Sunday, August 10, 2008

The still small voice

If you are the type to pay attention to these things, you'll see that I'm posting this at a little after 6 a.m. on a Sunday morning, and that can mean only one thing: I went to bed without figuring out the end of my sermon. Luckily, I've got a big pot of Awake tea right next to me, AND I have finished the sermon. It's in note form rather than manuscript because much of it is simply relating the events in the life and ministry of Elijah, but I went to bed with a question I still haven't answered: What is the still small voice?

The NRSV translates it differently (and, according to the much beloved (by me) Interpreter's Bible 1954, more accurately) as "a sound of sheer silence." The Interpreter's Bible (1954) says the Hebrew is "a sound of a gentle stillness." (Here's the passage in the NRSV.)

But the thing that struck me this time reading this passage is that the word of the Lord comes to Elijah both before and after this sound/not sound. It's the word of the Lord that tells Elijah to "Go out and stand on the mountain before the LORD, for the LORD is about to pass by."

Now, I can't tell you how many times I have acted under the presumption that in listening for the still, small voice I was listening for the word of the Lord. I was listening for God to speak to me. But this passage -- the actual passage from which that phrase emerges -- completely counters that. The Lord speaks to Elijah all over the place.

No wonder that still small voice is so hard to hear: it's not even there! It's an incorrect interpretation of an incorrect translation taken out of context!

The problem is this doesn't answer the question of how to hear the word of the Lord. But it at least frees it up so that I could hear the Lord speaking in all sorts of places and times and contexts: through Scripture, through others, in sermons and books (and blogs!), on retreat, at work, in silence and in sound.

May the Lord give us ears to hear.


qoe said...

Having been a weirdo for a long time, I have the Hebrew words for this on my bulletin board: qol dmamah daqah does directly translated as a "soft, murmuring sound", but even the Jewish JPS prefers the KJ "still, small voice." Interestingly enough, Abraham Joshua Heschel renders qol dmamah as "a voice of silence", citing the precedent of Gen. 4:10 ("the voice of your brother's blood")--suggesting qol is a voice with no sound.

Being a poet, I have always liked the KJ, poetic reading. To to me, the entire passage in Kings is about centering into surrender, to ultimate vulnerability.

God asks Elijah, "why are you here?" God might well have asked "what is here for you?" The answer could, of course, be twofold: silence and the presence of God. What if this really isn't twofold? What if "the two become one"? The suggestion to me is that when one has surrendered to the silence, one is in the very presence of God, where words are not necessary.

This might be too mystical an approach, I'll be prepared to admit.

Lmkazmierczak said...

just a little feedback...i enjoy your blog.

LKT said...

Well, thanks!