Title: The Voice of the Lord
Text: 1 Kings 19:9-18
Date: Aug 7, 2011
Author: Catherine Lee
So in the mold of the “summer of stories,” I’m going to tell you one. But only one. I’m pretty much just going to riff on one really good story from 1 Kings. But don’t worry, there’s lots of shattering mountains and swords involved. Think of it as a summer blockbuster.
For starters, let’s catch up on Elijah the prophet. He has set up a contest between himself and the prophets of the false god Baal. Elijah wins the contest. Jezebel, King Ahab’s wife and ring leader of the Baal worshippers, is furious. Elijah has discredited, defeated, and slaughtered her prophets. She sends word to Elijah that now she is going to kill him.
Elijah is afraid and runs for his life. He runs a long, long way. Runs all the way south through the kingdom of Israel, through Judah, past Judah’s border into the desert. He collapses under a bush and begs for death. Instead, God sends an angel, twice, who gives him “bread baked over hot coals…a jug of water” (1 Kings 19:6). Elijah then journeys forty days into the wilderness and climbs the mountain of God.
Which is where we find him. Our story begins here, with Elijah sleeping in a cave on Mt. Horeb.
[read 1 Kings 19:9-18]
The story contains two exchanges between YHWH, the Lord and Elijah. They are identical, word for word, but they lead to two different responses from YHWH, two different intertwined climaxes. Those two responses are what I want to talk about with you.
The first response is YHWH’s announcement that he is going to “pass by.” He tells Elijah to go up on the mountain and stand in his presence. Which is a frightening thing to be told: go stand in the presence of the Lord. And it is a frightening experience: there is wind tearing the mountains apart and shattering rocks, earthquake, fire. The scene echoes God’s appearance generations ago here on the same mountain, YHWH’s coming to Moses in Exodus 33-34.
Except it doesn’t. Not really. Because unlike YHWH’s appearance to Moses, the Lord is not in the wind. Not in the earthquake. Not in the fire. There is a clear, resounding, poetic insistence: all these earth-shattering movements, but YHWH is not in them. The texts lays down its drumbeat, “YHWH is not…YHWH is not…YHWH is not” (1 Kings 19:11-12).
But after the wind and earthquake and fire there comes a murmuring sound, a whisper, a gentle voice. The gentle voice of the Lord (1 Kings 19:12).
What does the voice of the Lord sound like?
Elijah knew, YHWH had spoken to him before. He had received the “word of the Lord” numerous times. Other prophets around him had heard it. The Israelites were rich in stories of the voice of the Lord speaking to his people: the Spirit hovers over the chaos of the waters and calls creation into being with his voice, YHWH calls to Abraham, his voice calls to Moses from a burning bush.
YHWH’s voice is powerful. It is equated with thunder. The word of the Lord comes with burning bushes, pillars of cloud and fire, plagues, the parting of seas. The Bible is full of images like these linked to the coming and presence of God: the earthquake of the angel at Jesus’ tomb (Matt 28:2), Christ coming on the clouds in glory (Mark 13:26), a voice Hebrews says will “shake not only the earth but also the heavens” (Heb 12:26).
And Elijah, well the story of Elijah is full of these images. Elijah, the one who calls down fire from heaven (1 Kings 18; 2 Kings 1). Elijah the one who parts the waters like Moses. Elijah who is swept into heaven in a whirlwind by a chariot and horses of fire (2 Kings 2). The shaking of the earth, fire, wind—Elijah knows YHWH’s presence in these things.
But the voice of the Lord here is different. Our story begins, “the word of the Lord came to [Elijah]” (1 Kings 19:9). The “word of the Lord” in the time of Kings was not uncommon. It appears 10 times in chapter 13 alone! But this instance, this word that YHWH speaks is different. It is a word, a theophany, a voice unlike the ones before.
