“Are You Listening?”

“Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD is one! You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.”

Deuteronomy 6:5-6

One of the most prominent commands in Scripture is to listen to God. Jews refer to the prayer above as the “Shema,” which means ‘listen’ in Hebrew, the very first word of the prayer. Jesus quoted this as the single greatest commandment in the Bible (Mt. 22:37).

In the prophet Jeremiah’s day, God told him to “stand in the gate of the LORD’s house” so that Judah could “hear (shema) the word of the LORD.” (Jer. 7:2) Many call this Jeremiah’s ‘temple sermon.’ Poised in the most conspicuous and spiritually symbolic location, Jeremiah proceeded to courageously preach God’s message.

There was only one problem. God was commanding the people to do the very thing they consistently refused to do, that is, to “listen.” Sure, they heard the words but they had not listened to them in the way God wanted. To listen, biblically speaking, means more than the physical act of letting sound waves in our ears (Prov. 20:12). To “listen” means to pay attention (Gen. 29:33), to respond (Psa. 27:7; Ex. 19:5), even to obey (Isa. 6:9-10; 43:8; Psa. 115:6; Zech. 7:11). This is what God was calling Judah to do: to listen and respond with obedience. And God expects the same today (Jas. 1:22).

In one section, Jeremiah indicts his contemporaries for refusing to listen to God. Notice the themes of Jeremiah 7:21-28.

First, the prophet attacks their sacrifices. God told them, “Add your burnt offerings to your sacrifices and eat flesh.” (7:21) The Jews still observed the sacrificial system according to the distinctions specified in the Law but God said, with the way they were living, it really didn’t matter anymore. They could mix meat sacrifices up and cook it for barbecue. It made no difference to God because their sacrifices were already profaned by their profane life.

Second, the prophet appeals to history. God said, “For I did not speak to your fathers, or command them in the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices.” (7:22) Before God had commanded and required these important sacrifices he commanded them to simply listen to him: “Obey (shema) my voice” (7:23). Sadly, from the very beginning, Israel had refused to listen to God’s voice (7:24-26).

The prophet concludes his sermon by outlining Judah’s persistent refusal to listen (7:27-28). The verb ‘shema’ is repeated five times in verses 21-28. Israel was deaf to God’s voice. No generation listened to the prophets (v.25) but Jeremiah’s generation was worse than them all (v.26). They refused to listen or answer when spoken to (v.27). They were thus defined by their deafness (v.28): “This is the nation that did not obey the voice of the LORD their God or accept correction; truth has perished and has been cut off from their mouth.” But why would God command Jeremiah to preach to people who refused to listen? The prophet was forbidden to even pray for them! (7:16-20) There are at least two reasons:

  1. Preaching God’s word to the spiritually deaf reveals the condition of their hearts. By hearing but not responding to God’s word, they proved that their condemnation is just (cf. Mt. 13:10-17; Jn. 12:48).
  2. Preaching God’s word to the spiritually deaf reveals that God never acts in judgment without warning.The Lord always gives fair warning before acting in judgment in the hope that some will listen, repent and live (2 Tim. 2:4; 2 Pet. 3:9).

Jesus often said, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear” (Mk. 4:9). As we read biblical texts like Jeremiah 7, it is as if God is asking us the question, “They didn’t listen, but will you?”