The Still Small Voice (Erased in the NRSV)
Some of us this Sunday will read 1 Kings 19, the famous passage where Elijah has run away to the mount of God and God speaks to him. He was told to go “stand upon the mount before the LORD.” God passes by. There is a great wind that tears at the rocks of the mountain, but the LORD is not in the wind. Then there is an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. Then there is a fire, but again the LORD is not in the fire. Then “after the fire a still small voice.”
A deep mystery is presented to the reader. The text breaks parallelism by not saying, as the reader might expect, “the LORD was not in the still small voice.” Yet neither does it say he was. Did Elijah hear God’s voice when he heard that still small voice, or not?
The NRSV breaks tradition by rendering those words as “a sound of sheer silence.” This has the virtue of being paradoxical—silence, after all, makes no sound. It has perhaps the negative virtue of reminding people of a certain age of a song by Simon and Garfunkel. This is the translation most non-Catholic liturgical churches will hear this Sunday. The NRSV was produced by the National Council of Churches of Christ. It is favored especially among old-line Protestant churches and especially by scholars in their seminaries. It is the translation you are most likely to find in such books as The Daily Office (from Church Publishing, part of the Church Pension Group of the Episcopal Church).
As best I can tell, Roman Catholics in the U.S. will hear the phrase as “a tiny, whispering sound.” In my usual app, along with “a still small voice” I found “the sound of a gentle blowing,” “a gentle breeze,”“a quiet, gentle voice.” The ESV has “the sound of a low whisper.”
It seems to me that God often is in places we do not expect. We expect him to be in powerful phenomena like earthquakes, but in fact he may be in a voice that is still and small, whispering. Elijah thought God was largely absent and that he was the only servant of the LORD left, but God quietly told him that there were thousands of others who had preserved their faithfulness under oppression. So although I do not know if God was in the still small voice that Elijah heard, if he were it would seem to be characteristic.
Cultural memory is enhanced by the preservation and transmission to new generations of images and forms of speech. The “still small voice” appears in Whit Stillman’s 1998 film “The Last Days of Disco,” where a young man reveals to a girl that he got through manic episodes in college by singing, mantra-like, an old hymn. The last line of the hymn is “O still small voice of calm.”
I hope it will remain possible for viewers of that film to hear, if only as a whisper, what Elijah heard at Mount Horeb.
Out & About. I am to preach this Sunday at St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Dallas at 9 a.m. and 11:15 a.m.
Sunday, August 20, I am to preach at St. Luke’s on Royal Lane in Dallas, at 7:30 and 10 a.m. At 11:15 I will lead an introductory class on A Post-Covid Catechesis, the topic being the adventure that we embark upon when we believe God is the creator of everything. Everyone is welcome to the class (as well as, of course, the Eucharist).
The “Good Books & Good Talk” seminar will meet at St. Matthew’s, Sunday, September 10, at 5 p.m., on Christopher Beha’s The Index of Self-Destructive Acts. Anyone who reads the book is welcome to the discussion (others may listen).