Despite the fact that YHWH told him to “go out and stand on the mountain” (1 Kings 19:11), Elijah has stayed hidden in his cave. But when Elijah hears this gentle voice of God he is drawn out. He ventures from his place of safety and stands sheltered in the cleft of the rock of the mountain of God. He draws his cloak—the cloak which will anoint his successor, the cloak which will strike the ground and part the Jordan, the cloak which symbolizes the glory and might of the Lord himself—he draws his cloak over his face as he dares to step toward the presence of YHWH. “When he hear[s]” the gentle voice, Elijah worships.
The first response in our story: YHWH passes by in an unexpected way and speaks with a gentle voice. And weary, despairing, frightened Elijah wraps himself in the glory of the Lord and draws near to worship him.
Then the voice speaks again, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” The same exchange. We aren’t told why the exchange happens twice. But YHWH’s response this time is very different. Perhaps the gentleness of the first response is related to the harshness of what he has to say next.
Daniel Berrigan has written, “Let it be said plain. The era of Kings of cursed of God—of true God I mean.” When we get to verses 15-18, the second climax of our story, we begin to see that he is right. The era of Kings indeed sounds cursed.
These are YHWH’s instructions to Elijah, a lengthy and unique bit of direct speech in this story, a clue to its importance.
[reread 1 Kings 19:15-17]
Now the book of Kings is nothing if not a tangled web of names. Lots of kings, leaders, alliances, and battles. Hazael, Jehu, Elisha. Who are these people?
Elisha perhaps we know. He is Elijah’s successor, the next prophet to Israel. His calling is the next story after this one. What we don’t have are stories of Elisha killing, so the instructions from God are—unsettling. Are there stories about him we don’t know? According to these verses, he’s the clean up man, the one who comes in and kills whoever is left behind. Our first introduction to Elisha is ominous, dark. It leaves me with questions…
Jehu: Jehu becomes king of Israel, and what a king. The story of Jehu is wild and bloody. Dark to the point of ridiculous. It reminds me of watching a Quentin Tarantino movie: darkness twisted until it is ludicrous, until it is comic. Jehu gets a backdoor anointing and moves in. He kills the reigning king of Israel and demands allegiance. He kills the king’s mother. He kills Jezebel, the infamous wife of Ahab—her death is particularly violent and gruesome. He kills the rest of Ahab’s sons and all of his family. He kills all the remaining servants of Baal. There’s a lot of blood. The story of Jehu is two solid chapters of racing, breathless killing. Yes, he’s killing the “bad guys”—these are the Baal worshippers…But there’s something to the way the narrator describes it all, the detail, a brutality and offhandedness that is disturbing. The rest of Jehu’s kingship is summed up in a few verses, but the killing spree gets a full treatment.
YHWH’s instructions to Elijah: “Go, anoint Jehu, this strange, dark king of Israel.”
And Hazael? He becomes king of Aram, the enemy of Israel. There is weeping as Hazael is told he will be king, “because I know the harm you will do to the Israelites…You will set fire to their fortified places, kill their young men with the sword, dash their little children to the ground, and rip open their pregnant women” (2 Kings 8: 12).
YHWH’s instructions to Elijah: “Go, anoint Hazael, the one who will be known in history as the oppressor of your people. My people (2 Kings 13:22).”
In the second climax to our story “YHWH sends Elijah to unleash the Arameans against Israel,” enemies who will drive them to cannibalism (2 Kings 6:24-31), burn their cities, viciously murder them. YHWH sends Elijah to encourage a king whose reign will be defined by a horrific killing spree. YHWH sends Elijah to anoint a successor who will put to death any who are left standing when the others are finished.
They are terrible instructions. The task YHWH gives Elijah is horrific. But there is more.
For these instructions are also terrible in their newness. With these words YHWH is foreshadowing what lies ahead for all of Israel, the terrible future of exile. No more is there simply punishment of particular kings or groups for their failure to worship the Lord. It’s about the whole people of God. The stories that come later make it clear, these are turning points. During the reign of Jehu “the Lord began to reduce the size of Israel” (10:32). Hazael’s attacks on Israel truly threaten to destroy the entire nation, leaving no one behind (13:7).
