Ravens and the Prophet

The Dark Speech of God - Chapter nineteen

The Lord said to him . . .
Elisha will put to death any who escape the sword of Jehu.’
(1 Kings 19:15-17)

One word from God can release so much blessing! Elijah could never have survived the drought, let alone the hostility of Ahab and Jezebel, had the Lord not told him step by step what to do.

It gives the Father great joy to communicate with His children. The still small voice that so refreshed Elijah in the cave reminds us of the importance of these brief, but far-reaching, encounters the Lord granted his servant. They reassured him of His presence, challenged his faith and imparted fresh direction and authority.

Many of the words the Lord spoke to Elijah were clear and simple commands. Others were more complicated in their outworking. Elisha, for instance, would not put anyone to death himself. The word was a true one, but the details require unravelling.

If we examine the way the Lord Jesus speaks in the New Testament, or indeed in our own lives, we will find that much of what He says is elliptical, and requires further clarification. ‘Jesus spoke the word to them, as much as they could understand. He did not say anything to them without using a parable. But when He was alone with His own disciples, He explained everything.’ (1)

Sometimes we strive too hard to find a literal interpretation for a word or picture, when the Lord is simply showing us a type or an example. You could say that Paul’s vision of the Macedonian man calling to him across the water turned out to be Lydia! The images in the Book of Revelation, likewise, are symbols capable of many different interpretations.

From time to time, God changes His way of communicating with us. Had the disciples continued to look for Jesus to appear to them in bodily form after the Ascension, they would have been disappointed. It was not that the door of heaven had swung shut on them, but simply that the Holy Spirit intended to communicate the will of the Lord Jesus to them from then on by new methods.

Understanding Dark Speech

In their perceptive book ‘The Elijah Task,’ John and Paula Sandford go into some detail regarding what they term ‘dark speech:’ these less direct ways in which God speaks to us.

At its simplest, ‘dark speech’ occurs when we think God is saying one thing to us, only to find out later that He was actually speaking about something rather different.

A parable talks about one subject (such as fish, or a lost sheep) but its real meaning lies elsewhere.

Clearly, we need the key if we are to understand this type of teaching. Unlike the disciples, who were privileged to have ‘face to face’ understanding of the secrets of the Kingdom, Jesus taught the crowds almost exclusively by means of parables. They were both a helpful teaching aid and a fulfilment of the Messianic prophecy.

‘I will open My mouth in a parable; I will utter dark sayings from of old.’ (2)

Long ago, in the golden age of Greek philosophy, Socrates realized that people learn more by finding things out for themselves than by being told what to do. He developed a technique of asking people questions in such a way as to make them see the truth of a situation for themselves. This kind of teaching has been known as ‘Socratic’ ever since.

Jewish teaching traditions ran along similar lines. The Lord Jesus helped His disciples to come to a deeper understanding of who He was more by pointers, parables and analogies than by direct proclamation. His memorable illustrations stimulated the imaginations of His hearers, and prompted them to reason and understand for themselves.

The gift of tongues is another example of dark speech.

We build ourselves up in the Lord by using it, but we may have no idea what mysteries we are proclaiming, or praying for.

What is only partially clear on earth has its full realisation in heaven.(3)

Now we see dimly, as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face.(4)

The way we look at images in a mirror reverses our normal perspective.

We see the right on the left and the left on the right, but we quickly learn to interpret the images the right way round.

Similarly, the Hebrew word translated ‘dark speech’ or ‘dark saying’ (chidah) literally means a ‘knot’.

It is a particularly appropriate expression since we often have to unravel what God is saying to us.

At a major cross roads in his life, a man heard the Lord say to him, ‘Probation’. Concluding that the Lord was calling him to the Probation Service, he applied for a training course. Before taking up the post, the Lord directed him to check the word ‘probation’ in his dictionary. When he discovered that the word could also refer to a ‘time of testing in a religious context’, he realised that God had wanted his willingness, but actually had other plans in mind for him. In due time, the Lord opened the way for him instead to become the leader of a thriving church.

I can recall many occasions when I felt the Lord telling me to go and visit someone, only to find that they were out. Because I was on the move, however, I was in the right place to meet someone else – which was what God had intended all along. In retrospect it is clear why we were led as we were, but it can be puzzling at the time. God prompts us into one course of action, and then takes over by His sovereign initiative.

Dark Speech develops dependency

Why does God use dark speech? Perhaps it is because, if we knew too much in advance, and could always be sure of hearing clearly, pride would puff us up (or fear would fill our hearts). We would be in great danger of abusing our knowledge by trying to make events work out in our own strength. Therefore the Lord uses dark speech to keep us dependent. He speaks as much, or as little, as He needs to, and then looks for a response of faith and obedience.

Similarly, He does not always rebuke us openly, but allows circumstances to work out in such a way as to bring us first to a clearer understanding of a situation, and then, as needs be, to a deeper repentance.

In the whole realm of listening to God there will inevitably be times of disappointment and confusion, when we mishear, or misinterpret what we thought we had heard from God. Perhaps it has to be this way. If our hearing were more accurate, people would come to rely on us rather than learn to listen to God for themselves. The miracle is that He manages to overcome our sinful self-centredness to be able to speak to us at all.

If we hold back on trying to listen because we have made mistakes in the past, we are no wiser than the person who vows never to get into a car again after being involved in a car accident. John and Paula Sandford remind us pertinently that nobody graduates in the school of listening with their pride intact!

When Paul declared that he had been prevented from being able to cross over into Macedonia, he made it clear that this was not through any lack of prayerfulness concerning the decision in the first place.(5) Unlike so many of us, he refused to allow unexpected setbacks and changes of plan to diminish his trust in the Lord.

True, we do well to examine our mistakes carefully, to see if there are areas where we are particularly susceptible to error. Misjudgements in the past may be a pointer to some ‘structural’ weakness. Providing there is no fundamental deception in our hearts, however, God will always make sure that enough of our hearing is right in order to fulfil His purposes.


Try and recall occasions when you have felt the Lord leading you in one direction, only to discover later that He had something quite different in mind. What does this have to teach us about His sovereignty – and our need for step-by-step obedience?


Lord, help us to recognise Your leadings
and to trust what You are saying to us.

Grant us courage first to listen,
and then to act on what You show us.

Thank You that You grant us further help
as and when we need it.

In Jesus’ name,

Previous chapter – Symbols of His Power
Next Chapter – The Judgements of God


1 Mark 4:33-34
2 Psalm 78:2 This expression ‘dark sayings’ occurs elsewhere in the Scriptures: ‘A wise man hears and will increase learning, and a man of understanding shall attain unto wise counsels; to understand a proverb and the interpretation; the words of the wise and their dark sayings.’ (see Proverbs 1:5-6 KJV cf Psalm 49:3-4)
3 1 Corinthians 14:41, 13:9-12
4 Cf Job 19:26-27; 1 John 3:2; Revelation 22:4. The word ‘dimly’, as the RSV translates 1 Corinthians 13:12, literally means ‘in a riddle’, or ‘in an enigma’. This ties in well with the reference to riddles in Numbers 12:8.
5 2 Corinthians 1:16-17″

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