This phrase is so often repeated by Christians that we have come to think of it as the main point of the account of Elijah in the cave. Recently though, in studying 1 Kings chapter 19, it has become clear to me that this is a beginning, not a conclusion. It doesn’t even appear that God continued speaking to Elijah in a gentle whisper.
In the time of Jeroboam, Israel had established a rival temple to the one in Jerusalem. Now, in the time of Ahab and Jezebel, this temple had become a place for the licentious worship of Baal, the god of the Canaanites. God had sent Elijah to call Israel back to Himself; yet immediately after his greatest triumph it appears Elijah was overcome by a feeling of failure.
He fled south to Mount Horeb, probably the same as Mount Sinai where Moses had met with God. It is quite likely he was in the same cave where Moses stood when God revealed Himself to him. God asks, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” Elijah answers with a litany of woes: “the children of Israel have forsaken thy covenant, thrown down thy altars, killed thy prophets, I am the only one left and they are trying to kill me.”
God doesn’t answer directly, but tells Elijah to stand there in the cave. Elijah cowers in the back of the cave as an awesome display of power almost tears the mountain apart. But Elijah does not hear God’s voice in the wind, earthquake or fire. Then all is quiet and he hears a gentle whisper, and in this whisper Elijah recognizes the voice of God. He covers his face and walks to the entrance of the cave.
It was the whisper that got Elijah’s attention, but now when God speaks He does not whisper, nor does he shout. He asks again “What are you doing here, Elijah?” and once more Elijah repeats his litany of woes.
God does not immediately respond to Elijah’s complaint, but assigns him three tasks, to anoint a new king for Syria, a new king for Israel and a new prophet to succeed himself. This is how God will cleanse Israel from the idolatry and corruption introduced by Ahab and Jezebel. Then He tells Elijah “I still have seven thousand people in Israel who have not worshipped Baal.”
Even in apostate, idolatrous, licentious Israel there are seven thousand people who are true to God! In the past, that has sounded like a very small number to me. But seven is a used in a representative or symbolic way in the Bible. It signifies completeness. It is most likely that God is telling Elijah that there are still multitudes in Israel who are yearning to worship Him. For their sake God will continue to make Himself known in Israel.
The gentle whisper that Elijah heard was just the beginning. It caused Elijah to come closer, to lean in, to hear what God wanted to tell Him. The conclusion of the story is that Elijah left the cave ready to obey, infused with renewed courage, renewed purpose.