Behind the Ranges: Horeb
In following the series ‘behind the ranges’, we have been trying to discover something of the deep things of God. Last week I wrote about Elijah and his wonderful victory over the powers of darkness on Mount Carmel. This week we are still with Elijah as he travels to a different mountain, a journey of forty days and nights away: the mountain of Horeb, or Sinai. It’s a fascinating part in Elijah’s life, and one from which we can learn a great deal.
The hour of victory is wonderful, as I said last week: ‘Try it!’ But it’s also the dangerous hour, because with victory there can come a relaxation, an exultation in God, and a feeling of tremendous safety and happiness. That’s all very good. But the anointing, I suppose, lifted from Elijah for the purpose for which it had been there on top of Mount Carmel, and his life is threatened by Jezebel the wicked queen. We find him fleeing for his life. He is going through the wilderness, and the Angel comes and feeds him – the Angel of the Presence of the Lord (I always think it is probably Christ who comes) – and he is fed more than once; he is given enough to last him for a journey of forty days, and these lovely words are spoken to him: Get up and eat some more, or the journey ahead will be too much for you. We see there the tremendous understanding of God of His tired servant in an hour of danger. He’s had a long, long time, these three years without the rain, walking closely with God, then on Mount Carmel, and now that terrible sense of aloneness sweeping over Elijah in a way that left him quite spent. But he journeys on until he comes to Mount Sinai, the mountain of God.
There he came to a cave where he spent the night. But the LORD said to him, ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’ Elijah replied, ‘I have zealously served the LORD God Almighty. But the people of Israel have broken their covenant with you, torn down your altars, and killed every one of your prophets. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me, too.’
‘Go out and stand before me on the mountain,’ the LORD told him. And as Elijah stood there, the LORD passed by, and a mighty windstorm hit the mountain. It was such a terrible blast that the rocks were torn loose, but the LORD was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake there was a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire there was the sound of a gentle whisper. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his cloak and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave.
(1 Kings 19: 9–13)
We follow Elijah to Mount Sinai. Why did he go there? It would be associated strongly in his mind and spirit with the revelation to Moses in the wilderness. The Burning Bush was thought to be at Mount Sinai. And then the revelation of God came down in tremendous fire and power when He revealed Himself to Moses. The suggestion is that the cave that Elijah came to was the same place where God hid Moses as His glory passed by.
God says to him there: ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’ And Elijah makes his complaint. We find later that it’s not quite justified: there are many who have not bowed the knee to Baal. But we can understand Elijah. Having been told that he’s ‘a man of like passions with us’, most of the time we say: ‘Well, he doesn’t seem it!’ But we are quite grateful for hours like this, when we think: ‘Yes, we can identify with you now, Elijah.’ Everything seems dark to him; he feels peculiarly bereft. And God says to him: ‘Go out and stand before me on the mountain,’ and again: ‘Come out of the cave, Elijah.’
God had come in tremendous power on Carmel, and on Mount Sinai in the past. But now God is not in the mighty windstorm, or the terrible blast, or the earthquake. It’s not in any of these that Elijah finds God. He is passing by, but He is somehow not in these phenomena. And then we read that he heard the sound of a gentle whisper. Other translations are ‘a still, small voice’ and (the one which I think is my favourite) ‘a sound of gentle stillness’. Elijah then wraps his face in his mantle and covers himself from the glory of God that is being revealed to him. There is a deep, hidden revelation of God to his soul now. The stillness of God, the quietness of God. The psalmist says: Your gentleness has made me great, and Paul writing in one of his letters says: We were gentle in the midst of you as a nurse that cherishes her children. And there comes to Elijah the revelation and the instruction of God, but there comes to him the sound of the gentle whisper.
That sense of the stillness of God is very wonderful. Living in an urban society it can be very hard to find real stillness. We don’t tend to find true quietness; there’s always some background noise. But sometimes, perhaps at the top of a mountain or out in the country, we stop and listen, and there is this stillness, a quietness that can be felt, a quietness that isn’t just the absence of sound: it’s far more than that. It’s the sense of the atmosphere being full of a stillness and a quietness. And that, only much more so, I think, is the stillness of God. It comes sometimes after a tremendous victory, and sometimes in hours of need, and comes to the hungry soul. The stillness of God is His essential being. In the same way that we speak of the ‘King of Love’ because He actually is Love, and the ‘Prince of Peace’ because He is Peace, we could call Him the King or the Prince of Quietness or Stillness – an essential stillness in the very heart and being of God.
And how we need that. You know, this recurring lockdown brought for many an isolation and a quietness, but it didn’t bring a rest. There are people who have found that their mental faculties have been greatly strained and their mental health has deteriorated because there’s not been a rest in that quietness. Who can enter into the rest of God, the deep innerness of the quietness of God that can begin to pervade our spirit? That serenity of Christ that’s so evident in Him is not so easily obtained, is it?
It’s related to a deep faith. Elijah’s faith had got rather rocked for a little while. And there was no reproach from God. Rather He fed him and cared for him and looked after him and spoke gently to him, till he was strong enough to go on again with the commission of God.
And so He does for us. These thoughts had been in my mind when someone sent me this closely related verse:
Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest (Mark 6:31).
The rest comes into the soul when our faith reaches out to grasp Him. And so, as Samuel Rutherford puts it: In the way of duty and the silence of faith we go on.
God took Elijah by a new way for him, but He let him feel the extremity of weakness, and he knew what the apostle Paul was to learn in a later day: My grace is sufficient for you; My strength is made perfect in your weakness. And so it is for you and for me. It’s a wonderful aspect of God: In Thy quiet strength, O God, I shall be strong again.
I close with lines from a well-loved hymn:
O Sabbath rest by Galilee,
O calm of hills above,
Where Jesus knelt to share with Thee
The silence of eternity
Interpreted by love!
(John Greenleaf Whittier)
Let us seek to share something of that also.
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