One of my all-time favorite songs is “Speak Now Jesus” by a Christian band named Starfield. If you haven’t heard the song, please take a listen. The music and harmonies are tender yet powerful, and the lyrics enjoin the listener to earnestly long for God (Psalm 63:1) in a heartfelt and passionate way. I cannot commend the song enough. One of the lines from the chorus reads: “I am desperate to hear your still small voice.” This is a reference to 1 Kings 19:12 where the Lord presents Himself to Elijah at Mount Horeb in, what the KJV translates, “a still small voice.” Other translations read “a sound. Thin. Quiet” (CEB); “sound of a low whisper” (ESV); and “sound of a gentle blowing” (NASB).

A currently popular strain among the Christian community believes that this still, small voice is an experience located inside you and is an ability that can only be developed by removing various mental distractions and maintaining a spirit conducive to “hearing” the Lord. Charles Stanley writes, “If we are to listen to God, we must be quiet and let Him do the talking… God’s voice is still and quiet and easily buried under an avalanche of clamor.”[1] It turns out, however, that Stanley is not using the word “voice” literally but rather figuratively to mean feeling, urge, desire, etc. As a matter of fact, he spends an entire chapter trying to sort out God’s speaking from all the other thoughts in your mind, what he refers to as “other voices.”[2]

I must confess that, when I first became a believer, I thought it was crucial to develop this skill. A number of brothers and sisters around me (as well as Stanley and other prominent figures) affirmed this method of divine communication. So I figured all Christians needed to develop the art of hearing God’s voice. As I began to study Scripture, however, I noticed a problem: The notion of developing the ability to hear God’s still, small voice is unbiblical. What I mean is: there is no explicit instruction nor is there a model given in Scripture to cultivate this ability. On the contrary the biblical model for living and making decisions is rooted in wisdom; that is, developing the knowledge to apply God’s moral will to our lives and, in morally neutral areas, having the freedom to choose what we want.[3]

Besides the fact that developing the art of “hearing” God is unbiblical, as it turns out, the still, small voice of 1 Kings 19:12 might not even be properly translated. According to Johan Lust, there is a three-pronged case suggesting another interpretation. First, “The [Hebrew] expression qôl demamâ daqâ is unique in the Bible. Both the qualifying terms added to qôl [voice] are very rare.”[4] Specifically, Lust argues that the qualifier demamâ is not derived from the root “to speak softly, to be silent;”[5] rather, it is derived from “the Accadian root damamu which basically appears to refer to the roaring or moaning of animals…”[6] As a matter of fact, we find a contextual coherence in other scriptural usages of demamâ if we employ the Accadian root as an interpretive constant, so to speak. Consider Psalm 107:29. While it traditionally reads, “He caused the storm to be still” (NASB), the alternative “He raised the storm into a thundering roar”[7] fits as well. Lust’s proposed interpretation also reflects the thrust of v. 25, “For He spoke and raised up a stormy wind” (NASB), while the traditional translation does not.

Second, the qualifier daqâ is derived from the same root as daka found in Psalm 93:3 “The floods lift up their pounding waves” (NASB). Lust characterizes this “pounding” as a crushing, thunderous sound.[8] It would be difficult to suggest that daqâ must translate into “thin” or “scarce” (according to tradition) since qôl demamâ daqâ would then literally read “roaring scarce voice” which is an oxymoron. Rather, qôl demamâ daqâ makes more sense to read “roaring and thundering voice” to be consistent with the theme of God’s communication.

Third, the scriptural pattern for God appearing in a theophany is clear:

  1. God’s voice roars and thunders.
    1. Job 37:5 (NASB) – “God thunders with His voice wondrously…”
    2. Job 40:9 (NASB) – “And can you thunder with a voice like His?”
    3. Ezekiel 1:24 (HCSB) – “like the roar of mighty waters, like the voice of the Almighty…”
    4. Ezekiel 43:2 (HCSB) – “His voice sounded like the roar of mighty waters…”
    5. Revelation 1:15 (ESV) – “[H]is voice was like the roar of many waters.”
  2. God appears in fire.
    1. Exodus 3:2, 4 (NASB) – “The angel of the Lord appeared to him in a blazing fire from the midst of a bush… God called to him from the midst of the bush…”
    2. Exodus 13:21 (NASB) – “The Lord was going before them… in a pillar of fire by night…”
    3. Exodus 19:18 (NASB) – “Now Mount Sinai was all in smoke because the Lord descended upon it in fire…”
  3. God appears with wind.
    1. 2 Samuel 22:11 (NASB) – “He appeared on the wings of the wind.”
    2. Job 38:1 (ESV) – “Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind…”
    3. Psalm 18:10 (NASB) – “He sped upon the wings of the wind.”
    4. Psalm 104:3 (ESV) – “[H]e rides on the wings of the wind; he makes his messengers winds…”
    5. Nahum 1:3 (HCSB) – “His path is in the whirlwind and storm…”

The fire and wind on Mount Horeb (1 Kings 19:11-12) is in keeping with the pattern of God’s appearing. It’s only in the traditional translation of still, small voice that we see a break from the usual way that God speaks, e.g. roaring and thundering. So either 1 Kings 19:12 is the one and only biblical example of God speaking in such a quiet manner or Lust is right and the verse has been mistranslated.

The three-pronged case for understanding 1 Kings 19:12 as a “roaring and thundering voice” is interesting. I wouldn’t expect this to be compelling for all Christians as tradition is near and dear to many; but I do think his case warrants a second look at the verse. Regardless of whether one accepts Lust’s translation, all Christians should be wary of the suggestion that Scripture teaches the art of listening out for a still, small voice. If, as Paul writes, “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work” (NASB), then we already have what we need to make good, wise decisions.

[1] Charles Stanley, How to Listen to God (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1985), 73-74.

[2] Ibid, 131.

[3] For a proper treatment of the wisdom model, see Decision Making and the Will of God by Garry Friesen.

[4] Johan Lust, “A Gentle Breeze or a Roaring Thunderous Sound?” Vetus Testamentum 25, no. 1 (1975), 110.

[5] Ibid, 111.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid, 112.

[8] Ibid, 113.

3 COMMENTS

  1. I”m currently reading through the NASB because my pastor teaches from it so I want to be familiar with it.
    For me; I think the translators of the NASB dumped some of the spirit of the word in order to be more technically correct.
    This particular verse you’ve written on is an example (and is the reason I found your article trying to find why they translated this way. I enjoy your orderly lines of reasoning)
    Personally I my preference is for the “still small voice” as it is in line with the Psalmist in Psalm 46:10 “be still, and know that I Am God”
    Which by the way the NASB translates as “cease striving and know that I Am God”….. see? it just loses a bit of flavor…..
    There are many more examples but I just wanted to chime in on this one and say thank you for being a Berean….
    Your brother in Christ, Michael
    BTW; my favorite translation of all I’ve read? the 1599 Geneva…

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