The Still Small Voice

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“What are you doing here, Elijah?”

Here is another story that came to mind when I first heard Ralph McTell sing Small Voice Calling. It’s about the time when God spoke softly to Elijah.

Where will I find this story in the Bible?

The First Book of Kings, Chapters 17 to 19 (1 Kings 17 – 19).

Who’s in it?

Elijah, a prophet of Yahweh
Ahab, King of Israel
Jezebel, Ahab’s wife
450 prophets of Baal
2 bulls for a sacrifice
Yahweh, the God of Israel
One of Yahweh’s angels

What’s the background?

Two hundred years have passed since God called Samuel. Samuel turned out to be the last of the “Judges”, for the people decided they wanted to be like the other nations: they wanted a king. So Samuel anointed Saul as king, and then David to succeed Saul. Now Ahab is king in Israel, and he has taken a foreign wife, Jezebel; and, with her, a foreign god, Baal.

So, what’s the story?

Jezebel had all the prophets of Yahweh put to death. All, that is, but one: Elijah alone survived the cull.

One day Elijah told Ahab there was going to be a drought that would last for as long as Yahweh decided. Then Elijah went off to another country and waited for Yahweh to tell him what to do next.

Three years later, when the famine in Israel was severe, Elijah returned. He told Ahab to assemble the prophets of Baal, and all the people, on Mount Carmel. Oh, and to bring two bulls. There was going to be a competition.

The rules were simple. The prophets of Baal – all 450 of them – were to build an altar and prepare their bull for a sacrifice. But they were not to light the fire. And Elijah would build a similar altar and prepare his bull for the sacrifice.  

When everything was ready, Elijah said to the prophets of Baal, “Call on your god to bring down fire to burn your sacrifice”. So the 450 prophets of Baal called out to Baal to light the fire. Nothing happened.  They shouted louder, and danced, and tranced all day. But no fire came.

When it was obvious to all the people that Baal was not going to answer his prophets, Elijah called out to Yahweh. And immediately Yahweh sent fire down, and it devoured Elijah’s altar, bull and all.

Line drawing by Annie Vallotton
from the Good News Bible

“Who is your God?”, Elijah asked Israel. “Yahweh”, the people cried; and they rounded up the prophets of Baal and killed them all.

Jezebel, who had stayed home, was furious when she heard the news. She sent a message to Elijah along the lines of, “You’re dead meat, mate”. And Elijah feared for his life and ran away to the desert. He lay down and wanted to die. But one of Yahweh’s angels woke him up and gave him some food, because he would need his strength for the journey that still lay ahead – to Mount Horeb, in Sinai, where God had given Moses the Ten Commandments.

It took Elijah forty days to get there. He went into a cave to rest, and Yahweh came and said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” And Elijah whimpered, “They’ve abandoned you, torn down your altars, and killed your prophets. I’m the only one left and now they want to kill me, too.” Yahweh told Elijah to stand outside the cave, because he was passing that way.

A hurricane came and split the mountain. But Yahweh was not in the hurricane. Then there was an earthquake. But Yahweh was not in the earthquake. Nor in the fire that came next. And after the fire, there was a still small voice. It said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” And Elijah whimpered, “They’ve abandoned you, torn down your altars, and killed your prophets. I’m the only one left and now they want to kill me, too.”

And God told Elijah to go back the way he had come, and gave him orders as to who was to be anointed king, and who prophet. And Elijah did what God told him. This is how Elijah became a great prophet in Israel.

How does Ralph use this story?

The song title and first line of the chorus of Small Voice Calling suggest that Ralph may have known the story of Elijah, and how God used him to focus the people’s mind on him when they had been lured into following a false god. Yahweh’s still small voice cut through the sham of Jezebel’s false religion and the violence of the natural world to remind Elijah – and the people – that he was still God in Israel.

Then, the second time I heard the song, Ralph confused the issue by throwing in a doubt:

There’s a small voice calling our names outside
And he says that he knows us…
But his name ain’t Jesus
That’d be too easy now don’t you agree?

And he ends:

There’s a small voice calling our names outside
And he wants to come in…

Knock knock.  Who’s there…?