At this point in Israel’s history the notion of exile was likely—impossible. Yes, the Lord had chastened them severely before, in the flood, in the wilderness. But surely he would never expel them from the promised land? Surely he would never allow his people to be wiped out completely?
But YHWH’s instructions, his second response, attend to a coming time when Israel will face destruction more complete than anything they had witnessed in recent history. Elijah “is warned of a blood-bath in which only a remnant of Israel will be left.”
I think they are connected, these two different responses of YHWH to Elijah, quiet presence and terrible instruction. Perhaps this particular voice from YHWH, surprising in its gentleness, is necessary now.
Elijah knew the voice of the Lord that thunders, that shakes the desert, that is powerful (Psalm 29). Israel knew that voice. That is the voice of the one who brings his people out of Exodus, who delivers them from their enemies. Fire coming down from the heavens. Maybe Elijah, in his despair, was hoping for that voice, the one that delivers?
It’s not what he gets. Amidst all the chaos and cursedness, violence and apostasy, fire and noise of Kings, a quiet voice speaks. Maybe now it is the only kind of voice that can be heard.
Does this mean YHWH will no longer be Israel’s deliverer? Has he finally given her over?
If we stopped at verse 17, we might begin to draw that conclusion. But there is more…
The voice does not stop with instructions heralding doom. It is clear: “[the kings] and their kingdoms must die. But YHWH does not allow death to have the final word.” YHWH has more to say…
“And yet…,” declares verse 18. A lilt on the end of terrible news. We hold our breath as we strain to hear…
“And yet…,” says YHWH.
“And yet I reserve.”
In spite of the threat that is to come, in spite of all who will fall by the swords of Hazael, Jehu, and Elisha, in spite of the appearance that all will be lost, YHWH declares, “there is a remnant.” 7,000 reserved by the Lord himself.
“I reserve.” I save. I set aside and uphold and keep. Yes, the 7,000 are those who have not bowed to Baal, but the emphasis here is on YHWH’s action. The remnant is the Lord’s doing (1 Kings 19:18).
Even as YHWH offers a glimpse of the terrible future of exile, he offers a glimpse of the hope of restoration.
“I reserve.” YHWH reminds Elijah of an alternative community. The ministry of Elijah does more than challenge kings. It leads a renewal movement in Israel, communities of the “sons of the prophets” who have been and will continue to pop up here and there. The stories of Kings are peppered with prophets, not only Elijah, but numerous others, some named, some not. The word of the Lord speaks, and many hear his voice. Even now, 7,000 who have not kissed Baal, who cling to YHWH. Those who preserve faith right in the midst of a corrupt generation.
And with this declaration of those who remain, there is an invitation to Elijah. An invitation to rejoin them, those the Lord has reserved. To re-enter the chaos and cursedness of their day. “Go back the way you came” (1 Kings 19:15).
Maybe there is an invitation to us too? Our era is not so different from the time of Kings. We have our fair share of powerful people clinging desperately to their posts. We certainly have our idols. We certainly have our wars. Famine. Despair.
How do we live amidst all that?
YHWH invites Elijah into his gentle presence, invites him to worship. And then invites him to enter the cursedness of his time.
Like Jesus, as Isaac talked about a few weeks ago, descending into hell.
Like Jesus walking on water—an ancient symbol of the chaos, disorder, and destruction.
Like Jesus inviting Peter to walk on the water with him.
Like Jesus reaching out his hand to Peter when he starts to sink, when he becomes afraid—
his Lord catches him.
May we go from here into our chaotic world strengthened by the voice and presence of our Lord who reserves, saves, brings life from death. Our God who always calls back from exile and who raises the dead.
 Daniel Berrigan, The Kings and Their Gods: the pathology of power (Eerdmans, 2008), 3.
 Peter J. Leithart, 1 and 2 Kings (Brazos Press, 2006), 21.
 James Richard Linville Israel and the Book of Kings: The Past as a Project of Social Identity (Sheffield Academic Press, 1998), 183.
 Leithart, 23.
 Ibid, 25-6.
 Leithart, 28.