When God tells Elijah to ascend a mountain and await a divine appearance, the prophet witnesses a wind, experiences an earthquake, and feels a fire, “but the Lord was not in” any of these natural phenomena (see 1 Kgs 19:10-12). Then, according to the most well-known English translation, Elijah hears a “still small voice” (19:12 KJV; cf. NKJV, ASV, RSV). Other translations have “a gentle whisper” (NIV), “a low whisper” (ESV), or even “a sound of a gentle blowing” (NASB). What was it that Elijah heard?
The Hebrew phrase translated most commonly as “a still small voice” is קול דממה דקה (qol demamah daqqah). The Hebrew קול (qol) can mean either “voice” or “sound,” and because the three previous forces of nature (wind, earthquake, and fire) would have emitted “sounds” (rather than “voices”), it is better to understand קול as “sound” here. The word translated “still” is דממה (demamah), which can also mean “silent.” For instance, the psalmist tells God that “glory will sing your praise, and not be silent (דמה; damah)” (Ps 30:12; cf. Lev 10:3; Ezek 24:17; Job 29:21; Amos 5:13).
Finally, דקה (daqqah; “small”) means something so tiny that it is diaphanous – nearly intangible. Speaking of the golden calf, Moses states, “I took the sinful thing… [and] I ground it until it was as fine (דק; daq) as dust” (Deut 9:21). Just as dust falls through one’s fingers, the “sound” that Elijah heard was slight to the point of near transparency. Thus, the NRSV comes closest to the Hebrew sense with its rendering: “a sound of sheer silence.” That is, the silence was so silent that it approached audial nothingness. To capture what the Hebrew is getting at, we might translate קול דממה דקה as “a sound of deafening silence.”
So, why does the difference between “a still small voice” and “a deafening silence” matter? The fact that Elijah is met with silence shows that the measure of God’s presence is not always an audible “voice”. Though believers can get discouraged as they strain to hear a divine voice, the biblical text assures the reader that, even in moments of complete silence, God is there.