For Marcus Walker

I see that Revd Marcus Walker, vicar of Great St Bartholomew in the City of London, has written in the ‘Spectator’ about the way that people can be estranged from the church if the Lord’s Prayer is said using unfamiliar modern words, rather than the traditional words which ‘everyone knows’. If you suddenly find that you don’t even know the Lord’s Prayer, you might feel, as one of his friends did, that the church didn’t want you any more. []

I had a similar feeling of being made strange this morning, when 1 Kings 19 was the Old Testament lesson, about how God made himself known to the prophet Elijah. This is the passage, in the words which I am familiar with.

‘And, behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind: and after the wind an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake:

12And after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice.

13And it was so, when Elijah heard it, that he wrapped his face in his mantle, and went out, and stood in the entering in of the cave. And, behold, there came a voice unto him, and said, What doest thou here, Elijah?’ [AV]

A ‘still small voice’. A ‘still, small voice of calm’, even, as John Greenleaf Whittier’s great hymn, ‘Dear Lord and Father of Mankind’, has it:

‘Breathe through the heats of our desire

Thy coolness and Thy balm;

Let sense be dumb, let flesh retire;

Speak through the earthquake, wind, and fire,

O still, small voice of calm.’

But I didn’t hear the ‘still small voice’ in the lesson as it was read today. In the modern translation used, it became this:

‘Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; 12and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence.’ [NRSV]

A ‘sound of sheer silence’. Why? That is a contradiction in terms. I know there is a song by Simon and Garfunkel, ‘The Sound of Silence’, but that’s not the image that the words ‘still, small voice’ evoke.

Another, better, modern translation puts it this way.

‘For the LORD was passing by: a great and strong wind came rending mountains and shattering rocks before him, but the LORD was not in the wind; and after the wind there was an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake; 12and after the earthquake fire, but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire a low murmuring sound.’ [NEB]

A ‘low murmuring sound’. That’s closer to the ‘still small voice’ logically, if not poetically. There can’t be both silence and a voice at the same time. It’s not meant to connote an intrusion of the one into the other.

Marcus Walker’s point about the Lord’s Prayer, however, which I think this passage also illustrates, is that there is value in familiar words. They are homely, comforting, inviting. It’s part of our DNA as Englishmen that Elijah heard God in a ‘still, small voice’. It wasn’t the nonsense of ‘sheer silence’ – else why would he have been able to hear it? And it wasn’t a ‘murmuring sound’. How likely would we be to remember those words hundreds of years later – as we do, when they are a still, small voice, and not some banal modernity?

Does it matter? Against my instinct is the fact that this isn’t actually in the ‘DNA of us Englishmen’ any more, if it ever was. Children who have learned only ‘worship songs’ don’t know about the still small voice. And of course it’s not just Englishmen that speak, or sing, or read, from this passage in the English language. Whittier was an American. And if the ‘medium is the message’ (or ‘massage’, v.l.,) perhaps in the abbreviated language of text messages these niceties will just disappear. We will be left with sheer silence. And, no doubt, move on.

Hugh Bryant

1st Sunday after Trinity, 23rd June 2019