיזבל את כל אשר עשה אליהו ואת כל אשר הרג את כל הנביאים בחרב 2 ותשלח איזבל מלאך אל אליהו לאמר כה יעשון אלהים וכה יוספון כי כעת מחר אשים את נפשך כנפש אחד מהם

3 וירא ויקם וילך אל נפשו ויבא באר שבע אשר ליהודה וינח את נערו שם 4 והוא הלך במדבר דרך יום ויבא וישב תחת רתם אחת אחד וישאל את נפשו למות ויאמר רב עתה יהוה קח נפשי כי לא טוב אנכי מאבתי

5 וישכב ויישן תחת רתם אחד והנה זה מלאך נגע בו ויאמר לו קום אכול

6 ויבט והנה מראשתיו עגת רצפים וצפחת מים ויאכל וישת וישב וישכב

7 וישב מלאך יהוה שנית ויגע בו ויאמר קום אכל כי רב ממך הדרך

8 ויקם ויאכל וישתה וילך בכח האכילה ההיא ארבעים יום וארבעים לילה עד הר האלהים חרב 9 ויבא שם אל המערה וילן שם והנה דבר יהוה אליו ויאמר לו מה לך פה אליהו

10 ויאמר קנא קנאתי ליהוה אלהי צבאות כי עזבו בריתך בני ישראל את מזבחתיך הרסו ואת נביאיך הרגו בחרב ואותר אני לבדי ויבקשו את נפשי לקחתה

11 ויאמר צא ועמדת בהר לפני יהוה

והנה יהוה עבר ורוח גדולה וחזק מפרק הרים ומשבר סלעים לפני יהוה לא ברוח יהוה

ואחר הרוח רעש לא ברעש יהוה

12 ואחר הרעש אש לא באש יהוה

ואחר האש קול דממה דקה

13 ויהי כשמע אליהו וילט פניו באדרתו ויצא ויעמד פתח המערה והנה אליו קול ויאמר מה לך פה אליהו

14 ויאמר קנא קנאתי ליהוה אלהי צבאות כי עזבו בריתך בני ישראל את מזבחתיך הרסו ואת נביאיך הרגו בחרב ואותר אני לבדי ויבקשו את נפשי לקחתה ס

15 ויאמר יהוה אליו לך שוב לדרכך מדברה דמשק ובאת ומשחת את חזאל למלך על ארם 16 ואת יהוא בן נמשי תמשח למלך על ישראל ואת אלישע בן שפט מאבל מחולה תמשח לנביא תחתיך 17 והיה הנמלט מחרב חזאל ימית יהוא והנמלט מחרב יהוא ימית אלישע 18 והשארתי בישראל שבעת אלפים כל הברכים אשר לא כרעו לבעל וכל הפה אשר לא נשק לו

19 וילך משם וימצא את אלישע בן שפט והוא חרש שנים עשר צמדים לפניו והוא בשנים העשר ויעבר אליהו אליו וישלך אדרתו אליו 20 ויעזב את הבקר וירץ אחרי אליהו ויאמר אשקה נא לאבי ולאמי ואלכה אחריך ויאמר לו לך שוב כי מה עשיתי לך

21 וישב מאחריו ויקח את צמד הבקר ויזבחהו ובכלי הבקר בשלם הבשר ויתן לעם ויאכלו ויקם וילך אחרי אליהו וישרתהו פ

1Then Ahab told Jezebel everything that Elijah had done and all about how he had killed all the prophets with a sword. 2So Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah saying, “May the gods do this to me — this and more — if by this time tomorrow I have not made your life like the life of one of [those prophets]!”

3So he was afraid and got up and fled for his life. When he reached Beer-Sheba in Judah he left his servant there 4but he went a day’s journey into the wilderness and he came and sat under a lone [white weeping broom bush] and asked that he begged to die, saying, “That’s enough, Yhwh, take my life, for I am no better than my forefathers!”

5Then he lay down and slept under the lone [white weeping broom bush]. Suddenly a messenger appeared, shoved him and said to him, “Get up and eat.”

6He looked and saw a loaf baked on hot stones and a jar of water, so he ate and drank and lay back down.

7The messenger of Yhwh returned a second time, shoved him and said, “Get up and eat, because you’re in no state for this journey!”

8So he got up, ate and drank and, strengthened by the food, travelled for forty days and forty nights until he reached Horeb, the mountain of God. 9There he came to the cave and he camped there. The word of Yhwh came to him and Yhwh said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

10So he said, “I have been very zealous for General Yhwh, but the children of Israel have abandoned your covenant, destroyed your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone remain, and they seek to take my life.”

11The he said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before Yhwh.”

And then Yhwh was passing by, and a great and powerful wind was tearing apart the mountain and breaking rocks before Yhwh — but Yhwh was not in the wind.

After the wind was an earthquake — but Yhwh was not in the earthquake.

12After the earthquake was a fire — but Yhwh was not in the fire.

After the fire was the sound of utter silence.

13When Elijah heard it, he covered his face with his robe and went out and stood at the entrance to the cave. There a voice spoke to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

14So he said, “I have been very zealous for General Yhwh, but the children of Israel have abandoned your covenant, destroyed your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone remain, and they seek to take my life.”

