There is a challenge to our understanding of our text. God gives to Elijah a visual parable, of sorts, but then gives no direct interpretation.
The visual parable is His demonstration of power, first in the great and powerful wind, then the earthquake, then the fire. But the Lord was not in the wind or quake or fire. Then came a still, small voice, a low whisper. It is strongly implied, although not stated, that the Lord was in the voice, especially because Elijah immediately covered his face with his cloak. This was a sign of reverence, similar to the way the seraphim cover their faces with their wings in the presence of the Lord of hosts.
So what does this visual parable mean? What was God trying to teach Elijah?
Partly this is a moot point. If you carefully pay attention, Elijah does not seem to learn a thing. Before the wind, earthquake, fire, and whisper, the Lord asked Elijah, “What are you doing here?” Elijah gave an answer that essentially said that Israel had gone astray and Elijah was the only prophet left. After the powerful demonstration, the Lord again asked Elijah, “What are you doing here?” Elijah answered in exactly the same way, word for word. So did he learn anything? Apparently not.
But let us try to hear the lesson, nevertheless.
The Lutheran understanding usually goes something like this: The powerful, destructive forces unleashed by God represent the terrors and punishment of the Law. The still, small voice symbolizes the gentle word of the Gospel.
A slightly different approach might connect the three destructive forces to the three men whom God commissioned Elijah to anoint. They were men who would put people to death by the sword. The quiet whisper then might represent the seven thousand in Israel who would remain faithful. Or, more properly, the gentle whisper is the subtle, unnoticed work of God that kept those seven thousand from worshiping Baal.
This slightly different understanding is really not different at all. The punishment by the swords of the anointed men still represents the application of the Law’s punishment. The gentle work of God is the Gospel that keeps men’s hearts faithful to Him.
One way or another, the Lord was telling Elijah that there is a time for punishment and judgment. The Law will have its due season. Jezebel and Ahab, who were threatening Elijah, would meet their doom.
But the Gospel also will win out. In fact, the Gospel is an even stronger force, because God is in the Gospel. Grace and mercy are His proper work, as opposed to His alien work of Law and punishment.
To see this even more, we might recall the story of Moses in Exodus 33 and 34. Moses asked to see God’s face. God said that Moses could not see His face and live. But He would pass by while Moses was hidden in a cleft in Mount Sinai (which may or may not be the same as Mount Horeb on which Elijah hid in a cave in the mountain). Then Moses would see the backside of God, which means not the fullness of His unveiled glory.
When He passed by Moses, The Lord proclaimed His Name, saying, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the father on the children and the children’s children, to the third and fourth generation.”
The great similarity between the story of Elijah and that of Moses is emphasized by the declaration of God. The main thrust is God’s merciful love. Yes, He will punish the guilty, but His proper nature is mercy and grace. In other words, God is not in the punishment, but He is in the mercy. In the same way, He was not in the wind, quake, and fire, but He was in the small voice.
Like Elijah, we may sometimes wish for God’s judgment and punishment. We may be disgusted at the rampant wickedness of so many people. We may wonder why God does not unleash His wrath and punish the evil world.
But, like Elijah, we may not notice that we also deserve punishment. Like him, we sometimes abandon our vocations. The prophet of God was AWOL. He had forsaken His post and wandered away. In his defense, Elijah was facing some pretty severe dangers. His life was literally threatened.
We often, perhaps too often, feel a great need for “me time”. We insist upon our vacations and leisure, sometimes at the expense of our responsibilities.
We sometimes give up on vocations for the easy way out. There are obvious retreats from responsibility, like divorce and abortion. But there are also subtle ones: not putting in the work our vocation demands, giving up too easily when hard times come, or wondering why it matters if we try at all, just to name a few. Perhaps we have not abandoned our posts, yet in our hearts we have given up.
Sometimes, God should ask us, “What are you doing here?” when we have taken a detour away from the tasks He has given us. Like Elijah, we might give some fine-sounding rationalization for what we are doing. But God sees the truth.
We deserve the destructive wind, and the earthquake, and the fire. Indeed, in our sinfulness, we deserve far worse.
But God says, “I am not giving you what you deserve. Instead, I will speak gently with you.” That is how He dealt with Elijah. He was not wrathful. He fed Elijah miraculously on the way. At the end, He gave him a message of hope. All was not lost. The Word of God was still doing its work, in spite of appearances.
This, most of all, should give us hope as well. The Gospel is still living and active, even though it seems like such a tiny voice in a deafening world. Even now, the Good News of Christ is working its way into the hearts of sinners. We may not see this subtle, soft voice at work. But God promises that He will not cease gathering His Church until the end. His Word will still go out and make disciples, no matter how hopeless matters seem in the world.
So we should not give up. We should not abandon our posts. We should not let ourselves be crushed by despair, because the Lord is still a God of mercy who rescues many. He even rescued us, although we did not deserve it.
To rescue us, He came down to another mountain so that the fire of divine wrath would fall on Him. The earth quaked when its Creator died, and the rocks were split. He did this because He is the merciful Lord, as He said to Moses, and as He demonstrated to Elijah. He let the full judgment and weight of the Law fall upon Him so that He could give us forgiveness and grace. That was His strong desire, because of His tremendous steadfast love. Therefore He has purchased eternal life for you.
When you hear me speak this soft, gentle word of the Gospel, do not judge it by how unimpressive and humble it sounds. God is in the voice. He is in the whisper that declares His mercy to you. This is what He wants to speak to you most of all.
In His Name, the God who is love. Amen.
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