Fears about a secularized culture and dire warnings about a country that doesn’t turn to God are reflected in an Old Testament story from 1 Kings 18. In this story, a religiously charged contest occurs at the climax of national suffering and concludes with a revival. Paradoxically, the story becomes the narrative about Christianity losing its godliness in the apocalyptic vision. I admit that this story both surprises and fascinates me.
In a contentious face-off, Elijah confronts an established government policy and the religious priests of Baal, who are supported by King Ahab due to the influence of his pagan wife, Jezebel. The rival groups call on their gods to send fire from heaven to determine who has the true God. Elijah, a prophet who has protested the growing idolatry, vigorously promotes judgment if his rivals do not repent. Elijah’s campaign is victorious, yet his platform includes antagonism and power, so not one false prophet is permitted to live.
Jezebel’s fury in the aftermath of this showdown intimidates Elijah, so he deserts his mission by fleeing into the desert. The fireworks are over, and Elijah senses the threat to his life. In self-pity, he feels that his zeal has been in vain and that his life’s work is destroyed. Depressed and alone, he collapses under the shade of a tree, wishing he were dead. However, a messenger appears to strengthen Elijah, and he uses his newfound energy to journey to Horeb, the mountain of God (1 Kings 19:9–13).
We are told that Elijah arrives at a specific cave, perhaps the “cleft of the rock” where Moses stood many years earlier to speak with God face-to-face (Exodus 33:18–22). Elijah goes there to express his frustration, but God questions his presence. As Elijah moves toward the entrance of the rocky cave, the Lord “passes by,” evoking the image of Moses glimpsing God’s glory along with the typical signs of His presence (1 Kings 19:9–12). A mighty and tremendous wind tears into the rocks, but Elijah does not find God in it. Then an earthquake shakes the mountain, and a fire appears, but Elijah does not find God in those either. Signs that should indicate God’s manifest presence are empty, as if God is telling Elijah that signs and sheer power cannot be trusted as convictions of His work. Finally, a quiet breeze blows, revealing the divine presence as it gently whispers to Elijah.
In the story of the contest, gentleness was not among Elijah’s intentions. God’s “passing by,” however, is a description that reflects Moses, who selflessly asks God for a more intimate glimpse into His character (Exodus 33:18–22; 1 Kings 19:11). This is where Elijah now stands as a new perspective comes into focus, described here as “a still small voice” (NKJV). In another translation, it’s interpreted as a “sheer silence” (NRSV). Other translations portray it as “the sound of a soft breath” (BBE) or “a gentle whisper” (NIV).
From this intimate encounter comes a captivating revelation. There is no coercive pressure or persuasive force, no act of sheer power putting things right—just a gentle, quiet breeze whispering Elijah’s name. God’s presence seeks to capture Elijah by wooing him with quiet love. God wants to sway Elijah’s heart to overturn its harsh and shallow character. Elijah has already experienced the downside of using power to persuade, but he has been reluctant to receive a different vision. God is thus making Himself known to a prophet who is barely prepared to receive. God desires to convince and regenerate hearts not through mighty signs and miracles but through making His character of lovingkindness known. God keeps hearts not through the thunder of religion or the power of politics but through the gentle whisper of His grace. While God is capable of expressing Himself in ways that get our attention, He is most compelling and captivating in the softest silence. God does not seek to compel us against our will but intends to make Himself known in the intimate places where we are most prepared to appreciate it. The story of Elijah tells us that God wants to talk with gentleness, like an alluring lover who awakens love and captures our hearts.
Elijah’s confidence in God must not rest in compelling power; his experience demands a new outlook. This brings us face-to-face with Jesus, who comes with the clearest expression of God. His presence is extremely powerful, but He helps us understand how mighty He is by saying, “learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart” (Matthew 11:29, NKJV). Signs and miracles are not the point. He is the revealer who wants to speak to us from the cleft of the rock, alluring us with the beauty of His character and the intimate whisper of a lover—wooing us, comforting us, infusing His love into us.