15Then Yhwh said to him, “Go back on your way to the wilderness of Damascus, then go and anoint Hazael as king over Aram, 16and anoint Jehu ben Nimshi as king over Israel, and anoint Elisha ben Shaphat of Abel-Meholah as the prophet to succeed you. 17Then whoever escapes from the sword of Hazael, Jehu will kill; and whoever escapes from the sword of Jehu, Elisha will kill. 18And I will spare 7,000 in Israel — all the knees which did not bow down to Ba’al and every mouth which did not kiss him.”

19Then he went from there and found Elisha ben Shaphat who was ploughing with twelve pairs ahead of him and he was with the twelth. Elijah passed him and threw his robe over him. 20So he abandoned the oxen and chased after Elijah and said, “Let me kiss my father and my mother, then I will come after you.” He said to him, “Go back, for what have I done for you?”

21So he went back from following him and he took a pair of the oxen, sacrificed them and, using the harness of the oxen, boiled the meat and gave it to the people. They ate and then he got up and went after Elijah and served him.

Notice Elijah’s despondency: he travels into the wilderness and rests under a solitary bush. He asks that his life be taken. He’s had enough. Throughout he ignores the cues: the messenger of Yhwh has to visit him twice to get him to begin his journey. When he encounters Yhwh at Horeb, Yhwh asks him twice why he is there, and twice he gives the same answer. Twice he insists that he is the last who remains faithful.

Horeb is, for Israel, a place of beginnings. Here Israel began with Moses — indeed, there God had almost begun again with Moses (Ex 32:20). So here is Elijah ready for a new beginning, standing before God as Moses had done once before. Reminiscent of Moses’ time, there were spectacular physical events (compare Exod 19:9, 16–20), yet unlike Moses’ time, God was not in these events. Something was different in Elijah’s encounter: God’s absence. Finally, there is silence (קול דממה דקה), and finally the phrase “Yhwh was not in the …” is absent. Yhwh, it would seem, has come to Elijah with nothing new.

Has Elijah understood? God asks him again why he is there, but Elijah’s answer remains unchanged. And so God has to spell things out more clearly. He is not alone, all hope is not lost, 7,000 faithful remain in Israel. Furthermore, God is about to take action and issues instructions to Elijah.

God comes to Elijah with nothing new to say, no new beginning. This is reminiscent of Heb 1:1–2, where God’s ultimate message to us is by way of his Son, negating for need for further new beginnings. Hence one explanation for God’s silence is that he has nothing new to say to us.

As an explanation for God’s supposed silence today, this is somewhat tendentious. It is not the only possible explanation for God’s silence today, nor the only reason we could derive from Scripture (Job, after all, endured the silence of God because God waits for the right time to speak, and Romans 1 implies that, as part of God’s judgment, God leaves people to suffer the consequences of their actions). Furthermore, it presumes that God is silent today, and while there is a solid case for claiming there is no new redemptive word from God, there is also a solid biblical case for arguing that God can and does still speak to his people — but perhaps not in the way they expect (Job 33:14).

1. Presumably because if they’d used some other passage where God speaks as the paradigm then there’d be no way people could not hear!

5 thoughts on “the silence of god

  1. I think we focus far to much on the role of the individual in hearing God and not how we hear God within a corporate framework.

    Coming from a Charismatic perspective, I do believe in the subjective experience of being led by the Spirit. I also hear and experience God within the framework of being accepted and embraced by a loving church,whose actions speak loudly of the God who speaks.

  2. Hi Craig,

    You make a good point because a great deal of western Christianity focusses too heavily on the individual (OTOH, some depictions of ancient Christianity and Judaism tend to underplay individuality). I too believe that God can today speak to people (see some related discussion in this post). Nonetheless, there are many who wonder about why God is not more vocal today, and I think there are a number of reasons as I suggest in this post. It is, however, a serious mistake to think that God is silent!

  3. I agree wholeheartedly that its a mistake to think God is silent. Btw I have been talking recently to a few people facing burnout and have drawn them to the story of Elijah, and found your insights into Horeb encouraging.

    I like that discussion you linked to on prophecy and how you made the distinction that NT prophecy doesn’t equate to being the same as Scripture.

  4. On the distinction between NT and OT prophecy, I think there’s a tendency to overlook the diversity in OT prophecy. Not all of it wound up as Scripture, so that aspect of OT prophecy was not inherent to the activity. Of course there were (and ever shall be) many false prophets as well. But my favourite text about prophecy comes from Jeremiah (chapter 28):

    From earliest times, the prophets who preceded you and me invariably prophesied war, disaster, and plagues against many countries and great kingdoms. So if a prophet prophesied peace and prosperity, it was only known that the Lord truly sent him when what he prophesied came true.

  5. You make a good point about the prophets and prophecy. That is a classic from Jeremiah. It’s easy to be a mouthpiece of the Lord within the framework of observation and historical context.

    My favourite OT prophet event is Isaiah. He prophesied against, and judged all those nations with great gusto. Then he had a revelation of the Holiness of God and his own sinful nature and cried out…”Woe is me!”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.