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 19:12, 13, NLT1
Mountain hiking embodies what hiking is all about: awe-inspiring views; clean, fresh air; and a good workout. Mountains have the power to awe and inspire like no other landscape. Hence, at the end of summer last year, my husband and I, along with our son and his fiancée, decided to embark on a hiking adventure that took us to the virgin mountainous terrain of the Sawtooth Range in central Idaho.
A small boat transported us that morning from the north shore of the main lake to a certain place in the heart of the mountain, from where we began our 11-mile adventure of hiking through some perilous trails, which would take us about six hours to complete. Our plan was to explore the extensive network of roads and alpine forests that would take us to a chain of four small alpine glacial lakes embedded in the top of the mountain.
We put on our gear and moved forward, hiking for hours in single file along narrow trails surrounded by massive spruce, cranberry bushes, willows, poplars, and beautiful white spirea flowers. At times, the form of the landscape changed, forcing us to climb rugged trails, but with each step taking us closer and closer to clouds that lingered loosely around the jagged peaks of the impressive mountains.
When we finally reached the first of the secluded lakes near the top of the mountain, I was so exhausted I could barely move. The crystal-clear, near-freezing cold water of the pristine lake was an invitation to remove my shoes and let my tired feet cool down for a bit. Soaking my feet in the cold water felt so good on my entire body that I decided to remain a little longer and enjoy my surroundings while the rest of our clan continued on their way to the next lake.
Little did I realize what a great mistake I was making, for at that moment, I didn’t feel alone, nor did I even think I would.
Not far from where I stood, a family had sat down to eat their lunch among the stratified rocks emerging from the earth like ashen bones. Their voices, reaching my ears in waves of gentle murmurs, made me unaware of the great topographic isolation of the place, with its miles and miles of tree-laden landscape residing far away from just about everywhere.
A little later, three excursionists on horseback appeared out of nowhere on a nearby trail. I waggled my feet in the water, lost in thoughts as I watched how riders and animals were soon swallowed up by the imposing mountains and the thick alder and mountain mahogany that suffocated trails and paths—leaving behind them only the marks of hooves.
Two more hikers hurried by, and, still entranced by the exuberance of the landscape, I decided to play an imaginary sidewalk chalk game on the rocks. The fine buzz of bees and musical chirping of grasshoppers filled the air and entertained my senses as I went along from rock to rock.
“Will God indeed dwell on the earth?” I lifted up my eyes to the heavens and exclaimed, “God, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain You!”
Suddenly, a resounding silence took the mountain in its grip. Every sound ceased. The breeze stopped, and tree branches and quaking leaves no longer swayed. The striped squirrels that minutes before had been frolicking among fallen leaves disappeared, and the buzzing of bees ceased. For the very first time, it dawned on me that everyone was gone. I was left utterly alone against the wild nature of the mountain.
The realization was brutal. Where was I? A perplexing feeling of loneliness fell down on me. My senses clouded. I climbed onto one of the massive stones scattered along the terrain and tried to simulate a compass in an effort to gain some sense of where I was standing. How would I find my way back if nobody returned for me? And how long would I have to wait here, all by myself? What if a wild animal decided to come by? What would I do then?
My eyes scanned the horizon as I turned over the four cardinal points of the compass, looking at the mountaintops for some evidence of human life, but none appeared. An astonishing and frightening silence rested on the mountain. Even the shapes of the mountains seemed to have changed! I understood, then, the silence of death. Or so I believed at the time.
In my distress, I did the only thing I knew: I called on the Lord. “Talk to me, Lord, reveal Your presence to me.” But all I gained with certainty was absolute silence.
How restless and fretful I felt in those strange moments! And what a disappointment too! Where was God when I needed him most?
Then, to my utter surprise, my mind turned in vivid colors to the biblical story of the prophet Elijah when he fled to Horeb, the mountain of God. I felt certain that if I could look at the prophet’s face, I would see in him complex expressions caused by fear, possibly very similar to those reflected on my own face. He didn’t look at the ground, but just like me, his eyes were fixated on the barren horizon, dotted with rocky peaks that seemed to be always the same and far away. And that’s when God spoke to Elijah (1 Kings 19:9–18).
Not long after that, my fear of being all alone in the mountain was quickly dispelled by the precious sight that tallies up to something like happiness: I saw my companions returning. Later, when I got home, I did a little research into God’s silence, and I was astounded by what I found.
The Hebrew text literally says that after the wind, earthquake, and fire, there was the qol d’mamah daqqah. In Hebrew, that literally means “the sound of thin or sheer silence.” Elijah heard “the noise or the voice of a soft silence.” The Greek Septuagint and the Vulgate translated this expression as “a gentle breeze,” probably to avoid the apparent contradiction between noise or voice on the one hand and silence on the other. But what the wordd’mamah means is, precisely, “silence.” The psalmist used these words when he said that God “stilled the storm to a whisper; the waves of the sea were hushed” (Psalm 107:29).
Scholars and experts in the Hebrew language add to this definition the possibility of “a whisper” or “total silence.” The New Revised Version2 of the Bible agrees with the latter. It translates the phrase as “a sound of sheer silence.”
With this paradox, the Bible suggests that silence is not empty but full of the divine Presence. Silence guards the mystery of God. And the Bible invites us to enter this silence if we want to find God.
How comforting this knowledge was then to me! God dwells in silence. And he chose to reveal Himself to me in silence. Though I wasn’t aware of it at the time, He was, indeed, by my side in the deep, unfathomable “voice” of the silence atop my mountain.
How significant and marvelous this thought ought to be to the dependent Christian. We’ve all experienced it in one way or another—that silence at the pinnacle of our mountain. Despair, loneliness, a broken marriage, a broken home, illness, death. Family members facing heart-wrenching trials. Friends suffering physically, emotionally, spiritually. Strained relationships. That’s when we cry out, “Where are You, God, when we need you the most?”
Silence. Often silence is the only apparent answer we are left with. Nevertheless, He still is in the silence, which holds our hopes—our hopes of better days, of a better life and a better future.
God reassures us, “You are not alone. You never will be alone.” As with the prophet Elijah, as with Moses on His holy mountain, God may not manifest Himself through a special revelation of His power to remind us that He cares for us, but we can always rest assured that His promises are eternal, and they were made with us in mind. Even when He remains silent.
“For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, says the Lord, thoughts of peace and not of evil, to give you a future and a hope” (Jeremiah 29:11, NKJV3).
Often, silence is the method God chooses to reveal Himself to us in our moments of deepest need or profound anguish. The fact that our Savior experienced God’s appalling silence in his highest hour of suffering on the cross of Calvary illustrates the pain that sometimes dramatically marks our experience in this life, but this should not be interpreted as a sign of God’s reproof or His absence.
There will sometimes be moments when we have to walk in fear and darkness. We may have to face difficult trials as we journey through life, but what is assured us is not so much an easy way out of suffering or disease. What we may discover is that this trial is a gift from God.
The answer God gives us in these moments of trial is the gift of His Spirit. And this is a much more precious gift than any earthly solution to our problems. Silence is often the place where God awaits us so that we can listen to Him instead of hearing the voices of our fears.
Olga Valdivia lives in Nampa, Idaho, USA. She’s an occasional contributor of articles to Signs of the Times®.
1. Bible quotations marked NLT are taken from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2007, 2013, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.
2. Bible texts credited to NRSV are from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
3. Bible verses marked NKJV are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson. Used by permission. All rights reserved.