Elijah and the Selah

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Some times rehearsed speeches are all we have. Elijah was there too, once. In 1 Kings 19:10 he says the very same thing he says again to God in 19:14, “I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, torn down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.”

While Elijah is fazed, God is not. When the last echo of this speech is shouted, literally from the mountain top, it was God’s turn to put on a show of His own. God sends a wind, an earthquake, and even a fire. The text doesn’t tell us how he knew it but Elijah somehow knew in those three violent, earth shattering events, God wasn’t present in any of them. There was something about the chaos and upheavel that didn’t speak to God’s presence for Elijah because with each one the text tells us, “but the Lord was not in the _______.”  I wonder if that bothered Elijah or comforted him. Often when we are anxious we want other people to ratchet things up as well. Who knows….but then it happens.

After the fire subsided and the sounds of crackling from the now scorched vegetation faded, came the Selah…the stillness. It was God’s ever so subtle and ever so appropriate revelation of His presence to Elijah – the “gentle whisper.” The NRSV calls it “a sound of sheer silence.” Let’s look at this phrase more closely. The word for sound has to do with noise. It can be a loud noise like thunder (Job 38:25), the sound of animals (Psalm 104:12), the voice of God (Psalm 18:14 where is a thunderous sound), or as we will see in a moment, even no sound at all. This word is used twice at the end of 1 Kings 18 when Elijah defeats the prophets of Baal. They call out to Baal but there was no “response” in other words Baal didn’t make a sound. Contrast this with the next chapter, the chapter in focus here, where Elijah cries out and God does respond. He responds with a sound but not a thunderous sound. God’s responsive sound is the sound of “sheer silence” (NRSV). The word for “sheer” is a word for “thin” or “small” and the word translated “silence” is only used here in the Old Testament and it means “calmness”.

There’s the Selah – the moment of calm stillness that isn’t completely silent – in the moment after his complaint Elijah is met with the opposite of what he had seen in his battle with Baal – he got a response where they didn’t. It wasn’t a chaotic response like the prophets of Baal with all their shouts. God’s response was the sound of small calmness. I believe God gave Elijah what Elijah needed most. God didn’t need to ratchet up the anxiety level. God didn’t need to undifferentiate himself from Elijah and take on his anxiety. God knew what anxious Elijah needed most and it wasn’t more chaos. What Elijah needed most to calm his anxious heart was stillness and calmness that was represented in God’s audible responsiveness to Elijah.

Unlike the wind, earthquake, and fire…it was in the calmness that Elijah knew that God was present.

May we, in our world of ever present anxiety…in our world of unending social commentary and argument…rest in the calmness of God’s Selah presence. And may we be that for the next anxious soul who comes into our presence.

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