Jenn and I were looking to reference the phrase “a still, small voice” in the Bible one night. For whatever reason, she uses the NIV, and I use the NASB. We looked in the concordances of our respective Bibles and found absolutely no reference to such a verse. “Ah!” I said, “the early Friends (and many modern ones) used the KJV.” We googled the phrase and were led straight to the place in the KJV where we could find it, and we did a little study, because we know that much about Quaker worship itself has been based upon this verse. It is found in 1 Kings 19:12.
The verse is found in a passage that runs the length of Chapter 19, but for the purposes of our study, we looked at 19:9-15. Elijah, who is hiding from Jezebel’s wrath at Mt. Horeb, after destroying the prophets of Ba’al, is asked by YHWH what in the world he is doing in a cave. Elijah answers that the people of Israel are seeking to destroy him. “Go forth,” says God, “and stand on the mountain before YHWH.” Elijah remains in the cave, and awaits the presence of YHWH to act further. “And behold, YHWH was passing by.” A hurricane blows through, but Elijah recognizes that God is not in it. Then an earthquake occurs, but Elijah recognizes that God is not present in it. “After the earthquake, a fire, but YHWH was not in the fire.” Then comes verse 12, where the KJV reads something like “and after the fire… a still, small voice.”
Other translations do not use the “still small voice” phrase. The NASB uses “the sound of a gentle blowing.” The NRSV uses “the sound of sheer silence.” My wife suggested this is the Hebrew version of “the sound of one hand clapping.” At any rate, is important to know, that according to the text, YHWH was not in the still small voice, or the silence, or whatever your translation reads. It is at the point of silence, as we find in the following verses, that “when Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in a mantle (so as not to look upon the divine presence) and went out and stood in the entrance of the cave. And behold, a voice came to him and said, ‘What are you doing here Elijah?’”
I suggest that God is not found in the silence, but when silence occurs in a worshipful manner we know God is imminent. The silence, our waiting in silence as Elijah did, prepares us and makes us fertile for the Word of God to be spoken among us and it is silence that prepares us to receive it properly. But what does this have to do with worship?
Many of our Quaker contemporaries seem, not to worship in silence, but to worship silence, as if it were in the lack of vocal ministry that God is most present. Many of us might even view vocal ministry as less conducive to real relationship with the Creator than is silence itself! But while God may indeed be present in waiting worship, it is through vocal ministry that YHWH is made relevant to a community of faith. While many of us might come to meeting to relax from a hectic week, others long for YHWH to appear in the midst of our waiting and replenish our souls through the Spirit guided vocal ministry of other Friends. We wait on the Spirit without recognizing that silence is intended to make us tender toward the Spirit’s impending activity. Silence without vocal ministry is to spend our full Spiritual measure quite lavishly on ourselves, without benefiting other faithful Friends who are longing for God to be fully realized among us in a corporate manner. How dare I limit God by not thinking that the Creator would speak to others through me. This goes for our lifestyles as well as our spiritual vocabulary. God speaks through us all, even if the message is intended only for one individual amidst gathering of Friends. It is time we realize that the silence makes us ripe for vocal ministry, and is not intended to protect us from it.