I’ve been listening to the still small voice recently. Or to put it another way, I’ve been preaching from 1 Kings 19. It’s striking just how little agreement there is about what happened up on the mountain. What was that still small voice? A whisper? A silence? In offering a paraphrase one writer suggests that what Elijah heard was ‘the sound of a deafening silence’.
The angel of the Lord
But it’s not actually the sound (or the silence) that I wanted to highlight. What I’ve been puzzling about is the visit of the angel. Perhaps you remember the scene: Elijah is out in the desert, and at his wits’ end, when suddenly God sends an angelic visitor to minister to him. It’s such a peculiar scene. There is Elijah, the man of prayer, doing what he does best and petitioning the Lord. Only this isn’t the most edifying of Elijah’s prayer requests because what he is asking for is that the Lord might take his life and let him die. Elijah has had enough. Sensing that his mission to Israel is failing and that despite his very best efforts, everything is simply unravelling, he pleads with God to allow him to die (1 Kings 19:4).
Quite how we are to read Elijah’s despair is much debated and I won’t attempt to offer solutions to that puzzle here. Whatever the cause of his despair, Elijah is clearly at the end of his tether. He is despondent and despairing. God responds to this crisis by sending an angelic messenger, but what is really striking is what the angel does.
A surprising ministry
Just think of the possibilities. He could have instructed Elijah: a ten-point talk on reasons to trust in the sovereignty of the Lord; he could have admonished Elijah: a stern rebuke for doubting the purposes of God; he could, I suppose, even have non-directively counselled Elijah: tell me how you are feeling, Elijah. But he does none of those.
The angel doesn’t instruct, or admonish, or counsel. The angel… cooks! (1 Kings 19:6) Now that’s a surprise. Who would have thought that, having sent no less a figure than the angel of the Lord, the purpose for his visit would turn out to be providing Elijah with two square meals and a little water.
It makes me wonder if we aren’t, sometimes, a little too slow to remember that we have bodies to attend to. Biblical counsellors are big on talking, big on spiritual maturity and very keen on speaking the truth in love. I’m glad that’s the case. It’s just that every now and again that talking business can wait. And the first thing to remember is that we are embodied souls with a physical frame that needs some attention.
Perhaps we worry that it doesn’t seem terribly spiritual to pass on suggestions about sorting out a better sleep routine, or getting a little exercise, or eating a balanced diet or taking a few days off. But if it is good enough for the angel of the Lord, it has to be good enough for us.
A ‘spiritual’ encounter lies ahead, of course – it’s not that Elijah only needs food for his body, but that is where God chooses to start. And there are times when we should be willing to do the same.
Steve Midgley also serves on the board of the Biblical Counseling Coalition on whose website this article first appeared.