Ordinarily I think of caves as lonely, dark places, not exactly the kind of place I would associate with comfort. But there have been times in my life when there was nowhere else I would rather be. I remember times of barely holding myself together as I rose to yet another day of a revolving front door, constant interruptions, urgent needs, out-of-control children, dwindling funds, another power outage, physical weakness, and a migraine to boot. Worn and empty, I longed to escape to a place of solitude, of rest, of refuge. And frankly, I wasn’t so sure I ever wanted to come back.
Sometimes God calls us to soldier on through depression; sometimes He gives us a cave. Elijah had demonstrated incredible perseverance through overwhelming circumstances. Now God was calling him aside for some cave-time. Forty days alone in the wilderness. Living on bread from heaven. Wrestling with God in prayer. Journeying to the mountain of God and crawling into a cave. He was here to hide, to sleep, to escape. This cool, dark enclosure provided blessed relief, a time and space apart from the struggles of life. How could he even think about going back?
God came near in the intimacy of a whisper.
God had provided this time and place for Elijah’s healing, but He was not content to leave him here. As the brilliant counselor that He is, He engaged Elijah with a soul-searching question: “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
Was the answer not obvious? The very thought of all he had endured was still overwhelming, but he was finally ready to talk about it. “I have been very zealous for Yahweh God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, … and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me, too” (1 Kings 19:10). How could he possibly re-engage the same impossible situations that had put him in this state in the first place? What hope did he have that he would be able to handle the future?
Yahweh said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of Yahweh, for Yahweh is about to pass by. Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before Yahweh, but Yahweh was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but Yahweh was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but Yaheweh was not in the fire.
1 Kings 19:11-12
God responded to Elijah’s unspoken questions in a way more powerful than words. He coaxed him back out of the cave with the promise of His presence. He sent along the manifestations of Himself with which Elijah was most familiar: the overpowering wind, the terrorizing earthquake, the all-consuming fire. But none of those were the way He was going to show Himself this time. To His broken, tentative child, He came near in the intimacy of a whisper.
Elijah felt Him come. He crept to the mouth of the cave and repeated his concerns, but this time they had lost their overwhelming force.
And after the fire came a gentle whisper. When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave.
Then a voice said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
1 Kings 19:12-13
In the face of God’s very real presence, everything else seemed smaller. All the struggles he had left behind still awaited him, but God would take him by the hand and walk him through them. God’s whisper also directed him to Elisha, a human helper who would walk by his side through the challenges ahead.
Cave-time rarely comes when life is good and the world around us is as it should be. But in the midst of those miserable times, God draws near. He listens and responds to our woes. He soothes our frayed spirits with His tender whisper, reassures our troubled hearts with His intimate presence, and, when He knows we are ready, sends us back out with the promise of His ongoing help.