Sometimes, signs and miracles are needed to awaken us to God’s presence, but only the silence of His “still small voice” can turn a heart. Intimacy is much harder than shouting answers, but it carries a far deeper passion that invites a truer sense of the good, telling us what is truly desired. The surge of contemporary Christianity that warns against the immorality and idolatry of our society is seen as an effort to restore faith to a nation in peril. The voices warning against secularization and godlessness seek to grasp power, forcing their work into the lives of others and thus losing the true beauty of Christ. In this unsettling generation, many chase the moment of revival, so focused on looking for displays of God’s fireworks that they become poorly prepared to understand God for who He is. Elijah’s concern about the moral character of his nation, however, adjusts based on his newfound perspective of a quiet love that is not merely seen or heard but felt in the turning of the heart. The posture of God intimately passing by Moses and Elijah should likewise be embraced by those who claim to follow Jesus today.
Far too often, the visible presence of American Christianity appears selfishly loud and angry, as both liberal and conservative Christians want to impose their religious views through the power of government. They try to convince others by adding noise to the raging tumult of our world. Such people would be wise to consider the reference to Elijah’s story in Revelation 13, a prophecy that charges a paganized Christianity with exploiting power for political gain—a lamb-like beast who imitates Elijah by performing “great signs, so that he even makes fire come down from heaven on the earth in the sight of men” (Revelation 13:13, NKJV). Fire coming from heaven recalls Elijah’s confrontation with the false prophets, yet in Revelation, the story has been reappropriated and subverted (1 Kings 18:38).
According to the prophecy earth’s final confrontation is modeled after Elijah’s experience, but where Satanic powers once had limits, there is no longer restraint. While the prophets of Baal were unable to deliver a divine sign, apostate Christianity is led by beastly powers with the ability to present divine manifestations—even making fire come down from heaven. It’s like the story of Elijah, but the signs and miracles are used to “deceive those who dwell on the earth” (Revelation 13:14–15). Such signs will always appear spectacular to those looking for them, but this story warns against those masquerading as prophets, using signs to convince the world of their power (Deuteronomy 13). True religion can no longer be demonstrated through displays of power.
When we imagine God’s infinite power, we may picture a tough beatdown through which God bulldozes His way into rebellious hearts, nearly blasting away the opposition. The apocalyptic vision, however, tells us that such power is used by the false side and should not be considered the church’s final witness. The rhetoric of power can never make a father love his children, a husband love his wife, or any of us love our neighbor. We must trust the meek and lowly heart of Jesus to turn people’s hearts.
The life of Jesus makes a difference. Look upon His mercy and sweet love, His tenderness toward the weak, His forgiveness of others, His unwavering goodness, the light of His glory, and His lasting peace. These are the only explanations for the divine manifestation. We must enter the place where God reveals Himself, so our souls are rejuvenated, our lives adjusted and our hearts kept secure. Standing in the rocky cave with Moses and Elijah, we rediscover God through new eyes. We see His mighty character of compassionate love and mercy. This is what will turn the hearts of friends, spouses, fathers, mothers, children, and an ungodly generation (Luke 1:17).
The prophecy of the coming of Elijah prepares the way of the Lord by turning the heart (Malachi 4:6). It calls us to remember the revelation of Moses at Mount Horeb and the promise of receiving Elijah. Fast forward to the New Testament, where Elijah and Moses are standing together on a mountain with Jesus, discussing His mission of self-renouncing love. The cloud of God’s presence overshadows again, and the voice speaks once more, this time for us to hear: “This is My Son, who I have chosen; listen to Him” (Luke 9:35, ESV). John the Apostle is among those who want to call down fire from heaven as Elijah had, but Jesus refuses, transforming the story. I believe there’s a message in this for us today. It reminds us what happens when the Lord passes by and makes Himself known to a religiously charged Elijah.
The world now needs to hear about the beauty of God’s love and character more than ever before, but it can’t be blasted. It must be delivered in ways that do not force it upon the world. It must be spoken and taught quietly in love. The mission is not convincing people into the service of God through a beatdown but attracting the world into His beauty. When we lose perspective about what is most beautiful about God, people’s hearts can’t be won, for only love awakens within us the desire to love.
I pray that in our personal encounters with God, we will repeat His quiet whisper of love, seeking to make Him look beautiful to the world. The voice of God’s grace, which fills us with great love, joy, and peace, is too often lost in the deafening roar of life. Elijah’s call to choose sides is as valid today as it was in his day. Dancing between two loyalties is not an option. To choose God and follow Him well means not letting Him pass by without comprehending the whisper that will turn hearts to truly and freely loving Him.
Craig Ashton Jr.